December 28, 2018


At Tomoko’s recent concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music she played Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche as a duet with one of her favorite students Linda Poligono.

Darius Milhaud was a French composer associated with 1920s avante guard. Growing up in the Provence region, he heard country airs and café music, which complemented his musical household experiences. His Italian mother had a lovely contralto voice, and Darius started playing piano duets at age three with his father. He also studied violin, although he knew early on that he preferred composing music. Nevertheless he performed his own music as an adult, and was considered an excellent conductor.

As an attaché in Brazil during World War I, Milhaud was taken with Brazilian popular music and tropical tones. When he returned to Paris, Darius came into contact with the jazz scene and several famous musicians: Honegger, Schoenberg, Webern, among others. As a Jew, Milhaud left Europe and settled in California to teach – and keep composing.

In the 1930s Milhaud created much film music, which led to his concert work Scaramouche, opus 165b for duet, written in 1937. Milhaud wrote four versions of Scaramouche. The first drew upon his incidental music piece for Moliere’s “Le médécin volant”/ “The flying doctor.” His second movement was based on an overture from Spilville’s Bolivar. This composition reflects a commedia dell’arte spirit. But Scaramouche’s true musical roots harken back to Milhaud’s years in Brazil, with its dance rhythms and syncopation. The first movement is quick and syncopated, recalling Brazilian urban popular dance. The second movement has three lyrical melodies that merge at the end. The third movement is a lively samba.

Scaramouche was the last piece played at Tomoko's fall concert, and was a joyful way to end the afternoon musical event.

December 15, 2018

Background Music

Tomoko grew up in a family that appreciated music. Her father played the violin before he married, and her mother actively participated in Christian churches so listened to much religious music.

koto from WikipediaAs for music in Japan overall, it reflected both the political and religious flows and tensionsTraditional Japanese tonality differed from its Western counterparts. Pentatonic five-tone and heptonic seven-tone scales formed the basis of most traditional pieces. The intervals follow the pattern of A, B, C, E, F, A, which is basically a natural minor scale in Western music theory. The Japanese stringed instrument koto is tuned with this scale. 

 Late 19th century Meiji dynasty curiosity about Western culture included absorption of foreign classical and religious music. The first piano wasn’t heard until the opening of Japan, but by 1875 the Japanese were manufacturing their own pianos and other Western musical instruments. On the bureaucratic side, the Meiji government created the Music Study Committee, which encouraged Western music. They wanted Japanese composers to write in the Western style, and the committee the German model of music instruction for all students. The committee also led to the founding of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, which Tomoko attended. 

Surprisingly, combining Western and Japanese music could be challenging though. For instance, Christian religious tended to be Western based, which was sometimes hard for Japanese to intonate. And when missionaries tried to translate their hymns into Japanese, they found it hard to match the rhythm to Japanese text. For example, Russian musician Iakov Tichai tried to integrate Russian Orthodox singing with Japanese tonality, with mixed results. 

Tomoko was able to bridge that tension between Western and Japanese music. She tends to play Western classical music professionally, and she sings traditional nursery songs to her grandchild.

December 3, 2018

Music and Art

Tomoko sees a strong connection between music and art. She asserts: “Music and art are transformative and active.” She considers both of these creative expressions as active processes.

Both music and art draw inspiration from the close and familiar, the larger arena of life with its struggles and triumphs, and from the creator’s own imagination.

Both use a variety of tools in their creation, tools that they need to master over time. While both are creative endeavors, they also require much discipline in composition and execution.

Both draw from universal principles within their own field, and optimize the elements of their field. Interestingly, some terms are found in both fields. Rhythmic beat and symmetry are found in both fields, for example.  Tone in music encompasses duration, pitch, intensity and timbre or quality. Tone in art deals with light and dark values. But both fields use the term tone to express the mood of a piece.

Both meld intellect and emotion. While each field internalizes the technical aspects of composition (another joint term), the creators also externalize their own emotions– or capture the passions of those around them who inspire their works.

Both can move and impact their audiences as they reflect their times – or change society. Both fields can produce little known and ephemeral works, and both can produce enduring masterpieces.

Tomoko states that “music is powerful and never-ending.” The same claim could be made about art.

She also things that “art is a happy life. However, some push themselves too much so are not happy.” Again, the same cautionary tale can apply to musicians and composers. Just look at Mozart.

In any case, both music and art can inspire – yet are the result of much hard, disciplined and creative effort.

November 18, 2018

A day in a recital

Tomoko has planned another recital concert – this one is today: November 18. It’s very important for her, and she is giving a souvenir to remember the day along with the real-life, real-time unique experience.

What is recital day like?

Tomoko starts this day early, as she does every day, with a light breakfast before dawn. She takes special effort to dress professionally for the performance. She gathers last-minute supplies, and packs her car for her drive through Marin County, over the Golden Gate Bridge, into The City. Tomoko likes to drive at this hour on Sunday, with the highway largely free of traffic.

She holds her recitals and concerts at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, fittingly near the Opera House. Parking is free on Sunday, which the many attenders and performers appreciate, especially since parking can be found at a real premium.  

Hours ahead of concert time, tables are set up for the welcome and reception. Tomoko has a great group of volunteers who bring food and flowers, create the program, take photos, and greet people.

Tomoko spends her time behind the stage, giving advice to her performers, checking with technicians, and dealing with last-minute details. It can be a nerve-wracking time, especially as Tomoko wants the day to be as close to perfect as possible so everyone will experience the height of musical culture. Fortunately, everyone else has the same goal, and that spirit permeates the Conservatory as each  individual contributes to the day’s success.

Throughout the performances people are eager, expectant, delighted, appreciative. Performers receive heartfelt applause and flowers. Enthusiasm continues after the music stops as the audience discusses the music while feasting on homemade and commercial delectable and beverages.  The music truly unites and uplifts.

For Tomoko, it’s a long fulfilling day. She recalls details as she drives home. Tomoko has made this experience possible; it is her gift. 

October 22, 2018

Time Matters

Time is a central motif in music, not only in composing and interpretation but also in developing musical competence. Tomoko has several insights about various aspects of time within the construct of music.

A key element in music compositions is timing; the notes and measures impact the pace, the rhythm, the tone, and even the physical playing of that composition. Most composers also indicate timing in their pieces textual (such as largo versus presto). This latter timing element is somewhat open to interpretation, and is reflected in different treatments by the performer. Glenn Gould is particularly noted for his unique interpretations, which included variations in timing.

Timing can also be applied to learning how to play the piano. Tomoko asserts that “you can start learning how to play the piano at any age.” However, she does suggest that a good time for children to start is five years old because fine motor coordination usually develops between ages 5 and 7. On the other hand, it is good for the beginning student to be mature enough to read music, and have some cognitive and emotional development. At the same time, Tomoko very much enjoys adult learners: “They bring experience, self-motivation, and musical appreciation.”

Tomoko also believes that timing affects performance. “I do not like proteges; they may have the technique but they seldom have the experience to interpret the piece deeply.” Tomoko is also concerned that children who perform the piano professionally are exploited to some degree. “You need to have a balanced life as you are growing up,” she says. “It is better to delay professional competition and performance until you are an adult.”

Tomoko also chooses piano pieces based on developmental timing. “Mozart can be easy for children but hard for adults,” she asserts. “Because Mozart was first a performer, he wrote music aht is natural to play.” She cautions, “However, Mozart was also a super mathematician and used musical numerology, so he can be very complex.”

Tomoko also notes the amount of time that one should devote to practicing the piano. “You should practice every day, at least one solid hour. Don’t move from the piano bench,” she counsels. “A second hour each day is also good, but you can break it a bit.”

Tomoko realizes that there can be a time for silence. “At some point you might feel depressed and not way to play or hear music. You have to be quiet.” That can be a good time to be quiet in nature, to feel the rhythm of life. It has its own timing.