Students reflect on professor Steve Sano’s impact on Stanford

Students reflect on professor Steve Sano’s impact on Stanford

Light streams through the open door of Room 120, a cozy office tucked into a hallway at the heart of Braun Music Center. Professor Stephen M. Sano M.A. ’91 DMA ’94 sits typing away at his desktop computer. In this room, at the far east end of the Stanford campus, Sano has been quietly making a wide-ranging impact within the Stanford community.

Sano, a professor of music at Stanford since 1992, has served as co-advisor to Stanford Taiko and director of Stanford Chamber Chorale, two of the most well-known arts programs on campus. During this time, he has personally guided hundreds of students toward careers in music and served as a stalwart fixture of Stanford’s music department.

The Daily spoke with students who shared stories of Sano’s kindness, gentle leadership and willingness to be there when they most needed him. Sano’s impact on his students can be seen most poignantly in the potpourri of gifts — a beautiful family of origami cranes among them — from former students, which he always keeps next to his windows.

“It wouldn’t be an over-exaggeration to say that it was truly one of the biggest blessings of my life to have met him,” said Julia Kwak ’22 M.S. ’23, a coterminal computer science major who has been part of Chamber Chorale for the past six years. 

Sano’s role models and rise

Three role models defined Sano’s childhood in Palo Alto: his father, his mother and conductor Seiji Ozawa. “My parents’ really expansive and holistic worldview did a lot to shape who I am,” he said.

While his peers “lived in households where they were encouraged to keep [their heads] down,” Sano said his parents were different. For instance, they frequently took him to marches against the Vietnam War. 

When Sano expressed his interest in music at an early age, his parents were nothing but supportive. They took him to piano lessons and encouraged his trips to the San Francisco Symphony, where he met his third role model, Seiji Ozawa.

Sano was captivated by Ozawa, a conductor born in Japan who spent his career making music in the U.S. He was a “real pillar” of the Asian American community, Sano said, “not just in ability and stature, but in how innately musical his physicality was.”

Sano graduated from San Jose State University in 1981 with a degree in piano performance and music theory. After spending five years in his second passion, mountaineering, Sano returned to the Bay Area in 1986 to serve as executive director for the Peninsula Symphony, where he did “everything but perform and everything but conduct.”

As soon as he began the job, he realized that he had found his calling in life. “I’d sit there and watch the conductor going, ‘I could be doing that,’” he said.

Sano went back to college and pursued graduate degrees in choral and orchestral conducting from Stanford. Here, he met his wife, Linda Uyechi ’79 M.S. ’81 Ph.D. ’95, who took his music to the next level.

“You know how when you date somebody you start listening to their music and everything?” he said, chuckling. Uyechi, he said, introduced him to slack-key guitar and taiko — which, along with choral conducting, would form the three pillars of his musical career.

Sano in Stanford Taiko

As co-advisor for Stanford Taiko, Sano said that he and his wife and co-advisor Uyechi serve as “institutional memory,” providing a sense of continuity in a space where students often graduate within four years.

Uyechi, who also teaches an academic seminar on North American taiko, told The Daily that she and Sano love spending time with Taiko members. “Every spring when they do their spring concert, we spend about a week together” in Bing Concert Hall, Uyechi said. There, she and Sano would listen and give advice to Taiko members before their most important concert.

Kimi Shirai ’25, the director of communications for Taiko, said that at the beginning of each year, Sano and Uyechi host a dinner at their home where they teach members the history and traditions of taiko. Shirai credited Sano and Uyechi with allowing the group to run independently while simultaneously playing such a critical part in its success.

Uyechi added that she and Sano had often received invitations to the weddings of former Taiko members — “really, really special” moments where Sano would bring his slack-key guitar and perform to the guests.

Sano as conductor, educator and mentor

Perhaps Sano’s most significant impact at Stanford comes from his role as director of the Stanford Chamber Chorale, a position in which he has served for over three decades. Under Sano’s lead, the Chamber Chorale has released several Grammy-listed albums, hosted yearly performances in Bing Concert Hall and Memorial Church and toured across countries like Thailand, Wales and China.

Students said Chamber Chorale is a tight-knit group. Toby Bell ’19 M.S. ’21 Ph.D. ’28, who has been part of Chamber Chorale for almost a decade, said that Sano always starts and ends every practice exactly on time. This respect for his students’ time allows Chorale members to bring their all to every rehearsal, Bell said.

“He’s the person I most would like to model myself after if I were in a position of leadership,” he said. Bell currently serves as one of the choreographers for the Viennese Ball Opening Ceremony at Stanford, and sees many parallels between his role and Sano’s in Chamber Chorale.

“There have been plenty times … when I’ve asked myself, ‘What would Steve do in this situation?’” Bell said.

Eric Tuan ’12, now a composer at the helm of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, where he once sang as a child, said that Chamber Chorale was “one of the formative experiences” of his time at Stanford. Tuan recalled how Sano gave him opportunities to work as a collaborative pianist and to compose pieces for the group, and how after his graduation, Sano extended a helping hand by offering him a part-time job in Stanford’s choral studies program.

“I learned so much from Steve, not only as an instructor, but as a mentor,” Tuan said.

Students also recalled that Sano cared deeply about their well-being. Kwak, who has been with Chamber Chorale for over five years, still remembers the pure isolation she felt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During such a difficult time, Kwak said that Sano was there for her. “We had regular calls and he would just listen to everything that I was going through, and be so empathetic,” she said. “I think I’ve become a much more self-assured person through him.”

As members of Chamber Chorale reflected on their myriad unforgettable experiences, Sano remained the center of each story. Tuan recalled dumpling-making parties in Sano’s home and the ghost stories Sano shared after a concert in Hawai’i.

Kwak described occassions when Sano performed the slack-key guitar to members. “Every time he plays, we cry, because it’s so beautiful,” she said.

Sano’s impact

Sano’s musical endeavors go further than his leadership in Stanford Taiko and Stanford Chamber Chorale — his slack-key guitar recording of “Songs from the Taro Patch,” for instance, appeared on the preliminary ballot for the 2008 Grammys.

But Sano said that his biggest motivation for waking up in the morning has been the connections he forms with students. “What I’m really happiest about,” he said, “are those lifelong continuing relationships that you build with students who become former students who become friends,” he said. Sano said he cherished seeing students he once taught surpass him in the arts.

Over a decade later, Tuan still remembers his 2011 trip to Hiroshima, Japan with Chamber Chorale. For the trip, Sano had asked Tuan to arrange a collection of Japanese folk songs that Chorale would later perform. As a composer, Tuan said, the opportunities Sano had granted him had transformed his life and career.

“I can’t think of anybody who doesn’t have the deepest respect for Steve,” Tuan said. “The university is so incredibly lucky to have him.”

A previous version of this article inaccurately stated the years Sano spent mountaineering as well as the year and organization that Sano served as executive director of after returning to the Bay Area. The Daily regrets these errors.

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