CCA students enjoy a night of music improvisation at The Wanch

Around 30 students from the MA(ME) programme enjoy a night of music improvisation at The Wanch: some play the ukulele, some lead the audience to sing, and some sing from their seats.

Ukulele is more accessible for all learners than many instruments. It is suitable for all. Its delightful and light-hearted sounds make playing the ukulele a joyful experience.

Performers on the stage clap their hands and invite the audience to follow the rhythm and beat in time with whatever they have on hand.

Professor Thibeault, second from left, shares with the audience some basic knowledge about ukulele and makes final preparations with students from CCA for the sing-along.

Many people have a stubborn preconception that classical music is the only music genre worthy of learning and listening to. In their minds, music cultivation can only be achieved through listening to musical pieces composed by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky while music appreciation means attending orchestral concerts. At classical music concerts, proper etiquette must be followed. Orchestral musicians are in black and white formal attires, audience can only applaud at the right time and not to talk or make sounds during the performance. Some senior members of the audience may even dress themselves up formally: men wearing bowties and women wearing dresses.

When students taking the improvisation pedagogy course at the Department of Cultural and Creative Arts (CCA) played the ukulele and sang songs at The Wanch in Wanchai in October 2023, they defied all presumptions about music learning and appreciation. The performers wore ripped jeans and T-shirts, headbands, necklaces, dangling earrings, and more. Unlike at an orchestral performance, the audience clapped spontaneously to show immediate appreciation for the performers, and often sang along with them. The performers didn’t always play in accordance with the music scores. They improvised in response to the reactions from the audience.

“We learnt about participatory music from the improvisation pedagogy course. Participatory music means that not only the players are performing music, but the audience also join in to create music. During the performance, the audience participated by singing along, beating in time, and following the rhythm with their foot or with whatever they had. Some even played with an instrument they brought to the bar,” Queenie Leung Hou-ying said. Queenie is taking the Master of Arts in Music Education (MA(ME)) programme at CCA on a part-time basis. During the day, she teaches music at an International Kindergarten.


First time playing improvisation music

Queenie Leung Hou-ying, a student of the Master of Arts in Music Education (MA(ME)) programme, is inviting members of the audience to sing along with her.

Like Queenie and many other music learners, Terry Luo Zeqian, a student of the MA(ME) programme, used to think that music means classical compositions by Mozart and Beethoven, operas, and orchestral concerts. The performances at The Wanch — the first time Terry played improvisation music — completely changed his perspective. “I thoroughly enjoyed the response from the audience. There wasn’t anyone to coordinate their response, they just responded in their own ways. In the end, the live performance interacted with the audience’s reaction to create music. It was great fun,” Terry, who came from Shenzhen, said.

Queenie and Terry were two of the 30 students from the MA(ME) programme who played music at The Wanch, one of Hong Kong’s oldest live music venues where people come for music. Leading this group of students to play at the pub in Wanchai was Professor Matthew D. Thibeault from CCA. The music professor is the leader of the MA(ME) programme who taught a course in improvisation pedagogy for the programme.

“Seeing my students leading songs, taking the stage, and inviting local music lovers to sing along was absolutely amazing. I was also delighted that the audience, including local music lovers and CCA students, joined the stage performers to create music. This was a wonderful demonstration of participatory music engagement where music is actively made by every participant, performers and audience alike. Through the performance, students have sharpened their leadership and musical skills. They also got an opportunity to apply the pedagogy about leading group singing and playing that they learnt from the course in improvisation pedagogy,” Professor Thibeault said.

Hailing from Macao, Vincent Cheng In-chan, left, plays a cajon along with his classmates. He finds it enjoyable to play live music and lead the audience to sing at a pub.

Erin sings for the first time in front of a large crowd. The enthusiastic reaction from the audience is contagious, setting the live music house alight.

Before starting his studies at CCA, Vincent Cheng In-chan had already completed his undergraduate studies in Macao and taught music in a primary school in the enclave for a few years. “I am used to teaching music in a classroom. To a music teacher like me, playing live music and leading the audience to sing at a pub was an exciting experience. I learnt to play the ukulele from Professor Thibeault’s course. The chords of the ukulele are simple. You can easily find scores for the ukulele on the internet. One can play and sing alone with the ukulele. The instrument is so simple that even young kids can learn. I will use it when teaching music to children in the future,” he said.

“It was my first time to sing in front of so many people. I felt tense initially, but gradually relaxed and enjoyed the performance as it progressed. I have learnt music in mainland schools since childhood. I was taught that when playing music, we need to perform it perfectly. Errors are absolutely not acceptable. But Professor Thibeault’s course changed my understanding. He stressed that we don’t need to be too afraid of making mistakes during improvisation. Once I feel psychologically relaxed, I found that I could really enjoy making music,” Erin Yang Yilin from Changsha of the Hunan province said.


Experiencing the power of improvisation and participatory music

“At The Wanch, my students experienced the power of improvisation and participatory music. Nowadays, improvisation is considered a crucial tool to cultivate the musical mind. It sharpens listening skills, and nurtures musical inventiveness. It is also increasingly clear from research that social music making has a host of benefits, including feelings of belonging and enhanced mental health that comes from the joy of music and togetherness. That’s why the exposure at The Wanch means so much to my students. As an educator, I believe there are various ways to learn, appreciate, and play music. While learning an instrument for classical music and listening to orchestral performances is the way many people advocate. Enjoying music at a live house, a pub or a jazz café is equally enriching. There is no way to compare which one is more superior for music education,” Professor Thibeault said.

Erin is among the students whose belief in the power of participatory music was bolstered by The Wanch experience. “In modern societies, there are many people who are suffering from different kinds of mental illnesses. I endeavour to work as a musical therapist. My studies at CCA have broadened my understanding about how music could affect people mentally. I will continue to expand my knowledge about how music can heal people. I hope one day, I can use music to help others, especially the elderly and kids with autism, to reduce their mental suffering,” she said.

Please click here to understand more about the MA(ME) Programme.