The Role of Asian Americans in Classical Music Elitism

Consumption and participation in classical music has always been regarded as an art form which the public knows (and mildly appreciates). But to actually participate, consume, and fully express any understanding of classical music takes not only time and dedication, but also a substantial financial means. This is what sets the classical music genre apart from other genres such as jazz or hip hop. As discussed in class, original creators of jazz and hip hop music are, for the most part, those who have lived through oppression and struggle in their lives. In contrast, from the beginning of its inception, famous composers of iconic pieces of classical music were mostly white, privileged males. Although their music came from a place of anguish (i.e.: Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart in his later years) there was no struggle like that of less privileged hip hop and jazz artists. Perhaps more interesting then, is the fact that Asian Americans, as the model minority, play such an immense role in the elite world of classical music today.

Yoshihara writes in his Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music about the prevalence of Asian American students across the most elite music conservatories in America, and Asian American winners of prestigious global classical music competitions. It is important to note that the only way to achieve any high level of success in classical music is accompanied with a way of financial support. Asian Americans, mostly those of East Asian descent, choose to invest money on the development of classical music from an early age. The reason for this stems from the fact that Asian American culture has a very discipline-oriented background. Asian American parents like Amy Chua, therefore, have discovered the tried and true method of mandating their children to receive training in practice and self-discipline through learning and perfecting an instrument.

Brannon Cho, a senior studying cello performance at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music

Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music is home to many Asian American musicians – and perhaps more importantly, student musicians with Asian American parents. One of the most prominently known is senior Brannon Cho, who is of Korean descent and is studying cello performance. His experience as a cellist has brought him fame as one of three American cellists invited to participate in the 15th International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015. His parents sold their home in New Jersey for a smaller home so that Cho could afford his newer, better instrument. Asian parents like Cho’s, similar to Jean Hee in Grace Wang’s “Interlopers in the Realm of High Culture,” are “more willing to make the sacrifices that classical music demanded of the family” than American parents, Hee says (Wang 892). This further bolsters the cycle of Asian Americans being high achieving in classical music for the sake of success, and outside perceptions of Asian Americans as higher achieving and more successful in classical music.

The “model minority” mentality and regard of Asian Americans also instructs this narrative of classical music elitism. Although Yoshihara expresses the sentiment that “Asians’ success in this field…exemplifies their assimilation into Euroamerican culture” the opposite would actually be closer to the truth (Yoshihara 3). East Asian Americans, like Korean American violinist Sarah Chang, had music incorporated into their lives at such early ages, setting themselves apart socially from their non-Asian classmates. In fact, music is something that allows Asian Americans to stand out from their peers; to appear more accomplished. In this sense, this has become an established stereotype for Asian American adolescents. The model minority myth of Asian Americans is encompassed in large part with the assumption that there is a high level of achievement in classical music.

It is important to note that even though Asian American musicians are recognized as the model minority with classical music, there is no way to break the barrier of having true ownership of classical music even with such high achievement in the classical music realm. This can be attributed to the fact that classical musicians, for the most part, don’t write and compose their own music. They play music that has been established and written by famous composers, and achieve success from their expression of that music. Because of this, despite the exclusive culture surrounding classical music, Asian American musicians and famous Asian American classical musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma, Alan Gilbert, and Sarah Chang, are all only truly able to express agency within the Asian American realm through their interpretation and mastered artistic expression of classical music.

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