Cellist moved to America for a challenge, and life in music here doesn’t disappoint
As a bastion of classical music, Boston ranks high and Cambridge helps boost that ranking with its two music schools, community-based, 40-year-old symphony orchestra, university support, Harvard-based WHRB-FM, top-notch performance spaces and countless chamber groups.
It’s enough to lure a Kuala Lumpur-born master cellist into giving up touring Asia and a career in orchestra and television performance in Shanghai and Singapore – but not so much that there’s no more need to travel.
Alison BinShing Lim earned a master’s degree from the Longy School of Music of Bard College in 2013 and remains a Central Square resident, but she travels to Boston’s Josiah Quincy Elementary School to teach 28 children using the El Sistema music program, roves far to give private cello instruction and donates her world-class skills to the Waltham Philharmonic, Newton’s New Philharmonia Orchestra and the Metrowest Symphony Orchestra in Framingham. Lim also performs with a piano trio and harp trio. (“We put a jar out for donations,” she said.) In her time in America, she’s also performed with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Boston Calliope Orchestra and Greater Boston Asian-American Symphony Orchestra.
“Being a musician in Boston is not an easy job,” Lim said in early February, fresh from digging out a space for her car amid the snow that fell while she rehearsed in Norwood for a Feb. 22 performance in New Hampshire. “If people decide to be a musician here, they have to know what they want. It’s a risk.”
For Lim, it was more like a mission.
Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, she began playing cello and piano at 9, steered into music because she was born with perfect pitch – the ability to recognize the pitch of any note and reproduce it. “My Chinese parents, eager to have a marketable skill for college applications, recognized this gift and had me enrolled in music lessons, believing I could share this gift with others if I could master the necessary musical technique,” Lim said.
She actually hurt her own sensitive ears practicing music, and found that her small hands were disadvantages when it came to performing works written by European men such as Chopin and Rachmaninoff whose “hands were of grand proportions.” She worked her way through sections of her high school symphony, “like speed-dating with instruments,” and finally found the cello.
A too comfortable life
“I put all of my heart, soul and time into perfecting my skills,” she recalled, earning a bachelor’s degree from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 2002. Opportunities opened up with the Malaysia National Symphony Orchestra, Youth Orchestra of Shanghai and Radio Television Malaysia Orchestra, which put her onscreen on Malaysian television shows, including “Malaysian Idol.” She also began The Trout Quintet, which performed classical music in Kuala Lumpur.
“I found a comfortable groove,” Lim said. “So comfortable, in fact, I lost sight of my ambitions and true passion. I was making ample money teaching and playing night-club gigs, but lacked the rigorous musical pursuit, training and expression I had originally sought.”
When offered a scholarship in America that would pay most of her tuition, she took it.
“I knew that moving to the U.S. would mean up to 10 years of ups and downs, starting over and no guarantee of success,” she said. “I chose to move. I didn’t want to live a life with regrets, always wondering what could have been, no matter how hard it might be.”
Unable to work during her first year in American, she scrimped, agonizing over every purchase, and faced another challenge: “Readjusting to student life at 30 wasn’t easy … Being short, at least I blended in and nobody asked about my age, and I found myself buoyed up on the positivity of the environment. Here everyone had a smile” on their face, she said. “I have grown to love the pace of New England – not too fast, not too slow.”
Graduating from Longy meant teaching to scrape together a living – but Lim taught in Shanghai, Singapore and Malaysia as well, and has a talent for it. She could quantify her success as a teacher in Shanghai and Singapore by seeing students rewarded with “Performance with Distinction” marks when completing syllabus exams, but in America there’s another method: She gets reviewed by her students, and gets five stars.
“She is patient, accurate, articulate, well-prepared and professional. I’ve taken music lessons for saxophone, guitar and cello from at least 10 teachers, and Alison is the best teacher I’ve had,” said one student, David Ginty.
Fellow cello student Lynette Kang lauds not just Lim’s technical teaching skills, but the “elegant, charming temperament” she credits with imbuing even a beginner with the confidence and inner peace needed to perform. “I learned cello fast and joyfully,” Kang said.
Lim is just as good with her elementary school students, said Marlee McDonald, a violinist and program director of the Josiah Quincy Orchestra Program and community arts coordinator at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School.
“Alison is a great teacher. We’re really excited to have her here,” McDonald said, describing Lim learning bass to make up another instructor’s part-time schedule and her efforts to connect with children and help them, even outside the classroom.
“We’re one of the best public schools in Boston, but we’re in an inner-city public school; about 78 percent of our students are low-income and a lot of time they’re coming from some pretty challenging family backgrounds and family life situations. We’re always going to have challenges, and we have to deal with that every day,” McDonald said.
The El Sistema classes are also where students go first in their day, even before regular classes begin, and “if students are having a bad morning, we’re the first ones to see it,” McDonald said.
When one boy was having trouble paying attention, McDonald and Lim were determined to find out why. It meant working with the student’s daytime teacher and his parents.
“His family speaks Cantonese, and Alison speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese,” McDonald said. “We wanted to reach out to his mom and communicate with her, and we found solutions to help him stay focused and work on accomplishing goals for the class. He has come a really long way, and Alison has developed a really genuine relationship with him.”
Lim also relishes her time giving performances with community orchestras in Waltham, Newton and Framingham, where instrument “petting zoos” after concerts allow children to come up and get acquainted with brass, woodwinds, percussion and Lim’s strings. Families are grateful for the performances and want to know when the orchestras will come back, which Lim loves.
In retrospect, though, she finds her parents’ rationale for a career in music is a little funny.
“Little did my ‘Tiger Mom’ realize, providing me with a love of music might derail her desire for me to have an ‘iron bowl,’ a Chinese saying that implies stability of work, or that your bowl of rice will always be full,” Lim said. “It has not always been an easy transition, but thanks to community of musicians and supporters of classical music I have felt at home. As I learn and grow professionally, I also feel an obligation to transition that knowledge to the next generation.”