The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Carol singing at Christmas.

Singapore is a noisy city - but there is one kind of noise that is curiously absent: carol singing at Christmas.

When I grew up in England, there was a tradition of carol singing at Christmas. Young boys and girls would actually go from house to house, singing carols, at the doors to the homes of strangers, as a means of celebrating Christmas and bringing something beautiful into being.

On occasion, I was one such carol singer. I did so for several years, in the run up to The Year That My Voice Broke. When it did, I stopped singing carols - but until that dreaded moment, I had a treble voice. I used to revel in reaching the highest of notes with ease and in expressing the most exquisitely complex of classical music with deftness. However, it was not to last...when my voice broke, I never sang in public again.

Anyway, I remember one Christmas, in particular, when I would have been about 11 years old, going from house to house, in Wimbledon, with a single other boy and an adult in supervision, singing at the doors of people's homes. I really enjoyed it - and from the smiles, I still remember, of those strangers, looking down at us, as we stood in their doorways, they really enjoyed it too. They seemed to think we were sweet.

It is Christmas, in Singapore, but I don't hear any carol singers going from door to door. I haven't seen one since 1999. There is not that singing tradition here. It is a pity because carol singing always added some unique colour to Christmas, I felt - especially for the singers themselves, for whom it was a chance to express the art within them.

It begins in the schools, in Singapore. There is not the tradition of school choirs. Or should I say, not in the way that I knew it, in England. I have heard a school "choir" here in Singapore - and it was quite the most dreadful noise I have ever heard. None of the kids could sing - and I mean NONE. They were out of tune, raucous, discordant and very irritating. (I could name the school in question, if anyone doubts it, but out of kindness, I do not at this time). It was clear to me, that these children did not grow up singing. They did not learn to sing as primary kids (it was a secondary school) - and so had not acquired the rudiments of holding a tune. Either that, or they were naturally a truly tuneless bunch. Perhaps music is not the common gift of all, around here.

So, I find it strange that Christmas has come, but the carol singers are basically absent. It seems to me that Singaporeans are missing one of the ingredients of a memorable Christmas. More than that, though, in not having a tradition in which school kids are commonly taught to sing, they are missing a vital ingredient of a vital culture. From my point of view, no matter how many classical performances are put on at the Esplanade, if the general population are not singers, then Singapore doesn't really understand music - for it is not in the people themselves.

Another issue is the quality of the choirs that do exist. From what I have heard, they are really not any good. Contrast this with the situation in England, in which the choirs of some good schools were SO good that they received recording contracts and had their music distributed professionally. Musically speaking, it is a totally different world.

Perhaps one day, there will be wandering carol singers at Christmas and school choirs which can really, really sing, in ironically named SINGapore...but it may be many years to come and would require a change of attitude towards cultural pursuits. People here would have to think that the outcome is worthwhile, for them to pursue it at a national level. Unfortunately, the only question on their minds will be, not how can we make Singapore a more wholistic culture, but how can we make money out of a population that appreciates music and can sing? If the powers-that-be can't see the money in a singing population, then SINGapore will never become a nation of singers.

Personally, I see this issue as more about the depth of life that is lived. Those times I went carol singing as a child were immensely enjoyable for me. I still remember them well. Shouldn't all children have the opportunity for such memories? Shouldn't all children have the chance to learn to enjoy expressing themselves musically?

The big question is why don't local children have the ability to sing on the level I remember from my childhood in England? What is missing here, in Singapore? Why can't SINGapore sing? Why is Singapore culturally so muted? (In a literal sense, in this case.) It is not necessary for economic success that one should also have cultural failure. Yet, looking around, one would almost come to believe that it was. Singapore can thrive economically AND culturally...there need only be the will to ALLOW it to be so.

Good luck, SINGapore.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:29 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

mr. cawley,

i guess the simple explanation as to why caroling is absent in singapore is that it is not culturally a christian society.

wouldn't you say so?

3:30 AM  
Anonymous ks said...

I wonder what artistic or musical abilities Singaporean forefathers had. Malays, Indians and Chinese are not really known for their singing, are they? Aren't they more inclined to traditional instrument playing and dance?

Maybe Singaporeans can go more for the Singha in their name and become experts at the lion dance instead of excellent singers.

Your overall question is about musicality, isn't it? I wouldn't expect Carol singing here, as the number of Christians is not so great. You don't expect Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims to sing "all hail the newborn king" do you?

8:27 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Singapore is 14.6% Christian according to Wikipedia. For a population of 4,800,000 or thereabouts gives over 700,000 Christians. That is MORE than enough to have carol singers at everyone's home throughout Christmas.

No. I think the real answer here is that Singapore is not a MUSICAL nation. Not enough people here are able to sing, to be able to carry a tradition of carol singing (which would require thousands and thousands of singers to make it on the level that is customary in European societies).

I have heard Singaporean "choirs"..."singing" is not what they are doing. It is clear that musical education was not an important part of their upbringing - or that music is not part of the local essence (it is difficult to determine which is the case).

Singapore is not predominantly Christian - but there are more Christians here than Malays - and would you say that Singapore was not Malay enough to celebrate Hari Raya...or to teach Malay in school? No...Singapore is Christian enough for carol singing. It just isn't musical enough.

Thanks for your comment.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

KS, you are probably right to wonder what musical and artistic abilities the local forefathers (and foremothers, for that matter!) had. In the absence of a musical ancestry, I doubt there could be much musicality around, today...which is, of course, what we can observe.

Perhaps musical education would help a little, but if the music is not in them, in the first place, this would probably be of limited utility. It wouldn't hurt to try though...which isn't being done.

Best wishes

12:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mr. cawley,

i take your point that more than a tenth of the population is christian. we may even go so far as to say that almost two-fifths of singaporeans consider themselves christians.

but i meant rather, to emphasise the cultural practices of singaporean christianity as it were, which does not take to caroling, the latter being predominant in the west.

12:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mr. cawley,

my apologies. looking over my previous comment, i wasn't as clear as i should have been.

i take your point that more than a tenth of singaporeans consider themselves christians. we may even go so far as to say that almost two-fifths of the population is christian.

what i meant to suggest that the cultural practices of singaporean christianity as it were, does not take to caroling in the same manner as we see in the west.

12:47 AM  
Blogger beAr said...

i'd like to refute mr cawley's view that singaporean school children can't sing, especially since i belonged to a school choir
before (and i still sing with a chior currently).

actually, singapore school choirs, especially the JC choirs, are doing very well in international choir competitions. having been to a couple of these international competitions, i would say that they can sing much, much better than most of their counterparts. and yes; this includes british choirs. the repertoire and musical interpretation of our best JC choirs (offhand: ACJ, VJ, HCJ, RJ etc) are of a very respectable standard indeed, even when compared to adult choirs.

however, the funny thing is, the singapore contingent is almost always made up of secondary, jc, and jc alumni choirs. one will notice that the choirs of other countries are much more varied in terms of demographics.

another thing i've noticed: i think our choirs go to choral competitions with the intention to win; whereas many of the other choirs go to these competitions to have fun and make friends. i once encountered a singapore choir who, after their own performance, made so much noise while waiting for the results (and ignoring the other performances) that i had to walk up to them to shush them up.

i think music does exist in singapore; however very few people choose to continue with a life of music once they leave school as our state does not support the arts very much in general. this is also why many of our best musicians leave the country for greener pastures once they have the chance to do so.

p.s. if you are looking for some christmas cheer, you might want to check out the free performances at esplanade. some of the groups are really good; i particularly enjoyed a performance last friday by this acapella group called "key elements". no i'm not part of the group, if you were wondering =)

2:53 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I wonder, BeAr, at your perspective on this issue. You see, the worst choir I have ever heard, was a Singaporean choir...truly dreadful. I haven't heard a good Singaporean choir...they may exist, however, but if so, I have never had the chance to hear them singing. All the public singing I have heard in Singapore (including public performances) has not been good. In fact, it has been embarrassingly bad. I have heard orchestral music, however, that was fine.

I wonder which British choirs you are referring to...the ones I am thinking of, had CDs of their work distributed, so polished were they. Are there recording contracts for Singaporean choirs? I haven't heard of any.

There is very little evidence of singing ability here in Singapore. Furthermore, it it is so that there are choirs here being entered for international competition that really, really, misses the point of singing - which is to create art, and enjoy oneself. It seems that, for locals, it is nothing more than another opportunity to brag (if the competition is won).

Why not let us hear these choirs, in public? That would be a better use of their talents.

Good luck on your own singing, however...and I welcome your tip regarding the esplanade.

By the way, the only time I ever heard good Singaporean singing was at a private gathering in a music teacher's house...his social group were really very competent - one in particular was good enough to make a career of it, if she wished. (Perhaps not in Singapore, however...) However, such singers appear to be very rare here and I have not heard a choir of any merit.


8:38 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

By the way, BeAr, if there are the choirs you have mentioned, why are there no carol singers in Singapore? That was my central observation and you have not addressed it at all.

Best wishes.

8:53 PM  

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