Winds of change
It's a Saturday morning and the corridors of the Jockey Club Eduyoung College in Tin Shui Wai echo with the sound of an orchestra warming up. In the second-floor rehearsal room, the initially flat blasts of the brass instruments, and the discordant bowing of the strings, are gradually tuned to the note a violinist plays.
Music teacher Lestrina Ng Wing-chi is delighted at the sound. It's something she thought she might never hear at her school.
'I really wanted to set up an orchestra when I came here, but the school wondered whether students from Tin Shui Wai could afford it,' she says. 'More than half of my students come from families receiving CSSA [welfare] payments.'
But one organisation was in a position to help. Founded in 2009, the Music For Our Young Foundation (MOY) not only helps schools and youth music groups run classes for individual instruments, it also enables them to form orchestras. Two years ago, the charitable foundation began running classes at Eduyoung College.
'Music for Our Young lends the students the more expensive instruments - the brass and wind - but we encourage them to buy the smaller instruments,' says Cynthia Wong Lok-yee, MOY's executive director. 'But if they can't afford to, we also lend those.'
In January, MOY founded a Western music orchestra. Based at Eduyoung College, the ensemble is made up of musicians from three schools in Tin Shui Wai, and one each in Tuen Mun, Yuen Long and Kwun Tong. MOY already had two Chinese orchestras - in Hung Hom and Chai Wan.
In the rehearsal room, the tuning process complete, conductor Ho Chi-chung leads the 30 members of the orchestra into a spirited rendition of Farandole from Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite.
Ho, who spent 12 years conducting in the United States before returning to Hong Kong, is full of praise for his musicians.
'Given their limited experience, and the length of time they've been exposed to real musical training, they are amazing,' he says.
In Hong Kong, many parents' desire for their children to learn an instrument often spring more from hopes for them to attain higher grades in, say, the piano or violin, and thereby tick another box in their portfolio of achievements.
Gordon Siu Kwing-chue, chairman and founder of MOY, believes the students taking part in his organisation's orchestras and classes do so for the right reasons. 'When they come here, if they persevere you can bet your bottom dollar they enjoy it,' Siu says. 'Otherwise I don't believe they would bother.'
Every Saturday for the past three months, 14-year-old cellist Emma Ko Man has travelled from Kwun Tong to Tin Shui Wai for a 90-minute rehearsal with the orchestra, and a separate cello class. Negotiating the busy MTR system with a full-sized instrument is not for the faint-hearted. 'There are lots of people,' says Emma, a Form Three student at Ko Lui Secondary School. 'It is sometimes difficult because the cello is very heavy.'
But she finds the effort worthwhile. 'When we play a melody together, it's very beautiful. The music is very good.'
It's feelings such as these that have inspired Siu over several decades. After playing violin with the then Hong Kong Youth Orchestra in the 1960s, he continued to promote music for young people throughout his subsequent 36-year career in government. About 10 years ago, he started bringing together musicians from different schools.
'When you put two schools together - particularly for the first few times - some kind of competition begins to occur,' he says, adding that he believes this 'edge' helps motivate the students to focus and play better.
The regular exchange concerts and rehearsals involving a network of schools in Hong Kong then led Siu to take an orchestra overseas - initially to Singapore. Now MOY tries to organise one overseas exchange visit every year.
'Because of the work we did before the foundation was established in 2009, we already have sister schools in Singapore, Malaysia and on the mainland,' he says. 'So we can easily organise exchange visits to these places - and for their orchestras to come to Hong Kong.'
This summer the destination was Kota Kinabalu. 'We took over 50 students there, and we worked with 150 students in Malaysia.'
Emma was one of those students and she thoroughly enjoyed the experience. 'I met many new friends who also like music,' she says. 'And it is very beautiful there. There are many hills and the air is very clear.'
Siu says that members of MOY's orchestras come from varied backgrounds. But he adds that when getting involved with schools and setting up centres, 'we would probably give priority to those areas that are not as well off as others.'
Trips such as this year's one to Malaysia would have been impossible for many of the musicians without financial help from MOY. 'We pay 80 per cent of the costs for each student,' Siu says. 'We expect them to pay 10 per cent and their school the other 10 per cent. But if they haven't got the 10 per cent, we pay everything.'
Ng is grateful to Siu and Wong for coming to work with young people in Tin Shui Wai. She is amazed at how quickly MOY's efforts bore fruit. 'In June 2010 they played in their first concert when they'd only been training with Mr Siu for about four months. They were able to play the orchestral piece and I didn't expect that.'
Wong takes a broader view of the charity's aims, recognising that not many musicians who begin playing in their teens will go on to become top players.
'Music is not actually our goal,' she says. 'It is just a tool to teach them the virtue of perseverance, discipline and how to work with others.'
TJCEC student Wendy Yau Hoi-yee began learning the violin with the foundation two years ago. The 14-year-old now practises for 30 minutes to an hour every day and she sometimes stands in as concert master. Wong says Wendy is responsible for 'tuning in to everybody else in the orchestra,' and this teaches her to be more confident and to take control.
Having visited Beijing with MOY, Wendy says she loves the social aspect of playing in the orchestra.
MOY will stage Christmas concerts on December 20 at Lok Sin Tong Yu Kan Hing Secondary School in Wang Tau Hom and on December 21 at TJCEC.
The performances will feature more than 200 musicians from MOY's Chinese orchestra based in Hung Hom, its Western orchestra from Tin Shui Wai, and a Western orchestra from Yu Kan Hing Secondary School (a new member of MOY).