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Musical narrative parallels pianist's life story

By Olivia Leiter
On November 7, 2011

For pianist Naoko Sugiyama, playing beautiful music and connecting emotionally with her audience are not mutually exclusive. "I love that moment when I can feel complete silence, when there is complete still. I can tell that everybody is with me," said Sugiyama.

Sugiyama's audience traveled on an extraordinary journey with her last Sunday at 3 p.m. when she performed at Slosberg Recital Hall. For the first half of the two-hour concert, Sugiyama played Franz Liszt's "Sonata in B minor." Liszt wrote this piece as a coming-of-age story, putting to music the stresses and joys he experienced at different stages of his life. The emotional depth of Liszt's work was translated beautifully by Sugiyama, who puts her own style into each of the pieces she performs. Sugiyama explained, "Every time I perform I feel different. What I have been going through changes how I want to play this piece." Sugiyama takes her private emotions and lets them manifest in her music, lets a part of herself come through. She explained, "People can tell a lot about my character when I perform."

Sugiyama, a native of Japan, explained that she did not always have the freedom to be expressive in her music. At home, Sugiyama was trained to focus on the objective, the technical. "Everything has to be perfect before the music," she said. "If you play one note wrong, you will fail." When Sugiyama came to America, she discovered an entirely different conception of music. "In America, music is more fun. It can be emotional. Here in America, I learned that you can show yourself. The audience can tell what I'm feeling and travel with me," she explained.

For the second portion of her performance, Sugiyama played "Pour le Piano" by Claude Debussy, and ended with a short piece, "Rhapsody in Blue," a jazzy melody by George Gershwin. Present throughout the entire concert was a sense of emotional richness. When Sugiyama finished playing, she was met with a standing ovation.

I was surprised to learn that Sugiyama, a virtuoso performer, had once thought about quitting the piano when she was an undergraduate student. She said, "It's been a bumpy road. I came to Boston in '97 and I was planning on quitting that year. A teacher told me I didn't have enough talent and that I should find something else." Sugiyama explained that she had already started looking for alternatives when she met a teacher who changed her entire perspective. "He showed me how great music is and that I can become a pianist, even though he said he didn't want to be responsible for my future." The inspiration that this teacher instilled in Sugiyama was the driving force that kept her going and her much-needed hope. "I'm glad I kept playing," Sugiyama said.

Sugiyama saw the difference that her teacher made in her life and decided to teach music herself. She is currently a faculty member at the Longy School of Music and the New England Conservatory, both of which she attended herself. Sugiyama talked a little about teaching, explaining, "I love it. It's interesting teaching. I can still learn from my students. I teach where I went to school, and it's great to be back—it's like being home."

Based on her own experience, Sugiyama realizes how much of an impact one teacher can have on a student. With that knowledge, Sugiyama is mindful about her approach to teaching. She explained, "You can't just be treating teaching like a job, you have to be a mentor." However, Sugiyama does recognize that in teaching, she also has to criticize her students. "I realize that I still have to be honest with my students. If they are not meeting standards, I have to be honest and trust my instincts, my experiences."

Ultimately, Sugiyama's performance unfolded a beautifully vulnerable narrative that paralleled her own inspiring story of self-discovery. Hopefully, more students and members of the Brandeis community will come to see many more of the musical performances at Brandeis this year, as I thought this was a fantastic experience.


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