Beyond the Surface: Jazz Pianist Keiko Matsui on the Responsibility of Sharing Music, Using Music to Give Back and Help Create Peace

11/05/2016 01:00 am ET Updated Nov 14, 2016

To be one’s true self is the goal in life. This blog series would not exist if it werent for a reunion with an old friend who had all the makings of a modern-day Mozart. But at a pivotal fork in the road, he chose the path behind a desk, instead of one behind a keyboard, which would’ve honored his gift - like Mozart did. Now, 20 years later, he’s unrecognizable, this friend who once had music radiating from every cell, especially when singing in random bursts of happiness. The years have taken their toll - not just in the added 20 pounds that don’t belong, but in the heaviness that comes when living someone elses life, and not one’s true purpose. The life you came here to live.

As a writer, this inspired me to highlight the special souls who chose to follow their true path. The tougher path, but one that honors and expresses the powerful gift of music they’ve been given. To live the Mozart life. May some of their words help or inspire you to find your true calling in life.

Jazz pianist Keiko Matsui gets to the live the life of music, sharing her compositions all over the world with fans. The time I saw her in a small jazz club, my Treo phone chimed a few notes it made when powering off, and she immediately mimicked the notes on her piano upon hearing that. It’s symbolic in the way Keiko sees music - as a way of connecting souls. She reflects on how when she performs, she connects to a higher place, the mystical place where she and listeners meet through the powerful medium of music, knowing her mission in this life, how she thought her first album she made a year after moving to America, the 1987 “A Drop of Water” would be her first and last album, the responsibility of sharing music and using her music to give back, she believes that the fact that our souls choose to be here now, we are on a “soul quest,” technology and materialism, and paying attention to the signs from the universe to move on.

There are divine moments of serendipity, where a catalyst opens the door that leads to the path we’re meant to be on, the one where we live out the fullest expression of our true selves. What was that moment for you and how did it happen?

Many times that happened mostly when I am with music. Like when I am composing, there is no will. thinking, from me - just empty white board in my mind. And just concentrating by sitting front of the piano, seeking into the silence. Then I receive melodies. Sometime, those melody brought me unexpected emotions and I was moved by that and made me cry. Like when I received melody of the song “Butterfly” from “Journey to The Heart,” after I listened to the recording on my phone - I found the sound of pencil - I was writing melodies on the music sheets and playing - and me sniffing because I was in tears. I recall that moment I was happily moved with this melody in the sunset glow from window. When I am performing, I feel that I am connected to another place - above. My fan wrote me long time ago “By listening to your music, I feel that your music brought us back to the roots of the soul.” And by experience of these mystic, divine moments, I realized that by listening to my music, my fan and I am meeting at some deep place in the universe. It’s very mystic and powerful way of gathering, connecting souls. I love this phrase from a radio personality in Seattle who supports and loves my music since my first album in 1987. When she introduced me on the stage, she said, “Keiko’s music is not just music. She draws art. Experience Keiko Matsui.”

Life does give us catalysts, a release valve in our lowest point of life, that allows us to push up to the next, hopefully better chapter. Was there a point for you that helped you push yourself further and evolve and do better?

Yes, I had many points like that. Especially, last 10 years, I made lots of changes and made decision for many things. Made lots of evolution, especially this year. Even not hard or bad time. There is an issue - looks like these opportunity is testing me or challenging me for me to grow more. So, when you are aware of these, not becoming depressed or panicking, you can believe that everything happening is important to you which has meaning. So, just need to determined and make choice differently if something is bothering you. This year, this speed of evolution is getting faster and faster. Even before recording of new album and after completed album, I can feel that I am different. Interesting and exciting - now I do not know where I go next. All great experience!

What inspired this blog series was seeing an old friend who has a special gift of music, but didn’t choose that path, who, 20 years later, isn’t living the life he thought he would live. People who make music and get to travel the world doing so are a rare example of a life where one is most connected to their true self, Higher Self, and able to honor and channel that gift. What are your thoughts on that? And, do you feel you’re consciously living the life you thought you would be living, say from 20 years ago?

I understand that if we made different choice much earlier, you could start living your life differently. But, I think the time you chose is the best time. Of course, because of your choice, sometime it takes too long to get there but, I believe that everything has meaning. By the time, you move to next step, your environment is ready for you. I had hardship in the past in many ways and now I can tell that when your heart and soul feels pain or not happy, Universe is sending you sign to move on. I was holding my pain long time but, now, I can understand that it was lesson for my soul to learn about human and life. You cannot change other people, but you can change yourself by making difference of your choices in realistic thing or in your thought. Fortunately, I had no regret at this point. I have my music career in U.S. about 30 years by now. So, I think about 20 years ago, I already awakened; this is my mission. My mission is delivering my melody and dedicating my concert to increase more peaceful air on this earth. So, that part is good. But at same time, if I made different choice for how to care about myself, my feelings, I think I made short cut to come here. But, it’s ok. I am happier and healthier than before.

Now is the best time and feel so grateful to have pure support and love from my fans for my music. My fans tell me in email or after the show at autograph session, how much my music lives in their life or how meaningful. I believe that my music has special bond to my fan’s heart. Of course, by doing music, I am making my living. But, for me, it is not just business. It is the proof of how I live in this life.

I’ve said in a blog post about living the Mozart life, that it may be a tougher road to choose, where one gets to fully channel their Higher Selves, their true selves. Do you resonate to that? You’re fully living your true self. You did not choose the 9 to 5 path. But to embark on this path you chose, living your higher calling, was that difficult? Because you didn’t know you would get here. You didn’t know you would have the longevity you now have.

I think living as an artist is very challenging and not easy. But it is for sure, very special way to live. You need to take all responsibility for your creation. But, at same time, you have freedom to express anything. Of course, it is hard to make living with art sometime. And during mystic time of creation, you’ll feel connecting between above, or Universe /creator, and finding your inner self too, which is becoming one with the universe. I do not have particular religion but I believe those exist. Even with other genre of arts, science or medical. We will notice those connections and existence when you become expert. I found that similarity among artists in different culture or different genre of art. It is wonderful progress to find truth of universe and finding myself. I feel - all these progress was meaningful for me to find those things and piano was one of the tools to come to this path to make me to realize; my mission and discovering the truth. Feel oneness among all of lives on this planet. So, someday, maybe there is no piano between me and others. And yes, I do not know where I go, there is no answer. Just keep questing with my soul until leaving this earth.

How did you know this is your life path, your true calling?

I was not planning to become professional musician when I was a student. I was very active child - doing student council, fighting against bad boys who tease weak kids or disabled kids. I had strong sense of justice. Also, I was into studying too. At same time, I was taking piano lesson and other lesson for musical theory. Always I was completing lessons after school. But, still not thinking about becoming professional musician. But, somehow, I started my career in Japan as composer when I was in high school and started tour as performer while I was in university. Then I moved to U.S. in 1986 and made album “A Drop of Water” released in 1987. I thought this will be my first and last album. But, somehow, it became popular on the radio and I started my concerts in U.S. And in 1988, I did my concert in U.S. before baby birth, my first daughter, it was sold out show. I was thinking; maybe I won’t be back to the stage to concentrate as mother for child. Then ladies came to me after the show and said; “Don’t stop!” Also, older lady was in tears, “Thank you so much for beautiful thing.” Around that time I started feeling that my music is not just mine. I have responsibility to deliver. After that, even having hard time with my private life, I came back to stage again and again because always show was booked and my fans were waiting for me. While those progress, my relation with piano became deeper and deeper. So, I could come this far by fan’s support and by noticing - this is my mission of this life. I feel so fortunate and grateful to know that my music made other people happy or giving hope or courage.

When did you know you had this gift of music and how did you start to do the human discipline it takes to channel it, hone it, and bring it forth?

Because my mother took me to piano lesson, I started training. I like it so, my mom never said “practice.” I started composing and arranging around eight years old. But I was into many things. From 15 years old, I start spending more time on music but, still did not think to become professional. And those lesson era, I was trying to compose for lesson and competition. So, I had pressure. I didn’t like the pressure so, was telling myself, “will quit composing after lesson era. But, somehow, melodies started to come to me around high school. And started enjoying writing melodies. And took more time to practice and learning music theories. Then I started creating album and performing in Japan around 18 years old. For me, it is very natural thing to express myself through my own composition by then. And after releasing first album in U.S., my bond between piano became stronger and by doing concerts in many different parts of the world, little by little, I became aware of my mission. I hope that my music creates more peace on this earth.

Speaking of divine moments, original music is often channeled from our Higher Selves. Some of the best songs were written in minutes. What’s your take on that? Do you feel that those are the inspirational moments you’re most connected to your true self? How people always say it comes from somewhere else.

Yes, I had many experiences of it. Sometimes, suddenly came to me and I run to the piano and write it down. Sometime in a dream. I do not feel - I am connected to my true self. But, for sure, I am not thinking anything. They come to me and I received it from the silence. But, some song carries reflection of my thoughts about life, love, human being, universe, moon, nature. When I need to start composing, always, at first, I feel pressure. Always, nothing helps. Just you need to quest inside of you. At some point before start receiving for this new album, I realized that I am so fortunate. Because I have 100% freedom to create anything. And I have record deal and my fans are waiting for my new melodies. What a blessing grateful environment I have. So, when I became feeling of joy and gratefulness, my pressure disappeared. Then I started receiving songs for new album. I correct over 100 motifs then picked best 10 out of it before start making progress of actual recording.

What song or songs are you most proud of, that came in such an easy way, ethereally, almost?

Hard to pick on from over 270 songs. They are my babies, and each song has special memory or meaning. I can sample little - “Forever Forever” - when my younger daughter said before her second birthday, of course that was in Japanese, I wanted to make memory of it, then suddenly this melody came to me. “Deep Blue” - when I thought about my closest friend passed away I thought about human —where we came from. And start imagining; like the ocean connects all the continent of the world, I hope that my music can connect all the people’s minds on this earth. This is my prayer.

What is your songwriting process? Do you have a routine?

Sitting at piano without playing. No thinking, no trying to come up song. Just wait to hear something from somewhere. If I hear, I write it down or play to small recorder. Correct motifs. Sometime, whole melody came to me. Sometime, only intro.

It’s been a tough year for music, losing many of its own. What are your thoughts on time, how it seems to go by faster each year and perhaps it’s made you reflect on what you want to achieve in the time we’re given here?

When I thought about legends who went to heaven, especially when I lost my musical friend, made me think about time. He wanted to do more concerts and create music. He wrote me while he was fighting against cancer, “Keiko, you are always busy and doing concerts and keep making music. That’s good. I am getting tired of keeping my energy to fight…” I could feel that he wished to stay longer on the earth to do more what he loves. But, he had to leave. So, when I thought about his will, I feel responsibility to accomplish my role until I die. Because fortunately I still have life. He made me feel I need to work harder for him who died in the middle of his mission.

Do you think about time much and what you want to achieve in the time we have?

Well, of course, I hope that my music can meet more people and touring in more cities would be great but, beside creating harmony by doing show for world peace, I do not have purpose which need to achieve. But, for keep doing tour and creation, I need to be healthy and keep moving forward. Music has no answer so, just I want to keep energy and passion to train my body and soul and want to become stronger to keep peace of mind in any condition. In any occupation or any role, I believe that since your soul decided to come to this planet, you are on Soul Quest.

Unlike any time in history, we’re in an overwhelming digital era. There is so much detritus and noise and public schadenfreude. What’s your take on that and how do you find quiet in this noisy time?

It is harder era - technology got better but lots of people are learning materialism. And though social media made everything convenient, we are surrounded and overwhelmed by information and criticism. And sometime, people use it to spread their frustration or mean words. That is not good. Even from TV, news about scary incident or natural disaster made big impact to human’s mentality. And that is risky.

At same time, it is great tool for sharing good things and good thoughts too. And for artist, it is nice channel to reach out people whom we cannot meet but, still you can share your art on social media without costing. That is good part. But, doing these things are taking time too. So, I feel sometime, just need to be away from phone and make more time to be close to nature. I go to ocean to see sunset. I think keeping this kind of time is important for humans. When we had earthquake and tsunami in Japan, we needed to turn off lights from city to save energy. Everyone said, it is too dark and not convenient. But I noticed that we were using too much energy. Sometime I tour in Russia and Ukraine, country side, they don’t have enough energy, infrastructure is poor there. So, compare to that, we are so spoiled. Anyway, we better go back little older era which was not this convenient. It will help to save this earth too. Not only humans.

How do you ground yourself and focus on your own life path and purpose and what you want to achieve in the time we’re given here?

I had hardship in the past so, I am happy enough to be able to share my music to my fans at this point. So, just keep dedicating music. No purpose. Well, musically, I am planning for the future is - perform as orchestra show in many different parts of the world with my compositions. For that, I will make more repertoire for only piano and orchestra.

I’m a firm believer in doing mitzvahs, especially in the tougher times of our lives. To give back, be of service in some way, to use our time most wisely, can only help us in the end. What are your thoughts and do you try to do your own mitzvahs to help others, even in the smallest way?

Yes. In the past I dedicated tour and composition for many causes. Have done many charity work. Because I feel I am so fortunate to travel with my music and experiencing music connect us beyond culture religion and everything. So, I wanted to give something back through my music. In U.S. there are many opportunities. I was approached by organizations. I am performer so, I could speak up on the stage.

So, whenever I feel this is important cause and really can help by dedicating my music, I decided to do. In the past, breast cancer awareness campaign tour - I am women, mother of two daughters. I made speech about importance of early detection. Made mini album with information about this and CD sales went to organization to support people who cannot pay for check up. I also worked against hunger in Africa with the United Nations. By learning that so many kids are dying by missing food or water. Also, lost parents from civil war and aids. Also, for bone marrow donor program - I am one of minority and I learned that minority people need more donors. Worked with Rock the Earth for saving our environment. I started charity work for children in 2014. One organizer told me that my music will give hope to the children who have hard life and scarcity because of living in poor area in Peru without infrastructure and development. So, I went to Lima, Peru and dedicated three workshops, invited kids and mothers or children’s jazz orchestra etc. Did charity concert too. Since then, I want to keep doing this as life work. Now we are talking about doing these charity work in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay etc. Also, I want to do something for ocean too. It is hard to find time and financially needs support for these activity too. But, I will keep searching for opportunity and will do!

What advice do you have for people who have the gift of music, but don’t know how to start channeling it, to develop that gift and bring it out?

Well, if you already noticed you have stronger gift towards music, I think keep playing and searching for inner self. Beside lessons and practicing - this is important too. You have time for that when you are still children under someone’s support - I think good to find the way; what made you feel joy and freedom. Also, how you can express your character. What is the meaning for you doing that. Another thing, if there is great musician, professor around you who you admire, then it is good to meet and have conversation. They might become good advisor for you.

What do you do to help pick yourself up when you’re feeling down, and help you stay the course?

Go to my favorite beach and listen to waves, looking at moon, or if in Japan, go to neighborhood park and buy rose for myself to cheer me up, really works for me.

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