SOTY 2014 Performing Artists covered Maroon 5's Sugar and it was sweeeeeeeet!

By Heidi Yeung

At this year's SOTY awards, YP realised how well the three very different Performing Artist finalists' sounds worked together, and created something surprising and unforgettable.

By Heidi Yeung |

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Our finalists performing inside The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts concert hall.

In September, Young Post released a video that was unlike any other: a cover of Maroon 5’s Sugar performed by the three finalists of the 2014 South China Morning Post Student of the Year (SOTY) Performing Artist category. That alone doesn’t sound like much, but when the three finalists include a one-man a cappella singer/beat boxer, a violinist and a harpist, most would agree the collaboration is an unconventional one.

“I was excited,” says harpist Christy Leung. “The idea was unprecedented and sounded one-of-a-kind.”

Christy Leung playing mainstream pop music ... with a harp.

Luckily, the Diocesan Girls’ School student was not the only one keen on the collaboration. Fellow finalist Abiel Ma, then of Diocesan Boys’ School, and Performing Artist category winner Kessay Chan Kwan-ming of Yuen Long Lutheran Secondary School both immediately jumped on board with enthusiasm.

The four-and-a-half minute video may look super smooth and fun, but a lot of work went into it. When the project began there was also a bit of awkwardness, especially at their first meeting in April at Young Post headquarters.

“We were quite shy in the beginning,” a cappella singer Kessay admits, “but after some warm-up time we just kept throwing out ideas and discussing them.”

Christy agrees that the first meeting wasn’t easy. “When Karly and Heidi asked us for ideas, we couldn’t have looked more puzzled. We had no idea which song to choose, let alone how to present the piece. Soon, Kessay pointed out that Sugar is a good choice, so we decided to give it a try.”

After that, the biggest challenge was setting up a follow-up meeting. A challenge because all three students are so committed to various extra-curricular activities such as orchestra rehearsals, masterclasses, competitions in Singapore, performances with Yale Whiffenpoofs (the oldest a cappella group in the US), conducting … yeah. Whoa. The students did not meet again until the start of September, but the five months apart did not affect these pros one little bit. In fact, they found it beneficial.

Kessay Chan proved to be a nature leader.

“I think the time apart helped,” says violinist Abiel. “It gave us time to perfect our individual parts in order to work well in the ensemble.”

Christy agrees. “We eagerly went into the rehearsal room and began rehearsing together and presenting what we had prepared. Somehow, the music we created blended at once, and was already very close to perfect.”

For sure, it was impressive to see three teenagers who had met maybe twice in their lives work together like a well-oiled machine, producing sounds and ideas that were complementarily if not yet cohesive. The amount of generosity and creativity in the rehearsal room that day was fantastic, and gave the trio a more solid idea of how to tweak their individual parts to make the collaboration something spectacular.

Everyone was a little nervous that their third and final meeting was to be the day of the recording, as Abiel was set to move to the UK for studies. Luckily, venue was not a problem, as The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (APA) had very kindly lent their concert hall for the video, and neither was the dynamic between the students. “We didn’t see each other as competitors and weren’t hostile towards each other. Instead, we encouraged each other through mistakes and came together to discuss how we might improve,” says Christy.

The actual performance and filming was a different story.

“It was not easy at all! We needed to improve and fine tune after every take,” says Kessay, “but I could feel Christy and Abiel’s passion in their music, and that inspired me a lot.”

Not only was fine tuning a challenge: so were on-camera jitters, as all three needed time to loosen up in front of the camera.

Abiel Ma had to get over being shy in front of the camera.

In the end, the video took two cameras, more than 10 takes, separate shots for close-ups, a lot of trial and error in framing for the best angle, more tossing around of ideas to make the sounds and visuals more dynamic, a day of video editing, and a lot of team effort. It may have taken six hours on the day of filming, and countless hours of preparing together as a group and in their own time, but all three performing artists are happy and proud of the final product.

“We worked so hard and it turned out really great … I wanted to share it with my friends immediately!” Kessay says. Meanwhile, Abiel found it a bit odd to see himself on film but was happy with the video also, and Christy confessed she was almost moved to tears.

Ultimately, the three talented student musicians had more than just an incredible video as memento of the experience. Christy discovered that pop music can be very enjoyable (“I’d never listened to pop songs before”!) and Abiel came away having gained new friendships, musical knowledge and eagerness to try new things. All left the APA with the sense that unconventional collaborations make for an enriching experience, and urge other musicians to try something similar.

“There is no right or wrong in music,” Kessay says.