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An Interview with Mihoko Watanabe

Victoria Jicha | December 2009

    Courage and determination is a thread that runs through the majority of the Flute Talk interviews I have done over the past eight years, and Mihoko Watanabe exemplifies this perfectly. She is open, friendly, and relaxed, but she is also tenacious and will not be deterred from her goals. From a very young age she defied the expectations for a small-town Japanese girl and reached far beyond her family, community, and culture to achieve her objectives. She is in her second year as the Assistant Professor of Flute at Ball State University in Indiana and before that taught at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, the Memorial University of Newfoundland, and the University of Windsor, Canada. How she came to live and work in the rural Midwest is a fascinating story.
    Her English is fluent, although she sometimes confuses the appropriate uses of single and plural tenses, so I was surprised at her answer when I asked where her musical talent comes from. “It’s from human,” she responded, and we laughed as I explored how to translate that. She meant, of course, that her talent is natural, from her heart.
    “My father used to sing karaoke every weekend. Karaoke started in Japan in the 1960s when a singer was unable to perform because she was suddenly ill. Her guitar player remained, however, and people got up to sing with him instead. That’s what started the whole movement. Basically karaoke means “empty orchestra” in Japanese.
    “My parents are not musicians, but when I was five, I started piano because my mother liked piano music. Every morning she would wake us up by playing Chopin records. In elementary school I also did sports, but I never stopped taking piano lessons. I was a butterfly swimmer and quite good at volleyball.”

Early Flute Lessons
    “In Japan everybody chooses a club to join when they enter junior high school, such as painting, volleyball, or tennis. I was going to join the volleyball club. When I went to sign up there weren’t very many people there, but there was a crowd of people signing up to join the wind ensemble club.”
    That looked much more appealing to Watanabe, so she started playing the flute and joined the club. The wind ensemble had a reputation for being quite good, and the director had to pare down the number of people who wanted to join. He felt that physical fitness was important for musicians, so he asked everybody to do pushups and situps. Watanabe says, “I was ready because I had been in sports. You need to know how to use your muscles and breathe well in order to make a good sound.
    “Every morning for a semester we reported to the club for running, pushups, various calisthenics. In the afternoon sessions, we did it all again. The first semester consisted of physical training and headjoint work.” As I tried to imagine American students sitting still for a whole semester of headjoint work, Watanabe continued, “We started working on a standard sound and worked in to the high register sound; we also did some fun headjoint exercises, such as changing the pitch by putting your finger in the end of the headjoint. Second semester we finally added the body of the flute. The first scale we learned was Bb major. It wasn’t really hard, but the flute felt a little bit awkward to hold.”
    “After the first year there was a selection process. The band director sent out letters asking students to write down three instruments that they would like to play. I wrote, Flute, Flute, Flute. I have a larger body structure than most Japanese people, so the band director wanted me to try trombone. He brought the instrument in and had me make a sound, which he said was very good. The bottom line was that he didn’t need another flutist. There were already 20 people playing flute in the wind ensemble. Then he suggested oboe and even trumpet, but I just kept insisting on flute. When he agreed that I could play flute, I practiced very hard to make sure that everything was perfect. I even used vibrato.”

High School and College
    There are special high schools in Japan that focus on the arts, and one in Tokyo that specializes in music. Watanabe decided to apply, but didn’t know that the audition included piano, sight reading, solfege, and dictation. “I had no clue about solfege and dictation, but decided to take the audition exams anyway. The  first time I ever did solfege and melodic and rhythmic dictation was at that audition. Obviously, I didn’t get in. About 72 students applied, and they accepted 35. However, there was a flute teacher at the exams who introduced himself to me afterwards. He said I played beautifully and asked who I studied with. I told him I didn’t have a teacher.”
    She attended high school elsewhere but decided to take flute and solfege lessons. “In Japan many music students take solfege lessons for years before the high school auditions, but I didn’t know that. The flute teacher I studied with was Takao Saeki, the man who introduced himself to me after the failed audition for the music high school.” She worked with him throughout high school and college.
    Musashino Academia Musicae in Tokyo was her chosen college, but applying for a college education is a bit different in Japan. “Entrance auditions in Japan are usually a week long, and they include tests in Japanese, English, dictation, solfege, flute (scales, etudes, and piece), and an interview. In two weeks the results are posted on a bulletin board at the school. They are not sent through the mail.
    “Going to check the board was a difficult thing to do. I thought, ‘What if I go to Tokyo, an hour and a half train ride, and look on the board, and my name’s not there?’ My parents had spent a lot of money that they really didn’t have for my education. I decided I would become a translator and start taking linguistic classes, but then I saw my name, and all the misgivings were gone.”

Move to the U.S.
    Her journey to the United States is interesting, because it never occurred to her that it was an option. “The beginning of this American dream was when I met a trumpet player friend from junior high school days. We ran into each other in the train station. He had just returned from the University of Illinois and said that I should go to the U.S. and study music.
    “He mentioned several schools and planted the seed. After that I started researching what sorts of schools were available, what they would cost, and asked my mother if she thought I could study music in the U.S. She was curious about the cost also, but she was very wise. She said, ‘Tell me when your research is complete.’”
    This all took place before computers. College brochures were obtained from the library. “I didn’t know what aspects of a school I should consider important or how to decide between one school and another. I didn’t even know who the teachers were. There was an instructor at my university who had gone to Eastman, and I talked with her.”
    Ray Cramer, the former chairman of the Band Department at Indiana University, was directing the Wind Ensemble at Musashino Academia Musicae that semester, and Watanabe went to talk to him as well. “I couldn’t speak English, but I was using hand signals all over the place.” Quite by accident she saw an advertisement for the American Education Office for Study Abroad in a music magazine. She had been seeking information from various sources, but here were all the brochures in one place.
    Later, on a trip to the library she saw posters about auditions being held in Japan for American colleges. Representatives of all the big music schools were coming to Japan to audition new students.
    “I went and a translator explained about the colleges and announced that we could return the next day to play for them. They would record our auditions. So I went the next day and played Enesco’s Cantabile and Presto. When I finished, they asked me to wait outside the door. Then they said they wanted me to apply, but I didn’t think I had played well. Through the interpreter I asked if I could send a better recording, and they said it wasn’t necessary.”
    She sent in her application, but her spoken English was not good enough. She was accepted at several American schools but only as a non-matriculating
student, which meant that she would take only flute lessons and study English. The TOEFL test (Test of English as a Foreign Language™) measures a student’s ability to use and understand the English language as it’s read, written, heard, and spoken in the university classroom. As a master’s student Watanabe would have to pass the TOEFL test with a score above 550. “Mine was below 400 at that time. Some of the schools even offered me a scholarship and assistantship, but that made no sense to me. How would I be able to teach if I didn’t speak English fluently?”
    She was 22 years old when she arrived in Rochester, New York at the Eastman School of Music. “They put me into the English School, so at first I only took flute lessons and English. Second semester, they put me in the orchestra as well, but I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to be a special student.”
    She wanted to audit music classes, thinking she would learn English faster that way, so she went to the director of the school and laid out her case. “I showed him how my TOEFL scores were improving. If he would just let me audit some real classes, my score would go even higher and having audited the classes would be an advantage for me when I actually took the classes for credit. He finally gave in, which also allowed me to make some friends as well.” After a year she was accepted as a regular student and eventually earned a master’s degree in 1995.
    Watanabe moved to Windsor, Ontario, just across the bridge from Detroit. She needed a job and approached Muramatsu America to see if they hiring. Ervin Monroe hired her to help with Little Piper Press, and took her under his wing. For her work he gave her flute lessons. “I learned about being a musician and about being a good human being from Erv. He is such a good person and his love of music is indescribable. I didn’t feel it was work; it was a privilege to work for him.”
    Not done learning yet, Watanabe began commuting to Ann Arbor to work on a doctorate at the University of Michigan. She finished it in three years, one of which was spent studying with Leone Buyse. “I learned so much about how music is constructed and how to control the flute from Leone Buyse. Before her my playing was energetic and physically all over the place without control.
“I became more refined as a flutist with her. The way she communicated made sense to me. She knows how to grab students’ hearts, and she talked to my heart about music. Our intention as teachers is to make students better, yet we point out their negative points right away. Leone taught me how to teach students and tell them the truth without hurting them. That one year with her was extremely important.”

    In Japanese culture, perfection is always the goal.  If you don’t achieve it, you are expected to find out what you need to work on to make it perfect. I asked Watanabe if her cultural background is a factor in her teaching studio now. “I think I bring Japanese discipline to the studio, which is perhaps different for American students. I make sure that students understand about self-discipline in their practice. 
    “My aim as a teacher is to help students to become well-rounded musicians. Whether they want to be teachers or performers, they have to develop solid musicianship while they are in the university. Entering the music world is not only about playing an instrument, the outside aspect, but also about being able to see in themselves the discipline of practicing and teaching.
    “The outside part of flute playing is the technique, such as how to make sound, establish posture, and develop facility (fast moving fingers). Most students are hung up on this aspect. However, there is also the inside component – the emotional and psychological part of music, such as feeling the music in your heart, practicing positively, and respecting musical colleagues. Both facets in one are called musicianship.
    “My approach for developing better musicianship starts with time management. Students should learn to organize their practice time and set priorities for effective practice. I ask them to write a lesson plan or agenda for a week’s worth of practice.   Punctuality is also of great importance because it teaches students reliability toward their teachers and colleagues. Lastly, students should bring a respectful and open mind to their lessons and to studio class. In the masterclass setting of the studio class, I encourage students to make productive comments with a respectful attitude about fellow students’ performances rather than relying solely on my commentary. It gives them an opportunity to share their problems, experiences, and success stories. It is also good for them to be open to learning from other students.
    “I think the most important tools for improvement on the flute are breathing and posture. Without those two things, students will not be able to lead a healthy musical life, either as performers or educators. They would not be able to perform satisfactorily without pain, which they might create from bad habits, and educators are the mirrors for future musicians. When they demonstrate, they would only perpetuate the vicious circle of improper playing. Therefore, it is very important for all musicians to be able to play their instrument in a healthy manner.
    “Another aspect I emphasize is developing the ear. This can be done from listening to live performances and carefully listening to their own music. Here, the key word is listening, not hearing.  To listen requires deeper and more sensitive understanding using their ear. Once students experience this level of listening, they can apply what they hear to their own performance. They will be motivated to create what they heard in their playing.
    “I have organized field trips to concerts and flute festivals since I arrived in Muncie and invite guest performers to campus. Jeff Zook, Detroit Sym-phony solo piccoloist, and Mimi Stillman, came in 2008, and Leone Buyse came in November, 2009.  
    “The last and least important aspect of good musicianship is appreciation. All music was composed by human beings who put their effort, creativity, and life into their work. For that reason, we should know the composition’s background and how it relates to the composer’s life. Not only should we understand about the compositional style and influences, but we should also include the composer’s ideas with our own. Lastly, we should not forget to be grateful for the opportunity to perform and to show appreciation for those who supported us along the way, and for being here today.
    “I love this phrase ‘Ichigo Ichie (一期一会)’, which is from the Japanese tea ceremony. It means  that when you attend, whether as guest or server, you must faithfully perform your role as if it were the last opportunity of your life. You should make your performance (any kind of performance) seize the moment with the deep appreciation to play at your best, as if it were your only opportunity.