How does one get to Carnegie Hall?
Pianist Yoko Sata Kothari has the answer
“Perseverance. That’s the real answer,” Ms. Kothari said by phone from her home in Lake Park.
And you thought it was practice.
Rest assured, she had plenty of that.
But with persistence, you give up just about everything.
After playing the piano for more than four decades, Ms. Kothari finally reached the one goal that had eluded her. On May 1, she learned she won first prize in the 2017 Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition, which came with an invitation to play at the Winners’ Recitals in the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on May 21.
Ms. Kothari, who was born in Tokyo, started playing piano when she was just 4 years old.
“Really, as long as I can remember,” she says.
She remembers her mother pushing her to practice. “I had to earn my time being a child. That was the reward for practicing.”
Yoko Sata Kothari said Carnegie Hall was beautiful, elegant and had perfect acoustics.
But Ms. Kothari says her mother, despite being her biggest fan, never gushed over her accomplishments. “In Asian culture, they don’t tell you ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m proud of you.’ You’re just supposed to know.”
Ms. Kothari has had her doubts. And she has often wondered if she chose the right path. “It’s a long time to be on the wrong path,” she laughs, “but I always wanted affirmation. I closed a lot of doors. How do you know if the sacrifices are worth it?”
The invitation to play Carnegie Hall is definitely an affirmation, but she waited a long time to get it. Ms. Kothari knows she’s been lucky and fortunate to follow her dream. Long ago she realized that “there are many people just as talented” as she is, but “Life happened. They got married, or pregnant, or they went after their big school degree, or their parents became ill, and they had to stop playing.”
One sacrifice Ms. Kothari didn’t have to make was staying single. But she married a musician — classical guitarist Dilip Kothari — who understands the lifelong commitment she made to music. Together they run their own music studio in North Palm Beach, where both teach private lessons. Dilip, she says, loves teaching, where “I see the beauty in teaching,” she said. It gives her contact with people, including children, who share her love and passion for the piano, but it also reminds her of one of the sacrifices she did make: Not having children of her own.
Music for a musician, especially a pianist, can be a solitary life and it can get lonely.
“I’m jealous of the cellist, who gets to play with the orchestra, and the people who play in bands.”
And as much as people talk about the importance of balance, Ms. Kothari says, “I don’t know if I can say I have balance.”
Her world can be pretty one-dimensional. Most of it happens from the same point of view: Sitting up straight and looking down at 88 black and white keys.
But Ms. Kothari is not quiet or shy or introverted. She’s funny and gregarious and quick-witted, but most people don’t ever get to know her that way.
“I can’t go out,” Ms. Kothari says. “I can’t afford to, timewise.”
Two hours sipping Chardonnay is two hours of practice time lost.
“Music is worth anything, but it does suck the life out of you,” she says.
But it also enriches you and fulfills you, and that’s what keeps you going, even in your 40s.
Seven other winners performed with Ms. Kothari. Most played recognizable pieces, including two who played Liszt, one of Ms. Kothari’s favorite composers. Instead, Ms. Kothari chose an unfamiliar work by Ferruccio Busoni, called “Fantasia nach J.S. Bach,” or “Fantasy after J.S. Bach,” because it incorporates four of Bach’s hymns.
“I knew all the people would play the flashiest, most technical pieces. I just wanted to play for me. I didn’t feel the need to try to impress anyone. I wanted to play something unique,” Ms. Kothari says. Busoni wrote the piece, which is rather dark, about the death of his father. “It’s about loss and mourning and it’s not played often but I think it deserves to be heard.”
Ms. Kothari said the hall was beautiful, more elegant than most places she’s played, with perfect acoustics for this kind of show. The local weather was beautiful and Ms. Kothari wanted to go sightseeing but instead she went back to the hotel to rest before her performance. Ms. Kothari says she wasn’t any more nervous before this short 15-minute performance than she has been for any other. “I was prepared. I think I stood out in my own way. I didn’t try to be different. I just wanted to be me.”
Ten questions with Yoko Sata Kothari:
How do you sit down and practice when you really don’t want to?
I found the hardest part of practicing is actually making myself sit down physically at the piano bench. Knowing there is usually no problem once I start, I learned simply how to make myself sit down.
How do you handle rejection when you don’t win?
Once my teacher told me, “Don’t let the competition use you, but use the competition to grow instead.” Regardless of the outcome, you improve so much because you work so hard to achieve. I learned to accept and move on once I realized how much I gain from the experience.
What’s the most important characteristic for a successful musician to have?
Discipline. A strong drive. And you have to believe in yourself.
What advice do you have for a young musician?
It is not an easy path, so it is certainly not something I recommend lightly. Be aware how lonely and tough the road is waiting ahead. You will soon know if you are cut out for it or not.
Is this invitation to play at Carnegie Hall the pinnacle of your career? What other moments stand out in your mind as your greatest accomplishments?
Absolutely. To name a few other accomplishments: Winning a second place in the Bartok-Kavalevsky-Prokofiev International Piano Competition, being chosen as a finalist to compete in the Simone Belsky Piano Competition, performing in Italy and receiving a special award for my Bartok performance in the Ibla International Piano Competition.
What do you do to relax, rewind, renew your spirit?
Reading, meditating and traveling with my husband.
Did you have a Plan B if the piano didn’t work out?
No. I knew that music was my path.
Who has been the biggest, or one of the biggest, influence(s) on you in your career?
My mentors, Dr. Roberta Rust and Mr. Phillip Evans. (They both teach at Conservatory of Music at Lynn University in Boca Raton.)
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a pianist?
If I could not succeed as a performer, I knew I could always become an educator.
What is your favorite piece of music to play? Does that change over time?
It would be very difficult to choose a single favorite piece; however, I must say my all-time favorite composer is J.S. Bach. It has not changed for a very long time.