Michelle Chow, a consultant with Withers and passionate player of the harp, wants to use her hobby to change lives.
Michelle Chow discovered the joys of playing the harp over a decade ago. Back then, it was a rare – and definitely a privileged – choice of instrument to play.
But Chow, a consultant in the wealth planning and tax team at Withers, wanted to create a new norm, and so she founded a charity to turn her hobby into a mission to popularize the harp and to change lives through music.
Discovering the Harp
“The harp was not a common instrument 12 years ago when a friend introduced me to it,” Chow says.
She already knew how to play the piano, so it was not difficult for her to pick up a new instrument that she described as a “stand-up piano.”
Having found a new love, she devoted a lot of her time to taking lessons. Naturally, much of that time was after work and during the evenings, which meant she had to turn down a lot of engagements and social activities. If she was forced to miss a practice session one night, she would make it up the same week.
“As an adult who works full-time in a busy private practice, one cannot afford to practice as much as one would like. I was fascinated by this instrument and took weekly lessons with a professional harpist who plays in orchestras,” Chow says, adding that she even started practicing for one hour every night after work.
Her efforts paid off.
“After one year, I progressed to grade seven. I was able to perform at a friend's wedding and church service only after six months!” she says.
Very soon, Chow decided to buy a harp so she could start playing at home.
“After learning how to play the harp for just one month, I went to a big showroom in London to buy a harp. It was not possible to buy the instrument in Hong Kong 12 years ago as there was no demand for it.”
“A full-size pedal harp good enough for student use costs about HK$120,000, so it was quite a commitment,” she says.
The Sound of the Harp
Chow says she loves the sound of the harp and the feel of the strings as she plays the instrument.
“The strings bounce like a tennis ball on a tennis racket. When I practice, I completely immerse myself in the music. I learn a few bars at a time and try to perfect the fingerings,” she says.
Many associate the harp with heavenly music and picture it being played by angels, but Chow argues that the instrument can be very versatile.
“There are jazz harpists and one can even play rock music on an electric harp,” she says.
Chow calls herself an amateur harpist, who only performs privately at friends' wedding receptions and church services. For outreach performances at hospitals and elderly homes, Chow can play Christmas and birthday songs – tunes that many know of and feel connected to. Sometimes, she even plays Cantonese pop songs.
But harps are not easy to carry around. Every time she performs, she has to use a moving company.
Her love of music is obvious. As she talks about her experience performing for the others, she hums a joyful tune that she often plays.
From Hobby to Charity
However, playing the harp alone was not enough for Chow. Ambitious and compassionate, she wanted to do something to use her hobby to contribute to society in some way.
“There’s a misconception that the harp is only for the wealthy. I want to prove that music is for all,” Chow says.
Chow’s practice is focused on charity law, so it was natural for her to set up her own charity, known as Friends of the Harp (FOTH). She is a director in the charity that aims to popularize the instrument and helps those who are less fortunate by providing harp lessons and bringing music to their lives.
“As a charity lawyer, I founded my harp charity with a few like-minded people as soon as I started to learn this instrument. My harp charity celebrates its 12th year this year,” Chow explains.
The charity provides harp lessons to students who might not be able to afford them. These students are underprivileged and sometimes handicapped. After learning the skills, they are able to give performances.
In a little more than a decade, the charity has fostered a lot of young harp players and harp teachers.
“My harp charity granted scholarships to four talented harpists to study overseas in England and Austria,” she says.
These scholarship recipients have become charity’s ambassadors, promoting the instrument and giving lessons to students. And, after they become professional harp players, they can improve their financial standing.
“Each performance earns them a couple of thousand dollars. This can be a new source of income for these players who are from underprivileged backgrounds and help them to be independent,” Chow said. Music, she believes, can change lives.
The FOTH also gives performances at elderly homes, hospitals and schools as part of its outreach program. Some of these performances have become unforgettable memories for Chow.
“One time we performed at a home for the elderly. We set everything up on one floor so everyone would gather there to watch us play, but a patient had to be left out as he is bed bound. After the performance, we moved the harps to his bedside and played some soothing hymns exclusively for him. He was so pleased. I'll never forget the smile on his face,” she recalls.
The FOTH also works closely with students with special needs. One of FOTH's partners is SAHK, an organization that aims to help people who are physically and mentally challenged.
“We taught the students from SAHK Jockey Club Elaine Field School to play the harp. One time, they performed at Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital. The students told me that this is the hospital they often go to for medical checkups. They were so excited about playing in front of the doctors and nurses whom they often see. They kept counting down towards the performance date!” Chow recalls.
“The students could show their gratitude to those who help them through playing the harp. This kind of connection is really encouraging,” she adds.
“Teaching the disadvantaged and underprivileged children how to play the harp helps boost their confidence, as if we are giving them a voice to be heard. They now have a skill that is valuable and can spread joy around,” Chow says.
Tying Charity to Work
In Chow’s professional life, she has a broad range of experience in charity law, including advising on the set up of charitable organizations. She also advises on the use of funds for charitable purposes, making and receiving donations and charities operations.
“My harp charity has provided a great opportunity for me to use my legal and music skills to help others. The many challenges my harp charity faced are actually very similar to my clients' issues,” she says.
Through running her charity, she can better understand her client's problems, as she has experienced similar issues first hand.
“A tight budget and limited resources are the most common challenges. Everything you do must match the objective of the charity and must be in the public's interest. It cannot be profit-making. Founding the FOTH helped me experience first hand what challenges are faced by charities, which are also faced by my clients,” Chow explains.
“From an operation point of view, I can tell them how to solve these issues, and I can even foresee what might come along. Then I can tell them that ‘in order to’ do this and that, here’s what you can do. My private life complements my legal work,” she adds.
In her professional and private life, Chow is always working with charities. Besides the FOTH, she is also a governor of two public hospitals and a home for
the elderly. In 2012, 2013 and 2014, Chow was awarded the "Distinguished Community Service Award" by the Law Society of Hong Kong.
“What keeps driving me to be engaged in charity work is that I can keep learning. There are too many social issues. Through charity work, you get to understand these issues better and to engage in the local community to make an impact,” she says.
“Another advantage is that when clients come to me with a philanthropic goal, I can tell them to what areas they can allocate their resources- areas that need help the most,” Chow adds.
She also notes that without the support of Withers, she would not be able to have such a meaningful life.
“My firm allows me to do all my volunteer charity work and have a full private practice at the same time. They appreciate that my charity work actually complements my client work,” Chow says.