Musician Matsuoka renounces strict upbringing but doesn't give up on her craft

Miyabi Matsuoka takes an enlightened approach to teaching the harp

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

To Miyabi Matsuoka, the harp is a mirror that reveals who you really are. She says she can tell the personality of a harp player by the way he or she manipulates the instrument, which affects the sound they create.

That’s why she asks every new student at her private school in Tokyo’s Mejiro district to play the popular lullaby “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” during their first lesson.

“The harp is a simple instrument in that you touch the strings directly with your fingers,” the demure 39-year-old says. “That means your state of mind and your personality traits are more directly reflected in your sound than in other stringed instruments. I can tell whether the players are impatient, tough-minded or faint-hearted.”

What the harp says about Matsuoka might be that she is determined. She has an impressive track record when it comes to competitions. Despite the awards and accolades, however, she says she has lost interest in chart-topping records and fame. Instead, she wants to use the harp to heal people’s minds and souls. She believes harpists can do this using her own Miyabi Method, and she would like to see the harp eventually become a household necessity along the lines of a refrigerator or bed.

Matsuoka tells The Japan Times that the Miyabi Method incorporates various performance styles and techniques that she has picked up throughout the course of her career, all of which are distinctively different from the standard methods used in Japan.

“In Japan, most teachers tell students to sound the strings with their fingers alone (and not move their wrists),” she explains, noting that the main emphasis is on hitting the notes without making mistakes. “But this playing style hurts students’ wrists. Many of them also suffer from rheumatism, get blisters on their fingertips, and damage the cervical vertebrae in their spines.”

Instead of this, Matsuoka’s method has students relax, to the point of exerting almost no force when they touch the strings of the instrument.

“When you relax, you bring the force you apply to the strings down to zero. Then it naturally bounces back to 100 percent,” she says. “You need to free your mind of desires to play the harp better and to control the instrument. You need to give in to the it, swaying the harp with your body. As you do that, your music will synchronize with the flow of the air around the harp; it’s almost as if you don’t exist there and the harp is playing by itself.”

The theory may sound overly mystical, but the result is striking. The harp is such a sensitive instrument that it sounds differently depending on both the strength of the harpist’s fingers and the angle at which his or her fingers touch the strings.

Matsuoka is well qualified for her mission to change attitudes toward the harp, as she has devoted her life to the instrument since the age of 12. Matsuoka grew up in a single-parent household and was trained early to pursue a career as an elite musician. Her mother, Akemi, was a professional herself, having played the harp for the acclaimed Tokyo Symphony Orchestra before retiring to teach piano.

Miyabi was not very interested in the piano, which her mother made her start learning at age 3. However, when she was 12 her mother brought home a 46-string harp one day, and Matsuoka says she fell in love with it immediately.

“I gave up playing the piano because my fingers were too small for it. But they were perfect for the harp,” she says. “More than anything, I was mesmerized by its gentle sound.”

Matsuoka became so obsessed with her desire to get a better sound with the harp that she says she was never bothered by the stoic lifestyle that her mother imposed on her for years. She would get up just after 5 a.m. to go to a nearby church to practice the harp before going to school, which was never more than five minutes away. That’s because her mother made sure to live close to every school she attended to save on commuting time. After she came back from school at around 3 p.m., she would practice the harp with few breaks until midnight every day: No shopping, no dating and no hanging out with friends.

In 1990, at the age of 16, she won first place in the Advanced (under age 22) division of the Nippon Harp Competition, which launched her career as a professional harpist. She also traveled around the world with her mother, seeking private lessons from top professionals in the United States, Canada and Europe. In 1995, Matsuoka won fifth prize in the U.S. International Harp Competition, the first time a Japanese contestant won an award in the event.

Matsuoka released five CDs, three with major labels, and performed in Japan’s biggest concert halls. But she says she started feeling distressed.

“I was constantly under extreme pressure,” she says. “I suddenly lost my hearing one day. I was under pressure to sell more CDs, sell more tickets to my concerts at stadiums and music halls. I started wondering when I would actually feel happy.”

She rebelled against her mother at the age of 33, selling one of her big harps (for several million yen) to rent an apartment of her own and start a music school. Though she knew nothing about how to run a school, she knew she wanted to promote a style of playing that had never been taught in the Japanese harp world.

Matsuoka says she also wants to promote the use of small harps, which, unlike the 47-string grand-pedal harps preferred by professionals, have only 27 strings and cost around ¥150,000 apiece. The grand harp Matsuoka has, one made by Chicago-based Lyon & Healy, weighs about 40 kg and costs ¥10 million.

“Mini harps have not been popular and regarded as an instrument only for children, because there haven’t been many scores for them,” she says. “However, I’ve been thinking for 10 years about creating a lesson book on how to play the mini harp.”

Matsuoka hopes to publish such a book, which would include scores for 30 pieces that cover every genre from classical music to lullabies to J-pop, around June. She has even included an enka (Japanese-style ballad) song because many of the 50 students currently enrolled at her school are women over the age of 60 and enka is popular with that particular age group.

“The harp industry has long existed only for the elite,” she says. “Like in other classical-music industries, teachers pick the brightest kids — and those coming from rich families — when they are very young. It costs so much money to go to a music college and study overseas, so many people give up playing halfway through their career.”

Matsuoka thinks her method will help correct this social stratification in the harp world. She also thinks it can be taught to anyone regardless of their talent or background.

“Not everyone is committed to practicing eight hours a day, but everyone has the potential (to get better at playing it), no matter how late they start. For us it’s just important that harpists aspire to make people happy with their music.”

Miyabi Matsuoka is the author of “Kikudake de Genki ga Deru Hon” (“A Book That Will Cheer You Up If You Just Listen”), which also includes a CD. For more information, visit www.ameblo.jp/miyabi1226 (in Japanese).