A violinist on how to empower Asian musicians


I was not surprised by the recent violence against Asian Americans. I vividly remember being scared as a kid in Illinois in the 1980s.

At that time, Japan was seen as an impending economic force invading the United States. In 1982, Vincent chin, a Chinese-American, was beaten to death by two white men who thought he was Japanese, here to steal American jobs. The perpetrators were fined $ 3,000 and given probation for killing a man who looked like my father. The message was clear: Asian American lives were of little value.

This message spread to my elementary school, where my classmates broke eggs in my hair and hit me almost daily for five years because I was not white. And yet, I was grateful to be Asian American. After all, we were the model minority.

This myth That All Asian Americans Are Calm, Diligent, and Successful was invented to pit minority groups against each other, making racism acceptable by giving distorted praise to Asians and falsely promising them access to the American Dream White. The myth delays the kind of solidarity among minorities that could threaten entrenched racial power structures.

This myth also hides truths: currently in New York, almost a quarter of the Asian population live below the poverty line; Asian immigrants are among the highest poverty rates in the city.

A beneficiary of changes to US immigration policies who had imposed quotas on non-white immigrants, I am the daughter of refugees from the Korean War. During her childhood, my mother witnessed horrific violence and experienced overwhelming fear and hunger. Although my family history is common to Korean Americans, it is part of Asian American history largely ignored in this country. But perhaps even less well known is what it is like to be an Asian American woman in classical music.

Having had few opportunities in their childhood, my parents offered me many extracurricular activities, including violin lessons. But when I was growing up I saw very few people in music who looked like me. In 1980, according to the League of American Orchestras, 96.6 percent of the country’s orchestral musicians were white. At that time, the “oriental presence in classical music,” as a New York Times article put it, was a topic of discussion.

Nowadays, Asians are often called over-represented minorities. In the most recent data from the League of American Orchestras, 86.8% of orchestral musicians are white and 9.1% are of Asian descent. Among classical music executives, 91.7% are white. The percentage of ethnic Asians in these leadership positions is too low to be included.

It is very misleading to say that Asian Americans are overrepresented in what remains a white and male field.

Classical music is often referred to as “universal,” but what does universality mean when the field has been built for white men who still hold much of the power? In my nearly 30-year career, I haven’t even seen a handful of Ethnic asians – much less asian american women – access management or management positions.

I have witnessed throughout my career that those of us who are ethnically Asian but were born, raised or trained in America and Europe, are overwhelmed by the belief that musicians of Asian descent are diligent, hardworking, and technically perfect – but cannot understand the true essence of music, has no soul, and ultimately cannot be real artists. Early in my career, an influential conductor told me – who had never heard me play – that I could never be a real artist because he did not understand Chinese music, and therefore, Chinese people could never understand classical music.

American historian Grace Wang uses the term “innate ability” to describe the belief that different types of music come from specific groups of people from specific places and therefore belong to those places. The assumption that a musician can be a great performer of a composer because he is from the country where the composer lived is often expressed, both implicitly and explicitly. Technique can be learned, from this perspective, but the ability to truly understand the essence of classical music can only be learned through lineage and race.

In 2007, it was revealed that Joyce Hatto, a white British pianist, had stolen recordings from other pianists, including those of Yuki matsuzawa, a Japanese – and freed them as his own. Tom Deacon, long regarded as a keeper of classical music, a former record manager and a widely traveled competition judge, had written on a classical music bulletin board about Hatto and Matsuzawa’s recordings, not knowing that they were the same.

Of what he believed to be Hatto, Deacon wrote: “My oh my, this is a beautiful recording of Chopin’s music. The coins flow so naturally and so completely, without precious effects. Hatto, he added, played “octaves so incredibly soft they seem to flow from his fingers”

Of what was labeled, correctly, like Matsuzawa: “Faceless, typewriter, neat as a pin but quite flabby performances with small poetic gestures added like so much red on the face of a Russian doll.

Aside from the obvious contrast between his praise of Hatto and his hatred of Matsuzawa for the exact same performance, what fascinates me is the language. Deacon sums up almost all stereotypes of Asian musicians: he writes that Matsuzawa’s performances are “faceless”, while those of a white woman “flow naturally”; the Asian pianist is technically ‘neat as a pin’, a ‘typewriter’, not organically creative and only able to copy the innate ability of a European.

Classical music continues to perpetuate these other stereotypesincluding through the continued use of yellow face – white artists painted with yellow makeup and slanted eyes – in opera productions. Yellowface standardizes caricatures of Asians and fetish asian women, exoticism through stereotypes of them as alternately submitted and hypersexual.

So how can classical music strengthen and create space for all members of our community?

Ask Asian Americans to prepare programs and create works – not just on Asia, with symbolic Lunar New Year concerts, but on our unique experiences and contributions as Asian Americans.

Hire and commission Asian and Asian American singers, instrumentalists, conductors and composers for break stereotypes and amplify our individualities and complexities.

Mentor of Asian Americans at the start of their musical career. Sponsor and promote Asian Americans in arts management and administration. Recruit Asian Americans on the boards of directors of arts organizations.

And, when you have Asian Americans in your advice, listen to them – give them the opportunity to reframe the discussions on inclusion and equity, and give them the freedom to publish statements about violence. against those who look like them. Learn it stories of Asian Americans and create paths to engage with everyone in your community.

My mentors fought for my inclusion in the classical world. It is now my responsibility to help build a more inclusive domain for future generations. I invite musicians and musical institutions to create these new spaces with me and my avant-garde colleagues.


Comments are closed.