For the September edition of Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Sumire Hirotsuru (https://sumirehirotsuru.com/), a second year graduate student studying violin. Raised in Oita, Japan, Sumire studied at Harvard University before enrolling at Juilliard in the fall of 2016. Read on to learn more about Sumire’s experience studying at Harvard, performing with the Silk Road Ensemble (http://www.silkroadproject.org/), creating an education program for Japanese children, and much more!!!
You started your violin studies at the age of three. Do you have a memory of the first time you picked up the violin?
I don’t remember the time when I picked up the violin, but I still remember when I performed on stage for the first time. I was not so nervous because I was wearing my favorite cute purple dress.
You are currently a member of a Juilliard quartet called The Ansonia and have been the principal violinist for the Juilliard Orchestra. Do you prefer to play with a full orchestra or a chamber group? In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of the two?
I prefer playing with a chamber group because how you listen to/look at each other has more direct effects on the sound delivered to the audience. I love it especially when each musician plays on stage differently from the rehearsal, and entirely changes the way the group plays the same music; that is when we enjoy improvisational elements of music making and direct human interaction that make performances more fun and interesting. An orchestra is also fun to play with, especially with the variety of sounds that so many people on the same stage can create – but I think smaller groups fit me more.
You have performed with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble on several occasions. What is it like to share a stage with such famous musicians?
It was the experience with the Silk Road Ensemble during my college years that made me continue music after graduating from Harvard. It is not about how famous they are, but it is everyone’s incredibly warm personality and the way they build up performances that appeal the most to me; they are very welcoming, and open to any ideas when we rehearse together. And above all, performances are the most exciting part. Making eye contacts, adjusting to each other’s playing, and sometimes improvising on stage – they have taught me so much on how to listen to each other while playing.
You are also a member of the Video Game Orchestra (http://vgo-online.com/) which sounds like the opposite of the music you play with Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road. Can you tell our readers a little about?
As a member of the VGO, I have recorded official video game soundtracks including Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts, and performed video game tunes in several game/anime conventions in the states. First of all, those are very fun music to play because of the nature of video game music, and second of all, joining recording sessions has been a great experience for me because you basically have to learn on the first run-through and then play perfectly on the second run-through when we have hundreds of tracks to finish recording. In addition, performing for completely different audience members reminds me of the importance to reach out to non-classical music listeners. What VGO does sounds very different from what Juilliard students do, but I really learn a lot from them.
Before attending Juilliard, you studied Music and Global Health and Health Policy (GHHP) at Harvard University. What drew you to this secondary major? Why did you decide to study music at the graduate level rather than pursue global health?
As explained above, playing with the Silk Road Ensemble was definitely a life-changing experience that dragged me into the music world after graduation, even though I wasn’t expecting myself to continue music before. Before I played with them, I was studying Applied Math and Sociology which were very different fields. But then I switched to Music and GHHP initially because I was curious about the big difference of healthcare systems in the U.S. and Japan. As I took more courses, I built more interests in other areas of global health such as virus research and vaccine developments.
Even though you are furthering your education at Juilliard, you haven’t forgotten your interest in global health. You are currently involved with an organization called GUIDE Africa (http://www.guideafrica.org). Can you tell our readers a little about this organization, how you got involved, and what you are doing for them?
I am working with two labs at the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Tokyo, mainly helping fundraising for two projects; one is Ebola virus research in Sierra Leone, the other is a development of rice vaccine in Ghana (you will be able to take vaccines through eating rice!). We are trying to let wider population know about what we do, and how important our research is for the future of humans especially in underserved areas in Africa.
You have also volunteered your time with an education program called Summer in JAPAN (http://www.summerinjapan.com/en) which you founded when a student at Harvard. Can you tell our readers about this program and what encouraged you to develop it?
I founded this two-week education program in my hometown during my freshman summer at Harvard. The program consists of several workshops such as Writing, Presentation Skills and Computer Science taught in English by selected Harvard students for Japanese kids aged from 6 to 18. As a girl from a small town in Japan, I have been so fortunate to receive the best education in the world in the U.S., but it is still not accessible to most of the kids in Japan. Having impressed by my fellow students at Harvard, I wanted to build a platform where any Japanese children of next generation are able to learn skills necessary for their future. This year was the 5th year of the program and we expanded to two cities in Japan, which went very successfully.
You write a blog (https://sumirehirotsuru.com/) every day in both English and Japanese and have written articles for Nikkei College Café by Nikkei, the largest business newspaper in Japan. What do you write about? What made you decide to begin these projects?
I received an offer from Nikkei to contribute articles monthly about my life in the U.S., international relationship and leadership when I was at Harvard. I’ve been writing for them since 2014, but it has been a great tool to let students or young professionals in Japan about my thoughts here. For blog, I just write whatever happens on the day – I made it bilingual so that all of my friends living anywhere in the world can read!
Phew, you are doing so much!!! Do you ever have time to relax? What do you like to do when you have free time (if such thing exists)?
I do have some free time on weekends! I like hanging out with my quartet and watching Japanese drama when I need to relax. I also love to Skype my middle school/high school friends in Japan so I have some time to use Japanese.
You are the first student from Japan to be interviewed for Eye on Culture. What would you say are some of the greatest similarities and differences between US and Japanese culture (I recognize this is a big question, but a few examples would be great).
Japan and the U.S. are quite different and I can list so many things; but the first culture shock I had when I first came to the U.S. for college was j-walking because Japanese people always wait for the lights to change. What I like the most about American culture is that people don’t care what you do (in a good way), so it’s easier to try something that nobody has done before. I feel more support on doing something challenging here in the U.S. more than in Japan.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about your hometown?
My hometown Oita, is on the island in the southern Japan called Kyushu Island. Even though it’s not a big town, Oita has the best fish and the best hot springs in the world. I always miss eating fresh seafood whenever I come back to school. During my summer camp Summer in JAPAN, I always take instructors from Harvard to the hot springs and they all love it. If you are interested in hot springs, message me.
Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?
My string quartet at Juilliard, The Ansonia Quartet, has just finished our first Japan Tour this summer to kick off our 2017/18 season as a part of Honors Chamber Music Program. The tour was fully-funded by the crowdfunding campaign we launched at the end of last spring, and it was a great success. We are excited to perform more in NYC and beyond this year, so please come hear us perform if you get a chance!