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 imminent 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 received a $3,000 fine and probation for killing a man who looked like my father. The message was clear: the lives of Asian Americans had little value.

This message carried through to my elementary school, where my classmates broke eggs in my hair and beat 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 prosperous 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 dream white american. The myth postpones the kind of solidarity between minorities that could threaten entrenched racial power structures.

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

A beneficiary of changes in US immigration policies who had placed quotas on non-white immigrants, I am the daughter of Korean War refugees. 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 that is largely ignored in this country. But perhaps even less known is what it’s like to be an Asian American woman in classical music.

Having had few opportunities in my 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 League of American Orchestras, 96.6% 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 overrepresented minorities. In the most recent data from the League of American Orchestras, 86.8% of orchestra 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 include.

It is highly misleading to say that Asian Americans are overrepresented in what remains an overwhelming majority white and masculine field.

Classical music is often referred to as “universal”, but what does universality mean when the ground was laid for white men who still hold much of the power? In almost 30 years of career, I haven’t even seen a handful of ethnic asians – much less Asian American women — rise to managerial or managerial positions.

I have witnessed throughout my career that those of us who are ethnically Asian but were born, raised or educated in America and Europe are burdened with the belief that musicians of Asian descent are diligent, hardworking and technically perfect – but cannot understand the true essence of music, have no soul and ultimately cannot be true artists. At the beginning of 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 the Chinese could never understand classical music.

The American Historian Grace Wang uses the term “innate ability” to describe the belief that different types of music come from, and therefore belong to, specific groups of people from specific places. The assumption that a musician can be a great interpreter 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 acquired 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 woman – and released them as her own. Tom Deacon, long considered a guardian of classical music, a former record executive and a well-traveled competition judge, had written on a classical music message board about the Hatto and Matsuzawa recordings, unaware that they were the same.

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

Of what was labeledcorrectly, as Matsuzawa: “Faceless, typewriter, neat as a pin but utterly flabby performances with little, tiny poetic gestures added like so much rouge to a Russian doll’s face.”

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 epitomizes almost every stereotype 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 them and other stereotypesincluding through the continued use of yellow face — white artists painted with yellow makeup and slant eyes — in opera productions. Yellowface normalizes caricatures of Asians and fetish asian women, exoticism through the stereotypes of them as alternatively submitted and hypersexual.

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

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

Hire and commission Asian and Asian American singers, instrumentalists, bandleaders and composers to break down stereotypes and amplify our individualities and complexities.

Mentor Asian Americans early in their musical careers. To sponsor and promote Asian Americans in arts management and administration. Recruit Asian Americans on the boards of arts organizations.

And, when you have Asian Americans on your boards, listen to them – empower them to reframe discussions about inclusion and equity, and give them the freedom to issue statements. on violence against those who look like them. Learn it Asian American stories and create paths to interact with all members of your community.

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

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