15 July 2018
By Ellie Palmer
Rie Tsuji talks to Pianist about her experiences touring with Beyoncé, her production studio Riro Muzik, and her piano tips for you...
Rie Tsuji is a pianist whose rise up the ranks of the music industry has been one full of sheer determination and fulfilled dreams.
Her still-young career boasts over 10 years’ experience working with American RnB singer Beyoncé Knowles, producing the music of global artists from her own studio, 1 degree and 1 diploma from two leading international music institutions. Oh, and a beautiful baby girl!
It quite literally doesn’t get much better as a pianist if your dream is to tour the world.
Rie Tsuji is living out many of our dreams. She’s proved that you can earn a healthy living doing the one thing many of us love the most: playing the piano. Not only that, but she has massively excelled in areas that she didn’t explore until she was an adult, proving wrong the age-old myth that children learn faster than adults. Whilst Rie currently resides in New York, her journey started back in her place of birth.
‘I started playing the piano around the age of 4,’ she explains. ‘I came from a musical family. My mother was a piano and electone teacher at Yamaha Music School, and my father is an architect but he used to play the violin as a hobby. My older sister was already playing the piano so it was very natural for me to start playing. By my teenage years, I already knew that I would be doing music professionally in the future. I started composing my own music piece for this competition for the young composer called JOC (Junior Original Concert) when I was 12. One of my compositions became a requirement piece for the auditions for the Yamaha teachers.' 12 years old and one of her compositions has already become a requirement piece for Yamaha auditions. If the term ‘star in the making’ isn’t relevant here, then where would it be?
‘I kept composing while I was in one of the programs at Yamaha until I completed it,’ she continues. ‘I got into a high school that just opened their Arts course, and that was the time that I became very serious about classical performance. I also went to Russia to study piano when I was 18 years old.’
It takes a lot of dedication to move over 7,000km away from your home. But for Rie, it paid off massively. ‘I then got a music degree from Tokyo College of Music. I started to become more interested in Jazz whilst I was studying there, so I worked on my improvisation skills as well. I guess I was in the classical world for so long and I wanted to try something else. I really liked the idea of freedom in Jazz.’
Berklee College of Music comes calling
‘I have always wanted to come to the US. This was my dream since junior high school, and finally I moved to Boston to go to Berklee College of Music where I studied Jazz performance.’ It was here that Rie developed her style of play into a sound that would eventually put her in the front running for the position of Beyoncé’s pianist. Knowing that she was starting a new genre afresh, she dedicated herself to practicing until 2am every night in order to keep up with the other jazz students. ‘I couldn't have experienced this world class teaching if I had stayed in Japan, so I’m really happy that I made the decision to come to the US.’
Finding her own inspiration
For many pianists, an influential figure in their lives will have been a part of their eventual journey into music. For some pianists, they discover that passion on their own, in their own specific way. For Rie, she did exactly that. ‘I don’t remember having somebody that I looked up to or influenced me when I was young. I just remembered that I really enjoyed memorizing all kinds of music; TV jingles, movie themes, something from the radio etc. I could take pretty much anything that I heard around me and learn it very quickly. At school the next day, I’d played those for my friends, and I really enjoyed doing that.’
This was the moment that she finally found her own joy in music. ‘That joy you get when you perform for others; it just simply makes me happy.’
Being a classical pianist, she additionally names the likes of Bach, Chopin, and Debussy amongst her favorite composers as a child. When she reached University however - as her style evolved to include more jazz elements - she began listening to jazz legends such as Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarret and Miles Davies. Completing her diploma at Berklee as a classically-trained jazz student opened up Rie’s world of opportunities massively. Specializing in not one but two genres, and being able to combine the two, is something that scouts and artists look for when hiring a pianist. It’s like hitting the jackpot. Why?
Performers want someone that is confident in being able to constantly create new, innovative, and improvised music – which is what jazz can teach you – but they also want someone who is technically perfect – which is what classical piano teaches you. Classical music features can be spotted in hundreds of both old and new RnB/Soul music. You only have to look at singer/songwriter Alicia Keys to see how influential classical piano has been on modern day music. Her 2007 contemporary RnB album release, “As I Am”, features large chunks of Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor intertwined with her own soul music.
Rie performing at the Superbowl in 2016. Photo credits: Cody Orell
Becoming Beyoncé’s pianist
After touring with American soul singer Eric Benet, Rie was given the chance of a lifetime. ‘My friend emailed me about the audition. I didn’t really take it seriously at first because I was already on the road with Eric Benet, and I loved playing with all of the amazing musicians in the band. I was very happy with what was going on in my life. However, my friend kept pushing me and so I started thinking about this as more of challenge. I wanted to see how far I could go, so I ended up going to the audition,’ she explains.
‘I was required to perform her song, “Work it out”, along with another of my choice. I picked a gospel piece for the second song as I thought that I could show them certain voicings with all the tension chords, which is very important for RnB.’
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Rie at the audition, however. She almost missed out on her opportunity. ‘When I arrived at the venue, they were almost closing the door because I was very late! One of the security guys rushed me inside and told me how lucky I was!’ Only 10 minutes left unil closing time and she just made it. Phew! ‘I was the last one of course. I felt really good about the whole thing. They had this special test only for pianists that I had to complete. I had to basically learn a track by ear and play it at the same time. Later on, they told me that I was the only one who played the whole thing. Without all my experiences at university and with Eric Benet, I wouldn’t have made it.’
So, from almost completely missing the audition itself, Rie had put herself firmly in the front running when the final auditions came around. ‘Beyoncé and Jay-Z were at the final audition.’ No pressure there, then. ‘They made us listen to “Deja vu” which wasn't released yet at that time, and we had to jam to it as a band. They kept switching the musicians and checking the chemistry between us. When they called my name, I was just so happy and excited! My family and husband (then boyfriend) were so happy for me.’
Touring with Beyoncé
Ever since that moment, she has been a mainstay on Beyoncé’s team. ‘I’ve been on every single tour since 2006,’ she tells me. ‘The Beyoncé Experience, I Am…World Tour, I Am Yours, Four Intimate Nights with Beyoncé, Live at Roseland, Revel, Mrs Carter Show World Tour, On The Run…I also did Glastonbury, the Grammys, and the Super Bowl to name a few. I couldn't do the Formation tour because I was pregnant. I just went back to work recently and performed at Coachella this year. It’s pretty amazing to play in front of a lot of fans who know every single word of her songs. Watching their faces from the stage really gave me huge energy and I was happy to be part of this amazing production, not only as a keyboard player but also as an arranger too.’
Rie’s talents had now gotten to the point where Beyoncé needed to rely on her more than ever, thus adding the role of Assistant Music Director to her responsibilities. ‘From the moment I was hired, I was slowly beginning to be able to show my arrangement skills. The creative director Kim Burse (at that time) really trusted me. During rehearsals, when they needed an idea to transition from song to song, or an idea of how to change key, was the moment that I would come in. I mean, as a keyboard player it’s kind of our job, right?’ Right! We all shout in unison. ‘All these arrangements were created in such a short time during the rehearsals. I needed to come up with it on the spot. I would quickly write down the idea and tell each player which note to play. Coming up with something under the spotlight was a challenge to me. But I really enjoyed doing it and, under the pressure, you get your adrenaline going and I liked that feeling.’
Besides touring the world, Rie additionally owns her own music studio with her husband, Rozhan. ‘My husband is also a musician. We do produce/arrange music together, sometimes for Anime, Jingle, Theme songs for Japanese drama etc. We also work with quite a number of local artists from New York. We work with a lot of amazing artists from around the US, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan as well. It can get pretty busy!’
Advice from the world’s best is something we all benefit from as pianists. Here is Rie’s advice specifically for you, our Pianist readers:
1. ‘When I try to learn a song, instead of writing it down, I always try to memorize it in my head. That way, it takes longer to memorize but once you get it, you just remember it forever.'
2. ‘This is a reharmonization exercise. If I choose the note F, I will play F as the top note in my right hand and I will create as many different chords as possible underneath. I’ll keep changing the chords whilst keeping the top note.’
3. ‘You don’t always need to fill the space. For a long time, I felt like my playing was all about trying to play the most complicated voicings. There were so many notes and chords and I felt like there was not enough space to breath. I’m not pleased by my own bad habit! I really wanted to improve this. When I practice soloing, I try not to use my left hand too much. This way, I can really focus on soloing with my right hand without relying on the comping. I want every single note that I play to mean something.’
Photo credits: Mari Nishimura
Any plans for the future?
I don’t have a particular plan yet. It’s really hard to have a balance between music and raising a child. My goal is to try and keep a good balance. Since becoming a mother, I’ve found another joy in my life and this is something that I would love to focus on at least at this point in my life. I’ll keep creating music though. It will keep the spark and fire going in my life!’