In March 2020, Chiang Mai-based pianist Geoff-Erik Li returned to his hometown to visit friends in Hong Kong. The pandemic struck, and he was stranded in Hong Kong for more than a year in the subsequent lockdown. An alumnus of the Academy's School of Music, Erik has in recent years turned his hand to organising charity art events. This continued unabated during the pandemic through the holding of both virtual and physical concerts; he also opened an events venue in Sai Kung where he invited artists, musicians, and performers from various other fields to perform.
"There's a pervasive feeling of helplessness around the pandemic," Erik says. "Some people may feel there's nothing they can do. They should remind themselves of music's ability to cast a positive influence over society and people. As long as we keep our commitment to art, we can sustain drive and motivation under any circumstance."
Although it is said that genius is "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration," certain people have undisputed talent. Erik, for example, learnt piano before he could write.
"We had this tiny desk at home when I was little," he recalls. "I would make-believe it was a keyboard and play. My parents thought I might have talent in this department, so they arranged for me to take piano lessons." Erik was only 3 at the time, not yet in kindergarten.
After graduating from secondary school, he joined the diploma programme in music at Hong Kong Baptist University. Then, having won a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, he went to the United States to study Piano performance and choral conducting.
But fate intervened. "My mother fell ill during my second year in the US," he remembers. "Professor Gabriel Kwok of the Academy was giving a masterclass in Cincinnati at the time. When he learnt of my situation, he suggested that I return home and apply to the Academy." Thanks to that bit of synchronicity, Erik came under the wing of Professor Kwok, the School of Music's Head of Keyboard Studies, majoring in Piano Performance.
An Eccentric Example
Erik admits he had a hard time adjusting to the Academy in the early days. "Most music majors are good students from relatively well-to-do families, and who are serious and studious," he explains. "I was sporty, came from a grassroots family, and had relied on scholarships to get to where I did. I held part-time jobs to pay for my studies at the Academy, and would sometimes skip classes because of work. I was a negative role model."
Erik recalls representing the School of Music to take part in the volleyball match at the now-discontinued Academy Sports Day. As the setter, he brought his team from the School of Music to claim an upset win. The next day, Professor Kwok gave him a good talking to. "Professor said winning volleyball means slacking off from piano practice and a greater likelihood of broken fingers, which would have dire consequences," he says. "He was formidable, but he really cares about his students. Hands are extremely important for pianists."
In Erik's eyes, Professor Kwok is a consummate pianist who also has personal skills that not all students notice, but that he puts to good use in the music industry. "Professor is an extremely meticulous individual with stellar organisational skills," he points out. "His handling of concert logistics and arrangements, such as the order of students going on stage, and putting the programme together, is pristine. He never taught me these skills, but his example has rubbed off on me."
An Odd Orientation
Erik stresses that he falls outside the mainstream. Both his character and his career deviate from the path of a "typical" classical musician. After graduating from the Academy, he joined a secondary school as the music director, responsible for guiding the orchestra and the choir, while also teaching music and Putonghua.
"It wasn't a traditional elite school," he notes. "Many students came from lower-class families, but they were very committed, and they were excellent. The experiences of those few years made me decide to channel my effort into popularising classical music, so more people will have a chance to know classical music better."
After leaving the school, Erik set up his own studio. During this time, he became interested in vocal music, and subsequently became a vocal coach. Some of his students were community leaders.
"These students came from the medical, business, or political fields," he says. "They had high-pressure jobs and busy schedules. Singing helped to soothe their emotions. Coaching made me realise that music is not only about performance and education. It has a far-greater power."
From 2009, Erik helped a charity to organise fundraising concerts, and founded the Shine Foundation Asia with designer friend Ms Allison Leung to serve children and elderly people with mental issues, as well as their families. Needless to say, the organisational skills that he had learnt from Professor Kwok have come in handy many a time.
Hope in Adversity
Five years ago, Erik moved to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. While enjoying a simpler kind of life, he continued his charity work. Thanks to a friend's liaison, he was invited by the Thai government to develop a music-learning phone app, so that children living in remote mountain areas can learn music online.
Returning to Hong Kong over a year ago at the height of the pandemic, he used music to bring hope to people despite the lockdowns and limitations to daily life.
"The Academy graduates of the last two years found themselves in challenging times, with the social issues, Covid, and the lack of performance opportunities or venues," he says. "As an arts worker, we must aim to give those around us a hand, after getting our own acts together."
And it was this kind of mindset that helped birth the white_ink_box programme in 2020. Opening up in a ground-floor shop space in Sai Kung Market, Erik brought together music, art, culture, and charity in a string of mostly cross-media creations that include classical concerts, pop concerts, online interviews, a charity event to promote eco-friendly facemasks, and a crossover event mashing up neo-Cantonese music and speed Chinese brush painting. He also invited Academy alumna and actress Louisa So Yuk-wah to take part in a charity concert featuring music, drama, and dance.
The white_ink_box contains a blend of live performance, visual arts, exhibitions and even an emphasis on a healthy, balanced lifestyle. But music is at its core.
"Music is art, and it is also a medium and language," he believes. "Music has many functions, and it forms a bridge among people."
Erik has come a long way, and his journey is marked by a consistent affinity for unconventional approaches to career and life. But no matter how roundabout or divergent the path, music has never left his side.
The article was published in the January 2022 issue of Academy News. Click here to read the original story.)
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