WYSO

Research And Jazz Keep A Dayton Pianist In Perpetual Motion

Dec 21, 2015


Keigo Hirakawa is an Ivy League-educated researcher and professor at the University of Dayton. He is also a gifted jazz pianist—and he’s trying to be at the top of his game in both worlds. Hirakawa moved to Dayton from the east coast in 2010. He came here for the job at UD, but he also came here for the music.

“It’s hard to balance family, work and music,” Hirakawa says. “The amount of time that I spend for work—work meaning research—is non stop.”

He says he solves equations in the shower, composes music in his head while driving to work, and goes back to equations as he drives to gigs. “I have to pull over and write those solutions down so I can remember for the next day. So it’s constantly intertwined. They don't intersect. But they're intertwined.”

Hirakawa’s work in image processing is part of a major research initiative at the University of Dayton. As a musician he has all the tools: a big-brained command of the keyboard and the kind of lyrical grace that separates virtuosos from the rest of the pack. Even though it can be tough to break into the jazz market, he’s busy, gigging three times a week in Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton. He released his debut CD, And Then There Were Three, late last year featuring bassist Eddie Brookshire and drummer Fenton Sparks, and the trio just finished an east coast tour last month.

How Hirakawa is able to stay effective in both worlds is another story. Hirakawa’s wife Wenbi is an accomplished classical violinist and a material science engineer with a deep resume of her own. She's put her career and musical interests on hold to support his career, and she’s the one doing a lot of the work at home to raise their three young sons.

“When you start dating and get married your spouse's goals become your own,” Wenbi says. “As much time as I put into being a stay at home mom now is to accomplish our combined goals of him being good professor or  hopefully making it as a jazz pianist...It takes time to practice. It takes time to study and work and to just clean the house and endless laundry and to feed the kids yet again. I think I just have to have faith that it will work out in the end.”

Keigo sees his ultimate goal in music the same way he sees his career at the University of Dayton: He wants to leave a mark.

“It’s really hard to stand out,” he says. “An advisor during my postdoc, professor Xiao-Li Meng at Harvard had a way of saying that if you want to make impact in the world in research you want to be that person that writes the first chapter of the book or the last chapter of the book, meaning the first chapter would open up an entire field because your work is seminal. Or that you provide that last final chapter that says this is a definitive work in this area. That's the kind of mark that you have to hit. And I think there's a lot of similarity between that and music.”