Playing with heart and soul

Karen Ma

A NEW word - 'bimusical' - should be coined to describe Karen Mak's musical talents, as she excels in two very different instruments - zheng and piano.

Beneath the serious, academic-type exterior of the Marynoll Convent School Form Six student, lies a music devotee who has been playing the zheng for seven years and the piano for 12.

Along the way the 18-year-old won two championship titles for zheng solos in the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival and two first runner-up awards. She obtained merits from the Grade Eight piano exam (performance and theory) of the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music, scored an A grade in HKCEE's music exam and imbued herself with the fine teaching of zheng virtuoso Chan Chuen-ying for six years.

When asked which instrument was her favourite, she replied: 'My heart always goes to zheng.

'Though I am good at both instruments, somehow I find it easier to project my feelings better in zheng than in piano.

'Perhaps being a Chinese, I am more inclined to a Chinese instrument.' She said if she couldn't let her feelings run free in her playing, the music would be 'lifeless'.


Everytime she plays the zheng, she attaches three tortise-shell fingernails to the thumb, index and ring fingers of her right hand to strum the strings while using the fingers on her left hand to slide along the strings changing the pitch.

Usually students complain about not having sufficient time for exams owing to the activities or other interests they pursue. But Karen said it was studying that disturbed her playing of music, and not the other way round.

'I used to spend the whole afternoon practising the zheng but as I am matriculating this year, I have to cut down on my practising time.' Besides taking HKAL Economics, Government and Public Administration, Chinese Language and English Language, she spends six hours a week studying music under a scheme organised by the Education Department.

She said it was her father who initially introduced her to the Chinese music world.


When she was still in primary school, he used to take her to Chinese orchestra concerts, paving the way for her musical journey.

'Everytime, I saw zheng players making those resonating sounds on stage, I would picture myself doing the same.


'At that time I was in the Music Office's Chinese Folk Song Children's Ensemble and it so happened that they asked me if I wanted to join their zheng practices.' After playing the instrument for a year, she boldly entered the 40th Hong Kong Schools Music Festival's junior zheng solo contest which won her the first runner-up award.

She now has about 20 solo performances under her belt and an unforgettable encounter with Ho Zhan-hao, composer of the Chinese classic Butterfly Lovers.

In the summer of 1991, she joined the Hong Kong Youth Music Camp's Chinese orchestra practice during which Ho trained them to play his masterpiece Butterfly Lovers. She was stunned by his serious attitude towards music.


'I always thought that music was something you did mostly for enjoyment, but after meeting him I realised that there were people who took it extremely seriously.' 'Mr Ho was so tough with us that one day he almost made me cry.' But she said, such hardship only reinforced her determination to improve her musical skills.