By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertainment Editor
HOLLYWOOD.–A chance misunderstanding nearly made this a story about a psychologist.
As junior exchange student from Waseda University to Cal State Northridge, Naoko Takada was attempting to ask for permission to use the CSUN orchestra’s marimba once in a while. She had played quite a bit at her home in the Tokyo suburb of Kodaira, but obviously didn’t bring the enormous, 200-pound instrument with her to the States.
“I realized my English was terrible,” said Takada, now one of the world’s most widely recognized marimba players. “I couldn’t really explain what I wanted, so they thought I was requesting to audition for the orchestra.”
Not fully aware of what she’d gotten herself into, she auditioned, caught a lot of attention, and was promptly made a member of the CSUN orchestra.
Further confused by the schedule of classes, Takada ended up taking a wide range of music classes–not the psychology courses she’d traveled from Japan to pursue.
“When I got back to Waseda, they wondered why my transcript was full of music and not psychology,” she explained. “At that time, I decided it was probably best to leave school in Japan.”
Her parents, however, were not thrilled with her decision to return to CSUN and study music–but then, they were apprehensive when she first chose to take up the marimba–not piano or violin, as many Japanese parents want their girls to play.
“I was eight, and my parents took me to a girls’ festival, because the wanted me to behave like a girl,” Takada recalled. “They put me into a nice, girly dress because I was a bit of a tomboy, climbing trees and running around. At that event, I saw some lady banging on the marimba; I didn’t think that was music, even though she was playing beautifully. It was more of an acrobatic act, and she got to hit these things with sticks.”
Immediately struck by the physical aspect of playing the marimba, she had her mother take her backstage after the performance, where they met Akiko Suzuki, the woman who would become her teacher for nearly 20 years.
A marimba however, is a huge appliance of an instrument, that can easily cost upwards of $24,000. It’s not a flute or a ukulele, and a considerable financial gamble for a kid who might decide in a few weeks that she’s no longer interested. So Takada’s folks devised an alternate plan.
“They went to the Yamaha dealer and sized all the bars, then cut strips of newspaper to the sizes and laid them out on a table in the living room,” she said. “They wrote the letter of each note on the papers, and I would practice there, on the table, singing ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ as I was banging on them, imagining the sound. I thought it was the coolest thing.”
After a couple of months, the budding percussionist grew a little smarter and realized this was a poor substitute for a true marimba. Recognizing their daughter’s dedication–and talent–her parents managed to scrape together enough for a battered and well-used instrument, which became a permanent fixture in their small home.
Most people who are unfamiliar with orchestral music may have no idea whether a marimba is an instrument, a cocktail or a country. Similar to the xylophone but not made of metal, the orchestral marimba is a set of wooden bars, often rosewood, mounted on a stand, with each bar having its own resonator. Its sound is distinguished by its resonant, mellow tone.
Perhaps the most famous marimba player in the world today is Evelyn Glennie, with other giants including Clair Omar Mussser, Gordon Stout and Keiko Abe. It’s a good bet that most Americans can’t name even one marimba expert–except maybe Bo Wagner, who as a member of the band Starbuck scored a top 10 hit in 1976 with “Moonlight Feels Right.”
It’s safe to say the young Takada had no knowledge of these musicians either, but she was learning. By the time she was 11, she was appearing as a soloist with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Philharmonic, all the while studying with Abe and Suzuki. Once competing her Bachelor of Music degree at CSUN, she went on to complete her Master’s at Ithaca College in New York.
Competition wins in Japan, Italy and Texas led to her New York debut in 2002, followed by a series of performances that included the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Takada received the 2006 S & R Washington Award, which supports artists who help to foster cultural understanding between the United States and Japan. Since then, she has been featured as a soloist with symphonies in Berlin, China, Mexico, and 38 states in the U.S. Her debut album, “Marimba Meets the Classics,” was released by Japan Victor Entertainment in 2007 and is available through CD Baby.com.
Locally, Takada has performed in Orange County and in the South Bay among her more than 400 concert appearances. She returns to the Southland this Sunday, for a free concert titled “Good Vibrations,” when she will be showcased at UCLA along with Julie Ann Smith, principal harpist from the San Diego Symphony.
With an effervescent personality that sharply contradicts the image of an inward, self-absorbed classical musician, Takada occupies an enviable position as being among the best at what she does. Through playing the marimba, she has been able to achieve many of her dreams, including traveling the world, meeting artists and dignitaries and teaching young musicians. She even has her own signature line of marimba mallets. However, she said that she rarely feels the weight of her accomplishments.
“When I’m practicing, I’m playing alone, so that’s all I usually know,” she explained. “The only time I have contact with others is when I play a concert, or on the radio or doing interviews. So I don’t feel the opinions of others, really, until somebody writes something.”
Takada travels quite a bit less these days, in part due to her recent marriage to Robin Sharp, a percussion instructor at Pasadena City College. She also devotes a great deal of her time to teaching, including music camps, a competition in Los Angeles every spring, and working as an instructor with Midori and Friends, the highly-regarded organization founded in New York by premiere violinist Midori Goto.
Of traveling less, she said she doesn’t miss the road food.
“I usually cook Japanese food at home, and when I travel a lot, I really miss it. Pancakes and burgers are okay once in a while, but if I’m on the road for a couple of months, it gets difficult,” she said.
I asked if, as a soloist who normally plays and practices on her own, she gets lonely, spending hours at a time by herself, rehearsing in her small Hollywood apartment.
“Not really, I’m happy to have the point of view of the student, to practice and occasionally play for people,” she said, recalling an occasion when her management company wished her the best of luck in performing at a concert that was being widely reviewed by several media outlets.
“All I can do is what I always do, so telling me that threw me off and I got nervous suddenly,” she recalled. “I’ve never thought that I would change what I do just so that someone writes something nice about me. You have no control over that, so I’ve just tried to stay focused on doing what I enjoy.”
The concert “Good Vibrations” will be held at 7 p.m. this Sunday, March 28, at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus. Admission is free. For more information, call (310) 873-7777.