If a conductor has potential and a sound knowledge of music, opportunities will be there for the taking. However, "there are many factors for one to become a good conductor. The prime factor is talent, followed by [an effort to] nurture music," says Yan Huichang, internationally renowned composer and the music director and conductor of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (HKCO).
Mr Yan was destined for an artistic career from childhood, when his elder brother introduced him to the world of music and his father later showed him a future career in music was possible. During these years, he acquired a broad musical knowledge and, while at senior high school, taught elementary music at a junior high school.
Despite being an outstanding instrumental performes, Mr Yan strove for a higher education and received five years of professional training in Chinese music conducting at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. After graduating with a bachelor's degree with distinction in 1983, he was appointed principal conductor cum artistic director of a famous folk orchestra.
"One should widen one's vision and set a goal for the future"
In 1987, Mr Yan was made National Class One Conductor at the First Professional Appraisal of China, considered the highest ranking in Chinese music conducting. He then worked with most of the professional Chinese orchestras in Beijing, Shanghai, Taiwan and Singapore, winning acclaim from music circles in China and abroad. In 1997, he joined the HKCO, Hong Kong's only professional Chinese orchestra, as music director and conductor.
Compared with many other contemporary Chinese orchestra conductors, his path to the top was unusual, as most are self-taught and take a relatively longer route. "It can vary for each individual," says Mr Yan, who obtained the highest title in just five years. "We cannot measure [one's skill at conducting] with time. It's an art," he says. Accordingly, titles are based on experience, technique, reputation and musical knowledge.
Currently, although short courses in conducting Chinese music are provided by various local music institutes, including the HKCO, none offer a degree programme. However, Mr Yan reveals that the HKCO are now planning to organise such courses jointly with local and mainland universities, in order to enhance the quality of this profession and promote Chinese music.
Although he won many awards for performing on Chinese musical instruments in his early years, Mr Yan says these did not directly lead him to be a renowned conductor. "In fact, my experience in composition served as an advantage for me to become a good conductor. Being a composer, I know very well about every aspect of the work I create and it enables me to clearly present the idea to others."
Apart from having expressive body movements, effective presentation skills, imagination and a creative mind, a good conductor needs to be sensitive to and knowledgeable about music and possess a unique character and charm.
As a contemporary Chinese musical pioneer, Mr Yan believes that there is scope for development in this profession, as Chinese music conducting is still developing and much can be done. "One should widen one's vision and set a goal for the future."
Indeed, at a time when many people thought Chinese music outdated, he needed to choose between Chinese and Western music conducting in his professional studies. However, he says he was very clear about his goal, believing that Chinese music conducting had great potential and that many aspects of this art were unexplored.
Mr Yan adds that he understood that the road ahead was not clear, but was confident that he could achieve something. He thought it would be innovative and challenging and that life working with the best of his talent in Chinese music and making a contribution would be meaningful. "In the world of art, there is no speculation or chance-taking. Art requires practice and a good foundation. One needs to continuously put in effort in order to have an achievement."
According to Mr Yan, opportunities exist in the world of Chinese music and therefore in mainland China. The field is open to those who are keen to meet challenges and have a mission to promote Chinese music.
However, opportunities for orchestral conductors are rare, since usually there are only two conductors in each orchestra and the number of professional Chinese orchestras on the mainland has been decreasing in recent years.
But, Mr Yan explains, one can start out with amateur orchestras, such as those in secondary schools and many other institutes. "[For those who] do not mind working for some relatively less famous orchestras, there can be scope for development in this profession," he says.