Many isle musicians first learned joy of music from acclaimed piano teacher


POSTED: Wednesday, September 09, 2009

An acclaimed piano teacher in Honolulu for more than half a century, Ellen Masaki led a school that turned out thousands of well-trained musicians—not only pianists—who have gone on to carve out distinguished careers in music or have become teachers themselves.

“;Her students always entered competitions and usually won,”; said Ethel Iwasaki, who taught at the school for more than 20 years. “;She'd enter a lot of students for the sole purpose of making them practice. It was very intensive. Some of them would go on to represent Hawaii in divisional contests, and a few times some would win and go on to nationals. She made the kids want to perform. It was a way to motivate them and enrich their lives.”;

Masaki, herself named Teacher of the Year in May 2000 by the century-old Music Teachers National Association, died Monday morning at her home due to complications from a metastasized stomach cancer that first struck a decade ago. She was 81.

The news first got out to the local classical music community at large when Gennette Freeman, executive director of the Hawaii Performing Arts Academy, sent out an e-mail saying Masaki had died and would no longer be an integral part of the academy's annual piano concerts on the Big Island.

;[Preview]  Ellen Masaki Remembered

Legendary piano teacher, Ellen Masaki, has passed away.

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Masaki was in intensive care for two weeks in August 2008 and was diagnosed earlier this year with multiple myeloma, including fluid in her lungs, with procedures done to help with breathing, according to her family.

Masaki's daughter Karen said she remembered her mother leading a group of her prize students in concert back in July at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.

“;Mom was struggling to breathe, and she was weak at the time but she led her students through this major five-piano extravaganza,”; she said. “;It was a highlight for her to accomplish that.”;

Ellen Masaki's sister Mildred Oshiro, who wrote many of the press releases for her busy sister, wrote yesterday via e-mail that “;one spontaneous solo by a student overwhelmed with emotion led to a steady stream of musicians and (a Sunday) afternoon of piano music, a melancholy tribute filling her home and wafting down and through the panorama of Maunalani Heights.”;

“;She lived life fully and enjoyed life completely,”; said Karen Masaki. “;She was always a risk taker and managed to make things blossom.”;

“;My mother was an amazing role model,”; added Karen's sister Nancy Masaki Hathaway via e-mail. “;She worked tirelessly throughout her life and never seemed daunted by any task. Her students and music filled her life with purpose and joy but she was also a loving mother and grandmother who would do anything to help us fulfill our lives.”; (Nancy is a cellist with the Honolulu Symphony; Karen, a contemporary dancer who lives in Volcano on the Big Island.)

“;I called (Ellen) 'Dragon Lady,'”; said Iwasaki. “;She was here (at the school on Ward Avenue) morning to night. She would win over any obstacle, health or financial, and this time I thought she'd make it.”;

Ramona Benz of Hawaii Kai, mother of 11-year-old Sophia, who was a personal student of Masaki's, said everyone she has talked to is heartbroken over the loss.

“;She was such a dedicated teacher,”; she said. “;She loved what she did. She put her whole heart and soul when she taught music, and she brought out the best in each student to help reach their potential. ... She touched everybody and she was like family. Sophia told me that it feels like one of her grandmothers passed away.”;

BORN JUNE 6, 1928, in Kalihi, Masaki was all of 5 years old when her aunt Harriett Ichinose taught her to play by ear. Formal studies followed two years later with then-Honolulu Symphony pianist James Gallet.

“;I remember (when I was in the seventh grade) playing the pipe organ at a church in Kalihi on Dec. 7, when Pearl Harbor was bombed,”; she said in a 2003 Star-Bulletin article marking Masaki's 75th birthday.

The article went on to state that some of her own students would stay with her for upward of 15 years. “;Usually, I keep them through high school, and then they go off to college. Many of my students go on to Juilliard or Oberlin.”;

And now it's up to Masaki's daughters to keep their mother's tireless work at the Ellen Masaki School of Music.

“;My sister Nancy and I are working to get things organized,”; Karen said. “;It was my mother's hope and wish that with the eight teachers working with their hundreds of students, that the piano studio can continue.”;

“;Not only is the school her legacy,”; said Iwasaki, “;but her students are as well. To have the school carry on as a monument to her memory would be wonderful.”;

Masaki is survived by her brother Ernest Kimura, sisters Mildred Oshiro and Lillian Nishi, daughters Karen Masaki and Nancy Masaki Hathaway, and grandsons Scott and Logan Hathaway.

Dates have been tentatively set in October for a service at Central Union Church, followed by a memorial concert at Blaisdell Concert Hall.