In my conversation with pianist, professor, and writer, Mina Yang, we discuss the complicated experiences of racism against East Asians in Classical Music and in the dominant culture, how Western Classical Music proliferated in East Asia through imperialism and colonialism, and how the myth of the “universal” nature of Western Classical Music discourages conversations around politics and race.
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Mina’s article that became a chapter in her book: East Meets West in the Concert Hall: Asians and Classical Music in the Century of Imperialism, Post-Colonialism, and Multiculturalism.
5:41 – How did Western Classical Music become so prevalent in East Asia?
7:00 – How piano manufacturing in Japan mirrored the rise of the middle class in Europe and how the piano became a symbol of Western gentility, domesticity, and was equated with femininity.
7:35 – How learning Western Classical Music was a way into Western modernity and parity with the West as a way to exhibit middle class status.
9:27 – Anecdotal evidence of why there are so many young, Asian, female violinists in classical music.
12:55 – The stereotype of the “model minority” that East Asians experience in conservatories and the discomfort with the idea of racism again Asians.
13:43 – How Asians are perceived as “robotic” and “lacking soul” plus the blatantly racist attitudes against Asians in classical music. How Asians in the US are considered both the model minority and an invisible minority and how racism against Asians is not perceived as problematic as racism against other P.O.C.
14:32 – The slippery nature of the implicit bias against East Asians within classical music and the dominant culture; “yes, you are part of [the culture] but then you’re really not part of it.” The experiences of “secondary whiteness.”
15:12 – How the emphasis of the myth of the “universal” nature of Western classical music discourages conversations around race and politics.
16:51 – How do we create spaces for difficult conversations around racism again Asians in classical music?
19:34 – How Western classical music was considered a symbol of Western middle – upper class status and how East Asians emulated this as a vital part of attempts at assimilation.
24:11 – How Asians’ participation in classical music reinforces the stereotype of the “model minority”.
24:43 – Far East Movement and how they hid their Asianness and perhaps felt the need to do so to achieve success in popular music.
26:22 – The stereotyping of “Asian bodies” in pop music, Psy, BTS, and Kpop.
27:50 – Yuja Wang and countering the fetishization of Asian women in classical music. The surge of Asians in classical music and how this has the potential to uproot the idealization of Western classical music as “sacred” and exclusive.
30:59 – Finding the balance between tradition and individualism in classical music. How not really being accepted can free you up to be innovative. Why you can’t just practice and expect a career to magically manifest.
32:13 – The tension of leaving behind something that you’ve dedicated so much of your life to.
33:15 – How there’s no “playbook” anymore for classical musicians.
34:21 – How do we create community and support as we seek to pivot from a classical musician’s life or training?
34:54 – How classical music training does not support being improvisational and flexible both in music and in life and how it perhaps does musicians a disservice.
36:40 – Why we should let go of the “conservatory mindset.”
37:14 – How classical music is just part of the musical landscape and is capable of cultural exchange. See Silk Road Ensemble.
37:58 – Why sometimes I’m pissed off by my training but also why classical music training prepares us for diverse paths to career success.
40:43 – Why playing in a professional orchestra can be less fulfilling than one might think.
42:16 – Why there is nothing like a classical music training to teach discipline and work ethic and why classical musicians have all the skills needed to be successful in any number of career paths. Also, why the myth of “sunken costs” can get us stuck.
43:53 – Making space for everything: community, beauty, and balance.