Keys to my success
By the time Rachel Cheung Wai-ching left Hong Kong last year to read for a master's degree in piano performance at Yale University in the US, she had spent nearly half her life at the city's Academy for Performing Arts (APA), whose music department enjoys a reputation for grooming pianists with a future worth tracking.
One year after flying from the nest seemed a good moment to ask the 20-year-old to appraise her past and speculate on her future. Hong Kong is not noted for producing world-class musicians who sustain careers in the top percentile of the classical music industry. Could that be about to change?
Cheung joined the academy's junior department at the age of 10, when she was put in the care of Eleanor Wong, remaining under her tutelage until she completed her bachelor's degree in 2011. During those teenage years, Cheung was generally hailed as a child prodigy and, although she is not comfortable with that tag, the facts corroborate the potential people saw in her. As the youngest soloist ever to give a recital at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2005, she garnered prizes at international competitions before receiving the ultimate accolade of playing Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No2 with the Sydney Symphony in 2009 under the baton of Russian pianist-turned-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Now in the more comprehensive and competitive melting pot of Yale, Cheung has had to adapt to a shift in culture. 'I feel very different now,' she says. 'Hong Kong was like a cradle; I felt very protected. When I was at the APA I was so lucky to have so many opportunities to perform; somehow, I took everything for granted. But when I went to the United States it was completely different because everyone is treated equally; we have to get opportunities for ourselves, we can't just sit and wait for them to come.'
Cheung's tutor at Yale is Hungarian-born British pianist Peter Frankl, whose teaching style has presented her with a paradigm shift in musicianship, removing the safety net of earlier years.
'When I studied with Ms Wong, she gave me every detail of the music,' Cheung says. 'Mr Frankl gives us a lot of freedom of creativity; he allows us to think for ourselves first, to have our own opinion and personality.'
She admits that flying solo came as a bit of a shock: 'It took me some while to adjust and adapt to the new method, but it's a step closer to becoming a real artist.'
There are other differences between her new environment and the backcloth against which she grew up in Hong Kong. Whereas the city's obsession with finance sculpts a restricted cultural involvement, 'Yale has heritage; everywhere is very academic - the buildings, the culture, the atmosphere.'
Hong Kong's size inevitably limits the scope of opportunities available to emerging young artists, 'and there aren't enough music lovers', she adds. 'I think we musicians have been trying really hard [to develop] interest from the Hong Kong public [but] you know, if you go to a concert given by the Hong Kong Philharmonic, except on really special occasions the concerts aren't packed.'
Cheung acknowledges her secondary education at Maryknoll Convent School allowed her the flexibility to focus on her piano studies, and she recounts with appreciation the parental support she received in those formative years: her father, a piano teacher, gave Cheung her earliest lessons at the keyboard and supervised all of her practice sessions at the APA.
Although she would be happy for any future son or daughter of hers to follow a similar path, there's one particular stepping stone Cheung would insist they take: to attend a specialist music school, where academic studies are combined with rigorous musical development under one roof.
Britain has five such establishments; local examples of alumni include Richard Bamping, principal cellist of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, and James Cuddeford, concertmaster of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, who were students respectively at Chetham's School of Music and the Yehudi Menuhin School.
'I would very much like to have gone to a specialist music school,' Cheung says, noting the benefits of 24/7 contact with like-minded peers. 'Young musicians are very much influenced by friends and classmates; it's a really good learning resource to observe others playing. Once you have decided your path, it is better to act early and get onto that path as soon as possible.'
As for her own journey, Cheung doesn't have rose-tinted illusions. She is determined to become a successful concert pianist, but the learning curve will continue for a while with more teachers, probably based in Europe, whom she will seek out during a gap year following her graduation from Yale. That year will start auspiciously with a solo recital at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam next May.
The cocktail for success goes beyond mere technical facility. Having won over many audiences in the past, the correct artistic spirit seems to be safely in the bag. Physical well-being has become a more recent focus: 'To be honest, I didn't see the importance of health and fitness when I was at the APA,' the young artist says. 'But when I went to the States, everybody was going to the gym and working out, so I followed them. Health, especially strength, is very important, particularly if you are going to enter a competition.'
Level-headedness also counts for much in a career where the speed of life can be dizzying and egos easily inflated. Cheung, however, seems to have her bearings: 'We have to be very humble in ourselves and to the music, because we are always the servant of the music,' she says, recoiling from the promotional baggage fellow pianists Lang Lang and Li Yundi tote around.
'I never really thought about being rich and famous, and I don't really like the idea of commercial advertising - it interrupts the nobility of the music. I'll do my best and let it be.'