Not a very simple life

I am a 33 year old jazz pianist. I have been playing piano since I was three, I have been with incredible music teachers, and I graduated from a prestigious music school. But it would be wrong for me to think that I followed a natural progression towards becoming a professional pianist. Instead, my journey has been a cycle of doubt, changes, struggles, and breakthroughs. Stubbornness, passion, and love have pulled me through.

My parents had been avid listener of classical music, but it was at age three that Anton Dvorak’s New World Symphony came through the stereo speaker after breakfast. I had never heard symphonic work (or at least remember of hearing one) until then, and I was very excited. I refused to go to kindergarten because I wanted to listen more. My parents bought me a cassette tape player and I would listen to classical music every day as I went to sleep. It’s a habit that continued until college.

I took up organ lessons at age three. The piano keys were too heavy for me at the time, but I switched to piano after I turned four. Unlike my friends who hated taking piano lessons, I would practice because my parents threatened that I’d have to quit unless I practiced. I had some weird quirks, too. I would challenge myself by transposing the Chopin works on the fly. Conducting was still my passion. I would listen to the same symphonic work over and over, listening to one instrumental part at a time. In elementary school, I would be conducting an orchestra in my head during classes.

But I wasn’t necessarily the most talented pianist around. I wasn’t bad, but a music career was not inevitable either. At the age eleven, my family moved from Tokyo to Ohio. Not having spoken a word of English until then, the focus of my life shifted from music to studying. I quit playing piano. I would go to school, but didn’t understood a word of what my teacher said at first. It was hard to contain tears out of frustrations I felt for not being able to speak the language, being treated differently in class and by friends. But I survived by being stubborn. Imagine a middle school student who would fall asleep in class because he was studying past midnight every day. That’s was me. I did not like my teachers giving special treatment to a student who couldn’t speak English, so I worked that much harder.

This stubborn attitude is what allowed me to return to music. I took up clarinet and saxophone in high school. This was more for fun, like what kids did around that age. Between my junior and senior year in high school, my parents sent me to a summer jazz music camp as a saxophonist. I did not know anything about jazz then. I had never heard of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Herbie Hancock. But I felt my heart yanked close to this music. I guess this is what people describe as being “bitten by the bug.” Though enrolled as a saxophonist, I begged Mark Flugge at the music camp to give me piano lessons. After returning from the camp, I returned to piano full time after being away from it for almost 5 years. I was a better pianist than clarinetist or saxophonist. If I were to pursue music professionally, I had to focus on one instrument that I had better control over. I studied with a local piano legend named Pat Pace.

In college, I was an engineering major. Math and science came naturally to me, and I discovered engineering. Music and engineering played an equally important part to me. I worked hard to finish all my homework before midnight so that I could slip into the music building to practice before the doors locked for the evening. I’d emerge from the music building around 3am, go back to the dorm room, and get up the next morning for 9am classes.

It is during this time that I studied with Anthony Branker, Michael Cochrane, Walt Weiskopf, Gary Dial, and Stephen Scott. I admired Tony’s conducting styles. Walt was the first teacher I’ve had who treated me like a musician, and it was a challenge to live up to that expectation. I met Stephen Scott during my junior year, when I snuck backstage after Sonny Rollins concert. He really invested a lot in me, and to this day, he is my teacher, mentor, and a friend. In fact, my son is named after Stephen.

I struggled with the duality of my life. After undergraduate studies, I chose engineering as my career path. I would proceed to a graduate school in engineering to pursue PhD, to follow my other dream of becoming an engineering professor. Yet, I was satisfied with my choice because, as a late bloomer in jazz, I knew I did not have what it takes to be accepted into a music school. I had a very fulfilling graduate school experience and I enjoyed engineering as much as music. (I have a successful career as an engineering college professor today)

Nevertheless, music was very much a part of my graduate school lifestyle. At the beginning of my graduate studies there, the jazz program was in need of a real help—it was a student run organization that lacked clear direction and leadership. Students in the program began to depend on me. By the end of my first year there, I instituted auditions, directed the big band, and ran rehearsals for small combos. The big band welcomed Joe Chambers, Jimmy Heath, and Eric Reed as guest artists that year. The university hired a permanent director the next year, who quickly became a close friend and a collaborator.

It was during this period that my passion for music resurfaced. I was a very effective big band director and brought the quality of the big band up by more than a few notches. But I missed playing piano while I was directing. I was introduced to Harold Danko, the chair of Eastman jazz program. I began making a weekly trip to Rochester to study with Harold, even though it takes me 2 hours to drive to Rochester. I would memorize my engineering homework questions, and solve them in my head during the 4 hours in the car. I’d occasionally have to pull over to write down the answers. Harold is an incredible pianist, but he is also a gifted teacher. He would tap into my mathematical side to develop a unique voice in my piano playing.

My girlfriend (now wife) lived in San Diego at the time. I would see her once every month or two. Whenever I visited her, I’d drop her off at work, spend 3 more hours to drive north through LA traffic to arrive at Santa Monica. There, I’d take lessons with Alan Pasqua. He sharpened my sense of playing piano, and he would feed me with ideas that I would work on for the next two months. After my an hour lesson, I’d fight the LA traffic again to come back to San Diego—just in time to pick up my girlfriend after a full day of work.

I finally came to the realization that I cannot choose between engineering and music. I told my girlfriend that I made the decision to pursue dual career, that this is something I just had to do for my life. And she gave me the fullest support and said “go for it.”

I left my engineering graduate school without completing my PhD. My PhD adviser knew of my dual engineering-music career choice. He gave me his confidence and his trust when I said that I am not abandoning the four years of graduate engineering education. Over the course of the next two years, I would attend New England Conservatory as a masters student while working to complete my engineering PhD dissertation. It was literally like being enrolled at two universities at the same time. I made frequent trips back to my engineering school to talk to my PhD adviser, to defend my thesis, and finally to attend my PhD graduation in 2005. I even kept publishing technical papers throughout the years that I attended the music school. In fact, several of my engineering publications says that my affiliation is NEC.

NEC was a difficult transition. I was an “outsider” to music school, never having been a music major nor taken advanced music theory classes.  I had far less experience as a musician than my classmates.  I have never surrounded myself with so many great musicians.  It felt surreal to be in such an environment that I had only dreamed about up until then.  But I overcame my insecurities and eventually learned my ways. Cecil Mcbee and Bob Moses were my ensemble coaches. Jerry Bergonzi was my jazz theory teacher. Danilo Perez, George Garzone, and John McNeil were my private teachers. Danilo opened up my mind and music to a world that I didn’t know existed. When Dave Holland visited NEC, he pulled me aside to tell me that he thought I had something special going on.

My girlfriend left her cushy job and gave up an apartment two blocks from the beach in San Diego to move in with me in Boston. She supported me through the two years of music graduate school. Without her love and devotion, I would not be where I am now. I dedicated my NEC graduation recital to her. We were married shortly after my NEC graduation.

I lived in Boston for 3 more years after NEC graduation. I started picking up gigs regularly, both as a leader and as a sideman.  My band hosted one of the most popular weekly jam sessions in Boston. I had a steady gig at a four star restaurant that used to be a jazz club where Bill Evans’s trio was a regular. These opportunities gave me a chance to develop my own voice.

Two years ago, I returned to Ohio to become an engineering professor. It is then that I met Eddie Brookshire. Playing with Eddie and Fenton Sparks takes me to a higher musical ground that I could not have attained by myself. They embrace the idea of taking risks. This is where the musical development has been for me lately.

CD Baby