December 11, 2014

Mysteries about the Life of a Musician

Tomoko muses about the many mysteries about a musician's life.

The music performance field is very competitive, and it is sometimes a wonder as to who becomes a professional, or who becomes famous. “There are so many good musicians who are unknown,” Tomoko maintains. That’s one reason that Tomoko usually accepts students at the Conservatory; “You never know where you will find talent – or when it will emerge from the student.”

Tomoko thinks that mystery is good. She advises her students, “When you go to a recital or other performance venue, remember the importance of first impressions. Be most careful at the start. Keep a little mystery about yourself that will feed people’s curiosity.”

Tomoko continues, “The most important part is the performance, and the most important part of the performance is communicating emotion with the audience. That interaction is a wonderful, mysterious feeling.”  Tomoko harkens back to that first impression: “Once you perform, you have a different kind of connection with the audience.”

Even if we plan, we live in the “now.” We don’t know about tomorrow. Tomoko reflects: “That’s good. There’s always hope."

November 27, 2014

Thankful for partner performers

Tomoko is very thankful for the wonderful musicians with whom she performed. They are each special and unique. Here are three of her outstanding ones.

George Duke was a famous jazz musician who passed away in 2013. Tomoko remembered him from 1967. "George lived in Marin City, and attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  At the school's recital I performed Brahms and Prokofiev with him." Tomoko recalls his personality. "Some of the students didn't have cars, but he did -- and he gave rides. He was very humble and sweet."

One of Tomoko's favorite musical friends is violinist Ernestine Riedel Chihuaria, whom she met in 1968 through the Peninsula Symphony south of San Francisco. Tomoko was her last-minute accompanist at the De Young Museum, and continued to perform together for thirty years.

And then there is Tomoko's daughter Beata, who is a professional skater. Beata learned how to play the piano from an early age, but her passion was ice dancing. "It's good not to have two professional pianists in the family," remarks Tomoko. Nevertheless, at Tomoko's tribute concert in May 2013 she and Beata performed a piano duet, which was very touching.

November 15, 2014

Performances and diamonds

Performance is a heightened reality, which Tomoko has experienced both as a performer and an audience.

Tomoko remembers attending a concert of the famous Bohemian pianist Rudolph Serkin. He was touring Japan in the 1950s, and Tomoko bought a ticket in the cheapest seating sectoin. Listening to him play Schubert's Fantasy for Piano Opus 15, Tomoko found herself crying nonstop for the first time at a concert; she felt, "This is what an artist is supposed to do." She thought that his performance was perfect, not just a technical feat. "It was the most gorgeous feeling in the world," she remembered. She also remarked, "My tear was like a diamond: a symbol of the most valuble and authentic emotion."

Tomoko also considers that the performance is whole within itself. The performer selects and sequences a set of compositions to convey a specific message with a particular pacing. For that reason, Tomoko does not like encores. She remembers going to a balalaika recital. "The musicians were exhausted; they had given their all." Tomoko continued," When the audience cried for an encore, I felt sorry for the band who were forced to perform more. The good feeling of the performance was gone -- it dissipated."

Tomoko muses, "Real music is everywhere. A performance is special because it intentionally communicates emotion with its audience.There is a mysterious feeling that cannot be explained away."

October 31, 2014

Broad Horizons and Sure Footing

When Tomoko was growing up, she would look over the Yokohama harbor, and see all the ships coming and going. At her high school every four years new teachers would come to instruct. Before she graduated, Tomoko already knew, “I want to go to another country.”
When Tomoko considered where to go, she saw that Europeans were migrating to the United States. Even through Europe was considered the musical heartland, wars drove creative people to the states: Hindemith, Weill, Schoenberg, Korngold.

Starting in a new country was often hard. Tomoko started by teaching piano to children of Japanese families. She competed for scholarships. But she also realized: “When you have hardships, you understand more.”

Tomoko encourages her piano students to have dreams, and keep up their hopes. And she knows that making those dreams come true requires hard work. Tomoko tells her students: “When you want to climb up to the top, start with a small mountain.  Make sure your foot is on the ground.  One step is far enough.  Then I tell my students that everything is possible.” Tomoko should know.

October 19, 2014

Playing by Heart

Tomoko’s students all start out as amateurs, and some become professional musicians. However, Tomoko has deep respect for amateur musicians.

Musicians who make their living through performance have an added burden that amateur musicians do not. Tomoko says, “In rehearsals professional musicians might be thinking about how they are going to make enough money.”  She continues, “Professionals sometimes get tired and frustrated.”

On the other hand, “When I see an amateur orchestra, I see smiles because the performance do not have to worry about depending on money to play,” Tomoko points out. “They tend to be well bred. They have the talent and discipline, but not that added stress.”

Tomoko notes that the San Francisco Symphony does not hire a professional chorus; the members are all volunteers. “Their singing comes from the heart.” Tomoko goes on to say, “They love what they do, which leads to power.” She concludes, “The result is a rich sound and feeling.”

For this reason, Tomoko enjoys performing with amateurs, and is supportive of all her students because she knows that each one of them can enjoy a life of music, even if they never get paid for it.

September 27, 2014

The Harmony of Music and Mathematics

There is a long connection between music and mathematics, asserts Tomoko. Both require precision and order. Both deal with proportion and harmony. Both use pattern creatively. Music is very measured, and mathematics has its own kind of rhythm.

Likewise, composers and mathematicians have connections. Bach is known for his mathematical counterpoint.  Bach wrote his crab canon such that it can be played backwards and forwards at the same time. Bach also used musical numerology. For instance, he would incorporate his name into compositions: B, A, C, and H (B is B natural in German, and B is H).

Mozart was a super mathematician, and his composition papers sometimes had algebra notes on them.  Mozart also used musical numerology, weaving masonic numerical symbols in his open The Magic Flute, such as the number three (such as three-part haromy, characters in sets of three, and  key E flat major, which has three flats.

On the flip side, Einstein played the violin for his own pleasure, and would even perform at benefit concerts. He loved Mozart because of the composer’s expression of universal harmony, and he revered Bach for his structure.

How does this fit into learning the piano? Tomoko says, “At the beginning, the child needs to learn the basics, like arithmetic tables.” She points out the importance of understanding a composition’s structure and patterns, just like mathematics. “And we strive for harmony.”

September 13, 2014

Inner Riches

Money does not make the musician; hard work, dedication, and persistence do. And other people will recognize that effort. You can see that in Tomoko’s early professional life.

Money was tight for Tomoko when she arrived in San Francisco as a young Conservatory piano student.  She lived with a widow, taking partial care of the widow lieu of rent. She taught piano to the children of Japanese families, sometimes going to their homes. When Tomoko was fearful that she would not have the money to continue at the Conservatory, she found out that a board member paid her tuition.

As a student, Tomoko tried for a San Francisco Foundation award that would help finance her studies. Tomoko remembers, “ That morning was rainy, and I had only one dollar, not even enough to take a taxi.” Instead, Tomoko took a bus, holding her umbrella to keep her nice outfit dry. She thought to herself: “I am going to make it.” When she got to the auditorium, a competitor arrived in a Cadillac, and someone held out an umbrella over her head. After Tomoko played the required selection, the judges liked her performance so much that they asked her to play another solo piece. The competition took all day, and Tomoko had to go home alone on the bus at 8pm, when there were few buses at that hour. Two days later she found out that she won.

Tomoko won several other awards, and has continued to make money through her piano teaching and performance over the years. But it has been her love of music and people that have been the main driving forces for her own dedication.  Tomoko truly has vast inner riches.

August 30, 2014

How economics impacted childhood piano experiences

Economics played a role in Tomoko’s early experiences with the piano.

When Tomoko was a child, her wish to play the piano was impacted by the Japanese economy.  “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's first piano was shared with her brother who started piano lessons ahead of her. The family bought it from neighbors who had to sell their piano during World War II because they needed to money to survive. World War II was very hard on many of the Japanese people economically. Many of them lived in poor conditions; food and clothing were sometimes hard to get. 

Tomoko’s family had to move about this time, partly to save money. This housing situation impacted Tomoko’s piano playing. “My house was too confined to practice, so I took a train street car and walked to my high school,” she recalls. 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 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.”

August 15, 2014

Lili Kraus: Inspiring Pianist and Teacher

Tomoko has inspired hundreds of students over the years. She too has been inspired by musicians as well, right from her youth.

The first pianist and teacher whom Tomoko usually mentions is Lili Kraus. When Tomoko collected LPs as a youngster, she listened to Lili Kraus’s performances. Tomoko crossed paths with Lili several times. 

Lili was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1903. She began her piano studies at six years old, and later specialized in Mozart and Beethoven. Lili was already a professional performer and professor at the Vienna Academy, when she met and married Austrian philosopher Otto Mandl. The couple converted to Catholicism, and lived in Italy and London under the threat of Nazism. 

While Lili and her family were on tour in the Dutch West Indies in 1942, they were captured by the Japanese. The family was torn apart, and each member was sent to a different prisoner-of-war camp. Lili survived three years of prison life, largely because the Japanese knew and respected her performance recordings. The story goes that a Japanese university organ major gave her food and musical scores. Finally the British military freed her, and for two year Lili gave performances in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (where she was granted citizenship because of her war-relief efforts). In 1948 Lili moved to England, and later resided in the U.S., where she performed and taught master classes. Lili also helped create the Van Cliburn Piano Competition at Texas Christian University, where she was an artist in residence.

Tomoko met Lili and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1962, when both of them were practicing piano. Listening to Tomoko play, Lili said to her, “I have to learn from you about the piano. I am nothing.” On her part, Tomoko enjoyed Lili’s singing as well as her playing. The two ladies began a warm friendship, which lasted until Lili’s death in 1985.

Lili was known as a charming, talkative and intense personality; “She was ageless,” according to Tomoko. Lili was also a demanding teacher, and could back up her opinions with her own performance quality. “She had a wonderful touch,” remarked Tomoko.

August 2, 2014

The Importance of the First Teacher

The first teacher has a lasting effort, Tomoko knows. She recalls her daughter's first ice skating teacher, and the lifelong impact he has made in Beata's life.

When daughter Beata was three, Tomoko took her to the local ice skating rink, thinking that it would be a good activity for her little one. Tomoko took Beata’s hand, and asked at the service desk, “Do you have teachers and skates?”
“Of course,” answered the young clerk. Then he motioned over a friendly looking gentleman in his forties wearing a big black overcoat and Russian style hat, learning on a guard rail.
“How do you do? My name is Tony Howard.” He took Tomoko’s hand warmly, as she greeted him. Tomoko recognized a British accent in his voice. He had immigrated from London to San Francisco in 1955, and made his living teaching skating at the Bay area skating rink.
Tony bent his knees to greet Beata. “And  what is your name?  Would you like to skate?” Beata nodded solemnly.Tony held Beata’s hands, “Now try to stand. I’m right here so you can lean on me if you need to.” Beata wrinkled her noise, teetering a moment on the skates. “Now I want you to take big steps. Pretend you are marching. Walk towards me.” Tony bent over as he gently held her hands and gradually let go. Beata broke out into a grin as she realized that she was walking by herself. “Good girl!” Tony beamed. “Ready to try the ice?” This time Beata nodded vigorously.
With that, Tony walked her onto the ice. Tomoko watched as Tony guided Beata to the middle, away from the other skaters, and then showed her how to balance and walk on the ice. He got her to swivel a bit, had her try jumping, and made her practice how to bend and fall – and get back up again without hurting herself. Then Tony swooped Beata up in his arms and glided once around the rink, letting Beata feel the wind in her face. “Whee!” she cried.
 Tony Howard started with her then, with occasional lessons during the public skating time. Tomoko realized that the first teacher was the most important one. She was impressed with Tony’s teaching style; he was very patient and showed more personality in his communication than other skating coaches. 
By the time Beata was six, Tony began coaching her seriously. He started a skating book for her in which he jotted down detailed instructions, drawing the figures and illustrating them with stick persons. Sometimes he would draw Disney-like characters to show specific movements. He had an appreciation for different kinds of music – jazz, ballet, even Yo Yo Ma, which he leveraged to showcase Beata’s natural dancing abilities.  Their partnership clicked. Beata has made ice skating her life's vocation -- along with her skating husband. Even now Beata keeps in touch with Tony, who at age 84 continues to skate and teach at the Oakland skating rink.

July 19, 2014

Teaching at San Domenico

Tomoko’s teaching home has been the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. However, she also taught at San Domenico School: A K-12 independent school known for its pre-professional music preparation conservatory. The music conservatory and pavilion are located down the hill from several of the hillside campus buildings, and the music wafts up the breeze. As stated in the school’s website: “Music has been a part of San Domenico School since 1850. The Marin County based Music Conservatory offers private and group lessons in piano, strings, woodwinds, and voice at all levels. Instruction is open to students enrolled in San Domenico School as well as children who live in the surrounding Bay Area community.” Along with lessons, students have many opportunities to perform, the most reknown venue being the Vivaldi Festival.

While the lower grades are coed, San Domenico’s upper school of 9-12th graders are all girls. Some of these students board at the school, especially international students. In that respect, Tomoko’s Japanese background provided an inside advantage for students who were far away from home.

In 1983 Tomoko joined San Domenico’s teaching faculty as a piano instructor. Tomoko’s daughter Beata also attended San Domencio for a couple of years. At that time, Faith France was the director of the program, and the wife of professional violinist and conductor Hugo Rinaldi. One of Tomoko’s San Francisco Conseratory students performed Saint Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 5, and Faith was impressed with the student – and Tomoko’s teaching.

Tomoko had a range of students,both in terms of socio-economics and musical ability. Some of them became professional in their own right. However, Tomoko treated each student fairly and equitably, matching the girls’ interests and needs to the music and skills appropriate for her musical development. Regretfully, because the number of students taking piano lessons decreased over the years, Tomoko left San Domenico in 1993. However, she still remembers the many hours of teaching, practice, and recitals that graced the halls of San Domenico. 

July 5, 2014

A Little Traveling Music

“Everyone should try a train,” asserts Tomoko. She wishes everyone would have a bon voyage, be it on a boat, car, or plane.  Tomoko has certainly experienced many forms of travel, which reflect different way stations on her life journey.

When Tomoko when to high school, she used the train, sitting in the back while the Americans sat in the front. This experience occurred during the American occupation of Japan after World War II.

Tomoko flew for the first time in 1962 when she left her homeland Japan for the United States, when she started to study at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Tomoko would take the local bus to teach piano at the homes of her students, and to go to auditions, including one that resulted in her being awarded by the San Francisco Symphony Foundation.

While at the Conservatory, Tomoko traveled with her friends to Arizona in order to meet the famous cellist Pablo Casals.

In the late 1960s Tomoko wanted to go to Europe, and well-to-do supporters helped her with contacts and networking.  She competed in several competitions: in Paris and Brussels among other European cities. Later that decade she visited a friend in Florence , and had a chance to see the Medici house and played an antique harpsichord. In 1970 Tomoko married a Hungarian, and they visited his home country from time to time.

Fast forwarding over twenty years later, Tomoko took her daughter Beata to Europe for Beata’s own competition: in ice skating. In 2002 Tomoko and her husband traveled to Salt Lake City to watch their daughter compete in the Olympics.

Even though Tomko doesn’t travel as much these days, she still enjoys driving her car. 

What has all that traveling taught Tomoko? In response, she says, "Open the door. Visit the country. A passport is your teacher."

June 13, 2014

Connecting People through Music

Teaching piano is a social endeavor as a teacher relates to her student, and helps the student make a personal connection to music. Tomoko has made such social connections much of her life, both because she loves music but also because she loves to connect with people.

Even as a teenager, she taught people in her students’ homes, a practice she continued when she first came to the United States. Music made it possible for her to make connections with strangers, who became friends. She in turn uses music to connect people.

Each recital that Tomoko plans connects students and music to a larger audience. In a more public venue, Tomoko brought her students to San Francisco City Hall, where they played to over 200 people. One of the listeners, a homeless man, asked, “Can I play?” He played very well, and it made his day. Tomoko sees music as a “corner for exchanging ideas and skills.” It is no wonder that Tomoko appreciates public concerts that are open to all the people, such as San Francisco’s Stern Grove summer series of music performances.

Tomoko says, “Musical communication is the easiest; it needs no translation. It gives people a chance to know each other through their joint enjoyment of music. Being together with music generates a warm common feeling.”

May 24, 2014

Music Enriches Education

It’s the time of the year when school is finishing for many students. For some, school may seem like a drudgery. When music is part of education, then it can be a rich experience -- beyond the graduation processional. Just ask Tomoko.

Tomoko went to elementary public school when times were hard. For secondary education, she attended an elite Dutch Reformed School. The school required singing, especially at Christmas time, and they expected Tomoko to accompany the singers. Not that accompanying was easy; “It was like climbing a mountain, but it made me smarter.” Tomoko remembers, “The preparation was challenging, but I welcomed the opportunity. It brought me friendship, and people respected me.” She also had piano “school” on Saturdays: theory in the morning and performance in the afternoon.

One of the benefits of college is the ability to major in a subject that one likes. For Tomoko, that was an easy choice: piano. It was very difficult to get into the program at the University of Tokyo, and Tomoko felt proud that she made it. Not surprisingly, the piano majors stuck together. They would go to classes in the morning, and practice the rest of the time. What social life they had, they often did together.

While at college, Tomoko studied Gregorian chant, and liked it so much that she became Catholic. (Her grandmother was a Ukrainian Orthodox, and her mother was an active Protestant.) Near the university was the Catholic Church, and Tomoko played the organ at services.

Not surprisingly, when Tomoko came to the United States, it was to study piano -- at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.Especially since Tomoko knew little English -- and was a newcomer to the states -- music was a true lifeline for her. "Music is international. I don't have to say a word, and I can communicate through music. Is is no wonder that Tomoko became a piano teacher.

In thinking about education and music, Tomoko concludes: “There is so much nice music. Music is connecting. And music is a lifelong education.”

May 10, 2014

Remembering Jan Popper

Tomoko credits Professor Jan Popper with inspiring her to spread her wings in America.

Jan Popper was born in Czechoslovakia in 1907, and was already giving solo piano recitals at age nine. When Hitler rose to power, Jan enlisted in the Czech Air Force, and then sailed to San Francisco. He established the Intimite Opera Players at Stanford, and then became director of the UCLA Opera Theater.

Tomoko’s life changed when Jan Popper received a Fulbright Award in 1960-1961 to established an opera school at the Tokyo University of Arts. Dr. Popper heard Tomoko perform in Tokyo, and talked with her saying that she was very good. He told her about the US and musical possibilities. At that point in life, Tomoko had already hoped to come to America.

He was able to get her to be listed along with a group of Japanese singers for a Japanese opera that was going to be performed for UCLA. He advised her to apply to the Conservatory of San Francisco because the paperwork was relatively easy. Tomoko took his kind advice, and was able to spread her wings in America. “In Japan graduation is the end, in America it is just part of life,” Tomoko noted. 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. “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 1964, Dr. Hopper interviewed Tomoko for a KQED television program, asking about her background and musical experience. Tomoko played Hungarian Rhapsody A minor #11 by Liszt on the show. The next year Tomoko got a green card, and in five years became a US citizen. 

Even though Jan Hopper died in 1987, Tomoko still has fond memories of him, and continues to thank him for helping her have a chance to grow -- and give -- professionally in the United States.