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  • Interlopers in the Realm of High Culture: “Music Moms” and the Performance of Asian and Asian American Identities
  • Grace Wang (bio)

In a series of articles about summer camps, the New York Times reported on the Perlman Music Program, a prestigious six-week instructional program led by the world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman. The article focused less on the teenagers who attend than on the efforts and ambitions of the “music moms” who enroll their children in advanced programs of music study. As the reporters note: “‘music moms’ seasons are far longer than those of soccer moms. Their financial payoffs are far smaller and more elusive than those of tennis moms. But they are every bit as competitive, protective, ambitious, and self-sacrificing.” The ethos of self-sacrifice emerges clearly in a comment offered by one of the article’s featured mothers, Mrs. Kim, who bluntly states: “First priority is Yoon-jee.”1 For Mrs. Kim, this has meant living apart from her husband, a South Korean diplomat whose work required him to return to Seoul, so that her daughter, Yoon-jee, could continue her piano studies at the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division. From the initial decision to enroll their children in music lessons to the continued labor of driving back and forth to music lessons, performances, auditions, and rehearsals, “music moms” are active architects of their children’s musical development.

What the New York Times article makes clear is the integral part that parents—in particular mothers—play in the realm of classical music training. Indeed, to understand the broad context of Western classical music making, an examination of the role of “music moms” who facilitate and support their children’s musical pursuits is critical. Variations of the “stage mom” exist in many different realms, from competitive sports to beauty pageants. Yet, while the “soccer mom” typically brings to mind the image of a middle-class, white, suburban mother, as this essay reveals, the traits of sacrifice, pushiness, and determination embodied in the “music mom” have increasingly become associated with being Asian.2

The contemporary racialization of the “music mom” is not necessarily surprising given the large number of Asians and Asian Americans involved [End Page 881] in classical music training in the United States. At leading music schools and departments, Asians and Asian Americans constitute from 30 to 50 percent of the student population.3 The numbers are often higher at the pre-college level. At highly regarded programs such as Juilliard Pre-College, Asians and Asian Americans compose more than half the student body; the two largest groups represented are students of Chinese and Korean descent studying the violin or piano.4 The growing participation of Asians and Asian Americans in classical music over the past few decades can be linked to multiple contexts: the historical deployment of Western classical music in East Asia, the economic ascension of East Asian nations, and the wave of educated and professional Asian immigrants who arrived in the wake of changes in American immigration policies in 1965.5

Still, socioeconomic and demographic shifts tell only part of the story. To explore how Asian American musicians and their families understand their own participation in classical music, I conducted interviews with parents at Juilliard Pre-College and with Asian American classical musicians living in New York City.6 As a center for both music and immigration, New York offered an ideal focal point through which to examine the transnational travel of people, music, and cultural ideas and the ways that individuals use discourses of race and music in everyday, local contexts. I draw on these oral interviews—as well as mass media sources, attendance at concerts, and meetings held for Juilliard parents—to demonstrate how race, class, and cultural hierarchy circulate in the U.S. culture of classical music.

While the characteristics associated with the self-sacrificing and competitive “Asian” mom in classical music appear, on the surface, to reproduce stereotypical notions about racial difference, this essay suggests a more complex relationship between cultural practices and narratives. As I will show, the narratives that my interviewees tell about their involvement in classical music draw on a complicated, and sometimes contradictory, set...


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