Voices of Singapore Ladies Choir on empowering women through their music: "It's a blessing to be a blessing to others"

Voices of Singapore Ladies Choir on empowering women through their music: "It's a blessing to be a blessing to others"

One an institutional sales professional at an asset management company, one an educator with the Ministry of Education, and one a piano teacher, Denyse Leong, Germaine Leong, and Nicole Lee are individuals one would not usually expect to share the same stage. 

Yet, just last year, the three homegrown choristers from the Voices of Singapore Ladies Choir (VSL) made history together as members of the first-ever Singaporean choir to take home the prestigious top prize at Slovakia's 16th International Festival of Advent and Christmas Music.

The achievement was not only a significant one for the local choral community, but it was also culmination of the work that VSL has been doing since it was founded as Singapore's first independent choir to feature an all-women lineup in 2014.

Guided by Artistic Director Dr. Darius Lim, the choir is a welcoming space where music-loving women from all walks of life can grow as vocalists and use their talents to empower other women.

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Following its eventful trip to Europe, VSL is now looking forward to reuniting with those in Singapore at a special "homecoming" concert later this month. 

Titled VSL10: A Journey Beyond Music-making, the event will be an inspirational celebration of womanhood and VSL's 10th anniversary, featuring Singaporean folk favourites, gospel songs, choral classics, and even special appearances from children of VSL's members. 

Ahead of their 10th anniversary concert, VSL's Denyse, Germaine, and Nicole spoke to Hear65 about achieving success abroad, making music together, and being a "blessing to others".

Hi, Denyse, Germaine, and Nicole! How did each of your journeys with the choir begin? 

DENYSE: I auditioned in 2018 and officially joined in January 2019. Serving as president from 2019 to around 2023, I felt it was the right time for a natural leadership transition, considering the choir's growth and development. 

NICOLE: I began singing with Darius in primary school around 2010 or 2011. After learning a lot from him during my secondary school years, he invited me to join the VOS Ladies Choir at the end of 2014, and I've been here ever since. 

GERMAINE: My daughter auditioned for the VOS Children's Choir in 2019, sparking my interest in joining a choir at VOS. When I attended VSL's fifth anniversary concert at SOTA as an audience member, I was blown away by the strength, elegance, and beauty of the performances. I told myself I wanted to be part of this, so I auditioned and joined the choir in January 2020.

You’re celebrating your 10th anniversary this year. What does crossing this milestone mean to you? 

GERMAINE: Reflecting on my five years with the choir, reaching our 10th anniversary signifies a level of recognition for VSL. It's a little scary because I still feel like a newbie sometimes! I think moving forward, I aim to improve personally to contribute to our collective growth. 

NICOLE: When I joined in 2014, I never really thought much about how far this journey would take me or the choir. The nearing of our 10th anniversary is surreal. It's like looking back and realising it's been a decade of music and friendship. It's a reminder of our journey from humble beginnings to where we are now, and it's a very exciting time for us. 

DENYSE: I joined the choir with very little expectations of myself because I didn't come from a choral background. I played sports for a good majority of my life, so singing was something I just stepped into very experimentally. It's been quite a journey, and I surprise even myself with how much I've evolved personally. If you ask me what this milestone means to me, I think it's exactly what we're doing right here, which is reflecting on our journey and being grateful for everything that’s happened.

You will be holding a special concert, VSL10: A Journey Beyond Music-making, this April to commemorate the occasion. What has the journey towards that been like for you? As a choir that has performed around the world, what are you looking forward to the most about performing for a local audience? 

NICOLE: Performing for a local audience definitely means we are that much closer to our friends and family. 

GERMAINE: Performing for a local audience feels like a homecoming, especially after our overseas experiences. My biggest personal breakthrough was going to Europe to perform and compete because it was my first overseas choral experience. When I was in London and Bratislava, I kept thinking that I’d love to do the same thing for the people back home. So to me, this is like a homecoming. It's coming back to sing for our family and friends and beyond - the choral community, for everybody in Singapore who wants to hear us. It’s homecoming, celebration. 

NICOLE: I agree, because it's our first major performance since we came back from Europe. The word "homecoming" really resonates with me.

DENYSE: I second. I third! Performing for a local audience means performing for the people who are nearest and dearest. For me, it's like being that little girl again, performing for my mom, who has been my biggest supporter.

"Performing for a local audience feels like a homecoming, especially after our overseas experiences." - Germaine

VSL10: A Journey Beyond Music-making will centre around the theme of “womanhood”. What do you hope the concert-goers will come away with after experiencing it? 

NICOLE: I really hope the audience gets to see a different side of us. Like, we're not just performers, we're real people with diverse backgrounds. Through the stories we share in the concert, I hope that it will give the audience a better understanding of not just the music, but also the people behind the music. 

DENYSE: Yeah, totally agree with Nicole. It's not just about singing songs; the whole concert's been planned out thoughtfully. I hope the audience not only sees that but also takes a moment to look back on their own journey in life. I think a lot of people would realise that our lives were very different 10 years ago, and how we've journeyed from then to where we are today, as we are all experiencing this concert together. 

GERMAINE: So, you know, when I first saw VSL in concert five years ago, it really hit me. These women on stage all wore different hats, playing different roles and facing everyday challenges. But still, they came together and put on this amazing show. I want the audience to feel that too. To get inspired and think, "Hey, maybe I can do something like this too." It may not be in music; it can be in other areas. I hope they will be inspired to do something different or do something that they have always wanted to do. 

DENYSE: Exactly. It's all about finding purpose and taking that moment to reflect.

Voices of Singapore Ladies Choir's Nicole Lee

"We're not just performers, we're real people with diverse backgrounds." - Nicole

The concert will come just months after you took home the Grand Prix at the 16th International Festival of Advent and Christmas Music in Slovakia. How big of an achievement was that for each of you personally, as well as for Singapore’s choral music scene? 

DENYSE: I wasn't expecting to walk away with anything. I just thought I'd go there and give my best and take in the experience. Winning the Grand Prix was a huge honour, but it's not so much about the win as it is about the journey. We had months of intense rehearsals, and even on the trip itself, every morning rehearsal was a constant process of developing ourselves. Personally, it's humbling to represent Singapore on the international stage and see the attention it brings to our choral scene. 

GERMAINE: Over those months leading up to the competition, like what Denyse said, it was very intense. We worked hard together despite the challenges. I had no expectations on this trip or the competition. I just wanted to experience it. And I trusted Darius to do his thing and work his magic. And oh boy, of course I was incredibly shocked and overwhelmed that we not only won, but we won the best choir! I would never have imagined that. In terms of the choral music scene, I feel like I'm just playing a small role. But I do feel a heavier responsibility to do well and keep improving. I think this is what I can contribute as a chorister. 

NICOLE: This is an experience that I will remember for life. The lead-up to this competition was quite gruelling. To be honest, I felt like things were only falling into place maybe, the day before the competition [laughs]. So when it came to the competition, receiving the Gold bands was already satisfying. The Grand Prix was a huge bonus for us. In the past few months, I have been starting to feel the pressure of living up to that expectation. Now when I speak to people, they will say, oh my goodness, you guys must be amazing. And I'm like...I will do my best! [Laughs]

As the first homegrown independent choral ensemble to feature an all-women lineup, your goal is to “empower women in Singapore”. Could you tell us how having this responsibility affects your approach towards performing on stage? 

DENYSE: I don't think it's just about performing on stage. I think it's about embodying women's empowerment through our thoughts and actions. My experience of that in VSL is simply the idea that women are supportive of other women, and this has been transformational for me on a personal level. I'm a completely different person from who I was six years ago when I joined, and I attribute it to the support system in the choir. 

GERMAINE: When I'm on stage, I want to inspire others, just as VSL inspired me when I was in the audience. I want to be the messenger or the storyteller of the songs that we sing, encouraging the audience to reflect deeply. 

NICOLE: For me, our experiences reaching out to schools and women's choirs have been inspiring, especially with younger girls. It's heartwarming to see their eyes light up when we are able to show them that women can be what we want to be, and do what we want to do. I guess it is also empowering back to ourselves to see the impact we can have on others. 

GERMAINE: It's a blessing to be a blessing to others. 

Voices of Singapore Ladies Choir's Germaine Leong

"I want to be the messenger or the storyteller of the songs that we sing, encouraging the audience to reflect deeply." - Germaine

VSL has quite a diverse lineup of vocalists — including semi-professional singers, musicians, educators, and even amateurs. What are some things you have learnt while working with women of such different backgrounds? 

DENYSE: There is this idea that every woman is special or unique - and that's true! But actually, my experience in VSL is that we are all very normal human beings. We're just regular women. But when we come together to make music, there's a magic we create. It's hard to explain how we create those special moments together, but I’ve learned that it's not the individual. It's us as a collective. 

NICOLE: Working with women from diverse backgrounds has been incredibly enriching. I've learned to see the strength in each person and how they contribute to something bigger than themselves. It's not just about singing; it's about the connections we form and the support we give each other. We share more than music - from sharing life advice to celebrating milestones together. These interactions have had a lasting impact on me, shaping my own career choices as a music teacher and inspiring me to become a better educator. 

GERMAINE: One of the most inspiring aspects of singing with the ladies choir has been witnessing the determination and perseverance of women with no musical background. Despite the challenges they face, they approach each rehearsal with a positive mindset and a desire to learn and improve. I always marvel at their determination and perseverance. 

DENYSE: One interaction that stuck with me when I first joined the choir was with one of our members, Lina. When a few of us found out she was a professor, we weren't sure how to address her, but she insisted on being called just "Lina" when she was with us on Fridays. That left an impression on me because it set the tone of getting to know every lady just as they are. When people ask me what it is like to sing in VSL, I always tell them that it's very unique because the community comes first, and the music and magic happen naturally.

Voices of Singapore Ladies Choir's Denyse Leong

"My experience in VSL is that we are all very normal human beings. We're just regular women. But when we come together to make music, there's a magic we create." - Denyse

To end off, what are some of your hopes for VSL? What would you like to see it achieve in the next decade? 

NICOLE:  I hope for VSL to continue producing high-quality music while empowering people of all backgrounds to explore new opportunities and break out of their comfort zones. You know, try a new thing, because you never know what that could lead to. 

GERMAINE: My aspiration is for VSL to strive for musical excellence together with kindness and humility, extending positivity not only within the choir but also to the broader community.

DENYSE: I'd like to see the choir grow in a way that creates space for personal and musical growth, providing opportunities for younger leaders to step up and ensure continuity. It's not just about growing as musicians, but also as individuals who contribute to a supportive and inclusive community. We're already witnessing this with younger members from the children's choir joining us, making us question our age! [Laughs] But yes, not only joining us as singers but also composers, musicians and conductors. Curie, for instance, has stepped up from being just a singer to our resident accompanist as well, showing that we can continue to make opportunities for women to step into different spaces and different roles.

VSL10: A Journey Beyond Music-making will be held at the Victoria Concert Hall at 5 PM on 21 April. Tickets are available via Eventbrite.