Wearing a dramatic black skirt and sleeve-less crop top that emphasised her well-toned arms, 18-year-old Elise Liu Chi-man took a deep breath, massaged her fingers, and adjusted her grip on the two mallets she held in each hand.
Waving them high in the air like a magician, the marimbist began to play. Her movements were graceful as she struck the wooden bars with fluid ease, producing rich, velvety music that resonated through the majestic hall in Llangollen, Wales.
Elise’s performance won her first place in the Young International Musician of the Year category at the Llangollen Music Festival five months ago, but that’s only one of Elise’s many achievements since winning the Student of the Year – Performing Artist in January.
After Wales, the Diocesan Girls’ School student travelled to Macau and Guangzhou for a series of shows, then did a three-week summer course at the Curtis Institute of Music in the US, where she hopes to study after her DSEs – all in one month.
Compared to her other experiences, Elise says the most interesting thing about competing in SOTY was that it pitted performing artists of different disciplines against each other. While the finalists were waiting for their turn, one of the dancers played on the piano to pass the time. “I was shocked. Then I realised that all the arts are actually linked to each other,” says Elise, who was inspired to do more collaborations after the competition.
The dancer, Ryan Lee Chun-hin, ended up becoming the first runner-up. The 18-year-old SKH Bishop Mok Sau Tseng Secondary School graduate is also a visual artist and a musician, but finally decided to pursue dance at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA).
Ryan says when preparing for your SOTY interview performance, you should make it reflect your own experiences. “That way, the emotions you express will be genuine enough to move people,” he says. For the theme “Be Inspired”, Ryan choreographed a modern dance piece called My Story. It was based on his experience of attending the HKAPA open day and joining the school’s Gifted Young Dancer Programme, which ultimately moved him to take up dance as his career.
Besides conveying emotion, Elise also recommends choosing performance pieces that display your skills. One of the two songs she played, Casey Cangelosi’s White Knuckle Stroll, was highly technical. But when she was called in to interview, she had just come out the bathroom and her hands were cold from washing them. She was nervous about making a mistake, so to soothe her jitters, she went through the song in her mind, revising all the details that she polished during practice.
She says even though she was worried, she still impressed the judges with a sense of confidence that got from practising at home, where she would run through the whole process – from walking up, bowing, performing all the songs, to leaving the stage. It’s important to know that you are performing the moment you step on stage, she says.
SOTY's Performing Artist winner Elise Liu of Diocesan Girls School named Young International Musician of the Year
The time between each song is also critical. “This is the time to get yourself into a different mood, and forget about the first song, no matter how you did,” she advises.
Liu has had her fair share of mishaps. She has to move a lot while she plays, and one time her glasses started slipping lower and lower down her nose, until they finally fell off, clattering onto the floor. Another time, the music stand holding all her mallets collapsed in the middle of a performance. “Whatever mistakes happen, just keep going,” she says. “Don’t let sudden catastrophes ruin it.”
But most importantly of all, practise. “My mother always tells me that in a performance, you can only show 80 per cent of what you have practised,” says Elise. “You must perfect your piece so that you won’t have to worry about the technicalities, and can fully devote yourself to the performance.”
One tip is to record yourself playing, so you can listen back while looking at the score to see how you could improve. And if Elise feels unmotivated, she goes online to listen to other people’s interpretations for inspiration.
Elise says it’s a very frustrating process, especially when she forgets how to play parts she spent a lot of time practising. But just like science experiments, practice is a trial and error process in which she can explore what works for a piece of music.
But the SOTY interview isn’t just a performance, candidates also have to interact with the judges.
Former SOTY winner Colleen Lee, who is now a Hong Kong Jockey Club scholar and concert pianist, will be judging this year’s competition. She advises candidates to identify their strengths and future goals for this part.
But also be prepared for some less conventional questions. Elise was asked to explain the differences between competitions and conferences, while Ryan was surprised to be asked who his idol was.
Karly Cox, deputy editor for Young Post and SOTY judge, advises candidates to just be themselves. “Don’t say what you think you ‘should’ say, or what you think the judges ‘would like’ to hear,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if nobody else feels the same way; if that’s what you feel, tell us.”
Cox also says one key quality she looks for is a genuine, unrestrained love for their art.
Adrian Walter, SOTY judge and Director of the HKAPA, says candidates who are engaging entertainers with a unique, creative flair, will stand out most. “Make [the audience] feel they are the special person you have come to perform for and talk to,” he says.
Ryan says one of the best tips he’s ever received was that right before every performance, he should remind himself of the love he has for his art. “It’s back to basics,” he says. “You could be dealing with stage fright and all types of worry, but you need to wake yourself up as to why you are doing what you do: for love, and not for stress. That’s when you can fully throw yourself into the performance.
The 2016-17 Student of the Year Awards are organised by Young Post in conjunction with the SCMP and sponsored by the Hong Kong Jockey Club with support from the Education Bureau.
Edited by Sam Gusway