When Gip Gip Chan Wing-yip started hitting drums in secondary school, he had a dream: to be a percussion teacher.
But he soon found out that he could do much more than that. “At that time I had no idea what I wanted to do. My plan was to get my Level Eight in percussion and then make a living as a music teacher,” says Chan. “I never thought of going to university, but after gaining my Level Eight, I realised that there is so much more to learn, so I set my goal of becoming a professional musician.”
He now studies at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), where he majors in percussion – a skill has a different set of challenges than other music courses. “The crazy thing about percussion is that you have to master more than one instrument. Timpani, xylophone – even the triangle – a percussionist needs to be able to play them all,” he says.
“The learning curve is endless, there are so many techniques for each instrument and this is why I find percussion so fascinating.”
But the studies are paying off. In September, Chan won first prize at the Italy Percussion Competition, organised by the Italy Percussive Arts Society (IPAS). He made it look easy, but it was difficult to even get there: Chan had to pay all of his own costs.
Another problem was that since percussion pieces are not popular in Hong Kong, all of his sheet music had to be ordered from overseas. One piece arrived only 10 days before Chan went to Italy – not leaving him a lot of time to practise. The other piece never arrived, but here Chan got a bit of help: “Luckily the president of the IPAS was kind enough to send it to me,” he says.
Watch Chan perform snippets from Symplegades, the piece which won him first prize at the competition
Once in Italy, Chan discovered something unique about the Italy Percussion Competition: if the judges feel that no performer has done well enough to deserve first prize, then no first prize is given out. This means that participants are not really competing against one another, which forced Chan to look inside himself for inspiration.
“I was trying too hard to show that I can outperform the drummer before me,” he says. “After the first two rounds, a judge told me that I have to do my best and not care too much about what others are doing. Those words were golden. I was able to give my best when I was not thinking about the others.”
Chan’s attention to detail also helped. Before the competition the judges reminded everyone that they will be performing in a small room – which meant there would be a strong echo.
“The choice of mallets suddenly became a key factor. If I chose a pair that was too hard, it would be too loud; if they were too soft, the sound wouldn’t be clear enough,” Chan worried. “I talked to my two music teachers from HKBU a lot and they provided many tips on the choice of mallets. I guess the extra effort I put into choosing the right mallet helped me stand out.”
While he hopes to join a professional orchestra someday, Chan first plans to go to the US to continue studying. Many parents are reluctant to let their children study music, because it doesn’t seem like a stable career, but Chan thinks this is a misconception.
“According to figures from HKBU, music graduates rank among the highest in hourly income. It is not easy to be a professional musician but it is certainly possible to make a living working as a music teacher.”