Although Asians constitute only
5.8% of the Canadian population, they make up the largest group (43%) of the
nation's visible minorities. They are well represented across the country and
excel in various fields, including science and engineering.
Outside the sciences, the number
of Asians making a career in the classical music industry is becoming more
notable, with the Chinese and Koreans leading the way. Korean-born violinist
Young-Dae Park, a 25-year veteran of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) and a
violin coach for the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra (TSYO), recalls that when
he studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in the 1960s, there were only two
other Asians in the entire school. In the Glenn Gould Professional School (GGPS)
alone, there are currently eighteen students from Asian countries, not counting
Asian-Canadians. According to Jenny Regehr, a piano examiner for the Royal
Conservatory of Music who is also on the faculty of the GGPS, more Asian
students have been going through the exams over the last ten years. And there is
no lack of Asian musicians playing in Canadian orchestras. Park notes that "over
half of the string section in the TSYO now are Asians, of whom eighty percent
The stereotype that Asians excel
in the sciences rather than in the arts implies that Yo-Yo Ma, Midori and Sarah
Chang are anomalies in the music world. The outcome of the recent 64th Montreal
Symphony Orchestra Competition is just one example that refutes this conclusion.
Other examples include the fact that top winners in the piano and violin
categories for the latest Kiwanis Music Festival were predominantly Asian, and
the last two gold medallists of the prestigious Honens International Calgary
Piano Competition were Chinese. As well, TSYO concertmasters during the last
five years have been Asian.
are increasingly excelling in the musical arena can partly be explained by
culture. They are reputed for being academically inclined and possessing a
strong work ethic with a high level of discipline that serves as a powerful
driver for success. Parental influence is a key factor nurturing this attitude
progressiveness. Asian parents actively encourage their children to study music
at an early age in order to enable them to become well rounded and disciplined
Because music lessons are expensive and considered a privilege reserved for the
wealthy and cultured, Asian parents take their children's music education very
seriously. Consequently, they are more apt to accompany their children to
lessons and push them to practice diligently at home. More ambitious parents may
even tag child prodigy potential to their offspring, thanks to the example of
high profile virtuosi like Midori. Sometimes, parents transfer their unfulfilled
aspirations to their children. Such was the case for violinist Sydney Chun, one
of the newer members of the TSO. Her mother played the piano in her native
Korea, but regrets not pursuing it professionally. As a result, Chun feels that
her mother greatly influenced her decision to become a professional musician.
She also credits the growing number of successful Asian role models, in her case
Kyung-Wha Chung, for further inspiring her to pursue a career in
Ironically, although Asian
parents often enrol their children in music lessons, they tend to consider music
as an extracurricular activity rather than as a possible career option. Whereas
medicine, law and engineering are deemed respectable professions, a music degree
is not regarded as "real education," a perfect illustration of Asian pragmatism.
"There is some degree of sexism," notes Chun. "Asian parents will push their
sons to become doctors and lawyers, but their daughters to become musicians."
Park shares the same observation, noting that there are far more female Asian
players in orchestras than males.
Does being a visible minority in
the music industry present unique challenges to Asians? Park and Chun, both
seasoned musicians, say that they have never experienced discrimination because
of their ethnic background. Amy Park (no relation to Young-Dae), a Korean-born
student in the eleventh grade and current concertmaster for the TSYO, hopes to
pursue a music degree in performance. "Certainly there are many barriers [to
pursuing music as a career], but they don't have much to do with being Asian,"
she says. She does think that Asian parents instil in their children the idea
that they have to push themselves harder because they belong to a minority
group. Andrew Kwan, an artistic manager who represents several Asian players in
his roster, comments, "The classical music market plays no favouritism to any
culture," affirming that Asians and non-Asians alike face the same challenges in
trying to break into the industry. On the other hand, some believe that being
Asian actually has its advantages. Philip Chiu, a Chinese second-year
performance piano student at the GGPS, says that "some teachers may think that
Asians are better students because they practice more!" While Regehr hesitates
to make such a generalization, she does observe that students from Asia usually
have a tradition of respect for teachers and tend to follow their instructors'
advice more readily.
Stereotypes associated with
Asian musicians remain. Undoubtedly, Asian players tend to favour the piano and
the violin, the Chinese being considered the better pianists and the Koreans the
better violinists, as exemplified by artists like Lang Lang and Sarah Chang,
respectively. This generalization may be founded on the fact that the best-known
classical music repertoires are written for the piano and violin, thereby
attaching a "glamour factor" to these instruments. Also, for parents wanting
their children to learn music at a young age, the piano and violin are more
feasible; playing a brass instrument, for instance, would be more cumbersome for
a small child to handle physically. It is therefore no coincidence that the
Suzuki method was developed by a Japanese musician who originally conceived the
method for the violin.
When considering the subject of
Asians in the classical music scene, perhaps one of the most prevalent
stereotypes is related to artistic ability. Just as Asians are thought more
likely to excel in the sciences rather than in the arts, Asian musicians are
more often acknowledged for technical merit instead of artistic expression.
Overcoming this stereotype is likely one of the more formidable challenges for
Asian musicians today.
With a growing concentration of
Asians in major Canadian cities, and an increasing number choosing a career in
music, one might expect a similar trend reflected among concertgoers. But this
is not necessarily so, according to Liz Parker, Public Relations Manager at the
TSO, herself half Japanese. "Certainly, concerts that feature Asian artists like
Midori are very well attended by people from their ethnic groups, but the
audience in general does not reflect the diversity of the population." The TSO
does not officially compile data on its subscribers and donors based on
ethnicity, but it is "definitely aggressively going after the Asian market,
particularly the Chinese and Koreans." The TSO now features a Chinese-language
website and telephone hotline. Concert ads are taken in Chinese and Korean
newspapers and interviews are aired on Chinese radio and television. For the
2004–2005 season, plans are underway to create distinct programming and
subscription offerings aimed at the Chinese community. Mike Forrester,
vice-president of Marketing and Development, is tight-lipped about details but
admits that tickets sell extremely well through the Chinese hotline. "I'm
confident the marketing efforts are already working, and I'm very thrilled and
optimistic that more Asian concertgoers will come on board."