Hong Kong school bands nurture future leaders with life lessons onstage
Concerts reveal the rush of performing while practices develop technical proficiency, stage presence and teamwork
As pop superstars Bruno Mars and Katy Perry will no doubt show during their springtime concerts in Hong Kong, one thing counts above all others when you’re up on stage. That’s to have a great time and make sure the audience does too.
Achieving that, of course, is the result of thousands of hours of practice, polishing the songs, harmonies, instrumental solos and dance routines to get everything just right, and down to the finest detail.
But even with all that, the spark that ignites the show is something else. It’s the performers’ ability to seize the moment and create the mood, letting the music communicate their sense of enjoyment and ensuring everyone goes home with a spring in their step, humming 24K Magic, Firework or whatever else has made the occasion that bit special.
So, for aspiring musicians in Hong Kong, with dreams of making the big time or simply starring in their school’s Christmas concert, the first essential should be to have fun. And fortunately, that’s also seen as a priority by teachers such as Scott Linder, who started the rock band club at the Jockey Club Ti-I College. He knows what it takes to ignite the light and let it shine, to own the night like the Fourth of July.
“I know the rush, the joy, the feeling of being in a band and performing, and wanted to provide an opportunity for students to experience that too,” says Linder, the school’s NET (native English teacher). “I saw there was an interest, and by formalising the effort and stepping in as a mentor, I’ve been able to help students develop their musical abilities. They learn to be part of a band and to perform live before audiences at school and outside. It is also a great way for them to get exposure to international culture, develop fluency in English, and have a whole lot of fun.”
Over the years, Linder has mentored numerous bands and individuals, with some continuing to play and perform after graduation. He also helped to start the “Rock On” event, where three to four bands from other secondary schools come together for an evening of full-on performances and friendly competition. Typically, the atmosphere can be described as loud and boisterous, but that makes it a good test for any group looking to move from the rehearsal room to a live setting.
“It has become a great event for building community and relationships between bands, schools and students from different backgrounds,” Linder says. “Also, with the rock band club now part of our school’s DNA, kids look forward to trying out. Everyone wants to be ‘famous’ on campus and they are keen to hear and see what their classmates are capable of.”
Anyone interested can sign up for the club’s selection day, at the start of each school year. They each do a basic audition and, depending on numbers and needs, can then be in a band almost immediately. Some already have obvious talents. Others may just show the fundamentals by being able to sing in tune, keep a beat, or strum a couple of chords after basic instruction. But those skills – and others can be quickly developed.
“For example, I almost always end up teaching someone to play bass at the start of the year, so that we can have complete bands,” Linder says.
An unexpected side-effect of all this has been that club members who join early, say in Forms 2-4, tend to go on to become leaders within the school, with many ending up on the student council.
“Most of our band members are also top students,” Linder says. “You must be dedicated to succeed, and this spills over into other areas of their lives. For me, it is great to see shy, unknown students open up and express themselves in bands and later become leaders in their own right.”
Time and again, he has witnessed this type of transformation as youngsters benefit in terms of self-confidence, technical proficiency, stage presence, and from collaborating with others. Along the way, they also develop a keener interest in music culture through looking for songs to play, learning about different styles, and finding an identity for their band.
“Music is, of course, extremely important to all of us,” Linder says. “For students, it is also a form of self-discovery, a way of broadening horizons, and an opportunity to explore English in settings that are interesting and fun for them.”
An emphasis on fun is also very much part of the programme for the school band at International College Hong Kong (ICHK) in Hong Lok Yuen. The group of 9-to-11-year-olds divide duties on drums, guitar, bass, keyboards, xylophone, tambourine and vocals, and won rave reviews for their versions of seasonal favourites Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree and Last Christmas at the term-end concert in December.
“We’ve been doing this as an extra-curricular activity for three or four years now,” says Chau Ho-mei, who oversees band rehearsals and is a former ICHK pupil. “I knew a lot of the students love music and that they were looking for opportunities to play together.”
He asks every aspiring band member to audition, the aim being to spot basic musical talent, but also look for all-round enthusiasm and the commitment needed to attend after-school practices every Friday.
The choice of songs to perform is then up for discussion, with all suggestions welcome, but Chau takes account of the challenges involved in each piece and the skills available.
“If someone is new to an instrument or needs help with a certain part, I will spend extra time with them during the lunch break,” says Chau, who plays in jazz bands around Hong Kong in his spare time. “The main thing is for everyone to enjoy it and to have fun.”
That philosophy is echoed and embraced by the students, who are clearly keen to choose songs and start practising for their next performance, where parents and relatives can look forward to possible renditions of recent mega-hits Shake it Off and Happy.
“It’s all about being with your friends and having fun,” says 10-year-old Bryan Lee. “We just chill.”
Fellow Year 5 student Xanel Cheah confirms that point.
“When I perform, I ignore everything else in the hall and just play for fun,” she says. “Then it’s as if you were practising and you don’t get stage fright.”
At Hong Kong International School (HKIS), choral teacher Cyril Udall encourages students to see popular music as a viable career and is proud of the fact that a number of alumni have taken that path over the past decade.
“There is work out there for people who have the skills,” he says, noting that HKIS has an extensive and diverse performing arts programme during and outside school hours. Students can also take the initiative to perform at external venues and charity events.
“Music is a way to connect with the world, to find enjoyment and have a full life,” Udall says. “Therefore, people should be encouraged to perform, irrespective of their chosen career.”