What's behind the predominance of Asians in classical music?

It's no coincidence, writes Liz Parker, and it goes deeper than the stereotype.

It's no coincidence, writes Liz Parker, and it goes deeper than the stereotype

Canadian pianist Kevin Chen is pictured onstage, performing Frederic Chopin's Piano Concert No. 1 during the final of the 2022 Geneva International Music Competition, , where he was awarded 1st prize.
Canadian pianist Kevin Chen performs Frederic Chopin's Piano Concert No. 1 during the final of the 2022 Geneva International Music Competition, where he was awarded 1st prize. (Anne-Laure Lechat)

Written by Liz Parker.

"Hi! My name is Margaret Cho," said the famed Korean American comedian, introducing herself when she walked onstage at a show I attended several years ago. When the whoops and cheers died down, she added: "I do not play the violin." 

Cho knows the stereotype, and that she's in the minority — she didn't study classical music as a child.

But why do so many Asians spend their childhood studying classical music?

Before I try to answer that question, I should explain that despite my English name and white-passing appearance, I'm the daughter of a Japanese immigrant mother and Canadian-born English father. I come from a Canadian piano family where, along with school, piano was the absolute rule. My brothers and I all showed signs of musical ability, and it was decided we would all get, at bare minimum, our Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto (ARCT). After that, the career choice was ours.

There were East-West influences growing up: mom kept an eagle eye and ear on our progress when we were kids, and sat with us for every practice session, whereas dad would coax us to practise and occasionally played peacemaker — especially for me, when I grew into a teenaged hellcat door-slammer.

'To learn the discipline'

If you glance at the entry list of any music competition, or happen by any music school, you'll notice a high proportion of youths or young adults who are of Asian descent. It's no coincidence.

Most of them study for a few years, without any intention of taking it to a professional level. The idea is to learn the discipline required to master a classical instrument. It's no secret that the study of classical music forces you to focus and develop detailed analytical skills. It's not about becoming a professional musician (gasp!); it's to learn the focus required to become a lawyer or doctor.

But what happens if the student is actually highly gifted and musically inclined?

My parents were very supportive of me choosing music as a career, though I wasn't interested in becoming a performing artist. They pointed out I could use my skills in other professions. I found my calling in orchestra public relations for the bulk of my career, while always keeping a hand in teaching piano to kids, which is my career focus now.

That kind of parental support is not a given, though.

'I had to let go of trying to win their approval'

"Not well." That's how Juno-nominated composer Vincent Ho responded when I asked him recently how his parents reacted to his decision to pursue a career in music. He elaborated: "As immigrant Chinese parents, they had expected me to pursue professions that would ensure financial stability and success — doctor, lawyer, engineer. Much of their dreams for success were placed on the shoulders of their children to fulfil."

Ho was offered scholarships to study music, which enabled his choice to go ahead with it, regardless of his parents' objections. Eventually — and this is a big one — despite them never fully accepting his decision to follow his heart, he said, "I had to let go of trying to win their approval and stay true to what I felt was my life's calling."

Listen to Ho's Supervillain Étude No. 5 performed by Vicky Chow.

The situation was different for Timothy Chooi, multiple prize-winning violinist and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. Growing up in Victoria as a child of immigrants, he had parents who supported his musical studies and encouraged him to pursue a career in musical performance.

"I think the story of my parents' migration to Canada, along with the central Asian idea of hard work and respect, influenced me in practising the violin on a consistent basis, which is an absolute must," he told me.

Timothy Chooi performs Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in the final round of the 2019 Queen Elisabeth Competition, where he was awarded 2nd prize.

Of course, dedication to hard work and respect is not exclusive to Asian culture, but it's definitely a central (if not primordial) tenet — even if it has fuelled the model minority trope around Asians in North America.

I owe anything remotely related to showing discipline to my parents, who were both extremely hard workers over their careers. But it was my Japanese Canadian mother's laser focus on detail, teaching me to put in the hours, and post-competition talks in the car that influence me to this day.

She was the archetypal sports parent, analyzing the play (literally!), but always in a constructive manner — the good and the bad. No matter how I did, it meant having a victory (or consolation) kids' meal at the local fast food joint.

My childhood rival at those competitions was Amanda Chan, also a child of immigrants who's now head of piano at the Vancouver Academy of Music and a sessional lecturer at the University of British Columbia's faculty of music. She was born and raised in Canada, but studied music in Europe and absorbed many cultures, much the way chefs do when they pursue cooking. She told me she believes her work ethic and love of learning may be an Asian stereotype, but adds, "I have met many people of all different cultures who showed great discipline when they were doing something that mattered to them."

'About 60 per cent of the world's population is located in Asia'

When I asked Chan, Chooi and Ho about why they think there has been an uptick of Asians who pursue music as a career, all three pointed to the accessibility of classical music.

"Now that globalization of classical music is happening faster than ever and about 60 per cent of the world's population is located in Asia, I think it's a given," noted Chooi.

Chan pointed to the rise in Asian Canadians, like herself, who embody a balance of cultures. "Education and the ready exposure to global influences and resources through media and travel have built confidence in young minds to feel an affinity for classical music and developing their passion for it," she reflected.

The top 3 prize winners at the 2021 Geneva International Music Competition pose onstage: Michiaki Ueno (1st prize), Brian Cheng (2nd prize) and Jaemin Han (3rd prize).
The top 3 prize winners at the 2021 Geneva International Music Competition were, from left: Michiaki Ueno (1st prize), Brian Cheng (2nd prize) and Jaemin Han (3rd prize). (Anne-Laure Lechat)

For Ho, social politics provide a clue. "This has much to do with China's history, post-revolution, and how music conservatories opened their doors to the West and allowed the new generation to go abroad for studies," he explained.

One thing is certain: the wave of Asian interest and excellence in classical music is giving the art form a global lift, which translates into new audiences, something classical music is always seeking. Think of all the recent stars hitting the world stage: Bruce Liu, Seong-Jin Cho and especially Yuja Wang and Lang Lang, who have many ardent followers. I can't help but wonder how many of these superstars sought parental approval in their childhoods, and if that still motivates them throughout their music careers.

Canada's Kevin Chen, recent first prize winner at both the 17th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv and the 76th Geneva International Music Competition, seems poised to join their ranks.

I know with my Asian piano students, their parents are extremely committed to them learning how to work hard, whether they choose music as a career or not. I find myself reminding them I want their kids to love music, too, and come away from their studies not only learning the work ethic required, but also how to enjoy music and become future concert-goers in their adult years. 

I may not necessarily churn out future concert pianists, but if I play a small role in developing their love of music, then that's my greatest joy in being a piano teacher.

Liz Parker is a music writer and piano teacher who worked for many years in publicity with the Vancouver and Toronto Symphonies and the Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall. She has written for Classical FM and continues styling musicians and giving PR lectures to advanced music students. She lives in Toronto.