Pui O-based Dalcroze teacher and concert pianist Sui Ming Chu has been putting music and movement into Hong Kong for a decade. Elizabeth Kerr gets the lowdown on her remarkable career, including her passionate involvement with The Lantau Singers
Sui Ming Chu moves in a way that makes it obvious music is in her blood – literally and figuratively. She swoops into a fast food outlet in Citygate with graceful purpose, looking somewhere in her mid-forties (which she laughs at heartily). I realise that would belie the inordinate artistic and professional qualifications under her belt and we drop the subject.
The concert pianist, certified Dalcroze teacher and driving force behind The Lantau Singers becomes animated at the mention of all things music. She values singing and the ability to play an instrument as a means of self-expression rather than something crucial to a resumé, and she nods in agreement when I suggest that traditional schooling can suck the life and soul out of youngsters’ musicality. “Music is related to emotion and beauty. It’s not about results,” she says.
Adverse to the idea that musical ability should be judged solely on technique and that singing is only for ‘singers,’ Sui Ming winningly concedes that the invention of karaoke was a brilliant step in making singing ‘allowed.’ “Though, I don’t know if I want to listen to it,” she adds with a chuckle. Who can blame her for drawing the line at drunken renditions of Summer Nights? Sui Ming, for one, is convinced anyone can learn to sing – that we all have some degree of musical ability locked within us.
Everyone has a voice
The native Hong Konger spent 17 years in Europe after graduating from London’s Guildhall School of Music in 1986 and shortly thereafter studied at Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (HKAPA). A career in music was almost pre-destined. “I love the spark, I love the essence of it,” she explains. Her father was a theatre professional, her mother an actor, her elder sister is also a concert pianist, now her niece is in musical theatre, and her son is a jazz-blues musician. Sure, Sui Ming’s husband is a lawyer but he loves music and “he has a beautiful voice,” she assures.
Ultimately, it was Elsa Findlay’s book Rhythm and Movement that turned her onto Émile Jaques-Dalcroze’s philosophy of eurhythmics, which teaches concepts of rhythm, structure and musical expression using movement (don’t confuse this with Annie Lennox’s ’80s synth band). “Music is about feeling. When we’re young, we’re taught to read music, memorise, practise and repeat, repeat. Then I found Elsa’s book and it taught me that music is light and life, and it started my journey of bringing that into people’s lives,” Sui Ming recalls. “It’s why I started The Lantau Singers.”
It’s also why she enrolled in the Geneva Conservatory and became Hong Kong’s first certified Dalcroze teacher in 2009 – the year she resettled back home in Pui O for good. “Oh, it’s beautiful!” she exclaims of her corner of Lantau. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like after all this development but I hope they’ll preserve the natural beauty. Hong Kong and Hong Kongers need a place to contemplate.”
Since returning, Sui Ming’s been busy teaching kids (including special needs kids) and adults the Dalcroze method. You’ll still find her at HKAPA, and she’s involved with Hong Kong Baptist University’s continuing education programme, i-Dance Festival (HK), Hong Kong Dance Company and with her own Hong Kong Dalcroze Music Center, founded in 2012 (dalcrozecenter.com). Dalcroze is complex, but Sui Ming boils it down to “holistic music education, mainly listening and coordinating the head and the heart, and feeling the body and movement to learn the senses of music.”
An educator, choreographer and presenter at international conferences, art festivals and congress, Sui Ming also still performs in concert, most recently on all-encompassing programme that moved from the early 1800s (Schumann) all the way to contemporary Chinese composers.
It’s amazing Sui Ming has any time for The Lantau Singers. The choir she founded five years ago with just a handful of locals has since grown to number roughly 20. “It began when a few people out where I live came to me and said, ‘We want to sing. Can you help?’ That’s how it started,” she says fondly. Now, those 20-odd choir members include a homeopath, lawyers, housewives, teachers, medical technicians, engineers – and occasionally their children.
Scrolling through recent texts for choir members’ feedback, Sui Ming reveals that the draws are “a love of music,” “finding a like-minded circle,” the “sense of community,” “fun and relaxation” and “enriching the soul.” She highlights the way singing boosts wellbeing, and says, “There is something incredible about singing with other people and working together towards a goal. It really makes people happy.”
But Sui Ming’s looking for more. The Lantau Singers’ choristers have worked with other local choirs in the past and she would like to see them do more of that, and she needs more voices. After Christmas she’s planning on registering as a non-profit with the hopes of reaching out to more choirs and perhaps travelling around the region. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – her word is not law.
“I’m not the boss. I don’t want to control everything and everyone. We’re evolving organically from where we began. Everyone has a voice,” she stresses, noting the selections for the upcoming Christmas season performances – many of which involve serenading commuters coming off the ferry at Mui Wo – came from suggestions from within. This year’s shows will feature African carols, contemporary jazz and mixed-metre lyrical tunes among others, as long as the choices complement each other.
“It has to be musically interesting, and it has to flow: a fast one, a slow one, a romantic one, a rhythmic one,” Sui Ming says of putting a performance together. “It’s like decorating your living room. You put two pieces of old furniture in a new room and it gives it a certain style. It refreshes the ear. That’s a good programme.”
The Lantau Singers performs at community events and festivals throughout the year, and rehearses on Wednesday evenings at Silvermine Bay School in Mui Wo. The choir’s Christmas performances at Mui Wo Ferry Pier are an annual treat – they’ve become a local tradition, with tired commuters often joining in to sing carols before heading home.
Sui Ming’s attitude to music is, first and foremost, inclusionary. She welcomes everyone who’s keen to The Lantau Singers; no previous experience is necessary (you don’t even have to be able to read music), there are no auditions and you don’t have to sound like Barbra Streisand.
“I haven’t really met anyone who can’t sing. It can be learnt – through the body,” Sui Ming insists. “Some people are Mozart and they’re born with it, but anyone can learn.”
The Lantau Singers is performing at the Mui Wo Ferry Pier on December 4. To join the choir and for updates on its Christmas event schedule, visit The Lantau Singers Facebook page or email Sui Ming Chu at [email protected].