April 27, 2021

Piano Accompaniment to Friendship


Early in her piano performance career – and continuing later -- Tomoko served as a keyboard accompanist. She first accompanied her secondary school’s singers, and played the organ for Catholic masses when in college. As a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she also played for special community concerts. A few years after she started teaching at the Conservatory, the Peninsula Symphony told her about a violinist, Ernestine Riedel at the time, who needed an accompanist, and Tomoko performed with her at the DeYoung Museum. They continued to perform together for 30 years, and considered themselves as a duo rather than a performer-accompanist relationship.  Their repertoire included sonatas and duos by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Prokoviev, Copland, etc. Even in recent recitals, Tomoko has accompanied her musical friends on the piano.

As part of their training, Tomoko’s students learned how to accompany as well. This kind of performance requires additional skills. First, the accompanist has to learn both her own accompanying score and the other musician’s score thoroughly. The accompanying piece has to become so natural that it is memorized and internalized as memory muscle. This deep knowledge is needed because the accompanist must listen to the other performer very carefully and adjust the piano playing tempo and tone to the spotlighted performer.

Accomplished accompanists may be called upon to perform with little notice ahead of time. If the piece is familiar, then the event is not so stressful, although it is harder if the accompanist does not know the lead performers and style. Sometimes accompanists can listen to recordings of the anticipated piece to jumpstart the interpretation. In any event, accompanists need to keep their sight-reading skills sharp, know how to play harmonic and chord patterns, and be able to modulate from one key to another for singers in particular.

Accompanying can be challenging but also joyful. Tomoko explains how music brings people together. “It gives me friendship.” As an accompanist, Tomoko has made good musical friends, and continues to keep in touch with them. 


April 14, 2021

Toshiko Akiyoshi: Another Fine Japanese Pianist

 Among the many people who have contributed to the musical scene in the United States are the Japanese. Tomoko is a wonderful example: she was the first Asian and only the second woman to be hired as a faculty member at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She has taught there for over fifty years, which is another great achievement.

Here is another notable Japanese pianist who has achieved greatness.

Toshiko Akiyoshi, born in 1926, is a Japanese jazz pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger. Similarly to Tomoko, she began piano lessons early in life, focusing on Western classical music. After World War II, she played the piano for U.S. service members stationed in Japan, and then performed with visiting American jazz artists. With the Peterson jazz trio she recorded her first album Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi, which had U.S. success. By 1955, Toshiko was considered Japan’s leading jazz pianist.

Also like Tomoko, Toshiko came to the United States to study music, and has remained in the States ever since, although she toured in Japan. Her jazz compositions incorporated Japanese instruments, themes and harmonies. A Buddhist priest asked her to compose a piece in remembrance of the Hiroshima bombing; her three-part suite Hiroshima: Rising from the Abyss premiered just weeks before the September 11, 2001 attack on the U.S.

Over the years Toshiko has been nominated for 14 Grammy awards, and was the first woman to win DownBeat magazine’s reader poll award as best composer and arranger. The U.S. National Endowment of the Arts also named her as an NEA jazz master. The 1984 documentary Jazz Is My Native Language featured this fine musician.

Both Japanese women demonstrate commitment to music, courage to pursue their dreams, high quality professional performance, and sustained long-term careers. And both have been honored by their peers. The United States is fortunate to benefit from their contributions.


March 30, 2021

The Mathematical Harmony in Music


“Music is the mathematics of one who does not know that he is counting.” Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

 Tomoko realizes the preciseness and patterns of music. Not surprisingly then, math helps in reading music. The simplest task such as counting the beats uses math. Each time signature codes the number of beats per measure, and the notes represent fractions of a measure and beat – such as whole notes, quarter notes, eighth notes and so on. In turn, reading these rhythmic notations can help one read and solve math equations. 

In fact, mathematics lies underneath much musical composition and reflects the very nature of music itself. Even the concept of octaves is mathematical. An octave is the distance between a given note with a set sound frequency (that is, the string’s vibration) with another note with double that frequency. A perfect fifth is 1.5 times the frequency of the octave’s base note. Ratios help make music harmonious.

Music compositions reflect patterns, just as math does: symmetry, repetition, transposition, inversion.  The process for perceiving and generating those patterns mirrors mathematical processes. Johann Sebastian Bach very consciously incorporated mathematical principles into his keyboard compositions. His work “Musical Offering” is comprised of ten canons, in which each canon is a mathematical transformation of the principal musical line. In fact, a mathematical breakthrough enabled Bach to write “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Keyboard instruments used to be tuned using a just-toned scale, which made shifting to keys other than the tonic sounded “off.” The equal (even)-tempered scale, popularized by Bach, evened out the frequency ratios between all 12 notes of the chromic scale so that shifts of harmonies to other keys would sound the same.

Tomoko rightly asserts that reading and playing music require good discipline, improve listening and collaborative skills, and strengthens mental and muscle memory.  Those practices can also build math skills and recall of math details. A harmonious blend!


March 15, 2021

Japanese Catholicism and Its Saints

This week, Saint Patrick’s Day is being celebrated worldwide, including in Japan, where fifteen parades and Irish festivals occur this time every year. The paraders are all Japanese: step dancers, harp players, and céilidh bands. While Japan is typically associated with Shintoism, the Catholic Church has a long history in that country, including their own Catholic saints.

 Indeed, Nagasaki was founded in the mid 16h century by Portuguese Catholics with the hope that it the city would become a significant Christian center for the Far East. The Japanese government first supported the missionaries because the potential for trade with Spain and Portugal, but by the end of the century, that same government became threatened by foreign influence and possible colonialism. Part of the way that the government responded was to ban Christianity and persecute Catholics. As a result, in Catholic history, Nagasaki became known for the 26 Catholics martyrs crucified there in 1597. One of the martyrs was the Jesuit priest Paul Miki, who was sainted; the day of the crucifixion became his feast day: February 6. Since then Catholicism has faced challenges in Japan, and finally experienced acceptance with about half a million practitioners. Nevertheless, in some Japanese circles, Catholicism is still viewed as a foreign religion.

 As for Tomoko, she served as an organist for the nearby Catholic cathedral while in college, and she converted to Catholicism just before she graduated. Tomoko’s experience at the cathedral was deeply artistic and visceral. “Both the Dominicans there and the whole Catholic mindset reflected international values of care and service,” she recalled. Catholics are worldwide and have universal values – as does music.


March 3, 2021

Mars in Music


The latest space probe has landed on Mars, continuing the centuries of interest in Mars. That interest includes music as composers have been inspired by outer space.

Probably the most well know classical piece about Mars is Holst’s ”Mars, the Bringer of War,” the first movement of his seven-part orchestral suite The Planets. This piece, begun in May 1914, seems to foreshadow World War I and forces of change. The brutal 5/4 time and tri-tonal harmonies underscore energy and ultimate revolution.  While set for a huge orchestra, Holst’s “Mars” is also arranged as a piano piece.

Probably the most popular tune about Mars is David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” from his 1971 album Hunky Dory.  The song was inspired by Frank Sinatra, and Bowie called it a love song: “a sensitive young girl’s reading to the media.” Its vivid surreal imagery give it a mysterious sci-fi experiences. A 2012 poll voted ‘Life on Mars” as Bowie’s best song. This tune is also available as a piano score.

Mars also made its appearance in jazz music, most notably in Sun Ra’s “Blues on Planet Mars.” Sun Ra was known for his experimental music and his belief that he came from Saturn. Science fiction inspired his writing. Released in 1968, “Blues on Planet Mars” is unique because of its jazzy improvisation and electronic synthesizer background.

Another space-inspired music genre is space rock. Hawkwind was the earliest space rock group, which recorded “Uncle Sam’s on Mars” in 1979. The song describes America’s obsession with space exploration, focus on human’s invasion of untouched Mars. It’s the opposite perspective from Mars invading Earth.

Across musical trends and times, composers have expressed their personal and societal perspectives. Tomoko translates those perspectives brilliantly in her iano performances.


February 15, 2021

Valentine’s Day in Japan


Japan has many holidays, as Tomoko knows because she grew up there. Several holidays are centuries old and others are more modern, sometimes imported from other cultures. Valentine’s Day is one of the latter types of celebrations; it became popular starting in the 1950s due to commercial campaigns targeted to women.

February 14 is mainly enjoyed by students, but chocolate is given between couples and even coworkers.  In fact, in Japan, it is usually the woman who gives gifts to men such as candy; girl friends might make brownies (‘honmei-chocos” homemade chocolates), for instance, for their boy friends. Women may also give chocolates to their women friends too (“tomo choco”), and one can treat oneself to chocolate too (“jibun choco”)/

However, there is equal opportunity for giving in Japan, a custom that started in the 1980s by the Japanese Confectionery Industry Association. White Day, which occurs on March 14, is the day where people chocolates and other gifts to the people who gave them gifts on Valentine’s day – so men will give gifts then, sometimes returning the favor three-fold. The day is named based on the idea that the color what is a symbol of purity: an innocent kind of love.

Some things -- such as chocolate, gifts, and love – are international, and Tomoko shares them all.

February 6, 2021

Appreciating John Field


Tomoko performed a variety of classic composers, and her repertoire included not only the big names such as Mozart and Chopin but also lesser known composers such as John Field.

John Field was born in Dublin in 1782, and started performing publicly on the piano at age nine, and composed his first piano sonatas at age sixteen. In his twenties he toured through Europe, and even impressed Beethoven. Impressed with the artistic culture of Saint Petersburg, Field decided to settle there, and started creating piano compositions based on Russian folk songs. He continued to perform and compose until his death in 1837.

Field was known especially as writing the first Romantic nocturnes, which evoked the nighttime – and were typically played a late evening parties. His nocturnes popularized solo pianos in this genre, which were structured with songlike melodies supported by broken chord accompaniment. Several composers were clearly inspired by him: Chopin, Fauré, Satie, and Bartók.  

Tomoko’s CD album Baroque – 20th century includes Field’s “Nocturne in B flat major, No. 5”, alongside Scarlatti, Beethoven, and Chopin. He certainly belongs in such company.


January 22, 2021

Tomoko American

Tomoko decided to come to America by the time she was in college. “In Japan graduation is the end, in America it is just part of life,” Tomoko says. She wanted to continue to learn and grow professionally, and she has remained in the educational arena ever since.   

She also came to the United States because of its culture and attitude about music. She 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. I wanted a Fulbright but was too old for that particular program. I had to have a job to pay tuition. Fortunately, UCLA had a special opera workshop, and a Japanese composer was there, so I was an accompanist for the program.” She also played at Stanford. “In 1965 I had to get a green card, and in five years I became a US citizen.” 
Tomoko recalls her arrival in California. “When I came to California, I picked up a couple of California poppies, which they didn’t have in Japan, and put them in my book. I’ve never gone back to Japan.” 
I ask her what she liked about America. “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.” People need a balance, and I feel that in the US you can maintain an equilibrium in life.”  
Tomoko goes on to compare Japan and the US in terms of music choices. “When I was in Japan, I wanted to play Chopin, but they said I was too young. ‘You have no experience. You are not ready until you are a Junior.’” Tomoko contrasts that attitude to her own teaching. “For a concert, I assigned a Beethoven piece that was heavy for a 14 year old. I think it is better to start students early with substantial music, and have the experience rather than not have that challenge. Students need to be curious and courageous. How much they understand, we don’t know, but it’s better than to protect the student. They can always return to the piece later on, and bring in more interpretation based on their own lives. The technique is always there.” 
Tomoko continues to compare music teaching methods, “Japanese music teachers focused on the rules of technique. There was a pattern to the teaching, which was a kind of military training because of the strong music competition; 80% was technique. The teachers also controlled more power, and pushed students down. Only after years of lessons would the teacher become more generous.” Tomoko compares her teaching in the US. “I love this country to teach – I can do anything.” Tomoko expands on her attitude. “In Japan, the results are more important than the process. However, the process is so complicated, and there are so many ways to reach your musical goal. And you cannot know the process of development for each child; you have to look long term. That is why  I think teaching should be custom-made to fit each student.” 
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 concludes: “Without music you don’t see as much of the world, and you don’t see the challenge.” 
Tomoko Hagiwara is a wonderful example of America: a land of immigrants who have contributed to this nation, making it richer in culture.

January 7, 2021

I/We Protest

Tomoko has experienced protests throughout her life: against wars, against bombs, against oppression, against racial injustice. She also knows the power of music to unite people. 

One of Tomoko’s favorite composers to perform is Bela Bartók. In Bartók’s case, his anti-Nazi sentiments endangered him. Nevertheless,Bartók always maintained a Hungarian spirit and sense of nationalism. As a composer, Bartók researched traditional Magyar folk melodies just as nationalism was blooming. Tomoko points out, “The folk inspiration fostered music that came from the heart, and yet how the composers built upon that folk music helped them express their own individuality.”

Another favorite composer of Tomoko is Chopin. As with Bartók, Tomoko appreciates how Chopin incorporated folk music motifs. "The communal spirit of dance responds to the spirit of the music," she explains. "Music and dance are natural parts of human community." Many other people feel the same way. For instance, Chopin's Polonaise was broadcast on national radio as a rallying cry for the Polish people as World War II began, and the Germans sought to conquer that nation. 

Tomoko also appreciates and performs composer Olivier Messiaen. During World War II he was captured by German soldiers and interred in a prison camp. His Quartet for the End of Time premiered outside in that camp in 1941 for the prisoners and soldiers. 

A fourth composer that Tomoko favors is Dmitri Shostakovish. His seventh, Leningrad symphony addresses the war and invasion, and he wrote part of that composition between bombings. While Hitler celebrated the fall of Leningrad, this symphony was broadcast through loudspeakers in protest.

More recently, the Hong Kong protesters sang "Do you hear the people sing?: from the musical Les Miserables. The musical Hamilton also features songs of protest against English oppression. 

Certainly music captures the spirit of humanity, and can give voice to people to protest against injustice.