Musical discord

Musical discord

Hong Kong's students often study music only to help them win places at top schools - then promptly give up

Parents and students in Hong Kong have been criticised for sucking all the joy out of music.

"Playing and making music is no longer an fun and interactive experience," says Professor Michael Ma, head of strings at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA).

"Instead it has become a tool of competition; many students are eager to take music lesson only to get higher exam grades and compete against one another."

Ma believes music examinations are being abused, with many students just going through the motions to get in to better schools.

The British examination board, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, says a music exam consists normally of performing pieces, plus scales and arpeggios - notes of a chord played in quick succession, either going up or down - sight-reading and hearing tests. To score high marks, candidates must show they have mastered playing three pieces. But does this make them a musician?

Jeremy Leung Pak-cheung, a 15-year-old oboist with the Hong Kong Youth Symphony Orchestra, believes grades don't reflect a person's true musical ability.

"Musical grades plainly show how well candidates have prepared the three set pieces," he says.

"But I don't think it is a fair way to judge a person's ability in music. If musical grades do reflect musical ability, then all people passing Grade Eight piano would have very similar musicality - similar style, technical skills and even similar body movements when playing!"

Jeremy says many great musicians, such as pianist Lang Lang, and cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovich, never took music exams.

"Does that mean they have poor music abilities?" he asks.

Wesley Tang Chor-yin, the 16-year-old principal cellist with HKAPA's Strings Orchestra, agrees that music grades are not linked to musical ability.

"Examiners at top-notch music schools, like the Curtis Institute of Music and Juilliard School, [in the US] never take applicants' grades into consideration," he says.

"They assess the applicants' musicality through their instantaneous performances."

Wesley also believes too much focus on musical grades stops students improving and enjoying music. One example is when students set goals to achieve a musical grade, but once the goal is achieved, they never bother to study a higher level of musicality.

He says, as a result, competition, rather than music, becomes the focus point.

"Musical grades don't reflect musical ability; sometimes they may even limit one from reaching a higher level of musicality," he says.

"Music is merely a form of enjoyment, a form of interaction with others, and something for people who are passionate."

The US National Centre for Biotechnology Information defines musical ability as the ability to "make sense" of music, and to perform on an instrument with both technical and expressive aspects.

Perhaps music students must reconsider what they want to get out of studying music. Is it something that they enjoy doing, or is it merely a tool for getting into better schools?

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