With 27 years of experience under his belt, renowned pianist and jazz musician Wataru Niimori decided to change his tune for the Capital District, moving from the stage to the front of a classroom.
Niimori said during his job search, he knew he would not settle for a job without music and wanted it to include his passion for teaching. His opportunity came when Noel Liberty, owner and founder of The Music Studio in Colonie, responded to his application for a teaching position.
“Obviously, I was looking for a job and it’s really difficult for, generally, a musician to get a job. I didn’t want to do anything besides music… Of course I love teaching it to any age, kids or adults or high school students. That’s the first reason why I wanted the job,” said Niimori.
Now, Niimori teaches music fundamentals to students aged 4 to 18, along with individual and private piano lessons.
Liberty said that his professional experience drew her to his application out of dozens she had received. The Music Studio, in its 39th year of operation, has seen about 14,000 students come and go. As part of that experience, Liberty said she wanted to include lessons from the best teachers she could find.
“It was incredibly difficult. I kept telling myself I’ll find the right person, but I did not until it was right before classes started,” said Liberty. She said the search for new teachers was tricky.
She found Niimori’s application only a week before classes began this past fall.
“Even though they’re kids, I really want to give them good professional musicians to work with. They’re beginning music. There are advanced kids, as well. I do think it’s important to have a high quality of musicians to work with. Some people I’ve talked to said, ‘Well, I’m good enough to teach little kids,’ and you know that right away tells you they don’t play well,” Liberty said.
Niimori’s experience includes being a band leader for The Singing Hoosiers at Indiana University for two years, the leader of the university’s vocal jazz ensemble and leading his band, The WMR Trio, based in Philadelphia. He’s also participated in various other performances at schools, festivals and restaurants.
The 30-year old musician began playing piano at 3 years old with private lessons, and continued into training for 10 years. Niimori said that the strict musical training in Japan, his home country, pushed him from piano for a time. When he was 19, he attended Temple University in Pennsylvania to study film before making the switch back to music three years later.
It was in Pennsylvania that he delved into jazz, a style that would become his passion.
“The moving to Philadelphia was my turning point, because I had never played jazz before that. Philadelphia was a popular city for jazz. Then I decided, oh, this is what I really want to do. I was 22 years old. Since then, jazz stuck in my life,” Niimori said. “Jazz is American music, it’s signature. So, I really am glad to be involved in an American tradition in America.”
A large factor that drew him to the Capital District was the close proximity to New York City, where, along with Chicago, a lot of musicians strive to end up. Niimori said that being a musician is difficult in large cities, because they often get caught up in becoming famous. Albany, he said, is “not too big or too small,” so students can concentrate on music.
Teaching at The Music Studio has not hindered his love for jazz. He frequently travels to Philadelphia to continue playing piano at the Japanese Christian Church and to play at cafes and restaurants.
Liberty said that her studio is working to set up a jazz workshop or camp. Niimori is also working with the Colonie and Guilderland libraries to set up workshops in the spring, and he recently instructed a piano class at Schenectady High School’s Sayles School of Fine Arts.
Niimori said the switch to teaching children has been a fulfilling, albeit different, experience than what he was used to.
“It’s really challenging. It’s so much easier to teach university students because they know what to do, but kids sometimes, instead of music, we have to teach them how to behave…. I really want them to enjoy music and to continue loving music,” said Niimori.