Gohei Nishikawa is not your average concert pianist. The vast majority of professionals begin piano lessons in early childhood but Nishikawa didn’t start until he was 15. Moreover, due to a condition called dystonia, which causes a person’s muscles to contract uncontrollably, he is no longer able to use three of the fingers on his left hand when playing. This means that he performs everything using only seven fingers.
For Nishikawa, every encounter and experience is a chance to grow and to learn, and the New York-based maestro enjoys talking to people almost as much as he enjoys performing for them. His concerts typically include a wide range of music, from classical pieces to movie themes to traditional Japanese folk songs, and he intersperses his performance with anecdotes and stories from his eclectic career.
Though musical, there was nothing about Nishikawa’s childhood that indicated a future career as a professional pianist. “Like all Japanese children, I learned the kenban harmonica (melodica) at elementary school. Then I joined the brass band at junior high and chose the tuba, because I thought it was a very cool instrument,” he says.
Based on his tuba playing, Nishikawa entertained the idea of eventually applying for music college. Basic proficiency in piano playing was one of the requirements for entrance, so he began piano lessons just before entering high school. It was a defining moment in his young life. “I become enchanted with the piano and abandoned the tuba immediately. I envisaged playing the piano and giving life to all the songs I liked.”
Nishikawa quickly established an affinity for the piano and entered the Osaka College of Music after high school. Following a period doing various part-time jobs and traveling overseas after college graduation, he eventually went to work for a traditional Japanese sweets company, as one of the sales staff in a department store.
Why Japanese sweets? “Why not?” he replies. “I liked their sweets! And this was just after the bursting of the Japanese bubble economy. Frankly, I felt lucky to have a full-time job at all.”
Nishikawa still practiced the piano during every spare moment of his time, and through his teacher he had the opportunity to perform as the opening act for American classical pianists David Bradshaw and Cosmo Buono’s Osaka concert in 1999. “I was in tears when David found me backstage after the performance. I was nervous and I thought I’d screwed up,” Nishikawa recalls. “But he told me I’d done great. He asked what I really wanted to do with my life. Through an interpreter, I told him I wanted to be a better pianist, be able to speak better English and make friends through performing around the world. Just like that, David said, ‘Then you’d better come to New York.'”
With the late Bradshaw as his mentor, Nishikawa moved to the Big Apple in 1999 and began building the musical career that would eventually lead to him performing around the world. In 2002, however, everything came crashing down when he was diagnosed with dystonia.
“At first, just my left hand began to feel strange but eventually both of my hands were affected,” he recalls “I completely lost the ability to play the piano.”
Now, after long-term rehabilitation, his right hand has almost recovered but three fingers on his left hand are still affected. “It’s only a problem in certain positions — I can still use my hand OK in daily life, but I can no longer use those fingers to play the piano,” he explains.
Feeling that life as he knew it was over, Nishikawa was despondent. Just to make ends meet, he had to take on any jobs he could find, including cleaning and working in a grocery store. After accepting a job as a piano teacher for preschool children, he had an epiphany.
“I was playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ for the kids, with just two fingers on each hand. I realized it was OK to ‘break the rules’ for which fingers you use, and that I could do things my way,” he says.
Having found a way forward, Nishikawa began to remaster the piano, and in 2008, in Italy, he performed professionally for the first time since his diagnosis.
These days, Nishikawa is an avid supporter of U.S.-based The Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia & Parkinson Foundation (BSDPF), which advocates for research, funding and support. He cites founder Bonnie Strauss as another mentor, and he hopes to encourage other dystonia patients through his activities. In 2014, the BSDPF entered into a partnership with The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. (Some of the most important advances in treating and understanding dystonia have come from research into Parkinson’s, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement.)
In December 2016, Nishikawa realized a long-held dream of performing at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall Isaac Stern Auditorium. The performance was in association with Harmony For Peace Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that uses the arts as a way to unite people and spread a global message of peace and friendship. Nishikawa performed “Winter,” a piece composed by a teenager named Liam Picker from Saint Louis, Missouri.
A talented young pianist and composer in his own right, Picker had struggled with mental illness for some years and, sadly, took his own life at the age of 18 in 2015. In addition to his music, the young man had also been interested in Japanese culture, although he never visited Japan. Hoping to keep his legacy alive, Picker’s mother, Lisa, reached out to Tomoko Torii, the founder and the current director of Harmony For Peace Foundation, and offered her son’s original compositions for the Foundation’s use.
This eventually lead to Nishikawa being selected to play “Winter” at the Foundation’s annual Christmas concert, and he flew from New York to Missouri to meet Picker’s parents in person. Nishikawa could relate to the pain of their loss, as his father had taken his own life after suffering from depression.
“I wanted to gain insight into who their son was, his life and his essence,” Nishikawa says. “Liam’s parents and relatives then came to New York to see the performance. I played ‘Winter’ with a photo of Liam on top of my piano.”
Nishikawa hosted Picker’s parents in Japan earlier this year, when “Winter” was chosen as the theme music for the movie “Shiori.” Directed by Yusuke Sakakibara, the story depicts a physical therapist and his interactions with his patients in a hospital. Not only did Nishikawa perform the piece for the movie, he also played it for a recent national advertising campaign for Panasonic Corporation.
“I wanted to try and help ease his family’s pain,” says Nishikawa. “But, in the end I am the one who has been helped, by his music.”
Name: Gohei Nishikawa
Hometown: Sakai, Osaka Prefecture
Key moments in career:
1989 — Starts piano lessons
1999 — Opens for David Bradshaw and Cosmo Buono in Osaka, and later moves to New York
2002 — Dystonia threatens to derail his career
2016 — Performs at Carnegie Hall
What I miss most about Japan: “My grandparents and my friends.”
Best thing about New York: “The vibe — I can experience so many different cultures and meet so many people.”
Words to live by: “Your worst case scenario could turn out to be one of the best things that ever happened to you — it’s all in the way you think about things.”