Q&A: Professor Leon Tong, Artistic Director, ‘Belt & Road’ World Choir Festival
Hong Kong’s inaugural ‘Belt & Road’ World Choir Festival runs from 15-19 July 2018. Inspired by China’s Belt and Road initiative (a development strategy focussing on connectivity and cooperation between the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road) and directed by Founder and President of the World Youth and Children Choral Artists’ Association, Professor Leon Tong, the event features performances, masterclasses and workshops as well as a choral competition. We caught up with Professor Tong below.
I have a dream – to share love and peace with the world through music exchanges
Hi, Professor Tong, it’s a pleasure to chat with you.
Thank you. I’m looking forward to sharing my vision for choral music with your readers.
You are the Artistic Director of the 2018 ‘Belt & Road’ World Choir Festival, a completely new event for the choral world. What inspired you to launch the Festival?
After the launch of China’s Belt and Road economic initiative, I wanted to contribute to this idea from a musician’s perspective so I began to build the Festival as a platform for music lovers to explore the history and cultural heritage of the countries along the Belt and Road route through choral arts.
As you may know, the Belt and Road initiative advocates the exchanges of trade and business and the development of infrastructures between the countries along its route. Along with increased economic connections between these countries, I believe there will surely be more cultural exchanges. Choirs from these countries as well as other interested countries will converge on the Festival to exchange musical and cultural ideas. This aligns perfectly with the mission of the World Youth and Children Choral Artists’ Association (WYCCAA) as well as our commitment to the musical world. Through this ‘top-tier’ platform of the ‘Belt & Road’ Festival, we hope to share and celebrate peace, love and cultural diversity.
How is the festival different from your other events as well as other Festivals in the region?
The ‘Belt & Road’ Festival emphasises educational and interactive aspects (such as workshops) whereas the World Youth and Children’s Choir Festival puts more emphasis on the search for artistic perfection. Relatively speaking, the competition requirements of the ‘Belt and Road’ Festival are lower than previous festivals to encourage more choirs to participate (e.g. shorter programmes, no a cappella, fewer categories). As a festival, it will be more carnival-like.
Where will participating choirs come from? Are you focussing on specific countries/regions?
Although the ‘Belt & Road’ Festival actively promotes cultural exchanges along the Belt and Road, it is open to choirs from all over the world.
Are you planning to organise the event regularly or is it a one-off Festival?
We plan to organise the event biennially.
Do you receive any financial support from organisations in Hong Kong (e.g. Hong Kong Government) or China?
The WYCCAA is a self-funded non-profit organisation. We plan to apply for the funding provisioned by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and seek sponsorships to cover some of our costs.
Moving on to the subject of competitions, what do you feel is the benefit of competitive singing?
Competitions urge music lovers to seek artistic perfection. Learning through performing as well as listening to other good music is essential and beneficial to every music lover.
How easy is it to judge choirs of widely differing backgrounds?
I focus on the musicality and difficulty of the repertoire but it’s good if a choir’s songs are related to or can represent its specific background.
You are the Founder of the Hong Kong Treble Choir. Can you explain the structure of the organisation – for example, are there different levels/age ranges of choirs and is there a pyramid structure with a main choir at the top?
The answer is yes. Our curriculum consists of six levels, which are basically designed according to age ranges.
- Nursery (age 3-4)
- Elementary (age 4-6)
- Performing Arts Junior (age 6-8)
- Performing Arts (age 6-10)*
- Elite Junior (age 8-10)
- Elite (age 9-16)*
Classes marked ‘*’ require audition by teachers’ recommendation or open audition once a year.
Do young singers need to audition or are the choirs open to everyone? Is the application process competitive?
The choirs are open to all children aged 3-16 except classes marked above with ‘*’.
Have you developed your own pedagogical methods? To what extent do you take outside influences into account, for example, the Kodály approach?
Our methods are as follows:
- Nursery (age 3-4) – beginner stage 1 & 2 for early childhood learning in a playgroup setting, using simple instrumental bells to introduce solfeggio, rhythm, dynamics. Approach based on Kodály and Orff.
- Elementary (age 4-6) & Performing Arts (age 6-10) – professional choral training setting. Proper posture and voice production. Develop basic aural, pitch and sight-reading skills.
- Elite (age 9-16) – more focus on vocal training and to perform and train with more difficult choral pieces selected from different genres and periods. Develop musicianship and choral presentation skills. Train and focus for performances and aim to compete in choral festivals.
What repertoire do the choirs perform?
- Beginner stage – in unison, game songs, nursery rhymes, traditional folk songs in English, Cantonese and Mandarin.
- Intermediate – part singing, rounds (canon), simple harmony.
- Advance – a cappella, contemporary, multiple parts singing in different languages of selections from different periods.
How do you train your organisation’s choral directors and do you offer training more widely for teachers in Hong Kong?
Through the WYCCAA’s platform, we provide annual choral workshops to instructors to enhance their teaching methods and styles.
Are there significant differences between the choral worlds in Hong Kong and China other than with regards to the total number of choirs?
To some extent, there are significant differences. China consists of numerous ethnic groups with different dialects. The diverse ethnicity inspires the various styles of repertoire within China. Contrarily, choirs from Hong Kong are better at presenting pieces not only in our mother tongue, Cantonese, but also other languages. Hong Kong composers are good at creating music in Cantonese, which can demonstrate the culture of Hong Kong.
How popular is choral singing in China? Have you observed any trends over your 40-year career, for example, growth in the number of choirs or the emergence of new types of choir like rock and pop choirs?
The popularity of choral singing in China is rising and support from the Government and business sector, as well as the community, is on the increase. For example, there are choirs established by banks and police forces in China and there is an emergence of a cappella and contemporary music.
With the number of choirs in China on the increase, the quality of choral singing keeps reaching a higher standard as more professionals are coming to China to teach.
What main types of repertoire are popular?
Chinese folklore is popular in China. Due to the constraints of language, choirs in China tend to perform Chinese pieces. Not a lot of choirs can sing a non-Chinese piece in its original language. However, some choirs of higher standard – for example, university choirs – have more exposure to non-Chinese pieces and are more capable of presenting those pieces and attaining prizes in international competitions.
What opportunities are there for choirs from China to travel, both within the country and internationally?
Their opportunities are basically the same as choirs from other parts of the world though it may be a bit harder for them to obtain visas and funding.
Do you work with contemporary composers in China?
Yes, Mr Cheuk-yin Ng and Dr Sung-chi Steve Ho from Hong Kong and Ms Yi Chen and Ms Wei Cui from China.
Does China have a unified school education system? Is choral singing a part of this or is it seen as an additional, out-of-school activity?
Nowadays, the Chinese Government places more emphasis on music education and whole-person development. It encourages schools to teach music in school and hold school-wise competitions. However, due to the lack of resources, music education is not prevalent in rural areas yet.
Is it possible to take choral conducting as a major area of study at music conservatories and universities in China?
It’s possible but not very popular yet although it’s become more popular in recent years.
Do parents encourage their children to sing in choirs?
Yes but they put more focus on academic rather than music education.
What do you think of the effects of technology – and particularly, the internet – on the choral world?
Well, we are developing an app for choral music lovers, mostly targeted at music teachers and conductors. It is envisaged as a platform to exchange music knowledge by sharing information on workshops, masterclasses and sheet music.
Who were the main influences during the early stages of your career, professionally and musically?
I was strongly influenced by my vocal teacher, Mr Wu Baijiu (伍伯就), who was a student of the Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli. I not only learned vocal skills from him but also teaching techniques. I always stayed behind after class to observe how he taught from which I developed good aural skills, which are essential for a judge.
How do you divide your time between performing and your involvement in education and outreach work?
In the early stage of my career, I spent more time on education and choir training but now I place more focus on administration and less on conducting. Although I miss my time as a conductor, I believe it’s worth it as I can promote choral music internationally now.
What advice would you give to a choral musician – a singer or conductor – at the start of their careers?
There is a Chinese saying, ‘Don’t be proud of success or frustrated with failure’. Always stay motivated and don’t give up when encountering difficulties.
Lifelong learning is crucial to musicians. Never stop listening to good music.
Never underestimate the power of music. Along the path in searching for artistic perfection, you can learn to become a better person.
Do you have a favourite piece of repertoire?
Yes, Beautiful Dreamer by Stephen Foster. I love its simple yet beautiful melody and I can find myself in this song because I am a dreamer myself.
Thank you for sharing your fascinating insights, Professor Tong. We wish you every success for the 2018 ‘Belt & Road’ World Choir Festival.
Header photo: Professor Leon Tong with members of the Stellenbosch University Chamber Choir
2018 ‘Belt & Road’ World Choir Festival: http://wyccaa.com/en/2018-belt-road-world-choir-festival-hong-kong
About Professor Leon Shiu-Wai Tong
Professor Leon Shiu-wai Tong spares no effort in advocating choral music development and education across the world.
As a conductor, speaker and adjudicator, he has exerted a profound influence on today’s choral music environment and has been invited – as a representative of Hong Kong – to internationally recognised choral festivals, competitions and summits in more than 40 countries.
While serving in the International Federation for Choral Music (his last position being First Vice-President), Tong was frequently invited to act as adjudicator at significant international choral festivals. He was the first Chinese adjudicator at the International Choral Competition Maribor and International May Choir Competition – the two biggest choral competitions in Europe. He has been invited to China Central Television’s National Choral Competition as adjudicator many times. He was the only international adjudicator among nine adjudicators at the 67th National School Singing Contest of Japan.
Tong founded the Hong Kong Treble Choirs’ Association and Hong Kong Treble Choir. In 2004, he received the China Treble Choir Achievement Award from the China Chorus Association. In 2007, he was honoured with the Award for Arts Achievement (Music), the Asian Cultural Council Scholarship and listed in Who’s Who in Choral Music, a book about well-known worldwide choral experts.
He founded the World Youth and Children Choral Artists’ Association in 2015 and is now the Artistic Director of the World Youth and Children’s Choir Festival – Hong Kong and the 2018 ‘Belt & Road’ World Choir Festival.