December 31, 2012

The Spiritual Side of Music

In the midst of the holiday commercialism, the spiritual core of the season may be found. Music has its spiritual side throughout the year, as Tomoko can testify to. Indeed, music and religion have played an important part of her entire life.

Tomoko recalls, “My mother’s parents were Greek Orthodox, they would say the Hail Mary and so on. Later they became Buddhist, but had to practice their religion underground.” Then she thinks about her husband, “My husband’s country, Hungary, was religious. He also went to a Catholic boy’s high school, which was very traditional. They were very strict: no communion if you weren’t Roman Catholic.”

Tomoko recounts her own early religious experiences. “I remember Billy Graham. When I was 14, he came to the mission school. He had a harp brought along to play Christian songs; it was so impressive. Everyone there could feel religious together.” She continues, In that respect, evangelism is fantastic. Church gives you belief.”

And music gives you soul. “When was I was disappointed in myself, the piano could lift me high,” Tomoko says. To her, “All composers are guardian angels.” She explains, “I feel so much pressure, but I have Chopin. Everyone accepts the soulfulness of his music.” She adds, “Did you know that he composed next door to a monastery? He lived in the area because of his asthma.”

Tomoko relates the spiritual side of other composers. “Listen to Liszt’s compositions. His  philosophy is so beautiful. He was a very religious man.” She then goes back in time. “The Bach brother were so strict – even at night they had to copy fugues. They had a  monastery type of education, which can be felt in the St.Matthew's Requiem.”

Tomoko concludes, “Everyone needs food, sleep, and emotion.” Music can give you that passion, which has its spiritual and religious side. ‘Tis the season – throughout one’s life.

December 19, 2012

The Season for Families

Since it’s the holiday time, families come to mind. They are certainly important to Tomoko, and have shaped her life and career.

Her mother’s love of music, and her family’s support of musical performance, started Tomoko in her own lifelong dedication to music. She also became interested in playing because of her brother’s music lessons.

Tomoko recognized her own daughter’s love of performance – in skating. Because of her own musical training, Tomoko also understood the need for constant practice, and for family sacrifice, to make the dream of skating a reality. “Even one week without practice will be embarrassing.” To that end, Tomoko spent hours transporting her daughter to practice and competitions, and some of the money Tomoko made as a teacher also went to help finance her daughter’s love. However, Tomoko is quick to say, “To be accomplished once in your life is something you cannot buy.”

Tomoko was also able to use her own experience in music competitions to help her daughter in such activities. “My daughter gave me that chance to participate in her life, and to give her advice.” Tomoko asserts, “There’s a science behind competition, which you need to know.” Tomoko would explain to her daughter Beata: “Be proud of yourself, but do not show emotions before the competition.” She also gave good advice about judges: “Do not bring up the topic of the composition with judges. Be polite and respectful, and do not criticize.”

Beata has become successful in realizing her dream. She performed in the Olympics, and continues to perform as well as coach. And Tomoko also continues to perform and teach.

It should be noted that Tomoko’s husband – and Beata’s father – has also been very supportive of his family’s loves. Even though he is not a musician nor a skater, he appreciates music and movement  -- and loves his family.

During this holiday season, let us enjoy our families and show how much they mean to use through our actions.  

November 24, 2012

The International Language of Music

Tomoko Hagiwara was born in Japan, lives in the U. S., and has traveled widely in Europe. So she knows the international nature of music. “When I came to the U.S., I couldn’t speak English. The piano helped me communicate. The piano speaks the international language of music, and the keyboard acts as the translator.”

As a teacher in the conservatory, Tomoko has worked with many students from other countries. She herself was the first Asian teacher there, and notes how both the staff and student population now is much more diverse. The love of music is visibly shared by people around the world who gather together to learn how to express that love.

In particular, Tomoko recalls one Indonesian mother who had five children who were all conservatory students. Tomoko noticed that the woman stayed at the conservatory, and asked, “Why do you come to the conservatory?” The woman answered, “Because I LOVE the beautiful music.” She also commented, “Everyone carries a violin case, unlike in public school.” Music is the norm, not the exception at the conservatory.

Tomoko concludes, “In any language feeling is the same.” She expresses that feeling in her performances, and encourages her students to start with their hearts, even before they use their fingers, when they learn a piece of music. 

October 21, 2012

The Public Side of Performance

During this election time, it’s interesting to note the public life of pianists – and other famous people who play the piano.

For instance, U.S. Presidents Harry Truman and Richard Nixon played the piano well, and Nixon even accompanied singer Pearl Bailey during a White House performance. Tomoko recalls that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played the piano for Queen Elizabeth II. Tomoko also remembers the President of Poland playing the piano. “He played the piano before the Polish Congress started, and that focused and united the gathering into one direction: to save Poland.” Tomoko continues, “His performance led to political connections,” Tomoko generalizes: “People respect you more, politically, if you can play, because people love music.” Tomoko remembers that the Japanese invited foreign pianists to perform in order to how the government’s interest and support of culture.

Tomoko too has experienced the public side of performing throughout her adult life. When Tomoko wanted to go to Europe in the late 1960s, she connected with wealth people through her piano performances; “They helped me with connections and networking,” Tomoko says. Tomoko has also performed at international competitions, and met with several remarkable musicians in these venues.

Elect to hear Tomoko’s piano interpretation of Chopin’s nationalistic compositions on her Chopin II album, available via

October 10, 2012

Love of Music, Love of Family

You don’t have to be a performer to love music and to be impacted by it. Tomoko’s family is a great example of that.

Tomoko’s mother loved to move to music as she worked around the house. She and her husband loved music enough to obtain a pipe organ from the neighbors so Tomoko and her sibling could learn to play. Tomoko’s older brother was an inspiration for her; as a little girl she would follow him to piano lessons. He chose music as his career, as did she.

While visiting Europe for the first time in the late 1960s, Tomoko attended a Hungarian dance part. There she saw “the most handsome boy from East Germany.” She noted, “He was a good dancer, but I could not dance.” Two years later, Tomoko saw him again, and invited him to a recital. In 1970 they got married in Salzberg.

Tomoko’s daughter Beata also loves music, dancing to it – on skates. Tomoko started her daughter skating at a very early age, mainly for exercise and recreation. However, Beata came to love skating so much that she has pursued it as a vocation, and performed in the Olympics. She also married her dancing partner.

“Every family can enjoy music, listening to the radio, watching TV and films.” Tomoko thinks that music as a family affair. “Families can also create music together with their voice as well as with instruments.” They can now also go online.

You can sample Tomoko’s musical performance at

September 16, 2012

Linking Students to Music

It’s the beginning of the school year, so it is a good time to focus on Tomoko Hagiwara’s role as a piano teacher, which she has done most of her life. “I started when I was 18, when neighbors asked me to teach their family.”

When asked what she likes about teaching, Tomoko responds: “The challenge, and the communication. You need music, and I prepare the next generation.”  Our conversation focuses on her students.

“I don’t make distinctions between students in how I treat them. I treat everyone as a professional.” On the other hand, Tomoko understands developmental differences among students. For instance, when asked if she goes into the history of a piece with her students, Tomoko responds, “Until they are 12, most students are not so serious, and are not interested in history.” She continues, “I like adolescent students because they are discerning. They know themselves. Some are over-confident. I tell them to look at the whole world; there are so many things in the world. I ask them to compare themselves with their possibilities so they can put their efforts into perspective.” Tomoko adds, “I learn from their growth.”

Tomoko also talks about motivating students. “I push students who are not interested. I use points, which can be reinforces at home with parents.” She shares another technique, “I will teach with two pianos side by side. I tell the student to watch while I show the music’s structure. No time is free.”

Tomoko also mentions the importance of choosing music carefully. Tomoko says, “Anthologies include pieces that are not good. I have the knowledge of 5000 pieces in my head. I stick with the classics, simpler music by famous pianists. Small songs help.” With her knowledge, Tomoko can judge the ease of each piece with the student’s ability; “Music is a scaffold.” Tomoko goes on to say, “A teacher always has to be on the outlook – watching out for what’s coming up.” Because Tomoko knows each student and each composition so well, she can anticipate where the student might encounter difficulties. For instance, she sometimes says to them, “Don’t get upset – this is hard for me too. This is a big bumpy road.” Tomoko explains, “I help them keep moving, meeting the challenge of each piece.” She also comments, “Disappointments can make you stronger.  I tell my students to never be discouraged, never give up.”

Tomoko concludes, “Why do I give so much to my students? You have to have sympathy with students. They want to grow, but they need direction. That is the biggest job of the teacher. Sometimes a miracle comes for a student when I work with them. That accomplishment gives me a mother’s feeling of joy.”

Listening to strong performances of beautiful piano compositions can motivate families to learn how to play. Tomoko is inspiring in all of her albums, which are available at

September 1, 2012

Chopin for every place

Tomoko has many positive impressions and associations with Chopin. About this composer Tomoko states, “Chopin is very quiet. He would hardly touch the keyboard, but he was a good pianist.”

Chopin has struck several personal and site-specific chords with Tomoko.

“When I first arrived in the U.S., I was invited to tea,” Tomoko recalls. “I played Chopin’s Opus 27 #2, which is sometimes played at weddings.” She continues, “I have been playing it all my life. I always play it for encores.”

After a Cambridge conference event while the room was being cleaned up, Tomoko went downstairs and played Chopin. Tomoko remembered, “I felt so much pressure, but I had Chopin.” 

Another time, in the Chopin Museum, Tomoko played his composition “The Island of Majorca” (Raindrop Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15).

In 1945 three early piano pieces of Chopin were discovered in a monastery: numbers 9-11, which he composed at age 7. Tomoko comments, “There are wonderful to give to young students,”

In 1968 Tomoko visited a friend in Florence, and visited a local museum house in a Medici home. There Tomoko asked, “May I use your harpsichord?” The staff let her play Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in C-sharp major, BWV 848 on their antique instrument.  

Tomoko recalls watching a  film about Chopin. “In the movie 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.”

Tomoko concludes, “Music is like peanuts. Chopin nocturne in D flat minor #2 is one I practice so many times.” You can hear Tomoko perform that piece on her album “Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann” at

August 19, 2012

Exercising the Piano

Mastering the piano requires exercise, both physical or mental. So asserts Tomoko Hagiwara: “That is why I keep in shape.”

Tomoko states, “Every performance has to be completely controlled. Simple, clean, comfortable.” That level of competence requires hours and months of exercise, both to play well technically as well as to lend meaning to the piece. “Musical form can be challenging. Tomoko remarks, “Artistry is hard to memorize.” In addition, different pieces require additional expertise; Tomoko explains, “Schumann is hard to perform – you need a lot of spirit and imagination.”

Musical playing can start at any age, but its exercise has to be sensitive of developmental issues. “Technical skill is basic, like math,” says Tomoko, “and it grows as the body does.” For instance, some of Liszt’s pieces require a wide hand spread so should be played when the fingers are longer. Bach is easier to play because of his use of chords. “Technique never goes away. Experience gets it together,” Tomoko asserts. “Behind each professional is experience.”

Likewise, interpretation develops as the learner grows emotionally and experiences life.  Tomoko compares musical interpretation to reading: “When you grow up you have a different experience reading the same passage than when you are younger.” So too will the same musical passage take on different meaning as an adult. Mozart is a prime example of that belief: “He is easy for children, but hard for adults,” says Tomoko.

Tomoko links other types of bodily exercise to music. “A music teacher sent a student of hers to ballet school for two weeks, and the student came back with a greater perspective and appreciation of the physicality of music.” Tomoko also believes that music can help other areas of exercise. “Jog with music to escape,” she says, ”Choose music by its rhythm in order to center yourself.”

As a teacher, Tomoko exercises her students mentally in order for them to perform better. “Challenge is good. I tell them don’t start at beginning – start with the hardest.  Then the rest comes easily.  You can’t be sloppy.” She is reminded of a student who practiced at his teacher’s house four hours at a time. “He knew that he must play the piece correctly.”

Listening is another part of the exercise experience. Students should play together, and listen to each other,” says Tomoko. You can stretch your mind – and spirit – by listening to Tomoko’s performance, which is the result of many years of dedicated physical, mental and emotional exercise. Try her take on Liszt:

August 6, 2012

The Olympics and Tomoko

The Sports Olympics holds a special place in Tomoko’s heart. Did you know that Tomoko’s daughter Beata competed ten years ago in the 2002 Olympics?

Beata started skating at age two as a way to keep active and fit, but she became serious at skating herself at age six. She kept up with her skating practice, but she didn’t compete until the U.S. Nationals. Real competition started after age 20 for her. She started as a solo figure skater, but teamed up with Charles Sinak, whom she married the next year in 1996. Along the way she has experienced both disappointment and success, but she continues as a professional pairs skater with her husband, and also teaches figure skating.

Beata’s attitude mirrors her mother’s in terms of discipline, perseverance, dedication, and patience. And Tomoko has modeled good parenting practices in actively supporting her daughter’s interests, and expecting high standards from her daughter.

Tomoko thinks that youngsters should start by focusing on their technical skills, be it in playing a musical instrument or skating. They should delay serious competition until they are grown up; otherwise, they can burn out. Tomoko also believes that performance – be it on ice or on the keyboard -- involves interpretation, emotion, and spirit. Being surrounded by music has also helped Beata choose fitting music for her performance – and move in consort with it effectively.

Tomoko feels that music gives her freedom, and, no doubt, Beata feels the same about her figure skating. And their freedom has come because of the years of hard work and sacrifice.

Those years of effort pay off for the listener’s ear in appreciating Tomoko’s exquisite performance. You can listen as Tomoko’s fingers glide over the keyboard on her album of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Schumann’s music:

July 22, 2012

Questioning the Teacher

Tomoko relishes her role as a teacher. This Q and A session reveals her attitude and expertise.

Q: What motivates you to teach?
A: I give of my heart. I love to share. So many teach because of the money or to survive. If you have no interest in the student, why do it?

Q: What do you give your students?
A: I give them direction and encouragement. I give the quality, my impression of the sound.

Q:  Do you see potential in all students?
A: All students have talent. They just grow at different rates. Everyone can start with 0 but can make 100. Nowadays some students quit too soon. They need to be patient with themselves. I push students who are not interested, and motivate them.

Q: How do you teach a child to interpret music?
A:  First, I ask them to think about what the composer wants to say. I tell them that each piece is a story, and that they will see it at the end. Then I tell them to create – make some style. You need to include emotion. I try not to interpret the music for them.

Q: How do you help students progress?
A: Students may be scared about a new piece – it’s too hard. I tell them: “Now you start to work.” When want to go to Everest, you don’t look up too much. Look at the step head. Practice. Make sure each step is clear. If you look up you’ll be disappointed. When you reach the top of  the mountain, you can look back and see how much you progressed.

Q: What do you think about parents as teachers of piano playing?
A: Parents may misguide their children because they might not understand how their child plays or what techniques the child needs. Parents think child should play X, but it isn’t the right piece for the child at that point. Sometimes parents push too much or have no patience.  The teacher needs to protect the child. When I teach the child, I am also teaching the parent.

Q: What advice do you give students?
A: Know who you are. Know what you want. Look at the start. Make your own road.  Look for water. Know how to survive. 

You can learn a lot from Tomoko’s own performance too. Listen to her at

July 1, 2012

Metaphors of Music

Music is more than a literal experience. For Tomoko, music takes on metaphorical meaning. Here are a few of her analogies.

Tomoko compares the piano to a garden. “The keyboard is a garden. Each key is a unique flower that needs to be cultivated. Together, the keys create a bouquet.” Of course, one difference is that the combination of those 88 keys offers much more variety because they constantly change; “How many pieces does a scale play?”

When talking about learning a piece of music, Tomoko compares it to climbing up a hill: “Each piece is a little challenge. You need to keep moving.” As the performer gains more confidence, “then you can look back to see your progress. And when you have mastered the piece, it is like reaching the mountain peak. You feel a great accomplishment, and can see a far distance.”  In this same analogy, Tomoko points out the role of the teacher. “The student should go straight ahead, but sometimes he needs direction. That’s the biggest job of the teacher.”

Another metaphor is carpentry. “Music education provides tools for the pianist, like a carpenter. Each one draws upon his own experience using those tools to craft a beautiful performance.” Tomoko continues, “What is the difference in how the music sounds? Each composer is creative with his tools.”

And since Independence Day is forthcoming, a final metaphor is most timely. “Music is freedom.” Tomoko thinks of Mozart in this regard, “I love Mozart so much, I can repeat it 20 times because it gives me freedom.” She concludes “That is my main job, that spiritual idea of extending more freedom through music.”

Feel free to listen to Tomoko’s creative expression as showcased in her Mozart album:

June 16, 2012

Why the piano?

 There was music in Tomoko’s house as she was growing up: singing, listening to the radio. Tomoko followed her brother’s lead in playing the piano. So family can certainly determine what musical instrument might be pursued.

Sometimes people will choose an instrument because it’s available, or because a certain kind of instrumentalist is in short supply. Even the size and weight of an instrument might be a criteria for choice, such as varying configurations of stringed instruments. In in some cases, how the music is produced physically, such as a violin versus a clarinet, can impact which instrument “works” for an individual. In addition, different musical instruments resonate with different people. “Why can’t some people play the piano?” Tomoko muses, “It’s a type.” In choosing an instrument, Tomoko has a broad perspective: “Choosing a musical instrument is like being at a big fest. Make you who know you are. Look from the start. Know what you want. Whatever is your path.”

If you ask Tomoko, why choose the piano, she says, “Piano is a basic instrument. It can be played independently or as part of a group, so it brings a certain freedom.” Tomoko asserts, “Pianists are luckier than singers, as well. Pianists can make same image at orchestra. They can see the whole.”

On the other hand, Tomoko says, “The piano can be the most difficult musical instrument.” She asserts. “You need a long time and patience to play, at least three years. So it is a long-term investment. Some students quit too soon because they are not patient.” However, that effort can be stimulating; Tomoko counters: “Enjoy the challenge, and gain confidence.” As can well be imagined, she is a very encouraging piano teacher. And she is very happy with her lifelong choice of playing the piano. 

You can share her pleasure of performing by listening to her recordings at