Sunday, March 31, 2013

Hana no Michi

Surely I've seen beautiful springs before.  But when I remember them I think of the people that helped make them warm; discovering another's hands after a long winter, walking with my mother through the lilac gardens in Madison.  But here, spring is a sight to behold on its own.  The Japanese have a word for it, "hanami," meaning, "to see the flowers."  

The Japanese live in a beautiful place; I think they make it even more beautiful by seeing its beauty.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Light by Morning, Children by Day, Musicians by Night

I woke up this morning even earlier than planned and sat in my tatami room, enjoying the excess of time.  Outside my window, the blossoms were glowing in the morning light and I simply couldn't let the moment go.  Someday I will advance to that level, but for the fortune of the future and those who could not be there, I my desire to cling to the moment....

Riding the train to HPAC today felt like an ascent through the clouds. But they are here on earth with us.  Incredible.

We returned to HPAC to play our final children's concert for a full auditorium of children and parents.  Not so many amusing T-shirts, but one gentlemen pulled out Japanese baseball bats as his instrument for My Grandfather's Clock.  He pounded the small plastic bats together, helping coordinate the 2000 person orchestra of recorders and melodicas like a well seasoned baseball fan chanting for the home team.  The kids were still cute.  And the parents were so touching in the way that they watched them learn something for the first time, their attention upon these youth like a cat watching birds outside the window.  Nothing could pull them away.

And then this evening I hosted another okonomiyaki party but this time upgraded with chamber music! The okonomiyaki were incredible and even though we started playing later in the evening, the music was great.  Couldn't get to it all.  So many great things to see, to do, to experience, to eat (!) in life.  It was a great day, great evening and now, ready for bed....

before the mixin' began

fetching an okonomiyaki from the pan (and all the fixings on the table)

flippin' skills

preparing another (and another and another......)

saucing and slicing, mmmmm

one of our bassoonists

Friday, March 29, 2013

Home Again, Home Again

I've eaten my last over-the-top hotel breakfast and convenient store onigiri for at least a short while.  The firm hotel beds and pillows, the strange dreamlike T.V. programs, The Teachings of Buddha atop the New Testament, the bathtub which tempts to be filled like a sake generous pour, the slippers I never used, and the hot water kettle that I did.

Tomorrow we'll be playing a home concert.  One last chance to catch a few beats, teach some violin, see kids jump up and down with excitement, and see a few more amusing T-shirts ("Queerly" and "Better world comical" are my current top rankings).  Don't know the score after this week on the road, but it always feels good to see the familiar turf, such as this part of Japan has become.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


Tonight I'm in the same hotel as last week but I've been bumped up two rooms and three floors.  Rarely is progress this measurable but I'm taking in the view while I can.  Had I known the fame of Himeji's oden (apparently world famous in these parts) and had had more than 500 yen to spend on a meal last week, I most certainly would have ventured a little further.  But this time, with the support of a group of tomodachis, I enjoyed some amazing oden, food typically reserved for vats of overdue broth left boiling in convenient stores.  Not so this evening.  Cooked in a light broth, we enjoyed mochi filled tofu skins, octopus, tofu, fish cakes, noodles, mushrooms, boiled eggs, seaweed, tofu skin, gingko nuts, potatoes, daikon radish, bamboo root, and probably something else I've forgotten– all of which we dipped into a ginger soy sauce.  After this feast, we returned to the tempting waffle stand with the ever present line and waited to fulfill our olfactory expectations.  Matcha, chocolate caramel, maple, ice cream to go with if one wished....I was please with a simple almond waffle this evening.  Amazingly, one of the nihonjin in our group had planned a second dinner of ramen and some in the group were headed that direction and perhaps on to Karaoke.  I felt pretty satiated by this point and ducked underground to a tea shop.  That's where you duck in Japan, the dark green tea under belly of Himeji.

if you're going to have drink coasters- why not?

very happy, beautiful people (and oden)

carefully preparing matcha waffles

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Medicine Delivery

Around 11 this morning I learned that I can hear my doorbell through my practice room door.  I set aside my cello and the soviet chill of the third movement of Shostakovich's cello sonata to find a friendly Japanese man waiting for me outside.  I was a little befuddled by the transition and it took me a minute to realize that he wasn't selling internet or religion or offering me a package from Amazon but offering me a box with medicine.  He seemed very insistent that I take it.  I asked several times if I had to pay and he assured me that I didn't.  That's where my current understanding lies.

I believe myself to be entering into a dangerous zone of Japanese comprehension and communication, one in which I know and understand enough to start interacting and garnering responses from my trusting Japanese bystanders.   It's a dangerous zone and it will probably last for the duration of my time here.  One of my greatest Japanese studying inspirations, a friend of mine who has learned an incredible amount in the year-and-a-half that she's been here, recently joined us for dinner still upset over an encounter with trying to use an ATM in Japanese.  All's well that ends well, but as we gain proficiency we become like awkward middle schoolers or long-haired kittens where part of us is fully grown and other parts are still a bit patchy.  Hopefully we'll fill out.

And now I have this box.....

The worst case scenario that I imagine here is that I will be charged for a supply of poisonous arsenic maliciously sent to Akuradanchi by North Korea, the payment being used to fund their nuclear weapons development.  Perhaps I'll receive a bill in a few weeks that I won't understand and I'll put it in the paper garbage; and then maybe a few weeks later someone will come to my door but I'll be at rehearsal.  

However in this case I think that this company is just distributing these products to try, along with a price card, carefully produced in the box that tells the cost for each if one should wish to get more.  This is what I understood from our exchange.  And now I have a mystery box of Japanese medicine.  I don't really use medicine in general and while I can understand most of what these things are (simple cold medicines and bandaids costing very little), there are others that I'm not so sure.  I feel like this is something that my mother would say not to do–taking strange medicine from strangers.  But I also feel like my mother would be curious, too, and something about Japan makes it seem ok.  That being said, I'm in no hurry to get sick to see what happens.

box of medicine

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Second Hand Clothing Store

After three days of touring with 50 of my closest friends and acquaintances  I broke my sudden solitude with a trip to the second-hand store around the corner.  Like the Santa bowl at Christmas that announces a discreet cookie pilfering with a loud "HO HO HO!" the entrance into any shop in Japan is projected to the world by the mandatory yelling of "Irasshaimase!" (Welcome!)by every employee on the premises.  I'm sure that even in the back rooms, employees opening boxes or having a cigarette break on the back patio are sympathetically yelling this.  It seems it can't be helped, they have to do it.

For someone like me, who is slightly introverted and afraid to disappoint by sheepishly shirking the follow through of a purchase, this can be an uncomfortable thing.  And there isn't really a response to this grand greeting.  It's always a bit of an awkward moment for me as I tend to just echo what is said because I don't know any better.  "Welcome!!!" "Welcome," oh wait never mind.  Why isn't there a word that means, "Why thank you for graciously welcoming me into your store!  I very much look forward to seeing what it has to offer and enjoying the warmth of your honorable presence while I shop!"?  If I were a Japanese rapper, I might create such a word and get it into everyday parlance (what? Japanese rap?).  But since I still have a hard time telling the clerks that I've decided not to purchase the ten items that I took into the dressing room and where shall I put them, anyway- I think I'll hold off on making the Japanese language any more creative than I already have.  For now I'll continue to marvel at these gracious greetings and the sorting of second hand clothing into "Gal" and "Sweet" brands.  It's another world.  At least most of the shirts still have two sleeves.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Japanese Home

So many circumstances and choices create a life and way of living.  Where we are, what we do, how we think, to whom we are close (from who we are far), what we value, how we struggle, what we fear.  So many different ways of living, so many different lives being lived.  Anything is possible.  What if I lived in Japan forever?   What if I didn't?

Interior of new Japanese home under construction

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Break from Breakfast and Japanese TV

We're back in Akuradanchi for a three day hiatus before another two days in the wilds of Hyogo Prefecture.  It's fun to sleep in new beds and eat fancy Japanese hotel breakfasts, but I'm looking forward to sleeping with my soft pillows and eating my yogurt tomorrow morning.  I also enjoyed some incredible Japanese television.  I watched part of the sumo tournament with the benefit of English announcers, close-ups and play backs and gained a new appreciation of the sport, especially the size of its competitors.  Later in the evening before going to sleep I spent a small amount of time watching a show about the joy of riding escalators in airports around the world, Harry Potter dubbed in Japanese, and a game show with a 73-year-old woman dressed in leather doing a pole dance.  None of these held my interest.  It wasn't until I fell upon Pitagora Suichi (PythagoraSwitch) that I became entranced.  The fact that this children's educational program was airing on Saturday night at 10pm would suggest a broader audience, one that is secretly in love with its addictive mix of gears, camera tricks and Rube Goldberg machines. It spoke to the child in me that missed the crayon factory of Mr.Rogers and episodes of 321 Contact.  Eventually I exercised self control and turned it off to go to sleep.

And now, for few days I will have to take a break from Pitagora Suichi, Japanese buffet breakfasts and convenient store food, and the sound of recorders and melodicas playing My Grandfather's Clock.  In a few days, we'll be back on the road, enjoying Hyogo at large.

Breakfast #1 (from top left, clockwise): rice porridge, miso soup, salmon, tamago roll, seaweed and egg salad, broccoli, potato salad, fruit with yogurt (including lichi), bread pudding

view from Breakfast #1

Breakfast #2:  (on the perimeter from left to right) a light seafood soup, rice with pickled vegetables, plum tangled seaweed tea; (on plate from upper left clockwise) sea bream, tamago roll, egg and seaweed salad, seaweed salad of a different sort, tofu and egg, and soft tofu with yuzu (citrus) sesame sauce. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Izumi Shikibu

in the world
is usual today.
This is
the first morning.

Come quickly–as soon as
these blossoms open,
they fall.
The world exists 
as a sheen of dew on flowers.

Even though
these pine trees
keep their original color,
everything green
is different in spring.

Seeing you is the thread 
that ties me to this life–
If that knot 
were cut this moment
I'd have no regret.

I watch over
the spring night–
but no amount of guarding
is enough to make it stay.

-Izumi Shikibu 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Japanese Music Man

Our fairy princess violin soloist for this concert invited several children to the stage to try their hands with the violin and in less than 5 minutes she had them in a position capable of scraping two different strings with the bow.  As we played "Jumbalaya" to accompany them, she purposefully floated from one child to another in her pink cloud dress, grabbing their arm and swinging it forcefully to increase their sawing motion; all the while she played her own violin's open strings so that they could hear the desired result.  No hiding in that virtuoso get-up–she's a teacher.  Of course children with violins can be a dangerous thing.  Hard to stop the curiosity and it can be hard to scream over the innocent exploration of open A and D strings.  At one point our conductor ardently yelled, "Hai! Stop!"

Later in the program we invited everyone in the audience with instruments to join for a rendition of My Grandfather's Clock.  Flutes, violins, shakers, recorders, and melodicas played along in a pointillistic cacophony and I wished that among the sweet Japanese parents, just one could have yelled, "That's my Tommy!"  We are the Harold Hills of Hyogo.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Upcoming Children's Tour

Tomorrow we set sail for a 3 day voyage of the Hyogo Prefecture, bringing music to children and their families.  The heart of the program is the fourth movement of Scheherazade, flanked by quite a bit of violin solo music (Cszardas, Zigeunerweisen, Vivaldi concerto for 4 violins) as well as My Grandfather's Clock (a favorite here) and the indefatigable Radeztky March.   There may be audience participation involved and I have a feeling that the heavy emphasis on violin is a sympathetic nod to the prevalence of this instrument in the early years of music training.  We've been told that children as young as three will be there (though I doubt the bouncers will turn away the babies which inevitably accompany those three-year-olds' mothers).  I'm not exactly sure what to expect, but I'm looking forward to it.

Our conductor, the same man who lead us for the Hyogo Prefectural Assembly Concert and the Wakuwaku concerts, prepared us for the journey in a similar way as these other concerts.  "I learned that children's voices are from heaven," he said, the goal being to embrace crying children.  He has a great attitude about a lot of things.

In addition to this, the tour also means two nights in a hotel and that means two nights with Japanese television and two mornings of Japanese breakfast.  Children, Japanese TV, and Japanese food.  This is pretty exciting.  The only thing that competes with this excitement is my first batch of homemade azuki paste waiting for me on the stove.  Yum.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Violin Recital

Maybe it's being older or maybe it's being in Japan, but this evening's violin recital given by one of the Japanese members of the orchestra was a different affair than the student recitals of only a year ago.  There was no Facebook event; she asked people individually and handed out flyers to audience members after one of the HPAC concerts.  The general admission ticket price was 2500 yen (about $30), though reduced for HPAC members, and when she came to my apartment to give me the ticket she also presented me with an ando (red bean paste) filled pastry made by her mother who was in town for the recital.  The ticket itself was beautifully produced with a color photograph of her and her violin. The venue was a large recital hall in Kobe and the stage was set with a huge and beautiful bouquet of flowers.  Her dress was amazing.  There was not one, not two, but three encores.

All this and her playing, were so beautifully prepared.  So much planning and time and money went into the production, and I kept thinking of all the support that it takes to make such a beautiful thing happen.  I kept thinking of her parents and her teachers.  The whole affair seemed packaged so thoroughly in care, from her birth to this moment when those in her life helped her make this possible.  The feeling of her community and her connection to it were tied into the evening.  After the concert we exited and I stood in line watching the people in front of me exchange bows with her individually, four feet between them.  Family and friends hovered around her, a table nearby growing steadily with flowers and gifts.  My friend shook her hand, I gave her a hug.  It's a wonderful thing to be in a place with this much given to a music recital.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Clips from Japanese Book

I really enjoy learning Japanese.  The slow disclosing of a secret language and the ability to connect to people.  A feeling of delayed gratification every time I hear a word and connect it with a new context; meaning comes into a sound.  

I also really enjoy the graphics in my text book and would like to share a few.  It's just another part of the fun of learning Japanese.  

The character in this dialogue explains that their hobby is to sing songs by the Beetoruzu (the Beatles, who are pictured here in the dialogue bubble)

In this dialogue the object is to fill in the blanks prompted by the picture:
"Yesterday was my first time doing _________"
"How was it?"
"It was__________"
Based on the picture above, what was it and how was it?  (Answer below)

The dialogue accompanying this picture was roughly as follows:
Matsumotoyoshiko: "Maria-san, aren't you eating anything?"
Maria: "Oh no, I started a diet yesterday."
Matsumotoyoshiko: "Oh really?  I've dieted before."
Maria: "What kind of diet?"
Matsumotoyoshiko: "I basically only ate one apple a day and drank lots of water.  But you know, strict diets aren't good for the body."
Maria: "Huh."
Matsumotoyoshiko:"Maria-san, this ice cream, it's really delicious."
Maria: "Really?  I'll start my diet tomorrow."

Things one can and cannot do (indicated by a smiley or frown face):
Write hiragana
Read kanji
Play the piano
Understand Japanese
Drink beer

*Kabuki; really nice

Monday, March 18, 2013


A larger than life experience.  Is it wrestling?  Is it theater?  Religious ceremony?  Sport, martial art? Who are these sumo wrestlers?  So much ritual, so many rules governing their lifestyles.  The fear they throw into one another, the balance of mass and gravity and momentum.  Who are these bodies and minds?  What do they know, what do they feel?  It's an interesting thing;  I wonder what pulse makes it move.

Ani, getting ready for her first sumo match
outside the area

the arena, preparing for a new set of matches

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Kaneko-san and Siddartha

This week's Japanese lesson focused on hobbies and abilities.  The new sentence grammar gave a way to say that one is interested in something and that one can do something.  

Perhaps I took a bit of an abstract artistic license in my essay, one that I think left Kaneko-san more confused than ever.  In my head this was my general plot:  I used to like reading literature in high school and one of my favorite books was Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.  In this book, Siddhartha says that he can do three things: he can think, he can fast, and he can wait (i.e. things that one can do).  From here I explain that these three things are very difficult and that I cannot do them (things I cannot do).  I say that there aren't many things that I can do, but there are a lot of things that I like to do (i.e. my hobbies).  The following three short paragraphs talk about my interests in the far past, near past, present as well as future goals.  I liked to sing in a choir in high school and read novels, but now I sing with the radio and read poetry.  Before I came to Japan (this week I also learned how to say "before x, y") I started martial arts and took some dance lessons and now I practice on my own and with my teachers over Skype.  I used to teach a lot of students and I plan to teach again when I go back to America.  And I would like to be able to understand and speak more Japanese, but this will take time–maybe I can wait.  (Note the thematic tie to the opening paragraph.  Also, grammatically, something I would like to be able to do, my own creative merging of two sentence structures–to want something and to be able to do something; seems I have a ways to go in intuiting Japanese grammar)  

At least I gave it a humble conclusion which just barely got us over the finish line, flat tired for sure.  

I don't think Kaneko-san had read Siddhartha or knew what it was.  He had heard of Hermann Hesse and was very excited about that, but when he read that Siddhartha could think, fast, and wait...."What is  object?"  Well, he wasn't really waiting for or thinking about anything perse.  "I don't understand."  Ok, well maybe we'll just move on and forget that first paragraph happened.  I decided that this was a topic outside my abilities.  

The experience reminded me of my high school senior English teacher.  She was a very smart and well-grounded African American woman who had dealt with the creative wise cracks in our arts school for over a decade and was not a bit shy in her use of the red pen.  The most talented of the creative writers among us received returned essays with entire paragraphs or pages with a giant red "X" through them.  In the margins next to our most brilliant theories and well-turned phrases were the words "Oh please." Senior English was one of the best and most humbling classes I've ever taken.  

But it reminded me that it takes a lot to learn to communicate in any language, even one in which you are "fluent."  (Does that ever happen?)  So I'll take the increased red pen from this morning's lesson as a well-worn battle scar and suture the wound accordingly.  It'll be two weeks before we meet again, and hopefully we'll be well-rested, recovered and ready for another adventure in creative wordplay.  

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Drone Attacks and Ikebana

This evening I listened to a little bit of All Things Considered from America's NPR as well as the English version of Japan's NHK radio news.  American news highlighted controversy over drone attacks and the recovering economy.  NHK covered flower arranging at the UN meeting in New York and the first sighting of cherry blossoms in Tokyo, a record 15 days earlier than last year.  Looking forward to an early spring.

Friday, March 15, 2013


Contrary to common Japanese practice, I avoid sidewalk biking as much as possible.  I have a hard time predicting pedestrian trajectory and don't much care for the uneven surface;  the tradeoff is that I occasionally have to merge with traffic to avoid an illegally parked vehicle in the shoulder.  When it's cold and windy or rainy, and I'm hungry, this inconvenience can make me a little cranky.  Why is this car here?  But there's almost always a car along certain stretches- rules in Japan are an interesting thing that I've yet to fully understand.

Tonight I followed another car that didn't see the upcoming obstruction in time and found herself trying to merge with a busy line of traffic.  She honked her horn several times at this parked, driverless car.  It reminded me of our dear dog Penny barking ferociously at a statue of poor Stephen Foster.  I'm not sure what Foster's offense was, perhaps she understandably found the lyrics of "My Old Kentucky Home," to be outdated and offensive.  But unfortunately nothing changed.  There is still a statue of Stephen Foster in Alms Park (or so I assume) and we still had to find our way around that parked car, whatever it's reason for being there.

Many things in Japan are mysterious to me; it's difficult and dangerous to assume anything.  Maybe that car isn't actually illegally parked;  maybe sometimes people walk on the left side and sometimes on the right side;  maybe the store only sells that amazing peanut butter chocolate mochi on the seventh Saturday of the month; maybe people avoid baths when they have a fever because it contaminates the water.  There are a lot of things I don't understand.  Until I learn to make sense of this world, I will bask in the warmth of not knowing and hopefully take something away from it more valuable than the missing peanut butter chocolate mochi.  Granted, that will be difficult.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Highlighting Now

Today in our committee meeting I watched one of the office members pull out a highlighter and circle a newly edited part of our master agreement which was already printed in red.  It made me very happy.  Perhaps it's the love of organization and detail.  Maybe it's exercising the full use of office supplies, those magical things which seem to promise that we can do anything, become anything, and organize anything to a new level of efficiency that will clear away confusion, create more time, and make money.  If only we had the right organizer, the right paper clips, files, envelopes, pens, and holders for those pens.  The use of this highlighter, for what seemed a redundant action, poked a little pleasure in me that was sustained even longer in a detailed meeting that ended up not being as mijikai as anyone had thought it would be.  We covered a lot of ground, clarifying and sharing things, putting things in their proper places, organizing ideas, shuffling words.  And always, even at the risk of redundancy, being as clear as possible.

It's a funny thing that as much as Japan has a reputation for being technologically savvy, the Japanese are very paper oriented.  Fax machines win over emails.  But beyond the opportunity to use more office supplies, I wonder if the Japanese aren't on to something.  Cyber attacks, hacking, privacy violations;  these seem to be growing threats in today's world.  And perhaps someday the Japanese will be the only ones left standing, their battery powered fax machines craddled under their arms.  The prominence of paper hard copies, face-to-face meetings, and phone calls all encourage an information exchange that requires more focus than an email read between Facebook viewings and forgotten for several days.

Perhaps time moves a little more slowly in this sort of world.  Perhaps things can be a little redundant.  But in the process they are not so easily overlooked, ignored, or shoved aside.  And in the process, the process becomes important, something which can be strangely comforting.  It's not that the goal disappears, but I might as well enjoy my highlighter in the meantime.  And something about that seems strangely satisfying in and of itself.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Opening Up to Bruckner

"When God made time, he made plenty of it."  It was our last conductor that said this to us as we worked on Barber's Adagio for Strings, but it is our current conductor who seems to embody it.  Bruckner is dense, and even our maestro is quick to admit that the melody is not always so easy to detect.  Today as we embarked on the third and last completed movement of this incomplete 9th symphony, he took time to nuance our dynamics and explain transitions.  I'm getting the sense in Bruckner that one must smell the harmonies more than groove to the beat or sing along with the violins.  Over an hour of rehearsal and we had not covered a full page of music.

I awoke with a cold this morning and so I shut my eyes and rested during times when I didn't have to play, drinking lots of water in the rests and breaks.  At one point my empty water bottle fell in an overly dramatic fashion right before we were about to begin.  Our conductor looked at me and smiled, "Are you angry?"  I just grinned back at him, shaking my head no.  In truth I was loving the slow and caring pace of this rehearsal.  Couldn't be a better way to spend an under-the-weather morning.   He kept teasing me, "I am conductor," he said as he puffed up his chest in a faux-dictatorial manner.  We had fun for a minute and then continued.

He seems very sincere about his work with this piece and I'm starting to hear and appreciate Bruckner in a way I never thought possible.  He's taking the time to open up the space and while it can be tedious, I think Bruckner is lucky to have someone who understands his music in such a way.  And I feel fortunate that to be introduced to Bruckner by such a person.  In all honesty, of all the music scheduled this year at HPAC, this was the concert I was least excited about playing.  But this dear man has changed my mind.  Power to him and all those that work against the odds.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Japan to Madison to Japan

I was missing Madison a lot last night for some reason. The smell of the dirt in the community farm that we had one summer, the sparkle of the snow around the state capitol building, the protests which filled the streets with electric energy, the farmers' market that stretched a mile around the capitol with activists and street artists vying for attention in the Saturday morning summer sun.  I stayed awake thinking about my teachers there, the people who looked after me.  And my students, who inspired me in almost every lesson, who re-energized me on even my most tired days and on Saturday morning at 8am.  I thought about Classical Revolution and the labor of love that it was to create it there, the people that I met through it and the things that I learned from it.  So many wonderful people who played with me, gave me rides from one thing to another, listened to me and had me listen to them.

Madison is a wonderful place.  I still love seeing pictures of it and status updates about it on facebook.  But tonight as I sat down to dinner and decided to turn off NPR and turn on NHK to hear the sound of Japanese, I remembered being homesick for Japan while I was in Madison.  I remember coming back to America and missing it so much that I would dedicate an evening to cook some ramen and listen to my basic Japanese lessons, just to hear the sound of it.

Funny to be in such a wonderful place and thinking about another.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Bruckner Begins

Over two decades of sitting behind the cello and it's finally happening.  I'm playing a Bruckner symphony.  It's not really something that I've missed or sought, but it's interesting to finally be in the middle of it.  So far my experience is that I have a hard time finding the rehearsal letters on the page and  a hard time hearing the melodies in the texture.  Maybe that's why we need "hervortretend," the German term that tells us something is supposed to be prominent.  What is a melody anyway?  We used to teach kids that it's the thing you sing, but sometimes, like many things in elementary school, it gets a little more complicated later on (see Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunair).

The week-long yasumi that we had in late February and the reduced personnel needed for the last program meant that many of our members left Japan for auditions or good times abroad.  Bruckner has brought us all together again.  We packed into the rehearsal space and our conductor, a small young Japanese man, took to the podium.  "May I ask you to start at letter H?" Well sure, why not?  "Please don't look at me, the conductor only gets in the way, but I'm here so...."  Ok, we're orchestra musicians so it shouldn't be too hard to manage.  "Violins can you please make the phrase two measures (sings it)?  I know it's my problem, but please help me."  Of course, why didn't anyone just say so before?  Such a sweet little man.  This is his second year in a row conducting a Bruckner symphony at HPAC and it seems that he has recorded this particular symphony, the 9th, before.

And so here we go together, looking for things that one another may be able to offer:  he seeking my permission to work,  I seeking his understanding of this goliath of a piece.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Conquering Japanese Grammar

Today was Kaneko-sanday and Fūjin, the Japanese god of the wind, was blowing mightily.  It takes a lot of work to make it spring, even if sometimes we have to go back to winter for a few hours.  I biked to my lesson in the warmth of the promised coming months and rode home in the memories of frigid impending rain storms.  Such is spring.

In the past few weeks I've been introduced to several new verb forms and sentence patterns, entitling me to a new level of communication if only I would claim it.  It's exciting to learn these things and become endowed with greater potential; and it's frustrating to be unable to exercise them as fully as I would like.  I don't really know everything that I know, a familiar dilemma.  

This morning I wanted to understand and communicate more with Kaneko-san than I am ready.  His presence as my teacher and a Japanese speaker, through no personal attributes of his own, was the source of Fūjin's power and it has refueled my quest for some undefined goal of higher communication.  I've remounted Rocinante and am chasing after ever quickening windmills.  I'm aware that I'm pursuing something unreal, but for the time being I'm going to ignore it for the sake of the ride and wherever it might take me.  

Saturday, March 9, 2013

North Korea and Ballerinas

Today I discovered my invisibility.

There were probably fifty mothers of fifty little ballerinas in the fifth floor lounge, each with additional surplus children and an afternoon of time.  I stepped through their preoccupied masses, barefooted on my way to the shower, and once in the locker room I stepped through more ballerinas of a more experienced age.  They were changing, their belongings strewn everywhere, the shower space being used for half-hearted modesty as they stripped their tights and replaced them with jeans.   I just stood there in the middle of this tiny space and waited.  Completely unnoticed.  Not a passing glance.  I'm just a strange gaikokujin who chose this singular spot in all of HPAC to stare at her phone.  Why should I be anywhere else?  They left me in my invisibility and I showered.

Normally I would enjoy my quiet Saturday lunch with a cup of tea and the newspaper on the fifth floor.  It occurred to me that perhaps I should go elsewhere today.  But then I upgraded my thought, grabbed the newspaper and a borrowed mug, and found a miraculously vacant seat.  I suppose the excitement of whatever was happening had most on their feet, hovering about.

"Bold Threats From North Korea."  I started on the article.  "In an angry response, North Korea said Friday that it was nullifying all agreements of nonaggression and..." Two cute eyes stared at me from a little girl smiling and jumping around on the seat across from me.  Dance leotards were being handed out to mothers waiting to hear their family name called.  And, and, and....ah yes, "and denuclearization with South Korea and was cutting off the North-South hotline."  I got through a few more sentences and then looked up at those cute eyes.  They were now staring at their mother as she sewed a tag with her daughter's name into the new leotard.  She looked backed at those little eyes and smiled, playing a game of faces.

A few more sentences closer to world destruction the young ballerinas emerged from their rehearsal room and were ready to be changed into their new leotards.  Their mothers helped them and ushered them into line to go back in.  A few of them looked at me and my newspaper, seemingly curious about my appearance and perhaps the writing on the page.  Perhaps I'm only visible to a certain age group;  maybe I'm Peter Pan.  

I finished the article.  Being in Japan, it seemed important to me to have some awareness of these things.  But who can say?  If we don't see it, is it there?

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Fourth Wall

There are so many reasons to love music.  One of them: the fourth wall.

In the theater, the fourth wall is an imaginary wall which separates the audience from the action which is occurring onstage.  Sometimes the fourth wall is broken, either in irony or in something like children's theater when the actor speaks directly to the audience.  With the fourth wall intact, however, what happens onstage is a bubble, a world unto itself.  The presence or acknowledgement of the audience would effect this world, the authenticity of the story and message would be undermined.  Ironically, the communication which occurs from the stage to those in the house can be jeopardized without the fourth wall.

And yet the fourth wall is only an imaginary construct, one that we pretend exists.  People are people, the actors can feel the audience and it effects their performance.  There is applause, there are bows, there are laughs.

For the orchestra, we also have a fourth wall of sorts.  In Japan I think we elevate it to a greater status by walking onto the stage as a group, not warming up onstage beforehand as individuals which is the tradition in America.  The stage is a place upon which a performance occurs, one upon which a full audience stares before the performers enter.  We step upon it and exit from it in such a sacred ritual.

It is from this space that we break the fourth wall that exists in another realm beyond theater and music, the realm of people.  There are pores in the plaster of this fourth wall; it is not so impermeable as we would like to believe.  Beyond applause and bowing and the occasional mistaken eye contact that happens with the cute child in the front row, we are connecting with people in a subtle and powerful way that we do not normally have the occasion to do.

And this fourth wall is broken, not least of all, between ourselves as we play with one another.  Perhaps this is one of the magical things about watching and experiencing a music performance.

I think this is something that we as musicians forget in the midst of getting upset about bowings and balance and intonation.  We can forget the connection we are trying to establish with one another as human beings- not as instruments, technical abilities or disabilities, awareness or lack of it, the way someone makes reeds, or plays a down bow.  

But it is also something which is fundamental to why these things offend us so strongly.  Why doesn't my stand partner notice that we are using different bow speeds?  Or that we have a shared figure with another section which is playing it quite differently than us?  Why does the second player in my section play louder than me and out of tune?  Why are the strings playing so loudly that no one can hear my solo?

I feel as though there is an ultimate goal in music, to dissolve the fourth wall entirely.  The wall that exists between us and the audience, and the wall that exists between us as human beings.  And to do so without words, without explicit acknowledgment, to seamlessly merge with another individual or group of people.  To become a part of them, to end ourselves and become limitless within one another.  And it hurts very deeply when we want this, and somehow, can't quite get there.  Music is a way to practice it.    To listen to one another more deeply so that our listening becomes us and we become another.   To find the edge of who we are as individuals and to try to transcend that.  It's a very personal thing.

It's one of the many reasons why I love music.  It highlights this pursuit and gives us a way to explore it.  Sometimes it feels amazing to be in the space and sometimes it's very frustrating to want it and be blocked for various reasons.  But there are so many ways to explore it.  As many ways as there are pieces by different composers and different people with whom to play them and different audiences for which to perform them.  It's this goal of touching one another that I think perhaps all people yearn for in some way.  To somehow cease to be separate.  To break all fourth walls.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Early Spring Ride

The bike path is peppered with people, spicier by the day, and as I take my solo trip to HPAC I imagine taking part in the various pleasures in which they engage.  A game of croquet with my retired friends, chatting with my child as he sways back and forth in the carrier behind me, sitting under a tree with a clump of bread in a gathering of pigeons, practicing my golf swing, walking my infinitely happy two-legged dog with his hind wheel carrier.  Tomorrow I will become another person, or maybe several new people.  Perhaps I will chase after a ball from the soccer field and barely dodge my own front tire.  Maybe I will throw a baseball to my grandson to help him practice his swing.  Perhaps I will escort a group of special learning needs children through field and sport activities.  Perhaps I will be one of those children, experience running in a new body, in a new way.  Maybe one of the super-fast bikers that passes everyone, or the homeless man under the bridge.  Perhaps I will be the happiest dog in the world, or maybe one of the crows who may be even happier in their unhappiness.  Maybe I'll be the river in the sunlight, or perhaps in the rain.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

New Program

Yesterday was the beginning of a return to rehearsals at HPAC.  This week, under the leadership of our clarinet soloist, we are preparing a chamber orchestra concert of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, Bellini's Oboe Concerto, Prokofiev's Classical Symphony and Mozart's Symphony No. 39 with Barber's Adagio for Strings as the encore.  It's a lot of great music, challenging in different ways for different people. The winds and violins have to play incredibly fast in the Prokofiev, the strings have to play incredibly slowly in the Adagio.

Our conductor and soloist is a very friendly fellow from London who smiles jovially through his very dark brown eyes.  The generally light-hearted program seems fitting for his convivial jollity and goodwill, and he's always happy to enjoy our playing and to tell us so, even if he'd like to give us another shot at doing something a little better.  To him, music just seems to be a way to have a good time with people.  Not a bad way to pass to time.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Okonomiyaki Aftermath

My refrigerator is filled with the remnants of last night's dinner- dried mochi, pickled ginger, octopus, cheese, tons of cabbage and dozens of eggs.  And atop it sit okonomikyai sauce, mayonnaise, flour, seaweed, tempura flakes, and more mochi.  My apartment is cleaner than ever, transformed to accommodate others, the rooms having been swept with their energy.  Different to wake up in the morning to it, to see it when I come home, to prepare it in new forms for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  A self-instigated change that continues past its anticipated expiration.  We shape our environment and our environment shapes us.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Okonomiyaki Dinner

Sometimes one wakes up and desires to host an okonomiyaki dinner.  Sunday was such a day for me and today was the actualization.  Okonomiyaki is a Japanese egg dough pancake and can contain a number of different ingredients.  Literally the name means, "as you like it" (okonomi) and "grilled" (yaki).  So everyone brought the stuff that they wanted to put in their okonomiyaki and we all shared the various different versions that we created.  Octopus, squid, shrimp, mushrooms, bacon, pork, kimchi, mochi, cheese, onion, noodles, cod roe, salmon.....and then topped with mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce, perhaps also some seaweed and pickled ginger.  This evening we were blessed with the presence of our Japanese matron, Akiko, who looked with credulity at the chopped cabbage I proudly presented to her for the dough.  Turns out there are different types of cabbage.  Perhaps an American version of okonomiyaki has been born.  She helped us as she always does, guiding us through the process;  the results were extremely filling and delicious.


Sunday, March 3, 2013


"Mai nichi ga nichiyobi des."  "Everyday is Sunday," a Japanese saying that a laughing Kaneko-san shared with me this morning when he read that HPAC was on break this past week and I was "totemo hima des" (super free).  Everyday is Sunday.  And every Sunday is Kaneko-sanday.  

In my essay I shared my free time activities with him.  The online classes, the practicing, the radio listening that I do.  I lead a fascinating solitary life, especially exciting as relayed in Japanese. Anything to fill the page and our understanding of one another.  As he slowly moved through my sakubun I wondered if he saw the upcoming irregularity in the lines of prose.  He read that I had listened to haikus about morning on NHK radio and then he broke his concentration, looked up at me and smiled with excitement.  His wife writes haikus, she's been writing haikus for 30 years; and he used to write tanka for a newspaper during college (at least this is what I understood or have fabricated).  Oh the's coming... and then finally he hit.  I prefaced the attempt with an explanation using new grammar:  the "let's try this and see" grammar.  Watashi wa asa haiku o kaitemimashita.  (I wanted to try to write a haiku about morning.)

He understood it!  Well mostly; but he got that I was trying and was so sweetly encouraging.  "I like your haiku very much!" he said in English.  Oh, Kaneko-san.  

Earlier in the lesson I had watched him once again write something in English, this time about borrowing and lending.  "I lend アンドレア the book."  He wrote my name in katana.  And something in this made me feel that I was familiar to him in a way, that he hears my name in Japanese.  I suppose I reciprocate.  Every week, several steps closer.  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Haikus with Fleeting Internet

At any moment
My internet could depart
So I must be brief......

(Twixt morning haikus
Read on radio Japan
The sound of silence)

Brief resurrection
Of connection to afar,
A winter spring day

The rush of a crow
Across a sleeping paddy
Poised before the spring

Dividing the time
Between before and to come
Born of the instant

Friday, March 1, 2013

サービス (Service)

When I bought my bike back in September I was still a fledgling in kana.  It just took a lot longer to read signs than it does now, and perhaps if I had been quicker I would have deciphered and remembered the sign behind the counter which had three words for employees to go by: スマイル (sumairu- smile), スピヂヂ (supidi- speedy) and something else that was covered by another piece of paper (presumably along the same lines).  I'd been putting it off thinking that a junky chain and rough gear changes was easy enough to live with that I could avoid the repair and waiting for hours while they fixed it.    But it turns out, "speedy" was their middle name.

The man was, in fact, fairly smiley, super speedy, and probably a lot of the third thing, too.  I stood watching him work, very grateful for the extra service he put into cleaning my chain and adjusting it, adding air to the tires, tweaking the breaks, straightening the headlight.  At some point another man in the shop offered a chair and I realized that perhaps I was being awkward and making my bike hero feel less speedy by standing there.  I had enjoyed watching him work but deferred to the other's suggestion.

A few minutes later, a practically new bike and a belabored attempt to explain to me that my insurance covered it for two years; there was no need to pay.  I rode off into a light spring shower, a budding beginning of biking days to come.