May 25, 2019

Linking Students with Music

It’s the beginning of the school year, so it is a good time to focus on Tomoko Hagiwara’s role as a piano teacher, which she has done most of her life. “I started when I was 18, when neighbors asked me to teach their family.”

When asked what she likes about teaching, Tomoko responds: “The challenge, and the communication. You need music, and I prepare the next generation.”  Our conversation focuses on her students.

“I don’t make distinctions between students in how I treat them. I treat everyone as a professional.” On the other hand, Tomoko understands developmental differences among students. For instance, when asked if she goes into the history of a piece with her students, Tomoko responds, “Until they are 12, most students are not so serious, and are not interested in history.” She continues, “I like adolescent students because they are discerning. They know themselves. Some are over-confident. I tell them to look at the whole world; there are so many things in the world. I ask them to compare themselves with their possibilities so they can put their efforts into perspective.” Tomoko adds, “I learn from their growth.”

Tomoko also talks about motivating students. “I push students who are not interested. I use points, which can be reinforces at home with parents.” She shares another technique, “I will teach with two pianos side by side. I tell the student to watch while I show the music’s structure. No time is free.”

Tomoko also mentions the importance of choosing music carefully. Tomoko says, “Anthologies include pieces that are not good. I have the knowledge of 5000 pieces in my head. I stick with the classics, simpler music by famous pianists. Small songs help.” With her knowledge, Tomoko can judge the ease of each piece with the student’s ability; “Music is a scaffold.” Tomoko goes on to say, “A teacher always has to be on the outlook – watching out for what’s coming up.” Because Tomoko knows each student and each composition so well, she can anticipate where the student might encounter difficulties. For instance, she sometimes says to them, “Don’t get upset – this is hard for me too. This is a big bumpy road.” Tomoko explains, “I help them keep moving, meeting the challenge of each piece.” She also comments, “Disappointments can make you stronger.  I tell my students to never be discouraged, never give up.”

Tomoko concludes, “Why do I give so much to my students? You have to have sympathy with students. They want to grow, but they need direction. That is the biggest job of the teacher. Sometimes a miracle comes for a student when I work with them. That accomplishment gives me a mother’s feeling of joy.”

Listening to strong performances of beautiful piano compositions can motivate families to learn how to play. Tomoko is inspiring in all of her albums, which are available at

Piano on the Brain

Tomoko asserts, “You need a brain to play.” Playing the piano is a complex system of processes that weave cognitive, emotional and kinesthetic aspects. This entry focuses on that complex organ: the brain.

The brain may be called “control Center” because it processes the senses and largely directs the body’s movement, certainly its conscious efforts.

First one has to sight-read the composition, which normally consists of two sets of music lines, each in a different clef. That step uses the visual cortex and the occipital lobe, which processes visual data.

Over time, the pianist does not have to look at the keyboard to know where the keys are located, but they still need special skill. That entails the brain’s parietal lobe to process touch, the cerebellum to coordinate the hands, and the right hemisphere to control the creative side.

Usually both hands – and the ten fingers -- are needed to play the notes, and the rhythms played by each hand may differ significantly. In terms of the brain’s work, the primary motor cortex, the prefrontal cortex (which plans and decides action), and the cerebellum (which coordinates muscle).

The ears are needed to adjust one’s playing, so the auditory cortex process the sounds and the temporal lobe is the key to understanding those sounds and pitches.

The pianist has to keep time, synchronizing all the senses’ input and motor activity. The prefrontal cortex focuses on cognition and the cerebellum coordinates kinesthetics.

One could say that pianists are master multitaskers. That title certainly applies to Tomoko.

Musing about Museums

Museums serve as a way to collect and preserve cultural artifacts with the intent of connecting the past with the present.  Tomoko has a great deal of respect for history and for museums.

Even as a young student, Tomoko knew about the history of music, and its impact on culture. She sang songs about Japan, which were built on European music. Many European musicians came to Japan in the early 20th century, and settled there.  Tomoko loved to go to concerts in colleges where European musicians performed, saving her money, and sit in the high concert hall tiers.

In particular, the reputation of classical European music impressed Tomoko, and she was eager to visit that continent to experience that tradition first hand. Her first time was in 1967 when she performed at the Long-Thibaud piano competition. She spent the next two months touring Europe on her Eurail Press. When she visited Bruges in Belgium, Tomoko she saw Flemish painting in their museum, and was impressed with their detail and line quality. She remarks, “Every artist is saying something.” She continues: “Music can be like an art project; composers combine instruments to create a unique sound.”

The next year Tomoko met a friend in Florence, where she visited a museum housed in a Medici residence. Tomoko asked, “May I use your harpsichord? ” She wanted to know how it sounded, and the museum staff answered, “You have to try it.” Tomoko played Bach’s Prelude in C sharp major BWV 848 on this antique, and recalls, “The instrument needed to be tuned.”

Later, in the Chopin Museum, she played his raindrop prelude on their piano.  Tomoko remembers how the place was positioned on the land; when she saw a movie about Chopin, it included an ocean in the background; “That wasn’t real,” she asserts. Next door to his place was a monastery, instead, because of his asthma, which was not mentioned in the film. But you can still enjoy the music.”

Tomoko strongly encourages her students to travel, and to explore museums and other historical landmarks. “History is connected with music and people and politics.” And composers’ museums are particularly ingsightful. “When you get familiar with a composer’s life, you can examine his rhythm more fully because you know its context.” On a final note, Tomoko advises, “Be curious and courageous when it comes to the arts.”

Riding and Performing with George Duke

George Duke and Tomoko were students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at the same time. “We performed Prokoviev and Brahms together,” Tomoko remembers. “He was the sweetest man. He lived in Marin City, and he would generously give fellow students, including me, rides home.” From the Conservatory, George earned his bachelor’s degree in trombone and composition, with a minor in contrabass.

If you have heard of The Mothers of Invention, then you know of George Duke – and that he became a famous jazz musician. George joined the rebirth of this rock band in 1970 as their keyboardist and vocalist.

Thinking back to this musician, Tomoko remarks, “Maybe because his jazz influence or upbringing, he was very down to earth, not like many classical musician divas.” She concludes, “There is a big difference between the classical world and non-classical musicians. The latter are more easy going. I also found that out when I was recording at Skywalker.” Her comments reflect George’s own feelings in that he switched from classical music to jazz because it was more freeing for him, and it allowed him to improvise.

After his stint with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, George became a record producer for several hit musicians, including Anita Baker, Gladys Knight, Melissa Manchester, Barry Manilow, and Smokey Robinson. Nevertheless, he still performed live with other musicians, and made thirty solo albums.

George Duke was also a composer, including scoring work for television and film. His major orchestral piece was Muir Woods Suite, which premiered at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1993.  

For his work, Duke was nominated for nine Grammy Awards, and won two. He was twice named R&B keyboardist of the year by Keyboard magazine, and received the Edison Life Time Achievement Award. He was also inducted into the SoulMusic Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, George Duke died in 2013 at age 67 from leukemia, but he is well remembered by Tomoko.

Keeping Fresh in Rites of Spring

Tomoko keeps fresh – by continuing to performing, including duets with her students and musical friends. She also adds to her repertoire with 20th century composers alongside earlier masters. As Tomoko assert, “All performers have responsibility to keep up.”

One example of combining those freshening actions? Performing a duet of the first part of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: “Adoration of the Earth.”

Back in 1913 when it was first performed publicly, The Rite of Spring was very controversial. The French audience even tossed things into the orchestra pit. 

The piece was commissioned for the Ballets Russes, and was supposed to depict primitive rituals. The underlying tone recalled Russian folk music but the composition also including several novel aspects of rhythm, meter, and especially dissonance. The choreography was also experimental, created by Nijinsky. 

While composing this piece, Stravinsky made a four-hand piano arrangement, which was the first published version of The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky and Claude Debussy played it as a duet in June 1912: the first public performance of the work. 

So it is exciting to follow in the steps of these avantgarde composers to play forward-thinking music. And Tomoko continues to model a fresh attitude to music. It’s her own rite of spring, which she continues throughout the year. As she says, All performers look for a keen sense of the music.” Part of that sensibility is its freshness, which can be timeless.