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.

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