Epidemics always hold a mirror up to society. In such unquiet times, how do we maintain calm and composure? Internationally renowned pianist Colleen Lee Ka-ling shows how.
A piano major at the School of Music of The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Colleen graduated with First Class Honours in 2001. She went on to finish her Professional Diploma in Piano Performance in 2003, the year of the SARS outbreak. Colleen vividly remembers the camaraderie among friends and peers at the time. 17 years on, another pandemic has struck, throwing the world into chaos. However the suspension of work as we know it has allowed her to experience life at a different pace. "Many people have been affected by the misfortune. Compared to those whose lives are at risk, our situation is nothing. We should confront it with a positive mindset." Colleen's musical journey has also been marked by a focus not only on technique, but also on spiritual practice.
At the age of seven, Colleen enrolled in the Academy's Junior Music Programme and studied under the tutelage of senior lecturer (keyboard), Professor Eleanor Wong (Ms Wong). Ms Wong describes Colleen as a well-behaved and disciplined child with a clear talent for music. Colleen is grateful to her mentor for cultivating her patience and concentration through music. "Ms Wong cares a lot about her students. I was happy during lessons. But Ms Wong was also strict. She taught me a lot and strengthened my interest in music."
During her formative years, Colleen spent most of her time at the Academy. In all these years, she almost never wavered in her desire to become a pianist. "The workload in secondary school was extremely heavy. I wouldn't have spent time on something I didn't truly love. Apart from classes, homework and studying, piano practice was all I did. Ms Wong expected a lot of me. I devoted infinite time and attention to every single piece."
When the results of the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination were released, Colleen did have a moment's hesitation over whether she should apply to other universities or major in other subjects. After mulling over it for half a day, she decided to continue with music by applying to the Academy's Bachelor's programme. "My secondary school teacher helped me to analyse my situation, and said you can have many interests, but after a certain age, you need to learn to make choices – decide what is the thing you can't give up. For me, it was piano, since I knew that I didn't practise every day out of habit; it was my passion."
Nurturing New Talent
The students of the Academy's School of Music all harbour hopes of joining music-related professions upon graduation. They share the same dreams; they encourage each other; they become each other's impetus for improvement. Colleen quips that she and her classmates would rush to get to the Academy as early as possible. "We would arrive at seven or even earlier. Every one of my classmates loved music. Being in class together was wonderful." Colleen says she was timid and introverted as a child. It was music that slowly enabled her to adapt to social life and become a proactive learner. "Being a piano major means having to practise a lot, of course. But if you want to maintain a decent overall performance, other subjects are important too. You need to maintain your curiosity in other subjects, whether they are related to music or not. The learning atmosphere at the Academy helped arouse our interest in different areas of knowledge and prompted us to take the initiative to explore new things."
After graduation, Colleen was awarded scholarships to further her studies at the Hannover University of Music, Drama and Media (Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien) in Hannover, Germany. In 2005, she won sixth prize at the 15th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Poland. This marks the start of her career as an international pianist.
More recently, Colleen has returned to the Academy to teach piano and chamber music; she also serves as the honorary artist-in-residence at The Education University of Hong Kong. "It has always been my dream to devote myself to music. When I was younger, this dream was all I wanted in life; and I gained a lot pursuing it. But as I grew older, I began to see things from another perspective. Are the rewards I derive from the pursuit of my dream unilateral? How can I make contributions through music? It was then that I decided to devote myself to teaching. Loving music is no longer enough; I want to pass it on to my students. At the same time, I want to learn from them, to keep improving. There are many excellent teachers in Hong Kong doing the best they can within their spheres of influence. It is how we nurture brilliant young people with a passion for music."
Recent months have seen an outbreak of COVID-19, which has spread across the world. Face-to-face teaching has been suspended in all academic institutions in Hong Kong since the Lunar New Year. Colleen, whose busy schedule has suddenly been put on hold, is reminded of the SARS outbreak in 2003, her graduation year. "I participated in a piano competition in Germany in May that year. The organisers put all the contestants from Hong Kong and other Mainland cities in a separate hotel. We didn't object as we knew they were just taking precautions for the safety of everyone concerned. We were very nervous – more so over the SARS situation at home than because of our performances. Contestants from other places gave us moral support too. I made many friends on that trip."
The recent coronavirus pandemic has led to the temporary closure of the Academy campuses. Colleen is teaching online for the first time. "It's not as effective as face-to-face learning of course, but at least we're still teaching and learning. All primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong have suspended their classes. Perhaps this is why the students in our Junior Music Programme are practising even more diligently."
Similarly the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival and all cultural activities and concerts have been cancelled. At the time of the interview, Colleen had been preparing for her performance in Beethoven the Immortal, to take place in March, and the future of the show was uncertain (note: it was called off in late February). "Hong Kongers are incredible – we're such efficient, expert multitaskers. We keep our calendars jam-packed as long as we think we can handle it. The pandemic has slowed work down without putting a complete stop to it. Life has quietened down too. We have eased our pace and it occurs to me that there's nothing wrong with this kind of life. Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves to reflect. Take our primary and secondary students for instance. They are normally snowed under with homework, classes and studying. Do we really want our children to be overwhelmed from an early age?"
Growth amid Uncertainty
Although she lives in Hong Kong, Colleen is concerned for her friends in other parts of the world. "I have been in touch with friends who I haven't spoken to in a long time. Sometimes a few words can be reassuring. Communication is important."
Some say musicians are loners, but Colleen disagrees. "We often collaborate with different people for work, exchange activities and performances. The process has been very satisfying for me. I am grateful that I like my work. Loneliness is a state of mind. You can feel lonely with colleagues all around you. When I'm on stage alone, I feel the company and support of the audience. Music has brought me tremendous joy."
Colleen's performance style is often described as poetic with great emotional depth. Being someone with a gentle and tender nature, Colleen maintains her composure in the face of uncertainty. Whether happy, sad or disappointed, experiences are the nutrients with which she infuses her music and life, enriching them thereby.
(The article was published in the May 2020 issue of Academy News. Click here to read the original story.)
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