Much has been made about the importance of studying at a music conservatoire, or a specialist music institution. I hear numerous comments – both good and bad – about what I considered a privilege and a wonderful opportunity. But how does this opportunity impact the life of a musician, and is it a vital part of their training? I’ve asked a group of friends and colleagues to write about their experience and whether they felt it was crucial to their overall development.
Today’s guest post has been written by Japanese pianist Yuki Negishi. Over to Yuki…
Since starting to play the piano at the age of 3 in Japan, my whole life has revolved around this instrument. Like Victorian England, post-war Japanese middle-class families had at least an upright piano in their homes. However, the whole concept behind the mass production of Yamaha pianos was to make it affordable for an average Japanese family – a strategy that worked very well. When I was a child, everyone on my street had piano lessons.
I also attended the local Yamaha group class aged 3, where my mother would sit next to me while I learned to clap rhythms, read, sing and play do-re-mi. At home, I was to sit in front of the piano everyday reviewing what the teacher taught us. By age 5, I think I had a basic knowledge of understanding note values, metres, how to read both treble and bass clefs and play simple tunes.
My father, who was working for a Japanese bank, was then transferred to New York City in the United States. This was to be a life-changing event for our family. We arrived after a very long flight that involved a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska (there were no direct flights in the early 80s) in a sub-zero February. As we settled into our new life, the first thing regarding education was to find a good school and a good piano teacher. Recommendation is always the best, and as our apartment building had several Japanese families already living there, we were recommended a Japanese teacher who was based in New York; she was a graduate of the Toho Gakuen School of Music (and was in the same class as the renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa) and the prestigious Juilliard School. Her name was Yoshiko Shiga.
In the next few years, I progressed quickly, partly due to my quick sight-reading skills, an innate grasp of the keyboard and my practice routine (often prompted by my mother, who made sure she could hear me practising whilst she was preparing dinner). I started to build a repertoire. We had annual class concerts at the Nippon Club in downtown New York, and sometimes at the late actor Dudley Moore’s beautiful apartment in Manhattan (his children had lessons with Ms. Shiga). Ms. Shiga is currently the Personal Manager for Seiji Ozawa for the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which he established in memory of his late teacher, Hideo Saito.
Another very crucial aspect of my musical development was attending concerts at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center any weekend we could. My father was a classical music enthusiast, and he bought tickets regularly for the family to listen to pianists such as Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu, Alicia de Larrocha, violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the New York Philharmonic, and many visiting artists from Europe. This undoubtedly assisted my appreciation for classical music concerts and recitals, and I was quickly forming my own preferences of artists who moved me. I have always loved lyrical playing on any instrument, more than virtuosity, and I tended towards these types of artists. Of course, a virtuosic Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto performance by an up-and-coming Russian pianist or a grand Mahler Symphony concert were equally exciting.
By age 9, I had already performed a recital and was prompted by Ms. Shiga to play for the late Herbert Stessin (1922-2011), her teacher, who was teaching in the Pre-College Division at The Juilliard School. He advised that I audition for Pre-College, but because his class was already full, he recommended his close friend, the late Richard Fabre (1930-1999), who had studied with Rosina Lhevinne (who taught a whole generation of American pianists based on the great Russian tradition, including Van Cliburn). He was a Fulbright scholar studying for two years at the Conservatoire Nationale de Paris.
I spent two months of the summer preparing my programme rigorously for the audition, which included a Bach Invention, Beethoven’s Op.14-1 E major Sonata, Chopin Waltz in F minor and Ravel’s Sonatine. The Juilliard School is a grand building at Lincoln Center on 66th Street and Broadway. Back then, the dormitory which now stands tall next to the school didn’t exist. Lincoln Center still houses Alice Tully Hall, the Met Opera, the New York City Ballet and Juilliard.
I remember the feeling of pride and elation when I received the letter of acceptance, with an added bonus of receiving an honorary scholarship due to my high marks at the entrance exam. This didn’t carry any monetary award, but it was an honour nevertheless. I didn’t know what to expect, only that this was a school with a rich tradition and world-wide fame. There was one dilemma – we were meant to return to Japan later that year. My father worked hard to convince his boss so that I could attend Juilliard, and he agreed to extend our stay for an extra two years. This was to be a turning point in my life. I was 10 years old.
We lived in Riverdale, in the borough of the Bronx, which was a 30-mins car ride to Juilliard. Every Saturday, my parents drove me to my classes there; I had music theory, Solfege, chorus and weekly masterclasses with Mr Fabre’s studio. Masterclasses did not mean public lessons, but more of a studio performance opportunity where his students would play programmes in preparation for competitions, exams and recitals. I was one of the youngest, and those two years of weekly masterclasses really opened my world and knowledge of piano repertoire, performance experience and the preparation process for professional performances. I looked up to my older fellow classmates – one in particular, Derek Wieland, who went on to become the first pianist to win the Seventeen Magazine/General Motors Competition playing Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini at the age of 17 (Joshua Bell won it a few years back). He was also playing the orchestra parts for students preparing concerti. There was a student from Mr Fabre’s studio every year winning the Pre-College Piano Concerto Competition; the winner performs with the Juilliard Pre-College Orchestra. It was undoubtedly an inspiring and stimulating class for me.
As Pre-College was held on a Saturday (in a similar way to the UK’s Junior Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music), most students at Pre-College attended normal schools during the week. The Pre-College Division is for talented, young musicians up to the age of 18. But the younger students were often merely 7 years old, and these included the violinist Sarah Chang, who was in my Solfege class. Other notable talents during my two years who had already made their debuts professionally (for example, as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic) were violinists Midori, Gil Shaham (both students of the late Dorothy DeLay), and cellist Alison Elderidge. There is a chapter in the book “Nothing But The Best” (1987) by Judith Kogan, which highlights the Pre-College Division, focusing on Midori as a teenager.
My weekly piano lessons were held on Tuesdays after school at Mr. Fabre’s apartment on Riverside Drive. The apartment building directly opposite his, housed some notable composers in the past such as George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. I think this is the best thing about New York City, or any major capital city!
Once I started attending Pre-College, my practise hours increased to about 4 hours a day. I was given new pieces almost weekly, with a basic core of Bach Inventions, studies by Czerny, Cramer, Moszkowski, as well as Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven Sonatas, and Romantic or 20th Century composers. They ranged from Schubert Impromptus, Chopin Waltzes, Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Brahms Intermezzi and Rhapsodies, Schumann’s Arabeske, Romanzes to Debussy’s Arabesques, Ravel, Shostakovich, Kabalevsky’s Piano Concerto to Prokofiev, etc. I think I played around 20+ pieces (from memory) every year; equivalent to several recital programmes. All of this helped me to learn repertoire quickly and efficiently, expanding my knowledge of the composers, the piano repertoire and its history. By the age of 12, I had about 50 (small-ish) concert pieces ready for performance.
In terms of Mr. Fabre’s musical teachings, he encouraged natural singing lines and overall structure, and being true to what is written in the score. He also told me many stories and anecdotes regarding Rosina Lhevinne. She and her husband, Josef, established the golden age of the piano rooting back to the great Russian traditions of Anton Rubinstein.
Saturday classes included Music Theory with a class of about 10 students of similar levels; a Solfege class, which included lots of sight-singing, clef reading (alto, tenor, even mezzo soprano and baritone clefs), and ear-training (notating harmony, melody, complex time signatures, etc.) and Chorus, which was compulsory for all piano majors. I think there were about 50 students in the class for younger students. We had Christmas concerts at The Juilliard Theatre where we sang works like Haydn’s Te Deum and Faure’s Requiem.
In my second year at Pre-College, aged 11, Juilliard’s American Opera Center was putting on a production of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. They needed child singers to act as “fairies” and they came to audition us during Chorus class. I was somehow chosen amongst the final 9, and I had my first taste of rehearsals with a professional Choreographer, Musical Director and Stage Manager. We had weekly rehearsals at first to learn our parts and to work musically as an ensemble, then as the opening night approached, we were in rehearsal three nights a week. I remember the excitement of costume-fitting, the stage setting and being backstage, where friendships with the main cast were formed and many superstitions and stage traditions were learned. Though I went on to pursue piano solely, that thrill of being backstage, ready to perform to a full house, the adrenaline-rush after a live performance has stayed with me ever since.
I would have loved to have stayed on at Juilliard, especially because I would have had chamber music classes and composition classes from then on, but our time in the US was up after two years. These experiences I took back with me to my home country of Japan, were invaluable and lead me to continue pursuing this specialist world of classical music, and in particular, the piano.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.