The Koto Concert – by Melissa

In the women’s dressing room, a concerted kimono effort was taking place. As if my entrance had startled a flock of birds, layers of kimono flapped in the air and floated down around the necks of my fellow koto players. Two helpers per woman kept the wings up while the wearers’ arms slipped in, the fabric was wrapped and tied, and a third helper stood on a stool behind, up-sweeping the hair in a fashion that screamed prom. Butterfly clips and sparkling feathers adorned the sides of these up-dos. Here, it wasn’t kitschy, it wasn’t tacky. These women, ages 17 to 60, looked elegant in kimono passed down from their grandmothers who wore them the exact same way.

We were preparing to play Sakura, Sakura, a traditional piece about the arrival of cherry blossoms and the passing of winter. Not quite Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” Sakura, Sakura is a peaceful passage, which sounds as if after a long and difficult winter (the downward whole note procession), the cherry blossoms begin to peak out rapidly one bud at a time (the change to alternating low and high half notes). Sunday was a perfect day for the music school’s spring concert. I rode to the morning rehearsal enjoying the first warm, sunny day since early October, and perhaps the first Sunny day in weeks. The cherry trees lined the streets, their dark branches heavy with light pink blossoms, just like in the paintings. A traffic hazard, it was too beautiful to pass without fully staring.


Ours was the first-year student group. We played only one of the 12 pieces in the concert. This promised 11 pieces of music played on traditional instruments by music students and teachers, many who had been playing their whole lives.  Along with the triumph of our own performance, we first-year students were in for a great treat. Our only despair was that we were nervous. In fact, “doki doki” was the phrase of the day, occurring with shrills, giggles, and gripped hands.  We shuffled onto the stage for rehearsal where our benevolent but stressed sensei begged us to bow in unison and play the trills in wavelike succession. The older women, long since finished with school and other types of unified regimen, giggled at their mistakes and called out “doki doki!”

We had played several times through when the lights dimmed very low and a spot cast on a woman who appeared dramatically in front of the stage clasping her hands and wearing a sparkling purple kimono. She was a koto master, our teacher’s teacher, who had come from Osaka to play with the advanced students. She had the kind of wrinkles that made her eyes catlike; they angled up sharply in two deep creases, as with one who smiles or concentrates often. At once, everyone bowed low over their koto. The master spoke jovially for two or three minutes energetically unclasping and clasping her hands. With her watching, we played. She told us not to be nervous and to enjoy. We bowed again and thanked her. Then we picked up our stands and our music and shuffled offstage through the labyrinthine corridor with koto standing on end down every stretch of wall. My feet were asleep from sitting on them, so I walked mindfully, terrified I would cause a domino koto fall.

Back in the dressing room the players put on lacy bibs, like white Christmas tree skirts, over the kimono to protect them from lunch. As we ate from our bento boxes, a woman introduced herself and said she was an English translator who worked from home. When the others heard us talking, they scooted over to us and began talking to me through her. I had been able to speak to them limitedly before but now they were excited to tell me about themselves. Among us there was a graphic designer in her twenties who worked for an advertising agency, another quirky young girl in her twenties who worked at a boutique downtown, stay at home moms, a kimono shop owner, a retired woman in her sixties whose daughter is marrying an American in Tokyo next week, and two high school students – from my second year writing class! After lunch, we took pictures together and cleaned up the dressing room.

Then, as the ladies were readjusting their kimono, I sneaked out to find Emmett, who had seated himself slightly left of center in the front row. I told him that I would watch the beginning of the show from the balcony with the other ladies and join him after Sakura, Sakura. The concert opened with a lively number. The master played the 21-string koto, which starts an octave lower than the regular koto with 14 strings. It’s like having an instrument with the range of a viola, cello, and bass in one. And, like all three of those, it has a deep beautiful, dark chocolate, red wine kind of sound.

koto master

After the third piece, we went back into the dressing room and prepared to go on. When I knelt at my place on stage I smiled at Emmett and our friends. They were sitting directly in front of me,  about two koto-lengths away. The auditorium was nearly full. The kimono were brilliant under the lights. And though I was in a navy suit, I felt none the shabbier surrounded by these lovely birds, who were now my friends and partners in nervousness.

During the second to last performance, our teacher, the owner of the school, played the shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese guitar) and the master played the 21-string koto. It was just the two of them on stage. The master picked the high strings with the tsume on her right hand and plucked the lower strings with the fingers on her left. She sounded like she was playing two different instruments, as if two harpists were playing at once.  And I, wowed in the front row, felt it quite unlikely that I would soon find an experience to match this one. 

Video compliments of Ally (tatemae), who graciously agreed to record between taking pictures.


Filed under For the Love of Japan, Inspiration!, Music

13 responses to “The Koto Concert – by Melissa

  1. Danette

    Wow, that was beautiful. Wish I could have been there to enjoy the whole concert.
    Love You.

  2. Paula Kerrigan

    Mel, this is superb! Congratulations! you blend right in which I know cant be easy. Wow!

  3. Brett

    Great job Mel!

  4. jacob

    AH! LOVE IT!

  5. Mo

    Jozu! Jozu! Jozu!
    This is beautiful, what an amazing experience to have had. Well done!

  6. Jessica

    Wow! I so enjoyed reading and this. More posts! More videos! More descriptions of butterfly clips…!

    Be well, friends.

  7. Dawna

    Wow – you are an amazing young lady and I continue to be impressed by your adventurous spirit and talent for everything you try. I love that you are drinking in the culture – it’s amazing, right?

  8. why oh why are you so AWESOME!!!!

  9. Pingback: Koto players, Takaoka « Blog Archive « 建前 (…tatemae…)

  10. Marletta

    That was beautiful Mel! I had the girls watch with me and they had a thousand questions about the instument and why were you not wearing a kimono. Miss you!

  11. That’s pretty hard work, playing in sync without the apparent help of a master timekeeper, especially considering the varied rhythms sometimes involved.

    Is it just me, or does part of this sound like the beginning bar of “Come all ye faithful?” (Probably more the rhythm than the actual pitch, I’m terrible with pitch still).

    One of my dreams is to one day see an orchestra playing music in the vein of western symphonic (any era or combination of), but including ‘ethnic’ instruments from around the world. I.e. have a koto section, taiko drums section, shamisens, etc. (I’d look up more instruments but I’m limited on time) bonus points for including live synthesizers or turntablism. Basically, I want to see an orchestral piece representing and using world instruments, not just the limited palette of western instruments canonized for the symphony orchestra. There’s a lot out there that western symphonic music could benefit from, instead of stagnating trying to one-up one another with less and less tonal and rhythmic pieces.

  12. marny

    Here in middle Tennessee, the cherry blossoms are over now. Yet every time I saw them I thought of you and Emmett in Japan, experiencing those cherry blossoms. Your story completes the image!

  13. Randy

    That was beautiful Mel. I loved the music but seeing you was the best treat of all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s