Steinway Artist Aisa Ijiri had a busy, competition-filled childhood in Kyoto, Japan. From an early age, Ijiri competed not just in piano, but in sprinting, swimming, and figure skating at a national level. At fifteen, she abandoned those sports — but the piano remained. She now lives in London, where she met up with Steinway & Sons’ Editor in Chief to discuss her path to the keyboard and how athletics shaped her journey. “For the first time in my life,” she tells Steinway, laughing at the irony, “I sprained some ankle ligaments.”
How long is the recovery for a ligament?
Every doctor told me different things.They told me it takes six weeks. But I can’t pedal; I can’t play the piano as I wish. The funny thing is I was never injured —the running, figure skating, skiing, the swimming, and all these championships I was taking part in.
Did athletics help you at the keyboard? A lot of pianists get injured — through bad posture, bad technique, trying to push the piano forward rather than using proper leverage, etcetera. And they get shoulder problems, back problems, wrist problems.
It also relates to releasing tension. I think that is one of the biggest dangers, whatever we do. If we have tension in swimming, it’s obvious: we can’t swim; nothing moves. We cannot float in the water. The same with figure skating. If we have tension, we fall when we jump and spin. We learn that we physically have to release the tension. But you can play piano with bad posture and carrying some tension, and get through it. You don’t fall on the ice. But I learned about releasing tension when I was twelve years old from my teacher.
So all of these “activities” began when you were three.
Swimming, running, figure skating, piano, painting — until I was fifteen. I was a champion in those sports at a national level. At fifteen, I had to make a choice. But I believe that, my whole life, things started before I even wished or dreamt them. It was natural for me to start playing the piano because my mother is a piano teacher. She had so many students coming to our house. When I was two years old, I was watching her teaching six hours a day. I was observing. I think that children really observe everything and then repeat.
That was a sort of passive practice for you.
I thought, “Wow, this is an amazing instrument!” On the way to piano school, I saw so many things. We passed the swimming pool. “Oh, I want to do that!” I see people figure skating. “Oh, I want to do that!” So, I started to do things, and my parents encouraged me to start things.
Of course there are always moments, when you are so young, of “Oh, I don’t want to go today.” Or “I don’t want to.” But my parents didn’t push me. They said, “Oh, let’s do it together.” My mother came to ice rinks to skate with me. On the side. There was a special rink for the lesson and another rink for the public. And she was just skating. So we shared some things together and I was never bored. Once I started to do things, I wanted to be great.“I want to be the best in this!”
My father is a great athlete. So I had a natural ability from him. My parents put me in the ocean when I was three years old, but I could manage to find a way to float; it was quite natural. I started competition when I was six and began to win things. I would practice and win things.
And that drove you forward.
Yeah! I kept winning. From the very small competitions in clubs to the city, to the prefecture, to the country, I just kept winning.
When I was nine years old, there was a national championship for competitive swimming and a professional piano competition on the same day. I was going back and forth. Swimming pool and concert hall. My parents are driving between. I was eating bananas and chocolate in between so I would have energy. I passed the first round of the swimming competition, and went to the piano competition. As I exited the pool I heard from my parents that I passed the piano competition first round. I kept going back and forth. That day, I won both competitions, and went to get my trophy from the piano competition, and my hair was really wet because of the swimming pool. My mother has to change me from the swimming costume, wash, dry, put on the dress — back and forth. At the end of the competition when I receive trophy, the chair of the jury asks, “Why is this girl’s hair wet?” My parents said, “Oh, she had a swimming competition just half an hour away from here.” They laughed, because these things happen so much in Japan, and in Asia. Parents kind of encourage children to do many things and do them well.
These competitions were in Kyoto, so not so big. You could get back and forth.
Right. But it was still crazy. I did so many things in Tokyo, too. That was where I competed for my prefecture in the one-hundred-meter sprint. That was very, very tough. Very tough training with all the parachutes. All the equipment.
You would run with a parachute for resistance.
Yes! So I loved everything I was doing. But after age fourteen, it got tougher. Physically, it’s twenty-four hours a day. I was offered a sponsorship by Toyota for sprinting and to become an Olympian and compete for Japan. But I decided to pursue piano — and I really felt then like I had lost half of my body.
I had attended the Liszt Academy in Budapest when I was twelve. My teacher, a student of Zoltán Kodály, encouraged me to do this competition. Budapest was a completely different world. That gave me the desire to live in Europe, learn European culture, learn the language, and study. At fourteen, I won two competitions in Japan that gave me the opportunity to perform the Chopin E-minor Piano Concerto in Warsaw. This was before the Chopin competition, which I did not take part in, but there was this energy there. I visited Żelazowa Wola, the village where Chopin was born. And Sanniki, another village where he spent his summers. I met a Polish pianist and professor from the Chopin Academy in Warsaw, who was doing research for the Jan Ekier edition of Chopin’s music. So I got to see the research process for this edition. At that age, you absorb everything like a sponge. Everything is so fresh!
Coming back from Poland to Japan and competing again in sprinting and swimming, I felt a hole, and realized my true passion was for music.
I loved Beethoven and Bach so much. And Van Gogh in the galleries. I used to paint all the walls in my room.
But in physical life I’m still competing. I’m running. I’m swimming. I’m figure skating.
Did you feel like you were going through the motions in the physical sports because “this is what I do”?
Yeah, I did. Because — it sounds arrogant, but...
“I’m the best.”
I’m talented, I’m the best, and I’m winning this. People respected me. People treated me a different way because I was a winner. But my passion was somewhere else, and I started to feel this kind of emptiness of doing things because of this winning.
It was a hollow victory.
Yeah. I got a scholarship from the Swedish government to move to Sweden to study music. I go over there, go to Sweden, where no one had seen a fifteen-year-old girl playing Chopin ballads and concert studies by Liszt, because Sweden is not a competitive country. You know? They don’t have children who are playing that repertoire. They were like, “Wow! She’s a genius!” And I wasn’t. I was not. In other countries, there are many kids like this.
So the Swedish government gave me a scholarship to study there, and that gave me the opportunity to see more of Europe.
At fifteen, you decided, “It’s just piano now. I have to stop my competitive athletics.”
Yes. I left Japan, I left my parents, and I moved to Sweden. I was fifteen years old. Quite young, when I think about it.
You lived in Sweden for six years, then moved to London — where we are speaking today! In retrospect, did the running, swimming, and figure skating help you with your piano playing?
When I was younger, after athletic competition, I often felt I could have done better. While my teammates trained six hours in track and field on Sunday, I trained two hours because I needed to practice piano for three. Meanwhile, my piano friends are practicing six hours. I could do only fifty percent of the training. Same in the figure skating. I woke up at six o’clock in the morning to skate before going to school, or swim before I went to school. I had limited time to do things.
I remember I was on my way to a sprinting final and felt like I couldn’t do it. Two other girls were training so much, and I knew how much they were improving. We were all running in twelve seconds, but the two of them were training so much. I was in the car to the stadium and I told my father, “Oh, I wish I could have trained a week more for this final.” Then he told me, “You know that you all run in twelve seconds. You are the best eight in the country. It’s zero point zero one faster or slower.
In pursuit. Growing up, in addition to her athletic and musical pursuits, Steinway Artist Aisa Ijiri also painted.
How much faster can you get?
Yeah. Only zero point zero one. And what is zero point zero one? And he said, “That is where your mind is. Your mind is already thinking, ‘I wish I had.’ Regretting. Your mind is not here. You are already losing.”
Be here now.
Yeah. You are already losing. You are regretting. That’s so negative. This negativity is, like, minus zero point zero one,
instead of plus. You are already negative. I was only fourteen, and a bit naive. Then he suggested before I go in, take a deep breath and just imagine how you want to run it. Just picture everything. How everything would look. Audience, you know, everything. How it would look.
Forget these negative thoughts and worries and fears! Just be here and do it.
Positive visualization, right?
Yeah. Just imagine how you’re going to spend these 12 seconds, and just do it. So I just listened to him. Went there. I closed my eyes for two seconds. Imagine it. Do it! And I did it and I won. That taught me a lot. I never forgot. Many times when I think, “Oh, I didn’t have enough practice here,” “I didn’t memorize,” it’s just: “Okay. Forget these negative thoughts, and worries, and fears! Just be here and just do it. Whatever happens, I’m in the center. I’m the main character of this story. Just live here.”
Now, in reverse: when you were running and skating and swimming, was any of the pianism useful for sports?
Funny, I haven’t thought so much about it. It’s hard to go back, but in swimming I could also use breathing. Breathing in the music. If you play woodwind instruments you have to breathe, but in piano it’s easy to stop breathing. But you shouldn’t. In swimming, I learned a lot of different strategies for breathing, because the timing of the breath is terribly important. Honestly, it just helps with releasing the tension, the way we breathe. It brings me back to my flow. And that’s helped.
In figure skating, too. There is a way of carrying yourself. There’s a way we walk to the piano. Everything is more...
Yeah, poised! It helped figure skating. It gave me elements of art. Often in piano playing, we have jumps with the hand. We tend to shortcut. But it’s best to make it with this little arc, arriving while releasing tension.
It’s like a cello stroke. Soft wrist.
Exactly, and it’s like trotting in sprinting. The legs stroke the ground — and we trot.
Almost like a horse.
Yeah! You start with a rhythm movement — and then gradually go higher.
The high kicks.
And gradually faster. And this movement, I was often told, is very elegant. How we catch it.
Do you feel like you made the right decision going to music, back when you had to decide “Am I a runner or am I a pianist?”
To be very honest with you, for the first three years, I said, “Oh my God, this is very tough.” Especially because when I was eighteen, one of my teammates was going to the Olympics. And I thought, “I am much better than them! Maybe I made the wrong deicion!” And then practicing piano seven hours a day at the college, I thought, “I made the biggest mistake here.” But I appreciated it more as I achieved more on the piano. But also, the way I approach the music and the way I interpret the music is, I know, mine. It’s not because I played piano from age three to do this, and the competition, and here, but because I love it. I think to do music, you have to really love it. More than anything else, we have to really love it. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense. Why am I doing this? Because I love it so much, that I feel so content that I’m alive. That kind of joy. It’s beyond everyday-life joy.
Who are your favorite composers to play? Who are the ones you love to come back to again and again?
Chopin is always the one. Over the past ten years, I would say Chopin and Liszt. When I was four years old, I loved Beethoven. I told my mother, “I want to open a café and name it Beethoven. I will play Beethoven sonatas for the customers, and I will bake the cakes.”
So I loved Beethoven, and Bach, so much. Those composers inspired me throughout my childhood. And Van Gogh in the galleries. I used to paint all the walls in my room. (My parents put up paper!) I’d make a Van Gogh exhibition in my own room. I was so passionate. After visiting Hungary and Poland, I developed an interest in Liszt and Chopin.
So you felt a kinship because having that sense of place, you felt, gave you an insight into the music?
But also, I was growing up. Being an extremely sensitive child from an early age, I cried over everything. Every sunset, I’m crying, because it’s so beautiful. I would be on a bicycle and run over an ant and crying for hours. My plant died and I cried for a week. My parents thought it was a bit too much. When I discovered the worlds of Chopin and Liszt. . . Wow! Here I can really relate my emotions with this music. I had a lot of feelings, which I couldn’t probably share with some of my friends —
For which the piano gave you an outlet.
Yes. I’m feeling this chord, and hear this melody, and [think], “Wow, Chopin was feeling this here,” “He had some hope here,” or “He was crying out so much here.” All sorts of feelings in the music, which I could relate to. I felt so much at peace.
photos: ukartpics / Alamy, lugermad