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.