American-Japanese musician Ryu Goto - Photo by Hassan Mohamed/Egypt Today American-Japanese musician Ryu Goto - Photo by Hassan Mohamed/Egypt Today

Exceptional talent: Interview with US-Japanese violinist Ryu Goto

Wed, Jul. 3, 2019
CAIRO - 3 July 2019: American-Japanese musician Ryu Goto was only seven years old when his chin first rested on a violin at the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan.

Today, he is an exceptional talent, who captures the hearts of worldwide fans with his jaw-dropping performances.

Goto’s impeccable technique is acknowledged and appreciated on an international level, bringing him to Egypt in June where he performed with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra on the 30th anniversary of the Opera House. Marking his comeback to Egypt for the second time, Goto speaks to Egypt Today about his career path, his experience as a child prodigy and the message he wants to send to the Egyptian audience through his music.

HASSAN MOHAMED (13)
American-Japanese musician Ryu Goto - Photo by Hassan Mohamed/Egypt Today



You started playing violin at the age of three and your first performance was when you were only seven. Why did you choose to start playing the violin?

I never really chose violin, it kind of chose me in a sense; my entire family were violinists, so I never saw it as merely a choice or a career path. The first time I performed at a concert was in northern Japan when I was seven years old. I remember the audience at the time liked my performance, as not many kids would perform during such prominent events.

You gained attention as a child prodigy an at early age. How did this boost your publicity as a musician?

It gave me a lot of opportunities, which I am fortunate and grateful for. But [child prodigies] do not have a normal life, and I was out of place for a very long time. This was the case until I went to college and started to figure out
how I wanted to define myself.

When you see a child with talent, you think it is precious and a once in a lifetime chance, so you want to push him in that direction. It’s good that people sometimes push children to master a craft, but sometimes it’s difficult for the children themselves to do.

How did you become the musician that you are today?

It was not an easy road. Once I got into it, I realized how hard it was. I also have intense parents, they pushed me re- ally hard to become the way I was. I loved the performance aspect of it but I hated the kind of work that led to it. It is not an all-happy story. Luckily, I did not have to deal with the business aspect of it, particularly since I was so young; my mother took care of that side of things for me. It was only over the past 10 years that I started to handle the side work that does not directly involve playing the instrument. I have been lucky, because my sister, who is 17 years older and has also performed in Cairo, is a professional violin player as well and is way ahead in the game. Since my mother had already dealt with my sister’s early success, mine was not as hard [to handle] as my sister’s.


HASSAN MOHAMED (24)
American-Japanese musician Ryu Goto - Photo by Hassan Mohamed/Egypt Today



You credit your mother, who is also a violinist, for both your and your hald-sister’s success as musicians. Tell us more about her role in your professional life.

My mother was my coach, and she definitely still is. She has learned a lot over the years, as she was a performer herself, and then she watched my sister growing up while performing as well. To me, what my mother knows about this business is more than any library has to offer. There is nobody quite like her, in terms of how much she knows.

You have discrete interests; academically, you’ve studied physics at Harvard University. Did it take some time until you decided to choose music as your career?

Again, I never had this moment when I said I chose mu- sic alone. I did not want to close myself off; I wanted to try other things. I love science, and I like understanding how the world works through rational means. So, physics was a rational fit for me, because I like science. I thought that I should get a bachelors degree once, and I had already been doing music for 15 years, so I thought the best way to use my time and money was to try other pursuits [asides from music].

You also have an interest in sports, a black belt in Karate. Tell us more about that.

My grandfather was a master in karate in Japan, and I spent some time with him before he died; this kind of influenced me, and so today I am quite into karate. I fight, and it’s a weird thing for violinists to say, but I like fighting and I compete in matches. I coincidentally met the coach of the Egyptian national karate team while exercising at the gym the other day. It’s quite a strong team, I believe.

IMG_4470
American-Japanese musician Ryu Goto - Photo by Nourhan Magdi /Egypt Today



How do multi-talented people choose which hobby to pursue professionally?

I think people do not give themselves enough credit a lot of the time; the older we grow, the more likely we are to fear failure. We have pride, ego, confidence issues, so people make lots of excuses to protect themselves. But if they pick up something new for 30 minutes every day, they will realize that they can get really good at it over time. For me, as a musician, I kind of am my own boss, so I have flexibility and manage my own time, which is a great benefit.

I am not sure if I agree completely with seeking diversity of interest rather than specialization, in order not to lose jobs in the age of artificial intelligence; however, I think it exists, and it is important to be adaptable and pursue your hobbies. You never know where opportunities arise.

You were born and raised in New York, whereas your family are originally Japanese. Did you experience any conflict growing up between both cultures?

My parents, especially my mother, are quite old school, accustomed to driving their children in the direction of high achievement and success, but I was born eight years after they came to the United States. I think my mother might seem like a stubborn lady, but everyone who comes to the United States is forced to adapt. It is hard to just impart your values and systems there, and it does not work with kids, because they are in open environment and it has a different approach to learning than Asian countries. Asian pedagogy is instructive, they do not encourage students to ask questions; they tell students the information and they memorize it, whereas in the US, the education system is based on self-discovery, tests and activities in a much slower but enriching process in a sense.

My mother was a teacher at an American school, so she was quite exposed to the American education system. She also gave me some freedom growing up, and she under- stands I am not from her generation.

How has exposure to international audiences affected your career path?

It gave me a bigger head start, which people at my age are still trying to reach. In terms of career, it really jump- started. The thing is, when you are young you are sensational, although when you turn 18 years old, you are no longer a kid. Having connections is not the issue, it is about branding. You are no longer the child prodigy, you need to have something else to sell, and you have to present yourself as a real, mature adult.


Speaking about branding, has social media helped in defining you professionally?

I do my own Twitter; I stopped using Facebook, and my Instagram was hacked. The classic music work is very regressive as opposed to progressive, and they need to modernize it more. I do not do social media very often but when I do it, I am totally myself. I was lost for a very long time because when you are famous, it is easy to lose your ground as you might have people telling you where you are supposed to be. People say nice and nasty things, and when you start listening to those things, you lose who you are. People get crushed by social media sometimes. So, I decided that it is better to know myself rather than create something fake, because the social media audience does not want to see who you really are, they want to see an illusion of it.

Do you play your original music?

I do write original music but I have not played it publicly yet. Everything I perform is music written by previous composers, classics written 200 years ago. I compose my music but I feel I am not yet ready.


How can a musician reflect his own intentions without being affected by other people?

It is about taking a step further from how people perceive your music, understanding who you are as an individual and seeing yourself from the outside. It is about being authentic and having your own voice, as you trans- late your intentions through music and strings to touch people’s hearts and minds.

From the business standpoint, that’s not enough. The markets are about selling a product. So, the balance is in how you sell an authentic version of yourself and make it appealing to people. I did a lot of research on this, and I gave lectures and classes to students on having a unique perspective.

عازف الكمان الأمريكى اليابانى ريو جوتو خلال الحفل - تصوير نورهان مجدي
American-Japanese musician Ryu Goto - Photo by Nourhan Magdi /Egypt Today


Do you listen to Eastern music, and how do you see it as different from other musical traditions?

I listen to Middle, Far, and Near Eastern music. It is hard to say, especially in the Mediterranean region, influences are varied everywhere in the Middle East, from Turkey to Lebanon, or Egypt to Saudi Arabia, as well as more southern parts of Africa. I would say that Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are a mix of all kinds of stuff.

Visiting Egypt for the second time, you must have come across different types of music. How did the music impact you?

Everywhere around the world, people are creating mu- sic; it is about getting through to people, and making real genuine music even if amateurs are the ones playing it. Every time I hear music in Egypt, at restaurants, taxis, weddings, my body starts moving. I started asking myself: Is it really so different in essence compared to music from other cultures?

I find Egyptian music very rhythmic. There is a difference even between men calling for prayer at different mosques, and people know and feel this. From the first letter of Allahu Akbar, you know whether this guy gets it. The Islamic music is not angular, it is rather very flowy.

HASSAN MOHAMED (27)
American-Japanese musician Ryu Goto - Photo by Hassan Mohamed/Egypt Today



What's the message that your music sends to the Egyptian audience?

It’s a big honor performing at the Cairo Opera House on its 30th anniversary, and I am glad that Maestro Ahmed Al Saeedi asked me to come back. The reaction from the Egyptian audience was very warm, very open and very enthusiastic. This is my second time performing in Cairo. There is a sense of community, there is no evil there, and this is not something you get a lot from audiences in Japan or the US.

My message is always pretty simple, and depends on the pieces that are not complicated, but are rather expansive. It is about the beautiful sound of orchestra and the violin, and how the sound is put together, triggering the audience to see entire scenes through the music, perhaps some imagining forests, while others seeing the Nile.

Are we going to see collaborations between you and Eastern musicians?

I look forward to such an opportunity. I am a classical musician by trade, but I am open to all kinds of music, be it jazz or ethnic and everything in between. We did something once with Indian instruments, the violin is just one tool. I am into electronic music as well, and I like to explore anything and everything.
 
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