Miki SawadaNovember 27, 2018
Eastman Alum Miki Sawada (MM ’11) is a musician who is free-spirited in her pursuit of adventure, yet at the same time committed to fully realizing classical music’s capacity to nurture community. She recently completed “Gather Hear Alaska,” in which she traveled for three weeks in Alaska with a piano in a van. Accompanied only by a filmmaker, she gave 25 performances in community hubs such as cafes, bars, parks, and schools. As an educator and thinker, Miki finds ways to connect people with the power of classical music off of the stage. Miki was a resident musician and founder of the piano program at Music Haven, an organization that seeks to empower youth by providing mentoring and tuition-free music education to students from underserved communities in New Haven. Miki received her formal training in solo piano performance. She studied at Yale School of Music (Artist Diploma) with Wei-Yi Yang, Eastman School of Music (Master of Music) with Natalya Antonova and Northwestern University (Bachelor of Music) with James Giles.
1. Last fall, you launched “Gather Hear Tour” with “Gather Hear Alaska,” a journey that took you to fifteen towns across Alaska in the span of three weeks, all while driving with a piano in a van. Can you describe the mission of this project and how it came to be?
Gather Hear Tour explores the idea of the piano as a central object of a gathering place – how we can’t help but be drawn to sing, play, and listen when there’s a piano in a room. Expanding on this idea, the tour explores the social possibilities of classical music when taken out of a concert hall and into community gathering spaces. The goal is to perform free concerts in all fifty states in a quest to understand, document, and contribute to American life coast-to-coast through an artistic communal experience. The idea came to me in the days after the 2016 presidential election. Shocked, terrified, and despaired by the realization of how divided the country is, I soon began to question what constructive role I as a classical performer could play in society, and how music could be used as a positive tool to connect people in this political climate. I am also an explorer and nomad in nature, and genuinely wanted to see more of America, meet more Americans, and get a personal perspective outside of the narratives we encounter in mainstream media. Why not do it with a piano?
2. You were successful in securing several grants for “Gather Hear Alaska.” Do you have any advice for Eastman students who may find themselves in need of grant funding for their own projects?
Some practical tips –
1. Plan accordingly. Grant deadlines usually come around only once a year, and adjudication takes months. This often means that you need to have a detailed plan for your project, strong work samples, and statements from committed partners many months before the start of your project date. In reality, this often precludes me from applying to grants, since I can’t plan so much in advance, and this is a drawback of grants as opposed to individual gifts or corporate funding.
2. Ask for help. Ask colleagues, mentors, and professors to read over your application. Granting organizations usually are looking for language that caters to their specific requirements and their mission. It is difficult to know if you’re on target or not, and I often have no idea myself. I’ve found it invaluable to get guidance, especially from my older colleagues who have themselves served on grant adjudication panels.
3. Use the resources that granting organizations offer you. Sometimes, they will review your application and give feedback before the deadline so that you can amend your application and have a better chance at success, or they will have a phone number you can call to talk to someone at the organization who will give you advice and connect you to resources you wouldn’t have thought to ask for.
3. How do you find yourself approaching community performances versus those in a more standard, formal setting?
My approach is the same, which is to perform with full commitment to artistry no matter the situation. Just because the setting is more friendly and casual never means that my attitude towards music becomes more casual. I try to always be aware of the energy I am emitting, the energy of the audience, and the energy of the space. In a community performance, the energy of the audience/space is much more palpable and immediate, which really changes the experience for both the audience and me; it’s much more a collective experience of “us.”
Of course the format differs in a community performance– a lot of talking in between pieces, mingling with audience members before/after the performance and even during intermission, and more sensitivity to the length of the pieces/program. It’s interesting to go back to a concert hall after having played community concerts– it becomes easier to imagine that you’re having an intimate communal moment with individual people, even if you only see a sea of faces in a dark hall.
4. You are an active commissioner of new music. What kinds of compositions do you find most rewarding to perform?
I love the music of my friends, whether written specifically for me or not. Especially with composer friends I have known for years, there’s a depth to our relationship, having witnessed how they have developed as composers since our student years, knowing about the ups and downs of their lives, and knowing their personalities. During the learning process, it’s fun to imagine and identify how their persona gets manifested in their piece, and it’s exciting to witness how audience members react to the performance– especially when audience members fall in love with the composer! I feel like a matchmaker of sorts.
5. How did your experiences as an Eastman student prepare you for the multifaceted performance career you sustain today?
I completed my Master’s degree at Eastman, and that was a time of intense artistic development for me. Professor Antonova, one of the most inspiring artists I’ve ever met and one of the most demanding, had incredibly high musical expectations for her students, and I spent most of my time at Eastman in the basement practice rooms that we pianists remember so fondly. After Eastman, I was more free to pursue life outside the practice room, but that kind of dogged, uninterrupted devotion, as well as being inspired by peers who were themselves demonstrating exceptional artistry, is what gave me the skill and confidence to do what I do now. Although my projects tend to be whimsical and casual in setting, I absolutely believe that artistry can’t be compromised in our quest to shape the future of classical music. Audiences intuitively know the difference between excellence and mediocrity, no matter their level of musical knowledge, and Eastman gave me the tools to deliver excellence as best as I can.