September 17, 2020

David Dubal and Tomoko


In 2012 Tomoko was the featured pianist for David Dubal’s radio show “The Piano Matters.” On the program she performed Liszt’s "Au Lac de Wallenstadt."

David Dubal was born in 1944 in Cleveland, Ohio. He was educated at Ohio State University and Julliard. Over the years Dubal has become an internationally known pianist and teacher. He has recorded several albums, and taught at Julliard and the Manhattan School of Music. In addition, Dubal has written several articles and books about classical music and the piano, including biographies of leading musicians. His 1993 documentary “The Golden Age of the Piano” garnered him an Emmy award. Because of his lifelong accomplishments, composer Virgil Thomson composed a musical portrait about him.

As noted above, Tomoko worked with him in his capacity as a radio show host. For over two decades, Dubal served as the director and program commentator of the New York City classical music station. Afterwards, he hosted the radio program series “The American Century,” which featured 20th century American music.

Tomoko stands in good company with David Dubal, and it is a significant sign that he recognized her own accomplishments.

September 7, 2020

Laboring for Love

Today is Labor Day, and Tomoko exemplifies a strong work ethic. Referring to Millet’s painting “Man with a Hoe,” Tomoko notes how the worker holds his body. “He is tired after a day of harvesting. He is braced against a stick to hold himself up.” Tomoko knows the feeling of a long day of hard work.


Tomoko has never been afraid of hard work. She began teaching piano lessons as a teenager – and sixty years later she continues to do this, sharing a lifetime of experience and expertise.


Tomoko also knows that learning how to play the piano requires dedicated practice and work. When a piece has been mastered, playing it can bring instant gratification, but getting to that point of fluid performance can demand much time and effort, and in the process it can feel as if that day of mastery, those positive results, will never arrive. “Practice is like gardening,” Tomoko asserts. “You need to do it every day and pay attention to all the details.”  She adds, “It requires patience. Sometimes you don’t see the growth for a long time, but it is worth the ongoing effort.” Tomoko remarks, “Many people don’t plan for practice. Since I was 12 years old, I have planned time for practice.” That kind of discipline exemplifies Tomoko’s attitude to music and work.


Tomoko also passed this work attitude to her daughter Beata. Beata began serious skating at age 6, but didn’t compete until the U.S. Nationals, rather perfecting her form first. Tomoko supported Beata’s persistent interest throughout the school years, driving her to practice, and paying for lessons through teaching piano. Tomoko notes, “Both ice skating and piano require lots of sacrifice. Even one week without practice will be embarrassing.”


Performance requires even more focused work as the pianist – or the ice dancer -- has to analyze and master each piece.  The performer has to over-prepare so that the physical action is almost automatic, and the spirit of the work can be freely expressed. Both the stress level and the level of accomplishment are higher. But the payoff and the exhilarating feeling are worth the effort hopefully. The performer lives for this moment, and is IN that moment. All the components are there, "But reaches a higher energy plane," Tomoko explains. The playing itself is both automatic and intentional, precise and personal, deliberate and freeing. It is ultimately a universal yet intimate conversation with the audience. It is not like daily life. It is a heightened reality. Tomoko asserts, "It can be a mystical experience. An 'out of this world' performance."


So work becomes play, play that is hard earned.


Thanks to James Schwabacher

 At one point in her life as a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Tomoko wasn’t sure she could continue her studies because she lacked the funds to pay her tuition. James Schwabacher, who served on the conservatory’s board, awarded her a scholarship because of her talent and potential. The room in which Tomoko teaches has a plaque honoring him, which she thinks is a very appropriate and special symbol.


James Schwabacher was a lifelong San Franciscan, born in 1920 and died in 2006 in the city. His Jewish family was well to do, due to the banking and office supplies enterprises. Music was also an interest in his family: from a composing grandmother and singing father. James started playing the piano at age 5, and began a singing career in college, performing as a soloist with the University of Berkeley chorus.


After returning from WWII, where he was an army first lieutenant, he joined a company of singers under the leadership of Jan Popper, known as the Opera Man of the West Coast. The same Popper facilitated Tomoko’s immigration to the United States.


Because of multiple surgeries, James had to forego his singer career for teaching. He took part of the Carmel Music Festival, at which Tomoko competed. He interviewed professionals for the San Francisco Opera radio show, and served as a guest speaker at the Carmel Music Festival, at which Tomoko competed. James also founded the Merola Opera Program: the nation's oldest training program for young singers and considered one of the nation's finest.  He also supported young musicians, and Tomoko was one of his beneficiaries.

His love of music and support of musicians lasted his whole life, and Tomoko follows in his dedicated footsteps. 

August 7, 2020

Casals and Tomoko


Tomoko recalls how Pablo Casals was performing at the age of 96. At that time, in 1972, one of Tomoko’s college friends was inspired by Casals, and flew to Arizona State University where he was playing a benefit concert to raise money for an International Cello Library. Tomoko went along with her friend, and met Casals at the airport. They spent a meal with him and his young wife, who was the same age at Tomoko. 

Casals’ musical education started at home in Catalonia, Spain; his parish organist father taught him piano, organ, violin and composition. After Casals saw a local musician play a cell-strung broom handle, Casals’ father built a crude cell for Pablo. At age 12, Casals enrolled in Barcelona’s municipal school of music, and he gave his first cello recital two years later. By his twenties, Casals was touring internationally. Before the age of 30 he had played at the White House and in Carnegie Hall. Over 50 years later, he again played in the White House – for President Kennedy. Casals also composed music, conducted orchestras, and gave master classes.

Tomoko was indeed fortunate to hear and meet Pablo Casals as he died the year after. However, he left an impressive legacy with his compositions (including “Hymn of the United Nations”), recordings, and the Casals Festival, which he founded in Puerto Rico. The Pablo Casals Museum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, showcases many of his original documents. His rich life is echoed in Tomoko’s lifelong love of music.

July 23, 2020

The music of Japanese poetry

Over the centuries, poetry has often been set to music. Indeed, Tomoko’s brother Hidehiko became a composer who would draw upon Japanese nature poetry to inspire his own compositions. On May 5, 1997, at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor, Tomoko and a handful of other instrumentalists performed music based on the poetry of Hojo Nakajima.

Hojo Nakajima is a contemporary of Tomoko. He was born in Fukuoka, Japan, and was educated at Kyushu University. The first anthology of his poetry was published in 1990, and that decade was his more productive one. He rose to become a Chamberlain to the Crown Prince of Japan, taking charge of the royal family’s daily life. In particular, he was responsible for music and ceremonies.

One of his most important duties was serving as special assistant of the New Year Poetry Recitation Commission (KyuchuKtakai Hajime), one the most popular and famous imperial ceremonies. This annual event is a legacy of Japanese courtly literature, dating back to the eighth century. Each year the Emperor chooses a theme, and anyone can submit an original poem. Specialists perform the winning poems performed in a traditional manner. The defining Japanese poetry form is tanka, a short poem of 31 syllables arranged in lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables each. Not surprisingly, Hojo Nakajima is a master of this form.

 On the international scene, Hojo Nakajima has been honored in Brazil, Finland, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United States.  

Tomoko appreciates the importance of lyrics in musical compositions. She advises her students to study the words of a piece before launching into the musical notes because that exercise helps her students understand and interpret the music. Tomoko knows: “The power of words is made stronger by music.”

July 6, 2020

Sol Joseph and Tomoko

When Tomoko was a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she studied music theory including composition analysis, harmony, and counterpoint with Sol Joseph.

Sol Joseph was born in 1912 in Chicago, and was a Phi Beta Kappa music scholar at the University of Chicago. At the age of 24, Sol Joseph married Belle Rosenstein, and they had two sons. During World War II Sol served in the U.S. Army.

Mr. Joseph’s connection with the Conservatory started in 1948 after he and his family moved to California. Local classical musicians encouraged him to apply, and he became a professor of music There he taught music form and analysis counterpoint, harmony, and music literature for almost thirty years. Sol Joseph also conducted the Conservatory orchestra for a while. 

Sol Joseph’s teaching venues also included the University of California Extension an San Francisco’s Community Music School. In addition, Sol served as Congregation Sherith Israel’s organist and as the Jewish Folk Chorus of San Francisco’s pianist and later their conductor. Over the years Sol also conducted the San Francisco chorus and the Berkeley/Richmond Jewish Community Center Yiddish Folk Chorus. 

Sol Joseph died at age 90 in 2002, and Tomoko remembers him and his teaching to this day.

June 24, 2020

European Influence on Japanese Music

Tomoko’s favorite piano music continues to be European classical compositions. That taste was started early in her life as she heard European classical music on the radio and the organ pieces that her brother played. These habits reflected the earlier Japanese interests in Western   (generally European) music.

Traditional Japanese musical tonality differed from its Western counterparts; it uses a Phyrgian scale of E-F-A-B-C-E instead of C-D-F-G-A. The Phyrgian scale is also used in modern blues minor keys. The oldest forms of Japanese music include Buddhist chant and orchestral court music. Traditional folk music included religious songs and songs for gatherings, work songs, and children’s songs. Typical instruments were stringed instruments, drums, flutes, bells. The first piano wasn’t heard until the opening of Japan, but by 1875 the Japanese were manufacturing their own pianos and other Western musical instruments.

Emperor Mutsuhito, who adopted the title Meiji – or Enlightened Rule – in 1867, pushed for modernization with an eye to the West to avoid becoming dominated by other countries. In 1868, the government issued the Charter Oath: a five-article document outlining the principles of the Meiji administration. It declared that “knowledge shall be sought throughout the world.” Meiji curiosity about Western culture included absorbing foreign classical and religious music. On the bureaucratic side, the Meiji government created the Music Study Committee, which encouraged Western music. They wanted Japanese composers to write in the Western style, and the committee required the German model of music instruction for all students. The committee also led to the founding of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, which Tomoko attended. 

Combining Western and Japanese music could be challenging though. For instance, Christian religious tended to be Western based, which was sometimes hard for Japanese to intonate. And when missionaries tried to translate their hymns into Japanese, they found it hard to match the rhythm to Japanese text. 

The tension between Western and Japanese music and their currents continued to flow through Tomoko’s families. During World War II at school Tomoko’s class sang nationalistic music with Japanese lyrics set to European music. Tomoko’s mother played and sang Christian songs, and Tomoko’s brother became a composer in the more Japanese mode. 

Nevertheless, Tomoko brings her Japanese sensibility as she performs music from around the world.

June 15, 2020

Fake news and literacies.

"Concerns over fake news have triggered a renewed interest in various forms of media literacy. Prevailing expectations posit that literacy interventions help audiences to be “inoculated” against any harmful effects of misleading information. This study empirically investigates such assumptions by assessing whether individuals with greater literacy (media, information, news, and digital literacies) are better at recognizing fake news, and which of these literacies are most relevant. The results reveal that information literacy—but not other literacies—significantly increases the likelihood of identifying fake news stories. Interpreting the results, we provide both conceptual and methodological explanations. Particularly, we raise questions about the self-reported competencies that are commonly used in literacy scales."
S. Mo Jones-Jang, Tara Mortensen, Jingjing Liu. (2020). 

June 12, 2020

Black Beginnings at the Conservatory

When Tomoko started teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, there was only one other non-Caucasian faculty member: a Black woman Beulah Forbes-Woodard, whose specialty was jazz music.

Born in Ellensburg (in central Washington state), Beulah Forbes grew up in a musical family. Her father played ragtime music for silent films, and all of Beulah’s siblings worked in music or the theater.

Beulah studied classical music at the Conservatory, and was their first African American graduate. Upon her graduation, Beulah was asked to join the Conservatory as a teacher, thus becoming the Conservatory’s first Black faculty member. When she retired from the Conservatory after teaching there for almost fifty years, the Conservatory awarded her a doctorate of music. She also taught at the University of San Francisco and Lone Mountain College.

An accomplished pianist, she played professionally with well known musicians, headlining performances in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Beulah also performed the first jazz concert at the Conservatory, which led to jazz being incorporated into the curriculum.

A friend recalled Beulah saying: “Music is my passion, teaching is my heart, and performing is my thrill.” That sentiment could well be shared by Tomoko.