Slate published a highly annoying and analytically unsound article today about the popularity of classical music among Asian Americans. The half-white, half-Korean author, Michael Ahn Paarlberg, cobbles together some random anecdotes and things any Asian American Studies 101 student – or thinking person – knows not to do (conflate Asian and Asian American cultures, recycle tired stereotypes about “Asian” materialism, un-coolness, and roboticism) to slam Asian Americans for the supposedly racially unique way they engage with classical music. Here are the five stupidest things the article says, followed by my responses:
1. This [Asian Americans’ enjoyment of classical music] 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.
My parents aren’t terribly fashion-conscious, but neither I nor my brother ever had an unflattering bowl cut. Also, Asian kids don’t all have the same hair, because despite what the Paarlberg may think, we don’t all look or dress alike.
2. In Musicians from a Different Shore, University of Hawaii professor and pianist Mari Yoshihara describes her upbringing in postwar Japan. … 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.”
This is one of the several examples Paarlberg uses to describe the (apparently universal) coerced and automated ways in which Asian American children learn to play an instrument. I have several responses to this excerpt, but the primary one is that of disbelief. Children listen to music from a very young age – probably from the very first day of their lives in our era of car radios and ubiquitous TVs and iPods. As a kid, I distinctly remember wanting to play the piano so I could magically make pretty sounds by pressing my fingers on a giant, hulking box, and I imagine a lot of children have the same creative desire, even if they don’t articulate that wish or are even conscious of it. Moreover, the children of even the most traditional or nostalgic of Asian immigrant parents will be Asian AMERICAN. It’s unfair to use an example from postwar Japan and extrapolate that experience onto non-Asian kids.
3. 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.
“Almost exclusively? “Rarely?” Where are the numbers to back up these adverbs? And not that my anecdotes count for much toward empirical evidence, but I definitely remember seeing plenty of Asian American trumpeters, flautists, clarinetists, guitarists, even drummers (GASP!) while growing up.
4. Asian music education is not famous for its music theory. The Suzuki method, Asia’s most successful classical music export, is a highly mechanical training regimen based on drills and rote memorization, with no emphasis on “feeling” the music.
I don’t know why Paarlberg is knocking “Asian music education” – an incredibly general term – for not focusing on music theory. I studied music theory for several years, and I can think of few things mustier and more rigidly codified than music theory. And an incredible amount of theory is highly intuitive, anyway – I can’t imagine why anyone would need to learn it from a textbook. And again, where are the statistics to back up the assertion that the Suzuki method, which I never encountered in my 17 years of piano lessons – 12 with Asian teachers – is “Asia’s most successful classical music export”? And even if many music students learned to play the piano or the violin or the French horn using the Suzuki method, isn’t it supremely likely that their teachers also taught them to pay attention to the emotional, dramatic, and harmonic aspects of the music?
5. If there’s any irony to the most quintessentially Western music tradition being kept alive by the East, by now it’s a moot point.
There is no irony here. A lot of Asian Americans like classical music,as well as hamburgers, basketball, Facebook, and other mainstream American things. Why is any of this noteworthy?