October 8, 2017

Tomoko's Life Lessons Made Personal

My name is Solange Fortenbach. I study at NYU, double majoring in Politics and Environmental Studies.

Studying under Tomoko Hagiwara was one of the most memorable, exhilarating and nerve-wracking experiences of my life. Her passion for music resonates in her teaching and rubs off on her students. She says devotion to one's  work translates to personal success, and she values musicality more than anything else. In our lessons, Tomoko tended to give motivational speeches, and in many she discussed the value of hard work, compassion, and humility. 

My time as a student of Tomoko required discipline. Tomoko's lessons taught me to be meticulous as much as I was musical. I learned to identify different intonations and understand how the tone in which a note is played can change the story of the piece, also affecting the emotions experienced by the audience. A required component of musicality that everyone must understand is one of compassion. Tomoko saw me grow up, and, in that, saw my family experience some hardship. In this time, she showed more compassion than anyone I’ve ever known. 

Coming to NYU, I've used Tomoko’s lessons to help guide me through university life. When writing essays and coding, Tomoko’s lessons on thoroughness and hard work keep me writing and proofreading. When debating fellow students in my seminar courses, compassion has taught me the importance of seeing another’s point of view. In times when I am wrong, Tomoko’s lessons on humility have taught me to admit my mistakes and learn from them. Tomoko’s lessons are life lessons which I will continue to live out not only in my work ethic, but also in my comportment towards others.

September 23, 2017

Teaching Starts

It's the start of the school year, and Tomoko has been teaching piano ever since she was a teenager. What has she learned over the years?

"When I started teaching I used my background as a learner of the piano," Tomoko says. But she also contends, "You don't have to be a professional performer to teach." She realizes that,  not only does the teacher need to have playing playing skills, but must also have a deep understanding of music as well as teaching acumen.

She also learned how to teach by listening to friends. She joined the San Francisco Music Society early on; "It was a good place to socialize." And three times a year there would be a guest lecturer, which informed her teaching.

Yet teaching is not a standardized process. "Every teacher has his own style," Tomoko asserts. For that reason, she advises: It is good to be able to have a choice of teachers." Likewise, Tomoko contends: "Each student is unique."

That student individuality is a core element of teaching; the teacher has to select the music and the activity to match the student's ability, development, and interest. Fortunately, Tomoko's repertoire of compositions is broad and deep -- as is her knowledge of what works for different students. She says modestly, "Over time it becomes easier to diagnose a student's needs."

What keeps Tomoko teaching? Among other things, she asserts: "You are preparing the next generation." That generation is certainly lucky to have her as a teacher.

September 1, 2017

Ways to communicate

Tomoko has several perspectives about communication. Tomoko claims, “Communication is closer if you know the context.” Here are some of those contexts.

“When I arrived in America I didn’t know much English. If people said bad things about me, I didn’t know. That’s how I survived.”

“I don’t tell people that I am a pianist – then I am on the job instead.” On the other hand, Tomoko says, “Several friends of mine are teachers at the Conservatory where we talk together at lunch.”

Talking is important to Tomoko when she teaches. When students just need confidence, Tomoko tells her students, “You can make it.” She will also trick them by saying, “I was worse than you.”

For Tomoko, “Music is conversation. It is a sentence. It is a language.” 

This interaction is special during a performance. Tomoko ponders: “What is the communication between performers and audience? Mysterious.”

She states, “Performance is conversation that is thrown to the audience.” More specifically, Tomoko asserts, “Expression in musical performance communicates.” She also muses, “I hope the audience gets it. I can’t control how they feel.”

It is clear, though, that Tomoko’s music is very articulate.

August 13, 2017

College Time Legacy

Tomoko’s college life is deeply entrenched in time. The university itself, the cultural center, and the friends that Tomoko made all have passed the test of time.

The Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music was founded in 1887 as two separate schools: fine arts and music. The two schools were united in 1949. The university started admitting women in 1946, and Tomoko graduated from the university in 1961 with a BA with highest honors. Tomoko chose this university because it provided the best degree program in music. “Always strive for the best,” asserts Tomoko. Especially since her parents thought that whatever one pursued, it should be done well.  The rigorous admissions audition process took a grueling four days, and invoolved performances, music dictation, academic exams, and an interview. The university had 500 applicants, and accepted only eighteen students; Tomoko was one of the worthy eighteen admitted.

At the university, Tomoko made several lifelong friends. In the morning  they would take classes, and in the afternoon they would practice. At night they would study for the next day. They shared a common goal: high-quality musical knowledge and skill. Discipline was their key driver. They continually reflected on their work, and gave each other feedback, which strengthened both their performance and friendship over time.

Behind the university was a cultural center. One of the buildings was the Tokyo Cathedral, which was Dominican: the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception (Sekiguchi Church).  Fr. Henri taught traditional Gregorian chant. Tomoko and other students would go to the church to hear and learn this millenium-old music genre. Tomoko played for  the church. Close to the time that she graduated, Tomoko became a Catholic, formally joining a religious tradition of over two thousand years.

Tomoko’s university’s legacy lives on in her, and she continues that tradition with her students. Like classic music, Tomoko’s experiences are grounded in time and live on.

July 22, 2017

A Day in a High School Life

One of the big breakthroughs for Tomoko was her experience at Ferris Academy, a music-rich private junior high and high school in Yokohama. She auditioned to be accepted, and was highly regarded for her musical ability.

Imagine Tomoko as she experienced a day in Ferris.

Before daybreak Tomoko would fold up her futon, slip on her school uniform, and fix her breakfast. Tomoko liked the early morning hours. She felt fresh and ready to start the day, and the train was slightly less crowded at that time in the morning. 
When she arrived, Tomoko would admire the gothic looking school building with its pointed-arch windows and buttresses. Even though it was relatively modern, constructed after the 1923 earthquake, it looked formidable and old, maybe because of its dark slate like stone walls. In reality, Ferris really was relatively old: started in 1870, it was the first mission-sponsored school in Japan and the first higher education institution for females.
             Tomoko would enter the practice room long before school was to start. She would pull out her music, warm up with musical exercises, and settle down to practice in peaceful solitude. This was the best time to play; Tomoko didn’t have to worry about waking up the family or the neighbors, and as she moved her fingers deftly across the keyboard she also quickened her mind. By the time the morning school bell rang for assembly. Tomoko would mentally ready to learn.
Assembly time often included singing. The girls’ voices, which were already good, sounded even better with that room’s natural sound effect. Tomoko’s mezzo-soprano voice was well suited to the range of most hymns sung at school, so she could relax and sing freely. Sometimes the sensation reminded her of her mother singing hymns around the house as she cleaned. 
The school curriculum included physical education, including rhythmic gymnastics. Tomoko enjoyed it, not only because it was usually done to music, but because it was graceful. It combined creativity with discipline, which challenged Tomoko in a positive way.
Musis was a priority of Ferris, and it showcased Tomoko’s native talent. Not long after entering Ferris, Tomoko was asked by her teacher, “Would  you accompany the school’s chorus?” Although the teachers knew how to play, they were busy teaching and conducting the singing groups. On her part, Tomoko hadn’t been trained in this task before, but she eagerly agreed. It validated her expertise, and gave her status among her peers. 
On the other hand, English was hard for Tomoko. She practiced it with her classmates as part of recitation, but it wasn't spoken around the house. Yet Tomoko knew that English was important because it helped her get around since the United States started occupying Japan. It should also be noted that since the school was founded by American missionaries, such of the curriculum already reflected American values. For example, students were encouraged to think for themselves, and to make individual contributions to improve the community, which philosophy was not lost on Tomoko.  
Furthermore, Tokomo knew that English -- and music -- would help her leave Japan. She could see the Yokohama harbor from school, and said to herself: I will play the piano in America some day." 
And so she did.