Music


 

Miyoko Nakaya Lotto: Teacher Extraordinaire

Born in Hokkaido, Japan, Miyoko Nakaya Lotto first emigrated to the U.S. at the age of seven, returning to Japan after three years. At 18 she returned to study with the legendary pianist and teacher Sascha Gorodnitzki at Juilliard, where she became his assistant and also taught there for 14 years.

Ms. Lotto has given numerous master classes throughout Japan and the U.S., as well as in Israel, Italy, Germany, Spain, Taiwan, and China. She has been juror for many international contests, including the Hamamatsu, Gina Bachauer, Young Texas Artists, and Hilton Head International competitions. Her skills as a teacher are reflected in the fact that her students have been prizewinners in many such competitions, such as the Leeds International Piano Competition, the Van Cliburn, the International Chopin Competition, the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition, the Hilton Head (South Carolina) International Piano Competition, and the Kosciusko Chopin Competition.

Ms Lotto worked with pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim, creating the six-DVD documentary Barenboim on Beethoven. The complete 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas were filmed live at the Berlin Staatsoper, with Barenboim performing and giving master classes to young pianists such as Lang Lang and Jonathan Biss. The film was aired on PBS’s Great Performances series as well as on BBC, ARTE-France, and NHK-Japan.  The DVD set was the Grand Prix winner in the 2008 Cannes Music Festival. 

A founding faculty member at the Perlman Program with Itzhak Perlman, Ms. Lotto has also taught in many other music programs, including the Van Cliburn Summer Institute in Texas, Euro Arts in Germany and Austria, the International Academy of Music in Italy and Spain, the Israel Conservatory, the Shanghai Conservatory, the Tainan Conservatory in Taiwan, Oberlin College, New York University, Queens College, Musikfest in Minnesota, and the Summit Music Festival in New York. She will be heading the Piano Seminar in Uozu, Japan, this summer.

Below, Ms. Lotto describes her life and experiences as a pianist and teacher extraordinaire.

 

 

Early Choices

 

I was thinking about why I teach so very much. My father and grandmother were proud to be teachers, so I never thought of teaching as a second-rate profession, as many do. When I was seven, my mother and an old aunt asked what I was going to be when I grew up. I had a terrible piano teacher until then. My mother remembered distinctly that I said, “When I grow up, I want to be a kind and gentle teacher.” I like the connection with the students as much as I like the music!

Being a performer is not an easy life. When you achieve something teaching, you achieve it together. It’s almost euphoric. It’s like playing chamber music. That’s hard to beat; I love it!

My father and mother were married in 1931. In Japan, it’s customary for the bride’s family to buy a giant cedar chest for the newlyweds, as part of their dowry. My mother saw the cedar chest arrive and started to cry. My father went to her [and asked], “Why are you crying?” She said, “I wanted a piano but he wouldn’t buy me a piano.” Next day, my father went with my mother, found a French grand piano, and bought it. That’s how much she loved Western music. In Japan at the time, classical music was elite and on a pedestal. Folk songs and other kinds of music were lower in status. She had learned the Japanese koto, the banjo, and traditional Japanese dancing. But not Western music. She sang Schubert songs all her life.

Emigrating

In 1952 when I was eight, we came to this country. We stayed for almost three years. In 1955, we had to go back to Japan. My father worked for the U.S. Army as a scientist, so we could afford to live in a place like Winnetka, Illinois. It was a heavenly place but was segregated at the time: no Jews were allowed.

Music first became beautiful to me when I met Saul Dorfman, who was a student of Schnabel and was related to our friends Jean and Arthur Gordon, who started Sara Lee Cheesecake. They lived in Skokie, the next town over. Mr. Gordon had a thick accent and played beautifully. He told my mother when I was eight, “I never taught a child. I don’t know if I can teach her how to play piano. But I will teach her to love music.” And that he did. Every time I think of their family, it makes me cry, because they were so good to us. We were immigrants in 1953-54. It was not a friendly time for Japanese to be in this country. We were in the outskirts of Chicago; we were not even in the middle of Chicago.

Back in Japan, my father would bring the students who had just graduated from his class to the house. We always had dinner together: our helper, my grandmother, and maybe four students.

I came from a full house to being at the Gordons every weekend. To be an immigrant, and to become part of a family in the U. S. at such a young age—I’ll never forget it. They had us over every weekend for brunch, with lox and bagels. They had a large family. To them we were just family. They were part of the fabric of my upbringing; friends became family. I’ve never met anybody like that.

I came back every summer. My father made sure I kept my green card. It was hard, because I could not travel alone, ages 11 to 14. My father didn’t make very much money. But he made sure I would come back every summer to see the people who cared for us. They rented a piano for me. I never lost English. I lost Japanese in five months when I first came to the United States.

After five months, my mother and father would say something in Japanese and I would answer in English. After a while my father said, “No, you have to answer in Japanese. You can’t forget Japanese.” But after five months it was gone.

One day my father brought me the New York Times. I was crying because I was home in Japan, where I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be with my friends in Illinois. He said, “Can you read this front page?” Of course I couldn’t read it. He said to me, “You’re Japanese. You’re going to learn how to read this. If you can learn it, you can go back to America as soon as you want.” That’s exactly what I did. So by the time I was 17, I was back auditioning at Juilliard.

After the Second World War in Japan, the country was poor. Trying to keep healthy was like being in the middle of a pandemic; 65 percent had tuberculosis. I’m sure that happened here too.

Juilliard

In 1962 I came to Juilliard. At my audition I could play all the notes. I probably could play more notes than some who were from the States. My teacher had assigned giant pieces when I was getting ready to graduate. She never said anything was beautiful. She said, “I guess you can just about play this now,” which was a supreme compliment. I was assigned emotionally mature repertoire such as Beethoven’s Opus 109 — are you kidding me? I would never assign that to a 17-year-old. Pianistically, I could play the notes, and I was fine auditioning. As soon as I started lessons at Juilliard, I realized I knew nothing about playing the piano. Nothing about the finer things in making music, like quality of sound, the emotional quality of sound, how it can change. It all seemed ephemeral. I couldn’t possibly have imagined what it would be like because I never had the experience until my teacher, Mr. Gorodnitski, showed me. I thought, oh, this is what music is about. I learned not only about music, but how to play the piano, which I really never knew. Can you imagine playing late Beethoven without knowing anything about the piano?

The following informal recording was made in 1964, at a lesson at Juilliard in Mr. Gorodnitski’s studio. I brought my reel-to-reel recorder to lessons to record each lesson. I wanted to send the recording to my mother for Xmas. It was so expensive to call at that time, so she called me once a year on my birthday.

 

 

[Editor’s Note: The recording is a performance that took place in a studio setting. There are two pianos, one playing a reduction of the orchestra part. The soloist, Miyoko Lotto, enters at 1:36, after her teacher, Sasha Gorodnitzki, has played the orchestra part.]

 

Concertizing Adventure

I don’t like traveling and playing a piano I don’t know. Going to play a concert in Springfield, Illinois, we were snowed in. I went to Walla Walla, Washington, to play, and one of the pedals fell off the concert grand. Once I was supposed to [play] in Missoula, Montana, and the plane couldn’t land, so I landed in Bismarck. I didn’t enjoy any of it. Going from Los Angeles to Stockton, we were in a sandstorm, and I knew I was not going to make it.

Rapport with the audience was secondary compared to being prepared for a concert and being able to play how I wanted on a real Steinway. I played in Eugene, Oregon, with no pedal for the second half because the pedal fell down, and the piano tuner could not keep it up. They put a book under it. I had to play the whole Chopin sonata without the pedal. Imagine how that feels.

It’s not music. Those were not great experiences.

Teaching

My favorite students are the ones who hear something inside themselves. I don’t even mean original. Something they feel very strongly about. You hear it in a note they play or in a phrase, or in the way they attack a chord. You can’t wish for it, you can’t teach it; it has to come from them.

I like to make sure students know how to play the keyboard. And to really look at the manuscript. If [they] can do those two, I’m happy with a student. It’s a kind of integrity, knowing that you played every note that the composer wrote. And they’re playing the piano correctly so as not to get an injury. They should not be playing with terribly tense wrists or anything that hurts.

Before the juries this year, and [with] a competition the next day, I had 13 pianists to prepare for the jury, plus five students who had to play an entire concerto. I thought I was going to have a heart attack, my heart was beating so fast. I actually made an appointment with my cardiologist just to make sure I was okay; I thought it’s probably my blood pressure going haywire. It was the first time the performance pressure affected how I felt physically. It was just too much teaching!

I have gone to competitions with my pianists. It’s not a great idea, because I’m nervous, and they’re nervous, and I make them more nervous. Recently I traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to hear Drew Peterson’s first performance of Rachmaninoff Third that he had learned this past fall. He started studying with me when he was almost six and still comes to play for me; he’s 30. I was dying to hear it and was there for all the rehearsals. His manager had asked for two rehearsals; a guest soloist usually only has one rehearsal with an orchestra! But they asked for two and they got it. I was so nervous for the first performance. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t do anything.

In 2017, Drew won the American Pianists Award, playing Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, op.16 by Sergei Prokofiev

 

 

Another student, José Ramón Méndez, worked with me for about 14 years. He’s been on the faculty at Northwestern. He’s joining the Oberlin faculty in September. We worked so much on technique together; we had a technique class once a week at New York University.

In 2009, Dr. Méndez performed Chopin’s Barcarolle in F# Major, Opus 60, at a memorial concert honoring the legendary pianist and teacher Gorodnitzki.

 

 

I prepare my pianists early. They know it’s a long haul; otherwise they’re not ready to go to a competition. I have seven of my pianists playing concerti now, learning the notes before summer, so by September they can work on interpretation.

This summer I’m starting a piano seminar. I’m doing this in English in Japan. I can’t teach in Japanese. It’s foreign to me. I don’t know all the words. Kumiko, my colleague, was nice enough to say, “I’ll translate.” Japanese is not expressive and intricate enough for me. Some things are un-translatable.

Project Barenboim

I was working with Itzhak Perlman’s camp when we went to Israel and heard Barenboim perform in Tel Aviv. After the concert, we had a question-and-answer time. Barenboim’s answers were so wonderful, I knew I had to get him recorded. In response to the question, “How would you define music?” he said “It’s sonorous air.” It was that kind of off-the-cuff remark that made him so alive.

My friend was the cultural documentary producer and director at PBS. I told her, “Margie, you have to record Barenboim for younger generations.” She said, “OK.” I never thought it would come to fruition. She called me in August, “OK, we’re meeting Barenboim on September 12 in his house in Berlin.”

Itzhak warned me [that] Barenboim does not like flattery and doesn’t talk about nonsense. Think your ideas through so you have answers! I read everything Barenboim wrote, and had about 80 questions. I went to his home; he said, “Come in, come in, dear.” We walked in, and there was a giant piano covered in CDs and music up to the ceiling. Obviously he never practiced at home, because the piano is closed up with everything on top. My producer introduced us. “This is Myoko Lotto and she is a teacher. She would like to record all of your Beethoven Sonatas and a master class.” He looked at me as if I was crazy and said, “Why are you asking me to do this?” I was dumbstruck. I couldn’t speak. All I could say was, “For the next generation.”

I stopped there because I knew I couldn’t BS beyond that and I wasn’t prepared for his directness. I was terrified. After he looked at me for about 30 seconds he said, “OK, I’ll do it.” That was the beginning. Basically it was because of those wonderful questions that he answered for the young musicians.  When asked “How do you practice?” he said: “On the day of a performance of a certain piece, I never practice that piece so I will be fresh.” It was eye-opening how he knew himself. He’s very clear about what he’s trying to do. His feeling about music, especially in performance, is that it has to be spontaneous. Consequently, he’s very hard on his orchestra people in rehearsals. And he might not do exactly what he says at the performance, just so they’ll play differently.

People in the Chicago Symphony said to me, “Oh my god, did you see that tempo he took?” It makes them alert; everybody is on their toes. It was a kind of teaching and ideas I never learned in Japan. Everybody had to be completely prepared before a performance—you never did anything spontaneously.

Then to come to Juilliard and work with Mr. Gorodnitsky, who was so meticulous about every single note he played. He didn’t teach us music, he taught every note. He would say, “No, that was too loud. No, that was too soft. The tone is not right. It doesn’t match the one before.” It was so detailed! It had none of Barenboim’s flamboyance, none of the spontaneity.

Family

By the time I came to New York to study, my father was a famous man in Japan. He was too busy to worry about the little ones who came along. Whatever I wanted to do was fine. I don’t think it ever occurred to him that I would be a professional musician. My mother had always loved music. Her father, who was in the military in the early 1900s, was not going to allow his daughter to play a Western instrument. No way!

My husband, Albert— it’s as if he’s born to play the piano. He plays all the time. His knowledge is about the piano; his contacts are from the piano. All his friends are in the musical world. Everything about him is programmed to be a pianist. [He’s] teaching all the time; it’s overwhelming to hear him practicing all the time too. My house has always been filled with music, from my mother’s singing to Albert’s practicing!

That Pinson Girl
Gerry Wilson
Set in the harsh landscape of rural north Mississippi during World War I, Gerry Wilson’s debut novel, That Pinson Girl, pits a white teenage mother against betrayal, hatred, and violence. Seventeen-year-old Leona Pinson gives birth to a son and refuses to name the child’s father. Luther Biggs, a biracial sharecropper with deep ties to the Pinson family, is Leona’s only ally against her brother, Raymond, who inhabits a world of nightriders and violence. As the secrets that haunt these characters come to light, Leona must rely on her own courage and cunning to save herself and her little son. In prose that has been called both lyrical and unflinching, this dark historical novel engages timeless issues of racism, sexism, and poverty. “Devastating and beautifully written, Gerry Wilson’s That Pinson Girl is at once a heart-rending tragedy and a testament to the indomitable human spirit.” — Clifford Garstang, author of The Last Bird of Paradise and Oliver’s Travels “In Gerry Wilson’s gripping debut novel, 1918 in North Mississippi becomes tangible again; here are the red hills, the suck of winter mud, the scrabble of subsistence living, and the intricately crossed lines of race and kin.” — Katy Simpson Smith, author of The Weeds, The Everlasting, and Free MenThat Pinson Girl is a beautiful novel about the destructive power of dark secrets.” — Tiffany Tyson, author of The Past Is Never and Three Rivers To learn more about Gerry, visit www.gerrygwilson.com.
That Pinson Girl is available from Regal House Publishing, Bookshop, and Amazon.

Editor's Bio

Gena Raps, Persimmon Tree Music Editor, has performed internationally and across the United States.  Her recordings of Mozart, Brahms, and Dvorak can be found on Musical Heritage Society, Arabesque, and Naxos among others. She has taught at the Juilliard School, Sarah Lawrence College, and the Mannes College of Music and has received numerous prizes and honors. She has been on the jury for competitions at the Juilliard School and the Fulbright Fellowship.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *