December 25, 2011

Holiday time is performance time

It’s Christmas time, which is also performance time. The holidays are a time to celebrate, and they offer a wonderful opportunity to perform seasonal music.

Piano recitals at this time of year remain, at their heart, a high-stakes experience for both the music student as well as the teacher.

The ideal performance is memorized because it enables the performer to focus on interpretation; the basics of hitting the right notes have been internalized. Not that memorization is easy. When asked, “How do you memorize a piece of music?”, Tomoko replied , “It is like building a house, You build on the foundation. The hardest part is the starting stage. You have to persevere. You can’t be impatient. You must repeat, making sure that you play the right note so that your hand muscles will remember where to touch the keys. Don’t listen to the quality of the music at that point. If you continue with discipline, one day you will find that it’s done: you’ve memorized the piece.”

Next comes the process of analyzing the piece. Tomoko states that each piece has a number of elements that need to be considered: tone quality, articulation, rhythmic sense, phrasing, flow, and feeling. As Tomoko teaches her students she shows them these elements, typically giving them a good and a bad example, and asking them to choose. She trust her students to tell the difference, especially since she carefully selects the examples to scaffold critical analytical skills.

Just as she uses a building metaphor to describe memorizing, Tomoko applies that metaphor to developing the recital program. As the impresario for her students’ recitals, Tomoko loves the programming aspects, and chooses pieces to showcase each student’s ability, wherever they are on the performance spectrum. She puts together the program with a clear path in mind, and then matches the details, preparing all the music. Tomoko sees herself as a designer and fashioner of the musical program.

It takes up to four months to get ready for the recital. Students need time to memorize well, and they can’t peak too early. By the time of the performance, everyone is excited: the students, the parents, and Tomoko herself. The recital is stimulating, like a good game; all the students try their best. Recitals are not the time to criticize but rather a time to celebrate, like the holidays.

Tomoko has performed admirably for decades at recitals, and her recordings show her at recital level. Enjoy the season by choosing from her rich collection of CDs. Go to
It’s a good way to start the year too.

December 11, 2011

The Effort of Effortless Music

It is sometimes considered a great compliment about a performance when it seems effortless. It is true that a labored performance is seldom fun to hear, but does apparently tension-free playing indicate a lack of hard work? Usually not. “Artistry is hard to memorize,” Tomoko knows. She goes on to say, “Each performance has to be completely controlled: simple, clean, and comfortable.”

Tomoko realizes the work that goes behind a public performance, and she appreciates and encourages effort. “The challenge is eighty percent of the music.” Tomoko notes that the pianist may struggle with the form, but that the real challenge is the interpretation. “No one can take away my interpretation.” Part of the challenge that is so rewarding is that each person’s challenge is unique, and it reveals each person’s qualities. “You cannot hide from yourself or how you play,” says Tomoko knowingly. In that respect, Tomoko says that effort should be pure and honest.

Not surprisingly, then, Tomoko’s hard work is not done to impress others, but rather is a self-examination to see how she can improve. She thinks to herself: “I have to try my best? Did I do it well? At the end of the day that’s how I feel.” She judges the ease of accomplishment, and feels most proud when she is able to play a difficult composition with deep understanding and technical competence. Tomoko muses, “If you’re in a zoo, you just get fed. If you’re in the jungle, you have to hunt, and that is good.” Likewise, when effort is made in learning to play and perform a piece, then it becomes more meaningful – and involves the performer more profoundly. The challenge is invigorating.

And playing the piano is a lifetime effort. Tomoko asserts, “Technique never goes away. Experience gets it together.” Tomoko worked as a young girl learning to play the piano: hours before school, weekend lessons that involved waiting hours for her teacher. She made a great effort coming to the U.S. to pursue her love of music.

Not only as a performer but also as a teacher does Tomoko put in effort. She says, “I spend hours thinking about a student’s problem, and how to solve it.” She tells her students that each piano piece is a little challenge. She encourages them to keep trying, to keep moving. She connects playing to mountain climbing, constantly walking up the hill while keeping hold of the music. She continues the metaphor, “When you reach the top and master the piece, then you look back at where you came from. That is a good feeling, a feeling of accomplishment.” As a teacher, Tomoko provides students with direction so they can climb up the musical mountain effectively. Not surprisingly, Tomoko likes the challenge of teaching, and learns from her students’’ growth.

Tomoko’s performance shows the rewards of that lifetime of effort and artistry. The listener gets to enjoy the fruits of that labor.

November 20, 2011

Valuing the Arts

Because Veterans Day was recently celebrated and Thanksgiving is coming this week, Tomoko’s recollections about Japan and the arts seems timely. One good outcome of World War II was a renewed appreciation of the importance of the arts. As Tomoko says, “Art is something that remains in one’s culture.” Additionally, art is an international language; “You don’t need to translate music.” After the war, Japan brought foreign artists to its land to perform and teach. Pablo Casals came. Russian pianists come. Even before the war, Japan invited Prokofiev, who played his own compositions there in 1927. Overall, Japan has been effective in borrowing from other cultures, and adapting their art.

Tomoko remembers how after WWII people who had been rich were no longer in such high status. Her family obtained a pedal organ, and then bought a piano from neighbors who needed ready cash. Tomoko remarked that the rest of her family’s home was austere, but music played an important role in their lives so her parents made sure that musical instruments were available.

Because music and the arts were so important, Tomoko learned the accompanying importance of quality. Very precise high standards were expected. She noted that today’s students quit too soon, perhaps because they do not value music and the opportunity to perform music as much as those in Japan when Tomoko was growing up. Some students might not think that they can ever play well, but Tomoko asserts that all students have talent but that they grow at different rates so need to persevere in their piano studies.

Tomoko generalizes her point about nationality and music. “People love music. If you’re a musician, they respect you more politically.” Tomoko noted that Poland’s president played the piano, and made connections that way. “He played the piano before the Congress started.” Several U.S. Presidents have played instruments, and U.S.’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was a music major at Stanford. “Her personality is very sweet. She was also a skater, and talked to all the Olympics skaters,” Tomoko said, whose daughter is an Olympics skater.

Now is the time to be thankful for the role of music in political and personal life. Many ethnic motifs are found in Tomoko’s album Touria. Listen to it at

October 30, 2011

And Now Live!

As Tomoko and I were driving from the airport, we listened to the radio as it played a lovely classical piano performance. While the effect was soothing, it also garnered little attention. The sound was flattened, and didn’t reflect the composition’s inherent richness. I doubt if the composer imagined that his piece would be heard on such an “instrument.”

Indeed, the quality of a recording has a significant effect on the listener’s experience. As performances are recorded “live” digitally, all the notes are transformed into on-off electrons. No in-between sound exists. Somehow the total effect is almost too precise and pristine. Older analog recordings are effected by the technology itself, such as the quality of the need and the groove, so that the audio quality can be uneven at times, but the overall effect seems more nuanced and “real.” Audiotapes also suffer from the quality of the recording material, and can get stretched or crinkled (analogous to an LP getting warped or scratched), so in respect optical disks are more permanent, but even those get corrupted over time.

Probably the least satisfying but increasingly common practice is to digitize an analog recording. Recording itself is one step or “generation” away from a live performance, and digitizing a recording is then two steps or generations from the original experience. The uneven aspects of the analog record are “smoothed” out digitally but can result in more variation from the original performance in the process.

Obviously, the most authentic musical performance is the one by the composer him or herself playing the piece. The composer externalizes the music that is imagined and played in the mind. The notes are transcriptions of that imagination, but can never completely capture the expression and emotion of the composer. The next closest rendition would be experienced by a skilled pianist, particularly one who has played many different pieces by many composers, so understands how music should be performed and translated both technically and emotionally. Deep knowledge of the composer’s style provides context resulting, theoretically, in more accurate interpretation of the composer’s original intent. In any case, the performing pianist can feel the music both internally and kinesthetically.

For a listener, a non-performer, the best option is attending a live performance. The attendee can hear the music, see the performer’s body as it also interprets the music, and sometimes feel the vibrations as the music is expressed. The interaction of the audience with the music and performance adds another dimension to the experience in a communal way that sharing food does.

For a child or other beginning pianist, a recital can be a stressful experience so that the visceral experience can be overwhelmed by the pressure of public performance and the deep emotional wish to be accepted by the audience, which the beginning pianist may fear will not be attained due to possible faulty performance. That fear can motivate the player to prepare carefully and thoroughly for several reasons: personal pride of accomplishment, desire for external approval, and regard for the piece and the composer. The heightened level of public performance can either bring out the best – or highlight other distracting issues. Ideally, the performer can focus on the moment of live performance: a unique and surprisingly fleeting experience that may well be captured only in one’s mind. Even if the experience is less than stellar, it will be memorable.

Even that fear or anticipation brings a certain electricity and unpredictability that makes each performance unique and special for both the performance and the audience. For that reason, along with the closer proximity to the music itself, Tomoko highly recommends that more people attend live piano and other performances. Get real! Go live!

September 11, 2011

Nature and Music

“Birds singing. Trees waving. These signs of nature reflect music. If you have a problem when playing the piano, go outside, communicate with nature, and see how it communicates its beauty.” As you can see, Tomoko is deeply in tune with nature.

Tomoko has a keen ear, and can recognize emotion evoked by nature. “In Rumania last year husband and I were walking, and heard a donkey braying. He was little, and had obviously left his mother to follow a cow. I am driving. He had a special way of calling.” Music formalizes that kind of natural emotion.

Thus, Tomoko can speak with authority when she remarks that “Beethoven was close to nature.” He was known for long countryside walks, and his Symphony No. 6 in F major (which he called the Pastoral Symphony) was inspired by nature’s beauty.

Tomoko uses nature as a metaphor for describing music and its play. She talks about a “simple accent, like a flower” to describe how to interpret and play a particular note quietly and delicately. Equally, Tomoko says that when she performs, she is sharing a “whole scene” with the sensation of a landscape. She uses the metaphor of a jungle to describe complicated music that the pianist explores. Likewise, she compares the challenge of a difficult piece of music to walking up a hill, and further contends that conquering the music is like looking back from the top of that hill or mountain to see where you have come from and to see the vista of the music. “It’s an exhilarating feeling!:

Tomoko does not think she is unique in her musical connection with nature. She contends that people have a natural, instinctive sense about music. She also feels that music helps give one balance, just as nature balances today’s technological life.

You can hear nature in Tomoko’s nuanced performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E Major, Op.109, available at

August 26, 2011

Music in the Movies

Tomoko is passionate about the role of music in life, and she wants everyone to have rich experiences with music. One of the ways that people can access high-quality music is through the movies. Tomoko recalls going to the movies with her class in Japan. “All the movies were imports at that time.” Tomoko shares some of her insights about movies and music.

“Movie makers can interpret a scene so eloquently with music. Take the movie Madame Sousatska with Shirley MacLaine.” Tomoko has a strong connection with this film because it centers on piano teaching and learning, and includes almost twenty classical selections. Tomoko names a couple of her favorites: the Spinning Song of Mendelssohn and Scriabian’s Etude in D sharp minor no. 12. “Rubinstein performed that etude in Russian,” Tomoko says. “Their choice of music for the specific scene is amazing, such as Beethoven’s last movement from his Sonata in C major when the piano student arrives. Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor is played during the funeral, and the movie ends with Chopin, which is most fitting.”

Tomoko recalls another movie that benefited from music: Roman Holiday. One of the pieces reminded her of Lizst’s Gondoliera, which was based on a song by Peruchini. “List’s philosophy is so beautiful. He was a very religious man.”

Film makers understand the power of music to underscore a scene of nature. Tomoko remembers the opening scene from the movie Green Card. "The French background was so beautiful, and the point made was musical." Enya's scores for that movie captured the essence of a river, waterfall, and storms. "Music can imitate the sound of nature."

Tomoko also suggests watching good movies about composers. “Immortal Beloved saw into Beethoven’s heart, and the incorporation of his music was effective. The film’s use of Moonlight Sonata was memorable.” Tomoko realizes that such movies are not always historically accurate, “In the movie about Chopin, you can see the ocean from his window, but that’s not really the case. Next door to his place was a monastery, instead, because of his asthma, which was not mentioned in the film. But you can still enjoy the music.”

Listen to one of the selections from Madame Sousatska’s playlist, as performed by Tomoko: Chopin’s Etude in A flat major, available on her Chopin I album:

July 23, 2011

The Culture of Music

Continuing the spirit of countries, as reflected in the conversation about Independence day, Tomoko talks about culture’s impact on music. “I have a student from India. Each country has a traditional music. The people in each country meet for a unique reason. During their gatherings a special harmony is produced, and even the way to perform that ritual music is unique.” Tomoko then relates that national or cultural experience to art. You can imagine a museum in that country. Its art reflects the county’s geography, its lifestyles, its artistic sensibilities. So when you listen to the sound of a country, you are one step closer to its art. Both of these creative expressions reflect the country.”

Tomoko sees the importance of experiencing music through the lens of a country, and comparing those different expressions. She suggests: “Compare Christmas songs from different countries. They are a way to connect with culture.”

Tomoko relates some of her own musical experiences as she has traveled in different countries. “In a Korea donut shop you might hear cello sonata music. In Korea you find good singing performance. Koreans see singing as a discipline. In Japan they have high-class music. The rules of music are very important, just as the direction of kimono is important. In Japan people are not supposed to show their emotions; their expressions are like a mask. Similarly, their approach to music is more technical rather than emotional.”

Tomoko then compares how people relate to music in France. “In France each person has a chance to shine, to be individual. Musicians ask: Why should I perform music the same way as another person?” Tomoko perceives another attitude in German music. “The Germans have a proverb: The weed is stronger than the flower. The weak, the fragile, have to do more than show up when playing music; they cannot stay in their safe zone. Instead, German performers know that they have to practice repeatedly; constant discipline is needed. They are never satisfied until they are strong, overcoming any musical challenges.”

You can hear the feelings of the country in Tomoko’s performance of several piano pieces that were inspired by traditional melodies such as Chopin's Polanaise a A flat major and Glinka's Masurkas. Enjoy them on the Touria album, available at

July 3, 2011

The American Experience

Since this weekend celebrates Independence Day, it seems appropriate to share Tomoko’s experience with the United States.

She decided to come to America by the time she was in college. “In Japan graduation is the end, in America it is just part of life,” Tomoko says. She wanted to continue to learn and grow professionally, and she has remained in the educational arena ever since.

She also came to the United States because of its culture and attitude about music. She recounts her career journey. “I wanted to get out of Japan. Europe was the cultural center, but the US was very welcoming to musicians such as Paderewski. I got an exchange student status. I wanted a Fulbright but was too old for that particular program. I had to have a job to pay tuition. Fortunately, UCLA had a special opera workshop, and a Japanese composer was there, so I was an accompanist for the program.” She also played at Stanford. “In 1965 I had to get a green card, and in five years I became a US citizen.”

Tomoko recalls her arrival in California. “When I came to California, I picked up a couple of California poppies, which they didn’t have in Japan, and put them in my book. I’ve never gone back to Japan.”

I ask her what she liked about America. “I love the freedcom. It is very comfortable, like a flowing painting. There is not tension and stress that I felt in Japan. It’s “high tech high touch.” People need a balance, and I feel that in the US you can maintain an equilibrium in life.”

Tomoko goes on to compare Japan and the US in terms of music choices. “When I was in Japan, I wanted to play Chopin, but they said I was too young. ‘You have no experience. You are not ready until you are a Junior.’” Tomoko contrasts that attitude to her own teaching. “For a concert, I assigned a Beethoven piece that was heavy for a 14 year old. I think it is better to start students early with substantial music, and have the experience rather than not have that challenge. Students need to be curious and courageous. How much they understand, we don’t know, but it’s better than to protect the student. They can always return to the piece later on, and bring in more interpretation based on their own lives. The technique is always there.”

Tomoko continues to compare music teaching methods, “Japanese music teachers focused on the rules of technique. There was a pattern to the teaching, which was a kind of military training because of the strong music competition; 80% was technique. The teachers also controlled more power, and pushed students down. Only after years of lessons would the teacher become more generous.” Tomoko compares her teaching in the US. “I love this country to teach – I can do anything.” Tomoko expands on her attitude. “In Japan, the results are more important than the process. However, the process is so complicated, and there are so many ways to reach your musical goal. And you cannot know the process of development for each child; you have to look long term. That is why
I think teaching should be custom-made to fit each student.”

Tomoko also notes her professional opportunities in the US. “I was the first Asian teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The first non-white was a black woman who did jazz.” Tomoko mentions the diversity of the conservatory. “There are lots of Eurasian students now. It is good for them to connect with different cultures.” Tomoko concludes: “Without music you don’t see as much of the world, and you don’t see the challenge.”

Tomoko Hagiwara is a wonderful example of America: a land of immigrants who have contributed to this nation, making it richer in culture. So a fitting piece to celebrate such diversity is Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood #1: From Foreign Lands and People,” which Tomoko performs on her album Baroque-20th Century, available at

June 19, 2011

Tomoko's Early Musical Life

Today I’d like to share some scenes from Tomoko’s early life, which helped shape her current outlook and productivity.

Tomoko starts, “My house was too confined to practice, so I took a train street car and walked to my high school, which was established by the Dutch Reformed Church. I arrived at 6:30am to practice the piano; school started two hours later. My brain was fresh, and ready to learn, so it was a good schedule. There were other children who also practiced early, so we were like a team.”

Tomoko notes that she had no weekends. “We had classes on Saturday morning. That’s when I had music theory class. Then at noon, both Saturdays and Sundays, the piano teacher opened his door. All the students went in at that time, and then had to wait their turn; there was no set schedule, and the individual lessons went on until 8pm. If you left the premises, you would have to wait even longer when you returned.” Tomoko made the best of the situation, “It was good to wait and listen; the students were all in the same boat and sympathetic. There was a sense of anticipation, wondering when we would get our private time. And if the lesson didn’t go well, the teacher would say, ‘Shut the book. Go home.’ This kept us on our toes.”

Tomoko remarks about the Japanese economy when she was growing up. “In pre-war Japan, you had to pay a tax for having a piano. The arts were considered special.” She goes on to say, “When the economy is down, people hunger for the arts.” Music can fill the soul in hard times. People can appreciate the arts as materialism loses its importance. Tomoko points out, “Your music is your own; no one can steal your heart.”

Tomoko links those economic times to today. “If you have a lot of money, you don’t have to try. There’s no challenge. If you’re in a zoo, you just get fed. If you’re in the jungle you have to hunt. And that is good. You can be poor, but you can listen and sing.. In dark times, music can join people together.”

Harking back to Tomoko’s early studies evokes piano etudes, which help students understand musical structure and hand motions. Chopin reigns in this area as his compositions transcended exercise to demonstrate full musical possibilities. For a sampling of his etudes, you can listen to Tomoko’s interpretations on her first Chopin album, found at There’s a lot to learn from Chopin and from Tomoko.

June 5, 2011

The Heightened Sense of Music

As the recent wedding of England's William and Kate, music helps make life special. As Tomoko remarks, "In celebration there is usually music. People experience heightened feelings, and the music follows." Consider how people use music to express the important rites in life: from birthday songs to graduation marches, from wedding trumpets to funeral dirges. Tomoko recommends Chopin Opus 27 #2 as one of the best pieces for weddings.

Tomoko also notices how music joins people: "In a crowd, a few people know music—when they can do it together it is unifying. She goes on to say, "We are like a chorus, we take a breath together." In that respect, going to a concert heightens the musical experience as everyone shares it. Tomoko has passed that experience down to her daughter Beata. "I took Beata to an opera when she was in third grade. I gave her a good foundation in music, and some interpretation of music. Children don't know about music, but they are curious so they can learn about it." Tomoko understands, "It can be so much trouble to go to a concert, but the experience is worth it."

Musical performances themselves frame life experiences. "When you go to a concert, you dress your best, you feel great and are treated well," Tomoko says. "You are polite, and you don't compare the performance, just as you wouldn't tell a hostess what is wrong with her home when you visit it." You appreciate being able to have the experience.

Piano performances, such as recitals, enable musicians and music students to experience and display the highest caliber of music. Tomoko tells her students, "In the performance you cannot cover up. You must prepare, detail by detail. How to reach the best sound is a big project." Tomoko remembers when she sent one of her students to a symphony competition across state. " The mother showed me two dresses, and asked what was appropriate." Everything contributes to the musical experience: the technique, the feeling, the bearing, the appearance. Both the performers and the audience bring out their best aspects. Framing the experience "lifts it up."

Tomoko's own philosophy reflects this reach for excellence: "Whatever I do it’s the highest quality. This is the way I teach, and the way I perform." Even as a child, Tomoko would skip lunch to save her money so she could buy good quality, clean music sheets. Likewise, Tomoko treats every student professionally so they will have a heightened sense of music and life. She says, "With proper music, we experience the joy of life – it lifts up your body."

Bartok is known for capturing the joy of Eastern European folk music celebration. You can get a lift out of hearing Tomoko play his folk dances and melodies on her Touria album, available at

May 23, 2011

Imagination and Music

Tomoko asserts that music tells a story, which is formed by the composer’s imagination. The music imitates sounds in nature as well as urban life. Think of Ives’ Appalachian Spring or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

When Tomoko plays, she often creates a scene in her mind. She notes, "During a performance you don't have time to think. Most of the time you need to have more imagination, and respond to sound." She equates the experience to animals. "If you're nice to the cat, it responds. The pet is honest, pure. They have super sense. You need that kind of super sense when you play; you need imagination." For Tomoko, that imagination is manifested in mental scenes, often of nature. "The scene is the response to the music. Sometimes it takes a while for the scene to appear." She continues, "Most of life is routine, so the scene helps to raise the musical experience to a higher plane. It makes it special."

Tomoko explains the inner link between imagination and music. “Daily life’s depression or excitement is a feeling. When you write a book, when you read a book, it can be an interesting engaging experience if it involves imagination. You imagine the feelings that are written about; the abstract becomes real. The same thing happens in music. Imagination has to be full of life, full of sparks. Without imagination as you play, you are wasting time practicing.”

When she teaches, Tomoko shares her concepts of imagination with her students. “There’s always something new coming up. Keep searching for that imaginative spark. Connect with the next step; planning ahead can be exciting – something new is happening. Dream.” Tomoko tells her students, “Why don’t you bring something next week?” Tomoko uses an analogy: “Imagination is a torch that you show but don’t hand out. It lightens the path ahead, but the student has to take the imaginative steps.”

Want to test your imagination? Liszt is a good bet. Like the city? Try his 1859 Venezia e Napoli. More of a country person? There’s his 1855 Années de Pèlerinage. Tomoko plays both of them on her Liszt album, available at

May 8, 2011

A little peace and quiet

On Mothers' Day, it's good to think about peace and quiet.

Tomoko remembers her teacher playing the guitar. "It fit with the music so well. It was quiet. Close to nature." She goes on to say, "Music can be a simple accent, like a flower." She asserts, "If everyone would listen to music, the world we be more peaceful."

Playwright Congreve would certainly agree: " Music has charms to soothe a savage breast."

Music also has its silent spaces, which can last just an instant, or become the entire piece, as is famously known in No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33". Some silences enable singers to catch their breaths. Other silences signal a transition between movements, a time for one to synthesize the prior movement, and have time to refocus on a new section.

Silence also connects music and nature. "Silence is the best gold," asserts Tomoko. "This is music." Tomoko remarks, "One day if you're very depressed, you don't want to hear music. You have to be quiet." That can be a good time to be quiet in nature. In the seemingly quiet of the out-of-doors, you can feel the rhythm of life. It beats in the silence of your heart. And as you become calmer, you can start to hear nature's sounds, which can be music to your ears and psyche. "A bird singing, a tree waving; nature shows that silence is variable music."

Nevertheless, Tomoko says, "You can't go without sound for too long."

Tomoko considers Chopin to be very quiet sometimes. "He hardly touched the keyboard, but he was a good pianist." To hear a quiet interlude played by Tomoko, try her interpretation of Chopin's Nocturne in B flat minor, Opus 9, No. 1 on her Chopin Volume 2 album (

April 24, 2011

The uniqueness of the piano teacher

The importance of the piano teacher cannot be over-emphasized. “Every teacher has varied experience, and everyone a different idea about how to instruct,” says Tomoko. “The key is to find the right match.” She goes on to say. “If you are college age, casually go and listen to peers’ and teachers’ interpretations of music. Think to yourself: ‘I can fit with this teacher’ or not.” As a parent, you can attend piano recitals, and see how the students behave and perform, as well as how the teacher relates to the students. How stressful are the students and teacher? Is the atmosphere full of hopeful or dreaded anticipation? Do the students seem self-confident? Can you feel an element of trust and support? As an adult, you can use your common sense and your instinctive feel of music.

As a teacher, Tomoko studies each child to see how he relates to music. “If I give you seven crayons, can you create twelve colors? Music is created with seven notes. How does the child connect with this color, this note? How does he create or make something with the music. You can judge the child’s musical IQ.” Nevertheless, Tomoko cautions, “Never say you have no talent, but students are in the experience, and don’t know where they are musically. You need a lot of respect for children.” Tomoko builds on the child’s curiosity. She will preview a piece of music with the child, and ask, “What do you think comes next? Which part do you like? Isn’t that rhythm interesting?”
Tomoko recounts the approach used in Russia with piano protégés. “The piano teacher goes to the public school, and says, ‘Let’s everyone play.’ The teacher spots the most talented child, and tells the parents. The government then pays for the lessons. That’s how the Bolshoi ballet can be so good.”
Teachers have to take developmental issues into consideration as they teach, Tomoko points out. “I remember when I was a young piano student. My teacher said, ‘You are too young for Chopin; you have no experience.” Students bring their lives to the keyboard, and they cannot hide from their interpretation. The good piano teacher fits the music to the child’s age and ability.” Tomoko muses, “Mozart is easy for a child, but hard for an adult. His ideas are very simple, but wonderful. He is best when played cleanly. If you put too much sugar or dress up his music too much, it can be overdone. Mozart is more childlike.”
Tomoko reminds parents to be patient with their children’s playing development. “At the beginning, the child needs to learn the basics, like arithmetic tables. They need to learn the feel of the keyboard and the piano itself: the physical instrument. Students need to know how to play before they can interpret. Even flats and sharps are a developmental process, for instance, and need to come after playing in the key of C.” Tomoko continues: “Parents may ask: ‘Can my child play in four years?’ Tomoko remembers a high school senior student who was very busy. “I encouraged her to memorize 20% of the piece over the next two months. She can do more later, and should not feel disappointed if she cannot do everything at once. Parents understand that need to adjust the playing, but persevere. Parents can destroy a child if they expect too much too soon.” Tomoko reminds parents that playing the piano is a life-long experience.
Tomoko also mentions Bach is a good composer for younger students because of his structure and use of chords. For a more sophisticated listening experience of Bach, try Tomoko’s interpretation of Bach’s Capriccio in B flat major, BWV 993 on her album Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann at

April 10, 2011

Family life and music

Tomoko and I talked about family life and music, and it was obvious how music can make a difference -- and the important role that parents play in the music experience.

"If someone plays music in the home, their family is peaceful. It's a much different tone than sports on TV." Classical music is especially valuable; "like Shakespeare, it never goes away."

Tomoko shared her memories of music in her childhood home. "My mother loved singing, and would sing to herself as she did housekeeping. She was very industrious, and respected her very much. I would stop and listen to her singing Jesus Loves Me. My mother was a typical Protestant, and loved church music. Instead of "Our Father," my religious memories are musical."

Tomoko also talked about her sibling's experience. "My brother wanted to learn how to play the piano, so I wanted to learn too." As the older brother, he had to chaperone Tomoko to her piano class. Both of them naturally gravitated to music; "we swallowed and ate it up." In the 1950s, her brother became a composer and music teacher. Tomoko started as an accompanist, and then a performer in her own right -- as well as a piano teacher.

Even if family members are not performers or professional musicians, they can appreciate music. Tomoko laughs: "In 1972 I married a Hungarian refugee who didn’t know the difference between Chopin and Beethoven." Nevertheless, they share a love of music -- "You can start music at any age" -- and it is ingrained in their family. Tomoko added, "Sometimes I start playing the piano at 9am, and go on until 6pm at night. My family sometimes has to sing a song to me to entice me to eat lunch."

"You listen to the music that other people like." It's obvious that Tokomo's love and respect for her mother and brother positively impacted her love of music. And her own love of music has enriched her own family.

Parents' daily lives make a profound difference in their children's growing up and future direction. From her experience as a piano teacher, Tomoko knows that a parent's experience can impact whether a child will take piano lessons. Does the parent value music? Does the parent value a child's interest in music? Playing the piano is a long-term investment. We can never know for sure what will "stick," but music can certainly become part of the parents' contribution to their children's lives.

As a parent, your actions speak volumes. And your musical investment of time can bring untold value to your children. So whether you sing as you fix dinner, listen to music while driving your children to school, or share Christmas carols, you can share your love of music with your children. You and your children can grow together through music.

What's a good musician to start with? Mozart. "It's pure music because of the experience behind the writing," says Tomoko. You and your family can enjoy his deceptively simple Twelve Variations on an Original Theme, K. 500, available at

March 27, 2011


"There are two kinds of musicians: those who exploit their instrument, and those who don't." Glenn Gould

Tomoko Hagiwara is in the second group of musicians. When you listen to her perform, you do not think: "How masterfully she controls the piano." Instead, Tomoko respects and frees the music through her respectful and sensitive performance.

I have had the pleasure of knowing Tomoko since the 1980s when I worked as a librarian at San Domenico School, a Catholic PK-12 school in the San Anselmo hills of Northern California. I remember in meeting her that one of her first questions was: "Who is your favorite composer?" I answered quickly, "Bartok" because of his unique take on traditional folk songs, which I loved to sing. My response sealed our friendship.

Since then I have written some of Tomoko's program notes, and she asked if we could blog about music and its impact on life. Thus the inspiration for the name of this blog: Signature for life. The term "signature" refers not only to a composition's key and timing, but also indicate the name of a person as written by their own hand. Music is Tomoko's signature, a key part of her identify. She has loved music all her life, and contends that everyone should have music in their lives.

This blog, then, serves that purpose: to share Tomoko's life of music -- and encourage others to experience music, especially classical music, as a way to enrich and fulfill their own lives. As Tomoko says, "Everyone can listen, and everyone can sing."

Tune in.

And as a taste, listen to one of Tomoko's favorites: Chopin's Etude Opus 25, number 1 in A flat major. You'll hear the liquid melody first, and then appreciate its rich and full peacefulness even after the last note is played. You can download it at,, as well as Amazon and iTunes.(