Feature: The piano and the professor

Mari Yoshihara

According to her piano teacher, the magnitude of what Mari Yoshihara did this spring is a feat akin to a novice runner who has never before run a 10k—who goes on to finish a marathon.  What did the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Professor of American Studies accomplish?   In May 2011, she entered, was accepted and competed in the Sixth Annual Van Cliburn International Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in Fort Worth, Texas, after not seriously studying piano since she was a teenager in Japan.

Now a 43-year-old scholar of U.S. cultural history in Honolulu, Yoshihara’s journey to the Cliburn contest dates back to her youth.  Born in New York City, Yoshihara grew up in Tokyo and began taking piano lessons at the tender age of three.  A self-proclaimed piano “nerd,” Yoshihara’s childhood memories were consumed by Hanon scales, Czerny etudes, Bach inventions, and Beethoven and Mozart sonatas.

When Yoshihara turned eleven, her father’s job at an import-export company transplanted her for three years in California, where she returned to the piano as a familiar source of support.  During this traverse of cultures and languages, she mulled entering a conservatory to seriously pursue music.  However, on her return to Japan as a young teen, Yoshihara’s self-identity transformed from “the girl who plays piano well” to “the girl who speaks English like an American.” 

As her intellectual prowess and political consciousness emerged, she veered off the musical path and enrolled at the elite University of Tokyo to earn a bachelor’s degree in American Studies.  Yoshihara pursued graduate studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, before garnering a teaching post at UH Mānoa in 1997. It was during graduate school that Yoshihara got a spinet, a small upright piano, and started playing occasionally. “By light of day, I was a liberal intellectual critiquing cultural imperialism,” she mused, “and in the dark of night, I would commune with dead white European men like Chopin and Rachmaninoff.”

Her professorial duties left little time for tickling the ivories until 2003, when Yoshihara integrated her previously separated proclivities for music and academia.  When not in the classroom, she wrote books on classical music, and again took up piano lessons under the tutelage of UH Mānoa Music Professor Thomas Yee.   

Then she learned about the Van Cliburn International Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, a prestigious annual contest open to 72 amateur pianists who were ages 35 or older.  Yoshihara decided to enter the 2011 event, believing such a lofty goal would push her to practice more systematically and aspire to a higher level of musicianship.  “For the several months leading up to the audition recording, I practiced about two or three hours a day.  Between the time that I learned I was accepted in late March 2011 and the May 23-29 competition itself, I averaged four hours a day.”

On taking the stage at Texas Christian University, Yoshihara recalls early nervousness, a brief memory lapse in the first of three pieces, and then a blissful blur.  “The instrument—a Hamburg Steinway D—was so wonderful that it was a sheer pleasure just experiencing the sound that came from touching it.” While hers may not have been a performance on par with other competitors, some of whom had degrees from Juilliard and the New England Conservatory, Yoshihara notes, “Alas, that is life! But just meeting and playing alongside all those people who were dedicated to music while living very full lives was truly a precious experience.  Everyone at Cliburn played with such love and character in addition to amazing technical proficiency.”

Yoshihara may not have won the race that day, but she certainly crossed the finish line on a marathon runner’s high. To view a video of her performance, see the website at http://livestre.am/N91o.  Contact Yoshihara at myoshiha@hawaii.edu.