From child prodigy to fully rounded adult: Warren Lee has avoided the pitfalls of being uncommonly talented while young to inspire others to develop a love of music – including a group of fellow MBA classmates.
Picture the scene: the Hong Kong Coliseum, a full crowd, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, a piano on stage... and sitting at that piano is a boy of just six years of age.
This was Warren Lee's debut as a musical performer, and it seemed that Hong Kong could not get enough of him. Warren himself says that the pressure – especially given that the Chinese for "child prodigy" translates as "child god" – was immense and he is eternally grateful that his parents protected him from the demands and turned down most invitations for him to perform in public.
While our other "dare to dream" interviewees started from conventional beginnings – degrees in accountancy and computer engineering – Warren's journey could be said to be the opposite. He started with the unusual – a career in music – but has gradually added more strings to his bow including what many would say is very conventional – an MBA. Today, Warren is a music educator and performer. He's recently returned from New York, where he performed three concerts, including one at Carnegie Hall; recorded for the Naxos label in the UK; and performed with the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra. He even performed a duet recital at HKUST in October. He was also named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons (Hong Kong) earlier this year.
Warren, who was born in Hong Kong, tells of how he started on his musical journey. "My elder sister was learning the piano – I used to go along with her when I was 2½ years old, and was apparently very attentive. When I was 3½, I just went up to the piano and started to play. However, the teacher thought I should wait until I was four before starting formal lessons."
He gained a place as a music scholar at Marlborough College, one of the UK’s top schools – and, as Warren himself points out, the alma mater of Kate Middleton, now wife of Britain’s Prince William. "I was terribly homesick. I also faced bullying, until my music teacher got me to perform on stage in front of the school." Respect from his fellow students followed and Warren says he enjoyed his time there. His musical talent attracted the attention of the Royal Academy of Music. While there was a dilemma of staying at Marlborough to take his A-levels or attending the Royal Academy early to study for a degree, Warren says: "I jumped at the chance."
In 1995, Warren took part in the Stravinsky Awards International Piano Competition, which he won. However, this turned out to be something a turning point: "Music is an art, it is not like a sport," he says. At around the same time he met Professor Boris Berman, Head of the Piano Department at Yale’s School of Music, who persuaded him to spend an exchange year at the university. "In fact, I stayed for three years," laughs Warren.
After Yale, Warren thought it was time to change focus. "This was a result of a couple of years' reflection plus the huge expectations that come with being a child prodigy. I wanted to prove that I could do other things. So I applied to law schools in the UK and US." However, he happened to return to Hong Kong for the summer and while here, quite by chance, met Dr Betty Chan, Director of Yew Chung schools. “She's a visionary – and she took a gamble on me and offered me a place as 'artist in residence', which later turned into the position of Music Director from 2000 to 2006." Following his MBA, Warren took the job of Music Director at St Paul's Co-educational College and Primary School."
Warren finds his work at the school to be very meaningful. "Music in Hong Kong is almost seen as a currency that will help a child to get into a good school. My long-term goal is to change this climate." He believes that only a love for music can motivate children to truly enjoy playing piano or other instruments, though there are many "knock-on" benefits that parents appreciate such as discipline, attention to detail and hard work. No matter how talented a child is, he or she still needs to practice hard every day.
While he had found his niche as an educator, Warren still felt that he needed to better equip himself in terms of management and strategy. "I decided on an MBA. I chose HKUST because of its international diversity – having already studied in the UK and US, I wanted an international culture," he says. "It is one of the best decisions I have made. I learned a lot about myself and how to analyze critically. However, I did realize that I’m not a business person – for example I'm not a risk taker! But on a practical level it has been very useful in equipping myself with management skills that are proving very useful in my job.
"I also made a lot of friends from different walks of life, many of whom had never met a musician before. I took the class to the Hong Kong Arts Centre and gave them a proper business school-style PowerPoint presentation followed by a recital. Almost the entire class came along – many were attending a classical concert for the first time."