As a scholar specializing in classical music and U.S. race relations, I feel compelled to comment on Christopher Orlet’s “Racial Discord.” While I certainly agree with Mr. Orlet — as I am sure all classical musicians and music lovers would as well — that the first and foremost goal of professional orchestras should be artistic excellence rather than political correctness, his discussion is fraught with some inaccurate assumptions.
Mr. Orlet compares the absence of African Americans and Latinos in the classical music profession with the widely recognized success of Asian Americans in the field. He characterizes the idea that “blacks and Latinos cannot afford musical instruments and lessons” as “the mummified excuse,” and criticizes those who make the point for “conveniently ignoring the fact that the children of poor Korean and Chinese immigrants somehow manage these things, as did the children of Jewish immigrants a hundred years ago.” The fact of the matter is, the Asian and Asian American musicians who have entered the top-level conservatories and professional orchestras in the past few decades are NOT children of poor Korean and Chinese immigrants. Of course there are a few exceptional musicians who come from less privileged backgrounds, but the vast majority of Asians in classical music today — Asian Americans who were born and raised in the United States as well as Asian-born musicians who came to the United States either specifically to study music or for other reasons — come from professional, middle-class families with a significant amount of educational, cultural, and economic capital and abundant exposure to classical music and other forms of culture and the arts since childhood. Precisely because the classical music field demands extremely high artistic and technical standards, unless one has received formal, rigorous training continuously since early childhood, it is impossible to acquire the specialized skills required to enter the profession. If you or your parents cannot afford the professional-standard instrument, many years of private lessons, and most importantly, the living situation that allows you to devote as many as eight or ten hours every day to practicing, you cannot even consider auditioning for a conservatory, let alone a professional orchestra. It is not surprising that those who come from professional, middle-class backgrounds dominate the field.
In addition to economics, there are also historical reasons for the large presence of Asians in classical music today. When Western music was introduced to East Asian nations — Japan, Korea, China — in the late nineteenth century, their governments took deliberate, programmatic steps to introduce this music to the masses through the educational system. Such government-led efforts — combined with the middle-class aspiration for Western learning, the growth of the manufacturing of musical instruments, and the development of effective pedagogical methods for musical instruction — resulted in classical music becoming a widespread middle-class, rather than elite, pursuit in many parts of East Asia in the postwar decades. The more Asian students gain exposure to classical music and receive serious training in it, the more of them enter the profession.
It is understandable that relatively few African American and Latino children aspire to a career in classical music. Most people agree that the fact that there are few women in the sciences and engineering is less due to their “innate” abilities than to the years of gendered socialization and the absence of female role models in the field. It is difficult for children to imagine themselves in a field in which they do not see a version of themselves represented. If, in a few classical music performances that African American and Latino children are exposed to, few of the faces they see look like themselves, they are less likely to feel that the music they hear is THEIR music, and they are less likely to feel they belong in that world.
I share the hope with both Mr. Dworkin and Mr. Orlet that classical music be enjoyed by a larger and more racially, economically, and culturally diverse audience. And yes, making classical music accessible to “poor and middle class white kids in rural schools” is a very good idea, and some musicians and educators have been working hard on such projects. I also hope that all children and adults in the United States learn to appreciate cultures and the arts other than the ones they grew up with. After all, the power of art lies in its ability to communicate. Because of the many years of specialized training classical music requires, many classical musicians tend to have limited knowledge of non-classical musical genres, and I believe that classical musicians acquiring familiarity with other genres of music would indeed enrich and expand the musicality of professional orchestras. But greater diversity in classical — as well as other genres of — music cannot be achieved by a quick fix such as changing the audition format or adopting a racially based quota system for orchestras at the expense of artistic integrity. It can be achieved only if American society attains greater socioeconomic equality so that children across the nation — regardless of region, race, class, or gender — gain access to quality education, including the arts. It can be achieved only if the government, the private sector, and individual members of society make the decades-long commitment to education, culture, and the arts. Yes, it will take at least twenty, perhaps fifty or a hundred, years to accomplish. But that is at least how long it took Asians to come to have a presence in the field.p>Finally, it is curious to me that Mr. Orlet cites the military as an institution that has excelled without what he calls “social engineering” for achieving diversity. For, the U.S. military does an excellent job of a targeted recruitment of less-than-affluent minority youths in economically depressed regions of the country. If the U.S. Marines indeed runs so brilliantly as Mr. Orlet suggests, it sure owes its success to those youths who dedicate themselves to serving the nation which has long failed to deliver the dreams promised to them, one that does not even give them access to fine music. br> — Mari Yoshihara br> Associate Professor and Graduate Chair
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