In classical music, racism toward musicians of Asian heritage is as casual as it is pervasive. When I was in my first year of conservatory, at the Royal Academy of Music in London, a Korean composition student was late to a single lesson; the professor proceeded to do a disgustingly caricatured impression of his accent. This racism—like much racism—seems to result from a mishmash of vague ignorance and keen yet unacknowledged anxieties about the future. From world-famous musicians to anonymous internet commentators, discrimination toward Asian musicians contains an ugly, common tenor: In this music, they will not replace us.
For this story, I spoke with seven musicians from Europe, the U.S., and Asia, including instrumentalists, singers, and composers. They discussed their experiences of being written off as automatons, underestimated, mixed up for one another, and denied their rightful places in this art. But they also discussed their optimism, and how they go about building their own musical utopias.
I. Whose Musicality
“We all know the Chinese can imitate better than anybody else, they will be able to make a car as good as BMW and Volkswagen but cheaper… It’s better to send the Berlin Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 because [that is something] they can’t imitate. Neither the Beethoven nor the orchestra.”Daniel Barenboim, 2015
John Hong: The annoying thing is, my technique was my calling card earlier on. Objectively, being musical was something I had to work on that didn’t come as naturally. It’s weird when those deficiencies are added to things that hover around in the culture. When you know that a stereotype exists, and then you start to fall into the stereotype… There were plenty of times I would say to myself, Maybe I’m just not supposed to be good at being musical. That really shaped how I thought about music for a long time.
John Hong, 28, is a clarinetist and writer based between New York City and Ottawa, Canada. He was raised in Amarillo, Texas.
Miran Kim: You go to these competitions and auditions and often there is this weird expectation that if you’re Asian, then you must be the most technically perfect player. I think the word used a lot is robotic. What happens is you don’t get the credit that you deserve for working really hard. It’s just like, Oh, it’s because you’re Asian.
Hyeonjun-Jo: In Europe there aren’t very many good piano students. Sorry for being blunt. But there really aren’t. If they are able to sing a bit, play cantabile, if they can show the form and the structure of the piece a little—that counts as musical. But I see that they often don’t play the instrument well, including at the conservatory level. So I think there’s a certain jealousy toward Asian students, because [Europeans] don’t play the piano as well as they do. I don’t know how else to put it.
Hsin-Yun Huang: Once a radio interviewer asked me, “We all know Chinese musicians have good technique, but how did you learn to be so musical?” I was at a loss how to respond. The irony here of course is that to feel music is to be human. It was never something you “learned,” but something you felt.
Hsin-Yun Huang, 50, is a violist. She was born in Taiwan and currently lives in New York City.
Hyeonjun-Jo: In 2015, Seong-Jin Cho, an excellent pianist, won the Chopin Competition. Everybody said that it’s impossible to play the First Chopin Piano Concerto better than he did in the final round. And shortly after, he played the piece in concert. I don’t remember which critic it was. But he said something like, “It was technically perfect, but musically a little behind.” It was unbelievable.
Miran Kim: Why do we have to make it a qualifier? A musician is technically gifted, but can’t they be technically gifted and a really good musician? Why does there have to be a “but” in there?
Miran Kim, 31, is a violinist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. She grew up in Kansas City, Missouri and New York City.
Hyeonjun-Jo: When I played my Bachelor’s exam, there were seven professors on the jury. Five gave me an A, and two gave me a B. The professors were discussing the results, and–without wanting to sound arrogant–the head of the commission told the others, “We’ve rarely heard a Bachelor’s exam [as good as] that one.” But one of the professors who gave me a B said, “We don’t need another Lang Lang.” I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. I don’t know how to interpret it. It confuses me.
Nicholas Phan: Someone said to me once: “Asians have a certain kind of vibrato, and that’s coming out from you now.” I was like, What does that even mean? If I were a fully white person, you would just tell me that my vibrato sounds whacky. You would give me constructive feedback that has nothing to do with my racial identity.
John Hong: At musical school, in a chamber music rehearsal, I suggested a musical idea. I got the Oh, I don’t think so. Then a couple of rehearsals later, we were back in that same spot, trying to make it work. Somebody else said a similar description of the musical idea I was trying to convey. Everyone was like, Yes, that sounds good. Let’s do that. It was a weird moment. Maybe I didn’t say that? Of course, it was a white guy we were playing with.
Nicholas Phan: Being biracial, I don’t experience things the same way as people who have full Asian heritage and faces experience it sometimes. But the way it constantly manifests itself is this assumption that Asian singers’ [diction and understanding of European] languages are not good; that Asian singers are bad onstage, they’re not great actors; they’re not expressive performers. It manifests itself in this question that presents itself with full Asian singers that people ask: Are they capable of doing this thing that is artistic and expressive? The answer is, How do you know unless you give them a chance?
II. The Numbers Game
“What’s in it for China to have 50 million kids learning to bash out Beethoven on the piano?”Jasper Rees, 2014
Miran Kim: I was 24 or 25. I had just won my dream job. I got there, and entered the orchestra with another woman of Asian descent. There were many times where multiple people had a hard time remembering our names, or would call this other woman my name or would call me her name. I think the exact word used was “interchangeable.” I’ve never heard that word about any of the other people I work with in orchestras.
John Hong: To me, representation in an orchestra is not the same as equal representation in classical music writ large. I don’t think anyone serious would pretend that Asians are as affected [as Black people] by racism in classical music, but I can’t tell you how often I get the implication that Asians are unaffected by racism. That’s demonstratively false.
Miran Kim: I’ve worked in three different orchestras. When you go to board events or fundraisers, very rarely are the board members, the big donors, [or] the board president Asian. You come up in an education system in classical music: When you look around, there are lots of people that look like you. You expect there to be a proportional amount of people in those positions as well and then you get there. And you realize, No. I struggle to even explain this without sounding harsh. It’s as if Asian musicians often get relegated into the lower middle tiers of the industry, like worker bees.
Hyeyung Yoon: Yes, East Asians specifically are well represented in the string sections of major orchestras. But it’s hard to paint with broad strokes about representation, because it’s so complicated. The numbers are very nuanced. South Asians, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders—they’re hardly represented in all areas of classical music. [Same with Asian] presence in leadership, in board rooms, in administration, among conductors and composers. In opera, even East Asians are hardly represented—actually less so than Black and Latinx singers. There is a certain type of representation that happens.
Hyeyung Yoon, 42, is a violinist. She was born in Seoul, Korea, and grew up in Queens, New York, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
John Hong: It’s just one of those things that I grew up with. Every single teacher I had in middle and high school—in school, not just music—was a white man or a white woman. What really surprises me is how little, if at all, the discourse even thought about composers or conductors [when I was at conservatory]. Racial representation was just not a topic. It was not even a thing that was posed in class to debate.
Hyeyung Yoon: As a chamber musician, I’d notice that probably 99 percent of the presenters who we played for were white. Most of the audiences that we played for were white as well. I think there’s a problem when the space centers whiteness, centers white culture, and then prioritizes the comfort of white culture. The space it leaves is not safe for other cultures to freely experience music. That was hard. Yes, that was hard.
III. Nativity Scenes
“In Korea they don’t sing. It’s not part of their DNA.”Pinchas Zuckerman, 2021
Vivian Fung: I entered conservatory at age 17. The education that I got was really solid, but it leaned heavily on the Western canon. There was no talk of infusion of other cultural backgrounds, and there was no talk of repertoire beyond the standard warhorses. So I wasn’t Western enough, but then also I wasn’t Asian enough for the Asian professors, people who came from China, for example. Because I wasn’t raised in China, I’m not as proficient in Mandarin. It’s this grey area. You have to carve out your own little niche.
Vivian Fung, 46, is a composer. She was born in Edmonton, Canada, and serves as a professor at Santa Clara University.
Nicholas Phan: My final year in Houston Grand Opera Studio, I was cast as Pong in “Turandot,” Goro in “Madame Butterfly,” and as a character named El Chino in Daniel Catán’s “Salsipuedes.” I am forever grateful to David Gockley, who took me into the Houston Grand Opera Studio; it was a major launchpad, and I’m very grateful for all those opportunities. But I will never forget getting in the elevator with him one day, as I came into work. We’re the only people in the elevator. He looks at me, and he goes, “You’re playing a lot of Asian roles this season.” And I looked at him and I said, “Yes, I am.” And we rode the rest of the elevator ride in silence.
Nicholas Phan, 42, is a tenor. He grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and lives in San Francisco, California.
Vivian Fung: It’s important to acknowledge and to understand that, just because you are a Chinese composer, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be composing folk songs. That whole term of “East meets West” drives me crazy. You fall into the trap of, You’re a Chinese composer, so let’s just put you in with the Chinese music festival or the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration.
Nicholas Phan: It’s been about 10 years since my first album of music by Benjamin Britten was released, to great acclaim. To this day, not one opera company in the world anywhere has offered me a role in a fully-staged Britten opera. When I see these productions or these cast lists, I still see white people singing these roles. I don’t say that from a place of having a chip on my shoulder; it’s just an observation. I know it, I see it. And I think to myself: Implicit bias is playing itself out in the casting process. That’s the only way I can make sense of it.
Hyeyung Yoon: I’ve been trying to create my own multicultural, multiethnic spaces which welcome different kinds of cultures and lifestyles, and be a safe space for audiences and for all artists. It has been taking me a long time to envision what the space could actually look like, because I don’t have experience with it. I think most people don’t. They are very rarely in truly multicultural spaces. [When they’ve happened] they’ve felt really different from those spaces that I’ve been navigating during my time in the United States.
IV. Building Home
Hyeonjun-Jo: The stereotypes are terrible. But they create a certain motivation, too. You practice more, because you want to show just how well you can play.
Hyeonjun-Jo, 26, is currently completing his Master’s degree in piano performance at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. He grew up in Seoul, Korea, and moved to Salzburg at the age of 14.
Nicholas Phan: I’m hearing people use the term “race-conscious casting” these days. There’s something to me that’s appealing about that: Let’s be real about the implicit biases that we hold because everybody has them, and let’s be conscious of those as we make our decisions. Casting an opera, in general, is not an easy process. This idea that we’re not capable of hard work or of a challenging task is ridiculous. Opera is filled with smart people who do amazing things on a daily basis. Adding one more to the list should just be par for the course.
Vivian Fung: When I left school, I was trying to grapple with everything, and I didn’t quite fit in anywhere. I seemed quite lost. I had all this training—yet what to do with all that training? It’s not until I started traveling that I realized that there is another world out there. For me, trips, especially to Bali, where I was the only person reading written notation, opened me up to different kinds of music. It was healing, not only on the intellectual level, but also on those spiritual and musical levels.
Hyeyung Yoon: In Korean, there’s a word called gohyang. It means your homeland, your hometown. Korea will always be my gohyang. But I have claimed the United States as my home now. This is where I work, this is where I live, this is where I have my family. It’s not a perfect place. There is a lot of structural racism; even after I immigrated to the United States at the age of seven, I could immediately tell that something was not right with the structure. But it’s the place that I have chosen as my home. I’m committed to making it a place where I can feel like I can belong. ¶