Dream Jobs 2010: Hiroko Ohmura, Keyboard Maestro

At Yamaha, in Japan, Hiroko Ohmura dreams up the electronic keyboards of the future

4 min read
Hiroko Ohmura
Photo: Bruce Osborn

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.

"When I tried the first prototype," Ohmura says, "I almost cried."

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.

In 2007, faced with fierce competition in the piano market, Yamaha drastically revised its business strategy. The new plan called for developing products that combined the company's acoustic and electronic expertise, two areas that had operated independently. The idea for the AvantGrand, a grand piano rendered in digital form, began to take shape. And Ohmura's career took a grand leap: Named project leader, she would be responsible for overseeing every detail of the new instrument.

Even for Yamaha, the world's largest manufacturer of musical instruments, the AvantGrand was ambitious. Ohmura's team started by taking a complete acoustic inventory of a traditional grand. Engineers placed a CFIIIS, Yamaha's top-of-the-line concert model, in a soundproof lab and attached it to a kind of robotic pianist. This machine pressed each of the 88 keys multiple times with varying force while the engineers sampled the notes from four locations within the cabinet. When you press a key on the AvantGrand, recordings of those samples emerge from the instrument's four midrange speakers, four tweeters, four subwoofers, and 16 power amplifiers.

Ohmura also supervised the construction of the piano's body. An acoustic piano is an intricate masterpiece of levers, weights, dampers, and hammers that hit strings to produce sound. The innards of the AvantGrand are similar, but instead of strings, its hammers hit padded rails; optical sensors capture each hammer's movements to trigger the notes. From the player's perspective, the keyboard action feels remarkably similar to that of an acoustic piano.

For added realism, the company fitted electronic resonators—two under the keyboard and two behind the music stand—that make the piano's keys, pedals, and cabinet reverberate like those of a real grand. As you play, you can literally feel the music flowing through your hands and feet.

“When I tried the first prototype," Ohmura says, “I almost cried."

Technology was just part of the challenge, she says. There was also the human side. Engineers in the acoustic piano division weren't used to working with their counterparts in the digital instruments division. It was up to her to bring them together. She held hundreds of meetings to champion the project and build consensus. Important negotiations also happened in the background, in what the Japanese call nemawashi, or laying the groundwork. To get it all done, Ohmura was at the office by 8:30 in the morning, sat in meetings for most of the day, and spent her evenings poring over market reports and customer surveys, usually leaving work after 10 p.m.

Her efforts paid off. “Our two divisions are very close now," says Roger Manners, a deputy general manager in the piano division. “She should be a politician," he quips.

And the AvantGrand, which hit showrooms last year, was an instant success. Whereas a 2.75-meter-long concert grand sells for over US $100 000, Yamaha's digital grand costs $20 000 and is just half the size. What's more, it never has to be tuned, and players can lower the volume or use headphones to avoid annoying the neighbors. Though concert pianists may not be ready to make the switch, Yamaha is awash in orders from conservatories and from piano enthusiasts with Tokyo-size apartments.

Ohmura is now working on a new keyboard project—“top secret," she says—and her routine is more frantic than ever. But she's not complaining. Quite the opposite. She enjoys the pace and the opportunities her job brings, she says, and she's always eager to meet the world-class pianists whom Yamaha invites to try out its new models. Jazz pianist Bob James liked the AvantGrand so much he used the piano in concerts throughout Japan last April. In the audience at his performance in Tsukuba sat a young Yamaha engineer, smiling to herself.

This article originally appeared in print as “Keyboard Maestro."

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