Rieko Makita, Piano

Rieko Makita is a Japanese-Australian pianist based in London.

Rieko is currently the piano fellow for the Philharmonia Orchestra and an ambassador for the Benedetti Foundation as well as an artist of DEBUT Horizon Project. This past year, she has performed concerts in countless venues in London including the Foundling Museum, Marlowe Canterbury, Shoreditch Treehouse, St Nicholas’ Church Chiswick and St George’s Hanover. She has performed with musicians from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Southbank Sinfonia London.

Rieko is currently undertaking her Master of Performance in piano at the Royal College of Music London. She is currently studying piano with Sofya Gulyak and Dinara Klinton, generously funded by the Noswad Charity Award (2022) and the Bliss Trust Scholarship (2021). Rieko has been awarded numerous other scholarships including Busby Musical Award and Henderson Travellers Scholarship two years in a row in Australia. She obtained her Bachelor of Music with First-Class Honours from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Australia where she grew up.

As a solo artist, chamber musician and orchestral pianist, she has performed across Australia, Japan, Italy, Germany, Austria and the UK, and in major venues, including the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall and the City Recital Hall in Angel Place. Most notably, she collaborated with the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra in Germany, playing Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor by Frédéric Chopin in 2019.

 Rieko is also passionate about writing music. Most recently, her new work, Sunflower Field, was premiered at the Shoreditch Treehouse with Southbank Sinfonia clarinettist Guillermo Ramasasa in July 2022. 

 Rieko is looking forward to her final year at the RCM and giving performances throughout the UK and Europe. See her website for upcoming concerts. You can also follow her on her Instagram to keep up to date with all her exciting musical activities, or via her YouTube channel to view recent performances and recordings. 

I loved speaking to Rieko about her relationship not only to her own piano, but to the many different instruments she’s played on over the years. This is a particularly fascinating concept for me as a wind player, as we’re usually tied to just one instrument for all our performing acitivites! A huge thank you to Rieko for being so generous with her time and answers. 


Holly Redshaw: Does the instrument you own now have a history or biography you could tell me about?

Rieko Makita: I think my piano is about fifteen years old? But it’s been either restored or kept in very good shape. It’s mahogany, brown and it’s beautiful. I got it last year. I went to a piano shop, Coach House Pianos in London, but they deal with a  lot of pianos and they have a big warehouse in Wales, so I actually went all the way to Wales for a day to check out their pianos. I decided on second-hand because if you buy first-hand, completely new, as soon as you take it home and play on it for a year the value goes down, you can’t resell it at a similar price. Whereas second-hand, even if I only use it for three years or something I can sell it for kind of the same price- and not lose money! 

HR: If it’s forty years old or so, I’m guessing you don’t know who owned it before? And with the warehouse – is it like I’m imagining, just a big building with loads and loads of pianos?

RM: I’m not sure who owned my piano before bu they looked after it well!  I think they (Coach House Pianos) have two warehouses, and one is more like a showroom and the other one is more for the pianos that have just been delivered; some didn’t even have keys inside, strings were missing. So it’s more half workshops, half just a place to store the pianos. Some were mostly ready to go, some were slightly destroyed and needed to be reworked, so that would probably take a couple of months, if not a year to make it ready to put in the showroom.

The piano that I decided on was one that they had to fix up a bit but not too much, so it took a month or so, and then they delivered it to London to my flat. 

HR: Is it a grand piano, or a baby grand?

RM: It’s a grand. It’s like, only 10cm bigger than a baby grand, but we don’t call it a baby.

HR: And what was it that made you pick that particular piano?

RM: For the lovely round tone and heavier touch. I’ve grown up with Yamaha uprights and grands, which have a brighter tone and lighter touch, but now I wanted something different. I guess living in Australia, Yamahas are very common because Japan is just geographically  closer than the US and Europe. So Yamahas are common in Australia, as well as Chinese models. But the better quality ones you’d find would be Kawai, Yamahas, Bösendorfers, Steinways (if you can afford them), or the odd Faziolis, but of course those are very expensive to ship over. I was drawn to this piano for the heavier touch. It because it makes my fingers work a bit harder and that’s what I needed to work on, with things like articulation.

HR: This might be a little trickier for you to answer, as you can’t take your instrument with you to performances, but can you describe three key or memorable moments with your instrument? 

RM: Well, back in Sydney I had a really old Yamaha, and I had that for maybe 6 or 7 years, and I felt like I had quite a journey with that one. One time I was playing and I heard what sounded like really big thunder – but it was just the string breaking! That was the first time I broke a string. I think I broke quite a few strings on that one, because that piano was really, really old. We got it for really cheap, for a grand, so obviously the strings were rusty, making them very easy to break. So that was very traumatic for me! I had no idea what had happened – I looked inside, and it was a broken string. 

Another memory – I used to sometimes have a few friends just after the easing of Covid restrictions in 2020, and we would just play duets, which was really nice. It was just really sweet to make music at home with people, because as a solo pianist I do a lot of solo repertoire  but that year I did a lot of playing with other people, weirdly enough. Maybe because I had just finished my degree and had a 9 month period before I would be travelling to the UK, I didn’t have much to do as we were locked down. So I did a lot of fun sight reading and piano duets, as well as playing with a flautist, with an oboist, with a clarinettist. That was really sweet.

Thirdly, because it was such an old piano, it would go out of tune really quickly.  I kind of took advantage of the fact that it was really old and got my own tuning kit. But sometimes one of the notes would go really off, so I tried tuning it myself. That was a really cool experience, and just using a phone tuner app and figuring out how piano tuning works. 

I knew a bit about it before, but I learnt so much when I did it myself, how if you tune one string, because all the strings are strung up on a wooden panel, it shifts all the other strings as well because of the tension. So if I tuned one note, I had to tune everything else as well. So I can’t make it too sharp or too flat, because it will wriggle around and make it more out of tune for every other note. It was like a balancing act, and I didn’t fully understand that until I did it.

HR: That’s amazing! And did you just look it up on YouTube or something, to learn how to do that?

RM: Yeah. Because it was covid I didn’t want to get people in just to tune it. So I just thought, “Oh, why not, I’ll give it a try!”. It was only something like, £20 or £30 for a big kit. Just on Amazon – you can buy anything on Amazon! 

HR: Can you choose three words to describe your instrument in particular, thinking more about the one you own here in the UK?

RM: Generally, with all pianos, it’s like an orchestra. This applies to different pianos as well; each piano, especially if they’re really expensive and nice, on each one the high register might sound a particular way, that you could imagine a piccolo, or a flute or things like that, while the low basses might be like a tuba or double bass. I feel like I try to emulate or copy or recreate those kinds of sounds when I play, and there’s subtle ways you can manipulate how you press the keys to make that kind of sound. So generally speaking, orchestra.

A friend. For me, every time I sit down with a different piano, especially if I’m performing on it,  I have to find out: what are the qualities that are going to help me in my playing? With a particular piece especially – like it might have a really piercing sound at the top or a very light touch at the top. I guess figuring out how I can work with it, just like a friend, by knowing their good side but also the not so good side, you can kind of work with it rather than against it. Like if someone has a bad trait, why show it? Just let it be, then you can focus on the good traits of the piano, or the friend. It’s like a partnership, or a companionship. 

For me, it’s relaxing as well. Recently I’ve just started playing around on the piano, like improvising, and it’s nice to just hear the sound of the instrument and see what you can create with it.

HR: Can you tell me about your own instrumental performing history in regards to your instrument? Which might be difficult as you can’t pick up your instrument to take it with you, but have you ever performed in the home for people?

RM: Not with the current one, but in the past I used to play a lot to my parents at home. My parents actually moved out and my friends moved in, in Sydney, so I’ve always played for them, but also practised there as well. One of my non-musician friends was like “I really like it when you play that piece especially!”,  because I was playing some Debussy. And when you’re practising and have to do it again and again, I think she found it nice to have that one in the background, whereas a very fast passage of Beethoven played again and again (which I sometimes have to do as part of my practice) must have been a bit annoying!

HR: Have you ever had any favourite pianos that you’ve performed on? 

RM: It must be 9 years ago now I think, but I played as part of a Suzuki method concert organised in the Sydney Opera House in the main hall, and I got to play a solo piece there. The sound was just amazing – I couldn’t believe it was happening. I don’t know if it was the nerves, but I just felt like the piano was so good and the acoustic from where I was felt so nice, so natural and let it play itself rather than having to force my way with the playing. 

HR: Do you think of your piano as having a defining characteristic or personality trait that you feel makes it stand out from others?

RM: Yeah, I guess when I play any instrument I get an idea of a personality. The one I have at home at the moment, the sound is very warm, especially the lower register – it’s deep and hugs me. I can’t describe it, but it’s a lovely piano on a winter day, or something. It’s cosy and makes me feel warm, and I think that’s why I chose it. 

If it was a person or character, I’d describe it as a cuddly bear, or a brown bear. I imagine that because it’s mahogany, probably! But a very fluffy and cuddly bear, not a scary one. A fluffy, cute bear.

HR: Do you see your instrument primarily as an expansion to your musical self or as a challenge?

RM: Both, I guess. Especially when learning difficult pieces, it makes me realise the things that I need to improve with the piano. But also, when playing something that really suits me, it makes me feel like it’s an extension of me. It’s a means to express myself very naturally. It’s not as confining as words. The sound and the music is just indescribable. It’s like you’re transmitting emotion and feeling through the instrument rather than having to explain yourself with words that really tie you down in a certain way. And then it’s up to the listener to feel or engage with that sound however they feel, too.

HM: Is your relationship with your instrument different in the practice room than it is in performance? Again, this is kind of about pianos in general, as the one you have at home generally won’t be the one you go and perform on.

RM: I mean, in performance, they generally just have nicer pianos! I feel like I have less of an excuse to not create the sound that I want to in performance, because the piano is better quality and I should be able to do the thing I really want to do more naturally. But then again, it depends on the piano. 

HM: Do you have a strong connection to objects generally?

RM: Yeah, I think so!

HM: So do you name objects, or keep lots of mementos and stuff?

RM: Yeah, I struggle with throwing things out because I get so attached! I have a lot of childhood junk that I really don’t need, even though I’m never going to use it again.

I don’t really name things. I don’t think I’ve ever really consciously named a soft toy, but it’s just that feeling of connection, or memories I’ve had with it. That really sits in me and I worry that a memory will be forgotten if I don’t have the object as a reminder.

HM: And what was it that attracted you to the piano in general as a kid?

RM: Um, I don’t know… my parents made me! (laughs) I actually had a moment when I just didn’t like it any more and I gave up music for a whole year. That was when I’d just finished school. I auditioned for the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and then I got in, and had an offer and everything and I was going to go, but then at that point my mum had been quite pushy with practising the piano. I just had a moment where I’d just had enough and was like, “I hate practising”, and so I didn’t play for a year. I went and studied architecture for a year at Sydney Uni. I literally barely touched a piano that year. But I really didn’t like the all-nighters I had to do for architecture, and just didn’t like the idea I was facing a computer every day, which is pretty much every job today. Even as a musician, with the admin you have to do. But I would rather be facing a black and white keyboard 6 hours a day or more, than be facing a screen. 

HM: That’s so interesting – I was playing a lot of Xenakis a few weeks ago and he was an architect before. Someone was telling me he came to composition quite late and went to all these big people to teach him and they all refused, because his style of composing was so mathematical, there was so much structure but such unusual use of sounds, and they feared they’d make him too conventional and he’d lose that. Do you feel architecture has influenced your piano playing, or was that something you just did for a year?

RM: I think I have a really close association with place now. I’ve recently started writing music, and I usually name pieces after places, or movement between places – like the experience of moving through a place if that makes sense. Location or place has been a big theme in my life because I’m always torn between living in London, Sydney or in Japan with my family. That might be to do with architecture, or it might not be! 

HM: Do you have a routine to assess an instrument for a gig, and feel out its characteristics? If you do, what are you looking for?

RM: A big thing is checking the pedals – the sostenuto and sustain pedal. I would see if that works well, and how it works, as each piano is very different. On a keyboard, I would always check if there IS a pedal, as otherwise that will make it very hard to play. In terms of just the instrument, the keys itself, I do a few scales, see the balance between the top and the bottom, and see what areas are the most resonant, or voiced more, because a lot of the time you have to really bring out the melody, and if it’s in the right hand, the left hand can’t be too loud, and if it’s really heavy at the bottom I would have to play very pianissimo and very lightly. The things I like best in a piano are a warm tone, not too bright. It’s nice if it’s even. It’s nice if it’s got a good, juicy bass sound, too.

I do consider the acoustics of the hall. Having the prep time of testing the piano and testing the concert venue is very important. And if it’s a very wet room, then I’m not going to use that much pedal and keep it dry. I check how loud and soft I can play. That’s really important – to see if I have to really put my weight into it and project, or if I don’t have to – that’s nice. But it depends on the hall too, how much it projects. The pianissimo sounds, if it’s a really big hall, I would have to play quite articulated, whereas if it’s a small room and quite dry then I can play really soft and it’s magical and effective.

HM: What’s your approach if the piano doesn’t respond to your style exactly? Does it affect your expression and performance, and how do you cope with that?

RM: I just have to make it work with what I’m given. A specific example is when I played my recital two days ago in the Upper Jay Mews Studio (at the RCM), and I knew that the top register is very hard to project and for the sound to come out, and that’s the area that you normally have to bring out, which made it really inconvenient and extra hard for me, technically. Knowing that everyone was going to play on that piano though, knowing that everyone was in the same boat helped me. Also, it’s like – what am I gonna do about it? It’s not like I can fix it, so just suck it up and deal with it. And thirdly, maybe it’s something I’m very consciously thinking about, but the people in the audience wouldn’t notice, or even the adjudicators – it might be something that’s just so internally within my mind. So I tried my best to not let it get to me, because there’s literally nothing you can do. Let it happen. Especially if I’m playing in a concert; I put myself in the mindset that most people in the audience are not full-time musicians, they’re there to enjoy the music, so  just have fun and do your best – there’s literally nothing else you can do.

HM: If you do ever accompany, does your attitude to your instrument ever change? Do you desire different qualities, or does your performing attitude towards it change?

RM: Yeah, especially when playing duos I become very conscious of trying to follow their lead. Which is very different, because as a solo piano, you lead the tempo, you lead everything, and you decide everything. Whereas especially with a sight reading session, I just let them lead, as they usually have the breath or the bowing that they need more time for, whereas the piano can play instantly. So I consciously try to play later than them. Because I think most of the time it sounds so much better to play later than earlier than them.

HM: Finally, do you find that different pianos bring out different qualities and emotions during performance?

RM: Yes. I played at the Shoreditch Treehouse recently and they have a Steinway concert grand. It was well tuned for the recording session, and it was just so nice and felt so smooth and made me feel at ease, like I could communicate and play exactly the way I wanted. When it’s a piano that’s easier to play on, it’s easier to express and feel the emotion that is brought up by the music, because you’re not trying to fight to produce the sound you want. You can let  the instrument do its thing, and then you just focus on the expression itself.