Self-awareness and culture by Nicholas Wai
I just came back from a string quartet masterclass delivered by Richard Tognetti of the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. ACO is one of my favourite orchestras ever since I watched them performed in Sydney four years ago. I was quite looking forward to seeing Richard teaching and inspiring the next generation of musicians in Hong Kong, and was pleasantly surprised I also learned something about culture not just from an art perspective but also from a social one as well.
Richard comes from a culture where people are expected to have an opinion and it is ok to voice it. He thus conducted his masterclass with the assumption that the students knew what they were doing by asking them questions about their playing, whether they were happy with something, and how they could improve on it. I saw the students being caught off-guard by this way of “teaching” and didn’t know how to respond. I think they probably come from an environment where the teacher would tell them what they did wrong and how they should have done it.
Richard did have to do a bit of that to get things started, when he reminded the students of the need to “breathe as one” - to not only know how to play individually but also together. Once they were able to apply this, the quartet sounded so differently! And the greater confidence in themselves helped the students began to offer their opinion more freely and they improved even quicker. Not only were they more alert with each other’s playing but they were also more self-aware. I see such a parallel with coaching when we take the responsibility to become more self-aware, we naturally take on the responsibility in improving ourselves. We are all experts in being ourselves, and we know what needs to be done when we are not performing at a standard acceptable to us.
On another level, the masterclass also helped me understand culture more intimately. I see the quartet as a metaphor of our society, one that needs to operate in tandem at a basic level to function properly. With the baseline secured in bringing the quartet together as a unit, every player then have individual roles and responsibilities, and each needs to let her strengths and personality shine in order to make beautiful music. Like our society we have our common goals which include things like equality, safety, and certainty of the rules of law, and on this foundation we as individuals can pursue our respective goals and dreams and thrive. I see self-awareness as an essential skill and practice for us in determining which part of the culture we need to maintain as non-negotiable in order for society to function, and in knowing ourselves in deciding where and how to apply and develop our potentials.