Vantage Music | June 2022 | Hong Kong
It was a vibrant weekend in the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui – hopeful musicians were busking in the shade as people flocked to take photos with a giant billboard. Stepping inside Star House, we were immediately greeted by the refreshing hum of silence, punctuated by the occasional strands of violin that wafted through the cracks. Moments later, the door opened to reveal a slightly breathless Mr Fan Ting, who had just finished tutoring his latest student. Over the course of an hour and half, Fan talked about his learning experiences, his intertwined relationship with the orchestra as both a violinist and a conductor, and finally his views on music as a living.
I – Picking Up the Violin
A Hole in the Heart
As is with most musicians, Fan’s relationship with music started from a young age. Curiously, it was not born out of an exposure to the arts. “Most of my family were teachers by trade, so I had not had much experience with classical music at home. The reason I took up violin was because of a literal hole in my heart.”
Congenital heart diseases were one of the most common birth defects, affecting around one out of 100 infants. Fan had been diagnosed with a case of septal defect, wherein a hole was found between his heart chambers, leading to less efficient blood circulation and thus easy fatigue. “I’ve always been feeble since I was young, but as I aged it eventually worsened to the point that I had to stop going to school – my body was so weak that I had to pause for breath even if I was just climbing up the three stairs to my home.”
Being out of school left Fan with a lot of free time and nothing to do. With his weak physical condition, Fan couldn’t do much by way of sports or games, so he took to music on the advice of his mother.
The odds were stacked against Fan from the start – born in Guangzhou in the 60s, his family’s intellectual background caused Fan to face the brunt of the Cultural Revolution at its full force. “We were persecuted politically, economically and socially; we were scraping by each day. I didn’t have any money to pay for a violin, let alone violin lessons.”
Fate smiled upon Fan, and he received a violin as a gift from a neighbour. Playing around with the instrument, Fan quickly discovered his affinity with music. His teachers probably noticed his talent as well, for they offered to tutor him for free.
Within a few years, Fan was already the talk of his area. “When the Central Conservatory of Music resumed recruiting in the 70s, I was one of the only two shortlisted candidates in the whole Guangdong province.”
The Carrot and the Stick
It is traditionally hard to force youngsters to commit to a practice routine, but Fan’s family was uniquely suited to this task. “Being teachers, my family naturally knew about all the methods to entice and coerce me to practise, but it mostly reduced to the traditional rattan cane. In fact, we used to have two canes at home, one for my mother and one for my elder brother to spank me!”
External motivations might have forced a begrudging youngster to go through the physical motions of practising, but one couldn’t make good music without also exercising the mind. In this aspect, Fan’s self-motivation came from the positive affirmation of his early achievements. “I once performed in an outdoor stage in a cultural park in Guangdong, playing the violin to thousands.” Performance chances were hard to come by at the time, and Fan felt he was empowered to succeed. “I grew up from this environment where I was poor, ill and shunned, so I hadn’t expected I would achieve anything in my life. Suddenly, there was this avenue where I could be recognised by the society. For the first time in my life, I finally felt I could achieve something. That drove me to practise like crazy.”
II – Professional Training
Joining HK Phil
Fan came to Hong Kong when he was 13, escaping the political shackles to chase his dreams as a classical violinist. He sought refuge with his aunt, but his relatives had other ideas about his future. “It was the 70s, and they told me that you couldn’t make a living out of a violinist. I remember being persuaded to play the trombone instead, for it had a higher chance to be of use in a funeral service!” Another relative brought Fan to a Cantonese opera and told him that he should learn “real music” from singers like Sun Ma Sze Tsang instead.
Fan stood his ground. “I knew very well what I wanted to do – I wanted to play the classical violin, so I sought out the most famous violinist in Hong Kong and knocked on his door.” Lim Kek-tjiang, violinist and conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HK Phil), was first on Fan’s list.
Lim was impressed by Fan’s playing, and immediately admitted him as a student, teaching him for free. Four months later, he even arranged for Fan to join HK Phil as assistant concertmaster. “The orchestra hadn’t gone full professional until 1975, but we had had performances and rehearsals way before that. I still remember being paid $5 per rehearsal.” The amount may not be much by today’s standards, but it helped quell Fan’s financial insecurity and allowed him to concentrate on his musical studies with the maestro. “I was very grateful to Lim for that.”
Juilliard or Curtis?
To Fan, the maestro was equal parts helpful and frightening. “Lim was crazily demanding. Every week, he would assign up to 16 books of etudes, and we were required to practise and play it well by next week. If not, he would literally ‘let the dogs in’.” There were a few fierce-looking mongrels in Lim’s neighbourhood, and the mere sound of their barking would convince Fan to practise hard. “It was brutal, but effective.”
By the time Fan reached 18, he had already amassed a solid technique under Lim’s intensive training. Still, Fan felt he was missing something. “I was planning to go full professional, but to do so I had to undergo full-time professional training.” The principal clarinettist of the time, John Koljonen, was a Curtis graduate, and he advised Fan to look to the US. Heeding his advice, Fan dutifully went to US and auditioned for the two largest US musical schools at the time, Juilliard and Curtis. Juilliard was the first to accept him, so Fan began studying in the school. To his surprise, a second admittance letter arrived, from Curtis, a month later, leaving Fan in a conundrum: which school should he go to?
Fan ultimately decided on Curtis, but interestingly it was not for any academic reasons. “The choice was purely financial – Curtis was offering a full-tuition scholarship, whilst Juilliard could only offer a partial one contingent on good grades. If I stayed in Juilliard, I would have to worry about what to do if I could not achieve the required grades each year.”
Fan might not know it at the time, but he had hit upon the proverbial jackpot of classical music. Due to the full-tuition scholarships offered to all students, seats at Curtis were highly sought after, as the whole school could only admit up to 33 violin majors at a time, with applications only open upon another student’s graduation. “To be admitted into Curtis, you not only need talent and skill, you also need to be lucky.” And luck did favour Fan, for there were three openings the year he applied. “Of the two new joiners that year, one had a recommendation letter from Yehudi Menuhin, while the other had one from Isaac Stern. I was quite lucky to be admitted alongside them.”
Starry Tea Parties
In Curtis, Fan further honed his violin skills under Jascha Brodsky and then Ivan Galamian, undergoing the full-time rigorous training that he had wished for. Techniques aside, however, it was the tea parties in Curtis that had the most lasting impression on Fan.
Curtis was originally founded as a training ground for musicians to fill the ranks of the Philadelphia Philharmonic, and, even though Curtis is now an independent institute, it still retained good ties with the professional orchestra. “Every Wednesday, we would invite whoever was conducting the Philadelphia Philharmonic that week for a tea chat. In the institute’s common room, the conductor would serve tea to the principal and the students whilst talking about the pieces that he would be conducting. At the end, he would even rehearse the same piece with us.” The Philadelphia Philharmonic regularly invited guest conductors for performances, exposing Fan to a plethora of world-class conductors during his study.
Fan still remembered one such encounter with Claudio Abbado. “Abbado’s English was quite broken, so I initially had some reservations when I first met him. However, as soon as he picked up his baton, I knew that I would have no cause for worry, for there was no need for him to speak on stage; everything was communicated via the way he moved, be it articulation, rhythm, dynamics or phrasing. You immediately knew when to enter, what to play, and how to play.” As the saying goes, a typical bad conductor stops the orchestra and tells them to be louder or faster with his words; a good conductor does so via his baton. To Fan, Abbado was the embodiment of the good conductor, and some 40 years later it would become the impetus for Fan’s renewed artistic endeavour.
III – A Second Career
A Blossoming Conductor
Fan went to the Juilliard School after studying in Curtis, and he eventually returned to Hong Kong, rejoining the orchestra that he spent most of his adolescent years in.
Playing in a professional orchestra offered Fan many benefits, the foremost of which was its job security. The regular income allowed Fan to reliably provide for a living for his family, while simultaneously allowing him to explore different kinds of music, from small-scale chamber works to symphonies requiring hundreds of instruments.
In total, Fan played in the HK Phil for 38 seasons, and he mused that it was not without ups and downs. “As an orchestral musician, you don’t have much room to interpret music your own way; you are at the mercy of your conductor. If the conductor is good, then he can guide us well and open our eyes to a hitherto unknown aspect of some well-known music; on the other hand, if he is mediocre, then it can quickly become frustrating. Even so, you still have to play your best, for it is part of your job.”
Eventually, Fan decided to leave HK Phil. “HK Phil is like a giant umbrella for me – it provided for me financially and musically, but I had stayed under it long enough. If I wanted to achieve something outside of playing, I needed to step out of my comfort zone before it was too late.” And so the seeds planted by Abbado culminated 40 years later, and in 2018 Fan placed his focus on Ho Chi Minh City, taking on the role of music director and principal conductor for the Saigon Philharmonic Orchestra.
To Fan, Ho Chi Minh City was reminiscent of the olden Hong Kong. “The Vietnamese city had a population of 9 million, even bigger than Hong Kong, yet, much like Hong Kong in the 70s, the musical scene was severely lacking.” That isn’t to say there weren’t any good musicians – Vietnam had no lack of excellent musicians well versed in the French and Russian tradition, yet there were few large-scale classical performance opportunities in the country. “They had a beautiful opera house in the city, but it mainly housed performances of more traditional art forms like water puppetry.”
The situation was driven in part by a lack of financial support. Fan explained that the Saigon Philharmonic was partially funded by the Vietnamese government, but the funding was so meagre that musicians couldn’t survive on governmental payroll alone. The musicians had to take on side jobs, which ran contrary to the intentions of setting up a professional orchestra. “There were no regular rehearsals, no regular concerts, but the musicians were happy with that – the less time spent rehearsing, the more time they had to actually earn a living. As a result, nothing got done musically.”
As the music director of the orchestra, Fan is tasked with upholding the musicality of the orchestra, but to do so Fan first had to secure a stable source of funds. To this end, Fan leveraged his experience in Hong Kong, and decided to look for sponsorship from the public. “HK Phil’s sponsorship mainly comes from two sources: first is individual sponsors from wealthy patrons who like art; second is corporate sponsors from multinational firms like the Swire Group or the Jardines, companies that have had a deep connection to Hong Kong and are willing to give back to society.”
As one of the fastest growing economies of the 21st century, Vietnam is also home to branches of many international firms, so Fan initially thought it would be an easy job emulating the HK Phil model. It was only after dozens of cold rejections that Fan appreciated the difference between the two cities. “It all boiled down to a sense of belonging – in Hong Kong, those taipans in charge of the companies live most of their lives in the city; Hong Kong is home to them. Even when they retire, they will most likely stay in Hong Kong.”
“In contrast, the expats in Vietnam had only gone to the country for money. Once they had earned enough, they would be gone, going back to a place where English is the daily language and communism is not the norm.” This difference in attitude meant that companies in Vietnam were very reluctant to sponsor something that did not benefit them directly, making fundraising for Vietnamese orchestras a very daunting task.
Yet not all is without hope, as Fan revealed his latest plan for the orchestra. “I am currently composing a musical much like Miss Saigon. Everything about the musical will be original, from the storyboard to the actors, and it will be toured around the country after a premiere in the Saigon Opera House. I hope this can bring more awareness to classical music in Vietnam, enabling our musicians to finally earn a sustainable living in a professional orchestra.”
IV – Music as a Living
Fan’s experience made it seem like a professional music career was a breeze, but he had a note of caution against those following his footsteps. “Music as a profession isn’t something you can achieve merely by wishing. One should be very humble in front of the arts.”
As a prestigious violinist and a teacher of many, Fan has frequently been asked by his students whether they should take up music professionally. This is a complicated question, and Fan examines it from three fronts.
The first is reason. “The first thing I ask them is: why music? Every student says they like music, but liking something doesn’t mean you have to do it. I liked sweets when I was young too, but I am not making candies now. Furthermore, taste changes with time too. Are you willing to bet your whole future on what might just be a passing thought?”
Then comes the issue of ability. Fan has taught a lot of students, but most of them have ended up being lawyers or doctors. Fan doesn’t mind teaching amateurs, but it is a different story when a student later tries to go professional. “This wasn’t what you signed up for. To be a professional, you needed to train professionally. If you are telling me this only when you are about to get into university, isn’t it a bit too late?”
It is rare for students to possess both qualities, but, even if so, Fan still won’t always concur with their dreams. “The third aspect is financial independence. I only advise my students to pursue a career in music if their family don’t need to depend upon them for a living. If you don’t have any financial burdens, then of course you can do everything you could to fulfil your dream, without compromising anything. But if you need to compromise, then why bother?”
It is a pragmatic consideration. “There are a lot of talented young individuals in Hong Kong who simply have nothing to do. They might have won all the scholarships and competitions while they were abroad, but once back in Hong Kong there are not enough opportunities for them to shine – all the ranks of professional orchestras had been filled, and there simply aren’t enough performances for most of them to survive from concertising alone.”
This makes having a supportive family even more important. “If you don’t need to compromise, it doesn’t matter whether you succeed or not, at least you are happy chasing your dreams. But if you are just teaching ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ to five-year-old kids every day, is this really the life of music that you had wished for?”
Interviewed by Vantage Music and written by Chester Leung.