Chinese music student enters music major as a beginner in Western music

Written by: 
Tomson Cheang
Emily Shek, a Hong Kong native, had no experience in Western music before attending BYUH.

A guzheng and suona specialist and Hong Kong Youth Chinese Orchestra performer, Emily Shek, said as a Chinese music performer, she came to BYU-Hawaii as a complete beginner in Western music. Shek, who is now a senior majoring in music, tries to practice at least six hours a day.

Background in Chinese music

Shek, a Hong Kong native, said she first started learning to play the guzheng, also known as the Chinese zitter, when she was 6 years old. In sixth grade, she began to take guzheng lessons from The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.

After entering high school, Shek said she also began learning to play the suona in the Hong Kong government’s Music Office. She studied both the guzheng and suona until her arrival at BYUH a few years ago.

Life in Hong Kong

As a member of the Hong Kong Youth Chinese Orchestra and a student who took extra Chinese music lessons outside of school, Shek stated, “I was into Chinese music throughout my whole life in Hong Kong.”

Shek recalled of a typical day when she was in high school. “I went to a normal high school just like other students during the day. After school, I would go to the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts or the Music Office to take instrument lessons. After the lessons, I also needed to practice.”

Shek shared how while she lived in the northern part of Hong Kong and went to high school there, both of her music schools were located in the southern part of Hong Kong. During her high school life, she had never stayed at home for more than six hours consecutively, except when she slept.

Reasons for coming to BYUH

When asked why she ended up attending BYUH where a major and classes in Chinese music aren’t offered, Shek described it as “a result of Heavenly Father’s plan.” She explained, “By the time I graduated from high school, I had earned enough credits in HKAPA already due to the junior program of studying guzheng I had taken part in... Surprisingly, HKAPA didn’t admit me.”

Shek shared how the process of being accepted into BYUH wasn’t easy either. She said, “BYUH didn’t let me in immediately...” Because she hadn’t graduated from Seminary, Shek would have to attend Institute in order to attend BYUH. She continued, “But most importantly, right after I sent them my testimony, they admitted me.”

Creating an impact on BYUH with Chinese music

Shek said when she first came to BYUH, she was trying to decide whether she should choose music as a major. “There is no Chinese music for me to learn here. While all other music majors had a background in music before coming here, I had completely no knowledge about Western music. I didn’t know whether they would allow a beginner to enter into the music major.”

Shek performed Chinese music at BYUH for the first time during the Hong Kong Chapter’s performance in Culture Night. She explained, “We did a crossover of Western and Chinese music. In the Chinese part, I played the suona.” 

The first music class Shek took was MUSC 101. She recalled, “For an assignment, we all needed to perform in class and I didn’t know how to play any Western instrument. Of course, I just took out my suona without hesitation.

“After I played, Sister [Jennifer] Duerden immediately told all the music faculties, ‘We have a student who plays Chinese music here!’ And Dr. [David] Kammerer said he had never seen any Chinese music performance and there I came right before he retired.”

Shek continued, “He invited me to introduce and perform Chinese music in his world music class. After that, they also let me have many other chances to promote Chinese music, for which I’m very grateful.”

She explained how she was accepted in the music major as a beginner in Western music. She chose percussion as her emphasis.

Learning western music

When asked how she felt when she first began to study Western music, Shek said the experience was “very painful.” She explained, “Chinese and Western music styles are two completely different things. On the piano keyboard, there are 12 keys in an octave, but Chinese music uses pentatonic scale, which means there are only five notes in an octave.”

“Chinese music is notated in numbers. It was so hard when I first learned to read notes. I needed to count line by line slowly.”

Shek recalled how during her first two semesters, she spent most of her time in practice rooms and didn’t even get a job. “Two hours per day was the practice requirement, but that was for other music majors who already had a background in music. I’d stay in the practice room to repeat the most basic things for five or six hours every day.”

When asked how she managed to persevere, Shek said she got her motivation from others. She shared, “One time, I played a hymn in the Visitors’ Center with my guzheng. A man listened and he said through my performance he could feel that gospel is being preached all over the world and it truly is for everyone on earth.”

Dr. Darren Duerden, a professor of Music, described Shek as a graceful performer. “She’s amazing. I like having other people watch her perform because she’s graceful. We love having her here. We’re glad that she came here to study in BYUH.”

Helam Lau, a sophomore from Hong Kong majoring in psychology and TESOL and a close friend of Shek, said it’s impressive that Shek doesn’t panic on the stage. “A lot of people can’t overcome the fear of performing and they might make mistakes on the stage. I’m that kind of person while Emily isn’t scared at all. For that I really admire her.”

Lau said Shek has always seen performance as a joyful experience instead of something to worry about. “She often invited her friends to come to see her perform. She was upset when her performance got postponed. She really cherished every chance to perform,” shared Lau.


Date Published: 
Tuesday, September 4, 2018
Last Edited: 
Tuesday, September 4, 2018