The Van Cliburn Winner Who Was Once A German Teacher

Andrew S. Delfino

Writer’s comment: When John Boe told our English 104C class that we were supposed to do a profile, I thought of a lot of people I could interview. When John told our class that a profile is always easier to write when it is about a famous person, I knew immediately that professional pianist Jon Nakamatsu was the person I wanted to write about. As the piece describes, Jon was my high school German teacher for three years before he won the illustrious Van Cliburn piano competition giving him a chance to make a living doing what he loved to do best: play music around the world. I think this piece works so well not just because it is a great story of a high school teacher achieving his dream—and a little fame along the way—but because knowing Jon allowed me to show a side of him that very few of his fans will ever get to see. Naturally thanks go to John Boe, for without his supreme editorial skill this piece would still be a nebulous blob.
—Andrew S. Delfino

Instructor’s comment: Like most of the really fine writers I have had the pleasure of teaching at UC Davis, Andy generously gives teachers (like me) more credit than they deserve. A gifted writer when he came into my class, Andy was willing to work with such focus and creativity that I thought all four pieces he wrote for my class worthy of publication.
         The wonderful profile published here, “The Van Cliburn Winner Who Was Once a German Teacher,” was a special challenge because the subject of the profile was touring, was available only via phone and email. Still, Andy got such wonderful quotes, getting Jon Nakamatsu to tell so much of his own story. Andy has the good sense as a writer to know when to get out of the way and when to let his own persona intrude. (Notice, for example, the effective way he ends the piece, with words from the subject of the profile.) Andy makes the piece fun to read by not just telling “the story” but by giving us a number of anecdotes and stories along the way, drawing the reader along by constantly offering sentences and paragraphs that are fun to read.
—John Boe, English Department

On the stage of the Tenth Van Cliburn piano competition stood Van Cliburn himself announcing which of the six finalists would be the winner of the Gold Medal. As they got closer to first prize, Jon Nakamatsu came closer to being transformed from Herr Naki, my beloved high school German teacher, to Jon Nakamatsu, professional pianist. The moment had arrived: the tall Cliburn, still handsome in his early sixties, announced in his Texan drawl, “And winner of the Tenth Van Cliburn Competition is Jon Nakamatsu.”
         Halfway across the country, back home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I read the news over the Internet a few minutes later. I screamed. During the last week of the competition, all of Herr Naki’s students at St. Francis—as well as the whole school—kept one eye on the news while we took our finals. I remember particularly impressing a freshman in the cafeteria just because I was one of Herr Naki’s students; it was as if we each had a gold star on our foreheads marking us as special, set apart from the less important, regular students. For one week we were on top of the high school social hierarchy. The German final was particularly hard to study for since we knew Naki wasn’t going to be there to administer it.
         Instead we got Herr Sollfrank, the temperamental substitute teacher from Bavaria who we knew would love to smack a few of us. Herr Sollfrank had trouble even handing out the tests since we were all talking about what we had heard or seen of the competition from the news or Internet. You’d think that somehow a group of twenty-two sixteen- and seventeen-year-old juniors had become classical music connoisseurs all of sudden. Naturally, it was for more selfish reasons that we paid attention.
         In reality, we all just wanted to see if Herr Naki’s dream was going to come true. At St. Francis, a Catholic high school in Mountain View, the German program was small. Dwarfed by the giant Spanish or the healthy French programs, German at St. Francis had only one class per level. We also had the same tiny room for three years: the small half-classroom—barely larger than the janitor’s supply closet—that used to house the school’s kiln when the Arts Department offered pottery classes. So we always had the same classmates and one of the best teachers at St. Francis, Herr Naki. After three years, we knew him pretty well. And naturally we all knew that Herr Naki wanted to become a professional pianist.
         Early on in the competition Jon Nakamatsu became a crowd favorite and from his biographical sketch in the media guide became known as The High School German Teacher—something that still dogs his career. “Many people may have heard of me as the Cliburn winner who was once a German teacher,” he said, “but they may not even know my name.” The only American to make the finals, Herr Naki stunned the music world when he won the prestigious contest held every four years. For several good reasons: he was the only contestant not to study at a music conservatory (he passed that up to study German at Stanford and get a masters in education there too); while his fellow contestants got up at ten am and spent their day and night practicing, Nakamatsu was writing lesson plans and grading papers until five pm before practicing until one or two in the morning; he had also stayed with Marina Derryberry, his only teacher in twenty-four years. Jon Naka-matsu was also the first American to win the Van Cliburn since 1981, a year when the always-powerful Soviets boycotted the competition.
         But all of his Deutschschüler back at St. Francis had known long before that Naki was hoping for that big break. Herr Naki was so popular with his students because he not only was funny, but had the most creative lesson plans around. The first week of German freshmen year of high school was spent crammed in our tiny desks in that tiny half-classroom where the walls were covered with posters from German tourist agencies. We sat there as Herr Naki, a very tiny, remarkably hairy Japanese-American man, spoke only German. After a week, Herr Naki spoke English for a day—the only day where he spoke more English than German—to explain the class to us and tell us that he was an aspiring pianist; he stated very clearly that as soon as he had his big break he was going to leave.
         After winning the Cliburn three years later, a reporter asked him how he was going to tell his students that he was not going to be teaching anymore, he jokingly said “Auf Wiedersehen,” German for “till we meet again.” Even without the good-bye my fellow students and I understood what Naki meant. Even the administration understood it without his saying.
         When I recently interviewed him over the phone (he was waiting for a plane in Baltimore after having played with the Annapolis symphony; thinking he might be a terrorist, a security guard made him run his shoes through the x-ray machine) Naki told me that when he tried to call the principal “I only got her machine. I left a message saying that I had just won and that I wasn’t going to be teaching next year. I would have been in trouble anyway since my teaching credential had just expired.”

***          The path to success had never been an easy one for Herr Naki. Aside from his teaching job, finding performances and competitions were difficult for someone without a conservatory education. One person told him that he could never play Chopin well since he was an Asian-American. Even at the competitions he got into, things did not always go well. One time during a competition in Leeds, England, he was interrupted three times while performing. This was after he barely made it to the competition after the shuttle got a flat tire.
         Right after he began playing Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Opus 109, the fire alarm went off; the hall had to be completely evacuated. After being allowed back into the hall, Herr Naki began to play the piece again before the alarm went off yet again, forcing another evacuation. During this second evacuation, they discovered that someone was boiling tea backstage right next to the sensor, which kept setting it off. Having fixed that problem, they allowed Naki to start playing for a third time. “Just when I began playing again,” Naki said, “I noticed all these people hurrying to the front row. Evidently, all the running out of the hall had caused one older gentleman to have a mild heart attack. Naturally I had to stop playing while the paramedics arrived.”
         After the paramedics left, Naki was finally able to play without any interruptions. But the damage was already done. “I played terribly and didn’t make it past that first round,” he told me. “The man sent me a note from the hospital apologizing, but at that point I was already playing hearts in the dorm and taking tours of the beautiful English countryside.”
         Naki had tried for the Van Cliburn four years earlier, in fact, only to be rejected in the screening stage. Though competitions often strike him as a “ridiculous idea” for finding young talent, the screening process that year was particularly ludicrous. All contestants were videotaped playing a piece of their choosing, a tape that would be viewed by the panel of judges determining who would be invited to Fort Worth, Texas for the competition. “Some contestants were taped playing in front of an audience, while others weren’t,” Nakamatsu said. “In Los Angeles where I was taped, we had no audience, which made it like practicing by yourself. Which made it hard to play well.”
         Nakamatsu realizes though that the four years between competitions helped him a lot. “I learned a lot about myself and what I wanted out of music,” he said. “I was better prepared as a musician.” Having the screening take place in front of the judges and an audience the second time around also helped: “Playing in front of an audience helped me make a better impression that time.”
         Herr Naki has always been a crowd favorite too. Many of his reviews praise his personality and interaction with the audience. For many of the reasons that he liked teaching, Nakamatsu loves performing music for audiences. “Both are about communication,” he said. “Whether it is teaching a class about German grammar, or playing a piece as you believe the composer wanted it played, you are trying to communicate with that group of people. There is an electricity, especially in a music hall. It’s a two-way street: they give me their energy and I give them the music the way I want to express it.”
         But not all the critics have loved Jon Nakamatsu. By far the constant criticism he’s gotten after five seasons as a touring performer has been that he “plays more to the mind than the heart,” as one critic put it. Another said that Jon Nakamatsu shows are “full of dazzling pianism, but short on personality.” After I brought this up on the phone, Herr Naki came the closest to being a diva during the interview. “The criticism about competition pianists has always been ‘too much technique, too much banging out pieces.’ I think those critics are entitled to their opinion, but I take all the reviews panning me with a grain of salt. Most critics don’t know what they are talking about.”
         One of the ways Naki keeps the critics and sold-out crowds around the world entertained is his constant work on enlarging his repertoire. “Why would you want to play Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto over and over again?” he asked. “Not only would that be boring, but that is also a way they try to pigeonhole artists, especially the competition winners: they always want them to play the pieces they won with.”
         However, most Jon Nakamatsu recitals contain a piece or two by Frederic Chopin. Anyone who has heard him play a polonaise or nocturne by Chopin know that Nakamatsu has a connection with the Polish composer’s emotional lyricism: in fact Naki’s most recent solo album is completely Chopin. Nakamatsu shies away from calling Chopin his favorite composer or the composer he feels most comfortable playing. “I have been playing Chopin since I was very young and definitely relate to his sense of lyricism and keyboard mastery,” Nakamatsu said. “I think he is still much maligned in many ‘highbrow’ musical circles. But I think he is absolutely a master. Having said that, I also relate to many other composers in the same way since they allow me to express myself in different ways.”
         Remaining diverse has helped him appeal to audiences around the world. He has played in England, France, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, China, and Singapore. And one look at his upcoming tour dates shows he has gigs in Florence, Italy and Santo Domingo. (“It doesn’t mean I’m a jet-setter. It means I’m homeless,” he joked.) Such popularity in Europe usually means that an American classical musician has found success. “I don’t know if one ever really knows if they’ve ‘made it,’” he told me. “I do have a lot of engagements and I have my own management, so I’m doing well. Only time will tell how successful I’ve been.”
         Such popularity has Nakamatsu on the road three-quarters of the year, which makes having a personal life impossible for the single musician. But Nakamatsu thinks that he is not giving up his life for art entirely. “In many ways it is definitely like giving your life for art,” he said. “But having said that, your art will suffer if you don’t live the kind of life that allows you the full range of emotions and experiences needed to effectively communicate through art.”
         This extreme dedication doesn’t bother him though. Right now he is taking each day an hour at a time. “I don’t try to hurry things or stress over the future that may or may not turn out the way I hope,” he said. “ I can plan, work and dream, and then be pleasantly surprised when things go well for me. I have stopped living by other people’s clocks.”

***         I haven’t had Jon Nakamatsu as a teacher for almost five years, but I still call him Herr Naki. He signs his e-mails to me “Jon,” as if to suggest that I call him by the same name. I just can’t. He will always be Herr Naki, my high school German teacher. I don’t think I learned any German from anyone other than Herr Naki: certainly not from his successor (No one could have been successful in the first post-Naki year; the poor lady who St. Francis hired earned the nickname “Frau Awful” from me and my classmates for her more traditional teaching techniques) and certainly not from the grad student I took German 3 from my sophomore year of college.
         His lessons were always creative, and at the very least fun. Every day we learned some new part of grammar, some vocabulary, and then played games to practice those, or practiced our speaking skills by writing and performing our own skits. Other times we each took turns teaching the class, with Herr Naki impersonating the student who was now in front of the class.
         With such a powerful response from his students, it is no wonder that Naki stays in touch with many of them. “Teaching helped my playing just for the fact that it helped flesh out my experience as a human being,” he said. “That experience is essential to playing with any emotion or feeling.”
         And that is not the only way. Having such a high profile in the classical music world gets Jon Nakamatsu guest lectures at musical conservatories. Being a teacher certainly makes speaking in front of crowds easier. In fact, if he were to retire from touring professionally, he would probably teach music in some aspect or another. “I know it would be hard to go back to German,” he told me. “I’d certainly have to hit the books and study it again; I find myself forgetting bits and pieces of stuff.” Quick to correct himself, he added, “My speaking skills are still pretty good, though.”
         Since it played such a large role in his development as a pianist, Jon Nakamatsu dislikes how many profiles, articles, and reviews downplay his career as a teacher. “I was very devoted to teaching when I was doing that. For the longest time I had two lives going: professional pianist, practicing and performing, and then high school German teacher. I never wanted to give the impression that one was more important than the other. When I taught I had a normal life, which lots of professional pianists never had.”