A common stereotype is that Asian Americans play an instrument, often either a violin or piano, or both, and that we’re music prodigies . Well, after reading the Wall Street Journal opinion piece (5/29/08), “The Prodigy Market in China,” I think this stereotype is here to stay for quite a while:
“Thirty-two years after the end of its Cultural Revolution, China is buzzing with once-forbidden Western classical music activity, building world-class concert halls and expanding its conservatory facilities. According to Chinese music-industry executives, more than 40 million youngsters are currently studying the piano or violin. “The joke in some cities,” says pianist Gary Graffman, former president of the elite Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia, “is that if you see a kid on the street who is not carrying a violin case, it’s because he or she is studying the piano…China’s booming economy and one-child policy have created a rising middle class with a passion for education. “Parents have become intensely focused on their child,” suggests Mr. Polisi. “The areas they work on are the sciences, math and music; the musical experience is seen as an important element in the child’s intellectual and social upbringing.””
40 million kids in China studying the piano or violin alone – that’s more than 10% of the current U.S. population. Because of the large talent pool in China, many music schools in Europe and the United States are recruiting China’s best talent and offering scholarships to study abroad. Apparently, American conservatories are more appealing due to their noted philosophy of expressive freedom relative to European schools and certainly the Chinese schools.
I first took up the trumpet for a year in elementary school, but after a trip to Taiwan, my parents bought me a violin which I played through my junior year in high school. However, I would say that I definitely was not a child prodigy – far from it. For the most part, I enjoyed playing the violin and being involved in orchestra. But many Asian Americans are not, and this story reminded me of a blog posting which I quite enjoyed, “Chinese parents need to stop forcing their kids to play the piano/violin.” I don’t know if it is just Chinese or Asian parents in general, but I think they sometimes pay too much attention and focus too much on making their kids do what they want, despite whether or not it is something they enjoy or are any good at (above and beyond the normal levels of nurturing a child).
Back to my original point – as more Chinese come to study and perform in the United States, there will be the continued perception that Chinese, an Asians / Asian-Americans in general, are good at music, along with math & science. One point I did find interesting and sort of agreed with, was what a Julliard’s Yoheved Kaplinsky, head of the piano faculty at Juilliard and artistic director of its Pre-College division, expressed in the article: ”
“.. because of the subtleties required in reading calligraphy, Asian children develop visual acuity to discern details in musical scores at an early age. Those who speak so-called “tonal languages” like Mandarin Chinese, where fluctuations in vocal pitch help determine meaning, may also benefit from this form of ear training.”
I really do think that the tonal nature of the Chinese language does train the ear to be more attuned to music and pitch. Though this definitely does not apply to me – I must be tone deaf since my brother often complains that I can’t hold a tune. And I had emailed out a Google Video link for an alumni holiday party singing the alma mater – and a friend of mine asked who that awful guy singing was :-). Actually, replaying the video, I don’t think we sound all that great as a group either…