Can Asians Save Classical Music?

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  Michael Ahn Paarlberg of Slate.com posits that Asian and Asian Americans have now become the lifeblood of classical music. Himself a Korean American hapa, Paarlberg points out that fewer adults are attending classical concerts than before, and the median age of those who still attend the high culture affairs is constantly rising. The one demographic still injecting any youthful vigor into classical music is the Asian/Asian American population.

According to a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2008, 14% of Asian Americans ages 18 – 24 reported attending a classical concert in the past year, more than any other demographic in the 18 – 24 age bracket. Furthermore, Paarlberg notes, while Asians make up just 4% of the total U.S. population, they constitute 7% of U.S. orchestra musicians and make up to 20% of top orchestras. One in five undergraduates and one in three PhD candidates at Julliard is Asian.

So why have Asians, most notably East Asians, been so embracing of this Occidental art form? Why do Asians extol the violinist, the bassist, and the pianist and shun the drummer and the trombonist? Why popularize the violin at the expense of the erhu or the biwa, also stringed instruments but Eastern in origin?

As our original Tiger Mom Amy Chua and Paarlberg both suggest, perhaps it’s because classical music and the piano especially have come to symbolize social mobility. Writes Paarlberg, “Classical music became an aspirational totem for both newly industrializing Asian countries, whose governments subsidized music schools and orchestras, and parents, for whom having a musician in the family was a marker of success.”