The Golden Hawk who flew the farthest this spring to attend the 50th reunion of her graduating class was Shuku Iwasaki, an internationally recognized pianist who traveled from Tokyo, Japan. Shuku was a Hartt piano student who finished the last two years of her bachelor’s in music here and graduated from the University of Hartford in 1964. She then went on to the Juilliard School in New York City. There she joined her brother Ko Iwasaki, now an internationally known cellist, who was studying at Juilliard.
How Shuku came to the Hartt School of Music, as it was known in those days, is a remarkable story of a young girl who struck out on her own, determined to come to the United States to study piano even though her family was poor and she didn’t speak English.
At the age of 17, Shuku Iwasaki was playing piano at a local restaurant in her hometown in Japan. She thinks she was playing Chopin. An American man approached her and asked if she would be interested in studying piano in the United States. Shuku says, “I thanked him but said that my family was too poor to send me. My father was a music teacher and didn’t make very much money, and it took 360 yen at that time to equal one American dollar.”
The man handed her a card with his name and address in the United States and asked her to keep it and to write to him if she changed her mind. Shuku tucked it away in her room at home and didn’t think about it again.
Five years later, in 1960, Shuku and her brother entered the Japan National Music Competition. Ko, who was still in high school, won first prize with his cello. Shuku says everyone told her she must win first prize in the piano competition now that her younger brother had done so well.
Shuku says that she became so nervous from all the pressure that she didn’t play well and did not win a prize. She was terribly disappointed and embarrassed because everyone was celebrating her brother’s achievement.
“I cried for days and days after that. I felt so discouraged, like there was nothing left for me there.”
Then she remembered the card from the American man. After much rummaging, she found it and wrote to him. It turned out that the man had a neighbor in Hamden, Conn., who was an instructor at the Hartt School. He asked her to send him a tape of her playing.
Shuku sent a tape and soon afterwards, she received an offer of what was almost a full scholarship. She accepted it, but then came the problem of how to get from Japan to the United States
“I couldn’t afford an airplane ticket, and so I came in steerage on a freighter. It took many days to get to California.” Eventually Shuku, then age 24 and carrying an ever-present Japanese/English dictionary, arrived on the East Coast. She lived for a time in Hamden with her sponsor’s family. But taking the train up to Hartford every day for classes became a strain.
Her sponsor placed an ad in the newspaper asking for someone who lived near the Hartt School to provide room and board for Shuku.
“Four families responded to the ad,” she remembers. It was the Wolf family who took Shuku in. Herman Wolf and Mary Hunter Wolf had three children and lived at 1200 Prospect Avenue.
“They would not take any payment for my room and board and often gave me money if I needed it. They never wanted me to pay them back. If it was raining or snowing, they would drive me to school. They were so kind to me.”
Shuku arrived at Hartt at the same time that the celebrated pianist Jacob Latiener, who passed away in 2010, began teaching there. Shuku became his student and says that he was a wonderful teacher and that she learned so much from him. She says Latiener is responsible for her concert career today.
Before she returns to Japan, Shuku will stop in Portland, Ore., to visit the children of the Wolf family to thank them for all the kindness she received from the family while she was a student here, 50 years ago.
Of her trip back to the United States, she says, “This is my memories trip.”