December 28, 2013

Music Makes Friends

Throughout her life, Tomoko has made friends because of music. “I enjoy other people’s lives and challenges,” says Tomoko. “Through music I meet so many people.”

In college in Tokyo, Tomoko had fun with the other music majors. “We pianists were all together and are still good friends. We would  study in the morning, and practice the rest of the day.” 

When Tomoko came to the the United States, she knew very few people, but music provided a way to make friends at the Conservatory of San Francisco. Tomoko would also be invited to her colleagues’ homes for the holidays.  She also remembers going with a couple of Conservatory girl friends to visit Pablo Casals at Arizona State University, where a library was being dedicated to him. Tomoko now sees parents chatting together at the Conservatory where she teaches. “You have a place to share, and can help each other,”  Tomoko recalls in her decades of experience there.

Tomoko’s students sometimes contact her years after they have grown up or moved. It was their continued friendship that led to the honorific concert in May 2013. Tomoko also remembers her own teachers, and remet an old professor in London, 40 years after studying with him.

Tomoko has also made friends with other professional musicians. For instance, Lili Kraus was a concert pianist and master class teacher. Tomoko met her twice in Japan, and Lili said to Tomoko: II have to learn from you about the piano.” They shared their love of music and became good friends.

Music also brought Tomoko and her husband together; they met at a Hungarian dance party!

More generally, Tomoko explains how music brings people together. “People can welcome music anytime. Music is powerful. I don’t have to say anything."

December 14, 2013

Family of music

A spirit of family may exist in the relationship between piano teacher and student. That is the case with Tomoko. She has students who are very loyal to her, and study with her for a decade or more.

In turn, these students may reflect the importance of family in their love of music. That is also the case with Tomoko, whose mother loved music and whose family bought an organ for the children to play.

One of Tomoko's longtime students Vivian shared with her about family inspiration of music. Vivian and her family lived in Vietnam. Her father was a young tutor of wealthy children. One rainy day on his way home from tutoring, he stopped and stood under his umbrella, inspired as he listened to someone playing Chopin. At that moment, he thought to himself: "If I have a daughter, she must study piano."

Indeed, he fathered Vivian, and she studies piano -- with Tomoko. "Vivian performs Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven beautifully," says Tomoko. She continues, "Both her children studied piano with me throughout their childhood. So that moment of rain led to at least two generations of pianists, and most likely more."

That moment also speaks to the insight and determination of the father, who recently passed away.  His love of music -- and of his family -- continues. And the family of music continues and grows as well.

November 29, 2013

Gifts of Music

Music – and friends of music -- brought Tomoko  to the United States – and kept her there.

About the time that Tomoko graduated from the Tokyo University for Fine Arts and Music, she played a noteworthy recital.  UCLA  Opera Theater Director Jan Popper was impressed with Tomoko’s performance, and figured out a way for her to join a group of Japanese singers traveling to California.

Once she arrived, Tomoko applied and auditioned  successfully for the Conservatory of San  Francisco.  She worked hard; even a B+ could mean the end of her student visa. But hard work and academic excellence were not enough;  tuition was a struggle. At one point, Tomoko felt as if she were in the middle of the ocean. She had come so far, but was afraid she would need to return to Japan. So she was so excited and relieved when she was informed that one of the Conservatory’s board members, James Schwabacher, would pay her tuition. At the time, Tomoko didn’t know who he was. In addition, a widow let Tomoko reside at her house for two years.

After graduating from the Conservatory,  Tomoko started teaching, largely for Japanese families in their homes, growing her clientele through positive recommendations based on her teaching. She also worked with the Japanese Consulate.  Tomoko then became the first east Asian teacher at the Conservatory, where she continues to instruct and mentor. Over the years, Tomoko has more than  given back to her community through her expertise and dedication. We have all benefited from her musical gifts.

November 16, 2013

Connecting the Arts with Music

Music connects all the arts,” says Tomoko. “Think of the TV show Dancing with the Stars.” On a personal note, Tomoko’s daughter is a professional skater, and her lifelong experiences with music have helped her perform gracefully.

“Music can be like an art project,” Tomoko relates. “Composers combine instruments to create a unique sound. How do you balance the composition? Tomoko continues, “Color of the tone is most important.”

Tomoko makes another connection, “When you read about a composer’s life, you can examine his rhythm more fully because you know its context.” Such study goes the other way too. “After you enjoy Chopin’s etude 25 #1 melody, you will enjoy the movie about him more. When you see the countess in the movie, well-dressed and peaceful, she will remind you of the etude.”

In 1968 Tomoko visited a friend in Florence. There she visited a Medici house, which served as a museum. Seeing a harpsichord there, Tomoko asked, “What does it sound like? May I use it?” The owners let her play Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier  (Vol.I) in C# major BWV 848. “On the other hand,” says Tomoko, ”it bothers me when the museum has background music. You need to choose which art to focus on.”

On a final note, Tomoko advises, “Be curious and courageous when it comes to the arts.”

November 2, 2013

Remembrance of War

November 11 is Remembrance Day in the United States, honoring war veterans. Tomoko has her own vivid remembrances of war time.

Tomoko was born and raised in Japan. World War II was very hard for the people of Japan, but it unified them. No one was rich. They were all in the same situation. No one cared what people wore; it wasn’t important; education was. The war increasingly encroached on the lives of the Japanese. By 1943 they would see the B29s flying overhead. By 1945 many of the shops were closed instead, there were hawkers calling about specials. Farmers would go door to door with the food they had just harvested. People had ration tickets for food. There was little to eat, mainly rice, and sometimes they would eat the grasshoppers that the children used to play with.

Tomoko’s father was conscripted when he was 43-44 years old. All the men in Japan had to go to the coast to protect the region from the invaders. Each house had a bomb shelter with supplies, under the house. When the bombs started, the children were sent to the country; Tomoko visited relatives in the countryside. There were still schools in the country, but the children got behind in their education. Schools were closed in Tokyo, and the high schoolers worked in factories to help the war effort. They were given their diplomas automatically at age 16. This happened to Tomoko’s sister, who never married because so many men were killed in World War II.

Tomoko started playing the piano during World War II, using a piano that the neighbors had to sell because they needed money. Fortunately, Tomoko has continued to play throughout her life, and has shared her love of music internationally. Music transcends war.

October 20, 2013

Unique Tones of Composers

Even though each composer impresses the same processes, each one has a unique sound. “I respect every composer and their style,” says Tomoko.

Tomoko suggests Bach as a good composer for younger students because of his structure and use of chords. “He was very mathematical.”

Tomoko notes how Bartok’s compositions often built on folk music, particularly Rumanian folk dances. The communal spirit of dance responds to the spirit of the music. “Music and dance are natural parts of human community celebrations such as weddings.”

“I like Schubert. He is peaceful, and his quality of tone is memorable,” remarks Tomoko.

Similarly, “Chopin is very quiet. You hardly touch the keyboard, but he was a good pianist,” Tomoko advices, “Chopin’s Etude  Opus 25/ #1 and #2  is good to give to young  pianists. They can enjoy the melody first.” As for herself, I have been playing Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 27 #2 all my life. It’s a great piece for weddings, and I always play it for encores.”

“ In contrast, Liszt has lots of action,” Tomoko says. “Interestingly, Liszt was a very religious man,“ says Tomoko. She adds, “ Liszt didn’t find his inspiration in nature; instead, he focused on man’s creations and imagination.”

“Beethoven’s strength was also internal, but he was very human in his approach,” notes Tomoko. “His emotions were strong inside, and his mind could orchestrate.” She continues, “Consider his Fidelio; it is very powerful, but it is all balanced. “

Tomoko’s favorite composer is Mozart. “I could play a piece of his twenty times.” She adds, “I have a natural feeling about Mozart. His music is so beautiful, and bridges this life and the next.”  

October 5, 2013

The Physical Side of Playing the Piano

Playing the piano is not a spectator sport. It uses your whole body. It strengthens your senses of eyesight, hearing, and touch. It requires complex fine-motor and gross-motor coordination. Even your posture is important in playing correctly.

In that respect, the piano is your “tool,” which you have to handle physically. Tomoko explains, “The first year of piano starts the learning process. Just as young children don’t know how to use pencil, so too must they learn how to use the piano.” She continues the analogy, “Teachers will say to the student: ’You can’t be sloppy. You can be neat and clear.’ Some teachers mark the pencil where finger should be positioned. The same advice applies to the piano. Even the finger placement and curve of the hand are important physical skills.” Fine muscle development starts in primary grades, which is a good time to start toning those muscles.

Just as different exercises help different parts of the body, so too does each piano practice session and piece of music. Students warm up with scales and other finger exercises that become automatic, which help in later functions such as key modulations.

“Each piano piece has some kind of physical challenge,” says Tomoko. It may be left- and right-hand coordination, the best finger to use when playing a progression, or stretching the hand to span key distances. Tomoko advises, “Look at each movement. There should be no guessing as to finger motion.” Tomoko also says that memorizing a piano piece includes muscle memory. “That’s why it is important to play the right notes; so your fingers will remember correction.” She reminds the performer, “Exactness is not stiffness. The muscles should be supple, not stressed.”

Tomoko encourages young pianists to stretch themselves, developing their physical techniques by the time they are adults.  Tomoko also associates learning to play the piano to mountain climbing. “You need to go up lots of small mountains. If the road is right, you will reach up. So practice daily, and step nicely.”