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Musicians from a Different Shore

Musicians from a Different Shore
Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music

Mari Yoshihara

In this Q&A, Temple University Press author Mari Yoshihara talks about her new book, Musicians from a Different Shore, and discusses why so many Asian Americans devote themselves to Western classical music

Q: Musicians from a Different Shore looks at how Asian families encouraged their children to play classical music—often starting at a young age. How did you get interested in writing about this topic?
A: I was once a serious student of piano and have seriously considered going to a conservatory and pursuing a musical career. For various reasons I decided not to follow this path and instead chose an academic career, specializing in the cultural history of U.S.-Asian relations. This book is a product of the combination of my musical background and my scholarly interests.

Q: You were a classical music student yourself—learning piano at age 3. Was there pressure for you to become professional? You dreamt about it, surely?.
A: Because I was a better-than-average piano student and practiced fairly diligently, my parents and my piano teacher thought going to a conservatory was a likely option for me. But there were no professional musicians in my family or acquaintances, and neither my parents nor I had any concrete ideas about what it means to become a professional musician. My musical pursuit was driven more by a vague image than by a specific goal. Plus, having started at such a young age, piano had always been a central part of my life that I took for granted, and I never even thought about whether I liked it or not or whether I wanted to pursue it as a career. Until I started consciously thinking about another path, I didn’t know that there were other life options available to me besides playing the piano.

Q: Why do you think Asian families invest so much time/money/hope in their children to be classical musicians? Do you think this can be harmful?
A: Many Asian families associate classical music with Western modernity, cultural sophistication, and upper-middle-class status. So they encourage their children to study music, not always because they want them to become professional musicians but because they believe that musical background leads to upward social mobility. But for many children, classical music is more of an imposition by their parents than a pursuit they chose for themselves, and having to practice for hours every day against their will often kills any pleasure of music. Sadly, there are many children who come to resent classical music because of such experience.

Q: You’ve suggested that Asian families are taking over conservatories such as Julliard much in the way Jewish families were prominent musicians a generation ago. What do you think accounts for this trend?
A: There are several reasons for the “overrepresentation” of Asians and Asian Americans at conservatories. First, the cultural climate in East Asian countries and Asian American communities that associate classical music with class status leads many families to give their children serious musical training from a young age. The fact that the Asian educational system and culture in general tend to emphasize the kinds of discipline and structure required of classical music is another factor. But in addition to these cultural factors, there is an important economic dimension to this. Serious study of classical music requires quite a major investment of money and time on the part of the family. The rise of the middle class in Japan after WWII, South Korea after the Korean War, and China after the Cultural Revolution made it possible for many Asians to pursue music at an advanced level. The successful implementation of musical pedagogy such as Suzuki Method in the second half of the twentieth century also played an important role in making classical music a widespread middle-class pursuit.

Q:You talk—strikingly—in your introduction about the “productive tension between your musical past and your scholarly present” and the issues of insider/outsider, advocate/critic. How did you find the right tone to approach this subject, which has never been the topic of a book before?
A: Although as a scholar I analyze social structures and cultural phenomena using categories such as race, class, gender, imperialism, and hegemony, I really did not want to analyze this subject solely from these academic perspectives. I wanted to understand how the musicians themselves think about the issues of identity and music making, which is often quite different from the way scholars think about these issues. Throughout my research and writing process, I struggled to find the right balance between presenting my own scholarly analysis and conveying the musicians’ lives and ideas in their own terms. I hope I succeeded.

Q:You pepper Musicians from a Different Shore with fascinating quotes and interviews from various Asian musicians—from Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim to up-and-coming composer Kenji Bunch. How did you approach these folks, and what were their responses to your project?
A: I contacted my informants in several different ways. For orchestral musicians, I found Asian names on the roster of orchestra members and sent them a letter asking for an interview. For soloists, I often made contacts through their managers or publicists. I went to well over one hundred performances while doing research for this book, and sometimes I simply went to talk to the performers after their recitals. I also met many other informants through referral by musicians, teachers, scholars, and friends who work in the classical music field. In general, musicians were very generous and candid in sharing their time and ideas with me.

Q: Did anything the musicians you interviewed say that surprised you?
A: When I asked, “What is your main concern as a musician right now?” a large number of my informants answered, “Making a living.” Through my research I came to understand how difficult it is to sustain a career in classical music even after years and decades of rigorous training. Another thing that struck me was the large number of musicians who said that they did not think race was an important part of their lives as musicians. The great diversity of ideas about the question of race, identity, and authenticity in music making was also surprising. In the book I discuss the reasons for these responses in detail.

Q: What determinations did you make about race as a factor in musicians careers? Do you think gender and/or sexuality—other factors you address in your book—have more or less influence?
A: Since Asian and Asian American musicians live as social subjects in American society, they encounter many instances in which they are defined and treated as “Asian,” regardless of their own sense of racial or ethnic identity. And there are certainly instances of racism or racial prejudice in the classical music world as well. But in their lives as classical musicians, musicians usually consider race to be secondary to their musical identities. Many musicians say that “musician” is their “race.” Many female musicians say that gender plays more of a role in their lives as musicians than race. While some gay musicians say that, because there are relatively many gays and lesbians in the classical music field, they feel safer in their musical world than in other segments of society; on the other hand, most say that their sexual orientation is not relevant to the way they understand, interpret, or play music. It is impossible to say which part of their social identity—race, gender, sexuality—is more important than others, as these categories always work in intertwined ways.

Q: What have you observed regarding immigrant families and Asian families that move to the United States so their children can benefit from opportunities in musical schools and programs?
A: Some families, especially those from South Korea, immigrate to the United States specifically so that their children can study classical music at schools like Juilliard Pre-College. The enormity of family-wide sacrifice for the sake of children’s musical training—often resulting in downward social mobility for the family—is extraordinary.

Q: Do you think it is curious that so many Asians are interested in playing Western music and that there is less a drive to have Americans/Westerners playing Eastern music?
A: Interest in music—as well as other cultural forms—is part of a larger historical, economic, and political context. Given the history of Western imperialism, Asian nationalism and push for modernization, and the flows of culture, goods, and people between Asia and the West that have occurred within this context, it is not surprising that there are more Asians pursuing Western music than Americans playing Asian music. But this may change in the coming decades, as Asia’s place in the global economy and culture changes. We can already see a rapidly growing interest among American youths in, for instance, Japanese manga, Korean pop, and Hong Kong cinema. It is quite possible that music—classical or otherwise—will be part of these changing flows of cultural crossing.


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