Professor Edward Ho Sze-nang used to skive off school so he could play music. 'There were no music opportunities when I was growing up,' says the musical director of Tom Lee Music. 'So I played truant from school between the ages of 10 and 12 so that I could visit music studios and shows. I was a naughty boy, but for a good reason.' The only musical training Ho had access to was the school choir. These days, many children in Hong Kong are given the chance to try out playing different instruments, dance classes and other activities outside their mainstream schooling. Ninety-five per cent of those children who learn a musical instrument in Hong Kong, learn the piano, Professor Ho says. The next largest sub-group is the violin. Woodwind and brass instruments are poor relations by comparison. But there are also all the Chinese traditional instruments to choose from. For those preferring movement, ballet schools are very popular, particularly among girls. Parents like their children to learn piano because it's a percussion instrument at the same time, and more flexible. Professor Ho also believes that southern Chinese have smaller physiques and lungs, so the piano is more suitable. A concern for some children these days, however, is that they are faced with instruments they don't want to learn, because their parents either want to live out their own thwarted musical dream, or feel that they know best for their child. 'Even from six months old a child can make decisions [about] what it likes, what it doesn't like,' says Kathy Wong Kin-ho, executive director of the Playright Children's Playground Association in Hong Kong, which is an organisation that aims to enrich children's lives through play. 'By two to three years old, as the language ability becomes stronger; they are already expressing opinions and ideas. It's very important to nurture this development.' Ms Wong says it is not just a matter of piano, other musical instruments, or learning ballet. 'In Hong Kong a lot of parents organise extra-curricular or enrichment programmes for their children. It's difficult to say what is a lot and what isn't, as it all depends on the individual child. But when you talk about parents living their musical dreams through their children, for us [at the Playright Association] most of the parents we meet want genuinely the best for their children,' Ms Wong says. 'When you talk with them, they are thinking about what is good for their children in terms of using the right or left side of their brains and they want their child's full potential to be developed.' But what can tend to happen is that the parents often feel that they know best for the child, when the child's voice should be heard. 'You need to listen to the child,' says Ms Wong. 'They will know whether they like something or not. Parents need to listen because it is this that tells children they are valued and their views are treasured. This is very important for their sense of self-esteem. If they feel that their opinion is not valued, it can be counterproductive.' Besides, says Ms Wong, if you leave the decision to the child and they love playing the piano or whatever the activity might be, then they will take responsibility for their choice. In her work at the association, she hears both good and bad stories from families. 'Sometimes, children will love it, and practise at home and have fun with it. But sometimes children don't like it because the parents force them to do it. Their interest level becomes less and less and this can also affect the parent-child relationship.' As well as musical and other extra-curricular activities, it's important to achieve a healthy life balance for the child, explains Ms Wong. This should incorporate plenty of free play. 'Children can often become stressed or depressed if they don't have free time,' says Ms Wong. 'Free play is very important. This provides them with freedom of choice, which means they are intrinsically motivated, the activities are decided by the child, this is vital to their development.' After the child is allowed to decide whether he or she wants to play a musical instrument, it is then up to the teacher to engage them, says Professor Ho, who instructs the teachers at Tom Lee Music. 'The most important thing when teaching children is to motivate them and sustain their interest,' he says. 'If you can't make them want to come they will tell their parents that they no longer want to come.' Most families have made their minds up on what instrument the child will learn by the time they come to Tom Lee Music, which is fine, says Professor Ho, as long as the child has been taken through the choosing process. 'First of all the parents should open up the horizon of their child. They should allow him or her to listen to a variety of instruments and music. Some children aren't very co-ordinated, so learning piano would be a problem for them. So, perhaps they are better off choosing the flute or something else.' Anne Sawyer, supervisor for the International Montessori School in Wan Chai, says although children are too young to decide for themselves on what they should learn, parents can test their skills and interest at home or from schoolteachers. 'It needs a bit of time to explore before determining,' she notes. 'Some children may not like doing certain things at home but they enjoy practising it at school with a group.' She reminds parents not to overload their children with too much academic learning. 'They should be allowed to have appropriate balanced activities for both mental and physical developments. They must be trained to acquire gross motor skills - do outdoor activities such as running or walking to have a good control of their body and fine motor skills - and be able to handle simple chores such as opening a jar, feeding themselves, instead of relying on helpers, she adds.