Clubs are a bit of a mystery at UofT. Right from the start the number of groups presenting themselves at the Frosh club fair can be very overwhelming. However, despite the vast array of available distractions at our university there are a number of students who haven’t taken the opportunity to put themselves out there. A big reason for this is simply a lack of information; it’s difficult for a student to discover all the clubs that meet on campus, and it’s even harder to learn about major clubs’ executive positions or especially about how to start one’s own club. To facilitate our readers’ education in the matter of club participation, club running and club founding, The Cannon interviewed Tian-Yuan Zhao, the founder and former head of Tales of Harmonia, a very creative and fun performance-arts organization. They can be seen organizing free shows around the university featuring a vast array of delightfully entertaining content including songs from the Lion King, to Super Mario Brothers, to Howard Shore, and really anything else you can imagine. On top of all their success in their performances, this club’s creativity and pizzazz won them the UTSU Outstanding Creative Arts Club Award in 2013.
Cannon: Tell me about ToH. Do you consider it only an engineering club? How many members does it have?
Tian: No, actually, that’s a misconception. It is a UofT wide club, with around half of its members that are engineers. It has a diverse array of students, and it has around 25-30 members. One other interesting fact is that we don’t restrict ourselves to UofT students.
C: But you’re associated with the Engineering Society?
T: Yes, as well as Ulife and UTSU.
C: When and why did you start this club?
T: I started it three years ago. I looked at the top three choirs on campus and I thought to myself, none of them celebrated music of all kinds; they all specialise in just one genre of music. So I decided to flip a famous quote on its head. The quote is, “if you can’t beat them, join them”, while what I did instead was, “if you can beat them, then don’t join them”. So I decided to start my own choir that involved music of all walks of life.
C: In practical terms, did you find starting a club to be a difficult process?
T: Yes. But it was a good kind of difficult, in that it allowed me to learn. It was a good challenge. I learned marketing and strategy, both online and offline. I did HR management, for example auditioning and finding the right people for the positions we needed to fill. I learned graphical design and web development, organizational development, event management, and overall, leadership skills. And of course I got to apply musical arrangement and composition.
C: What about finance?
T: What with us being a UofT wide choir, we have so many more funding opportunities than if it was just a Skule-related group.
C: Why might a student want to get involved with a creative club, like ToH?
T: There’s multiple answers. One is: if you join as an executive, then you can definitely gain a lot of opportunities to develop your soft skills as well as some hard skills, such as technical skills, depending on the role you take.
Another is the networking. Because it’s a UofT-wide club, you get to interact with non-engineering students. If you learn to communicate and work with other people who are not in engineering, it can help you develop a better understanding. It will help you develop humility, empathy and teamwork skills.
But aside from that, there are artistic reasons. One: It merges the best of your right brain and your left brain; your intellectual side and your creative side, and that can help you in your engineering career. Two: It’s a good way to release stress. Yes, there are other ways to release stress, like drinking, or other clubs, but artistic expression is a more productive way to do it. And three: Personal development.
C: In operating a club, what would you say is your biggest success, and your biggest failure?
T: You might think the biggest success was our award, but for me personally, I think it was it was when we organized our most recent concert back in late March. It was our biggest concert, with a 10 member mini-orchestra and a full libretto. We pulled off a musical theatre concert; it was like a mini Skule Nite. It had the biggest turnout and we had the most fun doing it, compared to any of our other concerts.
As for failure, I’d say it had to do with the way I went about my resignation. I think I could have handled it more professionally. At the time leading up to my resignation I could have treated ToH with more value. But despite all that I’m pleased to see all the success that ToH is having right now!
C: Would you encourage other students to start their own clubs?
T: Yes. However, be wise about it, which is kind of obvious. Specifically what I mean by that is that UofT is so big; there’s already 400+ clubs. SKULE already has 100+ clubs. When you want to start a club, really assess what problem you’re solving and what value you provide, and don’t try to oversaturate something that is already filled with many things.
But if you really think you have a great idea for a club, then just put your heart and soul into it, and you will eventually taste from the fruits of your labour.
Starting a club is like starting a company, except that you have a wider safety net. But it still requires you to embody the basics of what it means to be an entrepreneur, and that is to never give up and to never give in. ToH is a part of me as I am a part of it. You need to have that sense of responsibility that it takes to run a business, right from the get-go. Then you can and will succeed.
C: Is there anything that you’d like to add?
T: To those just entering Skule, these next 4 or 5 years will be the best time of your lives, so make the most of it. And to those who are or were in ToH, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you’ve done for the group and for me, directly or indirectly, I love you all!