Asian Americans in Classical Music: Contradictions and Analysis

The inherently complicated nature of being an Asian-American classical musician comes with its own set of social and political issues. In Yoshihara’s piece “Introduction: A Rising Scale of Relative Minor”, he discusses the potential pitfalls of being one of many: an Asian American invested in a field in which they may be seen as “just like everyone else”. As stated by Yoshihara, while a mere 5% of Americans are Asian, the proportion of Asian Americans in classical music schools, such as Juilliard is approximately 30%–a vastly higher number than would be expected going into a typical American college. In this posting, the implications and potential controversies of Asian Americans in classical music will be examined, along with an analysis of why Asian American parents, specifically mothers (relying on the “Asian mother” stereotype) expend so much effort in putting their children through a field that may take away more economic capital than it awards: is the social capital gained worth the sacrifices made, and is the eventual payoff, assuming there is one, a suitable reward for the psychological pressure of being put through intense classical music training?

Firstly, it is important to analyze why Asian Americans, specifically, place such importance in a field such as classical music. The Eurocentric nature of the field is apparent, as stated by Yoshihara, “…there is something…Germanic about Beethoven, French about Debussy, or Russian about Rachmaninoff…” This leads to outside sources perhaps seeing the Chinese violinist, or the Korean pianist as having difficulty “capturing” the true sentiment behind the piece, just as they would have difficulty capturing the true feelings of a role if asked to play one in a movie or such intended for a Caucasian actor. For example, if the lead actors in La La Land had been of Asian American descent, the movie turns into a “cultural” piece, with the “Asian-ness” of the actors being a point of emphasis. As Yoshihara points out, classical music serves an important social and cultural function for Asians: it has become a form of “cultural capital”, promising to push Asians further up the social ladder into the upper reaches of society. Another reason as to why classical music specifically is pursued by ambitious Asian Americans is due to them being able to “live beyond the identities prescribed by dominant society”. This essentially allows Asian Americans to break out of the box which Western society has prescribed them and perform as their own selves, separate from an Asian filter of sorts. However, this is also a point of certain contradiction, as, unlike folk and jazz, classical music is not necessarily a type of music associated with revolution or uprising: can it still be used in that context?

Another aspect of Asian American classical music which is intrinsically linked to the practice is authoritarian parenting. Books such as “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” draw attention to the fact that for Asians to succeed in their pursuits, there come certain elements of borderline-abusive parenting. In such precise, non-folksy art forms, there comes a significant amount of pressure to play a piece “perfectly”. As Yoshihara states, these musicians achieve what they do through “industrious commitment to years of rigorous training” and some externally-imposed discipline, mainly through harsh, authoritarian parental figures. This brings into stark relief questions of whether the effort placed into becoming prominent in classical music returns suitable payoffs. Even if the prominence is worth the psychological costs, would this be considered “selling out” to a Eurocentric culture?. With such prominent figures as Yo-Yo Ma and others being cultural centerpieces in the modern classical music world, it is difficult to ascertain whether Asian Americans are devising their own take on the art, or merely assimilating into Western culture. As Yoshihara points out “Because they embrace and excel at what is seen as a form of European high culture…Asian American musicians are not seen as part of a collective movement…” However, this seems to contrast with his earlier statement that they are essentially “living beyond the identities prescribed my dominant society”. Thus, it is difficult to analyze the potential implications of Asian American classical musicians—there are many societal and cultural factors to take into account, not restricted necessarily to upbringing, appearance, and parental guidance.

All in all, the impact of Asian Americans in classical music is one to keep in mind, as there are many factors that are in play: the question of why Asian Americans choose classical music as their preferred medium is one fundamental aspect of the surge of Asian classical musicians. This opens up avenues of thought such as whether classical music is a method by which to move through social classes, and whether this essentially erases the artistic value of the work when performed by Asian American musicians—can there be any true sentiment when the musicians are merely commodifying the notes for their own profit? There is also the question of whether Asian American parenting is advisable and/or why its fundamentally authoritarian style is so highly emphasized. These questions all contribute to the contradictions inherent in classical music when played by Asian American musicians.




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