Interviews with the Finalists
About the Competition
- Do you reflect upon your performance in the competition from the first preliminary round to the finals, and summarize the experience for yourself?
I was extremely pleased to be able to enter the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conductors, but I often reflected on what I had gained from the experience, and what issues were likely to arise in the future.
Competitions are, in essence, a battle with other people, but in this case I often felt like I was competing against myself.
- Did the teachers you study under give you any advice regarding your participation, or was there anything you were careful about yourself?
My teachers told me that if I work to improve my strengths, my weaknesses will naturally improve as well.
For myself personally, I am careful not to become complacent. I am also very aware of the fact that in this competition, you only have a short time to show off your abilities. However, at the competition before last, I realized that just being aware of these facts is not enough. With many participants conducting the same piece of music, I believe that the most important point is being able to give a performance in a way that best represents how the composer wanted the piece to be played. I tried to make it so that the conductor was not the star of the show, but rather the music itself was.
- What kind of special preparation did you do in the lead up to entering the competition?
Usually my preparations are the same, whether I'm involved in a formal performance or study. But on a psychological level, competitions are very different to regular performances, so I tried to get myself in the right mindset for the competition. Before the competition, I made sure I had plenty of time for dialogs with myself.
- I'm sure you must have been a little nervous at the competition's first preliminary round. Can you tell us how you felt in the lead up to the judging, or anything you felt after your performance?
Actually, the first preliminary round was when I was the most nervous. I entered this competition three years ago as well, so I was feeling the pressure from myself to give an even better performance this time around. I remember going on stage thinking that it would come down to how much faith I have in myself.
However, during the first preliminary round, I actually made a mistake. I'm sure this affects how you are judged on the competition stage. But I knew if I let it bother me, my chance at winning would be over, so I kept going until the end and was determined to share the wonderfulness of the song with the New Japan Philharmonic.
After completing the first preliminary round, I realized that this competition does not set out to try and find mistakes or shortcomings, and that made me feel better.
- How did you spend the evening after the judging was over?
After the judging, I spent all the time up until the finals studying. I didn't try to think of strategies for gaining the best results; rather, I was thinking about how I wanted to perform the piece of music, and what would make it enjoyable.
After the finals were over, the other competitors and I went out for drinks and had a good time talking together.
- Can you tell us your reasons for selecting the three compositions of choice that you used?
They are pieces that, at the time, really seemed to speak to me. They are also pieces which have music their composers made that brings help to the musicians. I also thought about the size of the venue, and decided to avoid pieces involving large numbers of musicians. The piece I conducted at the finals was the one that I liked the most, so I was honored to have the opportunity to perform it.
- When performing the required pieces, were you able to express your own preferences and ideas through your conducting?
I always try to express my own preferences and ideas. This is the essence of the musical scores the composers have created for us. But there were many occasions on which I felt I wasn't fully expressing my own preferences. At rehearsals, I can express myself using words as well as my baton, but in the competition there were some times where I felt I wasn't able to convey myself completely to the musicians. Conversely, when I listened to the music afterwards I realized this is necessary in order to make the most of the orchestra's qualities.
- Is the outfit you wear at the competition (both the preliminaries and the finals) something you prepare especially for the occasion? Or do you always wear it when you are conducting?
I always wear the same kind of outfit when I'm conducting. I wear something that is easy to move in, that doesn't make the lines of my body stand out.
- When you are facing an important performance, is there anything you take special care of such as meals, superstitions, or special items you keep with you?
I think it's the same in any type of contest, but I'm always careful about myself. For example, I avoid eating raw foods to stop myself from getting an upset stomach.
In the lead up to a performance, I don't go running because I want to keep my heart rate low.
Conductors cannot do their jobs without musicians.
I started feeling more grateful towards the musicians, and think more about how I can convey the same thing to them.
- Tell us about how you felt when you heard the finals results. Is there any difference in how you felt then and how you feel now?
Everyone who enters a competition wants to win. There is a very big gap between being able to win this competition and not being able to win. When I heard the results, I wondered to myself if I could have done better. To be honest, I felt disappointed in myself. But now I know that these results are a reflection of my true ability, so I'm focusing on what I can do to improve. I feel like the judges gave me time to think and to grow. For myself, I may have been able to learn more with these results than I would have if I'd won. My disappointment has transformed into gratitude. I am truly thankful to all the people who gave me this opportunity.
- After finishing the competition and your first concert after winning a prize, has anything changed in your emotional state or your environment?
In terms of changes to my environment, I've been given opportunities to perform with professional orchestras and to gain more experience. And when talking to various people, I am now often asked about what an individual conductor should do from before the competition.
When I am asked to conduct at a concert, I now spend more time thinking about what is being asked of me, of course in terms of the music but also about people and relationships. Conductors cannot do their jobs without musicians. I started feeling more grateful towards the musicians, and think more about how I can convey the same thing to them.
I'm feeling the necessity to have the leeway inside myself to recognize the difference between confidence and cockiness, and to have flexibility while also keeping a firm hold of my beliefs.
About the conductor profession
I began my journey towards becoming a conductor because I found it fun to perform with others, but when I realized it can actually be quite a lonely experience, that was a tough time for me.
- What was it that prompted you to become a conductor?
Up until high school, I focused on studying piano. At the time, I didn't have much experience at playing the piano in an ensemble. In junior high I joined the school orchestra club, where I got to know the joy of playing together with other people in an ensemble, and I also gained an interest in conducting. The most influential experience was when I was made conductor for the school orchestra for a year in high school. I felt the joy of performing together with a large number of people, and I liked the way I could alter the sound by changing the way I waved the baton. This is what made me want to become a conductor.
- During your journey towards becoming a conductor, where there any difficult times? What about enjoyable times?
I began my journey towards becoming a conductor because I found it fun to perform with others, but when I realized it can actually be quite a lonely experience, that was a tough time for me. Even though there is some loneliness, it is important when conducting that you communicate with people, and if your relationship with them is not running smoothly, the performance will not go well either. This negative cycle can be a problem for me, and I still struggle with it now.
Also, I often got scolded because I couldn't build up the arm muscles that a conductor needs well. That was tough. And when I first started out, I didn't know what I should practice or study. I tried practicing conducting in front of the mirror, but without any music, I couldn't tell if I was improving or not. For a while there I felt quite lost. Sometimes I'd be told I was doing it wrong, but I had no idea what I was doing wrong. That was a difficult time for me.
In my first year at university, a friend told me that the relationship between an orchestra and their conductor is a relationship between two enemies. I found these words quite shocking. I think there is some truth to it, but there is no greater joy than creating music which supersedes this hostility.
I would say it was 90% difficult times, and 10% enjoyable times.
- As a conductor, is there anything you are careful about or try to keep up in your daily life?
Physically, I'm careful about my diet and exercise, to make sure I am capable of agile, flexible movement and that I don't run out of energy.
When I'm conducting, I don't only give instructions expressing what I'm feeling and thinking. I also try to save some strength to be able to listen to the wishes of the musicians and how they want to play. I believe this leads to communication as well.
Also, there are times when the musicians interpret the message I'm trying to convey differently to how I'd intended. So I make sure to listen carefully to the sound that comes back to me. And sometimes the sound that comes back to me tells me something about the customs of a particular orchestra, so I try to listen to that calmly.
- What kind of environment do you practice conducting in?
Having an environment to practice in is a very lucky thing for a conductor. This is because in order to practice, a conductor needs the cooperation from at least two musicians. When I was a student, I sometimes asked my friends to let me practice with them. They told me what my conducting actually looked like from their perspective, which made me think about how I see it myself. But I haven't had that type of environment since I finished university. There are times when, even for a piece of music I haven't conducted before, I can just see in my mind how my hands should move to be without conflict with the music. I try to picture the music in my mind and then go to the location, listen to the actual music, and reflect on it.
When you are a conductor, you can't play an instrument yourself, so there are not many chances to practice. This means every practice is very precious. I spend a lot more of my time on studying the music.
- What kind of orchestras, composers, and songs (from any genre) do you like?
I like the music from classics like Mozart and Haydn, and Romantics like Brahms. When I'm tired, I often listen to Bach.
- Do you have any memories from your childhood about music?
I took piano lessons as a child, but I hated practicing. I remember thinking about how I could improve without having to practice. I especially didn't like Hanon, and I wasn't allowed to go out and play until I'd done my rhythm practice, so I practiced at a super high speed. I remember the first concert I went to. It was Kazune Shimizu's concert, and it really impressed me and made me a bit more motivated to practice. When I was given the opportunity to perform with him in a competition, it was a great honor for me.
- A question off the topic
If you hadn't become a conductor, what kind of job do you think you would be doing? Or is there an occupation you'd like to try?
I wanted to be a psychiatrist. The professions I'd like to try out are office work, and a dolphin/seal show trainer at an aquarium.
- To conclude
What are your aspirations for the future?
Recently, the number of female conductors has been increasing, so I would like to make it so that female conductors can perform without being considered unusual, but just as unique. Luckily, when I was a student in the conducting faculty, people didn't treat me differently, but since I've been in the professional world, there are a lot of times when I feel that female conductors are still very rare.
My hope for the future is that, rather than focusing on the fact that I'm a woman, people will recognize what I have that makes me a unique individual. At the same time, I need to have a lot of different knowledge about things other than music in order to perform. I want to study more, and store this knowledge so I can use it in music as well.
Ultimately what makes a conductor a good conductor is their humanity and personality. If they are well rounded as a person, their music will accordingly be well rounded. These are all things dependent on the individual, and I'm looking forward to seeing how I change as I get older. I want to go through life without hiding inside my own shell, picking up all kinds of things from different people and occasions. I hope to move forward slowly and steadily, and still be a conductor when I'm an old lady.
- Can you give some advice to people intending to enter the competition next time?
Winning prizes at competitions is of course important, but you should think about what you can gain from the competition and how that will help your future.
Once you have a clear picture of how you want to be as a conductor in the future, entering the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conductors will change the world for you.
Mayana Ishizaki graduated from the Tokyo College of Music with a major in conducting, and completed her research studies in conducting at the College's graduate school. She further honed her skills as a Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Arts Foundation conducting researcher in 2011, and at the Kioi Sinfonietta Tokyo. This summer, she conducted the opera Hansel and Gretel.She made it to the second round of the 15th Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting. An outstanding student in Michiyoshi Inoue's 2nd short course for conductors, she has studied under Junichi Hirokami, Ken Takaseki, Tatsuya Shimono, Yasuhiko Shiozawa, Yasufumi Tokito and Masanori Mikawa. She has also taken open lessons from Tadaaki Otaka and Boris Belkin.