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October 9, 2023 - Canvas Rebel Article

Meet Akira Nakano

Alright – so today we’ve got the honor of introducing you to Akira Nakano. We think you’ll enjoy our conversation, we’ve shared it below.

Akira, thanks for taking the time to share your stories with us today Was there an experience or lesson you learned at a previous job that’s benefited your career afterwards?

In 2009, I began rebuilding my music career. I worked day jobs as a C-suite level Executive Assistant supporting five different bosses in architecture, engineering and nonprofit with varying degrees of success. Three I have the utmost respect for to this day, and two, I was very happy to walk out on.

All of these organizations had amazing reputations and were successes because of not only the leaders, but largely because of the creative brilliance of the people working for them.

I had lunch with one of the bosses I did not enjoy working for (though we would gain a great deal of respect for each other after I exited). He was going to hit mandatory retirement in five years at around the exact same time I was turning fifty. So we asked each other what we wanted to accomplish by then.

This question translated into “What kind of leader did I eventually want to become?”

Even before all of this, I had spent twelve plus years working for a space & electronics Fortune 500 firm as a video editor, producer and live event director. Though the aerospace engineers were often so grateful to me for helping showcase their work, I genuinely felt humbled to play just a tiny part in presenting their innovations to Congress, the DoD and NASA.

So what had I learned as we formed our music education nonprofit, the Los Angeles Inception Orchestra, a mentoring program for young composers? I knew I did NOT want to be a top down leader.

I wanted to have a competent seat at the table and bring in musicians and composers who knew more than I did. I wanted to feature industry professionals who could bring their expertise and share in the incredible journey of passing their knowledge onto the next generation.

How did I know this approach would work? Because when you highlight others’ incredible talent and let them be the stars, they become your colleagues and friends and help you continually grow your organization.

And how do I know we made an impact? Prior to our first concert, at a dress rehearsal, one of the humblest students I have ever worked with, without prompting walked up to each musician, shook their hand and said thank you. Because he knew this great handful of musicians had just catapulted his music education.

As always, we appreciate you sharing your insights and we’ve got a few more questions for you, but before we get to all of that can you take a minute to introduce yourself and give our readers some of your back background and context?

I grew up as a classical pianist at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. From there, I got into UCLA on a full ride piano performance scholarship, leaving the major after six weeks. I then did the UCLA extension film scoring program while getting my GE, got into film school and graduated with a BA in Film & Television production. I followed this with an extremely fulfilling corporate video marketing position for twelve plus years.

Upon leaving video marketing, I wrote and produced a stage play, “A Concerto for Claire” and then dabbled in indie film before finding my way back to music when I was hired to be the music director and onstage pianist for Lodestone Theatre Ensemble’s production of Maltby & Shire’s “Closer Than Ever”.

I gave myself four years of private piano education with my original piano teacher, Dr. Heewon Kwon and my accompanist (who became my therapist – music and otherwise – and great friend) Michael Sushel. During this time, I did a solo recital with Michael and a concert with a fledging young orchestra at the time, the Dream Orchestra. For my concert, all but seven of the players were replaced with studio musicians, and thus began my unintentional plunge into an actual music career.

At this concert, I did two concerti and wrote three originals for the show. While the conductor was convinced that everyone in the audience would walk out singing the 18th variation of Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”, instead the talk of the show was my composition, “A Concerto in Crayon” which told the story of the adventures my nephew created as he drew pictures. This gave me a really unexpected credibility in the music composition landscape.

Several years later, we formed a nonprofit orchestra to more easily raise money to do more piano concerts. The Board was Michael, Heewon and a family friend, Miyeko Heishi. And in our first meeting, someone mentioned music education. When it becomes not about yourself, it becomes important.

Researching the many nonprofits across Los Angeles who do great things in music, we were told that many of them were graduating kids to college who were behind in composition and music theory, and thus the Inception Orchestra’s Young Composers Mentoring Program was formed.

We started with a handful of kids in studio with various mentors — instrumentalists and composers — coming to teach the students how to write for their specific instruments, or how to score movies, or how to improvise. And the mentors took the kids’ music to the concert stage in 2019.

And then the pandemic hit. Because we met in studio as a group every other Saturday, but delivered prior lessons on zoom pre shutdown, we were ahead of the curve and were able to simply move everything to zoom immediately. Musicians of the highest caliber were also suddenly available, and parents were discovering our program from across the country.

We partnered very successfully with the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC) and the Classical Saxophone Project (out of New York) to broaden our range of industry professionals who mentor our young composers.

Today, we deliver mostly online, but go into the studio frequently to record our students’ music and we are returning to the concert stage in February 2024.

I am incredibly proud that our organization can teach to all levels across different genres with great success. My team and I have developed a program which allows our students to thrive and grow in their music creativity. And I am extremely grateful that several students who joined us unsure of what they were going to pursue in college, stayed with Inception and were accepted and are pursuing their music composition degrees.

Is there mission driving your creative journey?

I grew up with a very straightforward and strict music curriculum. Piano lessons, music theory, two youth orchestras on Saturdays, chamber music, plus (being Asian) I had to get straight A’s.

So nowhere in this plan did creativity fit in at all, unless it was assigned to us as homework from school. In fact, I would get in trouble when I was supposed to be practicing the piano and would be improvising instead.

So why do I think composition is so important?

There is a certain rigidity that comes with all of the other music disciplines. NOT that this is a bad thing. But creativity provides musicians with a freedom – a.liberation that can be brought to whatever performance. The freedom of not needing to be perfect and to embrace mistakes.

My colleague, Jeness Johnson, says, “Mistakes might be groundbreaking” in improv.

There is power in creativity and composition. A very subpar clarinet playing fifteen-year-old, found that she wrote and arranged brilliantly for strings using just her voice. Jeness on her cello opened up worlds of possibility for a strictly rock-a-billy guitar player. Discovering the magic of all of the different instruments of the orchestra opens one up to the appreciation of a great swath of music. And the power to not be perfect, but to feel and emote in performance churns up stunning interpretations while freeing the virtuoso,

My mission is to instill creativity and composition into all young players music curriculum. It makes them more curious and gives then the desire to learn more, to listen harder, play with greater ease, collaborate more intentionally and find inspiration is all sounds everywhere.

What’s a lesson you had to unlearn and what’s the backstory?

When I learned how to play the piano as a youngster, I was incredibly immature about it. Did I really care about technique or composers’ intentions? No. Did I really work to be the best player I could be? No. In some ways as a teenager, I wanted to just check the boxes of practice and get to perform with an orchestra, perhaps to show off.

I wish I had learned the fundamentals as a child. And I wish someone would have told me piano competitions in the long run were not that important.

I had slogged through my entire childhood, got a full ride piano performance scholarship, won the UCLA concerto competition — and then quit playing. For a long time.

I think when you come back to piano as an adult, twenty years later, there is a lot to unlearn. I was not playing with the proper technique – at all. And I had so many poor practicing habits that I had to completely retrain myself to overcome. It took me four years of intense piano lessons and practice to work through these, and it is so much harder as an adult.

I describe it as being a major league pitcher. When you are young, you have the fast, wild heat. But as you are older, you have to learn how to control the pitches as you slow down.

Now as I mentor, I really do try to provide kids (and parents) the perspective of doing it right — but not to the extent of burnout. Learning to practice and play properly later in life is the pits — but also worth it. Better to have done it younger.


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