A tale of two teachers
In September last year, two young teachers from Hong Kong arrived in the UK to spend a term studying at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, funded by ABRSM. They returned to their teaching careers refreshed and inspired, as Andrew Stewart discovered. We may never know how many people have been touched by ABRSM’s celebrations of the 60th anniversary of its work in Hong Kong. The rough count, based on those attending landmark events in 2011, is already in the high hundreds. The full figure must also include a multitude of the city-state’s young musicians, those whose teachers attended ABRSM’s teachers’ conference in Kowloon last November, the first in Hong Kong. And yet the greatest potential outreach from the past year’s programme rests with just two of Hong Kong’s music teachers. The pair received ABRSM travel grants, designed to energise their teaching skills through a full term of lessons at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM). The new ideas and enthusiasms, acquired whilst at the college, are set to be passed to generations of music students and shared with Hong Kong’s teaching community. Wat Chun Pong and Chan Pui Ling emerged from a strong field of applicants to secure the three-month study awards. Anyone who has followed their blogs will know just how much both managed to pack into a single academic term. In addition to individual lessons, pedagogy classes, masterclasses and serious practice, Chun-pong and Pui-ling – popularly known as Palas – found time to explore England’s historic cities and countryside; discover London landmarks, and attend concerts by, amongst others, the BBC Philharmonic, the Hallé, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic orchestras. The two young teachers have clearly been inspired by their experiences in Manchester and beyond. For Chun-pong, a freelance piano teacher with more than ten years’ professional experience to his name, the ABRSM scholarship has worked wonders. ‘It’s an unusual thing for working music teachers in Hong Kong to study overseas,’ he notes, adding that he intends to visit the UK regularly in the future. While the nation’s ‘amazing music scene’ stands high among his reasons to return, the pianist also covets more of the free-flowing exchange of ideas to be found among the RNCM’s community of students and professors. ‘In Hong Kong, because of the demands of my work, I rarely have time to make new friends,’ says Chun-pong. ‘But in Manchester I made so many connections and friendships with talented musicians from all over the world. It’s been wonderful. I wish it could have been for longer, but the short stay made me determined to get the most out of every day.’ Chun-pong and Palas now stand as fully fledged ambassadors for ABRSM’s professional development work. They are the latest in a line of music teachers to benefit from the study grant fund launched in 1989, ABRSM’s centenary year. The fund represented a long-term commitment to supporting music teaching in countries where ABRSM examines and enabled one, two or occasionally three teachers to attend a Royal School for a term. ‘We ran the scheme along those lines until 2002,’ recalls ABRSM’s Professional Development Director, Richard Crozier. ‘We then felt we could reach many more teachers by visiting countries to offer two- or three-day professional development courses, which used the funding in a different way. We decided, however, to reinstate the original format in 2011, in addition to conferences and presentations for teachers overseas.’ Richard approached the RNCM with the idea of hosting the scholarship winners for a term and swiftly received a positive response. Each ABRSM study grant covers the cost of air fares, tuition fees and accommodation, and provides a weekly subsistence allowance. This year it’s the turn of South Africa, with two or three of the nation’s music teachers being selected for a study term at the RNCM, the main focus of which will be jazz. ‘The scholarship’s aim is to remind teachers, in the first decade of their careers, of standards and encourage them to maintain and develop their own playing skills,’ Richard observes. ‘As part of that, we’re also able to help anyone who is thinking of taking a diploma to do the groundwork for it or even to take the exam while they’re at the Royal Northern.’ Prospective applicants should look to the experiences of Palas and Chun-pong to ascertain the scheme’s musical and pedagogical rewards. Palas, a trombonist who has taught in Hong Kong since 2006, was so inspired by her time at the RNCM that she opted to take a sabbatical from her full-time post at home in order to remain in the UK. She applied for and secured the post of musician-in-residence at Gordonstoun, north east Scotland’s famous co-educational independent school. ‘It was entirely her initiative,’ notes Richard ‘and she will take back an extraordinarily rich experience of musical life in the UK.’ Palas says that her expectations of studying at the RNCM were met and surpassed. She also underlines the value of extra-curricular opportunities delivered by the UK’s vibrant professional and amateur music scene. ‘I applied for the scholarship because I wanted to see how a music school operates in another country,’ she reflects. ‘Unlike the UK, in Hong Kong we only have one music conservatoire – the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts – and a few university music courses to train professional musicians and music teachers. I was curious to see the training offered in the UK and experience the country’s culture.’ The trombonist’s Manchester diary contains a blur of red-letter dates, crowned by a visit to Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral to observe her teacher, Simon Cowen, at work rehearsing Mahler’s mighty eighth symphony with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. ‘Hong Kong is a small place with few professional orchestras,’ she says. ‘But in the UK I’ve heard so many wonderful orchestras and enjoyed the great variety. I went to Håkan Hardenberger’s trumpet masterclass, which lasted over five hours, and learnt so much from him. I also sat in on one of the college’s conducting classes and even attended a cello masterclass. And I was able to observe lessons at the Junior RNCM and ask teachers about addressing practical problems. I can’t wait to use those ideas back in Hong Kong!’ Palas and Chun-pong pay special tribute to the RNCM’s pedagogy classes. They were inspired by the analysis of different teaching methods and the practical experience of learning the fundamental precepts of Dalcroze Eurhythmics, the Kodály approach and other strategies. ‘This has been particularly valuable for me,’ comments Palas. Dalcroze exercises, she adds, proved a delightful discovery. ‘I hadn’t taken courses like this in Hong Kong and look forward to sharing the concept with colleagues and students. I seldom use movements involving the entire body with my young students and will now be exploring Dalcroze ideas with beginners.’ Many Hong Kong-based music teachers, observes Chun-pong, know something of Dalcroze Eurhythmics. He explains that limits to the size of available teaching space partly account for the method’s rare appearance in lessons. ‘It’s also the case that parents don’t really expect it as part of their children’s training. But I believe it will be a valuable addition to my work. I’ve learned so many creative ways to teach from Helen Krizos – Deputy Head of the School of Keyboard Studies – in her pedagogy class, from observing lessons at the Junior RNCM, and from musicianship classes. I now want to explore these with my students. My teachers in Manchester always urged us to make music lessons as interesting as possible. This is not always a priority for teachers in Hong Kong, but I believe it’s extremely important.’ The union of Hong Kong’s work ethic with creative ideas acquired in Manchester, suggests Chun-pong, should supply his students with genuine advantages. He is also eager to spread news of his time at the RNCM among colleagues at home. ‘I think I have more power now!’ His declaration is backed by warm laughter. According to Palas, music classes in the UK are quite strong when it comes to teaching aural skills and she has been inspired to introduce the Kodály approach to her pupils. ‘The musicianship and musical thinking of the students I’ve met in Manchester are generally well developed.’ So what might Manchester’s students learn from Hong Kong? Perhaps lessons in the latter’s famously focussed attitudes to study could be profitably added to the RNCM’s timetable, I suggest. ‘The culture of learning is quite different in Hong Kong,’ Palas replies. ‘I really appreciate the emphasis on the enjoyment of making music here in the UK. Teachers in Manchester work really hard to boost their students and create a very good learning atmosphere. I believe this atmosphere is so important to teaching: it’s about encouraging students to want to learn more and to respect music. This has been the thing I’ve appreciated most about my stay here – I’m really happy because of this. I honestly think my ABRSM placement will help the development of my music teaching in Hong Kong.’
This article was originally featured in the January 2012 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.