This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2010.
The gleaming grand piano looks like others I’ve seen. But with utmost politeness, Hiroko Ohmura informs me that I’m mistaken. With that, she attacks the keys, and the notes of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 in C minor, the famed “Pathétique,” fill the vast auditorium. I’m entranced. When she’s finished, she points inside the ebony cabinet: There are no strings; the sound comes from an array of speakers.
“You like the music?” she asks. Reaching below the keyboard, she removes a USB thumb drive from a small control panel. “You can take it with you.”
We’re at Yamaha Corp.’s headquarters in Hamamatsu, Japan, an industrial city about 250 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. As a manager in Yamaha’s professional audio and digital musical instruments division, Ohmura dreams up the next generation of keyboards that musicians will seek for their studios and consumers will crave for their living rooms. She’s just demonstrated what’s probably the most advanced digital piano ever created. Called the AvantGrand, it’s engineered to replicate the sound and feel of a concert-quality grand—except it’s smaller, much cheaper, and full of digital tricks.
“This piano,” the amiable Ohmura says, her eyes fixed on the keys, “I know all about it.” She should; she helped design every part of it.
Ohmura, who is 39, says she loved playing piano as a child but never imagined she would one day work with pianos. “Or play them at work,” she says with a smile. Growing up in the Hamamatsu area—where in 1887 Torakusu Yamaha started a piano business that would become a Japanese powerhouse—she of course knew all about her hometown company. And after graduating in 1992 from Yokohama National University, where she studied psychology and computer science, she applied for and got a job at Yamaha. The job, however, involved not musical but computer keyboards: Ohmura was a systems engineer in Yamaha’s IT department, tending to networks and writing software.
One day in 1997, her supervisor told her she was being transferred to the digital instruments division. The news floored her. Personnel transfers are common in Japanese companies, but Ohmura says she never asked for the change. “I transferred to this division by accident,” is how she puts it.
Whatever the reason, the move made her “very happy.” She started out designing LCD interfaces for electronic keyboards. She was then promoted to product engineer and worked on the popular Clavinova series of digital pianos. Her job became more managerial, but Ohmura kept a hand in the design department. Her name appeared on several patents, including one for a keyboard display that rendered a bouncing ball above the keys, showing players which ones to press.