By Jai Qureshi
Hong Kiu Mak, CC ’21, an accomplished violinist now graduating from the Columbia-Juilliard Program, joins our Zoom call from his apartment in Morningside Heights. The walls behind him are totally blank—after three years, Mak is finally moving out. Mak and his roommates moved in sophomore year, and, thinking it would be a temporary residence, they didn’t begin decorating until last semester—only for graduation to hasten their departure.
Mak grew up in Hong Kong but attended high school at Eton College in Windsor, England. In Hong Kong, music felt like nothing more than a means to an end for Mak—an experience every talented kid undertook in order to win competitions and attend prestigious schools. But Mak’s time in the United Kingdom marked a shift in his musical journey—at Eton, he was given the opportunity to explore music as an Academic Music Scholar, in a dedicated program focused on musical education. It was during this exploration that Mak began to gain celebrity; he performed solo before the Queen at Her Majesty’s Jubilee, was elected the Hong Kong Musician of the year, and played violin for audiences in London, Prague, Athens, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Poland. Then, in 2016, Mak made his New York debut with a solo performance at Carnegie Hall.
This May, he graduated from Columbia with degrees in Financial Economics and Hispanic Studies, and is now on track for a career in investment banking. While music has always been a passion of his (and, perhaps, the more obvious career path), Mak decided he didn’t want to “pigeonhole” himself into solely studying music at Columbia. Part of this decision stemmed from a dwindling general interest in classical music, which Mak sees mostly among younger generations. Despite these trends, Mak remains a classical musician through and through. Even after several brief flirtations with other genres like jazz and the odd stint with an electric violin, he can’t see himself giving up on classical performance.
During his time at Columbia, Mak wanted the ability to explore beyond the musical sphere. Economics, which he always found interesting for its wide applicability, was one such field. His second major, Hispanic Studies, sprung from his multilingual background as a speaker of Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Latin. His global focus and interest in economics have converged into a singular ambition: Mak hopes to explore economic links between China and Latin America in the future.
As a musician, Mak is clearly passionate about his craft. He has put in thousands of hours of practice in his lifetime, and even as a student at Columbia, Mak attended weekly lessons at The Juilliard School. One of Mak’s most moving performances was of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, which he performed as concertmaster on tour in Spain for the International Concerto Competition for American Protégé. Sibelius’s sole violin concerto is a particularly rigorous piece to master, both technically and musically. It is often reserved for only the most experienced violin virtuosos, yet Mak performs it with a masterful touch–to the tune of four championships at the strings competition.
For Mak, music is often about the simple interactions involved with its practice and performance: meeting other musicians, chatting with audience members, or bonding with fellow music geeks. In searching for these connections, Mak has fallen in love with small recitals—a forum that has allowed him to “actually talk to the audience afterwards and see how they feel and converse with them about how they enjoy the music.”
Mak’s global background and social nature shine through in his other extracurricular activities. As president of the Columbia Hong Kong Society, Mak helped connect students and alumni residing in Hong Kong throughout the pandemic. Under his leadership, the Hong Kong Society created mentorship programs and put on musical concerts.
We wrapped up our conversation with a discussion of Mak’s favorite location on campus: the Schapiro Hall practice rooms. For those who’ve never been, Mak described it as a group of small, dark rooms tucked into a basement, each containing little more than a chair, piano, and music stand. It was there that Mak found space to focus on music, free from the academic and social bustle above ground. From the late evening to the early morning, nestled in the underbelly of the dorm, all he had to do was play. According to Mak, the intense focus necessary for his high standard of performance made his time in the practice rooms the “most soothing part of my day because I don’t have anything else to think about, apart from music.” All that seemed to exist was “my tone, my intonation, and the rhythm. And it would just be the most incredible experience.”
Mak hopes to retain these moments of stillness in practice and excitement in shared performance for years to come. Even as his professional aspirations take him elsewhere, he will always be able to pick up a violin and set his life aside, for the music.