Yoko Sawai opens by saying that the piano is a fundamental part of everything she does and is and yet, it’s with a tiny hint of shame and a subtle “can you believe it?” that she admits never having been that kid who goes around saying how much she loves music and how important piano is to her.
The massive instrument just happened to be in the family’s living room and enrolling children in music lessons is highly regarded in Japanese culture. Perhaps music did not feel like a passion for the 6-year-old, but her teacher did notice her particularly good ear and unusual ability to stay focused on the music for long stretches of time. But, it almost came to an abrupt end when the Hitachi-born announced to her mother that she was done with piano and their daily practice agreement.
“I wasn’t the most diligent student to begin with! My mom thankfully looked past such behavior, kept me enrolled in the class, and I happily returned after my short rebellion. By the time we all moved to Canada, playing the piano felt like something I was good at and had become an important part of my life. I don’t think I ever stopped once to ask myself if I even liked it! I just played.”
The young musician then started attending concerts at Fredericton’s university where the woman who’d become her teacher was regularly performing with her violinist husband. Expressiveness and interpretation were very much displayed by the woman on stage and would later become Yoko’s bests. It’s with an embarrassed laugh that she confesses having often fallen asleep half-way through the concert, but vividly remembers waking up to the moving sound of strings.
“That’s definitely not your usual young musician’s path, but there is no protection from music. It just goes in and does its thing. It somewhat snuck up on me and became an essential part of who I am. Music starts where the words stop and cannot leave anyone indifferent.”
Driven by this internal quest to share what she could hear in her head and feel in her heart, the blossoming pianist found herself competing on various German and Canadian stages. Even though those competitions felt exciting at first, the stress and anxiety of having to be at her best on cue were too hard to handle.
“There is no one else to blame for me not making it as a soloist! Being the center of attention on those stages just never felt right for me, even if that sounds like every pianist’s dream!”
This Japanese’s talent did reach some good musical ears outside the competition circuit and it’s through Chamber Music that she was finally able to find her true artistic self. The simple mention of this music type automatically relaxes her face and a certain excitement travels from her smile to the tips of her tapping fingers when the exchange with those musicians she has joined is brought up.
Not every artist needs a “love at first sight story” with their craft, nor to be on stage every night to call themselves an artist. Yoko Sawai is the living proof of it. In fact, it’s probably because the 52-year-old spends more time teaching melodies to the pianists of tomorrow than playing them herself that she sounds even more passionate about music than those who regularly do so for an audience!
“My real love for the piano and passion really are all in the pieces, in those compositions. They are keeping me inspired and wanting for more. I even once thought that I could die without regrets if I first played the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor. Since I did play it eventually and did not die, I had to find more pieces and now have a pretty lengthy list of things to do and play in this lifetime!”
This profound love for piano pieces and the importance of education, any kind of education, might be the most important things that she tries to pass on to her students. The music brings them to her, but being able to supply aspiring pianists with life’s best tools is as important as being in the right key when the teacher firmly believes that there is much more than music in music education!
“Much like in other teaching forms, you just can’t give up on someone, regardless of how slow they are or how you would like them to be. I’ll keep giving to students who keep on coming. The prospect of an unexpected new challenge that they could bring to a piece I thought I knew inside-out or that break-through moment is very stimulating!”
When asked how playing and teaching the piano has made her a better person, Yoko takes a long moment to think, maybe goes back to the keyboard in her mind, before choosing an answer. “The importance of being a good listener, of seeking the true meaning and intention behind someone’s words”. As this “can you believe it” look crosses her eyes once more, she leans forward and confides that, in spite of growing up constantly listening to classical music radio stations and spending all her money on live concert recordings, she can’t stand background music and never casually listens to any kinds! This musician might love her piano more than anything, but she might be the first to prefer silence if she can’t attentively listen to every note and nuance!