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Tiny Virtuoso

Marimbist Naoko Takada, M.M. '01, is a compact musical dynamo.

photos by Jean Santropatre
Despite her tiny frame, Naoko cuts an impressive figure on stage.

Tokyo-bred Naoko Takada, M.M. ’01, was only eight years old when she was first exposed to what would become her life’s passion. One day remains vivid in her memory: She was attending a concert with her mother during Hina Matsuri, an annual doll festival in Japan known as Girls’ Day. “The big curtain opened up, and I saw the lady playing the marimba [as gracefully as] a dancer,” Naoko says.

The marimbist was Akiko Suzuki. After the performance, Naoko had her mother ask Suzuki if she would accept Naoko as a student. Suzuki did, becoming the budding musician’s first mentor and one of her closest friends.

Naoko’s idol was a marimbist named Gordon Stout; she had a poster of him hanging on her bedroom wall. Naoko’s parents were not enthused with her new obsession, so they did not purchase a marimba for her to practice on. The child persisted. She started pretending to play the instrument on household objects. “My first marimba was the kitchen table,” Naoko says. That’s when her parents realized she was serious. They bought her a marimba slightly smaller than normal; still, she had to stand on a platform to reach all of the keys.

At age 11 Naoko’s musical career took off. She soloed with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and the Tokyo Chamber Orchestra. But soon after, she abruptly quit, saying she could not imagine a career in music.

She went on to study psychology at WasedaUniversity in Tokyo. In her sophomore year, as an exchange student at CaliforniaStateUniversity, Northridge, Naoko spotted a marimba in a music department room, and her itch to play returned. She signed up for lessons—and rekindled her love affair with the instrument.

When her year was up, she made the bold decision to stay on at Northridge for a music performance degree. Naoko worked hard to graduate a year early, in 1999, so she could audition for an assistantship that was opening up with her idol Gordon Stout. The internationally esteemed marimbist, it turned out, taught at IthacaCollege. Naoko was in such awe of Stout that she didn’t speak a word to him during her audition. “[After the audition] Gordon called my teacher and asked if I spoke English,” she says, giggling.

Stout chose Naoko to be one of his 26 students; she was the best marimbist who auditioned for the program and had received a glowing recommendation.

Naoko claims she still barely spoke to him during her first year at IC, but even so, she says, “Gordon made me a marimbist. Before meeting [him] I was just a mess. He was really open-minded to my ideas and had great suggestions. He was my dream teacher.” Stout, in turn, says he is most proud of helping Naoko develop her own style of playing. At first, he says, she was using some techniques unsuitable for her small stature—she had even broken a couple of fingers. “I remember saying many times, ‘Just play it like Naoko,’ ” Stout recollects. Once he convinced her to believe in and trust herself, he says, “there was no holding her back.”

Naoko's mastery of her instrument is given
a boost by the height-enhancing shoes that are part of her performance ensemble.

Naoko loved her time at IC studying with her idol. “It was inspiring every day,” she says. “I [went] to school and [saw] a world-famous marimba player walking around. The only way I could show my respect was to practice longer.” The practice paid off: Twice Naoko won the School of Music’s concerto competition, enabling her to solo with the symphony orchestra. Stout says that before Naoko, the last time a marimbist won this honor was in the early 1980s.

“It was hard to leave,” Naoko says, about bidding goodbye to Stout. But she has since become a world-renowned marimbist in her own right. Just one year after she received her master’s degree from IC, Naoko won first place in the prestigious Young Concert Artists international auditions. And she picked up a new IC connection: Monica Felkel ’89, director of artist management at YCA, is her manager.

Soon after that, Naoko soloed at the Tokyo Opera City Recital Hall, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the 92nd Street Y in New York City, at which she played a piece arranged by Stout, “Remeleixo” by Augusto Marcellino, and a composition by Paul Fowler ’01, “Michiyuki” (“The Road to Death”), which she still plays at some of her concerts. “I was so happy for her, to see the wonderful and positive reaction of the audience,” says Stout, who was present at the performance. “I was like a proud father.”

In 2004 Naoko embarked on a worldwide solo concert tour, teaching master classes along the way in Mexico, China, and across the United States. She continues to perform internationally and teach workshops. The frequent traveling was hard at first, but she enjoys meeting new people and visiting interesting places. She does admit that it has an impact on her personal life: “Maybe I should stay in one place, huh? So I can find a boyfriend.”

She laughs, and adds, “[The marimba is] my boyfriend—and friend, parent, mentor, and adviser, at the same time!” More seriously, she adds, “Without the marimba, I don’t exist. Always I am feeling something that I can’t explain in words. But I can play the things I’m feeling.” She pauses before joking again: “Maybe I have a communication problem!”

Certainly audiences don’t think so. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported last year, after a performance by Naoko of Kevin Puts’s “Marimba Concerto” with the Louisiana Philharmonic, that the audience leapt “to its feet, calling a star soloist back for three encores.”Naoko’s vitality and size clearly give her performances an extra sparkle. “I’m small,” Naoko says, laughing. “I’m hoping to grow up still. [Playing the marimba is] a stretch. I’ll be jumping up and down. But I guess it’s fun to watch.”

Certainly critics think so. After a 2002 concert, the Washington Post wrote, “Watching Takada play was part of the fun. At times she looked like a practitioner of some as-yet-undefined martial art, wielding two mallets in each hand and then plunging them down, with fierce exactitude, into the instrument’s solar plexus. At other times she took on the air of an actress, calibrating her hesitations and wearing the mood of the music on her expressive face.”

When Naoko is not traveling she splits her time between Los Angeles and Tokyo, teaching private lessons and practicing six hours each day. She also has published musical arrangements of works by Claude Debussy and J. S. Bach, is a Yamaha performing artist, and endorses Encore mallets.

Although Naoko and Gordon Stout have remained in close contact through phone calls, e-mails, and yearly visits—she even helped Stout teach in Taiwan—they have yet to perform together. While both would embrace the opportunity, there are no current plans. In the meantime, says Stout, he is simply pleased that her endearing personality and musical virtuosity have made Naoko a bona fide musical star. “Now,” he smiles, “I have pictures of her all over my wall.”

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