Hitting the right notes

Jeremy Chan

Most people can’t imagine a life without music. Whether it’s the soothing strings of a classical piece, the soaring vocals of a pop chart-topper or the thumping bass of a dance hit, listening and playing music can, sometimes, change one’s life. Four Institute members tell Jeremy Chan about their musical journey

As a Chinese music enthusiast, Susanna Chiu enjoys playing her favourite songs on more than one instrument – she knows how to play the Chinese flute, piano, erhu and yangqin, a type of Chinese dulcimer. She also plays the Chinese drums. For her, music is an escape and the best stress-reliever. “It’s easy to get too caught up in work. But when I listen to music, I become more in tune with myself and relax. It’s almost meditative.”

Indeed, Chiu isn’t the only one who feels this way. Enjoying your favourite songs, even for as little as 15 minutes, can elevate your mood, increase sleep quality, improve memory and boost creativity. It also helps to reduce stress and anxiety – by up to 65 percent – according to research company Mindlab International. Learning a musical instrument, especially at a young age, also brings lifelong benefits. A study by Northwestern University identified correlations between a child’s musical ability and verbal memory as well as reading skills. Those above the age of 60 were also found to have structural changes in their brains responsible for hearing and memory within four months of playing an instrument for an hour a week.

Chiu recognized the merits of playing music at a very young age with piano lessons. “I started learning the piano when I was in primary school. I was around seven or eight years old,” remembers Chiu, former Director at Li & Fung Limited and Past President of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs. But the costly piano lessons meant she had to take a break after starting secondary school. “Back then, learning the piano was a luxury, so classes were quite expensive,” she says. But luckily for Chiu, another opportunity presented itself – all students at her school were required to learn a new instrument.

Susanna Chiu, former Director at Li & Fung Limited, began playing the Chinese flute in secondary school.

She took up the Chinese flute for its distinct sound and began exploring traditional Chinese music, eventually joining the school’s Chinese orchestra. “I loved being a part of it,” she says. “It’s amazing when everybody’s contribution comes together into a beautiful ensemble.” She eventually brought it with her to the United Kingdom, where she attained her bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Sheffield. “I remember the walls of my residence were very thin, so I had to practice quietly to not disturb people,” she says. It was there where she played in front of an audience for the first time. “There was a yearly festival for all the international students, and some of us gave performances,” she remembers. One of her favourite songs to play was Colourful Clouds Chasing The Moon (彩雲追月), a tune written by 20th century Chinese composer Ren Guang. “I was always invited to play the flute on stage for all the other students, even though I was an amateur,” she laughs.

The thrill that came with performing live stuck with Chiu. After graduating, she decided to start learning the piano again and formed a band called Band 5 with other Institute members. A five-piece rock group, they practiced together in their free time and eventually performed live at the Institute’s 2005 annual dinner. “I remember we performed at the Four Seasons Hotel, right after it opened,” Chiu says. “We played Let It Be by The Beatles and hits by Beyond, a Hong Kong rock band. There’s a short piano lead section in Let It Be, so I was quite anxious about playing that section. Luckily, I played everything correctly and the show went really well.”

Chiu never forgot her roots in Chinese music and would frequent concerts performed by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, the only professional full-sized Chinese orchestra in Hong Kong. In 2002, Chiu was appointed by the Hong Kong government to be a council member of the organization where she helped with governance, financial control and fundraising. “The chairman at the time noticed how often I went. They were also looking for a professional who loved Chinese music to help the organization,” she says. Best of all, Chiu notes, she was able to attend as many shows as she wanted. During her six years as a council member, Chiu’s knowledge of the music grew with each show she attended. “Previously, playing and listening to Chinese music was more of a hobby. Now I’m able to speak with different musicians and even the conductor. I understand how the whole orchestra plays and interacts with one another. I was also able to contribute my professional expertise to improve the governance of the orchestra. It was a fortunate appointment.”

When Chiu is too busy to practice her instruments, she finds time to tune in. “I actively listen to music on my way to work and practice playing certain songs in my head. I would listen to them over and over again to figure out how to play them. Music simply helps me to recharge,” she says.

Rocky Lok, Chief Financial Officer of Birdland KFC, Jardine Restaurant Group, has been playing the harmonica for over 40 years.

In perfect harmony

When a young Rocky Lok received a harmonica as a gift from a relative, the curious student had no idea how the small instrument in his hands would have such a big impact on his life. Fast forward 40 years and a flurry of local and overseas performances later, the impassioned harmonica player has no plans to stop anytime soon. “The harmonica is an extension of my body,” says Lok, Chief Financial Officer of Birdland KFC, Jardine Restaurant Group and an Institute member.

It was 1976, and he had just enrolled in King’s College, one of Hong Kong’s oldest government schools. He was selected to join the school’s harmonica band. “I’d heard that the harmonica band had been a top school talent for many decades, so that naturally led me and my peers to join,” says Lok. He recalls learning March of The Men of Harlech, the school’s anthem, as his first song and performing it in the front of the school just before Christmas that year.

He graduated from King’s College in 1981 and had built a special bond with four other students in different academic years who were all part of the school’s harmonica band. Though they went to study in different universities, Lok kept in touch and practiced regularly with them, while he studied accounting at the then Hong Kong Polytechnic. After graduating in 1987, the five players decided to formalize their name, calling themselves the King’s Harmonica Quintet. Playing mostly classical pieces, the quintet began playing shows around Hong Kong, with their first major show at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in April 1990 and at the Hong Kong City Hall in 1993. As Lok remembers, it wasn’t always one big show after another. “From 1990 to 1993 we kept on practicing and played around Hong Kong, from dinners to shopping arcades to professional conferences,” he says.

Their first overseas show took place in Yokohama in Japan in 1995 as part of the World Harmonica Festival. The group played the finale of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12, and came in second place. But their breakthrough moment took place in 1997, when the quintet entered the World Harmonica Festival in Trossingen, Germany. “The festival took place in late October, and it was freezing cold. I remember our lips being all chapped and bleeding – it was our first time playing during such extreme weather,” Lok says. Despite those conditions, the quintet went on to perform the same piece they performed in Yokohama. This time, they won the competition, becoming world champions. “When it was announced that we were the winners, it was very emotional. There were tears in our eyes,” he says.

Along with the quintet and other enthusiasts, Lok founded the Hong Kong Harmonica Association (HKHA) in 2002 and has spent the last almost two decades organizing harmonica music-making and cultural events in more than 20 cities across the world. While not all of the quintet remain on the board of the HKHA, they wish the association continued success in nurturing the city’s harmonica movement in the decades to come. “We hope to take on a more advisory role then,” Lok says.

Though he still meets the quintet to practice on a regular basis, Lok also enjoys practicing the harmonica on his own. He plays mainly classical music, but when it comes to listening to music, he has been studying the works of jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Toots Thielemans and George Gershwin. “I want to focus more on advanced theory to help with music creation, and also learn jazz pieces,” Lok says. “My goal is to tackle the difficult pieces I’ve stayed away from all these years.”

Lok, who brings a harmonica with him on every business trip, says anybody is able to learn it. “As long as you can breathe, you can produce a sound on the harmonica,” he says.

Stan Tong, Managing Partner of Edward and Stan Global Advisory Limited, started teaching himself the piano in 2010.

Starting on a high note

Stan Tong dreams of one day becoming a proficient piano player – one who is able to not only play a wide variety of songs, but also simultaneously sing along with them.

Tong began singing as a secondary school student. He and his friends would regularly belt out their favourite Cantonese and Taiwanese pop songs at karaoke lounges in their free time. “I like singing songs by Taiwanese singers Jay Chou and David Tao. As for Hong Kong singers, I enjoy singing Hins Cheung and Khalil Fong – but Eason Chan will always be my favourite,” says Tong, Managing Partner of Edward and Stan Global Advisory Limited and an Institute member. While studying accounting at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2001, he joined a hall choir. “This was when I started to really enjoy singing, so I wanted to learn it professionally,” he says.

He started his career at Deloitte in 2004, and in his second year, he decided to enrol himself in vocal training classes. “There were lots of vocal exercises. More than half the class would be dedicated to training or expanding my vocal range by practicing different scales,” says Tong, who is a baritone. The latter part of the lessons were focused on analysing various hard-to-sing songs, particularly ones sung by Western singers. “I began listening to singers such as Bruno Mars, Robbie Williams, Whitney Houston and bands such as Maroon 5,” he says. Tong, who has passed his grade seven vocal exams, is now focusing on passing his grade eight exams. As he notes, this requires him to perfect a rather intricate song by British artist Sam Smith. “His songs are very hard to sing, as he has a very wide vocal range,” Tong says. “In fact, being able to perfectly sing his song Lay Me Down is a requirement for the grade eight vocal exam. I’ve learned a great deal from trying to sing his songs.”

Tong credits his vocal teacher with helping him throughout the years. “I met my vocal teacher, Metternich Wong, during my days at PolyU’s hall choir. He is such a great teacher, which is why I decided to have private vocal training classes with him.”

Tong began teaching himself the piano in 2010, with the aim of accompanying himself while singing. He learned through YouTube tutorials for several years before deciding to sign himself up for formal classes in 2017. It’s one thing to play the chords and notes correctly, and another thing to keep a constant rhythm while singing, according to Tong. “It’s a challenge to synchronize your hands and sing while playing the piano,” he says. “I never took formal piano exams as a kid, so it’s a bit more difficult for me to grasp more complex songs as an adult.”

But he says his passion for learning his favourite songs on the piano pushed him through difficulties since the beginning. The first song he ever learned to sing while playing the piano was David Tao’s Love Is Simple, a song he grew up listening to. “I just told myself I needed to practice and wasn’t too concerned about the difficulty. Nothing is ever too challenging if you love doing it,” he says.

Though busy managing his new firm, Tong practices on his piano at home whenever he has time, and finds that playing and singing his favourite songs is the best way to unwind. “I always want to have music in my life,” he says. He hopes to perform more, and would find it thrilling to busk around Hong Kong after perfecting more songs. “I would love to bring my piano and just sing to a crowd at Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade,” Tong says, referring to a popular busking area for Hong Kong’s musicians. “I hope to one day express myself and my emotions through the piano.”

Andrew D’Azevedo has played the piano since he was five. He is pictured here playing his arrangement of Harry Potter and Pirates of The Caribbean at his firm’s 2014 annual dinner talent competition. (Credit: PwC)

The keys to happiness

As far back as Andrew D’Azevedo can remember, music has always been a fundamental part of life. Having begun piano lessons at the age of five in his native Australia, the young and curious D’Azevedo felt a strong connection to the instrument, leading him to keep practicing on his own. “My parents didn’t force me to continue playing it – they just wanted me to have an extracurricular activity as a child,” says D’Azevedo, a Tax Partner at PwC and an Institute member. “But I had a knack for it, so I kept at it.”

Balancing schoolwork and studying classical music in his spare time, D’Azevedo climbed through the piano grades. At the age of 16, he attained his Licentiate in Music diploma with distinction, a certificate awarded by examination to outstanding candidates in the fields of musical performance and music theory. He was influenced and inspired by composers such as Claude Debussy, Frédéric Chopin and Sergei Rachmaninoff. “My preferred music is from the romantic, impressionist and modern eras of classical music,” D’Azevedo says. “I really love Debussy’s Préludes. He composed a set of 24, and I’ve learned to play a number of them.”

While in secondary school, he also picked up the cello after his teachers encouraged him to learn a second musical instrument. “The piano is very much a solo instrument and I always wanted to play in an ensemble,” he says. Indeed, he began playing the cello in ensembles in secondary school and also while in university. Though he briefly considered pursuing music as a full-time career, he studied Commerce at the University of Sydney in 2007, and after graduating, began his career at PwC Australia as a fresh tax graduate. But music would still play a part in his life, with D’Azevedo choosing to teach both the piano and cello to students part-time. “I loved being able to share my musical knowledge with other people,” he says. “I’m also glad I didn’t completely give up doing music during my university years, and especially when I started working.”

“I remember thinking to myself ‘no one really knows me here yet, so I’ve got nothing to lose – why not enter?’”

After being seconded to PwC Hong Kong in 2014, D’Azevedo decided to stay. During his first year, he took note of a talent competition which was part of the firm’s annual dinner, and decided to join. “I remember thinking to myself ‘no one really knows me here yet, so I’ve got nothing to lose – why not enter?’” He arranged a mash-up of the main theme songs from Harry Potter and Pirates of The Caribbean and, as he remembers, flawlessly performed it to a stunned audience. “The judges enjoyed it and I was lucky enough to come away with a win,” he says. “A lot of the people were surprised. I had just joined the firm, so I thought it was quite a good way to boost my profile by doing what I love.” Since then, D’Azevedo has been appointed to be a judge, master of ceremonies and performer at each annual dinner.

He was also surprised to meet other fellow musicians at his firm and hopes to rehearse with them one day. “There are three violinists in my team who are quite proficient, so it would be interesting to have a jam session with them,” he says. But music will always remain a personal thing for D’Azevedo, who looks forward to plugging in his earphones after a long day. “When things get busy and hectic at work, I always look forward to listening to music. It’s my release.”

Listening to your favourite music, even for short periods of time, can lead to an elevated mood, better sleep, improved memory and an increase in creativity.

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