Yoko Takebe Gilbert: Mothering Musicians

Photo by Chris Lee


Violinist Yoko Takebe joined the New York Philharmonic in 1979. A former member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, her early training in Tokyo included music and traditional Japanese dance. While attending the Toho School of Music, she was a pupil of Saburo Sumi and Hideo Saito. At age 13, Ms. Takebe won the Japanese National Music Competition. She graduated from the Juilliard School as a student of Ivan Galamian and continued her studies in Switzerland with Joseph Szigeti. Ms.Takebe was a frequent participant in the New York Philharmonic Ensembles and was on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. Her husband, Michael Gilbert, is a former member of the Philharmonic’s violin section.

Gena Raps: What was the importance of classical music in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Japan? I know Shinichi Suzuki’s father, who owned a violin factory, thought it was beneath his son to study the violin formally. Were there lessons in Tokyo? Concerts?

Yoko Takebe Gilbert: I never studied with the Suzuki method. Thinking back, the Suzuki method was an important way for the Japanese people to start learning about western music and instruments. Only later, after I was in New York for some time and after I had children, I took a seminar course at the Suzuki school in New York City. I taught young children for a year or two. It was difficult.

Were there many concerts in Tokyo when you were a child?

YTG: By the time I was a teenager, there were many concerts by European, Russian and American musicians in Japan. Also there was a huge concert by the Suzuki violin school called ‘Talent Education’ once a year in Tokyo. Students and teachers of the Suzuki School from all over Japan gathered in a large gymnasium in Tokyo for a concert. Many thousands of children played together from the beginning level Suzuki Books up to the advanced levels.

How old were you when you started playing the violin?

YTG: I was probably seven or eight which was not very early, particularly if you talk about Suzuki method; they start age two. I was a late starter among my peers.

Were your parents musical?

YTG: Not at all. They both liked music.

Did you choose to study the violin?

YTG: At the time it was becoming important – especially for the daughters – to play a musical instrument. I had heard my mother saying that after the war, pianos were more expensive and violins were readily available from the Suzuki factory.

That was Shinichi’s Suzuki’s father.

YTG: There was easier access to violins in general. That was one of the reasons there were many children starting to learn violin.

Did you practice much?

YTG: I didn’t like to practice. I had three older brothers; the youngest of the three was ten years older than I was.

You were the baby.

YTG: Yes, I was. My middle brother was a scholar and he liked music very much and wanted to study violin. He played on his own and helped my practice.

It was the same for Shinichi Suzuki who went on to start the method!

You also studied dance.

YTG: Yes. I did traditional Japanese dance, the kind of dance you can see in Kabuki theatre. I danced until I was in the fourth grade. I performed on stage. I have pictures with the makeup, wigs, and the fancy costume.

Did you choose violin over dance?

YTG: I don’t remember if my mother or I chose. My mother was very dedicated, even though she didn’t know how to teach or play violin. She kept the house quiet and without distractions so that I could practice.

Several mothers of my friends from Toho School were close as friends and they called themselves Madame Giants. They were supportive and dedicated mothers who went all out to support their daughters’ music studies.

Toho Music School was started right after the war by three prominent musicians. It started as a Saturday only school for kids as young as four to seven years old. One of the founders was Hideo Saito, who was a cellist and a conductor. Seiji Ozawa was his student. The others were well-known pianist and a singer. Now the school has grown and there is Toho Gakuen University.

When and why did you come to New York?

YTG: In 1960, the last year of high school. We were thinking we had to study in the West, not only in Japan.

The two centers for study at that time were either Moscow or New York.

YTG: We didn’t consider Moscow. It was either New York or Philadelphia – Juilliard or Curtis. Then, for western classical music, Europe, particularly Vienna was considered to be the place to study. America was new to classical music and still developing but more people were starting to go there to study music and we knew the name Ivan Galamian!

Did he accept you when you got to New York?

YTG: I made a recording of my playing and sent it to him directly. I wrote that I would like to study with him either at Juilliard or Curtis. He wrote back, “Come to Juilliard.”

I hadn’t even taken the Juilliard entrance exam, but I guess we just assumed that Mr. Galamian would make arrangements for me to enroll. I went and did take the entrance exam. I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t get in.

Did your own parents bring you to New York?

YTG: I travelled by myself. I was 18. That was an adventure and a challenge. Now I’m a parent and I can imagine what a big decision it must have been for my parents to let me go. I was the only daughter. What courage it must have taken them.

And courage for you, too.

YTG: But I didn’t know very much and when you don’t know much, you just do it.

Now, there are many Asians in New York. When you came, were you the only one at Juilliard?

YTG: No, not the only one. When I came to Juilliard in 1960, I think there were three or four Japanese students.

What traditions did you bring with you to New York City?

YTG: In Japan, New Year’s celebration was the biggest holiday, as Christmas is here.

I don’t do much except for having long noodles at midnight on New Year’s Eve for longevity.

Were there other students at Juilliard for you to bond with? Did you feel isolated?

YTG: There were a few Japanese students at Juilliard before I came. When I came, one of them was from Toho and she helped me in the beginning getting to know my way around, and understanding rules and procedures of the school.

I was interested in your studies with the legendary violinist Szigeti. Bartok dedicated several works to him!!

YTG: I studied with Szigeti in Switzerland. After I graduated from Juilliard in 1964, I had corresponded with him and he invited me to study with him in Switzerland. He had retired from performing.

He had a beautiful house. He found me a place, not even a mile from his house, with a farmer and his family. A real Swiss farmer who had fields, rabbits, and chickens.

What did you learn from him?

YTG: What the music expresses, what the feelings are in the specific phrase, how to practice passages, certain notes are important and expressive and need to be brought out, etc. It was an invaluable experience to be near him. I still treasure my Bach unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas music where he wrote in his notes and comments.

He was old and it was not easy for him to play because of his physical condition, although I could still feel his expressions… his thoughts, essence of his music making was clear.

It was amazing when I think of it. I saw him almost every day. One day he came for his walk while I was practicing. At the next lesson he said, “I heard you practicing. I was standing under your window…”

He arranged for me to play in the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra that was nearby, a very fine chamber ensemble.

After I left Switzerland, I would send recordings and he would write back comments. I was so honored that my name was mentioned in the book that he wrote.

Did he teach much or was this an unusual situation?

YTG: Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarnari Quartet had studied with him in Switzerland before I did. In fact, Arnold gave me a picture of the same farmer couple he stayed with as I did.

Mentoring young musicians is a tradition amongst many professionals. A young Nathan Milstein, the great violinist, went to a town where Rachmaninoff lived up the road. He knocked on Rachmaninoff’s door and they became close friends.

In your bio at the Philharmonic you did something that I really, really love. You did not talk about your famous teachers; you talked about your unknown teachers. You honored your first teachers; that’s so unusual. Most people in their bios say they did this and they did that; it’s all about their accomplishments. The audience has no understanding of their musical traditions. I’m 80 and my teacher still means so much to me. I still think of him.

Musical traditions mean a lot. What musical traditions did you get from your teachers?

YTG: My main teacher before I came to the U.S. was Saburo Sumi. He was a prominent teacher at the time in Japan, and was almost completely self-taught. He never studied formally with a teacher.

Players came to perform from Soviet Union or Germany and he heard them and learned from them. He was a wonderful teacher; very honest, kind, and humble man. He talked about the fact that he didn’t have formal, vigorous training. He actually produced many good students.

How soon out of conservatory did you join the Philadelphia?

YTG: I left Juilliard in ’64, and that summer I was in Europe. And then when I came back from Switzerland I got married. My husband, Michael, also left Juilliard at the same time.

Did you meet at Juilliard?

YTG: Yes. The same year I left, ’64, he got his first job as a concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony. And then he was concertmaster of the American Symphony.

And when we both came back to New York, he joined the Philharmonic. I too auditioned later but I didn’t get the job immediately. So I auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra and was accepted. And eventually I was accepted in the New York Philharmonic.

Were you one of the first Asians in the orchestra?

YTG: I was the second Asian. But I was the first woman to join the orchestra as a spouse.

I understand your husband has a lot of musicians in his family.

YTG: His father was a musician, a conductor and violinist in Memphis, Tennessee. My husband’s grandfather was a country fiddler. There was a lot of music in his family. When our kids were little, they thought everybody in the world played violin. Friends would come to the house and everybody played the violin.

You have two children who are successful musicians. Did you practice with them?

YTG: I did a bit. But my husband did more. We played Mozart’s early quartets and other repertoire together. They also had piano lessons. They practiced the violin but not the piano. I helped some with the violin, but for me it was not easy to teach my own kids. They were never pushed as prodigies at Juilliard are.

They were happy playing!

YTG: One time we did practice with them was for Juilliard Pre-College entrance exam. We thought it would be good for them to be with other children who are also studying music. We prepared about three months for the audition.

You were on tour a good part of the year. Who took care of the children while both of you were away?

YTG: The situation at the NY Philharmonic was totally different from how it is now. I remember being apologetic about bringing children on tour or even to the hall to meet with my husband before I was a member. We would tell them, “Don’t make any noise, don’t run.” Nowadays, the kids are running around backstage. Lots of people take their young children on tour, with babysitters.

My husband Michael’s sister sometimes came to help. Sometimes our friends with similar age children would keep them. But every time it was a problem and we had to come up with solutions. Michael’s sister took them to my parents in Tokyo, when the tour was to Japan and Australia.

I understand you gave concerts together as a family.

YTG: It was a big undertaking. It was fun but it was very difficult to find the time, even to find the specific day for a concert we were all available. My daughter Jennifer is the concertmaster of Orchestre National de Lyon. We all found it hard to be available for all the days we needed to practice and rehearse.

Are your grandchildren musicians? Do you work with them?

YTG: We both wish we could do more of that, partly it is difficult because of the distance; they all live far away from us.

Alan’s oldest daughter plays violin and piano. She plays both instruments well. So if we’re there, we work with her. Sometimes online too.

Has the recent spate of Asian hate discrimination affected you?

YTG: The only time I clearly felt discrimination had nothing to do with my profession. When Michael, right after school, was in San Antonio as a concertmaster, we were trying to find an apartment. I made calls and was told I had an accent. Or the newspaper ad would say “Anglo only.”

My husband is from Memphis, Tennessee. When we first visited, folks looked at us holding hands. Now there are many Asians there.

We are a multi-racial family, anyway. My son-in-law, a violinist, is from India. His mother is Chinese. Alan’s wife, also a musician, is Swedish.

Your children have fulfilled their dreams with the careers they’ve made. What would you say were the important factors?

YTG: This is my own personal philosophy. I think that one of the most important periods in education is the early education and environment. Whether it’s kindergarten or nursery school, they should be provided with warm circumstances so they feel secure and not deprived or hindered. Both of our children went to Harvard and became musicians. It was their choice! They could have gone to Juilliard. I’m very happy they did what they did. I am also lucky that my husband was and is totally interested in bringing up children.

This is kind of a saying in Japan from my mother: If you love your child, let him or her travel. In other words, don’t hang on and keep them tightly around you. Let them go and see the world, which takes courage on the part of the parents.

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