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The Life of Ellen Masaki


Ellen Yasuko Masaki grew up in Kalihi, the first daughter in a close-knit family of six. As her family home was always open to friends and extended family, Ellen's childhood was shaped by happy sing-along evenings and dinners shared with unexpected company. When Ellen was five, her aunt taught her a piece called "Falling Waters." Her easy grasp of the music gave her mother, Margaret Kimura, the incentive to purchase a used spinet piano. That piano became the center of Ellen’s life and transformed her into the musician she was destined to become. Ellen’s developmental years coincided with the turmoil of World War II and her father’s move from the work force at a large automobile company to his own auto body repair business. Despite some hard times, Ellen continued with her music and was soon recognized by school officials as a musical asset. As a result, she spent many grade and high school days being taken out of class to perform at various 

school and state functions. She played the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto for a school assembly in the 8th grade, and was recruited to play the pipe organ for Sunday services at a nearby church. After high school, she left for the Manhattan School of Music in New York to study, then came home to continue at the University of Hawaii, got married and raised two daughters, Karen and Nancy.


Ellen’s musical training evolved from an impressive array of musical mentors, who recognized her gifts and lent her their art and expertise. From that, Ellen was able to formulate her own unique and incredibly successful teaching style. Early on, she began to see a pattern of progress in her younger students that belied many widely recognized tenets of musical pedagogy. Her attempts to coax maximum sill levels and musical interpretation from her young students at the earliest stage possible, were spectacularly successful. Ellen stripped each piece of music to its core, employing with her students the concepts of simple to complex, slow to fast, and endless repetition.


She devised creative exercises to build on that foundation, which allowed her students to reach levels of musical artistry and technical perfection they never thought possible. She was intent on her students’ attainment of excellence on the keyboard as a means of ‘touching’ art in its most intimate form. Using every technique, strategy, educational theory and psychological ploy at her disposal, Ellen was able to urge her students on to longer practice sessions to reach the height of perfection she constantly demanded from their musical selections. Her innovations and efforts yielded a staggering list of accomplishments.

Masaki students ranging in age from 6 to 18 have performed concerto movements with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra more than 175 times since 1963. The Morning Music Club of Hawaii has awarded students of Ellen Masaki more than 40 scholarships. Masaki students have regularly won awards at the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) annual competitions, winning the Baldwin Junior High and High School categories almost every year for more than 20 years and qualifying them for the national regional competitions. Four of her students have surpassed the regionals to compete in the MTNA finals. Seven of the Masaki protégées were featured in the Musical Encounter series, a weekly television program highlighting special talents in Hawaii in the 1970s. That program was shown nationally on Public Television and picked up by the Japanese media, and is part of the video archives with Hawaii’s Department f Education. Four of the young musicians on Musical Encounter were subsequently invited by the Tokyo Junior Philharmonic Orchestra to perform in Japan with the orchestra and their conductor, Maestro Tsukahara, in 1974. One of the pianists from the group above was invited to perform the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with the Tokyo Junior Philharmonic Orchestra at the White House.


As National Guild of Piano Teachers Association’s Hawaii chairperson for over thirty years, Ellen accommodated approximately 1,000 students and 75 teachers in annual standardized auditions with adjudicators from every part of the country. She herself served as an adjudicator in the Young Keyboard Artists Association’s International Competition in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 1990, Ellen was one of ten teachers nation-wide invited to Moscow with selected students to exchange musical ideas with their Russian counterparts, take part in private master classes and perform in recitals for Russian audiences, in the first Soviet-American piano form held at the Gnessin Institute in Moscow. In 1991, Ellen purchased Thayer Piano Co. Ltd., venturing into the retailing of fine pianos. 


Ellen applied student Sean Kennard to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he was accepted in 1998 and became the first piano student from Hawaii to attend that renowned institution. In 1998, Ellen was featured soloist with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra in its premiere presentation of Tobias Picker’s “Kilauea” written in her honor. That performance won rave reviews in both the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star Bulletin. In 2003, Ellen was named the first Teacher of the Year by the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA), which recognizes “teachers who go far beyond the call of duty to exemplify excellence in the field of music.” The same organization later named her an MTNA Foundation Fellow. Ellen’s 75th birthday in 2003 was celebrated by the Honolulu Symphony Society with a series of events and the debut of a new Steinway Concert Grand Piano dedicated to Ellen and named “The Masaki Grand.” She was recognized for her tireless efforts to gain support and raise funds for the symphony over the years. In 2005, 2006 and 2008, Masaki students were featured in separate segments of From the Top, the popular Public Radio program which features promising young classical musicians from around the country. The fourth Stecher and Horowitz New York Piano Competition in 2008 selected 22 pianists worldwide for that year’s event, two of them Masaki students. The first annual Hawaii Youth Symphony Concerto competition was held in 2009, with two Masaki students selected to perform with the orchestra. That concert was dedicated to Ellen Masaki. The Masaki School of Music students have staged the annual Christmas Extravaganza at Ala Moana Shopping Center for the past 30 years. That pet project of Ellen’s has brought students of all ages together for ensemble practice with as many as 10 pianos playing simultaneously. Ellen’s final concert was with her six-piano presentation at Waikoloa, Hawaii in late July.


Music has been a springboard into other fields of learning for all of Ellen’s students. They have gone on to college and post-graduate work at such institutions as Oberlin, Juilliard, New England Conservatory, Curtis, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell and the Universities of Washington, Michigan, Chicago, Pennsylvania, California, Colorado and Hawaii, with professional degrees in medicine, law, business, education and the arts. Notable among Ellen’s students who have pursued their destinies in music are Lisa Nakamichi, PhD Juilliard, who is now a concert pianist splitting her time between Japan and the United States; Brian Masuda, University of Hawaii and Manhattan School of Music, a celebrated choral director working in Japan; Sean Kennard, Curtis Institute and Juilliard, now a concert pianist; Donna Bender and Sueanne Shimabuku-Metz, both founders of successful music schools in Seattle, Washington and Chicago, Illinois, respectively. 


In January of 2009, a ten-year old gastric cancer, which had been in remission returned, took hold of Ellen’s lungs, and ultimately her life on September 7, 2009. She leaves two daughters, classical contemporary dancer Karen Masaki (Paul Freeman) and Nancy Masaki Hathaway, cellist and member of Hawaii Symphony Orchestra; two grandsons, Scott and Logan Hathaway; a brother, Ernest Kimura; two sisters, Lillian Nishi and Mildred Oshiro. 


Despite her many achievements and awards, Ellen’s greatest legacy is her students, and the influence she had on each one of them years after their piano lessons ceased. She gave them the means to take their music from the bare essentials to a finished, beautiful product, and along the way, inspired them to work towards perfection in every aspect of their lives. 

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