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Cellist Robin Park ’23 discusses COVID-19 and racial equity in music

<h6>Courtesy of Robin Park</h6>
Courtesy of Robin Park

Robin Park 23, a cellist from Princeton Junction, N.J., is planning to major in history, with certificates in East Asian studies and music performance. He currently serves as music director of both Opus and La Vie en Cello.

As a cellist, Park has received numerous accolades, including Grand Prize at the Caprio Young Artist Competition and the National YoungArts Foundation Competition. Previously, he was Principal Cellist of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America in 2019 and a two-time alumnus of the New York String Orchestra Seminar.


Until the COVID-19 pandemic, Robin was active as a section cellist of Symphony in C, one of three professional training orchestras in the United States. Robin currently studies cello with Leo Singer, Professor of Cello at the McDuffie Center for Strings, as well as with Richard Aaron, Professor of Cello at the Juilliard School and the University of Michigan.

In our conversation, Robin and I touched on topics of music practice and performance, racial and economic equity in classical music, and the effects of the pandemic on the University’s academics and music-making. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Aster Zhang: To get us started, could you tell me a little bit about your experience arranging and composing music? Perhaps some pieces that you’re currently working on?

Robin Park: Honestly, coming to Princeton, I’ve kind of taken a break from my arranging and composing stuff. I’ve actually never had a fully finished Opus 1, it’s a lot of here and there, and, like, maybe half a quartet, or one movement of a suite. I actually don’t have formal composing training — of course, AP Music Theory, yeah, but you know how that works. That teaches you how to write like a knockoff Telemann.

Like I said, I am very emotion-oriented, so I kind of write whatever makes me feel pain or that kind of intensity in emotion, and so I tend to write things that sound a little cliché — it’s unfortunate, but I do whatever makes me feel good, in a sense, and that’s the same for arranging as well. It has gotten to the point where I hear a song and the first thing I think of is, “Could this be arranged for a cello ensemble?”

It’s so bad, but yeah, I think I started arranging back in middle school, when I formed a quartet with kids at my school, and we were just doing cheap gigs, playing at weddings and, like, school events. I arranged “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay for string quartet — it was kind of a disaster, but that was kind of my starting point, and I’ve been arranging a lot.


I’m currently arranging for La Vie [en Cello] as music director, and I’ve been arranging a Lion King medley and also the second movement of the New World Symphony, Largo, Going Home, so that’s pretty much my experience.

AZ: Fantastic. It’s definitely, based on what I’ve come to know about Princeton’s academic schedule and the workload, understandable that you’re not doing as much as you used to. But I wanted to ask more about this: you described your own music as — what was the word that you used?

RP: Emotion-oriented?

AZ: Yeah, emotion-oriented, kind of. When we talk about that, I definitely have the same problem, where I feel that, when I’m getting too emotionally into the music, it ends up sounding contrived or kitschy. How did you deal with that perception, or how does it factor into the way in which you create?

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RP: Well, as a notorious over-thinker, I always, like, go back to my own music, and if it sounds cliché, I will control-A and delete. I will not hold back, and I have lost a lot of really nice melodies due to that kind of flawed personality.

But I feel like, if you look at the great composers — if you look at Debussy, if you look at Dvořák — they’re using a lot of folk themes that, to the people who created that folk music, to the people in that culture, are going to sound so cliché, and they’ve probably heard it as kids from their grandmas, but they somehow make it still original. I think that’s the biggest part of music: taking something that’s not original and making it original — so I think that being cliché is nothing to be afraid of.

But at the same time, one, you shouldn’t be plagiarizing — that’s just terrible; first of all, that’s just not yours, and also, when you’re creating a piece, it’s also important not to make being original the focus of your creation, because no matter what you do, it’s going to be original to some degree.

AZ: I think that’s a really good point that you made. I think this brings us to another thing that I want to talk about, which is equity in classical music, especially given … 2020, racial inequity throughout America and throughout the world. What would you say stands out to you as a barrier to social mobility or actual diversity in the classical music world?

RP: Well, there’s a lot of problems, frankly. But, to kind of sum it all up, I would say the issue is a white male patriarchy in classical music and also this kind of fetishization of the past — of the past of Europe, to be more accurate.

It’s the notion that these dead white men — who were geniuses, who created some really amazing music — somehow have the license to control how we perceive music and how we play music, and this also plays out in, of course, modern settings, how we barely play works by Black American composers or Indigenous American composers.

I actually am really interested in this, but I still haven’t found any works by Indigenous American composers, probably due to a more deeply ingrained injustice that Indigenous American people faced in North America. Classical music basically oppresses Black and Indigenous people in every single way possible, and part of that is the model minority myth, because as someone who grew up in an Asian family, I think the baseline for most Asian families is that you have to play an instrument.

AZ: Oh, too personal!

RP: Yeah, very personal. But it’s dangerous, because by doing that, we’re technically convincing ourselves that classical music is a form of high culture, and a form of this elite road to success: Like, if you’re good at the violin, if you’re good at the piano, you’ll win competitions, your resume will look good, and you’ll get into an Ivy League school. Boom!

That’s, like, the Asian life. But that’s a myth. Well, it’s not a myth. It’s partly true, but it’s dangerous, because that kind of sets apart these Black and Indigenous folks and Brown folks, who live in communities where there, first of all, isn’t educational equity, nor do they have financial equity, so — you know how much money cello takes? I mean, the instrument alone …

AZ: Absurd. Absolutely ridiculous.

RP: Yeah. Like, honestly, the violin would be more affordable, because at least the strings are cheaper, but cello, the biggest issue I’m seeing right now is money, and the capitalization of music. Capitalism is rooted in racial inequality, and also sexism — it’s the male property owners that originally had the right to vote — and people love to say, “let’s not make music political, it’s just music,” but I’m just like, first of all, you made it political by making it white-centric, male-centric, and it’s just so damaging.

I’m one of the coaches for the Trenton Youth Orchestra, and we’ve had a shortage of cellos ever since we were founded, and that’s partly because of how expensive it is — like, one set of strings, at minimum, will cost $80.

AZ: I definitely see what you’re saying, and it’s kind of this really damaging reality of classical music that, when we’ve elevated it to this level, you know, we end up creating this really toxic winner-takes-all mentality about the “geniuses” and the people who are already up there in the status quo.

A lot of what performers are doing right now to combat these kinds of things is programming more works by Black and Indigenous American composers. I think a really good example is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: I think his works have been cropping up a lot on some programs lately. I don’t know if you watched the Takács Quartet perform at Princeton —

RP: Yes.

AZ: Yeah, they were incredible. But very personally, I’ve been wondering about this: How do you think that performers should approach those works in a way that’s actually honoring their legacy and what they’ve contributed to classical music, and not in a way that’s simply conforming to increased social pressures, whatever it is that they see cropping up in classical music culture, as it is now?

RP: I think it’s great that people are trying to program more Black American composers, of course. I have a couple of issues with certain ways that they’re doing it, but I’ll talk about them later. I think the first issue that needs to be tackled is having actually Black and Indigenous and Brown folks play that music, not just having a white-dominated orchestra saying, “Oh, look, I have a Black composer on my program! I’m so woke.”

That’s actually more damaging, because you’re kind of creating — it’s almost like the Obama myth, where because Obama became president, people thought, “Oh, we have achieved racial equity,” like, no. Just because you do one thing doesn’t mean you stop.

True equity is when the composition of an orchestra reflects the ethnic proportions that this country is made of. And maybe it’s not even just that, it’s also honestly evaluating the music and the artistry that these amazing Black and Brown artists have created.

I think it’s also that we need to create more educational equity, but I’m kind of going on a tangent right now. To go back to programming Black composers, I think Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is great, but I feel like we have to take him with a grain of salt, because he was a mixed composer ... He was very much, like, “Oh, I am now a rich, mixed man who has successfully entered the white sphere,” instead of being, like, “I am a proud Black man.”

And then we start forgetting about female composers like Florence Price, who often get the short end of the stick, not only because of their race, but also because of their gender, and intersectionality — cannot forget that, of course.

And I’m pretty sure there are LGBTQ Black and Brown folks out there who are not being represented, so we need to realize the intersectionality of these composers as well, and the multitudes of issues that they’re going through.

And equity doesn’t mean equality — let’s get that straight first — equality is just giving everybody $100, but equity is like giving a person who has $99 one dollar and giving somebody with one dollar $99, so equity, in this case, would mean actively looking for people in marginalized groups and people in intersecting marginalized groups, and uplifting their works more than, say, white men, or even, in some cases, men of color. So, that’s my two cents on it.

AZ: Really appreciate this. I think this is a question that has entangled a lot of industries— not just music — I think a particular venture capital firm was in the news fairly recently for saying that the reason why there wasn’t more gender equity or racial equity in their firm was due to the fact that, according to them, there simply weren’t enough qualified candidates interviewing, or enough qualified people in the pool, and a lot of people have echoed that sentiment in the musical community as well. How would you, in your role as a music director, as a performer, how would you respond to those kinds of claims?

RP: Personally, I mean, I don’t have any authority in the musical field just yet, I’m still a student. First of all, I think that that notion of not having enough qualified candidates is just complete hogwash, because, first of all, you can only judge two people fairly when they have two similar backgrounds.

Myself, I am in a very privileged position. Although I didn’t have the best financial situation growing up, I still had supportive parents who literally sacrificed thousands of dollars to buy me an instrument, to get me strings, to get me lessons. Putting me against a person, say, from the inner city in Philadelphia, who grew up without having access to regular lessons, a good instrument, and without a family setting where they could practice in peace, I feel like that’s just not fair.

And just on a basic level, you can’t put on a blind audition and say, “oh, those people are just worse than the people who actually had that kind of support,” like, that completely undermines the idea of equity. That’s why I make that distinction [between equality and equity], because what companies are doing right now and what a lot of organizations are doing right now is equality. It’s completely fair! At least they’re not discriminating, right? You should be thankful! Like, no. No.

It’s about equity, and I feel like if I were in the position of an administrator, I would make sure there was — this is always dangerous, and I’m going to say this with some reservations — I feel like there should be a minimum quota for Black and Brown folks. Of course, that’s dangerous, because you know how that becomes an issue in college admissions, and, of course, in trying to provide equity, you’re also being racist, but I feel like that’s the first step to equity.

When we have more Black and Brown folks in these professional orchestras, then that also gives them more leverage to take in more students, and maybe they’ll take in more Black and Brown students because of that level of empathy that they can have, rather than just having all of these white teachers with Black and Brown students.

So, I feel like that’ll just create a kind of virtuous cycle of bringing more Black and Brown folks into classical music, and I personally don’t think that having more Black and Brown folks in classical music is necessarily a bad thing. Some people are like, classical music is inherently a white supremacist genre, and I’m like, yes, but it’s also art, and if you take away that kind of label, you’re left with the bare music.

Of course, you can’t separate the music from the artist, but I still find some value in the music itself, and just saying that because it’s white supremacist music, taking the opportunity away from certain Black and Brown people who want to practice that music, I feel, is in itself discrimination. I feel like we should just create a system and a setting where everybody has the freedom of opportunity.

AZ: And just to put a cap on all of this, can you talk a little bit about how all of this is different, how everything has changed during the pandemic, since March, since we’re no longer on campus? What’s different about all of this?

RP: Personally, like I said in the beginning, chamber music is a big part of my interest in music, and I feel like, at times, I’ve been coming up against roadblocks in my own mentality, in terms of being self-directed, because I’m not having those jam sessions, those chamber music rehearsal sessions that keep my love for music alive.

That’s the biggest thing subtracting from continuing music under academic pressure. To be completely honest, academics are the one thing that I like least about Princeton, because, even taking the classes, it’s just too much stress, and on top of that, not being able to socialize and not being able to play chamber music, I feel, is my biggest difficulty that I’m facing under COVID.

Of course, I have much more time to practice now, because I’m not walking to and from buildings and making time to have meals with other people. But I feel like the net gain I receive from pre-COVID practicing and post-COVID practicing is pretty much around the same, because of motivation versus time, so it’s kind of inverted now. It’s very ironic, but it’s just how life works, I guess.

I think if COVID continues, we’re going to have to find new ways — and I really hope that companies out there, or people out there, developers out there, are really working to create some kind of software that will minimize latency over internet so that people can actually play chamber music and collaborate in real time. There are softwares like Cleanfeed and SoundJack that allow it, but they’re full of bugs, so it’s very unapproachable.

I feel like, also, because of the pandemic, a lot has changed in terms of how we approach music, because we’re not going to go back to normal after the pandemic. The pandemic has exposed this idea that we don’t really need to be in-person to do a lot of things, and most people — people who are steeped in the toxic individuality that is largely present in the music community — probably had a lot of that exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s the same with academics, too. But I feel like, even so, we need to find a way to continue collaboration.