HK performing arts school considers curriculum overhaul

Getting a leg up: the city's premier arts school plans a dramatic overhaul of its curriculum to enhance students' career prospects, writes Linda Yeung

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 11:07am

After a short stint as an actress, Joyce Cheung Pui-wah ended up working backstage rather than on stage.

Since graduating from the Academy for Performing Arts in drama in the 1990s, she has tried various posts and after obtaining a degree in directing in 2005 she now relishes her role as a video producer and drama book publisher.

It's true that talent matters more than anything else for a budding artist, but in today's multifaceted work environment, that alone may not be enough for career development.

That is why the academy, set up in 1984, is planning a curriculum reform to broaden students' skills and enhance their career prospects. It will launch skills workshops in the next academic year and offer proposals for curriculum changes to be introduced incrementally from 2014-15.

"I kept exploring over the years," recalls Cheung, who also worked for eight years as an administrator for the Hong Kong Film Awards. "In performing arts, you can find various options as you go along. It all depends on how flexible you are and whether you can accept changes."

Supporting a broader curriculum, she says: "Graduates would have an easier start if they have relevant skills. Some drama students form their own theatre groups after graduation, but they lack management, administration and marketing experience."

Another part of the academy plan involves internal changes. Later this month, it will seek approval from its council to gradually merge the present five schools into two colleges and to appoint a deputy director for educational innovation. The idea is that the merger will promote efficiency and synergy among the disciplines, while the appointment of the deputy director is seen as vital to nurturing diverse skills, says academy director, Professor Adrian Walter.

The former head of the school of music at the Australian National University in Canberra, Walter cites as an example the demand for a broad range of attributes in the music industry, such as computer literacy, marketing knowledge and communication skills.

Because academy graduates often become teachers either in schools or private centres, two of the electives that could be rolled out in 2014 involve pedagogy and basic accounting.

Walter says he expects to spend the next year identifying the kinds of skills and related training that will be useful. "Our desire is to have the deputy director for education innovation in place in September," he says. "It will take him about 12 months to get to know everything."

A poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme early this year showed that about 35 per cent of academy graduates gave private lessons. A well-structured and coherent course on pedagogy would benefit graduates who become teachers, whether it's music or another discipline.

"We have to make sure we have experts teaching world-standard pedagogy courses for our students. One of the key issues of breadth training is to equip them well for the careers they will be moving into," Walter says.

He stresses that academy students are getting a solid foundation but there is no doubt a need for better-structured academic programmes. "If we decide communication is an important attribute as a highly transferable skill, we will have to make sure it is one of the learning outcomes of our courses. That does not happen in every course yet," Walter says.

Another focus of such courses could be more conceptual. The ability to communicate with audiences - not just verbally - is an attribute that could be to performers' advantage. Walter cites an example: "A famous Australian guitar soloist, my former colleague, said the big transition in her career was when she worked with a drama coach and learned how to have control over space when she was on stage".

As the academy looks at how to better prepare arts students to translate their talents into careers, Walter is aware of the additional need to give them a more global perspective, which involves enhancing their English-language skills and exposure to other cultures.

That could entail finding more partners from around the world and scholarships to support exchanges. At present, about 85 per cent of the academy's non-local students are from the mainland.

"Students have contact with the international community in a way they did not have 30 years ago," Walter says. "They need to have a global vision, an understanding of what is happening in their practice so they can engage in that global community.

"What is unique in Hong Kong is they can enter a space where there is an influx of Eastern and Western practices, like in dance school. We have a programme to allow interaction between contemporary dance, ballet and Chinese traditional dance. There is a growing interest in what's happening in China. We need strategic partnerships with schools [on the mainland], those that share our aspirations."

Yim Wan, a part-time piano teacher at the institute, supports bringing in the practical electives, but she echoes a common concern about the need for solid professional training. "I find that my students have less knowledge about the scores they are playing than students abroad. I would expect the [new] curriculum to encourage analytical, multiple perspective thinking," she says.

Noting the lack of a collaborative atmosphere on campus, she says music students sometimes cannot teachers or fellow students to provide piano accompaniment when they practice. "It is about resource allocation and the encouragement of collaboration."

Also important is students' attitudes - how serious they will be with broadened education. "Students may only take new electives for the sake of getting credits," Wan notes.

Chinese dance graduate Emma Wong Cheng-meng, a freelance dance instructor for primary schools, says: "I feel that my skills as a dancer are not adequate. It is fine to be a school instructor but not when it comes to performing. On the whole, there could be room for improvement in course quality. In my field of Chinese dance, the academy should bring in more accomplished teachers."

While sharing Walter's view that the academy has an edge in having access to Chinese and Western arts, Wong believes it is more important to focus on its niches. "I chose to enter [the academy] because I wanted to be trained as an artist. I can pick up the teaching and other skills from courses outside," she says.

Funded by the Home Affairs Bureau, the academy is also embracing a branding strategy with hopes of carving a stronger position in the region.

Under its blueprint, the academy's proposed College of Theatre, Film and Television will oversee the three schools of drama, theatre, and film and television, while the College of Performing Arts will oversee the schools of music and dance plus the new school for Chinese traditional theatre, a subject only offered at present as a study programme.