Today’s post is a continuation of my series exploring advanced music study, and, more specifically, how studying at a music conservatoire or university plays a crucial, and often defining, role in a musician’s life.
My guest post today has been penned by concert pianist Rachel Cheung, who is based in Hong Kong. In this fascinating article, she writes about her studies at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and at Yale School of Music.
I had not realized how much I missed being a college student until most recently, when the younger generations and aspiring music students began asking me questions and suggestions about their school choices and future paths upon their graduation. It is honestly not an easy one to answer; it’s a very personal and subjective opinion, especially when it comes to the art of making music. Yet it is equally important that one makes the most suitable decision at this critical stage of development.
Writing about my musical education reminded me how time has passed at such an inexplicably fast pace, it seemed not long ago that I just walked out of my graduation at HKAPA and Yale, where incredible memories were built and life changing experiences were treasured most deeply.
First, I must start with my musical upbringing – when I saw the first spark of passion and set my heart on becoming a professional musician. The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts became ‘a home away from home’ for me since I was 10 years old when I entered as a junior student; I wish I had been there even younger for the pre-junior course, which accepts kids as young as 5 years old. It was in 2001, and I was 9 years old, when I met my life-time teacher Professor Eleanor Wong. I auditioned for HKAPA a year after and it took no time for me discover the vast difference between studying music individually and sharing the experience with many talented and like-minded students at a high-level institution.
The junior classes took place every Saturday, where students under college age would attend a whole day of theory and aural classes, choir training and orchestral workshops for non-pianists. I particularly enjoyed the piano major classes, where we would take turns to play in front of teachers and fellow students. It was extremely daunting each time when I had to perform, but that was where we all made our best improvement and was taught and guided to strive for musical excellence.
I continued my studies at the APA, and was enrolled in the senior level, that is the Diploma course, when I was 15 years old, which was two years ahead of the normal admission age. I was very grateful indeed that the music school noticed and appreciated my conviction in becoming a concert pianist at the time; the decision was backed up by a few recent successes at international competitions, which included first prizes at the Horowitz and Bachauer competitions. Therefore, APA granted me permission to start full professional training earlier. Needless to say, I spent my most enjoyable five years there. My peers, most of them older than me, took care of me as if I was a younger sister, and they still remain my closest friends today.
My APA years were, of course, full of extremely intense practice schedules and academic studies, as well as countless opportunities to perform, either in masterclasses or public concerts – which, I must admit, we were quite spoiled for choice by the selection on offer. Apparently, the chances to perform regularly (almost once every month) do not happen in other music schools, where a huge number of piano students have to take turns so that each is given an equal chance. One of the privileges of being an APA student is to attend masterclasses by world class performers and professors almost every single week, therefore much gratitude is indebted to our APA professors, who provided us with a solid training, opening up our minds and ears at such an early stage.
Five years went by and I suddenly needed to make a decision about my future studies. Yale School of Music was the only school in the States that I applied and auditioned for, and I was immediately captivated by the astounding architecture (The Sterling Memorial Library, in particular) and, of course, the richly cultured atmosphere. When I auditioned for YSM, I was intrigued by how Yale, which is a top Ivy League University that has produced so many influential world leaders, could also have a fantastic music school, which also (another enticement) offers free tuition for every accepted student. As I was walking around the campus after my audition, I remember how much I wished to become one of their students and to immerse myself in this scholarly and artistic surroundings.
I flew to New Haven and started a new page of my life in August 2011. Although I met with quite a few challenges, such as taking care of my daily necessities, learning to make my own meals, and, of course, adapting to an overwhelmingly different education environment and very diverse cultural life, I did my best to fit in as quickly as possible.
What YSM offered was not just a wonderful curriculum for its music students, but also one that gives each pupil the space and opportunity to discover one’s voice in pursuit of art. I learnt how music was not just limited to practicing every detail, going into intensive lessons, or following interpretations and technical methods; but integrating it into life and leading us to see it from different perspectives. This new insight made a great impact on how I perceived myself as a musician, and subsequently encouraged me to start looking for my personality both in my playing and my presence on stage.
The postgraduate course for pianists includes attendance at weekly piano seminars, in which each student has to prepare two lecture recitals each semester. Speaking in front of the public had been a major fright for me, and it became an enormous challenge when it came to giving a lecture in front of a group of new classmates and professors. I remember how nerve-wrecking my first lecture was. The topic I was given was on Liszt’s voyages and influences from art pieces in his second book of Années de pèlerinage. I spent a whole month researching, running through my script at least 10 times and I did everything to make sure I had total control of the ‘technical support’ (which was only a small device that linked my computer to the projector). To my great relief, my preparation and worry about the lecture and performance did not go in vain, and I was quite amazed at how this first public speaking experience brought me to an enlightenment; I realized that it was the first step to opening up myself, conquering my personal insecurities and conveying my views and message with confidence. It might not be the same for every student in the room; most of my classmates, particularly from the States, were quite used to lecture recitals before coming to Yale. However, I was secretly proud of myself when I finished the class, as not only did I learn about Liszt’s works and life more deeply through the project, but I also discovered something new in myself. I gave myself a little imaginary pat on the back for completing this seemingly ‘impossible’ task.
What I loved about studying at Yale was the fact that it was a relatively small and closely connected community (compared to other music schools in the US). There were around 30 pianists in the department and 6 -7 piano professors; students were encouraged to play for different professors to seek their advice on particular pieces, besides working with our own major professors. The freedom and open-mindedness was a stimulating benefit, though one might say that there’s a possibility for confusion by receiving too many comments and ideas (sometimes quite opposite) on their playing. But I believe it lies in the individual’s mindset – whether one is flexible and willing enough to accept different approaches and determine the best for oneself at that particular moment.
I also enjoyed and appreciated another important influence at Yale, and it came from my amazing peers, who are all great musicians whom I admire for their musicianship, intellect and artistry; we would often play for each other, whether for fun or a run-through before a graduate recital, and we treated our comments seriously; I must admit that I learnt as much from my colleagues as our professors. I remember finishing a run-through session feeling immensely refreshed and inspired and this made me go back to practice again right away!
Two years flew by almost in a blink and I graduated in 2013, but I believed that it was just a small step of a life-long discovery in my pursuit, and Yale had definitely provided me with a great start; encouraging me to become a well-rounded musician and also of being directed to the path of finding my own sound/voice as an artist. I also think that everyone is a student for life, and I resonate very deeply with Pablo Casals’ quote, when he was asked why he kept practicing when he was already 90 years old; “Because I think I am making progress.”
I am so grateful to have met many mentors along the way, who have cared about and supported my artistic development in numerous ways. “Being humble to music and serving it sincerely” was a motto instilled into my mind when I started my lessons with Professor Wong, and Professor Peter Frankl’s (with whom I studied at Yale) advice to me was “to let go and be spontaneous.“
At times I am amazed that it could take years to truly fathom a certain piece of advice that was given to me years ago, but music-making is all about life experiences; musical ideas take time to be digested and they continue to evolve as we mature. It is my aim to never stop learning and practicing for the perfection that is never reachable, to bring my passion to the world and, hopefully, to contribute to make it a better and more harmonious place.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.