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Mary-Jess Leaverland Interview

Chinese 中文 Version click here.

Mary-Jess is a good friend of Ailie Fan.  They met at university, and studied Mandarin Chinese in China together as part of their degree.

Whilst studying overseas, Mary-Jess entered a Chinese music singing competition (the equivalent to X Factor), watched by a Chinese audience of 70 million.  Mary-Jess defied all odds and won the competition, which began a glittering career in the music industry,  seeing her perform all over the world.

With Mary-Jess’ overseas study and work experience, Ailie conducted a short interview to see what advice she has for our budding students wanting to study abroad, for those already studying abroad, and for those students wanting to break into the music industry.  We hope you find this an enjoyable read…


  • Ailie: Tell me about your background


Brought up in Gloucester, South West of England, my high school offered GCSE Chinese as an extra-curricular activity when I was 12 years old. As part of the course, we had the incredible opportunity to study at a 2 week summer school in China learning Mandarin Chinese every weekday at Xiamen University, and doing sightseeing: visiting the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and visiting the beautiful island Julang Yu.


Unfortunately A-level Chinese was not readily available in any school near to where I lived, so to keep on top of my Chinese, my high school kindly let me join the GCSE classes to maintain my language skills, even though I had moved on to a different sixth form.  They were an incredibly good school.

When it came to choosing what to study at university, I was really not sure. I have always known I wanted to be a singer, so I definitely wanted to study Music.  But the music industry is so fickle, hard to get in to, hard to stay in, and hard to make a living from!  I knew I needed to study a more ‘sensible’ course, and so I looked for a dual honours degree in Music and Chinese.  When I typed this into UCAS [online UK university course applications website] I wasn’t really expecting anything to come back, but it did! As soon as I saw the results in my head I couldn’t stop hearing Handle’s “Hallelujah”!

There were two possible universities offering Music and Chinese: The University of Sheffield, and SOAS.  My interest from A level was choral arrangements by Bach, and so the classical route was something I’d set my mind to – I wanted to be a classical singer.  SOAS was not right for me as the music focused on international music.  My interest was exactly what Sheffield was offering: western classical music, and Italian operatic arias.

So that’s the background up to where we met at university!

  • Ailie: What recommendations do you have as a student studying and living abroad?


The first few weeks was a real culture shock.  My advice would be to look at things positively.  Rather than finding things scary and different, say to yourself that this experience is interesting and something to learn from.

At the time I really didn’t understand why we’d been placed in this university where nobody spoke English to us. I found it really quite scary.  But now I totally understand why they did it – the full immersion experience was the right thing to do and is the best way to learn!


  • Ailie: How should students approach their studies?


Students should take every opportunity, not just focus on the studies only – it’s all part of the experience.  When I was doing the competition, for 3 weeks I was going to class in the morning, then on the TV set in the afternoon, and in the evening I was doing my homework.  I distinctly remember I had to go downstairs into the reception area to practice my dictation ready for an exam the next day, because it was the middle of the night and I didn’t want to wake my roommate.  I did really well in the dictation because I practiced all the words and got the tones spot on.  I didn’t actually know at that point what the English translation was though!!


Had I not been doing the TV show, I would’ve had more time to learn the English as well, but the competition was an opportunity I knew I couldn’t miss.  And the competition was also good for my language skills!


I remember speaking only Chinese on a phone call from one of my friends in the competition whilst I was in my bedroom with my roommate.  It was then that I realised how much my speaking and listening had improved because I was being forced to communicate to them in Chinese as they didn’t know English.  Although my roommate’s vocabulary was definitely much better than mine having had more time to study, by taking other opportunities my speaking and listening had improved too.  I knew that with further study, my vocabulary would also improve over time.  It’s about a combination of everything, it’s all important.


As I explained to the students during the UK Government’s GREAT campaign: SMART Talk Series, the most important thing students can do are:


  1. If you don’t understand something, or you’re lost, just SMILE!  Say you’re sorry and you don’t understand.  Smiling is the key.  Then the person knows you mean well and you are trying, and you look friendly and approachable.  They will then be more patient, and try to help and communicate in a different way.
  2. Make friends with people who speak a different language! For those coming to the UK to study, if you study with friends who are from England for example, you then learn the language quicker and understand the culture more. Otherwise you will be studying abroad, but studying with people who speak your language, and spending your free time speaking your own language too. Then you’re not fully immersed in class or in your day to day life, which defeats the point of studying abroad!
  3. I met some people who had studied at university in England, but they never tried to make any friends who weren’t Chinese. They said they hadn’t even had fish and chips! Try everything! It’s part of being fully immersed and learning the culture as well as the language.


  • Ailie: What are you doing now?


I am shortly visiting Hong Kong, to sing for a charity event there.

Then on my return in March I am touring with the band G4, for 19 days throughout the UK. I can’t wait for this.  We’re travelling around in a 16 bunk transporter, like a house on wheels!  I’ve been asked to join as I will sing the parts of the female in some of their songs.

Then in April I am heading to Asia to sing on three 6* cruises! It’s fantastic. I thought cruise singing would mean months away at a time, but in reality I am flown out to the destination, sing my few nights, and then am flown home! I really have to be careful not to take too tight dresses because the food is absolutely delicious!



  • Ailie: What’s your role as a representative for the UK British Council GREAT campaign?


The GREAT campaign is about telling the world about all aspects of the UK.

My role within this is to represent music of the UK.  It’s being promoted in 144 countries, and so far I have presented at SMART Talks to promote music and education of the UK.  They are typically one hour talks, and I explain how I developed my career, and how the benefit of knowing 2 countries helps.


One of the institutions in China we visited to do a SMART talk was the Zhejiang Conservatoire of Music. It’s had a multi-million pound investment: very green, the buildings are shaped like musical instrument; the performance rooms are built into the ground for acoustics, the campus is completely car free – everyone get bicycles to their lessons as it’s such a big campus.  It was fantastic to see such facilities available for musicians!



  • Ailie: Many of our students will go on to pursue careers that will see them working internationally. What advice would you give our students about working internationally?


I truly believe that studying what you’re interested in, PLUS a language is the key.  For Study Links students they are already learning a language so they’ve got a huge advantage already to those who have to study a language at university.   Even so, studying a language at school and/or university, means you spend time learning about the culture, and it opens up that country as somewhere else you can work and live.  It will be your USP [unique selling point] as the world becomes more demanding; the language skills will be attractive as you can do business in more than just one country.


Generally for working internationally, my advice would be to learn about the cultural differences.  It’s the little things that make a big difference. So in the UK for example, you can pass a business card to someone however you like. However in China you MUST do it with both hands, to be respectful.  When overseas you need to show respect to their cultures and values, just as we expect others to respect ours in our country.


I know for sure that my Chinese was the best when I was in China.  Now when I visit China, it takes me a good 2 days before I integrate well enough for my mind  to kick in and understand Chinese properly again.  The key to maintaining your language skills is to practice at every opportunity.  I visit the local university and join in the Chinese events there to speak with Chinese students from all over China which helps me retain and improve my Chinese, and learn more accents as well. We’re shortly moving house to somewhere where there aren’t going to be many Chinese.  I know there’s a Chinese takeaway though, so one of the first things I’ll be doing is going in there and making friends with the Chinese people to keep my Chinese up! Don’t miss an opportunity!


  • Ailie: For our students who are studying in music and/or interested in entering the music industry, what advice would you give?


I would never have imagined when I was younger that my two passions (music and Chinese), would overlap in any way, and I’d be able to build a career out of them.   Actually though, having both is my USP! The music industry is a very crowded market, therefore without something more than just singing, you would be lost in the crowd as there’s nothing to set you apart.  Also, having Chinese opened up so many more opportunities, as I’m not just working in the UK, it’s opened up opportunities in China too!


Some practical tips for those entering the music industry:

  • Take every opportunity to perform! Even at your local karaoke night. The more settings you perform in, the more experience you have for the future. Simply do everything!
  • Don’t wait for others to do things for you and make opportunities for you. You need to find, make, and take them for yourself.
  • When you’re independent and/or when you’re first starting out, you won’t have the money to get someone to do everything for you, so you need to be able to do it yourself. Yes, studying your instrument is of course important. But there’s so much more to just being a singer, or a composer, etc.
  • Do your research on online marketing and web development!! This is SO IMPORTANT! It would’ve been great if I’d have known more about this from the beginning. Create as much music content as you can, and put it up there on your page. Once you know what people like and don’t like, you can always remove the ones that aren’t inline with what you’ll do going forward. So many You-tubers do this – they put up loads of material, and eventually once they know what their audience are interested in, they’ll do more and more of that because then that’s their USP, and they’ll get rid of the videos that aren’t right.
  • With marketing, there’s so much to consider:
    • Press releases – what to include, how to create one, who to send it to
    • How to promote your work
    • How to use Photoshop to design your leaflets
    • Research social media and what’s right for you and put your content out there
  • Most of my day as a singer is spent on my laptop: networking, doing admin for my website, keeping my website up to date, putting links up for free downloads, etc. Only until you’re doing it, do you realise how much there is to do!
  • Also, don’t neglect the contractual side of things! There are contracts everywhere: for your music producers, for other contributors and agreements about royalties.
  • Have a Plan B! A friend of mine said she wanted to swap her degree from Finance & Accounting, to Music. My grandma has always told me that you must have more than 1 string to your bow! I completely agree.  My grandma was a classical singers, as well as a florist, and a hairdresser.  My mum is a singer, and a seamstress, and a leatherworker and a florist.  I am a singer as well as have my Chinese.
  • If you’re interest in classical/opera singing, then your voice hasn’t matured until you’re in your mid-20s anyway, so go and do your other interest so that’s your fall back. I had a consultation with the famous Guildhall School of Music & Drama before I was thinking of joining university, to see if I should study classical singing there.  They explained I should definitely Chinese at university first, because they wouldn’t accept me to study there until I was mid 20s anyway!
  • BE SAVVY! Don’t just wait for your moment to shine, do something to make those opportunities happen!  I love and live by this saying: ‘Luck is being prepared for opportunities when they come’.  Don’t be afraid, don’t let nerves stop you – just get out there and do it.  Don’t let any opportunity pass!
  • Antibacterial hand gel and wipes! You cannot risk getting sick. When you’re on a tour bus with 16 people, it’s so easy to catch their sickness, so stay hygienic!
  • Cold and flu medicine, to stop any sickness from taking hold
  • Back EVERYTHING up, 4 or 5 times. I keep everything on my laptop, plus a USB, plus a printed copy (where applicable), plus a copy on the cloud (drop box). You never know which version is going to fail or be inaccessible in the country you’re going to.
  • When travelling overseas, pack everything you need for the performance into your hand luggage! This means your material (plus all your backups); your performance dress/outfit; make up; and shoes. Then if your main luggage gets lost, you can still do what you’ve been hired to do when you get there!


  • Ailie: Thank you very much for your time and your insight into the world of a career in music, and studying and working internationally. Good luck for the future! I look forward to seeing you perform again in the near future.


For more information about Mary Jess, please visit her website: www.mary-jess.com

You can also download a pre-release of her new single: Download Free Single 

You can find Mary-Jess on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.

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