Yukie Smith is from Yokohama, Japan. She now lives in the UK, where she performs, accompanies and teaches piano using her own multi-sensory learning technique.
She’s the author of a piano duet arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (abridged version); and a full version of a violin & piano arrangement of Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango.
Here’s her story …
Over the past four decades plus, piano has become something that I can never part with; it has given me pleasure and joy, but also headache and hardship from time to time. For me, the piano is a friend, comrade, soul mate, teacher, partner, and many more things – which I’ll stay with until death do us part.
Here’s how my life with piano started.
My mother took me and my twin sister to a violin teacher for a lesson when we were two and a half years old, and she was told that choosing the same instrument between the twins is not recommended, because there may develop a sibling rivalry later on in their lives which can become problematic. So, somehow I was chosen to be the one to learn piano instead and started formal piano lessons at the age of four.
I have very little recollection of my childhood, but I do remember a few events vaguely, two of which are related to piano learning. One is the joy of going through coloured notes on the Beyer method book developed by Sumiko Tanaka, and the other is my first experience of a chamber music performance with my twin sister, playing “Long, long ago” by Thomas Bayly when we were 6 years old.
It’s quite striking when I think of it, because I’m now reliving these two memories constantly in one form or another with my students and my duo partners.
When I was young, we moved around the country quite a lot because of my father’s job, so I had several different piano teachers.
My sixth teacher recommended that I go to a junior high school with a specialised music programme, because she thought I’d quit piano if I went to a normal school (I was also into sports at that time).
So, my intensive music training days started when I was 12 years old. We studied general subjects, but we also had classes such as music theory, music history, ear training, solfège, rhythmics, harmony study, sight reading, ensemble study, choir, etc. in addition to a weekly lesson of our chosen instruments.
We had a class concert and performance exam twice a year. The six years I spent there gave me a solid foundation upon which I could build and explore further as I wished.
But life has a habit of throwing challenges your way unexpectedly.
After the music school, I went onto a Music College in Tokyo. That’s where I lost my way and started to question the meaning of all the trainings I had received.
I was put on a very competitive route, going for competition after competition and I wasn’t entirely happy. After a certain incident, I lost my faith in one of the teachers whom I was studying with at the college.
My attention went abroad, so when I learned that there was a scholarship programme offered by the college to study in America for a year, I took it.
It was at this period when I first discovered that there’s a course dedicated to piano pedagogy. Although I started teaching piano when I was in the 2nd year in college in Japan, I wasn’t enjoying it. When I mentioned this to my dormitory mate, she said to me, “maybe that’s because you don’t know how to teach”. A good point, I thought, so I signed up for a piano pedagogy course run by Dr. Karen Taylor.
It was an eye-opening experience for me. I learned that there are many ways of teaching piano, and teaching philosophies behind them. Although the course I took for one semester was very basic, I had a six-week teaching practice where I was assigned to an eight-year-old girl to teach piano under the supervision of Dr. Taylor.
Certainly the seed of my eventual love for piano teaching had been planted during this period.
Back in Japan
Back in Japan, after having finished graduate study at the college, I tried many things as most piano graduates do; teaching piano, performing for local concerts/functions/weddings, accompanying singers/instrumentalists, etc.
But I still had this nagging question I had when I was in college: why am I doing what I’m doing? I didn’t have a strong sense of belonging in what I was doing then. I was desperate to find my own feet.
I felt extremely guilty for my parents, who had invested in music education for me and supported me so that I could succeed in music. But after my father’s passing, I made a drastic decision.
Having never really been outside of the music world, I wanted to see other worlds, particularly the world my father knew.
So, I went into an office work. I’m not sure how much of my work contributed to the company but I found a new respect for office workers. I made some long-lasting friendships with some of the colleagues, and certainly gained some useful computer skills, which I simply cannot do without in the work I do these days.
And most importantly, I met my husband during this period of four years. Truly a lucky break!
Moving to the UK
When the marriage to my British husband brought me to UK, suddenly I had all this free time at hand, so I thought I’d better make a good use of it to make a fresh start in various aspects of piano playing, reconnect with the world I once knew well, and see where it would take me.
So, I spent the next year or so relearning the healthy basic techniques, building new repertoire, exploring various teaching approaches, reading books written by notable teachers and performers, listening to/learning wider genres of music, etc.
As I was gradually taking piano students, I soon realised that I had to make a major modification to the way I teach. In the UK, music lessons are in general perceived differently to how they’re perceived in Japan. Plus, students in the UK seem used to being taught in a way where they can be more proactive, whereas Japanese students are mostly very passive.
This woke up my creativity that had been dormant for many years, and soon I found myself experimenting to be able to offer more interactive piano lessons, so that learners can have more tangible musical experiences, whatever age they are.
As my curiosity grew, so did my students, which became the main source of inspiration for me to aspire to be a better teacher. This also has had an effect on how I deal with preparing for my own performances in various settings, and I started to enjoy playing again.
Another aspect of my piano life was just about to enter around that time. One night after a concert that I participated in at one of the colleges in Cambridge through my husband, a senior professor came to see me, and slightly ‘tongue in cheek’ expressed a wish to hear his favourite piece of music: ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’. He told me that his pipe organist friend had once improvised on this song for him on the organ, but soon after the theme section, he couldn’t recognize the piece.
At that point I promised to write a variation for him where the main theme stays recognisable throughout. That was the start of my new venture into writing music. With no formal study in composition as such, my “teacher” was basically the composers I admired and studied a lot at the time; J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart, L. van Beethoven, Duke Ellington, and Craig Armstrong.
Hence, I took a pastiche approach to envisage a particular sound, symbolising each chosen composer’s ‘hallmark’. It took me a while before I came up with anything I was happy with, but I finally presented it to the professor. Writing a pastiche work was an invaluable lesson. It has opened my eyes to see written music from different perspectives; seeing music from a composer’s eye.
From that point on, my creativity started to flourish even more.
With the arrival of social media, another door opened. I’ve met some incredibly talented/hardworking artists through various social media platforms.
For some charity projects, I came across chances to collaborate with a jazz guitarist from America, a visual artist from UK, and an animation artist from Russia. Currently, I’m working on a new project with Sandra Goldberg, an American violinist living in Switzerland, creating teaching materials for children for ensemble playing.
It has taken me about 10 years since moving to UK, but I can now say that I’m established as the pianist, accompanist and teacher that I wanted to be. I have finally found my feet, where I can be my own person, surrounded by familiar things I can safely relate to and explore, and share my love of music through piano.
Looking back, I think what was missing in my piano life was a way of expressing my own creativity, and by that means not just actual making something, but also developing a creative way of approaching problems, thinking outside the box.
Teaching piano to my curious students has certainly helped me find the creative force inside me. And I would like to continue my efforts to improve as a musician so that I can give inspirations back to my students.
Piano is an important part of my livelihood, which helps keep my well-being…
I love playing classical music new and old, known and unknown, bringing live music to local audiences.
I love listening to some other genres of music too, and arranging songs requested by my students (perhaps it’s the result of my mother listening to The Beatles rather than classical music when I was in her belly).
I love working with young musicians and helping my students become independent learners.
I love performing with string players.
I love writing pieces for my students that are not too easy, nor too difficult, but which sound like a ‘real thing’.
I love collaborating with independent musicians who share common interests and a passion for music making.
I love creating teaching aids and materials to facilitate the teaching-learning process.
And I also love cycling with my husband, and sitting on the patio that he has built in our garden, always cooking up ideas for the next piano-related project, reviewing what went well or not well, thinking how to improve things.
I’m very thankful for the gift given by my parents and my husband, and those who have influenced me and supported me in a both positive and negative way….
Yes, negative too, because without the negative experiences, I wouldn’t have known what would be a positive solution for me.
My life with piano continues…
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