December 29, 2016

Piano Playing As Family

The holidays are family time. Coming home. Enjoying each other’s campny. Remembering the joint memories. Tomoko contents: “Piano playing is like a family.” Here is why.

A family is a long term commitment. It has its ups and downs, but relationships are deep and impactful. This long-term dedication can apply to can piano playing.

Think about raising a child. It requires regular attention. It needs to learn the basic steps. Its communication is limited, and it can be hard to express itself. It can be frustrated, and needs calming. So too the beginning piano student needs to acquire the habits of regular practice. She needs to learn the basic hand positions and touch, the scales, the musical notation. The first pieces need to be easy in order to experience early success, motivating the student to continue those basic skills. Even so, the student may be frustrated because fingering is not natural yet; the sound produced is not what is in the mind of the student.

Families grow and change week by week. You cannot leave the members alone. They continue to have needs, though those needs may change, and the way to address those members may also need to change. So too do piano students constantly need to be challenged and supported. As they grow in confidence and expertise, piano students need to be handled differently. As the pieces become more complex and sophisticated, new skills are added. The piano teacher knows the likely obstacles, and can advise ways to overcome those obstacles.

With growth, family members gain more responsibility. Likewise, the piano student takes more responsibility in analyzing a composition, marking those sections that need more attention and care, for instance.

“Interaction with each other makes the family closer,” says Tomoko. “So too as the piano player gets to know the piece, he becomes more comfortable with it.”

And lastly, families build memories together, and look back on those memories that continue to knit them together. The piano player’s growing repertoire also elicits memories of the music, the composer, and the experience of performance.

No wonder that pianists, such as Tomoko, build lifelong meaningful musical relationships.

December 17, 2016

Reading for Life

Obviously, Tomoko reads music – scores of scores. And not surprisingly, she has read lots of books on musicians and composers. Her knowledge base of the musical universe is both broad and deep. Such knowledge informs her performance, and she passes this information onto her students.

What is less well known is that Tomoko likes other kinds of reading as well. She particularly likes biographies that reveal compelling stories and personalities. Tomoko has been known to suggest a good book to colleagues, tantalizing them with a vivid scene from the book. Tomoko says,“I enjoy other people’s lives and challenges. Everyone should write a biography.”

Tomoko has always had an interest in different people and ways of life, and books enable her to vicariously experience a wide variety of cultures and times. Even though Tomoko has travelled a lot, and has lived a rich life, her reading extends her interest even more. Through such reading, Tomoko asserts,
“I learn from others. That’s my education -- good or bad.”

By learning how how people think and perceive the world, Tomoko is able to relate to people even more effectively. She concludes, “Church gives you belief. Books gives you ideas, and open your mind about people.”

Another gift Tomoko gives to her students and broader audience is this blog, which captures some of her experiences and insights. We all benefit from her shared reading and writing.

November 29, 2016

The Impact of Immigration

In this climate of nationalism and concern about immigrant populations, it is important to remember the richness that immigrants bring to this nation. Tomoko and her husband exemplify the impact of immigrants to the United States – and the impact that people in the United States made in helping them succeed.

Tomoko 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, but I had to have a job to pay tuition. Tomoko came to the country with little money: “I didn’t want to be tempted to go back home.” Her musical skill opened doors for her. “Fortunately, UCLA had a special opera workshop, and a Japanese composer was there, so I was an accompanist for the program.” The Japanese community also welcomed her as a piano teacher for their children.

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 asserts: “Without music you don’t see as much of the world, and you don’t see the challenge.”

Because of her musical contributions Tomoko was able to become a US citizen five years after she got her green card (being single, it took her longer than if she were married at the time). She had to be interviewed, and was worried because of the spelling test. But the interviewer said, “I am a member of the Marin Symphony,” so it was an easy process.

One of her witnesses at the interview was her future husband Desy. He too is an immigrant: a refugee from the Hungarian Revolution. He was a medical professor at the University in Budapest, but had to redo his residency when he arrived in the United States. He had only one suitcase and $30 when he was dropped at St. Mary’s Hospital, and sometimes had to sleep in the park because he could not pay for lodging. Nevertheless, he once again became a successful and very regarded doctor.

The United States is richer because of Tomoko and her husband – and their talented daughter.

When asked what she liked about America, Tomoko responds: “I love the freedom. 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.”

November 21, 2016

Keeping In Touch

               The holidays provide wonderful opportunities to keep in touch. Music offers another rich set of ways to connect with each other. Tomoko takes advantage of these many options.
               Tomoko’s students have stayed in touch with her over the fifty years that she has taught, sending her letters of appreciation, as well as bringing their children to become Tomoko’s students. They have not only attended her recitals, but have also recorded them to share with their friends. On her part, Tomoko has invited her students, both past and present, to perform at the recitals that she plans. She even performs along side them in compelling duets.
               As a professional pianist, Tomoko has used music as a way to “break the ice” in new situations, using the universal language of music to make connections and start friendships. “My English was not so good, so the music spoke for me,” she recalls. Likewise, Tomoko continues her professional associations by performing with her musician colleagues, and corresponding with them. More than once her musical friends have connected Tomoko with their own children, visiting at home or writing to keep in touch.
               In each formal performance, Tomoko connects with her audience through her interpretation of the music she performs. She serves as a translator between the composer and the listener, capturing the intent of the composition and expressing it intellectually, emotionally and kinesthetically.
               A recital, concert or other musical event also enables people to connect with each other because of the music. It is both a personal and communal experience. When the audience is asked to join in the music, be it in song or dance, they contribute substantially to that connectedness.
               And even without direct contact, Tomoko connects with her associates and students through the performances she has recorded – and her own memory. She says, “I can remember the pieces I gave the students 40 years ago.”
               This season may everyone keep in touch through music. It helps to make a harmonious world.

November 5, 2016

The Power of Composers

“Composers have special power,” contends Tomoko. They express feelings and ideas through the language of music, “just as an author creates through the language of words.” Those composers each represent different lives and ways of thinking. Tomoko continues, “Behind the composing is the philosophy of the composer. And that philosophy does not change.” It is the identity, the integrity, of the composer. “They have their idea what is best for them,” assert Tomoko.
Where does this power originate? “ I feel sorry for them because they can’t explain their creative power,” says Tomoko. Even though the tools are the same, the results are unique. What makes a note the right one? How does a phrase convey thought? How does the music’s movement rise above the score it is written on? “You have to respect every composer,” Tomoko explains. “Composition is hard work. Each composer creates a unique sound and interpretation. It’s very complicated.” Tomoko maintains that “They are tough guys.”

But composing is more than text. It is more than one-way communication. It is a conversation.  

Composers resonate with its performers and the audience. The music rings straight to the heart, and the sound created by the composer reverberates throughout the body and the soul: both in its performance and in listening to it.

And that music can empower the performer and the listener. It adds value to their lives and makes them better people. Music unites the composer and the audience, and brings out their best selves at the same time that it affirms a sense of belonging with each other and with higher powers.

It is no wonder that Tomoko believes that “composers are guardian angels.”