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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 16, 2003

Piano teacher's career a high note

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Ellen Masaki has taught piano for 50 years with a dedication and passion that has inspired thousands of young musicians.

Ellen Masaki's 75th Birthday Celebration

6:30 p.m. Monday

Kahala Mandarin Oriental Hawaii

$100 (proceeds will help endow the Honolulu Symphony keyboard chair and help purchase a Steinway concert piano)

524-0815, ext. 238

Related events:

Andre Watts/Sean Kennard concert with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra

7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Blaisdell Concert Hall



Jon Nakamatsu piano recital with the Honolulu Symphony

7:30 p.m. May 27

Blaisdell Concert Hall



Ellen Masaki will be 75 on June 6 and she is proud to say that she's been a piano teacher for 50 years, personally instructing 3,000 of the 45,000 pupils who have walked through the doors of the Ellen Masaki School of Music.

"I just enjoy teaching; that's the love of my life," said Masaki, on the eve of a community celebration of her life and achievements as a keyboard teacher.

"I never wanted to have a professional performing career, because I love children," she said. "I love to see the progress they make. I start them young, keep most of them till they graduate from high school and go off to college, and many keep in touch over the years."

With so many achievers among her students, Masaki has retained a mother's instinct when it comes to dealing with her pupils. She remembers names, dates, milestones — as if every student were her own child.

"My youngest student was Mary Anne Endo, who was 3 1/2 when she first came to me," said Masaki. "I had her for 15 years, and at age 6, she performed three movements of Vivaldi's concerto with the Honolulu Symphony at the state capitol. She since has graduated from the University of Pennsylvania."

Sean Kennard, a gifted keyboarder, started piano when he was 10; he is 18 now, and will perform at one of three events honoring Masaki. "His first lesson was on Oct. 3, 1994, when he worked with an associate of mine, and he came to me on Jan. 3, 1995; after a year and a half, he won the Chopin competition of the Pacific, on May 19, 1996. On May 18 of that year, he and I were in New York, where he performed at Carnegie Hall, so we had to take a flight back quickly to make the competition here."

Kennard currently is attending the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

Practice, said Masaki, is the essence of success for any young musician.

"You need to practice every day," she said.

"And the best way to get them practicing is to show them how. But students have to want to play piano; they shouldn't be forced to learn. If they have aptitude, you tactfully show them how to train, since I have them only an hour once a week."

Parents sit in on classes, so they know the stakes. The students and their moms and dads, consequently, establish a bond and friendship. "They call on each other for help and support," said Masaki.

Her first teacher was her aunt Harriet Ichinose, "who was musical but played by ear. She taught me a few songs when I was about 5." Her first formal instructor was James Gallet, who was a Honolulu Symphony orchestra member.

Thus, it's no surprise she has established a long association with the orchestra; over the past four decades, she has served a number of times on the board and conducts frequent fund-raisers for the orchestra. Her 75th birthday celebration, in fact, will partially benefit the symphony.

She recalls family Sundays, when her 11 nieces and nephews, who studied with her, would take turns playing for family gatherings. "I had to send my own two girls to teachers," she said. "Nancy turned to cello (and now plays with the symphony). Karen performed on violin and piano but now is a dancer."

With an ailing mother of 95, who needs attention 24/7, Masaki shares home care duties with her two sisters and brother. But she continues to teach.

"I guess if I didn't teach piano, I might have gone into interior decorating and designing clothes," she said. "During the war years, I think I sewed everything my sisters and I wore, even my brother's shirts. Our family was poor; both parents worked to feed us.

"This is the way I'm going out; as a piano teacher," Masaki said. "I never think of retiring; I'd just keel over and die if I retire. This is my whole life. I love every minute of the work I do, because I love being with children."

• • •

What Ellen Masaki's former students say:

Grant Okamura, University of Hawai'i-Manoa band director: "She was one of the biggest influences on my life, as far as becoming a musician; she gave me a foundation on how to teach. Years later, I tried doing research on teaching and I found that a lot of things she did fit with the models.

"I started late, in my junior year in high school, and after a year's worth of lessons, she asked me to teach at her studio, which I did for six years. She was an inspiration, not only for my musical career, but for life."

Kay Goshi, piano teacher: "She was always very kind and encouraging; I think she's still that way today. That nurturing quality kept me going." (Goshi teaches at her home as well as at the Masaki school).

Dr. Mark M. Mugiishi, surgeon: "More than anything else, I think she instills a passion for music. The piano I learned on, a baby grand, still is at my mother's house, but I don't play very often anymore."

Mark Wong, president and CEO of Commercial Data Systems who still plays the organ in church: "I studied with someone else before I went to Ellen; I was older than most students, a late starter. What impressed me about her was rather than just teach me to play the notes and perfect a small repertoire, she encouraged me to love music. She encouraged me to play organ, chamber music, and do accompaniment. Instead of being fit into a set regimen, she was very flexible in working with me to develop a love of piano I still have today."