Saturday, September 28, 2013

Busy 'round here.

There was not really a Friday (or Saturday) post this week. Here is why:

A concert! We have been in the East side of Hokkaido, playing a concert in Abashiri and staying with friends in Kitami.

After the concert, this happened:

On the way here, there was a slight detour up the Kurodake ropeway. It was a beautiful day! (And Hokkaido is the BEST!)

Tomorrow we're off to Shiretoko for a couple of days; we'll try not to get eaten by bears. See you next week!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I don't want to speak English.

Today’s coffee: Kona blend, Kenya

Today as I was on my way out of the house, I passed about 50 kindergarteners on the sidewalk. I could tell they were kindergarteners because of their red hats, marking them as being in the same group. Before I could stop to think how darn cute they are, a chorus of “haro, haro!” rang out. If you’re wondering, that’s the Japanese pronunciation of “hello.” Yes, I was cat-called by 50 kindergarteners. I probably should have been happy.

When I was first in Japan, I would have probably stopped to say hello. But I confess there were a number of responses that ran through my head, and none of them were “stop and say hello.” I first thought about responding with a cheery “ohayōgozaimasu” (good morning). Then I thought about saying “sorry, I don’t speak English” (in Japanese of course). In the end, I rode away on my bike without saying anything, pretending not to hear, wondering “What are their teachers teaching them anyway?” as I fled.

Most of the time I’m content to not be Japanese. I’m quite content to be American right now as I’m drinking a cup of delicious Kona coffee. We’ve got good coffee in America… or in Hawaii, at least. But sometimes, I get tired of standing out. I’m good at standing out, because I am not only a gaijin (foreigner), but I am often carrying a large musical instrument.

In Ishikari, there aren’t any tourists. Any gaijin here will generally have a pretty good grasp of Japanese, since he or she will be here for work or study. Sapporo is the same, other than the snow festival time. Most of the time, thankfully, people I meet will speak Japanese to me without a second thought, or if they’re feeling hospitable, they might ask, “Is it okay if I speak Japanese?” I’ve gotten so accustomed to speaking Japanese with strangers that it startles and even confuses me when a stranger strikes up a conversation in English.

Getting cat-called by little kids shouldn’t bother me. It actually bothers me that I’m bothered by it. Really, I should stop and return the greeting, since that’s polite. But on the other hand, are those kids calling out a greeting to everyone they meet, or just the person who stands out?

A couple of months ago during our vacation, we visited a church where a friend of ours is the pastor. Another visitor from a rural area struck up a conversation with us as we were having coffee after the service. “We love missionaries,” he said. “They’re like a kyakuyose panda” (customer-drawing panda—we’d probably say “dancing monkey” in English). The pastor and his wife were shocked; they assured us that they didn’t see missionaries this way—we are colleagues working together for the sake of the Gospel.

I confess I struggle with standing out; sometimes it seems that my greatest value to the Japanese church is that people will come to gawk at the gaijin. I’m not some animal at the zoo. I’m an introvert who values close friendships and good conversation. I’m thankful that most of our friends patiently listen to our broken Japanese and repeat what they’ve said when we don’t catch it the first time. The best conversations happen when everyone forgets that my Japanese sucks, and we talk like old friends and laugh together. My friends are willing to get under the surface—they can see beyond the fact that I am a gaijin and they are Japanese. I am not an animal in the zoo to them—I am a friend. If I didn’t have great friends, I would probably spend a lot of time hiding in my house. Well, maybe not, but going out would be a lot more tiring than it is.

And yet despite my limitations, the reality is that there are some ways in which it really is beneficial to be a gaijin missionary in Japan. Some people will come to church events to meet gaijin. Some of them even come back a second time. Gaijin are perceived as friendly and open, so lonely people sometimes start conversations with me. Those who feel oppressed by the many pressures of Japanese society may come to a gaijin, who is on the outside of Japanese society, for help.

Really, I wish I weren’t bothered that I stand out. I’m praying that gradually I will see my own “strangeness” as an opportunity and not as a cross to be borne.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Why being in Japan has made me a better musician

Today’s coffee: Tanzania and Yemen (at Tokumitsu)

I’m back in Ishikari after 6 days in Tokyo. Last Friday seems like ages ago. It’s good to be home, but there are many things I need to catch up on… cooking, gardening, cello practice, email… not to mention planning for concerts and a magazine article I promised to write! Please tell me I’m not going to be on a non-stop all-out sprint until Christmas time…

Last Sunday’s concert was okay. In Japanese, I would say まあまあ (maa maa, which means “so-so”). The preparations—rehearsals, lesson, private practice—were enjoyable, stimulating, and encouraging. I’m glad I went, and I’m glad I played. Next time will be better!

Playing Bach 3rd Sonata with Mikina Yamashita
Yes, I am wearing a kimono (with hakama)!
I played Bach’s 3rd viola da gamba sonata; this was my second performance. My third performance is scheduled for October 26 in Sapporo. This piece is extremely difficult, but unless you’ve played it, you would never know that it’s so difficult. But it’s completely worth it—what an incredible piece of music!

Today I want to reflect on playing music in Japan. In the last 4 years, I’ve grown as a musician in a number of ways; even in graduate school, I wasn’t able to play like I can now. I think that is largely a result of being in Japan. Here are seven ways that being in Japan has made me a better musician.

1. Humility. Let’s face it: in graduate school (and long before that), I was a know-it-all. I’m well aware that there were rehearsals in which I made the musicians around me miserable. In God’s great wisdom, he sent me to a place where I couldn’t speak the language; that’s a sure-fire way to cure a know-it-all. I could not speak; I could only listen. Not only could I not speak, I was completely helpless in carrying out a wide range of daily tasks, including the work I came here to do. Thankfully I’ve developed in my language ability, but not without first learning some important lessons about depending on God and on other people. Hopefully my presence in rehearsals is a bit more welcome now.

2. Teachability came out of humility; in recognizing my own helplessness and learning to depend on others, I learned the wisdom of receiving constructive criticism. Maybe someday I will have something to teach my kohai (younger colleagues), but I hope I will teach and give advice while remembering what it was like to be new in Japan. For now, willingness to receive instruction from sempai (senior colleagues) builds trust and leads to opportunities to use the gifts God has given me.

3. Nakama, meaning friends or colleagues, are very important in any sort of work in Japan. I have some wonderful nakama here. Nakama work together and encourage each other, in the case of musicians, to play even better. I have been playing with Shino for almost 4 years; we’ve worked through a lot of difficult music and played a lot of concerts. Shino picked a very difficult piece of music 2 years ago—the Arpeggione sonata but Schubert. I thought it was impossible, but she encouraged me, and we kept at it. It’s not perfect yet, but by learning that piece, I realized that by challenging myself, my technique really improved. There’s always another try! I sometimes play with Kumiko, a gambist in Sapporo. She has excellent musical sense, so it’s fun to play with her and hear what she thinks about a given piece of music. Another gambist friend, Akiko, lives in Tokyo, so we don’t meet very often, but when I hear her play, I’m encouraged to work harder and try playing new pieces of music, even very difficult pieces.

With Mikina after our concert
Last summer's gamba camp. Akiko is next to me on the far left, and Kumiko is second from the right.
4. My teacher is very strict. I was connected to my teacher, Kambe-sensei, through the Viola da Gamba Society of America. Before my first lesson, a friend told me that Kambe-sensei made her cry in a lesson. “She’s really strict,” my friend said, “but if you come to your lesson prepared, she’s a great teacher.” Despite the pressures of having just moved to Japan, I made sure I was prepared for the first lesson. And wow, what a lesson. Kambe-sensei didn’t let anything slide. I went away from just one lesson a much better musician, I think. Growing up, I’m not sure Kambe-sensei would have been the right teacher for me, but as an adult, I have realized that being strict can also be a form of kindness. Kambe-sensei is honest about my weaknesses as a musician, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t laugh together and enjoy playing Bach… because Bach is amazing! I want to play better. I think I want that more than ever now, and Kambe-sensei has given me a lot of excellent teaching. (Did I mention that my lessons in May were 3 ½ and 4 hours long? And the one last week was 2 ½ hours.)

Kambe-sensei (on the right) listens to her students at the party following the concert.
5. Respect for tradition, but a fresh perspective. My colleagues here in Japan know their stuff—history, performance practice, etc., but somehow it seems that at the same time they feel free to interpret the music in a fresh way. There have been a number of technical issues I’ve dealt with in lessons, but the number one recurring feedback has been to enjoy the music and play expressively—to play confidently, as if my personal interpretation is exactly right. My teacher apologised as she encouraged me to play 図々しい (zuuzuushii), as the nuance of this word is somewhat negative. To translate, she told me to play impudently. ;) Some of the musicians I admire most perform in this way. Really, in a performance, it’s best to have confidence in my preparations, and enjoy playing.

6. Music otaku. Otaku is not such a nice word; it means nerd or someone who is obsessed. But I’ve been obsessed with music since the days of middle school “dorkestra.” In the company of other music otaku, I found the place I belonged. Studying music at university and graduate school, I think I burned out; playing music wasn’t really fun any more. I hardly played at all for 4 years while we were at Regent, but being in Japan and playing with music otaku, I’ve rediscovered that music is fun! Last January I played the Beethoven Clarinet Trio with Shino and a clarinettist from her church, Saitoh-san. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone look so happy playing the clarinet. Spending time with people who love music this much is infectious. A number of our friends and colleagues here have day jobs that sap them dry, but music is a means of coming back to life again. Gradually for me as well, practicing and rehearsing is starting to be fun and life-giving again.

With Shino and Saitoh-san after our concert last January
7. Opportunities to perform. There have been many. I think in the US I would have been fighting for gigs, but my current work allows me many opportunities. This gives me motivation to keep practicing and learning new repertoire.

These are just a few of many reasons I’m thankful to be here in Japan.

Friday, September 06, 2013


Today's coffee: roasted almond frappuccino. Yes, I'm at Starbucks, in Ueno Park. (That's in Tokyo.) I think it’s the most beautiful Starbucks I've ever seen.

Mushroom quiche and frappuccino.
I'm "typing" with one finger on my iPod, so this will be short. :)

The reason I'm in Ueno Park on this beautiful evening is that I've just been to a concert at my friend's university’s festival. This particular friend will be playing harpsichord with me on Sunday. (For those of you who haven't heard, I'm in Tokyo to play in a concert with my viola da gamba teacher and all her other students. More on that next week. I'll just mention that I'll be performing the Bach 3rd viola da gamba sonata; the last time I performed it was 8 years ago at Boston Early Music Festival. File that thought away.)

Playing Bach at BEMF with Akiko, June 2005
The concert I just attended was the presentation of the Tokyo University of the Arts Baroque Dance Club. I have to say, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. I took a baroque dance class in graduate school. We called it dancing and prancing. In any case, the class was pretty fun. I'm pretty sure we studied some of the pieces performed in the concert today.

Add the weather into the nostalgia mix: hot and muggy, although the Tokyo natives say it's quite cool today. Just like Boston summer, but with cicadas. I’m thankful it’s cooled off in the evening.

And here's the kicker: Tess, my dear friend from graduate school in Boston, sang one of the pieces from tonight's concert at our wedding. Yep. Feeling rather nostalgic.

Here's Tess, singing at our wedding.
I'm really grateful for my life in Japan (and in Vancouver and various other places before that), and all my new friends and colleagues and chamber music collaborators, and a new viola da gamba teacher too! And yet I wish I hadn't had to leave so many friends behind. Tess, Akiko, Sarah, Laura, Bryan, Julie, Jung-Sun, Marty, Peter... and a whole lot of others... thanks for the lessons and classes and concerts and suppers together and whatnot. Any time you want to play with me in Japan, come on over. I miss you guys!

And to Mikina, Shino, Naho, Yoko, Makiko, Kumiko, Shoko, Aiko, Kambe-sensei, my friends in Baroque Collegium Sapporo, and a whole lot of others: これから宜しくお願いします。 (korekara yoroshiku onegaishimasu--please take care of me from now on.)

In case you are in or around Tokyo on Sunday, September 8, here's the concert information. :) I am playing in the 3rd section, which starts at 3:20 p.m.

日時:2013年 9月 8日(日) 12:30 開演
場所:近江楽堂 (東京オペラシティ3階)
初台駅東口より徒歩7分 入場:無料