Every year, nearly half a million Chinese students travel abroad to attend college. The U.S. is the most popular destination for these students—whose parents spend around $165,000 for an American education. Many of these students come to study Western classical music. And for the last decade or so, Chinese musicians have taken center stage in the world of classical music.
At the University of Wyoming, an overwhelming majority of master’s students in music performance come from China. Of the nine graduate recitals last year, seven were for Chinese students. Piano Professor Chi Chen Wu, who grew up in Taiwan herself, says she often travels to Asia to recruit Chinese students. “When I am invited to give concerts, then I will tell faculty there that I am willing to conduct master classes where students can play for me, so they get to know me as a teacher.”
While Chinese students come to the U.S. for training, and many hope for lucrative orchestra and soloist positions, living in a foreign country far from home creates unique challenges for these young artists. One survey conducted at Indiana University found that Chinese students had few American friends. Many felt isolated. Jason Guo, a graduate student in piano performance at UW, says that there are unique barriers to making American friends.
“I wanted to make some friends, American friends, however, it [has] some limitations. I am a piano student, so most of the time I need to spend in the small practice room, to practice. And we do have different cultures between American people and the Chinese people, and that does make a huge gap to make a friend.”
Many Chinese students begin to play piano or violin at the age of five. Detroit Symphony Orchestra bassoonist Michael Ma explains that parents often make this decision for children, expecting them to become professional musicians, and usually choosing the instrument that the child will play for a lifetime:
“I didn’t decide, my dad decided for me,” he says. “Because he’s a super music fan and he always wanted me to be a musician. He started me on violin [but I hated it]. Finally, he got an idea. He said ‘Look, you gotta pick another instrument. You don’t have to play violin, but you have to pick another instrument.’ So that’s how I started to learn the bassoon.”
Ma studied bassoon in Topeka, Kansas for a semester before moving on to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Connections between China and the U.S. move beyond the classroom. With Ma’s help, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra premiered new work by Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye last summer. DSO President Ann Parsons says the performance is part of an ongoing partnership. “This is a way of starting the partnership, starting to talk and work together.”
Western Classical music continues to have great popularity in China, and China has become a popular destination for U.S. orchestras. The Philadelphia Orchestra has toured in China three times in the last decade, and in March became the first American orchestra to video stream a performance from Shanghai. This trend seems likely to continue. This past spring, the University of Wyoming Symphony closed out its concert series with one of China’s best-loved pieces, the Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto, performed by a Chinese violinist, Sha.