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Nobuyuki Tsujii – The Modest Master
Nobuyuki Tsujii is anything but your average twenty-something. The classical pianist and composer is said to have inspired the kind of groupie-infused following normally reserved for pop music stars in his native Japan.
His credits are humbling: he debuted on stage with a professional orchestra at 10-years-old, gave his first solo recital at 12, snagged a (joint) gold medal in the renowned Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009, and composed an “Elegy for the Victims of the Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011.”
But it’s not just the music he makes that inspires people; it’s how he makes it. Tsujii was born blind. His fingers fly in the dark.
After watching his debut recital at Carnegie Hall, New York Times music reviewer Vivien Schweitzer called it “remarkable that he has attained an impressive technique that enables him to navigate the keyboard confidently and accurately in difficult repertory.”
These days Tsujii, or “Nobu” as he commonly goes by, is preparing to play Rachmaninov No.3 for the first time ever in October. His manager, Nick Asano, calls it “one of the most demanding pieces in the history of piano concerto.”
When we asked Tsujii to take a break from his intense prep to permit us a few questions, he agreed – graciously. Here’s what he told us, via email, about his life on the global stage:
(Editor's note: Nobuyuki Tsujii's answers were translated from Japanese to English by his manager)
(Knowledge): How you do feel when you are sitting on a world-famous stage, playing the piano for thousands of people?
My family took me to Saipan Island when I was 5 years old, and I had a chance to play piano at the shopping mall. I played it just for my fan, and at the end, I met applause and cheers from good number of people who stopped by me and were listening to my piano playing. Some people came to me and gave me a hug, saying bravo, etc. At that moment, I found my audience, and I understood that I was able to communicate with people on keyboard, even without a word. Since then, it is always my pleasure to go to stage and play music to the audience.
It is a big honor for me to play on a prestigious stage and to big number of people, but it doesn't affect me. I just wish to be sincere to the music that I play, and try best to give them my best performance.
Normally I don't get nervous, only exception was my debut to Carnegie Hall on November 10, 2011. I felt as if I was stepping into a sanctuary. I was in such high spirit and got so nervous that an hour before the concert I screamed "Let me go to the stage right now!" I felt as if I could hardly wait.
What thoughts are going through your head when you’re striking the keys?
On stage, I always try to devote myself to the music, and to the composer. I try to enjoy the beauty and the wonder of these masterpieces, and wish if I could deliver them to the audience, I wish if they would share the joy of experiencing such wonderful world of music.
At the same time, I can hear and sense the reaction of the audience. If I sense positive sign such as that audience is concentrating to the music and sharing it with me, it gives me energy and motivation.
How does your blindness impact the way you play – in terms of training, song selection, and performance?
I don't know. I cannot compare a life with blindness to the one without.
That said, I have been very much lucky to meet wonderful teachers who have guided me. In particular, I cannot thank too much one of my teachers, Professor Kawakami, who had developed unique system of learning music for me. It was huge labor for me to learn new music on braille, until he made it possible for me to learn them by hearing/listening.
When I mention this, sometimes I got misunderstood as if I was listening to someone's CD and "copying" it. However, what my teacher does is to record the music hand by hand, in just precise tempo. Then he re-records the music with verbal comments about composer's marking, etc. He tries to avoid any personal interpretation, to allow me to add my own view.
What, in your mind, makes someone a master of their craft?
Difficult to answer. The energy to make someone happy? Deeply emotional and human experience such as falling in love with someone? Talent and effort? Might be better to ask someone who has made big achievement.
Where do you find inspiration?
Music and audience. I wish to be a good interpreter between them.
It is also great inspiration and enlightenment to meet, listen to and work with great musicians and conductors such as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Valery Gergiev, Michel Beroff, etc., and Van Cliburn! I had no chance to listen to his live performance and I had limited chance to talk to him in person, but I found very noble and warm personality in him, and sincerity to classical music.
What’s one thing people might be surprised to learn about you?
Again, difficult to answer, because everything about me is just natural to myself.
My manager often tells me that I have huge appetite, I have "surprisingly" precise sense of direction and distance, even better than his, I have very precise memory in every detail of daily life, etc., and he is always surprised to see that I never suffer jet lag, at all.
I can sleep any time when I had better sleep, I can wake up any time when I should and start working, regardless which direction I travel and how long it takes. I adore exploring local and seasonal cuisine of the place I visit. I love Japanese food such as sushi, but I never stick to it on the road. When I travel abroad, it sometimes happens that I stay completely without Japanese dish for a month. I love my home country but I never get homesick nor any sickness abroad, and always enjoy meeting new audience and something new.
By the way, I have played in Vancouver, Edmonton and in Winnipeg, and enjoyed it very much. When I played with Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in April 2011, a month after the earthquake and tsunami disaster hit eastern Japanese coast, I heard many people donated to the victims at the lobby. It was very much touching.
After the concert, I went to "Bistro Praga", a very nice restaurant to have my favorite food "Wiener Schnitzel". There I met a group of young people who, according to my manager, dressed in "heavy metal style and make-up". They were not Japanese nor Asian, but one of them talked to me in very precise and polite, even "Classic" Japanese. It was surprising to me!
I'll be back in Edmonton and in Winnipeg in May 2015.
All the best wishes,