Working in a relatively under-researched field – cultural ethnographic approaches to classical music – has its pluses and its minuses. One of the minuses is the lack of studies to stimulate my own ideas and help clarify the important questions in the field. So I was disproportionately excited to hear from a colleague about a recent ethnography in this area which seems to be relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic – Mari Yoshihara’s Musicians From a Different Shore (Temple University Press, 2007), a study of Asian American classical musicians.
Yoshihara, as she explains in the autobiographical introduction, is a Japanese American academic who works on American Orientalism. She learned piano intensively as a child and teenager but let go of her pianist identity as she moved into academia. This book is therefore in part a revisiting of that earlier self, an exploration she ties in gracefully with the broader themes of the book. She defines Asian American musicians as immigrants from East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China) to the US, or Asian Americans who grew up in the US. Her starting point is the discourses about Asians as a ‘model minority’ in the US for their overrepresentation in higher education and many professional fields, which coexist alongside discourses about Asian musicians as being ‘automatons’ who have amazing technical skills but play like robots. She contrasts these ideas with other ways that Asians are positioned in the classical music world in the US – for example, they are under-represented in management and positions of power – taking this as an indication that being Asian counts as a ‘racial marker’ for these musicians. Interestingly, this goes against her informants’ own views that being Asian doesn’t make any difference to them as musicians… of which more later.