Art, essay, Music

Transcending Stereotype

Violin ATB

When I quit violin in elementary school my violin teacher told me, “You’re going to regret it.” She gave me a stern look without explanation, and that was the end of that, I thought.

Except, 30 years later, I finally get what she meant.

She saw that I had talent. I was playing “William Tell Overture” at the age of nine. She also recognized I had a good sense of musical timing; she once asked me to play a woodblock as a bit of percussion for a concert performance featuring her older students.

I enjoyed playing the violin, as I enjoyed playing the recorder and singing in choir back then. I enjoyed music in general. It came easily to me, and I liked to practice.

What I didn’t tell my teacher, or anyone else at the time, was that I quit the violin because I didn’t want to be a stereotype: the stereotype of an Asian playing classical music. I didn’t pick up a stringed instrument again until I turned 15 and began to play guitar, motivated by my desire to be more creative and “rebel.”

I had a revelation at a Railroad Earth concert this January as I was focusing on the roots rock band’s violinist play. His fiddling was electric, simultaneously wild and disciplined, and as I watched his passionate performance, I finally understood what my violin teacher had said to me all those years ago. Listening to Railroad Earth’s violinist playing at that moment, I did have a pang of regret about quitting violin.

I quit for the wrong reason: I didn’t want to be a stereotype. But if I had continued with the violin, I could’ve carved a unique space for myself in the world of music. I could’ve built a bridge from my classical training to rock and folk music, the genres near and dear to my heart. But at the age of nine, I didn’t see that bridge because I didn’t know that I could create it.

By leaning into that stereotype–an Asian playing classical music–I could’ve transcended it by building the knowledge and skills to make my own path in music.

How silly I was, now that I think about it. Growing up as a classically trained musician is a good thing, Asian or not. To spend your life mastering a skill is a great challenge that comes with deep pleasure and satisfaction. I have come to understand this over the years as I move deeper into the activities that bring me joy.

I’m starting to embrace classical music now by seeing National Symphony Orchestra concerts at the Kennedy Center in D.C. I love it when they play compositions by classical composers. It connects me with a deep part of myself, the part that loves beauty.

That’s what good music is: beauty. I love to close my eyes and feel the music. It’s not about being Asian. It’s not even about being me. It’s about being carried away by beauty and feeling alive in the energy of its presence.

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