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A statement of my teaching philosophy



I believe that university teachers are not just deliverers of existing curriculum. Instead they develop and shape experiences on what they believe to be in the best interests of students’ learning. By designing and planning relevant activities as well as assessment tasks, I endeavor to motivate my students to reach a high level of musical achievement through experiential and collaborative learning. My teaching philosophy derives from my previous training, my awareness of the latest learning theories, particularly those pertinent to music performance and pedagogy, and over 20 years of teaching and directing performance studies at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.


Teaching performance in the context of whole-person education

Performance is an integral part of our undergraduate curriculum and an option (dissertation project) for the M.A. programme. Students majoring in performance invest countless time and efforts in their preparation towards their cherised recitals. They are expected to perform at a level comparable to their peers in music conservatoires running intensive performance programmes. Indeed, a good number of our graduates have moved on to pursue performance studies at top institutions in Europe, the United States, and Australia, some with prestigious scholarships. However, many will not fulfill the aspiration of working as full-time performers given the few musicians worldwide who become virtuoso performers. If this happens, students’ “all or nothing” view of the world could tell them they have under-achieved. Low self-esteem could immediately follow. As such, they eventually turn to teaching taking their mental baggage with them.


To promote a healthy mentality towards performances, I would like my students to acquire greater musical expertise. Students should recognize the value of skills and qualities that come with performance training, no matter what the ultimate outcome may be. At the same time, I would like my students to develop self-respect to give them confidence in whatever they pursue, and to continue to love music.


On an individual level, performance students require a range of transferable abilities. They must be able to analyze non-verbal material, communicate, be imaginative and think independently. They need to focus, listen and follow instructions, and be self-aware, as well as to withstand pressure.


Students should also realize that musicians not always work alone. Performing with chamber groups, choirs or full-scale orchestras requires the social skills to work with others, and the ability to lead and organize.  Finally, there are the special characteristics required of a musician: the discipline to perform within a fixed time-frame where there is no second chance to go back and correct mistakes; and the courage to work transparently, with every act under scrutiny during a performance.


By identifying and developing these transferable skills, I aim to raise students’ confidence in their abilities both as performers and people. By encouraging personal development and not just teaching musical skills per se, musical performance is presented in the whole-person approach. Some students may arrive with false hopes and expectations, but by the end of their undergraduate studies, most of them will have acquired a healthy attitude towards music and towards life.


Performance pedagogy

By analyzing the course structures of performance programmes in music departments worldwide, I have developed a “three-tier triangle” approach to performance pedagogy. At the base lay a firm foundation in music history, theory and musicianship. At the pinnacle sat performance in the form of recitals and examinations that are supported by private lessons. In the middle is a gap for a variety of enhanced teaching and learning activities that would build on the base and provide greater support for the top.


Two examples are performance classes where students play for each other and discuss their works in an informal setting, and masterclasses where a group of students take a lesson with an accomplished performer or teacher.  Previously, these activities were limited. They give students increased opportunities to learn from each other and to work on pieces together. Other activities include coaching by guest teachers, summer classes outside Hong Kong (such as in Siena), and additional recitals beyond the requirements of the curriculum.


Very often, these additional activities allow students to develop communication skills. An example is the Style and Performance course, in which students of different instruments (e.g. violin, piano and flute) attend together. By creating projects where students can play with one another, such a pianist accompanying a violinist, or several instrumentalists joining forces to tackle a wide range of chamber music repertory, I have encouraged students to interact with one another while broadening students’ knowledge of music.


Interaction is a key quality of studying at the university level. Anyone wanting to study with a famous teacher can do it at an institution or privately (at home). But a university provides a unique environment for them to interact. In Hong Kong, many music students begin their undergraduate studies without a strong awareness of the benefits of interaction. However, the very nature of being a performing artist means not just being able to work in isolation and practising for three to five hours a day. If one only works in isolation then the opportunities in the wider society are limited. By enabling students to work productively both in isolation and with others, I endeavor to equip them with the interpersonal skills that are desirable in a wide range of music-related careers.


With these additional activities (masterclasses, coaching, etc.), students also gain access to more teachers and their methods, and experience a range of styles which will help them in their own careers as teachers and performers.


Reducing anxiety and stress in performance

Underlying all these activities is my aim to ease the anxiety and stress that generally accompanies performance. Previous research has identified a good mental attitude as key to a successful performance, but an exam-oriented mentality that is prevalent in Hong Kong provides stress and is therefore counterproductive. Ideally, students should learn through both their successes and failures. They should have a platform where they are positively reinforced and supported even when they fail to deliver their best so that they can “move from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm”—the key to success according to Winston Churchill.


The long-term solution is to promote a balanced mentality by incorporating different activities into the programme and naturally reducing stress levels in performance. In fact, a balanced approach to performance leads to a similar approach to everyday life. My message to the students can be summed up in my motto: “we are not different people when we stop playing the piano or another musical instrument. We are the same person with the same fingers and mind.”


Theoretical basis

My teaching approach derives from my own experience and exposure to innovative teaching theories. During my PhD studies at Cambridge, I simultaneously pursued performance studies first at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and then at the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD). While RAM and GSMD trained performers in the traditional conservatory manner, Cambridge gave students time and space to work independently, as well as the room to expand in different directions. Amidst the dedication and drive of the academies, students there found real enjoyment in music, many taking part in concerts just for the sake of concerts. And although Cambridge does not have fully fledged performance studies in its curriculum, many students continue with performance studies after they graduate and establish careers as professional musicians.


My view of the importance of the mental aspects of performance strengthened after reading Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis (1986; 2008). Despite its sporting perspective, there is a useful cross-over with performance on the field and in the concert hall. In his book, Gallwey identifies four factors that are essential to successful performances: (1) focusing on the present, (2) permission to fail, (3) quieting the mind, and (4) letting it happen through non-judgmental awareness. In addition, Barry Green (1986), Stewart Gordon (2006), Paul Harris (2012 and 2014) and Daniel Kohut (1985) have provided further ideas and reinforcement to my approach to teaching performance and pedagogy.


The following books have been helpful in developing my teaching philosophy:

Gallwey, W T (1986, 2008). The Inner Game of Tennis. New York: Random House.

Gordon, S (2006). Mastering the Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Green, B and Gallwey, W T (1986). The Inner Game of Music. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Herrigel, E (1953). Zen in the Art of Archery. New York: Vintage Books.

Kohut, D L (1985). Musical Performance: Learning Theory and Pedagogy. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Harris, Paul (2012). The Virtuoso Teacher: the inspirational guide for instrumental and singing teachers. London: Faber Music.

Harris, Paul (2014). Simultaneous Learning. London: Faber Music.


Curriculum improvement and the role of the technology

Our performance curriculum has been thoroughly revamped to fully embrace the notion of outcome-based learning. In addition to solo recitals and concerto performances, the revamped performance curriculum opens door to a wide variety of chamber music-making possibilities, such as the string quartet, the piano trio and the wind quintet, and other chamber music activities. All significant student concerts are recorded, and these recordings genuinely reflect student learning outcomes. In addition, the course contents and assessment activities of Style and Performance and Principles of Pedagogy have been revised to encourage students to develop skills for making their own videos, YouTube channels and websites, since these skills are essential to the success of 21st-century musicians. As teacher, I have incorporated technology in all my classes with additional hardware (professional microphones and audio interface) and software (OBS, Loopback, Adobe, etc.) equipment and created video learning materials to fully engage students in the learning process. I am continuously exploring in what ways the curriculum can be improved further to reflect more of the realities that students will face when they head out of education.

Teaching demos

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