Performing highly advanced percussion pieces, Momoe Sakurai presented her junior recital on Nov. 21 at the McKay Auditorium. While teachers and friends of Sakurai recognized her great percussions skills, Sakurai shared how she first learned to play the piano, but eventually chose percussion over the piano before she entered BYU–Hawaii.
The main piece of the recital was “Harmonic Rhythm” by Russell Peck, a timpani concerto Sakurai played with the piano accompanment of Jennifer Duerden, a special instructor of music at BYUH. Dr. Darren Duerden, Sakurai’s percussion teacher, described the piece as “the most advanced timpani piece I have ever let a student do in my teaching career.”
“It was a very impressive thing she’s accomplished tonight. If you don’t know timpani stuff, you may not understand how difficult it was. The piano part Jennifer played was incredibly amazing too,” continued Dr. Duerden, a music professor at BYUH.
Not only the timpani part of the piece was complicated, Jennifer Duerden said the piano part was also one of the most difficult piano pieces she had ever played. “Lots of syncopations, lots of accidentals, scales, fast notes, [and] huge chords. But it was also one of the most fun ones. It’s kind of jazzy. It’s syncopated and rhythmic and of course, it’s because I’m playing for Sakurai.”
Dr. Duerden said he spent a long time teaching Sakurai in preperation for the recital. Jennifer Duerden said she often practiced with Sakurai late into the night. “The instruments are so big. It’s hard to find a time and place we can practice together. We started at 9 or 10 p.m. [and finished] usually before [midnight], but sometimes we even went later than that.”
Sakurai said it was her first time to play a timpani concerto and she cherished the rare opportunity. “There’s not many solo concertos you can play on the timpani because usually, you just stay at the back of the orchestra.”
Sakurai’s mother, Mitsuko Sakurai, came all the way from Japan to see her daughter perform live. After watching the recital, she commented, “Momoe is really blessed with everything, especially with good teachers, the good environment, and the companions around her.”
Sakurai also played the marimba, steel pan, and the xylophone in the recital, but the timpani was the main instrument. Sakurai said she likes the low sound the timpani makes. “In my world, percussion is the coolest among all instruments, and timpani is the coolest among all percussion instruments.”
Sakurai is originally from Kanagawa, a city next to Tokyo, Japan. She started learning to play the piano at age 5. Sakurai explained, “That was a special kind of preschool and the piano lesson was a requirement in the curriculum.”
After Sakurai finished preschool, she continued piano lessons and didn’t stop until she was 18. In junior high school, the 13-year-old Sakurai joined the school band and started learning to play percussion.
In 2011, when Sakurai was in her second to last year of senior high school, she was struggling to decide between studying percussion or piano performance at BYUH. At that time, Sakurai only had five years of experience on percussion and 13 years of experience on the piano. However, she loved percussion, she said.
At that point, Dr. Scott McCarrey, the piano professor who founded the piano performance major at BYUH, came to Japan to hold a scholarship audition. Sakurai’s piano teacher, a former piano student of Dr. McCarrey, took Sakurai to meet Dr. McCarrey.
After playing the piano in front of Dr. McCarrey, Sakurai received comments on her piano skills, and inquired about both the piano and percussion program at BYUH. Sakurai said she eventually chose percussion over piano performance.
After making a mistake while playing the timpani in a prefectural competition with her school’s brass band, Sakurai gained a huge desire to improve her percussion skills. She recalled, “I missed one note, a very important note. The conductor was looking at me and I knew what to do, but I just couldn’t move. I just didn’t hit that note.”
“I really regretted that. I really wanted to do it better,” Sakurai said. “Also, I knew much about the piano already but not percussion. I wanted to learn more about percussion.”
Sakurai came to BYUH in April 2014. She said her first semester, although she couldn’t speak good English, she went to see Dr. Duerden and requested to take timpani lessons. “I just went to his office. I couldn’t explain well in English and he couldn’t understand, but he just listened to me and let me play the timpani. After I played, he just let me take the lesson.”
Dr. Duerden said it was an extremely surprising experience to him, and Sakurai’s love for the timpani is rare. “In the percussion program, you have to work keyboard and the drum set a lot. It’s rare that somebody comes with the love of timpani playing.”
He laughed and continued, “She has a real love for playing the timpani. It’s just a joy to have somebody love learning that art for what it is.”
Sakurai said she’s grateful for Dr. Duerden’s patience and willingness to listen to her. “He not only listened to what I said, but also my music. He accepted me and raised me from the bottom to where I now am.”
Sakurai is still studying percussion with Dr. Duerden now. She is a member of Shaka Steel and has also been part of the BYUH Polynesian drumming ensemble. She said because the music department is small, students receive even more opportunities to learn.
“You get lots of attention from the teachers. You can do whatever and study whatever you want. The teachers are willing to teach you anything. If you have the desire, you get a lot,” Sakurai explained.
As a percussionist, Dallin Hee, an alumnus from Honolulu, recognized Sakurai’s skills. “She didn’t make many mistakes. She showed a lot of confidence in her performance. She’s passionate about what she does.”