Interview by Tanya Levy (MGBH)
Not every California teenage pianist gets a title of the Young Steinway Artist. Umi Garrett (MGBH) became one at 13. A recipient of many acclaimed piano awards, she was only nine years old when she recorded and released her first album, Just For You. Her performance of Chopin’s Fantasy-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66 from this album appears on the soundtrack for the major motion picture Jobs. Her second recording, Music in Life, was recorded in 2013, at the age of 12. She spends a lot of time in solitude playing piano, but does he best to live the balanced life of a normal teenager. In this interview she shares with the readers what it’s like to be Umi Garrett.
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Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): How did your relationship with a piano start?
Umi Garrett (UG): When I was four, my friends started taking after school (rather, after kindergarten) group lessons in piano. They seemed to be having lots of fun, and I was always fascinated by music and instruments, so I asked my parents to let me start. Eventually, we got an upright piano, and then a grand piano a few years later, and my love for piano and music continued to grow. I don’t think my parents could even imagine that this is what would happen when they let me start taking music lessons. Nevertheless, here I am now, still just as fascinated by the piano as I was 13 years ago.
PPM: Please, tell our readers about your piano teachers and what you’ve learned from each of them.
UG: My current piano teacher, Professor John Perry (MGBH), has taught me that there is more to being a pianist than staying inside and practicing. He has taught me that it is important to form experiences and make connections with people in order to better make connections with the audience through music. He has also taught me, in addition to my other piano teacher, Mrs. Mina Hirobe-Perry (MGBH), how to produce a better, more beautiful sound that can reach every corner of the concert hall. My past teachers has taught me a lot about technique, but my current teachers have taught me not only how to play well technically, but how to create art to share with the audience.
PPM: Please, tell our readers a little bit about your family. Do you have any siblings? Who are your parents?
UG: People always ask if my family is musical, and the truth is, I’m the only musician in my family. It’s fun being the only musician in its own way – I can be the first person to play some pieces for my family and I can teach them about classical music. I’m the only child, but I’ve always wanted siblings. However, I’m pretty close with my parents. I often spend time with them going shopping or playing games. They’ve always been incredibly supportive of my musical and other endeavors, and I’m very lucky to have parents like them.
PPM: Which performance venue has been your favorite so far?
UG: I’ve played in so many beautiful venues, that it’s hard to choose. However, my favorite venues are when I played in elementary schools in Tohoku in 2013 and 2015 in Japan. Tohoku, the Northern region of Japan, was hit with a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011, and I had the amazing opportunity to play for and spend time with some of the children in the area who survived the tragedy. Music has an incredible therapeutic and healing quality that I hoped I could help the children with. I visited 4 schools in 2013 and 2 schools in 2015, and every time, I was so touched by the children’s strength and hopefulness for the future. Seeing their smiling faces after playing my pieces will always be my favorite memory from a performance.
Music has an incredible therapeutic and healing quality that I hoped I could help the children with. I visited 4 schools in 2013 and 2 schools in 2015, and every time, I was so touched by the children’s strength and hopefulness for the future. Seeing their smiling faces after playing my pieces will always be my favorite memory from a performance.
PPM: Who are your favorite composers? What types of piano pieces do you like to perform the most and why?
UG: I love playing all types of pieces, for that reason – each one is unique and requires different technical skills as well as emotional understanding. My favorite composers are always changing, and it also depends on if I’m listening to these composers’ pieces or playing these composers’ pieces. Right now, my favorite composer to listen to is Brahms (OBM) (and especially his symphonies). His music is so powerful, yet so beautiful. My favorite composer to play right now is Beethoven (OBM). I am obsessed with playing his music. The more I play his pieces and the more I study his scores, the more gems I find in his music – like a hidden melody or rhythm pattern. It’s almost like treasure hunting and I love it. I love the passion and intensity of his pieces. I also love the challenge of getting into the mindset to play Beethoven – I almost have to change my personality for a few minutes while I play, from cheerful to moody. That’s the cool thing about performing music. You can be a completely different person when playing different pieces.
PPM: Can you share any funny stories or awkward moments from your performance experiences?
UG: I was performing in a student recital with two of my friends in a music festival in Italy a couple years ago. The unique thing was that the concert was held outside, in a courtyard space. There was a nice and bright spotlight up above the keyboard because it was already dark, and in the background there was a beautiful church in the distance. Everything was going perfectly until, right when I was about to play, the church bells began ringing, and didn’t stop for at least a whole minute. It was funny because it almost perfectly coincided with the rhythm of the piece I was playing, and then the chamber music of piano and church bells was completed with an ambulance, full sirens going, driving right past the courtyard. Oh, and also, remember the spotlight I mentioned? Well, not only did I like it because I could see the keys, these flying ant bugs loved it, and they’d fly up to the lightbulb, hit it, and drop like flies (literally) onto the keyboard. It was more funny than an inconvenience, though, and we all had a nice laugh about the bugs, the church bells and the ambulance afterwards. It was definitely an experience!
Oh, and also, remember the spotlight I mentioned? Well, not only did I like it because I could see the keys, these flying ant bugs loved it, and they’d fly up to the lightbulb, hit it, and drop like flies (literally) onto the keyboard. It was more funny than an inconvenience, though, and we all had a nice laugh about the bugs, the church bells and the ambulance afterwards. It was definitely an experience!
PPM: Please, tell our readers about your CD recording experience/s. Do you have any upcoming albums?
UG: I love recording for my CDs. The recording takes a really long time and is exhausting, but it’s a really rewarding experience. It’s unlike a concert, because in a session, it’s just you, the piano, and the microphones. Whereas in a concert it’s you, the piano, and the audience.
My favorite thing about music is sharing it with the audience in performance, but there is something really intimate and personal about recording music. It’s also really exciting because you feel the anticipation of the new CD release and hope that people will like it. Speaking of new CD releases, I’ve got a new CD!! It’s called Storybook, and it’s filled with my favorite pieces. I’ve been working on it for over a year now, and I am so happy with it. I named it Storybook because of how each piece in the album has a special, personal story behind it, but also because I want to inspire people to think of their own stories with the music.
Speaking of new CD releases, I’ve got a new CD!! It’s called Storybook, and it’s filled with my favorite pieces. I’ve been working on it for over a year now, and I am so happy with it.
PPM: Do you compose your own music?
UG: I don’t compose my own music, but I enjoy improvising whenever I can. I think it’s really fun and therapeutic to just go to the piano and play whatever is on your mind. I also love improvising with friends, especially ones who play different instruments, because you start getting more ideas and colors to share and pass around while you play.
PPM: What does being a piano professional mean to you?
UG: To me, being a piano professional means to always do my best, regardless of the circumstances. In February of 2015, I was diagnosed with terrible tendonitis in both arms, preventing me from practicing for an entire week before an important performance of Chopin’s Concerto No. 1. My solution was to prepare by repeatedly listening to recordings of the piece, studying the score, and reading many of Chopin’s letters. I discovered a passage, in which Chopin wrote of the exact concerto that I was to perform. Reading, “It is… a thousand happy memories…a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening” was more helpful than practicing the piece a thousand times. I was able to put myself in Chopin’s shoes when performing and form an emotional connection with the audience. Being professional means to overcome difficulties and create the best music that I can.
PPM: How often do you visit Japan? Do you have relatives there?
UG: Not as often as I’d like to. I used to go once or even twice a year when I was younger, but now I only visit if I have performances there. That’s a bit of a bummer because my mom’s whole side of the family lives there, including my grandparents, but it’s not all bad because every time I go to Japan, I can play for them at my concert. I think at one point I hadn’t gone back in about two years, but this summer I actually got to go to Japan just for vacation for the first time in five or six years, which was great. I visited my grandparents in Tokyo and ate lots of amazing food, visited friends, and actually went sightseeing a little bit and went up the Tokyo Tower for the first time. Most of the time I’m in Japan, I’m rushing through the city to rehearse and travel, which is a lot of fun in its own way, but getting to have a little time to myself and relax was just amazing.
PPM: What is the biggest difference between the Japanese and American culture, in your opinion?
UG: I’ve noticed that American people tend to be more direct about what they want and need, while Japanese people are more indirect in expressing their true feelings. I don’t think one is better than the other, but I definitely find it interesting. Also, things in Japan are a lot more compact and smaller. Doorways are smaller and cars look like tiny little boxes. After you’re in Japan for a while, it starts looking normal, but if you just arrived there from America, everything looks “fun sized.”
PPM: Not so long ago, you performed on a cruise. What was that travel experience like, and what memories do you carry from that trip?
UG: I was invited to perform on a Crystal Cruises transatlantic cruise ship a couple nights a week. The cruise started in Edinburgh and went to Hamburg, Amsterdam, made its way up towards Iceland, passed by some other Northern islands, Nova Scotia, then finished in New York. Iceland, though, was definitely one of my favorite stops on the route. Reykjavik was interesting to visit. The memories just keep getting better and more vivid as time goes on – you start remembering these little things that you saw and experienced, like the cute, yet unpronounceable, street names or the smell that comes from the small crepe shops on the side of the road. One thing that I remember really vividly is that it was SO cold, which was crazy, because it was the middle of August. But then again, it’s not so crazy, because Iceland is so far north. In any case, if you ever plan to go to Iceland, even if it’s in the middle of summer, bring LOTS of warm clothes.
The memories just keep getting better and more vivid as time goes on – you start remembering these little things that you saw and experienced, like the cute, yet unpronounceable, street names or the smell that comes from the small crepe shops on the side of the road.
PPM: What’s your favorite clothing style to wear in your every day life and who picks your wardrobe for concert performances?
UG: My concert performance wardrobe is picked out by my mom and I. Usually, we buy dresses especially for concerts, but my favorite performance dress right now is one that I got for prom last year. A lot of performance gowns can be uncomfortable, so it’s really awesome when you can find a dress that feels awesome and looks awesome, too. Outside of concert clothes, comfort is definitely a big part in my wardrobe, especially because until recently, I’ve never been really interested in shopping or fashion. Now, I’m starting to see it as a way to express myself and my personality, but I’m still experimenting and playing around with styles. But if I had to describe my wardrobe in one word, it would definitely be “comfy.”
PPM: In the past you’ve been home schooled. What type of homeschooling was it? How was this experience for you and what advantages and disadvantages do you see in it?
UG: I was home schooled for seventh and eight grade, and I did online schooling. Of course, every person and student has their preferences, and I’m sure some really enjoy online schooling, but my experience with it wasn’t the best. I’m a fairly social person, and I enjoy being with my friends for the majority of the time. I’m also the only child and a pianist (which is a lonely profession in itself, because it requires hours of solitary concentration). So, almost all of my social interactions come from school. As you can imagine, homeschooling was really lonely for me. It did have its advantages, though. The schedule was flexible, and I could go to school in my pajamas if I wanted to. For me, however, the disadvantages outweighed the advantages, and I started going to a non-virtual high school (a real high school) starting freshman year, and I’ve been loving it!
PPM: Would you name five favorite things in your room?
UG: My five favorite things in my room are the map that has pushpins to show all the places I’ve been, the wall of postcards that I’ve bought and friends have sent me, a drawing of flowers made by my best friend, all of my stuffed animals that I refuse to give away even at 17, and the wall decorations I currently have. So if you’ve watched Stranger Things, you know that there’s a wall in the show that’s covered with Christmas lights and has the alphabet written underneath it. I’ve always wanted to replicate it, and with the help of my friend, we managed to make it, and right now it might be my favorite thing ever. The only downside to this decoration, though, is that when people who haven’t seen the show come into my room, they want to know why I have the alphabet taped onto my wall and tease me, asking if that’s the new topic I’m learning in school. It’s okay, they’ll see what it truly is when the lights start flickering.
My five favorite things in my room are the map that has pushpins to show all the places I’ve been, the wall of postcards that I’ve bought and friends have sent me, a drawing of flowers made by my best friend, all of my stuffed animals that I refuse to give away even at 17, and the wall decorations I currently have.
PPM: What do you enjoy doing on a weekend when when you are not practicing?
UG: On a typical weekend, if I’m not practicing, I’m probably at home or at a friend’s house eating food and watching Netflix. I also really enjoy reading and baking sweets. My friends and I also go shopping or to Dave and Busters where I destroy the block-stacking game and win a couple hundred tickets at a time.
PPM: What are some of the things that make you smile and what are you pet peeves?
UG: Last Christmas, I asked for a Polaroid camera, and ever since then, I’ve been carrying it around with me and taking pictures of my friends and I. I usually take two or more so I can give them to my friends and still have some memories left over. Looking at these pictures always makes me smile. I don’t have a lot of pet peeves, but when people directly bite into a chocolate bar instead of breaking it off into the pieces (likes it’s supposed to), it makes me want to take their chocolate bar away, because, clearly, they don’t deserve it. I mean, come on, the little indentations are there for a reason.
PPM: What qualities in people do you respect the most?
UG: I have so much admiration and respect for people who stand up for what they believe in.
PPM: What are some of your favorite places in California?
UG: I really love Long Beach. It’s near my home, but I don’t get to go there often, so it’s a treat when I can. I love the ocean and the beach, and Long Beach has these amazing little cafes, art stores, and gelato shops that I just love. I just love walking on the beach and in the town. Besides Long Beach, my other favorite place is obviously Disneyland. Disneyland is perfect.
PPM: What is your favorite food?
UG: I’ll honestly eat anything and everything. If someone offers me food, I’ll take it, even if the person is a complete stranger. If I have to choose though, I would pick Japanese food. I can’t get anymore specific, though, since there’s too many Japanese foods that I like: ramen, sushi, dumplings, mochi, and basically everything else. I also love pasta and pizza and In-N-Out burgers. Also, ice cream.
PPM: Do you celebrate Japanese holidays? If so, which ones?
UG: Since I’ve been born and raised in the good ole United States, I’m pretty Americanized, but I still celebrate New Years’ in a sort of Japanese way. And by sort of Japanese way, I mean that I pester my mom every year to make me the traditional Japanese New Years’ dishes because they are SO good.
PPM: What does gratitude mean to you and what are you most grateful for in your life?
UG: I’m most grateful for the friends and family in my life. Without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Even and especially during stressful times, they are always by my side, supporting me and keeping me motivated. So to me, gratitude means to care for and to be supportive of my friends and family like they have been for me.
PPM: What makes you feel most centered and grounded?
UG: My friends and family, especially through crazy times. They remind me to take a breath and live in the moment.
PPM: What is your dream as a pianist?
UG: My dream as a pianist is to be able to use my music to help others. Music can have such a positive impact on people and I hope that my music can have these effects.
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