December 19, 2015

Assessing Students

When Tomoko interviews a new potential young student, she looks for several things. Usually a parent accompanies  the child, and gives some family and musical background. Then Tomoko interviews the child along. She can tell if the student knows how to play, and if he has the capacity to play with dedication. She says, "You can tell who is a composer, and who is a performer." She adds, "You can tell taste. And talent is like taste."

Tomoko continues the diagnosis and assessment every lesson. It starts by choosing the right composition. Tomoko emphasizes classical pieces.  She asks parents, "Will you give your son real literature or pap?" Tomoko contends, "Even if the child does not understand then, he will appreciate it later."  She continues, "It is important to build a solid foundation."

Because Tomoko has such a deep and broad knowledge of piano music, she can customize each child's musical experience according to that student's emotional, intellectual and physical development as well as the child's musical experience. "I like to challenge them a bit so they will grow." She adds, "It is better for a student to work harder to earn a B than to get an easy A."

She can also diagnose when a student is having problems, and can prescribe a strategy to help the student overcome the musical obstacle. She advises persistent practice and patience with oneself. She encourages the student to "climb the mountain step by step."

Assessment also applies to recitals. Tomoko assesses which pieces might go together, and in what sequence. She also senses how ready the student is to perform, and tries to provide the guidance to optimize success.

On the other hand, Tomoko respects each student, and tells students that they have to decide how to act on the assessment. She also encourages her students to assess their own performance, and take responsbility for their own progress. "I am so proud of my students," Tomoko says. "They grow up to be hard-working productive young adults with strong values." She has again assessed well.

November 26, 2015

Musical Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a very American holiday: sharing abundance as a community. The first Thanksgiving also acknowledged the importance of interdependence and benefits of diversity:  values that Americans continue to seek and support. 

It should be noted that giving thanks is a universal value, one that Tomoko appreciates and practices. Throughout her life, she has been helped to realize her dreams, and she has helped others to realize their own dreams.  Not surprisingly, a central theme is music.

Tomoko was thankful that her family home was filled with music, especially their regard for the classics. Music enabled Tomoko to be accepted into the prestigious Ferris School in Yokohama. The school’s singing ensembles, in turn, were thankful that Tomoko accompanied them on the piano. Likewise, Tomoko’s musical gifts and her years of practice led to her successful  competition to enter the University of Tokyo; she was both thankful for her own efforts and for her opportunity to learn at the nation’s best university for music.

Tomoko was thankful for Professor Jan Popper, who found a way for her to emigrate to the United States – as part of his opera  program.  Dr. Popper also advised her to apply to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which resulted in her successful studying and teaching there for fifty years. Tomoko was thankful for the widow who let Tomoko share her home, and the homeowner was thankful in turn for Tomoko’s assistance. Tomoko was also thankful for James H. Schwabacher. At one point in her college career, Tomoko didn’t have enough money to pay for her tuition. At this critical time James Schwabacher, a board member of the school, provided Tomoko with the scholarship money so she could continue at the conservatory. Tomoko showed her thankfulness in her hard work and musical success.

And Tomoko has given of herself and her music throughout her life, for which thousands have been thankful to her. Her concert performances have touched so many audiences. Her expert and caring teaching has helped so many students grow in their knowledge and love of music, and helped their own personal and professional growth.

We can all be thankful for music.

November 14, 2015

Duets for Life


"I ask people to do duets," remarks Tomoko. Tomoko has played duets with her students, both as part of their lesson as well as for recitals. There are many fascinating four-hand piano compositions, which enrichen the students' musical background. And technically, duets help musicians listen more closely to the music, and sharpen their ability to coordinate with the other player.

As a performer, Tomoko has played in concerts with other professionals. Tomoko fondly remembers violinist Ernestine Riedel Chihuaria in that regard. They met in 1969 through the Peninsula Symphony. Ernestine needed an accompanist at the last minute, and Tomoko performed with her at the DeYoung Museum. They continued to perform together for thirty years. "I considered ourselves as a duo rather than having a performer-accompanist relationship," Tomoko asserts.

Duets were an early part of Tomoko's own playing. She first learned piano playing from her brother, and the two of them would practice on the family’s one piano. “Sometimes we played four-hand music,” Tomoko remembers. “We would switch parts when doing duets, which helped me understand symphonies with their many parts.” Tomoko’s brother later became a professional composer.

Keeping it in the family, at her tribute concert in 2013, Tomoko and her daughter Beata performed a piano duet, which was very touching. While Beata started playing the piano as a preschooler, her passion lay in ice skating. Tomoko was just as glad; "It's good not to have two professional pianists in the family," contends Tomoko.

However, Beata enjoyed doing duets on the ice.  By age 14, Beata was known for her affinity for ice dancing, even though she practiced without a partner. It took four years for her to find a right male ice dancing partner: Charles Sinek. The next year they married. "Our competitions were like a wedding; we were presented as a couple, we dance together, we had beautiful costumes, our guests were the audience, and there was a lot of planning just for one event," remembers Beata. 

Tomoko too has had a long duet with her husband: Desy. They met at a Hungarian ball, and married in 1975. He also is not a musician, like their daughter; Tomoko ways, "I never have to worry about him giving me his opinion about how I should practice or perform." But they complement each other well, as good duos do. It's the same skill: of listening and coordination.

October 31, 2015

The Musical Soul of Europe

Tomoko has always had an eye on European music, which is not surprising. The Germans were particularly prominent in the early 20th century, several of whom resided in Japan and lectured at the Tokyo School of Music. On their part, some Japanese composers were intrigued by Western art music, and incorporated those tonalities into their pieces.

Europe has always been part of Tomoko's musical soul. Even before staring school, classical European music was part of early family experience as her mother sang hymns, her father played violin, and they listened to classics on the radio.

As part of her schooling Tomoko remembered the importance of children’s songs. In the late 19th century, the Japanese Ministry of Education reformed  music education by developing a music textbook that included Europe and American hymns and folk songs set to Japanese lyrics. Tomoko and her peers regularly sang these songs, which taught moral behavior and national pride.

During the war, Japan was largely isolated from the Western musical world, but the reputation of European music endured. Tomoko remembered attending a concert of Bohemian pianist Rudolph Serkin the early 1950s; “It was the most gorgeous feeling in the world.” Tomoko yearned to enter that society.

It wasn’t until 1967, though, that she had that opportunity. Her first flight to Europe was made possible through support of friends associated with the Conservatory of San Francisco. Tomoko took a chartered plan from Oakland to Frankfurt, where she performed and networked with musical illuminaries. Later that year she participated in the Long-Thibaud International Piano Competition and Paris, and in the following year she performed at the Queen Elizabeth International Musical Competition in Brussels.

Even after Tomoko curtailed competing internationally, she touristed in Europe, taking advantage of the long legacy of music. She visited Beethoven’s Viennese home, played an antique harpsichord in a Medici house, and perform Chopin’s Raindrops Prelude in Majorca in the museum dedicated to him.

Tomoko’s personal life also incorporated Europe. In Salzburg Tomoko married her husband, Desy Handra, who was an Hungarian medical doctor. And it was in Europe twenty years later that Tomoko helped her daughter navigate the international competitive skating scene.

Europe has served as a cultural gateway to music for Tomoko, which she passes onto her students, some of whom are Europeans themselves.

October 17, 2015

The Other Side of the Curtain

When well done, piano performances have a sense of glamour and mystery. It can feel like heightened reality – and so it is. Behind the curtain, and before the event, lies much hard work and stress. Tomoko knows both sides of that curtain.

Performance starts with the wise selection of the pieces to be played. Tomoko works with her students to find a piece that both interests and challenges them. Those same criteria apply to herself.

Then the hard work begins as the pianist analyzes and masters the piece. "Here is where technique provides a solid foundation," says Tomoko, so the pianist can follow the composer’s notation, and determine the correct fingering and dynamics. Attention to those details helps the pianist to concentrate on the interpretation of the piece. In a sense the pianist acts as a conduit for the composer, bringing to the piece her own experience and feelings as they resonate with the piece. This internalization of the music is part of the memorization process. The pianist has to over-prepare so that the physical action is almost automatic, and the spirit of the piece can be freely expressed.

Even if the performer does not have to take care of the performance venue itself, she still has to prepare herself. What message does the pianist want to convey through her clothing and hair style? What shoes facilitate playing? The pianist needs to be in good physical health and condition, including the immediate hours before the performance. Even the act of getting to the performance venue needs to be planned and smoothly implemented.

What seems to be calm in front of the stage current hides the activity backstage. The stage crew are busy moving props, including the piano. Cues for entrances and lighting are conveyed. If several performers are involved in the event, then each needs to be guidance and sequenced. Each aspect can be stressful, and the performer has to keep an inner calm, especially if other performers get nervous. "The stress doesn’t change over the years," remarks Tomoko. Only with time can the pianist learn how to deal with that stress.

Then the performance! The pianist lives for this moment, and is IN that moment. All the components are there, "But reaches a higher energy plane," Tomoko explains. The playing itself is both automatic and intentional, precise and personal, deliberate and freeing. It is ultimately a universal yet intimate conversation with the audience. It is not like daily life. It is a  heightened reality. Tomoko asserts, "It can be a mystical experience. An 'out of this world'performance."

That experience is the ideal, and is what keeps the pianist going through the long days.

October 3, 2015

Learning A Song

When conversing about preparing for a recital, Tomoko asked me, “How do you prepare a song?” It’s not as obvious as you might think.

 “Start with the text,” advises Tomoko. “What was the author trying to say? What is the message?” She continues, “Read it over and over. Read it aloud. Find its rhythm. Find the words to emphasize.” The next step? “Memorize it, and be able to recite it with meaning.”
 Only then should you look at the music. “Tie the words to the music,” says Tomoko. “How do the words resonate in the music? Does the music rise as the voice would rise with the meaning? How does the music approach phrasing?” Tomoko recommends marking the composer’s notations about speed, expression, and so on. Internalizing the lyrics informs the musician’s interaction with the music.
Technically, Tomoko recommends starting with the left hand. Getting the beat and base musical motif provides a sound foundation of the piece. Only then should the right hand come into play. At each point, the musician needs to iron out the specific challenges. That clears the way for the next stage of learning.
With this accumulative approach, the musician optimizes both the technical and expressive aspects of the song. So let your heart sing.

September 19, 2015

Hardship and Heart

Tomoko understands hardship, and she knows that it can help one personally and professionally.

As a child in war-worn Japan, Tomoko experienced shortages of food and other supplies. Neighbors sold their organ to Tomoko’s family because of financial constraints, which led Tomoko and her brother eventually to become professional musicians. She remembers her high school teachers promising her and other students chocolate in order to motivate them to memorize music.

When Tomoko arrived in the United States, her English wasn’t very good, so she had to learn the nuances of the language to get around. To a large extent, she had to make it on her own; she built on her experience to give piano lessons to help pay tuition and daily expenses. Tomoko’s hardships have helped her build resilience and inner strength.

Tomoko’s family has also experienced hardships. Tomoko’s husband Desy also experienced hardships. He was a professor who fled Hungary under Communist rule. When he arrived in San Francisco he had so little money that he had to sleep in the park. Their daughter Beata had to make sacrifices for her skating, traveling a distance to practice at the rink sometimes before the sun came up. Both husband and daughter have gone on to successful and fulfilling careers.

Having dealt with hardships, Tomoko knows how to encourages her piano students who themselves experience hardships. When parents do not support their children’s playing, Tomoko encourages her students to keep up their hope. When a piece challenges a student, Tomoko helps them take one step at a time to overcome the musical obstacles.

Tomoko philosophizes: “When you have hardship, you understand more.”  She continues, “Then I tell my students that everything is possible.” Tomoko should know.