“My Parents Bought My Violin”: Young Asian Americans Musicians as Self-Imposed Outsiders in Classical

The role of Asian Americans is classical music is one that hasn’t stood out so much for questions of appropriation or co-optation, but more for the idea that this is the only musical field that Asian Americans can excel in. This is inherently linked to the “model minority” myth where Asian Americans are at once admired and looked down upon for their hardworking nature, especially when encouraged by their parents. It is unfortunately easy for young Asian American classical musicians to lose their identities because they are often only considered successful because of their “overbearing” parents. Whether they realize it or not, Asian Americans become nonmembers of classical music through their self-identified correlation between musical success and parenting. Using the case study of Jessica Cao, a violin performance major at Northwestern University, we see how young Asian Americans are often unable to fully articulate the racialization that marks them as outsiders when linked to the so-called “tiger parenting style,” leading to the loss of their individualization as musicians.

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Cao posing with her violin

Cao was quick to link her Asian American identity in music with her parents, adhering to the typical “tiger parenting” storyline. Her connection with violin is intrinsically built by her parents, recalling that, “My parents bought my violin. I remember always listening to orchestral and violin solo pieces with my dad, and both of us dreamed that I could one day sound like that, so he just said, ‘if you want to play violin you can try it out.’” She talked about how her parents strict monitoring of her practices influenced her teaching, recounting that, “All my students were Asian, so I told parents that the more they make their kids practice, the more they usually won’t grow to like it. That was coming out of my own experience. The Asian stereotype of forcing your kid gives a negative impact on that experience.” The racial demarcation of Asian parents putting more pressure on their children is clearly visible here, even among the Asian American community.

 

Still, Cao contradicts herself as aware of the negative implications of this stereotype, yet doing her best to downplay the “Asian”-ness of it. She claimed that for Asian musicians, “There’s always the pressure of pleasing your parents… but of course that can also exist in other cultures, not just Asians.” Yet, when asked whether she thought this demanding and implied negative parenting style was useful, Cao said, “It definitely helps me to not give up and have perseverance in almost everything I do.” This reflects a point made by Grace Wang in her piece Interlopers High Culture when a subject, “[perceives] discipline and concentration not as attributes that Asian inherently possess… but qualities to be learned and repeatedly practiced” (Wang 894). Asian Americans like to claim these qualities as positive, yet this stereotype is repeatedly looked down upon by other cultures. Thus, we see that young Asian American music students themselves acknowledge the cultural differences that separate Asian Americans from other musicians, but they themselves cannot decide on it is positive or negative.

 

Cao has a positive outlook on the classical music field but still marks a divide between Asian Americans and other young musicians because of Asian parents. While Wang attributes this to technical differences and cites another Chinese-musician as saying, “To sound Asian… is always understood as critique…” (Wang 886), Cao claims that the differences between Asians and other races lies not in technique, but enjoyment. She defends the classical music industry by saying, “I think the music world is actually quite open to Asians. I wouldn’t say it’s that segregated, especially in relation to other fields, like the movie industry. Music is pretty accepting.” Citing Sarah Chang as an example of successful Asian American musicians, Cao said, “The rise of Asian Americans in classical is pretty cool, just to be with so many people from the same culture and interests and being able to relate to the Asian experience with music and the pressures of having to constantly please our parents.”

(Cao performing at her senior recital)

With this mindset, Cao noted that most discrimination in classical music came from Asian parents themselves. The “Asian experience” is inherently linked to internal parenting issues rather than outside discrimination. She claimed that seat placement, a ranking of musicians in an orchestra, was all Asian parents talked about and that competition between children could get, “pretty insane.” Specifically, “Compared to non-Asians, lots of people tend to play because they want to play and not care about seating, which I admire about other cultures because they can freely enjoy music together,” implying that Asian Americans cannot find that same unity and that their parents are the ones creating that divide.

 

From Cao’s case, we see that her Asian Americanness in music is mostly defined by her parents. According to her perspective, being Chinese-American or doesn’t matter in classical music unless the parents are involved. While Cao might recognize that this plays into a larger Asian stereotype, she is unable to see how this strips young students such as herself of an individual musical identity. By crediting her parents with every step of her musical journey and highlighting the so-called “freedom” of other cultures to enjoy music freely, Cao reinforces the belief that Asian Americans are musicians not for innate talent or enjoyment, but parental pressure. This is simply a classical music iteration of the model minority or “robotic” Asian myth. Self-imposed racialization marks Asian Americans as outsiders to themselves and others, placing agency in the hands of their parents. Thus, even though classical music is supposedly a musical field where Asian Americans can succeed and even excel, young Asian Americans musicians are still removed from their peers and cannot completely own classical music as an art form.

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