City Weekend

Is this Hong Kong’s next child star? Watch tiny five-year-old pianist show her huge talent

Maya Sha is being hailed as the next ‘one to watch’ – but is too much pressure being heaped on gifted children, and what happened to other prodigies?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 8:03am

Maya Sha Qian-hui is just five years old but is already able to play piano to a standard many adults could never achieve.

The ISF Academy student, who asked her parents if she could take piano lessons on her third birthday, is the latest Hong Kong child star to study at music school Doremi Limited in Central.

The school is known for producing two of Hong Kong’s most successful child pianists, Andy Lee (“Tsung Tsung”) and Phoenix Li, who shot to fame in 2013 and 2016 respectively after appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in the US.

In Maya’s first media interview this week, her teacher Ricky Lau told the Post she has “a lot of potential”. “She uses her hands to feel the music,” he said.

Maya, who appears to be a bubbly and bright child, practises every day for at least one hour, which her mother Donna Chan said allowed her enough time for homework and other hobbies like swimming.

“We will see how far she can go,” she said. “We will not push her. Our wish is just for her to enjoy music and have music in her life.”

Though her feet cannot yet reach the pedals, Maya is already an accomplished pianist and gives an impressive rendition of Paul de Senneville’s Mariage D’Amour (1978), which is considered by musicians to be a grade six piece.

She described playing the piano as “the easiest thing in the world” adding that it “makes me happy”.

“I see flowers when I play, and I imagine my mummy and I playing together in the garden,” she said. “It makes me happy”.

But it seems some of Hong Kong’s child stars may have a short musical career, at least for now.

Both Andy Lee and Phoenix Li have now given up their intense rehearsal regimes to focus on their academic studies.

Neither child nor their families were willing to take part in an interview with the Post for this article. A spokeswoman for Doremi said: “Tsung Tsung is now a full-time student and piano is just his hobby. So his father is not interested in media interviews at the moment.

“Phoenix is nine years old now so she is focusing on school as well. She is a great pianist but her teacher said she has been spending less time on practising these days.”

Pressure to succeed

There has long been pressure on Hong Kong children to succeed academically, as well as in their extracurricular activities. This has in part led to the creation of more than 7,000 private tutoring centres, according to the Education Bureau’s list, where parents pay vast amounts in the hope their children will be coached to obtain places at the world’s best universities.

Yet simultaneously, it’s well documented that Hong Kong students have been exhibiting rising levels of stress and mental health problems.

Child psychologists and education advisers have subsequently warned parents against pushing their children too hard at a young age, because it may stunt their progress.

Christopher Yu Wing-fai, director of the non-profit Hong Kong Institute of Family Education, said it can result in “passive resistance”, whereby the child loses their appetite for learning and gradually falls behind in class.

The Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education is the only government-funded organisation providing mostly free services to gifted students and their parents.

It seeks to provide specialised courses to students that they lack in school, but claims it does not have sufficient funds or resources to satisfy the demand.

Professor Ng Tai Kai, executive director of the academy, said government support for gifted children had “increased over the years but is still inadequate” because it had focused on helping those with Special Educational Needs (SEN).

“Like SEN students, gifted students need special education help to achieve their full potential,” he said. “The misunderstanding that “gifted equals privileged” is the main hurdle for the Education Bureau to putting enough sources in gifted education.”

Parental misconceptions

Ng said parents with gifted students often faced difficulties in raising them because normal childcare approaches and strategies designed for the majority of students might not be suitable.

He advised parents to seek professional help in these instances.

“A common misconception of parents is that being gifted means the kid is good at everything,” he said. “This is far from the truth. Most gifted students are gifted at one or two specific areas only, and are often weak at other areas.

“Parents with high expectations are often unhappy with their kids when they are not performing in some areas, without realising their kids actually have difficulty in that area. This is something parents should pay attention to.”

Pressure on children to perform well in all subjects appears to be growing, with stress levels of students taking the Diploma of Secondary Education examination reaching a three-year high in April this year, according to a poll by the Hok Yau Club, an NGO.

Yet despite concerns from mental health groups that children, particularly the most gifted ones, could be pushed to breaking point because of their excessive workloads, some successful students have suggested they are able to cope.

From child to adult

March Tian Boedihardjo, a former maths prodigy born in Hong Kong, said he did not regret the sacrifices he made during his childhood.

In 2007, aged nine, the Indonesian-Chinese genius became the youngest university student in Hong Kong after being accepted at Baptist University, having completed his A-levels in the UK. He obtained a bachelor of science in mathematical science and a master of philosophy in mathematics.

Now aged just 19, he has become an associate professor of mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Speaking to the Post this week, he said he felt well supported by his classmates and teachers during his school years.

My parents’ belief is that every child is gifted. It is only a matter of whether it is apparent or hidden
March Tian Boedihardjo, maths prodigy

“I felt OK growing up as a gifted child,” he said. “But this was provided that my teachers and my classmates treated me well. I know that some teachers are against students skipping grade. Fortunately that didn’t happen to me.”

Boedihardjo’s older brother Horatio was also a child genius, having been accepted onto the University of Oxford’s DPhil programme in 2008, becoming one of the university’s youngest students.

Boedihardjo said he had been brought up to believe that every child was gifted if they worked hard enough to achieve their goals.

“My parents’ belief is that every child is gifted,” he said. “It is only a matter of whether it is apparent or hidden. If a child wastes his or her treasured childhood time playing video games, talking some rubbish on social media and watching movies, which I think is like a fake childhood, then it is hidden.

“But if instead the childhood time is spent on learning, which I think is real childhood, then it is apparent. It is all up to the child to decide whether it is hidden or apparent.”