Vice-principal puts music at core of learning in primary school

Knowing how out of tune rigid academic styles can be, a teacher brings the healing power of music to a school in need, writes Kate Whitehead

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 9:49am

Nobody would have thought the accidental poster boy for students with lacklustre grades would go on to become a head of a school. Yet vice-principal Kenyon Law Kin-yeung managed to get here, in an academic turnaround made possible by the power of music.

Learning music is a human right, asserts Law, 31, who for more than a decade has spent his energy - and some say his pay - on ensuring quality education for Christian Alliance S.Y. Yeh Memorial Primary School in Tin Shui Wai, one of Hong Kong's troubled districts.

There is no doubt that music has helped draw students and staff closer at the school - a strong bond that remains long after the children graduate.

"Music helps students relax and release their worries. It can boost their confidence and help in the positive development of their character," says Law.

However, for many children in Tin Shui Wai, music lessons are out of reach as their parents do not have the means to pay for private tutors.

Confronted with this reality, the first thing Law did was to buy, out of his own pocket, a bell plate for the school. Later, he applied to the Quality Education Fund for HK$200,000 to purchase a set of handbells.

Such instruments are significant to Law, and can be traced back to the days when he was struggling to prove himself academically.

Growing up, Law dreamed of becoming a teacher or perhaps a costume designer, but those hopes were dashed when he moved from his Chinese-language primary school in Wan Chai to the elite Queen's College in Causeway Bay, where English was the medium of learning.

His grasp of English was poor, and all his grades plummeted. Used to being top of his class at his previous school, he floundered near the bottom at the new one.

"I was under great pressure and didn't want to go to school to study. Because my grades weren't good, the teachers thought I was lazy," he says. "One day my English teacher threw my composition book at me in class and said, 'Rubbish!' "

To make matters worse, his childhood passion - music - was taken away. He had learned to play the piano, electric organ, drums, guitar and flute. But a change in the family's fortunes meant his parents could no longer afford the classes. His heavy school load also meant he had less time for music.

Though his Certificate of Education Exam results were not bad (he got 20 marks - B, D, and the rest all Cs), this fell short of the rigorous standards of Queen's College. The school told Law to continue his studies elsewhere.

It was a terrible low point, made worse by a news photographer who snapped him with tears streaming down his face. The newspaper ran a small shot of a grinning straight-A Queen's College student beside a large image of him crying.

I like being in a team. If one ringer is absent, then the sound is different
Abby Tang, former student

He then moved to Tang King Po College in Wan Chai. "I didn't have any confidence at that time, the only time I felt confident was when I played music," says Law, who joined the school orchestra.

Still struggling academically, he took additional tutorial classes in all his subjects, and taught painting and dancing outside school hours to pay for the extra lessons. Still, he failed to impress his teachers who again chided him for being lazy because his grades were poor.

"On parents' day, my class master told my mother, 'He doesn't know anything, he must be lazy. His assignments aren't good, he must be lazy.' "

As he felt his world crashing down around him, he had an epiphany: he knew he wasn't lazy because he studied hard - so does the problem lie with the education system?

He decided he would study education and find out what made a great teacher, determining that the best place for that would be the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd).

His principal disagreed, saying if Law wanted to study education, he should go to the University of Hong Kong (HKU) or Chinese University. The principal refused to write him a referral letter.

Fortunately, one of his teachers had studied at HKIEd and offered a referral.

Law's struggles weren't over. His Form Seven exam results were less than impressive; he failed three A Levels and had passed just two AS Levels, in maths and English. HKIEd doubted he was qualified.

Law found sympathy from the institute's music professor, who recognised his passion and wanted him on board.

Law recalls: "I said to him, 'I promise, if you accept me, I'll try my best to learn everything and become a very good teacher'."

And he meant it. He slept no more than six hours a night so he could spend more time in the library and he joined every music group on campus - choir, orchestra, symphonic band, Chinese orchestra and handbell ensemble.

"The first time I heard handbell music, I knew I wanted to learn it. It's such a beautiful sound," says Law.

Again, it wasn't easy. Women outnumbered men 50 to 1 on the course, and the teacher was reluctant to have men in her handbell class. "She saw boys as naughty or irresponsible, but I persuaded her to let me join."

That passion and determination took him through the four-year degree and he graduated at the top of his year.

"My sister said, 'I can't believe you only got two passes at secondary school and you get a first honours at university'," he says with a laugh.

He could have taught at a band-one school, but decided to go where he was most needed: a district known for low-income families and social problems.

"I had a lot of hurdles in my own education, so I know that it's important that lessons should be student-centred," says Law. "If a student falls behind in class or gets poor results, I don't assume he is lazy. There might be family problems at home or it could be that I'm not using the best method to teach them."

He adjusts his classes to suit students and is so beloved that students call him "father" and his wife, who does not work at the school, "mother".

The primary school's principal, realising Law's passion for music and its positive impact on students, promoted him as senior teacher responsible for arts education - in charge, among other things, of the school's musical direction. He was later promoted to vice-principal.

Abby Tang, a former student, says being part of the handbell team has given her a lot of confidence.

"Over the years I've performed in about 30 shows in malls, schools, Disneyland and last year we even went to Taiwan on an exchange trip," says Tang, who is now working towards a business accounting degree at the HKU School of Professional and Continuing Education.

"I like being in a team. If one ringer is absent, then the sound is different. It makes you feel special and the sound is beautiful," says the 20-year-old.

And it's not just students who learn handbells. Law formed a staff team, including teachers and the school secretary, and another team for parents.

Six years ago, students who graduated from the school asked if Law would continue teaching them. Thus, the Hong Kong Yeh's Ringers was born.

Law coaches them on Friday evenings and the group performs regularly.

There is no doubt that music, particularly the handbell programme, is the glue that binds the school together, involving parents, alumni, students and staff.

"It's not a handbell ensemble," Law says, "it's a handbell family."