Youths say love of classical music isn’t an Asian American trait

By Steven Cong
Northwest Asian Weekly

The Tacoma Youth Symphony rehearses at the Broadway Plaza in Tacoma on Jan. 9. Conducting the orchestra, composed of many Asian Americans, is Dale Johnson. (Photo by Steven Cong/NWAW)

“Asians are extremely hard workers in school and in orchestra,” said Jonathan Wu, a Chinese American co-concertmaster at the Tacoma Youth Symphony.

Wu wasn’t the only one with a perspective on Asian American youth and classical music. The Tacoma Youth Symphony’s other Chinese American co-concertmaster Tonya Yu, its former Korean American member Suzee Hong, and Kenneth Truong, a Vietnamese American member of the Garfield Orchestra, also elaborated on the role that classical music plays in their lives.

The musicians believe that most Asian American youths play an instrument only in response to pressure from their parents. They then stated that it was not an experience many Asian American students come to regret.

“I only played violin because my parents forced me to. I really wanted to play the flute, but no, it had to be the violin,” said Hong. “In a way though, I’m thankful. If I didn’t play the violin, I wouldn’t be able to participate in the [Tacoma] Youth Symphony, and if I hadn’t done that, then I wouldn’t have made such good friends.”

“I didn’t hate it, but it seemed like a lot of work to just practice and get better,” said Yu. “Over the years … I’ve accepted that playing music is a wholesome experience that isn’t meant to be analyzed and put into words.”

While these musicians have come to accept classical music as a part of their lives, they did not view it as only a part of the Asian American experience. Instead, they see it as a part of the Asian culture in general.

“Classical music is also played in other societies as well, not just the American one,” said Truong.

Hong added that students in Korea are commonly enrolled in private academic institutions called Hagwons, where many are taught classical music. She claimed that it has become a part of the Korean culture.

“The long history of Asian culture gives it a sense of … needing to set the standard,” Yu stated. “In modern days, Western culture has taken over many leading positions that Asia used to hold, and Asia often feels like it needs to catch up.”

“Music is a universal language,” said Wu, referring to his experience at the Tacoma Youth Symphony, playing with an international orchestra. “We couldn’t understand each other talk, but we could understand each other play.”

The Asian American youths discussed how classical music has shaped their perspectives and ethics as well. Some of them elaborated on how it has altered their lifestyles.

“Being a classical musician takes hard work,” said Hong. “When we play songs that last for hours, it requires a lot of focus. It’s why I have learned to study harder, and not to be as easily distracted.”

This dedication was echoed by Truong, who stated, “I use up a reasonable amount of time to practice, where I usually practice the parts I often mess up on in the piece.”

The musicians also emphasized that teamwork is necessary for classical musicians. They described each member’s function as a part of the whole.

“Involvement with classical music has allowed me to be a little different from everybody else,” said Wu. “Playing in an orchestra makes you more aware of your surroundings and how everything works together.”

“Even though we’re playing different parts, if we don’t work together and make sure we sound good together as a group, there’s no point,” said Hong. “It only takes one person to mess up the song.”

“I usually think of [community] as a group of people living somewhere, but it could also be a group of people devoted to one hobby or idea,” said Truong.

The musicians also referred to this sense of community from classical music. They described how it has influenced them, along with how it has changed for them.

“Popular styles today usually don’t have that kind of history, so you don’t sense the same kind of connection with other musicians,” said Yu.
“The thing I value most about classical music is that it survives the test of time,” said Wu. “If you look at other types of music, they are popular for only a decade or so. But classical music has been popular for hundreds of years.” ♦

For more information on the Tacoma Youth Symphony, visit For more information on the Garfield Orchestra, visit

Steven Cong can be reached at

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