Arts Education and the Snuffing of Creativity

Sit on any Hong Kong bus with a television. What do you see on the screen? News, advertisements, and music videos. Lots and lots of music videos.

Turn the TV to any channel. What do you hear? News, episodic shows, and Cantonese pop. Lots and lots of Cantopop.

Hong Kong’s local popular music scene is very active, and many new songs are constantly being put out by indie and major label artists alike. New songs become familiar with each play. Popular and rising artists get time on the screen.

And yet, even with so many songs on the market, there’s very little variety among them.

This odd feature in Hong Kong music is a product of trends, which tend to be controlled by the local youth and young adults. Most of this demographic are educated in various arts and musical instruments.

So if there are so many Hong Kongers with some artistic background, why is there such a lack of creativity and diversity among the trending songs?

Some believe that the lack of artistic diversity lies in Hong Kong’s style of education: student musicians are placed on a fast track through classical music. “It’s probably the way it was taught, much more than classical music itself,” says Elaine Yu, who studied violin in her youth. “In Hong Kong there is that competition culture.”

The competition culture refers to the amount of pressure to outperform their peers in as many fields as possible, by whatever means possible. For many students, that means finding a formula that works, and using it to prove themselves successful without needing to find out why it works.

Yu added that the pressure to complete the ABRSM Grade 8 exam “doesn’t leave room to use that classical training for other genres or styles.” This need for certificates is not isolated to music education, but has spread from academics to every form of education, suppressing student interest in any non-standard activity.

Jason Chan, a Hong Kong native now teaching music in San Francisco, explains that in the school system, “the whole system is about how much you can memorize” and not necessarily about measuring other types of intelligence. “They don’t promote individuality and critical thinking,” he states.

Even in the language arts, students are given very specific sets of criteria for their work. As a result, students go through their rubrics to make sure they have each element without attempting to go past the requirements because they know they will only be graded on the given criteria.

Many teachers within the system perpetuate this problem by not taking the time to give comments on student writing outside of the criteria, partly because there are so many students in each class and so many assignments to grade.

And so, creative talent goes unnoticed, and the flame burns out before it can be fanned.

Chan says that creativity can be cultural as well, and “people don’t want to be different and they `follow the wind.”’ especially in Chinese culture.

The fear of being singled out as “different” is prevalent not only in schools, but in Chinese culture as a whole. Children are taught to conform at an early age, as standing out or being noticed for whatever reason could get them into trouble.

“Therefore, in this kind of environment, it’s hard for a child to “dare” to be different and think or do things outside of the box,” says Chan. Even teachers find it difficult to do things differently in the classroom without risking heavy scrutiny or criticism from their colleagues and superiors.

As a result, few venture out of the bubble of normalcy, and those who do find that success is very limited.

The pop ballad is “still the predominant form” of Cantonese Pop, says Alex Yiu, a Hong Kong composer. Even today, most popular songs cling to an old formula that worked five years ago. There has been very little musical development in Cantopop because trying something new means taking risks, and taking risks means a possibility of raking in fewer profits than usual.

In addition, pop songs that utilise the elements of other genres “are usually sidetracks and not as popular as pop ballad,” Yiu adds. Again, the market for selling something unfamiliar is far less favorable than that of something already popular.

The lack of creativity in Hong Kong’s younger population is, therefore, an issue that cannot be cured in one fell swoop. The real problem lies deeply rooted within the way the people of Hong Kong see their world, a vision perpetuated and reinforced by all generations of all backgrounds. In order to solve this problem, every Hong Konger must recognize that they play a part in the system.

To solve this problem, the people of Hong Kong must first change themselves.

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