From Illegitimate to Illmatic: On Tiger Mothers, Ethnoburbs, and Playing the Violin While Dreaming of Nas
“I told you, I like it.”
“This is why we have so much trouble with you.”
“You don’t know anything about it.”
“Listen to that cursing…it’s nothing but garbage!”
“What are you doing?”
“All of these CDs are going in the basement. No more rap until you start listening to your parents! Now, go practice your violin!”
Growing up, exchanges like these were common between my Korean American mother and me—a multiracial Korean Euro-American. In her eyes, there was no such thing as enough violin practice. Rap—the vulgarity! The noise! It was turning me into a juvenile delinquent! She was convinced I had it in me to be the next Korean-American classical music virtuoso, the next Sarah Chang—if only I would practice more scales and stop trying to imitate “black men shouting.” (However “conversational” the rap world considered Nas’s flow, my mother still heard yelling.)
It’s not that I didn’t like classical music—I watched Amadeus on loop until the VHS squealed—but my mother, like the mothers of most all my Asian friends, insisted on it consuming a fairly large chunk of my life. While immensely diverse in its makeup, most of the Asian population where I lived was either Korean or Chinese, and were forced by their parents to learn violin, piano or cello. Not only was it criminal to play an instrument other than one of these; but, whichever one (or two) you chose, you had better be the best at it.
Author and Yale Law Professor, Amy Chua, recently incited an online firestorm when the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from hercontroversial new memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she recounts calling her daughters “worthless” and “garbage” if they couldn’t perform a piece of classical music up to her exacting standards. University of Hawai’i at Manoa Professor, Mari Yoshihara’s study, Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music(2008) describes similar instances of “tiger mothering,” such as virtuoso violinist, Midori Goto’s, mother, Setsu Goto, who (it was rumored) was so strict that it forced Midori into a mental breakdown and an eating disorder. Many would likely agree that “Tiger Mothering” such as this is morally questionable (and in some cases abusive), but I should note that instances like these are only part of a much bigger picture. Scores of students and performers would no doubt concur with Dr. O’C’s recent SO! account of the potential for classical music praxis to have ameliorative effects. Despite this, however, classical music training seems to have become a central tenet of “Tiger Mother” methodology. In all the kerfluffle over Chua’s book, no one has been asking the most foundational question: Why is it so important to Asians and Asian Americans that their children play classical music?
In a recent interview on why she chose classical violin and piano for her children, Chua fancifully suggests that classical music is the antidote to materialism. She says that “classical music all about depth” and calls the violin and piano “very respectable instruments.” Indicative of more than just a love of classical music, Chua’s statements imply that other forms of music lack comparable artistic value and require less cultivation to perform and enjoy. In a similar vein, the Asian-descent classical musicians interviewed in Yoshihara’s Musicians From a Different Shore divulge their belief that playing classical music anchors one to a high social stratum. Acknowledging the contradiction between classical music’s high cultural status and its mostly poor compensation, the musicians identified social factors such as educational attainment and musical taste and ability as more important determining factors of class standing than income. Yoshihara thus links the importance Asians and Asian Americans place on classical music praxis to class consciousness and the production of cultural capital.
Class consciousness no doubt accounts for some of the zealousness exhibited by Tiger Mothers with regard to their children’s classical music training, but it’s not the only thing that keeps them roaring. Chua’s Battle Hymn illustrates that, in addition to class consciousness, the pressure to study classical music stems from an intra-racial expectation to perform Asianness adequately. Chapter 5 of Chua’s memoir, titled, “On Generational Decline,” is her cut-and-dried summarization of how subsequent generations of Chinese Americans become lazier as they’re allowed to revel in the comforts of middle class life. Chua chooses classical music for her children because it is “the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness.” Constructed as an appeal to Chinese Americans, Chua essentially argues that classical music training is key to an Asian person’s cultural and racial legitimacy. Unwilling to relinquish “the high cultural tradition of [her] ancient ancestors,” she expects her children to uphold a racially and culturally endorsed standard of melody-making that reinforces Asian gender norms and encourages other Asian parents to do the same.
In Ellicott City, Maryland, the wealthy, culturally diverse “Ethnoburb” of Baltimore where I grew up, Asian American classical musicians abound and Asian American rappers are few. Here, (where the community-wide motto is “Choose Civility”) Asian youth gained a sort of “cred” for mastering the violin or piano, and this pressure to “prove” oneself along racial lines was something I always felt—particularly as a teen of mixed race. It was probably the biggest reason why I didn’t quit the violin until I graduated from high school. I hated it, but resentfully continued attending orchestra and private lessons in the fear that I would lose the meager amount of “cred” I’d built up. It hardly mattered, though. There was no chance of me getting into an Ivy League school or playing Carnegie Hall—I listened to rap and sometimes didn’t do my homework. In short, I would never be a “Super Asian” (a term coined by my Indian music stand partner and me), and as any Asian kid knows, if you’re not the best, you needn’t bother trying. None of the “Super Asians” had any interest in rap, and one even joked that I was a “chocolate-filled twinkie” for wearing a Pelle Pelle jacket to practice one week.
People who looked like Sarah Chang were supposed to be in the business of making melodies, not rhymes. Chang performing a violin concerto is a comforting scene, a sonic image that reaffirms a familiar cultural narrative of femininity and class stature associated with Asianness in the US. A result of the gradual process of East Asian modernization (instigated by Western Imperialism), classical music was initially adopted by the people at the behest of the state, eventually becoming a integral part of middle class life in East Asia and a social marker of bourgeois womanhood that functioned to situate women vis à vis the domicile. Uncomfortable defining myself in this way (and feeling, also, that I never truly could), I gravitated towards something more “disruptive” that would allow me to show a different face to the world.
Rap became a vehicle for me to explain myself in more hybrid terms. On drives into Baltimore City, I heard it bellowing from the windows of the West Side’s crumbling row homes. The loud, curt, interjections! The spontaneity and candor! This loudness was initially what drew me in, but eventually I realized that rap had just as much profundity as anything classical you could throw at it. Listening to rap, I was finally on offense. It was a medium that spoke to me, because it made me feel capable of speaking back. And there was an entire legion of disaffected youth who seemed to feel the same way.
Despite this popularity, however, critics of rap maintain that the sounds that (predominately African American) rappers produce are nothing more than “noise.” In Black Noise, Tricia Rose observes that despite (and perhaps because of) rap’s widespread popularity and cultural relevance, it is often pitted as classical music’s polar-opposite—“unintelligible yet aggressive sound that disrupt[s the] familial domain” (63). Against charges that rap lacks “depth,” purveyors of hip hop (despite their hefty salaries) often accrue little to no widespread artistic acclaim. Evidence of what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman terms the “sonic color-line,” this demotion and “Othering” of non-white sounds into “noise” (discussed further in her recent SO! post) has historically functioned to both generate and underwrite public attitudes about race, class and gender and to create dominant ideas about listening that she dubs “the listening ear.”
It seems that dominant modes of listening have everything figured out. If you look like this, you sound like that. But, what about people who look like me? What are we supposed to sound like? With which sonic cultural productions am I supposed to ally myself, and do I have a choice in the matter? How does “the listening ear” interpret a biracial Korean Euro-American or any person of mixed race heritage? Was there a distinction to be heard? I was sure there was, but didn’t quite know how to voice it.
For most of my life I have lived on the precipice of Asianness and something else, leaving me to feel—at times—confused, demoralized and illegitimate. As Michael Omi and Howard Winant famously note in their seminal work, Racial Formation, “Without a racial identity [in America], one is in danger of having no identity.” Acutely aware of my difference, I searched for ways of being heard as a multiracial subject in a fiercely stratified, race-conscious society. In the Introduction to The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, Michael Omi notes that within the historical and political context of the United States, (the “one-drop rule,” eugenic fears of racial intermixing, anti-miscegenation laws, etc.) multiracial identities have consistently been “contained, disregarded, [and] denied.” Disruptive to fixed notions about race, it is often a challenge for multiracial subjects to be recognized or understood by the state or the ear.
Rap assisted me in my effort to be heard as a multiracial person. While my Asian friends in All-State Orchestra were polishing their four-octave chromatic scales for the judging panel at Julliard, I was conscientiously studying Rakim’s flow and the RZA’s beats, hoping that one day it might make sense for me to show my face at a rap battle, if only as an observer. After the realization that Nas wasn’t the reason I could never be a “Super Asian,” my mom returned my copy of his masterpiece debut, Illmatic. As previously, I spent the hours before bedtime reciting the lyrics to Nasty classics like “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” moved by every skillful turn of phrase: “Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian/half man-half amazin,” I would repeat over and over until I got the cadences just right. Whatever the hell he was talking about, I was sure it applied to me.
J. Stoever-Ackerman’s recent exploration of the complicated relationship between classical music and social class in America raised some provocative questions for me personally. I am a professional classical musician with a doctorate in voice, as well as the daughter of two working-class white ethnics who became professional intellectuals. My family’s origins, curiously perhaps by today’s standards, did not place classical music out of reach on the far side of the class barrier: my father played in the legendary Hempstead High School Orchestra on Long Island, while my mother, a single teen mom, took herself to the Philharmonic for a Christmas gift every year while she worked in a factory and attended college at night (this was, however, before music instruction was gutted from the public school curriculum in the 1970s and 1980s). As a result, classical music was a very present part of my early life, and, without overstating things too much, I can realistically say that it has helped to form me as a person, and has provided me not only with bread for my body but also, and more importantly, with breath for my soul. I feel like the study and practice of classical music gave me not only my career, but even my life. Coming from this position, then, Stoever-Ackerman’s slighty gulity bemusement at her pleasure in the orchestral concert she attended, and her assertion that “where listening is concerned, resistance and subjection can never be easily separated,” sat uneasily with me.
Stoever-Ackerman’s objections to longhair music are based not only upon class affinity, but also, perhaps unconsciously, in her standpoint as a twenty-first-century American intellectual. As UCLA musicologist Richard Taruskin has noted, it has been au courant since the 1960s for intellectuals to eschew classical music in favor of the various genres of what he calls “commercial music:”
and they often seem oblivious to the very existence of other genres. Of no other art medium is this true. Intellectuals in America distinguish between commercial and “literary” fiction, between commercial and “fine” art, between mass-market and “art” cinema. But the distinction in music is no longer drawn, except by professionals. Nowadays most educated persons maintain a lifelong fealty to the popular groups they embraced as adolescents, and generation gaps between parents and children now manifest themselves musically in contests between rock styles.
If, as has already been discussed extensively at this site, pop and its various genres make up the (only?) legitimate musical repertoires of the American working classes–both white and of color–I believe it’s time for a word from the trenches of musical praxis: this is not necessarily so, nor should it be.
While earning my doctorate at the City University of New York, I taught for two years as a graduate assistant and for another two as an adjunct at two of CUNY’s senior, i.e. four-year, colleges. In the heart of an urban metropolis, I taught studio and class voice, that is to say both individual lessons and singing classes en masse. My students, with very few exceptions, were from the outer-borough working classes, traveling long distances on public transportation to attend college while working and in some cases parenting, and they represented a variety of races and ethnicities, with whites solidly in the minority. Most of my private-lesson students were older than I was, returning students who had been sidetracked by life and various dead-end jobs from finishing their bachelor’s degrees at a more usual age. Since I am a classical singer, I taught everyone the same thing: classical singing. My voice students studied classical musical practice and classical music repertoire not only because I believe that healthy classical technique is the basis of good vocal technique across genres — that is, if you can sing well in the classical style, you can sing anything well — but also because I know, in the depths of my being, that the experience of making classical music is healing and transformative for the person who undertakes it, an experience that should be denied to or refused by no one. In this sense, classical music praxis was, in my studio, a tool for self-transformation, self-empowerment, and self-expression that ignored distinctions of class and race. This might suggest that classical music is in fact a subversive practice for the working classes and people of color, and perhaps it is, though I see it more as a human right.
In teaching these diverse classes, I tried very hard to discern what sort of a person each of my students was, and to choose the right repertoire for each based not only on vocal characteristics but also on everything the student presented to me: his or her ethos, if you will. The truth is that I loved and respected my students, and I felt a heavy responsibility for making their experience as fledgling classical musicians one that would enrich their lives. They were, as I mentioned, from wildly divergent backgrounds. One was the daughter of a famous Puerto Rican bandleader who had discouraged her from a career in music, her true love; she made a living selling gloves and hats from a table outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One was a Haitian Seventh-Day Adventist, a highly intelligent, spinsterish woman who spoke German as well as French, and whose singing revealed hints of a magnificent natural instrument — if only she had been physically and psychically free to the point that she could have accessed it. Another was T., a shy, socially-awkward man in early middle age who worked as a paralegal, and who confided after three lessons that he was a recovering alcoholic. Many of my students, I perceived, were profoundly wounded and heartbroken people. Though occasionally they spoke of their traumas and difficulties, words were not really necessary; the dynamic of the private voice lesson is so transparently revealing, and the rough areas in the voice provide such an accurate mirror of the catches in the soul, that I didn’t need to look hard to grasp their woundedness, if not always the nature of their wounds. This is why, as every classical singer and voice teacher know, tears are a commonplace in the voice studio. And this is why it is so essential that a voice teacher be compassionate. The voice — that intangible, ethereal instrument played by the passage of air over two threads of gristle in the throat — can be not only a diagnostic gauge of the inner singer, but also, ideally, a means of healing for both the singer and her audience.
T. surprised me in our first lesson by bringing in a song he was working on on his own. Occasionally students did this, the song generally being from the Broadway repertoire. T.’s choice, however, was Robert Schumann’s “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden.” This piece is number 5 of the Op. 24 Liederkreis, a song cycle based on poems from the Buch der Lieder of Heinrich Heine, the greatest poet of German Romanticism (and also a notable Jewish convert to Christianity, who famously declared on his deathbed in Paris: “I know that God will forgive me my sins: c’est son métier“). This was an ambitious choice. I usually started my students on one or more of the shopworn Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. But T.’s German was excellent, and he even directed me in how he wanted me to accompany him in the piano part; he had rather well-formed ideas and opinions about how the piece should sound, one of the hallmarks of a true musician.
“Schöne Wiege” starts off as a gently-rocking lullaby-like song (what we in the biz call a “strophic berceuse”), then turns quickly into a rhapsodic, though brief, through-composed quasi-operatic number (a “scena”), with the off-kilter rhythmic phrases and the melodic angularity typical of Schumann. Its subject, and the subject of the song cycle in which it is the pivot, is that great theme of German Romanticism: unhappy love that forces the wounded lover on a journey which, in some treatments, ends in death or madness. My translation follows:
Beautiful cradle of all my sorrows, beautiful tomb of my repose,
Beautiful city, we must part: “Farewell,” I call to you.
Farewell, you holy threshhold where my beloved wanders;
Farewell, sacred spot where I first saw her.
And had I never seen you, beautiful queen of my heart,
The wretchedness I now endure would never have befallen me.
I did not wish to touch your heart; I did not seek your love —
I wished only to live a quiet life near the place where your breath flutters.
But you yourself drive me from here; your mouth speaks bitter words.
Madness takes hold of my mind, and my heart is sick and sore.
And I drag my weary, weakened limbs away, leaning on my wanderer’s staff,
Until the time I might lay by tired head in some cool, far-off grave.
I was astonished by T.’s innate feeling for this difficult piece, and we quickly came to the point where I felt like I was serving him badly by accompanying him on the piano myself. I hired a student accompanist, an excellent pianist from Sweden, to come to our lessons, paying her out of pocket. Once out from behind the piano, I could work with T. more intensely on his breath and his phrasing. This ushered in one of the most thrilling times I’ve ever had as a teacher. Working on “Schöne Wiege” in the studio with T. and the accompanist, I felt as if we were riding a cresting wave together as three musicians. T. achieved moments in which there was a synergy between his vocal line and the equally important piano part, and when not only the melody and the meaning of the text, but even the sounds of the words themselves created multiple layers of meaning in his performance. Especially stunning was the way that he was able to sing each repetition of “Lebewohl!” (farewell!) differently, drawing one out with rubato, clipping another. I would leave these lessons feeling elated, as if I had finally found what I was meant to do with my life.
T. wanted to audition for the B.M. degree at CUNY, a more prestigious program than the B.A. he was pursuing, so we started working on an audition program. I gave him an Italian piece, a piece by French late-Romantic composer Gabriel Fauré, the aching tenor showpiece “Lonely House” from Kurt Weill’s 1947 American opera Street Scene (often performed by university music departments because of its plethora of ensemble roles), for which Langston Hughes wrote the libretto:
And, finally, “Der Lindenbaum,” the best-known piece from Franz Schubert’s great song-cycle Winterreise. “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree) also treats the theme of being made to leave home forever, driven on by the unforgettable pain of love gone wrong, and it has become a kind of folk-song in the German-speaking lands:
In one stanza of “Der Lindenbaum,” the narrator describes how, in the course of his journey, the cold wind has blown his hat away, and yet he does not stop. T. mentioned something that I hadn’t considered: that in Europe in the 1820s, a man outdoors without his hat would have been committing an unthinkable social transgression; the fact that the narrator doesn’t turn back for his hat, T. suggested, showed the desperation of his plight, and was a clear foreshadowing of the madness into which he almost willfully descends at the end of the song cycle. I realized that T. was the kind of student I had dreamed of teaching, one who gave serious thought to the meaning of the text and the music, and to the reasons composers might have had for writing as they did.
When the time for T.’s audition came around in the spring, he clutched. I had instructed him to start the audition–at which I was not allowed to be present–with one of his best pieces, the Weill or the Schubert, but he second-guessed the audition committee and decided that they would probably want to hear the Italian piece first. A mistake. He wasn’t admitted, and the following year switched his major from voice to music composition.
Near the end of the school year, I organized a recital for my students. T. was to sing “Lonely House” and “Lindenbaum.” He rushed in just as the recital was starting with an etiolated, sickly-looking man whom I realized was his boyfriend in tow. He told me at the intermission that he almost hadn’t come. His beloved cat was near death, and he was beside himself. He got through his pieces, though he didn’t shine.
This made me think about all the dreadful times in my life when I had kept on singing. There was simply nothing else to do; many times singing had seemed the only thing left to me. In our next lesson, one of our last, I mentioned obliquely some of these occasions in my own life, which included abortion and divorce. An artist, I explained, has to be cool-headed even in the face of great personal suffering. C’est son métier. It’s her job to sublimate her suffering into a balm that might touch those who hear her, and give them the healing that she seeks for herself. Arising out of our nonetheless-shared western cultural heritage, classical music is a gift to us twenty-first century Americans across race and class, and, in some small way, those who practice it can use this gift — the gift of beauty — to transform our own suffering, as well as the suffering of others.
I never saw T. again after that, except once by chance, as I was heading to a pub in Midtown to meet my boyfriend. He still had a CD I lent him, the wonderful Tryout, which features recordings of Kurt Weill singing and playing his own songs in rehearsal for the Broadway shows he wrote.
For a final treat, here’s an excerpt from that CD, Kurt Weill singing a snatch of his famous song “Speak Low” from the 1947 musical “One Touch of Venus,” for which American poet Ogden Nash wrote the lyrics. In Weill’s performance, the great tradition of the German art song — the tradition of “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden” and “Der Lindenbaum” — meets the race-and-class-fraught American popular music scene; the song became a beloved standard, and was sung by the great jazz triumvirate of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, among others. Here, Weill’s fragile-sounding vocal delivery and heavy German accent embody the world-weary European composer (Weill was a refugee) delivering himself into the capable and vital hands of a musical culture built by immigrants and former slaves.