Violist Andrew Ling is immune to stage fright and has been taught by the best
Violist Andrew Ling has never known stage fright and has learnt from some elite mentors, writes Oliver Chou
Andrew Ling Hin-yau, principal violist of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, recently shared his secret for success with young local musicians: "It has to be your life mission, and there can be no shortcuts. But if you work hard, it will be yours for a long time."
Ling should know. He is the only Hong Kong-born section leader among the strings, woodwind and brass in the city's flagship orchestra, and made worldwide news last month when he was chosen to play the "MacDonald" viola made by the legendary Antonio Stradivari at a Sotheby pre-sale roadshow in Hong Kong.
The 1719 viola had an estimated sale price of US$45 million and is expected to become the most expensive instrument ever sold when the winning bid is announced next month. "It looks great and the veneer is almost like new. Yet it took me half an hour to break in before its sound began to open up. It has the same sound quality as a Stradivari violin I played before. But I could tell this viola had not been played for a long time," says Ling, 31. As it turns out, it had sat idle for 27 years since its previous owner, the late violist Peter Schidlof of the Amadeus Quartet, died in 1987.
"They gave me an hour to practise on it and I played with my own bow. Some friends were worried that the antique viola might slip through my hands and that could cost me a few hundred million [Hong Kong] dollars. But I didn't feel nervous at all."
This immunity from stage fright, Ling adds, has much to do with his music training from a very young age. "My first instrument was the piano and my mother was always with me when I practised. She set up fixed timeslots for when to play and when to take a break," he says.
"I think that regularity is very important for a young kid, and that parents play a much bigger role than teachers."
At the age of six, Ling's father took him to a violin recital, and it was love at first sight. "I just loved the sound of it, and my mother enrolled me in Yip's music school [run by renowned local music director Yip Wai-hong], where I sang in the chorus and studied the violin. Unlike the piano, the violin is hard for a beginner, so I spent a lot of time mastering the basics," he says.
With hard work came rewards. He was arranged to study under the late Lin Yaoji, probably China's greatest violin pedagogue, and his progress was swift. "At eight, I began to tour with Yip's choir to Europe and the United States, and often performed as a violin soloist on stage, with the chorus accompanying me. I was too young to be nervous and did what I was asked to do," he says.
"Music is about sharing by nature, and I am grateful to Yip's school for giving me many opportunities to play to an audience and feel their reaction to my performance. That is something real - and I love that moment. It's something one never gets from practising alone in a room."
Ling recalls his weekends were packed with music classes, from chorus to piano and violin. "I was fully occupied with classes, but they were all music-related. I was spared other classes, like dancing or drawing, as some kids were made to do. Though I didn't sing well, it was actually beneficial that I sung out of tune as it helped me refine my phrasing on the violin," he says.
The year 1996 was an important one for Ling, then aged 13. "I was a Form One student at Diocesan Boys' School, and played Schubert's Trout in a quintet at the school competition, and won," he says.
It was the first time Ling had won a prize as a viola player. "Thanks to my piano training, I was quite at ease with sight-reading the musical scores, and often played the viola line on the violin whenever a violist was needed," he says.
Also in 1996, the new Hong Kong Children's Symphony Orchestra was founded, and Ling became its concertmaster, leading like-minded young musicians aged between seven and 18. He served there for five years and, in 2001, made a big move by leaving for the United States to study music at Indiana University.
"I arrived in late August. One early morning, I saw something quite unbelievable on TV and said to myself: 'Wow, what movie is that?'" he recalls of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Luckily the shock did not put Ling off focusing on his pursuit to become a professional musician. He best remembers his coaching from the late Janos Starker, one of the greatest cellists ever. "He smoked non-stop, but was very humorous. I think that is very important because humour gets one to find something fun in music. His teaching on phrasing and finding a balance in chamber music taught me how to articulate a piece of music with a greater variety of colours," Ling says.
After Indiana, Ling continued his postgraduate studies at Rice University in Houston for two years. Coached by American-Taiwanese violinist Jimmy Lin Cho-liang, he played the viola with classmates, including Jing Wang, the incumbent concertmaster of the Hong Kong Phil. "We belonged to the same chamber group and played together almost every day. Jing is a talented musician with superb technique. We have the right chemistry. It was like a reunion with old friends when Jing joined the Phil last year," he says.
This week, the two alumni will be performing together with the Phil as soloists in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola. "Performing with Jing is almost like engaging in a passionate talk. Through music, that is. Don't get me wrong," says Ling, laughing.
"The Young Mozart" featuring Andrew Ling and Jing Wang, City Hall Concert Hall, Fri-Sat, 8pm, HK$140-HK$360 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2734 9009