Rewards of a classical career

Fanny Wong

If you wanted to take up the study of singing locally 20 years ago, you would look for famous local names like Barbara Fei, Lee Bing, Ella Kiang and Nancy Zi.

Now, a generation later and with the expansion in resources for teaching and promoting music, the most sought-after singing teachers and the most prominent vocalists are the same group of people.

For Lee Bing, the renowned Hong Kong mezzo-soprano who is one of the few to stay in the territory and devote herself to teaching singing, the reasons are simple.

She feels the Government has not put enough emphasis on promoting music in Hong Kong.

But society's changing values also help account for the phenomenon.

'Hong Kong has musical talent, but the environment is not conducive to giving youngsters the chance to develop themselves,' Ms Lee, who has been teaching at Chinese University since the founding of the Music Department in 1965, said.

'With society getting more commercialised and the material provision to the younger generation becoming more diversified, people are less interested in learning classical music.

'In the old days when I was a student, the temptation of material rewards was not as great as it is today.

'My contemporaries and I were much less distracted by outside temptations and we were far more focused in pursuing artistic skills.

'The road to becoming a good performer requires stamina and you also have to be prepared that you may not be able to get any return at all from your hard work.

'You may not be able to make a living out of it.

'You may give a recital, but the audience may not be there to hear you sing.

'It can be a very frustrating experience.' As frustrating as that may be for many of today's students of voice, Ms Lee has shown that a performing and teaching career can still be rewarding.

Apart from the friendship she enjoys with her students, Ms Lee has made her mark by the many performances she has given locally and overseas in the past 30 years.

Her debut in making a compact disc in Hong Kong in 1988 - Lee Bing Sings Ancient and Modern Chinese Poems - has made her the territory's first singer to produce a classical collection.

The CD is so popular that it has been re-ordered five times since its first release and it is still being played throughout Southeast Asia at record shops, on television and radios, and even shopping malls.

Due to the success of the disc, Ms Lee was invited to do a second series on ancient and modern Chinese poems this year. The newly-released album, together with the 1988 disc and her 1993 recording, Expressions of Love, a collection of Western and Chinese art songs which Ms Lee made with her own money, are proof of the lucrative market for classical and traditional tracks.

When one of the world's leading tenors, Jose Carreras, included an old Chinese song in his latest album, Passion, released earlier this year, it was thought the Spanish singer was eyeing the huge potential market in China.

A dedicated promoter of Chinese classical music, Ms Lee believes there is a market for traditional Chinese songs on the mainland. Folk songs are easier to understand and can easily command a mass appeal, she said. But for art songs, which mainly employ Western scales of music and principles of harmony to set music to Chinese poetry, Ms Lee said it was more like a kind of literature, making it difficult for people to appreciate.

Precisely because of its artistic appeal, it is not easy to promote Chinese art song in a materialistic city like Hong Kong.

The Guilin-born vocalist said that apart from getting good performers to sing and an audience ready to listen, there had to be people who both wanted and could write these musical works.

Chinese art song has a relatively short history, which only started to develop at the turn of the century. Ms Lee is concerned that there are few new composers devoted to it.

The reason is simple. If you want to write music, you will always earn more doing pop songs than working on classical tunes. And what will people choose if they have to make a living out of it? A shortage of performers and music-makers is not the only challenge.

Karaoke singing and pop songs are simply more popular.

To halt the trend, Ms Lee believes more should be done to develop interest in music at a younger age. Basic music education in schools, both primary and secondary, is inadequate, she said.

More slots at popular Urban Council venues, such as the City Hall and the Cultural Centre, would help groom a new generation of locally-trained musicians.

'This would give them more exposure, help them build up the confidence to present themselves and give people the opportunity to get to know them,' Ms Lee said.

Her belief explains why in the past 26 years, the music teacher has been devoted to getting her students to go on stage.

Since 1970, she has organised 74 public recitals for them and she is busy planning for the 75th which will be presented by the Urban Council next January.

Perhaps her unceasing endeavours will indeed bridge the missing generation.