Professor Eugenia Oi-Yan Yau: Music is Universal

January 18, 2006

Professor Eugenia Yau has studied Western classical music since she was a little girl in Hong Kong. She came to the United States, to Texas actually, in 1992 on a scholarship to study vocal performance. She stayed in Texas for seven years, eventually earning her Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in vocal performance from the University of Texas. Yau has always studied Western classical music, the music she understood to be the benchmark, so why do Americans always expect her to sing Chinese songs?

Early in her career, Yau begrudgingly accommodated the American notion that she would perform Chinese music, but eventually she gained a true appreciation for her native songs. “Globalization has brought value to many cultural traditions,” Yau points out. “Now the Chinese can embrace their own tradition instead of always deferring to Western music as the standard-bearer.”

Plus, Yau just likes music. In spite of her intense study of Western classical music, she does not believe that any one kind of music is better than another. “Singing is good for you,” she asserts with gusto. “Proper singing technique promotes good health.” But what about those of us who can’t sing? “Anyone can sing,” she states categorically. “No one is totally tone deaf. Singing is a wonderful way to communicate with others and yourself.”

Yau finds BMCC a great place to teach music because of the diverse student body and the rich musical heritage each student brings to the program. She has a trick for stretching her students, especially those who are heavily steeped in hip-hop. “I say to them ‘pretend to be the fat lady in the opera.’ It makes them less self-conscious if they can be silly, but it still gets the students singing.”

Yau views music as a uniter, but she acknowledges that music can also be used to create artificial distinctions. “Hollywood uses music and Asian actors to make them look silly,” she says with a smile. Instead she encourages her students from African and French backgrounds to explore their connections, which aren’t always obvious. And she found poignant evidence of music’s ability to unite people from different backgrounds in Chinatown on Chinese New Year. “Black children were singing Chinese New Year songs,” she exclaims. “The children were sharing oral traditions.” She shakes her head at the memory and then sums it up this way: “Music makes the world smaller.”

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