We meet a violinist whose first language is music and who has become a UN Messenger of Peace.
With your mother as your first teacher, what was your early childhood like?
I started to play the violin as a four-year-old. I was living in Japan at the time, and my mother was a working mother. However, even though she was my first teacher, it’s not as though she practised with me all the time; she would give me lessons, but most often I would practise on my own. I always wanted to play the violin because that was the instrument that my mother played. I used to listen to her practise, and the sound of the violin was always closely connected to her, it symbolised her. I also loved how small the instrument was, rather than the huge piano, which I couldn’t carry.
At 10 you moved to New York City to study at the Juilliard School. Was that tough?
Because I didn’t speak English, at first I had some communication difficulties, but soon I realised we don’t always need words in order to make friends or communicate with each other. I started in the children’s programme at Juilliard and also went to a regular academic school where I did regular subjects, so I quickly felt like I belonged to a community.
“Because I didn’t speak English, I had some communication difficulties, but soon I realised we don’t always need words in order to make friends“
You made your debut with Zubin Mehta and the NY Philharmonic at age 11. How did that happen and, looking back, how did it feel?
Just a few months after I moved to New York City I had an opportunity to play for Mr Mehta. It was a rather informal affair where I showed up as requested after an orchestra rehearsal. I played for him for a few minutes. I remember I played the Paganini Concerto and some of the Bartók Second Concerto. There were also members of the New York Philharmonic who stayed to listen. I didn’t think anything about it afterwards, but then I was invited to perform with the New York Philharmonic several months later for the New Year’s Eve Gala as well as the subscription set that came with it, a total of four performances.
I was very excited to play the concert – I always enjoyed playing concerts, but playing with an orchestra that special was really something new for me. At that point I didn’t have many opportunities to make music with so many people together, so it was a very exciting time. I loved being able to express myself on stage and that’s what I did. It was a very important concert in retrospect. It was indeed my debut, and to be able to play four times in a row started to teach me the importance of repetitive performances and the learning opportunities that come with it.
You have several degrees in psychology from NYU. Was it challenging to pursue university studies outside of music?
When I first graduated from high school, I decided to take a few years off and concentrate on concertising. That was also when I started the first of my non-profit organisations. Some years later I decided I did want to go back and broaden my horizons. It was never in my thinking that I wouldn’t go and get a university education somehow, but I didn’t know at that point when that would be. So when I was given the opportunity to study at NYU I took the chance and it was the right time.
Even then I had no idea I would get interested in psychology – I guessed I would start art history or cultural history or education. However, I had to take a social sciences course and I happened to pick an introductory psychology course. I got so interested that I decided to pursue it further. It was very challenging but it was fine and I managed. I would concertise in the second half of the week while going to classes during the first half. I did two summer school sessions and then ended up going to school part time for one year. In all, I managed to complete my undergraduate degree in five years.
How important do you think it is that musicians develop interests beyond music?
For me, I think it’s very important to keep myself intellectually stimulated. I think I would have felt something was missing if I didn’t pursue a higher education and involve myself in an academic environment. It helps me focus a little better in the areas I want to work on too. I feel a good, solid education is something people should appreciate and take advantage of, not only for musicians but for everyone who is capable of having access to it. On the surface I think a broadened education is something we can take with us for the rest of our lives; it’s never a loss to have a good education.
What prompted you to start your first education programme, Midori and Friends?
I started my first organisation in 1992, and it seemed like a very natural outcome for me to have started this kind of social work. I had already been involved in volunteering and education, ad because of the work I had done, I realised that I needed something a little more organised that would bring a more systematic change to what was going on.
I think the family influence was important as well for me, to be involved in the community, to connect with the community and to share with others. These are questions that I think every family member, at least in my family, was always quite interested in. Because I happened to be a musician I became more engaged in musical education and outreach, but it doesn’t have to just be through music that a musician can be involved in the community and share themselves.
I’ve learned a lot through my various activities, and I’ve subsequently expanded into other non-profit organisations and projects where I have started to see that everything is intertwined. They all inspire and feed off of each other. It has been very interesting and intriguing for me.
You were named a Messenger of Peace by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon back in 2007. What has that involved and what kind of roles do you think musicians can play on the world stage?
The UN expects the Messengers of Peace to embody within their already existing activities the spreading of their Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 goals that have been spelled out, and they aim to reach them by 2030: to end poverty, to protect the planet and to ensure prosperity for all.
If you hadn’t become a violinist, what might you have liked to do?
As a child, I had aspirations to become a historian or a diplomat. In my early adulthood, I pursued the study of psychology very seriously and so I was quite interested in becoming a clinical psychologist.
Midori plays Sydney Opera House on June 26 and Melbourne Recital Centre June 28