VIOLINIST Sarah Chang is only 10 years old, but already, her resume of musical feats outweighs those of most adult performers. Born in America to Korean parents, Sarah has already performed with a dozen top orchestras and conductors such as Zubin Mehta and Charles Dutoit. In January, she completed her first recording with a major record label.
ve never seen anything like this before. She has all of the materials, the repertoire, that you would expect of a mature artist," says Dorothy Delay, Sarah's violin teacher at the Juilliard School in New York, who lists Itzhak Perlman, Midori, and Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg among her former students.
Though remarkable, Sarah Chang is but one of a growing number of young Asians and Asian-Americans gaining recognition on the classical music scene today, says Ms. Delay. Such individuals include violinists Midori, Kyung-Wha Chung, and Akiko Suwanai, as well as recent Van Cliburn piano competition finalist Tian Ying, and pianist HaeSun Paik. A group of Chinese-American siblings, called the Ying Quartet, made its New York debut in May at Lincoln Center.
For the past decade, students of Asian ancestry have been flocking in record numbers to music schools in the United States. Most recently their ranks have swelled at the pre-college level, where gaggles of 13- through 18-year-olds - exhibiting uncanny technical skills - make their Western peers swallow hard at the increased competition.
At Juilliard, Asians and Asian-Americans make up 35 percent of the collegiate population and 68 percent of the pre-college division. At the Walnut Hill School in Natick, Mass., an arts prep-school affiliated with the New England Conservatory of Music, 70 percent of the music majors are Asian nationals, mostly from Korea and Taiwan, says Douglas Worthen, director of music.
Besides more virtuosos on the rise, "we're going to have more Asians in our orchestras, that's for sure, especially in the strings," says Marylou Speaker Churchill, principal second violinist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Sixteen of her 22 teenage students are Asian.
In the US, most Asian-American parents insist on intensive music instruction for their children, say music school officials. In Rochester, N.Y., at the Eastman School of Music's community education division, 35 percent of the students are Asian-American, mostly Korean, which "certainly exceeds their proportion of the Rochester population," says director Vincent Lenti. "They are not too different from the European immigrant families of several generations ago," who believed "there was a certain basic dis c
ipline you learned from music that was good for you," he explains.
Significant numbers of Asian nationals - sometimes as young as 13 or 14 - are traveling to the US from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China to pursue mostly piano or string instrument training, often leaving behind their families.
In Taiwan, teenagers think that coming to the US is "like going to heaven," says 18-year-old Mei-Ann Chen, a violinist at Walnut Hill School who arrived two years ago from Taiwan. "It's better to study here, because there are famous teachers and good concerts to go to."
HaeSun Paik, a 26-year-old pianist from Korea who won first prize in the William Kapell Piano Competition in 1989, came to the US when she was 14. "You have to know the life of Western culture in order to play and interpret the music," she says.
In Japan, playing an instrument is a normal part of growing up. Music education is mandatory at all grade levels, and in the high schools, orchestras and bands rehearse several hours a day, plus five to six hours on Saturdays and Sundays.
Thus, the number of kids pursuing music in college is staggering. At the Kunitachi College of Music outside of Tokyo, there were about 900 piano majors, says Jo Faulmann, director of admissions for the School of Music at the University of Miami, who recently traveled there on a recruiting trip.
"The colleges and conservatories in Japan are crammed with people. It's a musically literate populace, and with that kind of demand, they've got to go somewhere else," says Michael Bates, general manager of the music education division of Yamaha Corporation of America in Los Angeles.
Among the Korean middle class, having one's children learn an instrument is a status symbol. "Even the poor families want to learn," Miss Paik says. "They have so many schools, even kindergartens, with pianos in them so that children can learn." Unfortunately, says Ms. Faulmann, Korean universities can handle only about one tenth of the students who want to enroll in music programs.
Paik is not convinced all young Korean musicians come to the US for the right reasons. "The problem is they come here because the family has money, and it's a popular thing to do. Some people come to find husbands, because when you're 22 or 23, you have to get married. If I went back to Korea now, I'd be considered an old maid."
Faulmann, who went to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, says that for Japanese women to be musicians "adds to their dowry. We saw predominantly women in all the countries. In Korea, I don't think we auditioned a single male."
Mr. Worthen at the Walnut Hill School says it would be "selling [Asian families] short" to say they just want to marry off their daughters. Instead, he says, many families recognize there is more opportunity for advancement if young women go to the West.
Mei-Ann Chen says it bothers her that some Asians just want to go to Juilliard "because they know that when they return to their own country, they'll get paid more because of the name."
Though many Asians, like Paik, have chosen to remain in the West for their careers, a fair number return to their homes to teach and perform, say school officials. Miss Chen thinks she will stay in the US only "until I'm good enough to go back to develop Taiwan's musical system. I really want to do something for my country."