March 27, 2020

Health Benefits of the Piano

Tomoko has taught piano for 50 years, but you can’t tell by looking at her. She is healthy and full of energy. Has the piano helped? “The piano keeps me young. I have a bit of arthritis, but I play pieces that aren’t as challenging for my fingers, and it keeps them limber.” Even the regimen of daily piano practice keeps Tomoko focused and gives her a sense of well-being.

For centuries music has been known to improve people’s quality of life. Music can both relax and energize you. It can help you unwind at the end of the day, relieving – and escaping – life’s stresses.
These days there is even piano therapy, which can sometimes be more impactful than clinical treatments. Listening to piano music lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels, which can make you feel better and less stress. Music can help you think more objectively and calmly. Low pitched and melodic piano music can help overcome insomnia and facilitate calm comfortable sleep. Classical piano music can also stimulate the body to produce natural painkillers and help patients recover from surgeries. Listening to piano music can also reduce children’s aggressive behavior, and has been used to treat patients with depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

 And those health benefits come from listening.

Think of the benefits of planning the piano. Learning how to play the piano improves your memory and keeps your brain young. It helps for hand-eye coordination plus enhances split concentration. Obviously, playing the piano strengthens hand muscles and makes your arms stronger
Whether you listen to – or play – piano music, it helps you through difficult times. 

With the present COVID-19 situation, piano music can maybe save your life.

March 17, 2020

Skating to the Music

Tomoko's daughter Beata performs and coaches ice dancing, echoing Tomoko's double professional life as piano performer and teacher. Both of them have a long-long love of music. Both choose their music pieces carefully to showcase their own performance expertise.

Among Beata's accomplishments was her -- and husband Charles' -- performances at the 2002 Olympics. That year their show performances included: "Tango: Fugata" by Astor Piazzolla and "Samson and Delilah" by Camille Saint-Saëns.

 Astor Piazzolla was a 20th century Argentinian tango composer, possibly the world's greatest. He created a new style of tango, which incorporated classical music and jazz. His new sound was controversial in his country, but his music was accepted in North America and Europe.. Written in the 1980s for a virtuoso guitar duo, Piazzolla's Tango Suite includes Fugata (meaning "fugue"), Milonga, and Libertango. "Fugata" introduces a short melody that is developed by interweaving several parts. The piece offered a suspenseful way to build up dance drama and showcase final bravura performance by Beata and Charles.

French composer Saint-Saëns wrote the opera "Sanson and Delilah" as choral music was experiencing high interest, although Biblical subjects were not popular on the French stage. Instead, in 1877 the opera opened in Weimar, Germany, thanks to Liszt's support. The work is framed as a duet between the protagonists, which Beata and Charles leveraged in their dance routine.  

The pieces also echo Beata's and Charles' -- as well as Tomoko's -- years of work to be accepted and applauded.

February 27, 2020

Waltzing Through Life

Among the genres of classical music that delights Tomoko is the waltz. That love also reflects Tomoko’s enjoyment of dancing. Even her high school’s physical education program included dance-like activity. 

Waltzes, in particular, have played a significant role in Tomoko’s life.

Tomoko met her future husband at a Hungarian society ball in San Francisco. Desy was sitting with a group of bachelors when he was introduced to Tomoko, although Tomoko wasn’t looking for a husband. Her first impression of him was positive though. “He is the most handsome fellow of the group,” she decided, “and he dances well,” as she recalled the ballroom waltzes.

Tomoko’s daughter Beata also enjoys waltzes. Tomoko remembers when Beata wanted to quit skating at age nine. Tomoko aw that the rink had group lessons. Beata thought that group dancing was fun. “I love waltzing,” she said. Beata went on to win medals for her ice dancing, and both performs and coaches ice dancing. 

Tomoko has played the piano waltzes of several composers: Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, and Poulenc.
Among the waltzes that Tomoko enjoys playing is Shostakovich’s “Valse-Scherzo.” Russian Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the major composers of the twentieth century. Even as a child, Dmitra showed a gift for the piano and music in general. At age 13 he entered the Petrograd Music Conservatory, and he wrote his first symphony at age 19. Much of his work was theatrical, and he was known for his film music. Nevertheless, he also wrote for the piano, including waltzes. 

Tomoko’s performances of waltzes showcase her flowing movement and romantic undertones.  

February 15, 2020

Gabriel Fauré and Tomoko

Tomoko asserts that at each decade in life, certain composers are particularly apt. For instance, Tomoko recommends Fauré for pianists in their thirties; “He is so elegant,” she says. Tomoko also likes to explore composers’ lives because it adds to the richness and context of the music. To that end, then, here are some aspects of Fauré that inform his works.

Gabriel Urbain Fauré was born in 1845 in southern France. One of six children, he was the only musically sibling. Upon advice and with the help of a scholarship, his father sent Gabriel to a boarding school for nine years to study music, mainly church music. However, when composer Camille Saint-Saëns took over piano studies, he introduced contemporary music and mentored Gabriel. 

Upon graduating, Gabriel served as a church organist and gave piano lessons. Soon the Franco-Prussian War began, and he volunteers to military service. After the war he taught in Switzerland, and then returned to Paris to serve as a choirmaster and later a church organist. Throughout his life he also taught, later in life more composition than performance; he was even appointed health of Paris Conservatoire.

Early on, Fauré promoted new French music as a founding member of the Société Nationale de Musique, which included important composers of the day. This networking – along with frequent travels where he connected with still more computers -- stimulated his own compositions, which were mainly for piano and for stringed instruments. He was influenced by Chopin, Mozart and Schumann in his early years. His harmonic and melodic style were innovative, and presaged Impressionist composers as well foreshadowed Schoenberg’s atonal compositions. He was also a master of the French art song. 

For her album Touria, Tomoko performed two of Fauré’s early impromptus and “Siciienne,” which was originally written for a theatrical production.  The three compositions all have a lightness of spirit, which would lighten the day for performers in their thirties.

January 24, 2020

Tomoko and the San Francisco Notables

As a new California resident and student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Tomoko enjoyed attending San Francisco Symphony concerts. Not only did the symphony play in acoustic halls but they also held summer outdoor concerts in San Francisco’s Stern Grove.

In 1965 Tomoko made a more direct connection with the San Francisco Symphony when she auditioned for the symphony’s foundation. She was chosen as a winner by Maestro Josef Krips. That April she performed with two other winners, both violinist, at the San Francisco Symphony Association Foundation Members’ Concert at the Masonic Auditorium.

Here is some background on these famous names and places.

The San Francisco Symphony is world renowned for its music performance. Its  1911 beginnings rose from the ashes of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The city leaders wanted a symphony to rekindle the areas cultural life. The symphony also provides the most extensive educational program of any orchestra in the U.S.: giving concerts to  children since 1919, providing tickets and supplies to schools, offering online music education resources, teaching grade schoolers music, coaching teen and adult musicians, and giving young musicians pre-professional training in their Youth Orchestra.

Austrian Josef Krips was popular in Europe and the U.S. because of his stellar performing and recording career. He was a conductor for several orchestras and opera companies, first in Europe; he escaped the Nazis but returned to perform after World War II. He led the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Opera, as well as the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Stern Grove, situated in the Sunset district of San Francisco, is a 33-acre recreational site. The park, which was donated to the city in 1931, was named after philanthropist Sigmund Stern, who was a nephew of Levi Strauss (of blue jeans fame). The Grove is now most known for its 80-year old music festival. In the summer, musicians perform weekly in the open amphitheater to crowds of up to twenty thousand.

San Franciso’s Masonic Auditorium’s predecessor dates back to 1861.  That first Masonic building was destroyed in the San Francisco 1906 earthquake, and another building was completed in 1931.The current auditorium opened in 1958 as a meeting venue for Masons, and holds concerts the rest of the year.

These notables all reflect triumph through culture, sometimes overcoming great odds, a motif dear to Tomoko’s heart.

January 8, 2020

When Should Children Start Piano Lessons

Tomoko asserts, “You can start learning how to play the piano at any age.” However, starting piano lessons too early can be a waste of money. Here are some guidelines.

First, the child should WANT to learn how to play. If there is a piano or electric keyboard around, does the child show interest and gravitate to it? Pushing a reluctant child into piano lessons invites frustration and family fights. 

Is the child emotionally ready? Can the child follow directions? Is the child willing to accept instruction – and criticism? Does the child have a long enough attention span to sit still, practice and persevere?

Is the child physically ready? Can the child place his hands parallel to the ground when seated so he doesn’t have to strain when reaching the piano? Does the child have enough finder strength to press the piano keys down effectively? (A good way to tell is if the child can hold onto objects without dropping them.) Does the child have sufficient fine motor skills; for instance, can he color within a picture’s lines and draw letters accurately? Does the child have enough stamina to last through a 20-minute lesson without getting tired? 

Is the child cognitively ready? Can the child tell between her left and right hand? Can the child count? Does the child know the alphabet? Can the child learn how to read notes?

AND are the parents ready to encourage and support the child? 

Even if children aren’t ready to take piano lessons, they can still be encouraged to become familiar with the piano. They can explore how sounds are made on the piano. They can discover the relationship between the sequence of the keys and the associated pitch from low to high. They can watch people play the piano, and enjoy the music that is created. The piano player can also point out how a piano score notes correspond to the keys, just as letter shapes correspond to sounds (generally). 

Just as there is reading readiness, there is musical reading and performance readiness. And a lifetime of learning and enjoyment.