December 2, 2017

Off to a Good Start

“The piano is an excellent instrument to play,” asserts Tomoko. “It’s widely available, flexible, and offers so many opportunities to play great music. It’s like an orchestra in one instrument.” 

Parents may want their child to learn how to play the piano. But the interest should come from the child – or whoever is considering starting to learn. Here are some ways to expose you and your child to piano playing:

  • Listen to piano music on the radio or online.
  • Watch piano performances on TV or online (such as YouTube).
  • Go to a music store that sells pianos, and have the staff talk about, and demonstrate, the piano – and the pieces of music to choose from.
  •  Find a relative, friend, teacher, or classmate who enjoys playing the piano, and share that experience.

When is a good time to start taking piano lessons? Tomoko recommends age 5 because children develop their small motor skills between ages 5 and 7. Tomoko also says, “At this age, children have no fear.” On the other hand, one can start at any age. "Interest, willingness, and perseverance are the main considerations."

As for talent, Tomoko says, “All students have talent. They just grow at different rates.” 

What should you expect? Tomoko knows that the beginning time is crucial: “The first experience needs to be fun. The teacher needs to be welcoming.” Of her own approach, Tomoko says, “I open the door. I am their passport to visit the country of pianos.” At the same time, first year piano is a learning process. Tomoko cautions: “The piano is not easy to play; you need a long time and patience. It’s a long-term investment.” 

Tomoko also states that learning how to play is a physical process; “The brain and the body need to be coordinated.” Tomoko uses this analogy: “Young children don’t know how to use pencil. Some teachers say you can’t be sloppy; try to be neat and clear. Where finger should be positioned? Posture is important. All those details need to be considered when starting out.”

Right from the start, students need preparation and discipline. They should practice at least ten hours a week. “Every lesson should have a challenge; you need to improve and grow,” claims Tomoko. “It is better to stretch than relax.” At the same time, Tomoko cautions, “Too much challenge is not good. I encourage students to try; I want them to keep their confidence.”

With a strong start and a trusting relationship with a knowledgeable and caring piano teacher,  beginning piano students can look forward to a lifelong skill and love of music that enrichens them.

November 18, 2017

Franz Schubert and Tomoko

Franz Schubert holds a special place in Tomoko’s musical heart. She performed his piano quintet opus 114 in A major, “Die Forelle/The Trout”, in Los Angeles, two months before her daughter’s birth. And she played it at her January 2017 concert. Schubert was also the first composer she played in the United States as a duet.

Even earlier, Tomoko remembers attending a concert of the famous Bohemian pianist Rudolph Serkin, who was touring Japan in the 1950s. Tomoko bought a ticket in the cheapest seating section. Listening to him play Schubert's Fantasy for Piano Opus 15, Tomoko found herself crying nonstop for the first time at a concert; she felt, "This is what an artist is supposed to do." She thought that his performance was perfect, not just a technical feat. "It was the most gorgeous feeling in the world," she remembered. She also remarked, "My tear was like a diamond: a symbol of the most valuable and authentic emotion."

The emotion Tomoko felt is not surprising since Schubert was one of the first Romantics. Tomoko noted his spontaneity: “For him, beauty came first.” She also noted: “Schubert never had a theory lesson. For him music was freedom.”

Schubert was also a singer. Tomoko knows that Franz Schubert was recognized for his vocal talent as a youth, and caught the attention of Salieri, who became his most influential teacher. Schubert’s singing sensitivity led to his composing songs specifically for the voice of a young soprano he met. 

In the final analysis, Tomoko says: “I like Schubert. He is peaceful, and his quality of tone is memorable.”  

November 3, 2017

Lizst and his legacy

One of Tomoko’s favorite piano composers is Lizst.  His works enable the performer to showcase technical virtuosity and strong emotional interpretation.

Lizst’s life is certainly reflective in his writing. 

At age seven Lizst started piano lessons from his father, started composing at age eight, and started public performances at age nine. Lizst was a wildly popular performer because of his technical brilliance and intense delivery, which his compositions could showcase. His enthralled audiences led to Lizstomania – and enough income that he could gave away much of his profits to charity. 

Thus, because Lizst was first a performer, his compositions reflect natural hand motions, and are more natural to play. That characteristic enabled Lizst to create works that could maximize kinesthetic ability. Additionally, Lizst was inspired by the violinist Paganin’s technique, and wanted to be as excellent as him, so much so that he wrote a series of etudes based on Paganini’s own violin’s technically challenging compositions. As a result, his compositions are often used by piano teachers to improve students’ technical skills. In fact, Tomoko remarks: “Sometimes a child – or the parent – wants to choose a masterful piece of music, such as a Liszt ├ętude. They want the status of playing such a composition, but it might not be appropriatea at their stage of development. “Their motivation may be to show off,” says Tomoko, “but they will be miserable.” Instead, Tomoko asks the student to try it for themselves. “Then they recognize for themselves what is really involved.” If they really want to put in the effort, Tomoko tells them, “I will prepare this piece for you.” Tomoko explains each part, and then they agree on doing the hard work together. 

Tomoko also likes Lizst for his philosophy and emotional power. Tomoko relates to his spiritual side. “Listen to Liszt’s compositions. His philosophy is so beautiful. He was a very religious man.” While Lizst is not known for religious compositions, he contemplated joining the Catholic clergy in his twenties (after a romantic break-up) and  in late life did join a monastery. 

Lizst’s compositions also capture human emotional life: adapting folk dances and translating human expression, including violence, into  his music. Tomoko asserts: “Lizst is great for pianists in their twenties because they don’t have to think so much as express lots of action.”

Tomoko herself has masterfully performed Lizst’s works over the years. In her 1964 television interview with UCLA Opera Theater director Herbert Jan Popper, Tomoko She Hungarian Rhapsody A minor #11 by Liszt on the show. Almost fifty years later, in 2012, on the show “The Piano Matters with David Dubal,” Tomoko played Liszt’s "Au Lac de Wallenstadt." 

Just as Lizst was inspired by his experiences, Tomoko and her students find inspiration in Lizst for their own lives.