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.