December 24, 2020

Piano Christmas Music and Tomoko


Tomoko grew up in a Christian household, and remembers her mother listening to religious music, including Christmas hymns. Tomoko served as a piano accompanist for her Protestant high school choruses, and accompanied church choirs in college.


Many classical composers created Christmas music for the piano. Here is a beginning list.

  • v  Romanian Christmas Carols by Bartok
  • v  Rustic Serenade To The Virgin by Berlioz
  • v  Rose Is Gently Blooming by Brahms
  • v  Noel by Daquin
  • v  Swiss Noel by Daquin
  • v  Christmas Carol From Anjou by Franck
  • v  Now Tell Us Gentle Mary by Franck
  • v  Old Christmas Carol by Franck
  • v  Whence Comes This Rush Of Wing by Franck
  • v  Let Our Gladness Know No End by Fuhrer
  • v  Christmas Chimes by Gade
  • v  Christmas Tree by Gade
  • v  Les Pifferari Italian Pipers by Gounod
  • v  Sussex Mummers Christmas Carol by Grainger
  • v  Pifa by Handel
  • v  Christmas Song Christ Is Born by Liszt
  • v  Shepherds At The Manger In Dulci Jubilo by Liszt
  • v  Happiness At Christmas by Mendelssohn
  • v  Christmas Gift by Paine
  • v  Around The Christmas Tree by Raff
  • v  Children Playing Around The Ch by Rebikov
  • v  Music Box Gift by Rebikov
  • v  Silent Night by Reger
  • v  Christmas Sonatina by Reinecke
  • v  Sonata Pastorale by Scarlatti
  • v  Knecht Ruprecht by Schumann
  • v  Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy by Tchaikovsky



December 15, 2020

Using the Piano Pedal


A piano’s pedal is a unique part of the instrument. Tomoko remarked, “The pedal is a big project for the pianist, and adds another technique to playing.”

The modern piano has three foot-operated levers, which modify the piano’s sound. The first piano pedal invented – the soft pedal -- acts by shifting the piano’s action so that a hammers hits two strings instead of three so that the sounds are softer and less vibranl. The damper – or sustaining -- pedal raises the dampers off the piano strings so they can keep vibrating to generate a rich tone. The third piano pedal invented, the sostenuto, is used to sustain specific notes without impacting other notes. When the pianist holds down piano keys while pressing this pedal, then lifts the fingers, the note will not be damped until the foot is raised. The sostenuto pedal is mainly used to generate on organ-like texture of long bass notes.

The first damper control was a hand stop, which was inconvenient to use. Then it was replaced by a knee lever. In the late 18th century, a pedal at the bottom of the piano was built to function as a damper, and was shifted below until its present location. At one point, a separate pedal board and set of strings could be connected to grant pianos.

The damper pedal is the most popular piano pedal, and can be operated in several ways to generate different sounds. For instance, delayed – or legato – pedalling involves depressing the pedal after playing a note, then releasing the pedal, and depressing it again after the next note is play in order to create a flowing sound. Preliminary pedalling involves depressing the pedal before playing the note so the damper is off, which creates a richer, ringing tone. Simultaneous pedalling involves depressing and releasing the pedal while playing the notes, which accentuates those notes. Half pedalling involves depressing the pedal just half-way so that the damper just lightly touches the strings, which creates a slightly richer tone.

When using any of these pedals, pianists should keep their heels on the ground and put the ball of their feet on the pedal. Thus, pedal usage requires being well grounded and nimble footed. Tomoko fits that profile.

November 22, 2020

Japan's Thanksgiving


Tomoko is thankful that she immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. She is thankful for her family and friends, including her musical family. Before she left Japan, that country has established its own national Thanksgiving Day on November 23, more specifically called Labor Thanksgiving Day: kinrōkanshahi.

Both the U.S. and Japan have celebrated fall harvest festivals for centuries. Japan’s harvest celebration dates back over 2500 years ago, and more formal observances are almost 1500 years old. The tradition celebrated the year’s hard work, and the harvest was dedicated to kami (spirits). The current form of Japan’s Thanksgiving was established in 1948, and focused on human rights and expanded worker rights.

While both countries give thanks, in Japan the holiday focuses on thanking workers and their good labors. Children sometimes write thank you cards to local public workers such as firefighters and healthcare workers. In that sense, Japan’s Thanksgiving is more political than the U.S.’s.

Turkey is not on the plate on Japan’s Thanksgiving Day, but families do get together and enjoy each other’s company. Fireworks also mark that holiday in Japan.

As a lifelong hard worker and distinguished teacher, Tomoko deserves our thanks – every day.

November 9, 2020

Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku


Tomoko always aimed high, even as a teenager. Not only did she attend a prestigious high school, but she also was admitted – and graduated – from Tokyo University of the Arts: the most prestigious art school in Japan – and the only national arts university in Japan.

The Tokyo Fine Arts School and the Tokyo Music School were each founded in 1887, and then merged in 1949. Three years earlier they started admitting women to their all-male institutions. Many famous composers and other musicians graduated from this important school. 

As a high schooler, Tomoko already knew about this university. To check it out, Tomoko took a train to central Tokyo to see the university for herself. “What a wonderful cultural center! Next to national museums and parks. I may never want to leave,” she thought. Her parents thought that whatever one pursued, it should be done well, and they were supportive: “Always strive for the best,” they told her. 

Tomoko was excited when she heard from the university about her application; they want her to come to campus to audition. Tomoko soon found out about the competition: 500 applicants, and the university accepted only eighteen students! As for the audition process? It took four days! She shared her passion of music, and could give evidence of her hard work and discipline.  “It was worth the four days,” Tomoko determined. She was one of the fortunate eighteen accepted. Interestingly, most of whom were females, even though fewer than three percent of the university’s total student population were women.

Tomoko found that her classmates shared her mindset, sharing their passion for music and learning. By 1961 Tomoko felt prepared for graduate school and a music career. Tomoko was proud that she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree with highest honors. Her parents’ declaration, that whatever one pursued it should be done well, was personified in Tomoko.  






October 29, 2020

Music and Politics

Music is an expressive window to people’s beliefs and values. Although Tomoko does not dwell on politics, but she is proud to be an American citizen. Her musicianship even helped her gain that status; her immigration interviewer loved music and said, “I am a member of the Marin Symphony,” so it was an easy process.

Usually people associate musicians with modern-day politics in terms of protest songs, folk songs such as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” and the blues such as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”

Certainly classical music included patriotic anthems. However, classical composers also expressed a political voice counter to the establishment. For instance, Beethoven’s third symphony was initially called “Bonaparte,” but when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, the symphony was renamed “Heroic Symphony composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man.” Verdi’s opera “Nabucco” symbolized resistance to domination by other countries. Wagner’s majestic music was co-opted by Hitler. In contrast, Shostakovich was denounced by the Communists because his music did not embrace Stalinist ideology.

One wonders what music will emerge out of the politics of 2020. Let us look for compositions of hope.


October 14, 2020

Scarlatti’s Impact

One of Tomoko’s piano albums, “Baroque-20th Century,” displays the range of styles over three centuries. The earliest selection is “Follia” by Alessandro Scarlatti, an Italian baroque composer.

Scarlatti was born in Palermo 1660 into a musical family. His children also carried on the family musical tradition. Fortunately, when his family moved to Rome, Scarlatti had many opportunities to enter the musical sphere. Soon thereafter he gained the patronage of Sweden’s Queen Christina. He also produced several operas for the viceroy of Naples and the Romans. Indeed, his operas constitute his major musical heritage, although he also contributed significant compositions in church music and instrumental music, including piano composition. In terms of financial recognition, Scarlatti experienced early acclaim, but suffered lifelong financial setbacks.

Tomoko performed “Follia,” which form probably started as a 15th century Portuguese folk dance. The generic ferm “folia” applied to a Baroque template for variations of songs and dances that could be rendered into instrumental music. The form was recognized by its chord progressions, metric patterns, and rhythms. Scarlatti was credited for his piano adaptations of folia, composed in 1715.

Tomoko recognizes Scarlatti’s musical contribution as it informs her performance and background to share with her students.



October 2, 2020

Poetic Poulenc


Classic composers can also be poetic. One of Tomoko’s favorites is Frenchmen Francis Poulenc, who was also a celebrated pianist.

 Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc was born in Paris on the cusp of the 20th century: January 7, 1899. Poulenc’s mother played the piano competently, and Poulenc developed broad musical taste. However, his father would not allow Poulenc to study at a music conservatory. Fortunately, early 20th century Paris was a cultural hot bed and Poulenc was able to befriend piano and composition mentors Ricardo Viñes, George Auric and Erik Satie. The young composers admitted him to “Les Nouveaux Jeunes,” a circle of protégé musicians. In the 1920s, Poulenc was known as one member of “Les Six”: up and coming composers. Poet Cocteau served as the group’s father figure.

Indeed, Poulenc met several avant-garde poets and set their poems to music. In fact, his first public composition, Rapsodie nègre, featured African-style poetry. Only 18 at the time, his five-movement piece was impressive enough that Stravinsky helped Poulenc to get a contract with a music publisher. Even while serving in the French army, Poulenc set poems (in this case, Apollinaire) to music; the resultant song cycle was an international success. His incorporation of poetry continued in the 1930s, at which point his music was one of the first to be broadcast on BBC television. During World War II Poulenc set French Resistance poets’ works to music, which sometimes could not be performed in France when it was under German occupation – so was broadcast in England. Poulenc also performed his songs; Pierre Bernac and he dueted for over twenty years in Paris and internationally.

Poulenc also composed operas, ballet music, liturgical works, and chamber music thoughout his life, which ended in 1963 from a heart attack.

Tomoko’s album Baroque-20th Century features Poulenc’s break-out piece Movements Perpétuels” and his mid-career “Villageoises,” which was inspired by the French countryside. Like Poulenc, Tomoko appreciates the natural rhythm of poetry, which music can accentuate.

September 17, 2020

David Dubal and Tomoko


In 2012 Tomoko was the featured pianist for David Dubal’s radio show “The Piano Matters.” On the program she performed Liszt’s "Au Lac de Wallenstadt."

David Dubal was born in 1944 in Cleveland, Ohio. He was educated at Ohio State University and Julliard. Over the years Dubal has become an internationally known pianist and teacher. He has recorded several albums, and taught at Julliard and the Manhattan School of Music. In addition, Dubal has written several articles and books about classical music and the piano, including biographies of leading musicians. His 1993 documentary “The Golden Age of the Piano” garnered him an Emmy award. Because of his lifelong accomplishments, composer Virgil Thomson composed a musical portrait about him.

As noted above, Tomoko worked with him in his capacity as a radio show host. For over two decades, Dubal served as the director and program commentator of the New York City classical music station. Afterwards, he hosted the radio program series “The American Century,” which featured 20th century American music.

Tomoko stands in good company with David Dubal, and it is a significant sign that he recognized her own accomplishments.

September 7, 2020

Laboring for Love

Today is Labor Day, and Tomoko exemplifies a strong work ethic. Referring to Millet’s painting “Man with a Hoe,” Tomoko notes how the worker holds his body. “He is tired after a day of harvesting. He is braced against a stick to hold himself up.” Tomoko knows the feeling of a long day of hard work.


Tomoko has never been afraid of hard work. She began teaching piano lessons as a teenager – and sixty years later she continues to do this, sharing a lifetime of experience and expertise.


Tomoko also knows that learning how to play the piano requires dedicated practice and work. When a piece has been mastered, playing it can bring instant gratification, but getting to that point of fluid performance can demand much time and effort, and in the process it can feel as if that day of mastery, those positive results, will never arrive. “Practice is like gardening,” Tomoko asserts. “You need to do it every day and pay attention to all the details.”  She adds, “It requires patience. Sometimes you don’t see the growth for a long time, but it is worth the ongoing effort.” Tomoko remarks, “Many people don’t plan for practice. Since I was 12 years old, I have planned time for practice.” That kind of discipline exemplifies Tomoko’s attitude to music and work.


Tomoko also passed this work attitude to her daughter Beata. Beata began serious skating at age 6, but didn’t compete until the U.S. Nationals, rather perfecting her form first. Tomoko supported Beata’s persistent interest throughout the school years, driving her to practice, and paying for lessons through teaching piano. Tomoko notes, “Both ice skating and piano require lots of sacrifice. Even one week without practice will be embarrassing.”


Performance requires even more focused work as the pianist – or the ice dancer -- has to analyze and master each piece.  The performer has to over-prepare so that the physical action is almost automatic, and the spirit of the work can be freely expressed. Both the stress level and the level of accomplishment are higher. But the payoff and the exhilarating feeling are worth the effort hopefully. The performer 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."


So work becomes play, play that is hard earned.


Thanks to James Schwabacher

 At one point in her life as a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Tomoko wasn’t sure she could continue her studies because she lacked the funds to pay her tuition. James Schwabacher, who served on the conservatory’s board, awarded her a scholarship because of her talent and potential. The room in which Tomoko teaches has a plaque honoring him, which she thinks is a very appropriate and special symbol.


James Schwabacher was a lifelong San Franciscan, born in 1920 and died in 2006 in the city. His Jewish family was well to do, due to the banking and office supplies enterprises. Music was also an interest in his family: from a composing grandmother and singing father. James started playing the piano at age 5, and began a singing career in college, performing as a soloist with the University of Berkeley chorus.


After returning from WWII, where he was an army first lieutenant, he joined a company of singers under the leadership of Jan Popper, known as the Opera Man of the West Coast. The same Popper facilitated Tomoko’s immigration to the United States.


Because of multiple surgeries, James had to forego his singer career for teaching. He took part of the Carmel Music Festival, at which Tomoko competed. He interviewed professionals for the San Francisco Opera radio show, and served as a guest speaker at the Carmel Music Festival, at which Tomoko competed. James also founded the Merola Opera Program: the nation's oldest training program for young singers and considered one of the nation's finest.  He also supported young musicians, and Tomoko was one of his beneficiaries.

His love of music and support of musicians lasted his whole life, and Tomoko follows in his dedicated footsteps. 

August 7, 2020

Casals and Tomoko


Tomoko recalls how Pablo Casals was performing at the age of 96. At that time, in 1972, one of Tomoko’s college friends was inspired by Casals, and flew to Arizona State University where he was playing a benefit concert to raise money for an International Cello Library. Tomoko went along with her friend, and met Casals at the airport. They spent a meal with him and his young wife, who was the same age at Tomoko. 

Casals’ musical education started at home in Catalonia, Spain; his parish organist father taught him piano, organ, violin and composition. After Casals saw a local musician play a cell-strung broom handle, Casals’ father built a crude cell for Pablo. At age 12, Casals enrolled in Barcelona’s municipal school of music, and he gave his first cello recital two years later. By his twenties, Casals was touring internationally. Before the age of 30 he had played at the White House and in Carnegie Hall. Over 50 years later, he again played in the White House – for President Kennedy. Casals also composed music, conducted orchestras, and gave master classes.

Tomoko was indeed fortunate to hear and meet Pablo Casals as he died the year after. However, he left an impressive legacy with his compositions (including “Hymn of the United Nations”), recordings, and the Casals Festival, which he founded in Puerto Rico. The Pablo Casals Museum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, showcases many of his original documents. His rich life is echoed in Tomoko’s lifelong love of music.

July 23, 2020

The music of Japanese poetry

Over the centuries, poetry has often been set to music. Indeed, Tomoko’s brother Hidehiko became a composer who would draw upon Japanese nature poetry to inspire his own compositions. On May 5, 1997, at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor, Tomoko and a handful of other instrumentalists performed music based on the poetry of Hojo Nakajima.

Hojo Nakajima is a contemporary of Tomoko. He was born in Fukuoka, Japan, and was educated at Kyushu University. The first anthology of his poetry was published in 1990, and that decade was his more productive one. He rose to become a Chamberlain to the Crown Prince of Japan, taking charge of the royal family’s daily life. In particular, he was responsible for music and ceremonies.

One of his most important duties was serving as special assistant of the New Year Poetry Recitation Commission (KyuchuKtakai Hajime), one the most popular and famous imperial ceremonies. This annual event is a legacy of Japanese courtly literature, dating back to the eighth century. Each year the Emperor chooses a theme, and anyone can submit an original poem. Specialists perform the winning poems performed in a traditional manner. The defining Japanese poetry form is tanka, a short poem of 31 syllables arranged in lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables each. Not surprisingly, Hojo Nakajima is a master of this form.

 On the international scene, Hojo Nakajima has been honored in Brazil, Finland, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United States.  

Tomoko appreciates the importance of lyrics in musical compositions. She advises her students to study the words of a piece before launching into the musical notes because that exercise helps her students understand and interpret the music. Tomoko knows: “The power of words is made stronger by music.”

July 6, 2020

Sol Joseph and Tomoko

When Tomoko was a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she studied music theory including composition analysis, harmony, and counterpoint with Sol Joseph.

Sol Joseph was born in 1912 in Chicago, and was a Phi Beta Kappa music scholar at the University of Chicago. At the age of 24, Sol Joseph married Belle Rosenstein, and they had two sons. During World War II Sol served in the U.S. Army.

Mr. Joseph’s connection with the Conservatory started in 1948 after he and his family moved to California. Local classical musicians encouraged him to apply, and he became a professor of music There he taught music form and analysis counterpoint, harmony, and music literature for almost thirty years. Sol Joseph also conducted the Conservatory orchestra for a while. 

Sol Joseph’s teaching venues also included the University of California Extension an San Francisco’s Community Music School. In addition, Sol served as Congregation Sherith Israel’s organist and as the Jewish Folk Chorus of San Francisco’s pianist and later their conductor. Over the years Sol also conducted the San Francisco chorus and the Berkeley/Richmond Jewish Community Center Yiddish Folk Chorus. 

Sol Joseph died at age 90 in 2002, and Tomoko remembers him and his teaching to this day.

June 24, 2020

European Influence on Japanese Music

Tomoko’s favorite piano music continues to be European classical compositions. That taste was started early in her life as she heard European classical music on the radio and the organ pieces that her brother played. These habits reflected the earlier Japanese interests in Western   (generally European) music.

Traditional Japanese musical tonality differed from its Western counterparts; it uses a Phyrgian scale of E-F-A-B-C-E instead of C-D-F-G-A. The Phyrgian scale is also used in modern blues minor keys. The oldest forms of Japanese music include Buddhist chant and orchestral court music. Traditional folk music included religious songs and songs for gatherings, work songs, and children’s songs. Typical instruments were stringed instruments, drums, flutes, bells. 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.

Emperor Mutsuhito, who adopted the title Meiji – or Enlightened Rule – in 1867, pushed for modernization with an eye to the West to avoid becoming dominated by other countries. In 1868, the government issued the Charter Oath: a five-article document outlining the principles of the Meiji administration. It declared that “knowledge shall be sought throughout the world.” Meiji curiosity about Western culture included absorbing foreign classical and religious music. 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 required 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. 

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. 

The tension between Western and Japanese music and their currents continued to flow through Tomoko’s families. During World War II at school Tomoko’s class sang nationalistic music with Japanese lyrics set to European music. Tomoko’s mother played and sang Christian songs, and Tomoko’s brother became a composer in the more Japanese mode. 

Nevertheless, Tomoko brings her Japanese sensibility as she performs music from around the world.