Rie Tsuji ‘02: Touring with Beyoncé
Berklee alumna Rie Tsuji ’02 never expected that her career would take her around the world with Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for whom she plays keyboards and serves as assistant music director. Originally from Saga, Japan, Tsuji started out as a classical pianist and went to Tokyo College of Music before coming to Berklee.
“As a professional musician, you have to do a little bit of everything, and I’ve learned a lot of different genres over many years,” says Tsuji, who is now based in Brooklyn, where she and her husband own and operate the Riro Muzik recording studio. “I used to go to music competitions and play Chopin and DeBussy and now I’m doing hip-hop like ’99 Problems,’” Tsuji says with an easygoing laugh. “When I think about it, it’s kind of funny but my journey has been fun.”
Studying a Cornucopia of Genres
That journey included a departure from classical music and a foray into jazz, among other genres, at Berklee. Tsuji says she thought she was prepared for jazz performance, having listened to a lot of music by greats such as Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans.
“But when I got to Berklee,” Tsuji says, “I was like, ‘Damn, these guys are monster players.’ Consequently, her student ID was at the counter of the 150 building to secure practice space almost as frequently as it was on her person.
“I would always see the same people, and I’d think, ‘Okay, if they’re here, I’ve got to practice.” That practice included an ensemble-heavy course load that enabled Tsuji to gain proficiency in genres beyond jazz and classical music, including Latin music, R&B, and funk, among others.
In the classroom, Tsuji points to the influence of her lessons with Ray Santisi. “He was amazing and I was so sad to hear that he passed away last year. I respected him so much,” Tsuji says.
After graduating, Tsuji’s growing genre flexibility led to a touring stint with popular R&B singer Eric Benét. Then, in the spring of 2006, Tsuji heard about an opportunity to try out for Beyoncé’s band.
On the Run with Beyonce and Jay-Z
Tsuji nearly missed the Beyoncé audition, which took place at a large warehouse in New York City—one of several cities in which the R&B/pop superstar held auditions.
“I was late for the bus and then there was traffic,” Tsuji says, laughing now in hindsight over how close she came to missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime.
Fortunately, she arrived in the nick of time and was soon playing Beyoncé songs, engaging in an ear training test, and performing with other players auditioning for spots in the all-female band. “It was great because Beyoncé and Jay-Z were there at the final audition,” Tsuji says. “It was a fun process—no nervousness or anything.”
Adding to Tsuji’s level of comfort was the fact that she had already played with another one of the finalists, drummer Nikki Glaspie, a 2005 Berklee alumna. Both Tsuji and Glaspie wound up being selected to the touring band.
As it turned out, Tsuji, Beyoncé, and bandmates kicked off “The Beyoncé Experience Tour” in Tokyo.
“That was definitely emotional,” Tsuji says. “I can’t believe I was at the Tokyo Dome playing with Beyoncé and my family was all there so I had a real moment there.”
Tsuji has been a mainstay of every Beyoncé tour since then, playing piano and working on arrangements and music direction as needed. For last year’s “On the Run” tour, Tsuji backed up both members of the husband-wife duo of Beyoncé and Jay-Z, playing an integral role in one of the most popular double bills in recent touring history. In addition to her role as assistant music director for Beyoncé, Tsuji has also served as music director for the pop star's Live at Roseland show.
The Virtue of Versatility
When she’s not on the road, Tsuji focuses on producing work with Brooklyn-based musicians at her recording studio. Currently, she’s also arranging songs for Japanese anime, and when time permits, she works on writing and arranging her own songs.
“I don’t know when that will be ready, but I’m working on it,” she says.
As for advice for Berklee students or others who might be interested in joining up with a major touring artist, Tsuji suggests that versatility is crucial.
“Yeah, Beyoncé is an R&B/pop artist,” says Tsuji, “but sometimes we throw some Latin flavor in, or I’ll play a classical solo. It’s all helpful, so just get familiar with as many genres as you can, and then just play, play, play. At Berklee, I was playing and doing jam sessions all the time, and that’s really how you get better.”
Practice may not ever make perfect, but if Tsuji’s journey is any indication, then all those lonely hours in a Berklee practice room really do matter.