Why Asians Shouldn’t Be the Messiah of Classical Music



Last week there was a very interesting article written about the changing demographics of classical music. We all know of the financial difficulties of the modern classical orchestra – salary freezes/cuts, low revenues, bankruptcy… the list goes on. Declining audiences are a challenge that strikes at the core of where classical music is headed.

However, most of us probably have not taken a good hard look at exactly HOW audiences are changing. It’s not just that they are getting smaller; their composition has also shifted.

Snapshot of performers in an Asian Youth Orchestra

Image courtesy of Ministry of Culture and Information of Vietnam - http://english.cinet.vn/UploadFile/thumbnails/5_14_54_30_306.jpg

…there is one group that still likes classical music and, what’s more, pays to hear it performed: Asians. Of Asian-Americans ages 18-24 responding to the same survey, 14 percent reported attending a classical concert in the past year, more than any other demographic in that age group. Despite classical’s deserved reputation as the whitest of genres, Asian attendance rates match or surpass the national average up through the 45- 54 age range. To put it one way, the younger the classical audience gets, the more Asian it becomes. To put it another, the only population that is disproportionately filling seats being vacated by old people dying off is Asians.This reflects what can be observed at most American concert halls today: a sea of white hair, broken only by the black, unflattering bowl cut given to all Asian kids by their parents, who have dragged them to the symphony for their cultural enrichment. I know because I was one of those kids. I’m a hapa (mixed-race) Korean-American, with an American father and Korean mother. At age 5, I was given a quarter-size violin. Private lessons followed, with regular trips to the Kennedy Center to see the National Symphony Orchestra. By 12, I was concertmaster of my school orchestra and performing solo recitals. For a time, it was fun. At no point did I feel I had much of a choice in the matter.

“Music is a huge part of life for most Asian families,” says violinist Sarah Chang. “Most Asian children I know start taking violin, piano, or cello lessons from an early age.” If this sets them apart socially from their non-Asian classmates, Asian parents largely do not care. Their determination to raise musical kids can be single-minded and severe. One memorable passage in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has Amy Chua threatening her daughter during piano practice: “If the next time’s not perfect, I’m going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!” In Musicians From a Different Shore, University of Hawaii professor and pianist Mari Yoshihara describes her upbringing in postwar Japan. At the time, a confluence of mass production, rising incomes, and shrinking apartment sizes brought millions of upright pianos into urban households, where they became an emblem of middle-class status. Through her years of practice, she writes, “I never asked myself why I was learning music or whether I even liked playing the piano. Such questions never even occurred to me. Music was not something I had the option of liking or not liking; it was just there for me to do.”

“That’s great!” we might say… at least we know someone is carrying on the tradition of centuries. But there are some serious reasons why it isn’t a good thing that Asians are becoming seen as the saviors of classical music.

For one, the importance of studying music as essential seems to be a viewpoint shared among Asian parents rather than kids. (Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother approach comes to mind.) But even setting that aside, most people seem to know at least one or two Asians who studied music at the behest of their parents, so we know it is a fairly common element in Asian households. This means that the so-called “future of classical music” may rest on the shoulders of those who aren’t even sure it was their choice to become and/or remain musicians.

But the problems go much deeper than that.

…Asian and Asian-American performers gravitate almost exclusively to strings and piano: Those instruments which, within a genre that symbolizes class mobility in Asia, are at the top of the heap. Rarely does one encounter an Asian conservatory student playing the bassoon or trombone, or any instrument that does not afford the possibility of soloist superstardom.

The prestige Asians ascribe to classical music is, it should be noted, completely disproportionate to the actual salaries earned by professional musicians. And the Asian juggernaut has yet to move much beyond the orchestra pit. One area in which Asians do not dominate, Yoshihara notes, is orchestra management, which remains overwhelmingly white. The boards of most performing arts organizations are made up of wealthy corporate donors, who tend to recruit managers and other board members from within their own social circles. And in contrast to celebrity musicians like Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang, Asians haven’t made much headway into conducting or composing. Asian music education is not famous for its music theory…

These passages indicate that a majority of Asian (parents) have a narrow view of classical music that is extremely limiting for the genre, and their children. Precisely at a time when the traditional orchestra model is faltering, parents are “encouraging” their kids to move into that industry. While their idea is one with the honest best intentions (“soloist superstardom”), it lacks grounding in reality. Moreover, such a perspective is anathema to what classical music needs, which is greater innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. The “Asian” view of a classical musician seems to be the role which, in modern days, very much resembles the cog in the wheel of the industrial machine.

Of course, this can be grossly exaggerated. After all, there are great examples of the importance of classical music reflected in other societies. (For example, Gustavo Dudamel’s work in Venezuela with El Sistema.) And, perhaps I am being unfair in a way. After all, the exposure of Asian societies to western classical music, and the integration of such tradition into their own culture and lifestyle, is still relatively young. It may be expected of us to grant such families the benefit of time to come to recognize the importance of the conductor, the composer, the manager, the entrepreneur… in shaping the way forward for classical music.

Ironically, time is the factor working against us. The greatest problem in a gradual shift of classical audiences and performers towards an Asian majority is that it destroys one of the great pillars that classical music rests upon – classical music as a universal language and a platform for communication. Classical music should never be thought of as something for any specific racial, ethnic, cultural, or any other kind of group. The more homogeneous the demographics become, the more limited its scope to impact people becomes. And time seems only to be making such a future more a reality in the present.

The articles’s very conclusion is great cause for worry:

Classical music probably won’t ever disappear completely from our shores. If it survives, it will be thanks in large part to continued Asian immigration and an audience that is increasingly imported. Faced with the unenviable task of trying to make the most hidebound of music traditions hip and relevant to kids, the survival strategy of orchestras has mostly been to throw up their hands and pray that their remaining season ticket-holders cling to life another year. Instead, they might prepare for a future in which their subscribers look a lot different than they do today, and cultivate leadership, outreach and programming which reflect that.

We should fear a world where we must “import” our audiences from somewhere else, rather than grow our audiences from our communities. We should dread a world where programs are crafted to appeal to a narrow demographic based on race, rather than focusing on the shared values that the music is capable of embodying. And we should absolutely fight against a world where these things happen because of our failure to preserve the relevance of classical music to global audiences.

What are your thoughts on this Asian-Classical phenomenon? Feel free to share below! You may read the original article on Slate.




6 Responses to Why Asians Shouldn’t Be the Messiah of Classical Music

  1. Ian G. Sadler February 7, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    Thank You, insightful article. Many of the issues raised are common discourse these days.

    re: the phrase *if it survives*: It cannot be killed, ever. It is too solid.

    Any music is made with various elements, like stew in the kitchen. You make what you like.

    Over time, this always changes. You keep what you like (i.e. repertoire) and try new things. Everyone in music is always soaking up new elements from elsewhere.

    Whomever (composers/improvisers/orchestras etc.) is able to work with whatever elements in a fresh way will be able to resonate both new and experienced audiences.

    In the internet age, the axiom *put a camera in front of it* is giving us unprecedented access.

    To have music and live with it is a blessing. And it takes time. It lives with you all of your days. So, even though all students will not end up as happy professionals, the richness of the immersion is its own reward.

    • Colin Cronin February 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

      Thanks for your comments. Glad you found it insightful!

  2. Auf Man May 25, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    Your comments are so true regarding Asian parents and classical music. Their views on classical is narrowly confined to performance, especially on piano, violin, cello, flute with aspirations to be soloists. Other instruments are starting to make some headway such as viola, bass, oboe. They seem to glorify solo music over other genres of classical music such as orchestral and even chamber music. They also actively discourage other musical endeavors such as music history and literature, theory, arts management, composition, and especially conducting. Choral music to Asians only pertain to them if it is related to church or other religious organization.

    • Colin Cronin May 29, 2012 at 9:16 am #

      Thanks Auf Man for your thoughts. It’s not just limited to Asians, though this story and others seem to suggest that the Asian parents seem to push their children towards such instruments that more naturally lend themselves to solo performance. What’s more important is how it’s indicative of the overemphasis on a solo career, or a “concertmaster”-esque position within an orchestra, rather than drawing inspiration from the many innovative ensemble types that are available now, especially in chamber music. We’ve covered many examples of these type of groups in the last month or so – Classical Revolution, eighth blackbird, Spektral Quartet, etc.

      Fortunately, the rise and growing influence of these groups are starting to help shift such perceptions, even if only little by little.

      • Auf Man June 2, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

        Not only that, Asian parents are very conservative in musical tastes and do not like their kids to play very modern music, especially when the children naturally develops a taste of it as they evolve into developed and sophisticated musicians.

        • Colin Cronin June 3, 2012 at 10:16 am #

          That said, there are lots of examples of Asian musicians who evolve into “developed and sophisticated musicians” as you say so there is definitely hope. Environment plays a large role as we’ve discussed so it’s a matter of fostering the right environments for musicians to develop and more broadly changing perceptions among Asian families. That’s why it is awesome to see how the different performing ensembles are playing such a role in shifting views on modern music.

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