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Invisible Notes, Resounding Dreams

Michelle Siu, Year 2 MMus student majoring in Vocal Studies of the Academy

1 May 2024
Invisible Notes, Resounding Dreams

"Grateful" is a word Michelle Siu uses a lot in conversation. She is grateful despite leading a life strewn with obstacles. In fact, she is grateful for the obstacles, and the help she has received in overcoming them.

Michelle lost her vision to eye cancer as a baby. Her optimistic personality saw her through the difficult years of her youth. At the age of 4, she learnt to play piano. At age 12, she undertook Intermediate Course of Junior Music Programme at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts with voice major. After graduating from the Department of Music at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, she returned to the Academy to pursue the Master of Music programme.

Michelle believes her life journey would not be possible without the support from family, teachers, and friends. "When I hit a wall, anyone who offers me a hand, whether practically or emotionally, deserves my heartfelt gratitude,"she says. Following Michelle's rich and sonorous voice into the music world, one can feel its delicate warmth.


Music has been Michelle's passion since childhood. She likens the relationship to that between family members or close friends, constant companions of kinds. They give each other hugs or a pat on the back, but they also need time off from each other to clear the mind. "As my capabilities improve, I would like to take on the challenge for mastering more advanced techniques." she points out. "It can be disheartening when I do not seem to be making the expected progress, no matter how hard I practise. I will then consider these moments as a cue for me to have a break from my old friend (music) by baking cookies or reading, before reestablishing our communication."

This old friend has fought alongside Michelle against learning disability almost all her life. It has enabled her to win prizes in music contests and given her the confidence to perform publicly and engage in volunteer work, thereby gaining recognition for her talent and personal growth. She was recently made one of the Touching China Awards 2023. At the awards ceremony, she sang with the audience. "I wanted to try my hand at opera. Most people do not know much about this art form. It is also challenging to perform for a blind person. But I hope that by furthering my studies, I can acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to be an opera singer."


Feeling Music with the Heart


In 2022, Michelle enrolled in the Academy's Master of Music programme, specialising in vocal studies. Since then, she has participated in many performances. "In the beginning, as I could not read the teacher's lips and facial expressions, they had to keep correcting my expression and posture," she says. She is thankful for the thoughtful teaching of Professor Nancy Yuen, Head of Vocal Studies of the School of Music, who told her that "even though you cannot see, you can feel music with your heart, and express yourself through your voice, your expressions, and your movements. This is performance." Enlightened by her teacher's words, Michelle tapped into her imagination to interpret the roles. "I used to sing as Michelle," she explains. "But in opera, I have to put myself into the soul of the characters, and convey their feelings to the audience through my vocal chords and my body."


Michelle always remembers and keeps to her heart the precious guidance of Professor Hsu Wen-en, Associate Professor (Repetiteur), and Timmy Tsang, Lecturer (Vocal and Academic Studies in Music), as well as the unwavering support and encouragement of her classmates in vocal studies. Last year, Michelle was involved in the performance of excerpts from The Marriage of Figaro, playing the role of countess. The performance required her to wear elaborate period costumes which were as beautiful as they were tedious to put on. "There was a crinoline and a petticoat underneath the skirt, and a tight-fitting bodice with a row of tiny buttons at the back," she recalls. "There was no way I could have it put on by myself. I was in four extracts, which required several changes of clothes. Time was running out so I texted my classmates for help." During the intermission, several Year 1 students came and help her put on the countess's garments, before donning their own costumes. The help and interaction moved her deeply. She praises the Academy and its teachers for having a smart eye in selecting students who, besides singing well, are wonderful people.


Making Contribution through Music


Last few years have seen Michelle performing regularly, so that she now enjoys a loyal following by her audience. When she is attending classes on campus, she reminds herself that she is just a student, like any others, "without halo, without fans," she says. "The Academy has excellent facilities and atmosphere. Students here give their all to realise their dreams. We are not exceptionally talented. We are simply very hard working and passionate. We finish classes at 7 or 8 in the evening, grab some food to eat, then we practise. Usually we each choose a song to sing, listen to each other, and give constructive critique." The performing arts are not only about personal achievement; but are also about teamwork, especially in opera with its multiple roles, both on stage and behind the scenes. It is only by being each other's best critic and supporter that progress can be made together.


Last year, Michelle won the Wan Chai District Outstanding Youth Awards. She thanks the Academy for the nomination, adding that the honour means a lot to her. "Professor Gillian Choa, Director of the Academy, encourages all students to study together, regardless of backgrounds and needs," she notes. "The environment at the School of Music and the Department of Vocal Studies is inclusive and harmonious."


In her early days at the Academy, Michelle had communicated with the staff of the Academy's Library about the needs of visually impaired students in the music discipline. The School of Music subsequently acquired music-reading software for the visually impaired for students'use. "I sat down with the library staff to familiarise ourselves with the software, in the hope that they will better serve students with special needs," she explains. The Academy's diverse and inclusive culture has inspired her interest in education and the mission to spread love. "My experience here has been brilliant," she enthuses. "I have benefited from the kindness and generosity of many teachers and students. I hope I can have the chance to teach music at the Academy, so that I can share the warmth I have received to students with special needs like me."


Spreading Joy through Art


Besides teaching, Michelle hopes to engage in other types of music-related work. At Sound of My Heart, her concert last year, she not only sang classical songs and arias, but also musicals, pop songs, and her own compositions. "Classical music and pop music are like Hong Kong styled coffee-tea (Yuen Yang), a popular Hong Kong drink," she says. "There are coffee lovers and tea lovers respectively, yet when you combine the two drinks, new flavours are born with unique appeal. In same token, I hope to bring classical music and pop music fans together through my music." While she understands that this goal may take time to realise, Michelle believes good music will always bring joy. "Like students at the Academy who study in the same nurturing atmosphere, regardless of race, creed, nationality, and even we may have differences and individual needs," she concludes, "we are always able to reconcile through communication and understanding, because we share the same goal: to bring happiness through art."