The first guest post of 2022 has been written by Japanese concert pianist Yuki Negishi. This is the third article in Yuki’s series for this blog, reflecting on her training, and, specifically, her time spent studying at various music conservatoires around the world.
The first two posts explored her experiences studying in New York, at the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division (you can read this post here), and the second, studying in Tokyo at the Toho Gakuen School of Music (you can read this post here). In this piece, Yuki describes her time spent in the Netherlands at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, and her final move to London. Over to Yuki…
I arrived in Amsterdam in the summer of 1998. The purpose was to study with Prof. Jan Marisse Huizing at the Amsterdam Conservatory. As well as being a professor there, he was the then Artistic Director of the International Holland Music Sessions, a summer festival of masterclasses and concerts. He has published many books on music, the most recent one on the Chopin Etudes, published by Schott Music. I met him at the Holland Music Sessions summer festival the previous summer, where I played for him. We clicked immediately and worked well together. He was happy to have me in his class, and I started preparing for the next chapter of my musical life – studies in Europe, namely, the Netherlands.
Amsterdam, with its tradition of openness and tolerance is a beautiful and compact city. My first impressions were of the picturesque canals and endless sights of bicycles, lined up along these canals and charming houses. The children learn to ride as toddlers in Holland – bicycles are a part of the Dutch psyche!
The Conservatorium van Amsterdam was then housed in a magnificent building, formerly a bank, in the Museum Quarter, just minutes from the renowned Concertgebouw Hall, home to the Concertgebouw Orchestra with its sublime acoustics. I remember cycling past the Concertgebouw every day, dreaming of playing there one day.
To become a student there, I submitted a recital recording from Japan. It was also important, if not more so, to have acceptance from a specific professor there – this would guarantee your place, and fortunately I had one from Prof. Huizing. All that remained was to find a room to rent. I had a friend who had gone to Toho Gakuen School and was also accepted to the Amsterdam Conservatory at the same time, and so we decided to share a room to ease financial burdens and jittery nerves in starting a new life in a foreign country. It was all terribly exciting for me, my chance to leave my family home in Japan and explore possibilities in every sense – musically and personally.
We rented a silent upright piano, but like many problems musicians face regarding practice in flats and houses, we had a grumpy neighbour upstairs who didn’t like the sound of the piano. The silent system worked to a point, but it wasn’t entirely “silent”- one can hear the clicking of the keys which was in fact, worse, as there was no musical sound coming from them.
With the Conservatory being only a 10-mins bike ride away, I decided to get in the queue every morning at 8am to reserve practise rooms. Opening times were much later here compared to the Toho School – 8:30am, as opposed to 5am. I generally managed do about two hours’ practice in the morning until classes started to take up the rooms, and then a few hours in the evening after 6pm until 9 or 10pm after classes finished. I was on the Postgraduate Course, the core of it being individual lessons with very little general classes. So the afternoons were spent either exploring the city, grocery shopping, attending Dutch language courses, listening in on masterclasses and concerts, or socialising in the cafeteria. Regarding the Dutch language course, after ten weeks, I was still only able to speak very, very little. Not only is Dutch an unfamiliar and difficult language, Dutch people speak English extremely well – and with their generous nature, I really didn’t have many opportunities to practice speaking Dutch..!
My love for chamber music was very strong and prompted me to find fellow students to play with – this ranged from violinists, cellists, flautists to recorder players and woodwind players. The wonderful thing about being in a Conservatory is the access to all these musicians of various instruments, and to be able to have lessons not just from your own professor but from others as well. Having arrived from Japan where my fellow students were 98% Japanese, the international nature of the Conservatory was refreshing and without a doubt, expanded my appreciation of cultures and scope of musical viewpoints.
My weekly lessons with Prof Huizing were eye-opening too. I looked forward to them every week, practising hard in between the lessons. Through his studies with Jan Ekier in Warsaw, he had a wealth of knowledge regarding the Polish Chopin tradition. Prof. Ekier was the main editor of the National Polish Edition for Chopin’s piano works, a project that spanned four decades and 37 volumes until completion. This edition is considered to be the official edition for the famous Chopin Competition in Warsaw held every five years. My lessons with Prof. Huizing provided the groundwork for my eventual participation in the 2000 Chopin International Competition – we had chosen a basic programme required for the competition from most of Chopin’s genres: Nocturnes, Etudes, Scherzos, Polonaises, Mazurkas, Sonatas, Concertos, and other works, quite early on.
I also learned about the tradition through historical recordings – probably one of the most invaluable treasures from my time in Amsterdam. Prof Huizing had an astonishing collection that would be the envy of any collector, professional and amateur. I learned about Raoul Koczalski (read my article on him here), the most direct descendant of Chopin’s teachings through Koczalski’s teacher Karl Mikuli; Aleksander Michalowski, Moriz Rosenthal, Jerzy Sterczynski, etc. He would lend me his CDs, cassette tapes or vinyl records for me to listen to every week. I was often found in the Conservatory library, listening voraciously to these recordings.
I also had the fortunate opportunity to play for some top pianists – many who were visiting Amsterdam to perform at the Concertgebouw: Eugen Indjic, Piotr Paleczny, Murray Perahia etc. etc. I was hungry to learn and to refine my musical and pianistic skills and world, and this also included almost weekly visits to the Concertgebouw to listen to the world’s greats. The Meesterpianistin Series, featuring all the top pianists of the time, including Lupu, Volodos, Perahia, Brendel, Uchida, Pogorelich, Sokoloff, Argerich, etc, the brainchild of Marco Riaskoff was one of the highlights, and I think I went to every one of them. Amsterdam, being the compact city it is, was perfect for me at that moment of my life, in my early twenties. Sometimes I would sneak into the hall having befriended the usher – often students from the Conservatory working after class. To this day, it is still one of my favourite concert halls.
I attended the Conservatory for a total of three years. I didn’t only study Chopin during my time there – my repertoire included many composers stretching from pre-Baroque to the present day. The Baroque and Contemporary music scenes in Holland are second to none, and I had unforgettable experiences playing works by then living composers such as Louis Andriessen, Theo Leovendie and Tristan Keuris. I also had my first encounter with the fortepiano, having attended classes by Stanley Hoogland. Playing composers such as CPE Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and even Schubert and Chopin on these instruments opened another sound world for me. Issues like expressing piano and pianissimo dynamics, which can be challenging on the modern pianos, made much more sense.
During my second and third years, I was invited to perform at various cities around Holland, through the International Holland Music Sessions. Their summer festival, where I originally met Prof Huizing, attracted a world-class faculty in piano, violin and cello, which in turn attracted the best students from around the globe. Many friendships have been made there, some of which I still cherish today, and I am grateful for the copious wonderful opportunities I had through them, whether through the lessons I had or the concerts I played in. These regional concerts culminated in my long-awaited debut at the Concertgebouw at the end of my third year, playing Chopin’s First Piano Concerto with string quintet. I had a bicycle accident two weeks before this concert, where my swollen hand was a real concern, but nothing could stop me from playing in those marvellous acoustics that I spent so much time listening to others in. My physiotherapist was astonished at the speed of my recovery – where there is a will, there is certainly a way!
I rounded off my three memorable years in Amsterdam with a recital and an Advanced Performance Diploma, and with these experiences deeply ingrained into me, I was prepared to cross the channel to London, now my home for 20 years. I met my next pianistic influence, the incomparable late Irina Zaritskaya, who invited me to study with her further at the Royal College of Music. Only weeks after meeting her, she suddenly passed away from a heart attack, aged 62. I was left in shock and uncertainty, but my mind was made up to relocate to London.
This was the start of the foundation of what I now proudly call my second home, now over 20 years and counting. I am grateful to my mentors, colleagues and friends who I have worked with throughout the years, and to my husband and my family who have supported me so that I can continue to pursue my career and passion. I am also indebted to Melanie for this opportunity to look back and share my experiences at music conservatories on her excellent blog, and most of all, to you, the readers, for joining me through my journey studying music and piano in the US, Japan and Holland.
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.