Tuesday, May 13, 2003

The Honolulu Symphony will honor piano teacher Ellen Masaki, shown in her studio with student Maile Cha, 12.

musical memoir

Thousands of students have learned
piano at Ellen Masaki's hands

Ellen Masaki can speak through her fingertips, conveying happiness, sadness or loneliness with a few taps on the keys of a piano. On any given day, she's surrounded by her students and their parents. During 50 years of teaching piano, she estimates 45,000 students have stepped into the Ellen Masaki School of Music classrooms; she taught 3,000 of them herself.

Celebrate Ellen Masaki's 75th birthday

Where: Kahala Mandarin Hotel
When: 6:30 p.m. Monday
Admission: $100
Call: 524-0815, Ext. 238, for dinner reservations

Funds donated to the Ellen Masaki Campaign will help purchase a Steinway Concert Piano and endow the Honolulu Symphony Keyboard Chair.

Next week, the Honolulu Symphony will help Masaki celebrate her 75th birthday. And she will also be honored for her contribution and dedication to teaching.

Masaki's first teacher, at age 5, was her aunt Harriett Ichinose, who taught her to play by ear. Formal studies with James Gallet, a member of the Honolulu Symphony, followed at age 7 on a used Acrosonic spinet piano, and her talent led to performances at state functions. "I remember playing the pipe organ at a church in Kalihi on Dec. 7th, when Pearl Harbor was bombed," she said.

I'm a Kalihi girl," said Masaki, who now resides in Kaimuki. "My parents were very poor -- they both needed to work."

Masaki sewed clothing for her siblings and cooked most of the meals. "During the Depression we really struggled, but they managed to pay for piano lessons for me and my two sisters."

Masaki now sees the same dedication and sacrifice with her student's parents, and in spite of the ups and downs of the economy over the past 50 years, the school has never been affected. "Parents are committed to their children," she said.

Masaki started teaching classes in a borrowed schoolroom in Haleiwa when her day would start as early as 4:30 a.m. and sometimes not end until 11 p.m. She says she's getting more sleep these days because she needs to be home by 10 p.m. to care for her 95-year-old mother.

Piano teacher Ellen Masaki is shown in her studio with daughter Nancy Masaki, who wouldn't sit still for mom's lessons and is now a symphony cellist.

One trait necessary for a teaching career is patience, and Masaki said she has a lot of it. She even taught 11 nieces and nephews who would gather around the piano on "family Sunday," though this did not work closer to home.

"I attempted to teach my two daughters but had no luck. They wouldn't stay on the seat for more than two minutes," she said. "I needed to send them out for lessons."

Masaki's daughters nevertheless inherited a love for the arts. Nancy is a cellist with the Honolulu Symphony; Karen is a contemporary dancer.

"My grandchildren were even worse to teach," Masaki laughed, but says everyone else has been able to learn.

As for who succeeds, Masaki has learned that commitment is often more important than natural ability. "A lot of my students who won competitions were not the most talented. They were just more dedicated."

One student she remembers fondly, Sean Kennard, will perform with the Honolulu Symphony next week. "His mom bought him a secondhand keyboard, and he learned most of the fundamentals himself," she said. He started taking lessons at the age of 9, then went on to play at Carnegie Hall with a group of Hawaiian musicians. He won the Chopin Competition of the Pacific at age 11 and was also the first piano student from Hawaii to enter the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

Students of Ellen Masaki perform in the classroom.

Kennard studied with Masaki for about three years. "I remember her lessons with fondness. She gave so much of her time. A one-hour lesson would turn into an entire evening. My mom used to bring food, and it was a great time," he said.

"I find it incredible that a teacher could prepare me to get into a school like Curtis Institute in such a short time period," said Kennard. "She taught me that repetition was necessary to perfect my skills.

"I wouldn't wait for her to assign me pieces. If I was particularly touched by a certain piece, I'd practice it, and then she would work with me to prefect it."

Now 18, he has finished his credits at Curtis Institute and only needs to perform a senior recital to receive his bachelor's degree.

Other former students are equally effusive about their teacher. Although she can appear stern, her sense of humor and upbeat methods had a positive effect on encouraging a lifelong love of music. Mark Wong said Masaki "has been one of the most influential members of Hawaii's artistic community and has shared a love of music with hundreds of students.

"She taught me discipline, hard work and a lifelong love of music. Ellen has given so much throughout her career and touched the lives of everyone who has had the privilege of studying with her."

Her students stay with her a few years to 15 years. "Usually I keep them through high school, and then they go off to college," she said. "Many of my students go on to Juilliard or Oberlin."

Over the years, more than 165 of Masaki's students have performed with the Honolulu Symphony. Iolani's basketball coach, Mark Mugiishi, is among them. Mugiishi was selected as one of 50 presidential scholars when he was at Iolani School. He played piano for an audience of senators and representatives and received an 11-minute standing ovation.

"Some of my best students are in elementary and middle school," said Masaki, whose youngest student was Mary Ann Endo, who started taking lessons at age 3. "She was the youngest pianist to perform with the symphony."

Masaki has a remarkable memory and can rattle off a list of former students, when they studied and key dates in their careers. Like one big extended family, they stay in touch, even from afar, so she's able to celebrate their accomplishments. Her former students, such as Sue Anne Shimabuku in Chicago, are using their talents all over the world. "People are on a waiting list to get into her class," said Masaki.

The list goes on: Donna Suehisa has a music school in Seattle. Lisa Nakamichi performs in Japan. And Brian Masuda is a vocal coach in Amsterdam.

Others have chosen to teach in the isles. They include Kay Gibson, Stella Kam, Lynn Kimura, Margaret King, Kim Kayabu, Tammy Nakasato, Laurie Shinsato, Glenn Nagatoshi and Christine Suehisa.

MASAKI ALSO HAS her own accomplishments to celebrate. The Music Teachers National Association named Masaki "Teacher of the Year" in May 2000. The award was a first for the 124-year-old organization of independent and collegiate music teachers and recognizes "teachers who go far beyond the call of duty to exemplify excellence in music teaching."

Another highlight was being chosen as one of 10 American music teachers to visit Moscow to exchange musical ideas with Russian counterparts at the Gnesin Institute. She brought 60 people with her, mostly parents and students.

Masaki was also honored during a 1988 Honolulu Symphony performance for which Tobias Picker wrote "Kilauea" in her honor, performing the piece in two sold-out shows.

The Ellen Masaki School of Music currently has 400 enrolled students and 15 piano teaching associates, some of them former Masaki students. "I love every minute of teaching. I just love the children," she said. It's up to a teacher to show children how to practice. They are only here for an hour a week; the rest is up to them, she said.

Maile Cha has taken lessons with Masaki for the past three years. "I practice every day for three hours," the 12-year-old said. "I love to perform." Cha has performed at Ala Moana Center, the Sheraton-Waikiki, Kahala Mall and on Hawaii Public Radio.

"Most of my students do well in school," she said. "The discipline needed to learn how to play the piano shows them how to budget their time. It catches on in their schoolwork."

Masaki also has a few adult students who have proved that age is no barrier to learning. While some children have to show up for their parents' sake, adults take lessons because they want to. The "want-to" attitude makes it easier to teach them, she said.

Perhaps none showed more dedication than Steven Nishi, now a gynecologist. He was due to perform with the Honolulu Symphony when, on a fishing trip with his father, he had a painful encounter with an eel.

"The eel practically severed his thumb," Masaki said. "He was rushed to the hospital and had 17 stitches. And he still managed to make it to the performance -- he was only 7 years old."

Other events

Gala Concert

With pianists Andre Watts and Sean Kennard and the Honolulu Symphony

Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. next Tuesday
Admission: $30 to $150
Call: 792-2000

Jon Nakamatsu Piano Recital

Where: Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. May 27
Admission: $15 to $57
Call: 792-2000

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