Violinist Apologizes for ‘Culturally Insensitive’ Remarks About Asians

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

Instead, Zukerman angered many of the roughly 100 participants 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 Violinist.com, 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 attracts promising young musicians, many of them teenagers.

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.

A Rise in Anti-Asian Attacks

A torrent of hate and violence against people of Asian descent around the United States began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

    • Background: Community leaders say the bigotry was fueled by President Donald J. Trump, who frequently used racist language like “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus.
    • Data: The New York Times, using media reports from across the country to capture a sense of the rising tide of anti-Asian bias, found more than 110 episodes since March 2020 in which there was clear evidence of race-based hate.
    • Underreported Hate Crimes: The tally may be only a sliver of the violence and harassment given the general undercounting of hate crimes, but the broad survey captures the episodes of violence across the country that grew in number amid Mr. Trump’s comments.
    • In New York: A wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
    • What Happened in Atlanta: Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16. A Georgia prosecutor said that the Atlanta-area spa shootings were hate crimes, and that she would pursue the death penalty against the suspect, who has been charged with murder.

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