Wednesday, March 22, 2006

New Life Now...

As a koto player of course I’ve collected a few instruments over the years – mostly not expensive ones. I have several “boro boro” instruments that I rarely use, and keep on hand for the occasional school residency when I am working with lots of kids. These are instruments I collected when I was directing ensembles and needed as many as I could get. I’d buy beat-up old instrument I found in antique stores or from people who were looking to get rid of old instruments. They have cracks, loose strings, and lots of nicks and dents. I have a designated practice koto that I play every day so as not to wear out the strings on the koto I play in public. I also have a “koto tale” koto, the one I use for storytelling. It was my first good instrument, bought in Hokkaido in 1982. It has helped me tell many stories, and put up with lots of little hands plucking and pulling it. Then, I have my good koto, which I save for performances and recording. John bought it for me when we moved to Seattle, as a sort of present of encouragement, as I started my career as an independent artist.

I also have the very first koto I ever bought, when I started to learn koto in Sapporo in 1979. I had to borrow money from the koto company and pay them in monthly installments. I cost fifty thousand yen – about $500.00. Over the years, I played it often, and often used it when I was teaching. It has a strong, bright sound, and is still in good shape. But when I had it restrung a few years ago, the strings were so tight it was hard to play easily, and I set it aside and didn’t use it hardly at all.

Brian learned to play koto on one of the loosely-strung castoffs. Then, when we were in Japan in 2003, Kazue-sensei had a couple of wonderful koto for sale and we brought one home and told Brian he could use it. It was almost as nice as my special koto. Brian was thrilled, and loved having his own koto. He was ready for the tighter strings. It was also the point that he grew more serious about composing, and learning some more advanced pieces. And he was growing, and getting stronger. “Be careful. Don’t play too hard.” I warned him, but the inevitable happened. He snapped one of the strings. Angrily, I tried to fix it, but wasn’t able to string it well. I pulled my original koto out of the koto closet. (You know, the koto closet. Where you keep your koto.) “You are too rough with it. Use this for now.”

Finally, he could play with abandon. And he does. That koto was what he created the piece “Timber Hawk”, the piece inspired by the wooden rollercoaster. (Fasten your seatbelts. It is a doozy of a piece.) And more recently, “Dragon’s Fire.” He practices on it, he performs on it, he takes it to senior centers and teashops. Last month he even performed in a bar! (He had to stay on or near the stage.) Always, listeners are amazed at his energy, concentration, and skill. I want to shout out, “And … he’s doing it all on an old, cheap, hard-to-play instrument!” Instead, I try to stay calm and stay out of the way.

I hear him working on Sawai’s energetic “Manjushage” and am filled with memories of working on the exact same difficult passages in Tokyo. He gets frustrated, and I hear him pulling the strings aggressively, in frustration. He plays his own works loudly, and I am glad neither of us has to worry about the instrument. It is making a better player out if him – the kind that will make Kazue-sensei very happy when she hears him.

There used to be an ad in Japan with the tagline, NEW LIFE NOW. That is exactly what this nearly 30-year old wooden instrument is getting. I am so glad I still had it to share. It is wonderful to see him breathe life into this old instrument. It is a little odd to see the next generation coming along and making use of something from your past. But wonderful. What a great way to age – for the koto and myself alike!

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How your family must treasure that faithful old koto. When I was learning guitar, I had a cheap old Kay steel-string monster, red. Playing it made "railroad tracks" in my fingers. Back then, that was what they sold to beginners. (Tom Chapin had the same guitar when he was learning.) And although it brought such pain, and I have now graduated to a fine guitar, I wish I still had that miserable old thing.
I should have made a "guitar closet" like your koto closet. May it always be filled with life lessons and memories!
I really like your performance parts related blog site. I have a performance parts related web site at performance parts. If you're into performance parts. You will want to check it out.
Liz, this is a great entry!

I've got a "percussion closet," though I'm not sure if some of those instruments would be the best for learning on - not subtle enough. but you can play with abandon and know that you're not going to be able to wreck them. :)
Liz, this is a great entry!

I've got a "percussion closet," though I'm not sure if some of those instruments would be the best for learning on - not subtle enough. but you can play with abandon and know that you're not going to be able to wreck them. :)
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