When most people start learning a musical instrument, it’s either because their parents forced them to, or because they’re following their dream. But 22-year-old harmonica player Leo Ho Cheuk-yin, also known as C.Y. Leo, has a very different reason. He wants to “rebrand” it, making it as popular and well-loved as instruments such as the piano and violin.
C.Y. Leo is a world-class harmonica player, having won 17 global competitions, and was even invited to perform at the National Day celebrations this year. He was studying to be an occupational therapist at Polytechnic University, but, six months before graduating, he decided that wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to share his love of the harmonica with the public. So, after graduation, instead of getting a job as an occupational therapist, he made it his mission to show people how great the instrument is.
He comes from a family of high achievers. His father is Ho Pak-cheong, a doctor at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin, and a winner of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons Selection in 2002. Although C.Y. Leo enjoyed a comfortable life, he didn’t choose to learn an expensive instrument like the piano or violin. And his parents didn’t force him to pick a popular instrument just to pass exams. Instead, at the age of six, he picked up the harmonica. And he just stuck with it.
“My father was the leader of the King’s College harmonica group and he used to invite his friends home to practise when I was very young. I simply fell in love with it,” says C. Y. Leo.
It hasn’t always been easy. “The harmonica is a special instrument as there aren’t any globally-recognised exams for it. That’s why I take part in so many international competitions, to figure out my own ability and level,” he says.
But competitions aren’t enough for C. Y. Leo. In 2010, he set up Veloz Harmonica Quartet with three of his friends from his former school, King’s College. The quartet perform both classical and pop music. In 2015, Veloz Harmonica Quartet played their first big show at PolyU, to a packed house.
Setting up Veloz hasn’t just been about having fun and playing the harmonica. It’s also brought C. Y. Leo fame and opportunity. Before graduating from university, he received an invitation from a cruise ship company to perform for them. “At that time, I only had one thought in my mind – it’s time to showcase the possibilities of the harmonica!,” he says. “It wasn’t a very hard decision between occupational therapy and the harmonica. I just went for what I was really into. And I saw an opportunity.”
His parents, who both work in the medical industry, didn’t put any pressure on him. “As long as I can support myself financially, they are fine with that. And I am very happy with my current income,” C.Y. Leo says.
Over the past few months, he has travelled to more than 40 countries with the cruise ship. But it’s not all fun and games. “While some people may envy me for getting to travel for work, it can be boring, because you might only perform for a total of three hours on a five-day trip. It was relaxing at first but now the trips can interrupt my on-going projects,” he says.
Luckily he has found a way to turn this negative into a positive. After several trips, C. Y. Leo started taking his recording equipment with him, so that he can still be productive in his spare time.
“On the cruise, I play both pop and classical music. But I prefer playing pop music on the cruise as it is more relatable and people easily get into my piece,” he says.
Beyond raising the profile of the harmonica through the cruise trips, C. Y. Leo has a bigger goal.
“I hope to rebrand the harmonica by doing pop music. A lot of people think of the harmonica as old-fashioned, but Kenny G made the saxophone cool again, so what’s stopping the harmonica?”