Studying at a Japanese Music Conservatoire: Yuki Negishi

Today’s article has been written by Japanese pianist Yuki Negishi. Following on from her very popular first post, in this second instalment, Yuki continues her piano journey, offering her thoughts and experiences on studying at the renowned Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo, Japan.

You can read the first post in this series, which details her time studying at The Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division, here.

We returned to Japan from New York in the summer of 1989. I was 12. This was during the economic boom in Japan. Music lessons were still sought after and many of my classmates (non-musicians) were taking piano or violin lessons. Even though I am Japanese by blood, having just lived in America for 7 years during my formative years gave me a different outlook about my home country. Above all, I had an opinion – something which was very much encouraged and explored in the US, but not so much in Japan.

I was fortunate to attend an academic school with many children of ex-pats; so I could keep up my English and also discuss various topics with like-minded friends. In the average Japanese school system, classes are often in the format of lectures and there is very little opportunity for debates. The students achieve high scores by studying hard and being obedient; there’s not much space for exploring creativity and originality.

This is also reflected in the way music is taught.

My first teacher in New York, Ms. Shiga introduced me to her friend and prominent Japanese pianist, Etsko Tazaki, who encouraged me to audition for the Toho Gakuen School of Music upon my return to Tokyo. For decades this school has produced many of the top Japanese musicians; the most famous being the conductor Seiji Ozawa, members of the Tokyo String Quartet, violinists Akiko Suwanai (Winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition), Kyoko Takezawa (winner of the Indianapolis Violin Competition), cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi (Professor at Indiana University), and the list goes on. Most major orchestras in Japan will have at least 60-80% graduates from the Toho School. Like The Juilliard School, it has a rich tradition and an abundance of pride.

The entrance age for Toho was 15. I had several years to prepare and settle into the Japanese system (music). Ms. Tazaki introduced me to a young pianist who had just won a Diploma at the recent Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw: Ms. Mikako Abe, who just started teaching at Toho. She had studied with the Hungarian legend, Lili Kraus at Texas Christian University, and was known for her spontaneous and passionate performances of Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, Szymanowski, and Bartok. I was one of her earlier students and I ended up studying with her for 10 years.

Yuki 1
In 1992, aged just 15, my class upon entry to the Toho High School of Music

Before entering the Toho Gakuen School of Music, I had weekly private lessons with her on Sundays that would often stretch up to 5 hours. She lived two hours away, so it took up my whole Sunday. Once again, I am indebted to my parents who often drove me to her house and back. Even though I had attended Juilliard, I had a lot of work to do to catch up with the Japanese children also auditioning for Toho because the level was extremely high. For starters, many of them had already played all the Hanon and Czerny studies with diligent note perfection. At Juilliard, I was encouraged to build repertoire and obtain an understanding of style, and had not done exercises, like the Hanon studies, in any detail. Some of the most technical of performances in Japan were jaw-dropping.

This reflects the Japanese mentality of achieving “perfection” and the world-famous work ethic, which is now often portrayed in a negative way. In music, there really isn’t perfection in interpretation and performance. The Japanese mentality of “perfection” related to notes (every note has to “sound”) is the result of the language having a pure vowel system, phonemic vowel and consonant length, and a lexically significant pitch-accent. It is very different to, for example, Chinese, even though the origins of kanji (Chinese characters used in the Japanese language) are Chinese. The tones, which are a significant part of the Chinese language and pronunciation (four in Mandarin), are non-existent in Japanese, which is monotonous. This is a fundamental difference in how these two nationalities approach and perceive music.

1993, aged 16, when I was the youngest prize-winner at the Takahiro Sonoda Award Piano Competition.

Another element emphasized in the Japanese music education was Solfege. Solfege isn’t very common in the UK, but it is in France. It is a method used to teach aural, pitch and sight-reading skills, often to a very high level. Complex rhythmic and harmonic notation skills were honed through regular practice and tests, sight-reading seven clefs instead of three or four (and singing in do-re-mi instead of C-D-E). I remember the Solfege classes as being one of the most attention-demanding and focused of all my lessons. This also explains the consistently high level of music students in Japan; they can sight-read like reading a book. It is all cultivated through years of training and practice.

During these three years in preparation for entering the Toho School, I built my “etudes” (studies) repertoire (Kessler, Clementi, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff) alongside J S Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier, or the ’48 Preludes and Fugues’, more classical Sonatas, larger Chopin pieces like the Ballades, Scherzi, and Polonaises, works of Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Szymanowski, etc. I squeezed in my practice time of about 4-5 hours per day in between my hour-long commute to the academic school and homework. I also started entering competitions and auditions, which were extremely daunting at first. The standard competition formula was a set programme of the same pieces by J S Bach, an Etude and a Romantic work according to your age group.

1993, after we had performed “Sesame Street” arranged by our teacher, Takashi Saiki.

In these type of competitions, this would make the work of the jury easier as you have the same pieces to compare with 100 other entrants. If you were lucky and the pieces were suited to your personality, or you were the type of student who could produce a note-perfect performance, you are guaranteed to win prizes. This applies to any competition in any part of the world, but the difference in these competitions of that age group in Japan is that you cannot choose your own programme.


In April 1992, at the age of 15, I became a student of the Toho High School of Music, affiliated to the prestigious Toho Gakuen School of Music. There were 60 pianists in my year, 30 violinists and the remaining 10 were woodwind players, brass players, composers and singers. The male to female ratio was 1:10. This reflected a typical Japanese societal thinking; men should get practical jobs to provide for their families rather than an artistic one.

These 100 musicians were the best of Japan, and some had travelled four hours weekly on the bullet trains, Shinkansen, to have lessons with professors from this school pre-entry, paying up to £200 per lesson, just to get a good reference and a higher chance of acceptance. In a country where conformity is encouraged as opposed to individuality, they did anything to get ahead.

1994, aged 17, at the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition with Ms. Mikako Abe.

But, as we were like-minded in our passion and determination for music and because of the militant years of study and practice that we all went through, it was, in a way, a relief to finally be there. We had regular academic classes on top of music-related classes, from Western and Japanese History, Chemistry, Physics, Maths, Japanese, English, French, German, Physical Education to Solfege, Music Theory, Chamber Music, Music History, Choir, Orchestra, and of course our main subject, in my case, Piano.

I continued on with Ms Abe, and as the lessons were now held in the school, it saved a lot of extra commute time (Tokyo is four times the size of London) for practice time. The school was open from 5am until 11pm. The classes were usually held from 8:30am until 4pm. My commute wasn’t too bad so I mainly practised at home, but there were many students who lived in dorms nearby, and were at the school gates at 4:50am to reserve a practice room. They were the ones who also stayed until 11pm, with socialising mixed into their time at the school.

Graduation in 1995, aged 18

We had annual sports events and a festival to showcase the class spirit through a staged performance; our class did “Grease” and “Madame Butterfly”, which was great fun. We also had annual summer trips to Nagano, a resort area in central Japan which gave us a chance to get to know each other better. Because of the intensity of our individual practice and lessons, this respite was necessary.

Musically, there were many events hosted by the school. The most important ones were the masterclasses given by foreign visiting professors, often during a tour in Japan. Mikhail Voskressensky (Professor at the Moscow Conservatory), Gyorgy Sebok (Indiana University), Jacques Rouvier, Klaus Hellwig, etc. all came to give lessons and perform. These classes were undoubtedly another important, if not THE most important part of the development in these mid to late teen years. They also served as an introduction to the main European and American conservatories and international competitions. The ambitious ones planned to go abroad already aged 17 or 18; many of them to the Paris Conservatoire, as their age limit for entry was 21. I also thought about studying in Paris as well, having played for Theodore Paraskivesco, who had invited me to his class in Paris.

At Hamamatsu with pianists Hans Eijsackers, Yoko Shimoura and Gergely Boganyi.

But, after long deliberations with my parents and Ms Abe, and also fresh from my experience at the 2nd Hamamatsu International Piano Competition, which I competed in as the youngest pianist aged 17, I decided to stay in Japan for a further three years to continue my studies with Ms Abe and also to really experience living in Japan. As I entered the main Toho Gakuen School, aged 18, my thoughts and ambitions were turning more and more towards Europe. I took every opportunity I could to attend summer masterclasses in France, Germany and the Netherlands (International Holland Music Sessions), and by 21, I was ready to take the next step, namely to study in Europe unaccompanied.

In April 1995, aged 18, entry into the main Toho Gakuen School of Music. The cherry blossoms are in full bloom at the start of the school year in April.

Yuki Negishi


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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