Violinist Apologizes for ‘Culturally Insensitive’ Remarks About Asians

by Msnbctv news staff

A master class by the renowned violinist Pinchas Zukerman was supposed to be the highlight of a recent virtual symposium hosted by the Juilliard School.

Instead, Zukerman angered many of the roughly 100 students and teachers in the class on Friday when he invoked racist stereotypes about Asians, leading Juilliard to decide not to share a video of his master class afterward with participants, as it had initially intended.

At one point, Zukerman told a pair of students of Asian descent that their playing was too perfect and that they needed to add soy sauce, according to two participants in the class. At another point, in trying to encourage the students to play more lyrically, he said he understood that people in Korea and Japan do not sing, participants said. His comments were reported earlier by, a music site.

Zukerman’s remarks were widely denounced by musicians and teachers, with many saying they reinforced ugly stereotypes facing artists of Asian descent in the music industry.

Juilliard tried to distance itself from the matter, describing Zukerman as a guest instructor and saying his “insensitive and offensive cultural stereotypes” did not represent the school’s values. Zukerman apologized Monday for what he called his “culturally insensitive” comments.

“In Friday’s master class, I was trying to communicate something to these two incredibly talented young musicians, but the words I used were culturally insensitive,” he said in a statement. “I’m writing to the students personally to apologize. I am sorry that I made anyone uncomfortable. I cannot undo that, but I offer a sincere apology. I learned something valuable from this, and I will do better in the future.”

Asian and Asian American performers have long dealt with racist tropes that their playing is too technical or unemotional. A wave of anti-Asian hate in the United States in recent months has heightened concerns about the treatment of Asian performers.

Zukerman is a celebrated violinist and conductor whose career has spanned five decades. He was the biggest name at the Juilliard event, known as the Starling-DeLay Violin Symposium, which is focused on violin teaching and attracts promising young musicians, many of them teenagers, to take part in master classes.

He made the remarks on Friday while offering feedback to a pair of sisters of Japanese descent.

After the sisters played a duet, Zukerman told them they should try bringing more of a singing quality to their playing, according to participants in the class. When he said that he knew Koreans did not sing, one of the sisters interrupted to say that they were not Korean, adding that they were partly of Japanese descent. Zukerman replied by saying that people in Japan did not sing either, according to participants.

His remarks prompted an outcry among Asian and Asian American musicians, with some sharing stories on social media about their experiences dealing with stereotypes and bias.

Hyeyung Yoon, a violinist who last year founded Asian Musical Voices of America, an alliance of artists, said Zukerman’s remarks represented a type of thinking that “dehumanizes a group of people without actually getting to know who they are.”

“It’s so prevalent in classical music, but also prevalent in the larger society,” she said in an interview.

Keiko Tokunaga, a violinist, said she and many other Asian musicians had heard comments similar to Zukerman’s.

“We are often described as emotionless or we just have no feelings and we are just technical machines,” she said in an interview. “And that is very offensive, because we are as human as anyone else on the planet.”

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