Oral tradition and conservatory tradition in transmitting Cantonese opera

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Traditionally, Cantonese opera employs oral tradition as the basic approach in transmitting artistry to the new generation. Teaching and learning occur in a master-apprentice relationship, wherein apprentices serve as followers of their masters to learn their personal artistry through long-term observation, oral approach, and informal tuition. After a lengthy period of time in informal learning, apprentices will learn most, if not all, of the artistry of their masters, and will be able to select specific skills and knowledge suitable for themselves in order to develop their own artistic style as a creative achievement. Thus, their personal artistic style and creativity are established. Since the globalization of education in the 20th century, training artists for Cantonese opera has been influenced by the western conservatory tradition, where different aspects of the genre are taught by different specialists during a limited period of time (e.g., four years). The conservatory serves as a “knowledge and skill factory” from which graduates are “the final products”. This kind of teaching and learning approach may guarantee the graduates to possess a benchmark of knowledge and skills but may also produce uniform graduates possessing imitative artistry without developing a unique artistic style. Personal artistic creativity would then be absent. This presentation reports part of a larger study on the transmission of Cantonese opera. The study aims to document the beliefs, processes, and pedagogical practices of oral tradition and the conservatory tradition used in the profession of Cantonese opera; and to identify the commonalities and differences in the nature and characteristics of both traditions by proposing two pedagogy models of oral tradition pedagogy and conservatory tradition. A number of semi-structured interviews were conducted with five artists with backgrounds in oral tradition and five artists trained in conservatories. In addition, visits were paid to institutions of Cantonese opera in Hong Kong and Guangdong province in which non-participant observations of class teaching and interviews with teachers and students were implemented to seek their views on the characteristics of their training programs. After analyzing the data, two pedagogy models of oral tradition and conservatory tradition were formulated. These two models would facilitate the formulation of a theoretical framework for examining the pedagogy employed in school teaching.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2012


Leung, B.-W. (2012, July). Oral tradition and conservatory tradition in transmitting Cantonese opera. Paper presented at the 30th International Society for Music Education (ISME) World Conference on Music Education: Music paedeia: From ancient Greek philosophers toward global music communities, Thessaloniki, Greece.


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