ROCKVILLE, Md.– In her first musical performance in Rockville, internationally-acclaimed thereminist Shueh-li Ong performed in front of a small crowd at the School of Musical Traditions on an instrument not many people know about: the theremin.
The thereminist’s performance was part of a series of concerts hosted by a nonprofit organization called Institute of Musical Traditions.
Founder David Eisner expressed his gratitude for being able to host a musician like Ong thanks to an old coworker of his.
“I started the series in 1981 as a way of sort of giving back to the community,” said Eisner. “This was a good experiment. The person that told me about [Shueh-li Ong] is a former employee. We’ve stayed friends, and he said ‘This woman’s really fabulous. She’s never really played in D.C.’ That’s part of our mission: preserving and promoting folk music and its culture.”
Ong, who learned theremin from her days as a music student, played songs such as Lover’s Tears, Escape and I’m Leaving You A Message, all from the four albums she’s produced thus far.
The theremin is an electronic musical instrument created by Leon Theremin. The instrument’s unique in that it requires no physical contact, relying instead on finger movements between two antennas to produce sound.
Ong has been called ‘Singapore’s diva of the theremin’ and ‘Queen’ of the theremin in Nashville, but it took time for her to learn what is considered the hardest instrument to play.
“There was a point where I really wanted to learn more instruments, and I thought ‘What would be good to represent the person I am?’” said Ong, who knew how to play the piano and the synthesizer before challenging herself to learn the theremin. “I learned after years and years of playing it that it was beating me, that if I didn’t get my act together, that it would beat me. After I picked it up, I was determined I would find my own voice with it. I would cultivate a natural voice that would be me when you hear it.”
Through her ethnic heritage and her travels around the world, Ong began to find her voice, as well as the messages she wants to convey to her audience through her music.
Born in Australia to Singaporean parents, she wanted to learn how to play instruments that were representative of the person she is, first through learning to play the Australian tin whistle as well as the zither, which has its roots in China.
Ong is aware of her role as an entertainer, but she works endlessly to be able to project the deeper, emotional meaning behind her music with hopes of sparking curiosity in her audience.
“I know my role is to make people happy, or cry,” Ong said. “The reason why I put so much effort in the actual performance is because I want people to ask me questions about what I’m doing.”
One of Ong’s songs titled ‘I’m Leaving You A Message’ was inspired by the lack of interaction between people nowadays, as many are glued to their smartphones as opposed to engaging in face to face conversation.
Despite traveling the world, being able to share her music at various events and playing in conjunction with other musicians, Ong aspires for more in her musical career. She’s aware of the career limitations that present themselves in playing the theremin, but is nonetheless passionate and optimistic about sharing her music to a more expansive audience.
“To make a living out of it and do well, and opportunities to play in larger venues so I can expose what I do to a larger audience,” is what she wants. “That would be a good reward for me. I just enjoy music in general. Music has value. Music has to be treasured.”