Wednesday, December 31, 2014


There is such a feeling of anticipation on New Year's Eve in Japan.  Something is coming.  The minutes seem to be counting down from the middle of the afternoon, the seconds begin somewhere in mid-evening.  It's coming.  And it came.  Towards the end of a perfectly timed concert of arias from all the past years of HPAC, after a song featuring Sado-san playing pianoca, the New Year fell upon us with shiny streamers and balloons which threatened to attack us during Pomp and Circumstance.  We concluded with Radetzky March with the Tiger's theme song in the middle of it.  And now it's 2015.

Happy New Year's from Japan!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Listening Past Loneliness

Today was a step forward in playing with one another.  It is a terribly preoccupying thing for a musician; to play together means to be truly listening and understanding.  In some ways, it is a measure of overcoming that impossible reality in life, loneliness.  Is there someone who understands me, is there someone I can trust?  And to what extent can that be true?  To the degree that each of us is truly unique, it is difficult to find an understanding of one another.  But if two people can find an understanding of time and pitch and all the characters and colors that come from it, something has been overcome, some unity in the face of nature's diversity.  It is a sense of comfort to come so close to others.  One must allow a certain degree of vulnerability to share such a space; to be willing to be understood and to understand at the same time.  There is no end to searching for it.  It can feel as simple and as good as tapping one's foot in time to a recording, or singing with others; and can become as complicated as coordinating oneself to perform the fine motor skills required to play an orchestral instrument expressively and sensitively with seventy other people.

And that such a thing can be taught and refined seems a miracle.  Today, in my desire to understand the components of yesterday's wanting, I discovered a new focus, that of the concertmaster's sense of time.  Each person has a unique way of anticipating and reacting to events in time, and one can observe another and become better at assessing how they do so.  Our concertmaster plays very close to his own cues, but quite late to the conductor's.  This is a unique expression of time that isn't shared by everyone, but can be learned if one is willing to see it and accept it.  But in order to make use of the information, it is also important to know one's own sense of anticipation and reaction, something that would seem inherent, but isn't necessarily so.  How does my sense of time fit with another's?  How does my sense of perception and reaction work with another's?  Coming to know oneself, coming to know another, practicing respect of both so that one can clearly see what is there and approach it and play with it.  Is it possible to overcome the barrier of self?  I think there are moments.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Learning Timing

It was nice to play my cello again, today.  And it was good to be back in the orchestra.  We're preparing a program of arias for the New Year's concert, and these can require a bit of coordination and sense of timing that we haven't quite yet achieved.  Some moments today were a little perplexing and it once again reminded me of what a highly trained skill orchestral playing is.  And what a gift it is to be able to learn another's sense of timing and to work with that.  But with an orchestra, there are so many people, and all of these subjective ways of perceiving the beat and the character and the direction of a phrase can lead to a lot of confusion and ambiguity.  It's difficult to get 15 or 30 people to play a series of slow pizzicato together as the music slows even further; it's a question of trust, of hearing and understanding the phrase in exactly the same way, and any uncertainty can ruin that, any one person can be the one to unsettle it.  Added to this is the (sometimes) tradition of playing behind the conductor.  In most cases we follow the concertmaster, but each concertmaster can interpret a conductor differently.  Because our orchestra gets to work with many different conductors and concertmasters, it means that these variables change a lot and we have the challenge of learning how to communicate for every project.  There's a lot of learning going on, and it's great to be able to see how much development it takes to do it.  I hope the experience can help me when I teach again; and perhaps for my future students and for myself, I might just make more clear the variables that are at work and hope that it can clarify the process.  But as with any at of creation, performance included, there will always be elements of mystery.  May there always be.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Return to Japan (and the internet)

The internet left my parents' home in the middle of Christmas morning.  The excitement of the youtube fireplace my brothers had put on the tv was suddenly disrupted.  We carried on, but for the past few days of my time in America, I haven't been able to write, or check email.  It's been a time purely of family. 

And now I'm in the Tokyo airport, waiting for my final connecting flight to Osaka.  The time with family is fading and I'm preparing to put on my Japan lifestyle again.  It's a more solitary one, one that gives me the space to focus on myself, one in which I have control over my personal schedule.  In many ways, being alone is more simple, more efficient.  But somehow it doesn't seem as sustainable.  Regardless, it will be good to get back into the swing of things in Japan, and it will be good, so good to see my family again, when the time comes.  

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve

It's the first Christmas Eve in two years that I have been home.  Two years ago I was in Japan, and last year I was with extended family in San Francisco.  I'd forgotten the preparation involved before Christmas; the wrapping, the care in wrapping, the care in selecting gifts and balancing the amount given to various members of the family.  There is a lot of work that goes into a Christmas.  And a lot of food that goes into people.  But it is really cool to be able to have a day of nothing, a true holiday of rest and family.  And our stockings are empty tonight, waiting for a visitor that comes every year.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Holidays Begin

After several days of recitals and travel, tomorrow is a relative day of rest.  Finally to begin the holiday season for two days before the return to Japan.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Concert in Lexington, Kentucky

Today was our final official concert in Lexington, Kentucky.   I wonder what it does to one's memories and sense of self to return to a place time and again after having lived and created memories there for three years.  It was a different time in life, a certain group of friends, a certain shade of living and discovering.  It was a part of bringing me to where I am today, who I am, how I live.  To revisit it is to remember a part of the path a little more specifically.  

And in the audience was one of my former professors and two former students.  And I realized how intimidating it is to perform for one's students.  I thought of all that I might hope for them, and looked into myself to see if it was there, if I could demonstrate what I might teach.  It is very difficult to hold oneself to one's ideals.  And intimidating to face it.  And so I focused on making mistakes, on making them as gracefully and with as little disruption as possible.  Imperfection is a part of every performance, and perhaps this is the best place to teach the acceptance of that, at that time.  Of course we always strive for perfection, but there must be a point when we forget it and remember the larger goal which it must ultimately serve.  

So there was more to learn in this place.  Wonderful to step back into another time, to be in touch with it and all it continues to give.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

One Another

It makes such a difference to be surrounded by the love of friends and family.  There are so many things I'm learning from my experience in Japan, and the absence of this simple thing--so easy to take for granted, so easy to forget in the midst of the accommodations one must make in order to live with one another--has made it so much stronger when I suddenly become bathed in its warmth.  Right now, I'm so open to it having been so removed from it.  People are people, and sometimes the accommodations we must make for one another can be difficult and we can become impatient, offended, disappointed, hurt.  These things can simmer below the surface, they can flare up and the pain can last for a long time.  What a strange dance it is to learn to be with one another, to learn to feel that love which is the absolution of fear, which gives us the confidence, the calm, the peace to do and live as we search to live.  Beyond the irritations, beyond the assaults to the ego of our personalities, there is another way, but it can be so hard to find it, to feel it, to practice it. Right now I'm living in the glow of possibility of ideal love.  But it is only one side of the reality of life, of being a living human being.  It is a very real challenge to learn to live with one another.  And Japan is helping me learn this.  It is helping me learn to live in a place that feels cold to me and to overcome that.  It is helping me to see the warmth that might be taken for granted were I constantly to enjoy it.  How lucky we are to have one another, if only we give ourselves to another to have.  

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Day of Performances

Not only did we get to play a recital this afternoon, but this evening we attended a wonderful production of the Nutcracker from the Cincinnati Ballet.  It is such a traditional piece, and yet this production took several risks: hip-hop choreography for the battle scene, flying effects, and the addition of a Clara's imaginary pet poodle.  Several traditional roles had newly interpreted costumes and choreographies and yet some of the standard favorites remained, well-timed and beautifully executed. It was such a thrill to be able to see it live with a live orchestra; something intangible and beautiful.  And so too to be able to play for the small audience today, to enjoy performing chamber music in an intimate setting.  It's been a rich day of performances.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Quartet Opportunity

Today, from across the ocean, I heard that our quartet has passed an application to work with the Japan String Quartet in a series of lessons, masterclasses, and concerts in March.  It's exciting to think of being able to work so closely with the quartet to prepare for this.  It's exciting to think about being able to learn from this experienced quartet, to be able to have this opportunity in Japan.  A big thank you to the members of my quartet for helping make the application possible.  Very exciting!

Thursday, December 18, 2014


After spending so much time in orchestra rehearsals it is really, really exciting to get to rehearse sonata music.  Because of illness we have about two days to put together this program, and that in itself is a welcome challenge.  Another day of becoming more familiar with this program and then three days in a row of performances.  Motivation is cooking.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Missing Home

Andrew is quite sick and so this morning I took a short walk to the grocery store to get some sports drinks and sherbet.  Winter walks in Cincinnati, like and unlike winter walks any and everywhere else.  The bare trees, the gray sky, terrain I've known my entire life only a little smaller than memory.  I somehow seem to continue to grow bigger than it.  

And along the way I met other early morning people.  A man doing Tai Chi in the woods, a person walking, someone taking care of the abandoned grocery store carts on the path.  Some things are still in Japan, how to say "Good morning,"  and what side of the path I should walk along.  But they easily come back and there is something so comforting about saying "Good morning," to another in English.  Those are my words.

Last night I had a dream about remembering Japan.  Driving in America, navigating a car through the streets while remembering the trains of Japan that take one so effortlessly where one needs to go.  The ease of moving and living, the peacefulness of it.  Perhaps a few days home I'm missing Japan in some ways.  And yet still, it is so comforting to be surrounded by familiarity, where the basic social interactions are natural and known.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Very Unfortunate News

Our family is mourning the loss of my cousin, who passed away this past weekend.  It is hard to imagine a life ending, of ceasing to continue as it had been.  Perhaps especially so when so young.  I keep thinking that it must not be true, that it will be different tomorrow.  My heart goes out to his parents.  It is a reminder to practice love as much as possible in this life.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Arrival in Cincinnati

It's been a long day of travel but I am happy to be home with my family in Cincinnati.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

From Tomorrow to Today (and Tomorrow to Yesterday)

Today was spent preparing for returning home tomorrow.  I've shortened a long list of things to do, added others that were never written, and crossed them off for the sake of doing-things-efficacy.  I missed the chore of practicing, such a calming, energizing, focusing energy.  But in a day or two that will return.

In the course of doing some of my other things-to-do I realized that I had misread the required excerpts on an audition list and needed to print them before I left.  Alas, I don't have a printer and turned to the all-powerful conbeni store to help.  One of the online angels of living in Japan had catalogued all the features of printing and copying services available at different chains of convenient stores, including language options for each.  And from this, I learned that it would be possible to take a USB storage device to the newly opened 7-11 a block away and print the music.  Of course the successful end of this story could not have been reached without several well-meaning but confused Japanese convenient store clerks and one mystical gentlemen who spoke English and happened to be using the ATM at the same moment I needed his help.  And now, a few stops later, I have the music thanks to the endless convenience of the Japanese conbeni.

And so tomorrow I depart for America.  I've completed my shopping, cooked the potatoes, broccoli, carrot, and tomatoes in a stew to freeze, gathered and organized most of my music, have my e-ticket and passport and a few dollars, and just have to get up to catch the bus in the morning.  On to a day of travel to the land of yesterday.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

HPAC Departure

I left HPAC today with the feeling of winter break in my heals.  I have one day before going to America, but today I said goodbye to colleagues for the next two weeks and gathered the things I would need for the return home.  HPAC cannot help but be a family.  Sometimes it's overwhelming, but I do miss them already.  And so to rest and prepare for departure, for a busy time home with another family.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Snap Election's Snap Season

Japan is about to have a Snap Election.  A few weeks ago, in response to the rapidly weakening yen, Shinzo Abe dissolved the lower house of the Diet.  This is incredible to me; that a leader can just dismiss the legislative body and call for a new election.  Poof!  But so it is, and on December 14th there will be another election in Japan, one which will hopefully reflect the current sentiments of the Japanese population and help steer the country to a better place economically.

Another thing that is incredible about this, is that despite the announcement of the Snap Election in mid-November, the official campaign season didn't start until December 2nd.  And so now, in a matter of less than two weeks, candidates are in a flurry to promote themselves.  According to Wikipedia, candidate advertising is quite restricted in Japan.  There is a narrow time window, it is exclusively government funded, and there are rules about the length of the ad and the space it occupies in print.  Negative advertising is discouraged.  Amazing.  It's hard to imagine something more different than the American system.  I can now understand why the Japanese were so amazed at our involvement in the last American presidential election, how we all gathered around the television in the lounge at break, watching the votes counted on CNN.  They took pictures of us with their cell phones.

With all of the restrictions, it makes a little more sense that one of the most prevalent means of advertising are vans with loud speakers that drive through the streets making announcements promoting the candidates.  Apparently this is quite alright.  Occasionally the vans stop somewhere and have speeches in front of groups of people.  One of the them stopped outside the Hankyu Gardens Department Store near HPAC earlier today and I had a chance to watch Japanese people get involved in their election.  It was refreshing to see.  Again, democracy–or at least the elections that we believe to stand for democracy–are a big deal in America, and sometimes I miss the passion here; even if American elections are overly dramatic, media mired, manipulative, and questionably funded.  But everyone really cares!

So it was warming to see the crowds surrounding the vans today.  A far more subdued version of America's democracy, but one that seemed civil and full of interest.

Candidates in a parking lot across the street from the department store

Shoppers and passers by stop to listen and show their support

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Fukunari-sensei's Mother

A friend of mine at HPAC who also studies with Fukunari-sensei, told me last week that her mother had passed away.  She had had to cancel his lesson at the last minute and explained the sudden illness and passing in an email to him.  My lesson schedule had a natural hiatus last week, and therefore had no interruptions.  She didn't cancel this week's lesson, nor email me to let me know.  

Regardless, since I knew, I wanted to at least give her a condolence card.  But writing condolence cards in one's own language with some understanding of cultural precedence is hard enough.  How to go about it in Japan, but from a foreigner, seemed quite difficult.  I managed to get enough information from the internet to write the basic phrase used to express condolence: okuyami moushi agemasu.  But after that, it was hard to know how to really phrase something so that it didn't sound really clunky, or at the very worst, offensive.  So I simply wrote in English as clearly as possible, hoping that the vague meaning of it would trickle through.  

When I arrived today for my lesson, she seemed unchanged, greeting me warmly as usual, running off to the kitchen to get the tea and snack that she always serves.  When she came back I said, "Okaasan," mother, to let her know that I'd heard and was sorry.  And she continued as though I were a child, explaining the existence of death to me for the first time, trying to soften it and make it seem less scary.  Her mother was 87 years old, and the gods had looked after her for a long time and now she would be going to heaven.  And then she told me about the ways to say that someone has passed away, taught me how to offer condolences in Japanese.  It was a lesson like any other.  She said she thought her mother was happy, and so Fukunari-sensei said it was ok, though she did admit she was a little sad.  

And knowing Fukunari-sensei as I know her, I believe that her mother was likely a happy person and had a good life.  I'm happy to have Fukunari-sensei in my life and grateful to her mother and her mother's memory.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mozart Sound

From a force of over ten thousand people performing Beethoven 9 to a small chamber orchestra playing an all-Mozart program, we are on to another world of music.  The conductor is asking us to make a certain sound, one that is different than last week's, and asking for a different sound can be one of the most challenging things a conductor requests.  Sound is so personal.  It's shaped from years of listening, years of learning, and years of playing in a certain way.  One's sound is a combination of all the sounds they've encountered and maybe something else that they give it.  Or at least I imagine it to be so.  There are orchestras that have sounds; in fact most major orchestras do.  And it is quite easy to distinguish between European orchestras and American ones.  But at HPAC, an amalgamation of traditions which invites conductors and guest players from around the world leaves us somewhat undefined.  It can be a good starting point, something that can be molded, and this is often the comment that I get from guests: everyone here is so willing to try something new.

So this week are trying a Mozart sound as requested by this conductor.  Trying for a sound that includes a certain emphasis in phrasing, a certain articulation.  Everyone is trying, shaking off the colossal Beethoven in exchange for something a little lighter.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Perplexing Plastics (De-sorting Garbage)

Not too long ago, someone let me in on a disappointing secret: our plastics are not recycled, they're burned.  I haven't found more details about paper, but based on the sorting in Nishinomiya, a different municipal district from where I live, I would guess the same is true.  It is a little perplexing to me.  Why?  Why do we sort these from the "burnables" if they are burnable?  I would have guessed that they have a separate burning process, however, if they are dirty (for example, a pizza box, or the wrapper from butter) they are put in the regular burnables.  So the regular burnables are able to handle them.  So then they are burnable.  I just don't really understand how this works.  Or why it works.  Apparently Japan only recycles about 21% of it's waste.  PET bottles, cans, and glass.  Why all this sorting???  Should I continue to put in the effort of cleaning my plastics to make them plastic worthy?  Does it matter?  I live in a world where I must abide by rules that don't make sense to me.  I need an existential director to give me my motivation.  Why do I put the plastic container in the plastics?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Santa in Japan

As I left the reception last night, I noticed this on a Santa hut in the lobby of the hotel.  What questions do you have?

The caption in the lower right corner reads:
"The Greenland International Santa Claus Association sends an authorized Santa Claus to the HOTEL NEW OTANI OSAKA every year.  The authorized Santas are appointed by the oldest Santa Claus now living in the northern part of Greenland.  There are only 120 authorized Santas in the world."
(A few of mine:  What would it be like to be a Santa and come to Japan for the holidays?  What would it be like to have hundreds of Japanese children sit on your lap and tell you what they want for Christmas in Japanese?  What would it be like to be a Japanese child and meet Santa?  To where else in the world does the Greenland International Santa Claus Association export Santas?  For how much, under what conditions?  How does one become an authorized Santa?  Is "the oldest Santa Claus now living in the northern part of Greenland" the real deal?  Is this how he has built his empire of Christmas and feeds his reindeer?  Is Japan's importation of Santa Clauses responsible for the financial viability of Christmas?)  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Believable Spring (Beethoven 10,000, Ducks, Aikido, Suntory, and Woman on the Bus)

Today I rehearsed and performed Beethoven 9 with 10,000 singers; I walked to Osaka Castle during our break, passing a samurai museum, some people drinking wine from a bottle, and a poorly acted ninja demonstration.  On the way I stopped on the bridge over the mote and watched the ducks for awhile, entranced by how long they could stay under water, and curious about the one duck that always surfaced at a distance from the other two ducks, and only joined the full group slowly and reluctantly.  An outlier.  I wondered about the life of that duck and stared at the intersecting ripples.  After pulling myself away from them, the Asian man with the hat attached to his backpack that said, "F****** Yeah," that had been lingering around me, finally felt comfortable asking me to take his picture with the castle in the background.  Sometimes I don't understand people.  I felt a kinship with that solitary duck.

I continued past the castle, and the crowds of tourists, the food stands, and saw more and more people in the familiar white pants.  I was getting closer.  When I arrived at the budokan, I saw a lot of people leaving and thought perhaps I had missed whatever event had been occurring.  But I took my chances and went in anyway, finding an Aikido tournament in full swing.  The numbers were so great that people could come and go freely and their sum total would hardly be effected.  It's a remarkable gem, this facility.  There are always lots of family and friends and observers in plain clothes watching, so it isn't a problem to come in and watch.  It's quite natural.  And there is almost always some tournament or meet occurring there.  It's the best part of Osaka Castle, but it isn't a tourist attraction.

There were many matches occurring at once, and I moved my attention among them.  Two girls, probably in junior high or high school working together, two more experienced practitioners, and then a group of men practicing one specific throw, all being watched and guided by teachers.  In Aikido, one person attacks the other, and the one defending executes a technique that swiftly throws the attacker to the ground, usually by grabbing the hand or wrist in some way that flips them onto their back.  And the one thrown learns how to gracefully fall, how to relinquish their power so that they can roll and get up again easily. The moves are practiced and prescribed, but the speed and ease of them is remarkable, perhaps lasting only a few seconds.  The sound of bodies hitting the mat filled the space, as did the feeling of peace and ease.  People smiled; there was a lot of trust.  Aikido works with energy flow, and watching these people move with one another's energy was beautiful.

I walked back to the hall and played the 10,000 concert.  Sometimes things are, and sometimes they seem to be.  I'm not sure how to believe when I don't believe; but afterwards, despite generally enjoying the experience and enjoying playing with my stand partner, I just wanted to go home and decompress.  Unfortunately, so did 10,000 other people.  I waylaid from the train rush in the annual reception that Suntory hosts for this concert (they are the sponsors for it) and found myself overwhelmed with another room full of unbelievable.  It's hard to be on the outside of believing.  I'm not sure how it happens; perhaps alcohol or the lack thereof has something to do with it.  I wish I could just extend the connections-making kindness that others so effortlessly do, but when I don't know how to believe, it's hard to do so.  I left once I thought the crowds had cleared.

And at the end of my commute, while I sat on the bus, parked at the station and waiting for departure, a woman stepped on and asked another Japanese passenger if the bus went to Akuradanchi.  The other woman didn't know but I intervened and said, "Yes, it does.  I live in Akuradanchi.  I'm going there.  You can follow me."  She was very grateful and very friendly, a kindness in which I could believe because I knew there was nothing more wanting in it that what I had already agreed to give her.  And I had no reason to be nice to her, which is very a good and believable reason to be.  It turned out that she had come to the concert that day, that her daughter was one of the new violists, and that she was staying at her daughter's apartment for a day or two to come to this concert.  I could see where her daughter had learned her sincere smile and happiness.

It's been a day with many chapters.  There are so many worlds in this world.  Sometimes the world is one thing, and a few minutes later, it is another.  I came home and binged on the past few days of the Writer's Almanac, discovering a poem about lambs born in winter, how they have no idea that spring exists and is about to happen.  What don't we know is possible?  Perhaps our beliefs are waiting for us, in some other world, one in which we actually live.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Enter 10,000 People

We had our first rehearsal with all the singers today.  10,000 of them, likely give or take a few due to uncontrollable factors.  After playing this concert twice previously, some of the novelty has admittedly worn off, but it is still incredible to see so many people surround us, to hear so many Japanese voices singing in German, to watch so many Japanese hands applaud, glittering the coliseum.  And they all are so happy and grateful to be there.  There is a lottery for the opportunity, and these two days are a culmination of a long process for them.  They are happy to laugh at jokes, to acknowledge introductions, to quickly correct any slight blemish of their performance.  It's great to be in the middle of 10,000 happy people, singing together, and to play with them.  Tomorrow will be my final day in the ring.  Looking forward to it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

ANA Exchange

I called All Nippon Airways this morning to book a flight from Osaka.  Their English call center is located in Los Angeles but their staff is still always Japanese, speaking very good English.  The call was extremely formal and polite as I would expect, very routine in every way.  And so at the end it caught me off guard when she asked me, "So you're living in Japan?"  I thought perhaps this was related to visa issues and purpose of travel; information that she needed to complete the reservation.  I explained a little to her about my status here, hoping it would clarify, and came to realize she simply wanted to ask me about Japan.  "It's getting cold in Japan now, isn't it?" she said, "Here it is still warm."  Yes, it is getting cold here.  But it's always warm in L.A. isn't it?  I wonder what she must be experiencing, learning to live in America.  How long since she's been home.  If she has any plans to return.  Why she left.  But there was no time for that, or rather, our lives were not meant to be opened to one another so fully in such a way.  Only a few bits and pieces to remind one another that we are humans, not just players in one of life's many transactions.  I was grateful for her unexpected breach of protocol.  We left with a cordial ending, an unexpressed understanding of missing what the other has.

Something that I carried to rehearsal today.  Our guest players are not from Japan, nor are they accustomed to the amount  of rehearsal or the pacing that is normal here.  There is more of it, and it is much slower with lots of repetition.  Nothing is left to chance, there is no danger of it being under-rehearsed.  Compared to the western pacing, it can be a little tedious, but one sort of gets used to it.  And in Japan, this is just how it works.  And the Japanese orchestra members never seem to become impatient.  They are always so respectful of the process.  But this group of middle-aged men from Germany, principals in their sections there and seasoned musicians, are noticeably irritated.  It's such a clash of cultures and I can feel the dissension.  But where does such an attitude go?  What can be gained by sighing or making comments to colleagues?  Japan seems so pure of this sort of attitude and egoism.  There seems to be no irritation in orchestra playing, whereas in the states it is normal to have some skepticism of a conductor.  It is a difference.  I wonder if the Japanese members are aware of frustration of the German guests, if they know what these underhanded facial expressions mean.  Do they have a basis for interpreting this type of expression?  Unfortunately, I think they do.

In many ways, it isn't easy to be a foreigner in Japan, likely because of this sort of clash.  There is a lot of anti-foreign sentiment in tradition and practice.  But at the very least, there is the face of courtesy.  Perhaps that isn't always a good thing, but it is at least gentle to meet it.  I wonder how it must be to be Japanese and meet the difficulties of America.  I miss my country very much, I miss the feeling of belonging in a place where there really isn't such a thing as belonging in the same way that there is in Japan–but I imagine it must be quite hard to come to America.  As much as I don't feel that I belong here, I have respect for those that do and for the way that this culture has found to live together.  I wish my friend at All Nippon Airways all the best as she learns to live with a winterless winter.  I will try to take care of her country in her absence for as long as I'm here.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Momentous Rehearsing

This year's Beethoven 9 concert is assisted by members of the Cologne Symphony Orchestra.  All the principal strings, winds, brass, and timpani are from the orchestra.  It's exciting to have a solid block of tradition in our midst, a uniform way of playing together and of playing this piece, which is so familiar to them.  Every year, Sado-san leads our orchestra for this concert, and he can't help but bring his own unique energy to the work in a similar way.  But this year there is a new shade to the piece, provided by these musicians.  I've become familiar with Sado-san's expectations and preferences in certain sections and now those are being mixed with slightly different expectations and preferences.  Such is making music, meeting one another somewhere in the middle (or in the winner's court!) and creating a new version never made before and never repeated again, for ears that will perceive it just this once.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Preparing for Beethoven 9

I spent a large part of the day preparing for the Beethoven 9 project that begins tomorrow.  It is (I think) my sixth time playing this symphony but today was the first time that I put in fingerings for the full first and last movements, the most difficult.  It's interesting how devotion can grow.  One might think that I would have become tired of the piece, too familiar to bother.  It's possible to play a part without planning all of the fingerings, it's the way I've spent most of my orchestral career.  But sitting next to Luigi earlier this year, who put a fingering over almost every note despite being a phenomenal cellist, influenced me.  It's becoming more worth it to me to choose how I play something, rather than rely on habit or impulse.  It's becoming more worth it to me to be more fully prepared.  But it takes a lot of time right now.  Eventually I hope my preferences become more solid, that I can implement them as quickly as I read.  I have a lot of respect for this symphony.  I'm still excited to play it again.  It awakens a devotion that spreads to other things, to my own playing, to my own eduction.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Face of Winter

The fervent winds of yesterday seem to have finally coerced winter to join December.  The snap of the air is winter, the light, the bundling of bodies and the exclamation of coldness.  It's exciting in some way, but everyone knows there is more to come.  It will get colder, and the length of the cold will beg the endurance of our internal warmth, especially in this country with little central heating.  To come home is to still be cold.

But there are hot water bottles, and space heaters, and kotatsu tables, and soups, and onsen, and the Christmas lights are beautiful in the HPAC square.  For now the magic of winter's cold is exciting and welcome.  A new face of living.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Visit to the Doctor's Clinic

A very kind friend of mine–one that made me some ginger and lemon tea and happens to speak Japanese–offered to take me and another ailing colleague to the clinic this morning.  We arrived shortly after 9am and put our names on the list to be seen by the doctor (numbers 17 and 18) and then sat in the lobby of the clinic for the next hour-and-a-half watching various television programs and commercials, and contemplating the machine that accepted used slippers from those leaving and ejected new ones to those entering the clinic–one of the many things in Japan that has no market in America.

After awhile the nurse said, "Kureesateru-san" and it was my turn.  My friends and I sat in another hallway on small stools outside an open door until it was our turn to go in.  I sat in front of the doctor,  an older gentleman with a face mask who actually spoke a little English, and he asked few questions then checked my throat and nose.  "Ahh!" he said as he looked up my nostrils, "You have inflamed sinuses from allergies."  This seemed very wrong to me since I don't really have allergies and the onset was quite fast and there a number of people sick at HPAC.  But I didn't really know what to say, how to argue with his medical training.  After going back to the lobby, my friend suggested we go back and try to better understand.  He said that I probably got allergies after coming to Japan (maybe?) and that the stress of the move (he seemed not to realize I didn't just move) kept them from appearing (unlikely, but maybe being busy at HPAC could count).  Regardless of his diagnosis or reasons for it, I agree that my sinuses seem to be inflamed, and that perhaps I also have a cold which won't go away, and I'm happy to try something other than antibiotics first.

The next step was to acquire the prescribed nasal spray.  The pharmacy next door welcomed us.  After handing them our prescriptions and health insurance cards, we waited for a much shorter time on their cushioned benches in front of another television.  My previous trips to a different pharmacy had always resulted in a little confusion when they asked me if I had a little booklet.  No I didn't it; and the matter, being filled with confusion, seemed to drop there.  In retrospect perhaps they had given me one; I don't remember and probably threw it away.  But this time I realized, with the help of my friend, that this little booklet is a medicine passport, with stamps for every prescription one has filled.  If only I had known!  I could have been accruing stamps every time I went to the doctor.  And maybe even trying to get more of them and more interesting ones, filling my pages with a history of prescriptions.

But for now, there is only one.  It is for a nasal spray that should at least reduce the inflammation of my sinuses and hopefully help me recover.  The doctor said I'd need to use it every morning for a month.  I'm hoping things improve before then.  The doctor mentioned that he'd been having problems with allergies for the past 5 years, that it is something common to the city life in Japan, that in rural areas it isn't such an issue.  Perhaps so.  It takes a small leap of faith to trust in a foreign medical professional's advice, but I'm happy to try for a bit, and there is little else I can do.  The human body is the human body, and he knows the ailments of Japan far better than I.  So hopefully, a step to health.  

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Fall Leaves in Minoo

Managed to finally see some changing leaves this morning.  It is the end of the season, but the walk at Minoo was still very beautiful.

restaurant on the river

with my hiking buddies (Chihiro, me, Ani, Yulia)

food stands by the waterfall

Minoo Watefall

leaves and vines

Yulia with momiji leaf 

tempura momiji

Minoo's Momotaro 

Foot bath after the hike 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Pulling Through

There were a lot of surprises in today's concert, beyond the ones that Haydn composed into his Surprise Symphony.  Quite of few of us are sick, which compromises focus, and the remainder (or perhaps there was some overlap) had had a fun time celebrating a birthday the night before.   We all took our turn passing the humility.  Our conductor (also the clarinet soloist for the evening) had a funny habit in rehearsals and the performances of acknowledging mistakes with a smirk in the offender's direction.  No chance at hiding or faking the audience into believing that they had misheard or that the piece really goes that way.

Despite being uncomfortable in my sickness, I'm really enjoying it's peacefulness.  My mind is generally too tired to be overly judging of myself or others, and I allow myself to go as slowly as I like–moving, breathing, listening, responding, thinking.  There's something very wonderful about the experience of being sick.  It seems to provide an opportunity to exercise forgiveness and to accept the forgiveness and help of others.  There were many smirks during the concert today, but there was also a communal feeling of working together in difficult conditions.  It would be nice to remember the feeling and work from that space during the times of getter energy and concentration.

Friday, November 28, 2014


Everyone at HPAC is very kindly sharing the same upper respiratory bug.  My head is very heavy and under a lot of pressure, and I've reached a blissful state of not holding on to anything, maybe because I'm too tired to do so.  So I'm sick and very content despite being very uncomfortable.  A new mix of sensations and feelings, letting the world go by.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


It was so nice to return to Fukunari-sensei this evening for a lesson.  I'm still not completely recovered from being sick, and she started in a lower gear and I had no worry about being tired or making mistakes.  They came quite freely to me and she absorbed them so gracefully.  It's a wonderful to experience such a safe place.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

No Go Nagoya

I got an envelope in the morning post (which must have come before 9am) from the Nagoya Philharmonic, the orchestra to which I sent an application about 2 weeks ago.  I put it in my backpack and waited to open it until I arrived at HPAC, thinking it was the excerpts for the audition.

When I opened it, I found my original envelope with my application and a note in Japanese.  I figured I must have missed the deadline (it was close) and confirmed this with one of my Japanese friends.  Fair enough.  The application took more time to complete than I realized and I was cutting it fairly close.  But oddly, despite my envelope being postmarked November 14th, the Japanese note (dated November 19th) explained it wasn't received until the 20th.  It seems a little strange that it took six days to get to Nagoya, since this is about how long things usually take to get to America.  It's also strange that the Japanese note was postmarked a day before my application supposedly arrived.

It's quite possible my bad romaji handwriting made the postage take longer, or perhaps the note mistook one of the dates.  I concede and am glad that I at least put together all of the material needed.  Hopefully this will help me apply for future Japanese auditions without such a tight schedule.   They even sent back the whole application so I can use my photo again.  I just hope my cross expression didn't scare them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Perhaps it's a simple thing, perhaps terribly complex.  But despite the starkness of Japanese schedules and protocol, cuteness abounds, waiting to correct a furrowed brow.

I encountered two very cute little boys on the train coming home today, probably about 18 months and 3 years-old.  Perhaps it was the shape of their faces and cheeks and eyes that looked slightly non-Japanese, or the fact that they were both wearing navy blue flat caps that were slightly too big.  Maybe it was their pose and seamless calm as they sat on their mother's lap and next to her, speaking gently with her.  They looked like they had stepped out of a British boarding school.  And they were undeniably cute.

As the train closed the doors, preparing to leave the station, the younger one on her lap echoed a sentiment of many young boys who live in places where trains reside.  Mixing English with the Japanese word for "to do" or "have done" something, he said excitedly as we pulled away, "Let's Go shita!"

Monday, November 24, 2014

Dislocated Thanksgiving

It's the time of year when everyone seems to be getting a little sick and maybe a little lonely.  A pet store around the corner offered temporary relief.  Lines of puppies and at the very end, two kittens, one of them a Maine Coon that looked at me inquisitively and took interest in the faces on my gloves.  We played for a little while, enjoying one another's company.  Pet stores have always been a sad thing for me, seeing the animals in such closed spaces, so tired and lonely.  But today I felt that I saw eye to eye through the glass barrier as the reciprocation opened the realization of something not there.  It was a joyous five minutes.  I have to leave you now, I said.  It was only partly true.  As I left the store, I heard the shop workers call after me, Arigatougozaimasu! and I realized they had been there the whole time.  I wonder how long I should wait before going back again.  I wonder if they mind my insincere shopping.  I'm clearly just a foreigner looking for affection.

Tonight was the annual HPAC Thanksgiving.  A time of gathering together to celebrate an American holiday with our Japanese and international friends.  We didn't get to the part where we say what we are thankful for, but certainly there was plenty of good food to enjoy, cuisine shared from around the world.

What is it that brings warmth and understanding to a place?  What is kindness, what is sharing?  When we give, why do we give?  And when we receive, in what spirit are we receiving?

I'm grateful to have this period in my life, of feeling a little bit on the outside, of feeling a little bit lonely, in order to reflect on these questions and to gain greater empathy with those who experience them.  And I'm grateful for the times in my life when I wouldn't imagine them to be possible because the giving and receiving come so freely.  I'm very grateful to have my family, and I'm grateful to be able to feel love given to me and to feel that I am able to share it with others.  Those that I love are very far away, and as grateful as I am to have this time in Japan, so too am I grateful for the times when I will be closer.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunny Sunday

It's November 23rd and somehow the air is still inviting.  Most of the leaves have fallen but the ginko trees are yellow and alive.  The daylight is lingering but my laundry still dries in the morning hours. It was a day of practice and small chores for me, and a day of enjoying a warm Sunday playground for the children of Akuradanchi.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Quartet Recording (with Santa-san's help)

Our quartet had planned to do three full takes of the Death and the Maiden Quartet this afternoon, but after our first run-through it became clear that wasn't going to happen.  It's a long and taxing piece, and our first time through was good enough that vast improvements would be unlikely given the concentration required.  During our kyuukei (break) before the second run, our violinist offered us some Santa chocolates, asking if we needed "Santa-san."  This is my new name for Santa Claus.

We were all a little reticent about the energy needed for another run-through, but deciding we had already won, it seemed worth it to do one more and just have fun with it.  The recording is for an application to be in a masterclass in Japan, and during this past week of rehearsals and this recording session, I realized and remembered how much fun it is to work so intensely with a group.  We share the responsibility and support one another in our nervousness and apprehension, we create an interpretation together and keep one another honest with intonation and rhythm.  We become one another's ears and eyes and hearts, feeling the direction of the phrase internally and seeing if that aligns with what is occurring around us.

It is such a privilege to be able to work this way, and I wonder how many other times in my life I will have the opportunity.  Hopefully this type of intense work and dedication can be shared with other realms of life.  It's such a familiar and beloved space for me.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bus Stop Interruptions

I was sick yesterday and had to cancel my Japanese lesson.  That means two weeks in a row without Fukunari-sensei's warm welcome and  inspiring guidance of the Japanese language.  Maybe it's for this reason, maybe it's because it's been too long since I was elsewhere, maybe it's due to the time of year that I've been feeling a little disenchanted with Japan recently.  It comes in waves as I would imagine it does for any foreigner living anywhere in the world.  Life isn't perfect and there's a convenient scapegoat in dislocation, whether or not it is the real reason.

I was happily going about my morning, immersed in my subtly disenchanted feelings, looking onto to others as others and myself as incorrigibly right, when my thoughts were disrupted by a woman waiting at the same bus stop.  "Where do you come from?" she asked me in perfectly understandable, slowly paced yet respectful Japanese.  It was effortless to answer her.  And she continued to speak with me, in the same manner that Fukunari-sensei speaks to me, using words and grammar I can understand, in a tone that is friendly and inviting.  She guessed that I was one of the musicians that lives in the nearby apartments and plays in Nishinomiyakitaguchi.  She asked how many of us lived there.  She told me her daughter had played bassoon.  And she told me with pride that she was 65 years-old, and that she sometimes likes to read a little bit of English literature and poetry.

The bus was a little late, and our conversation lingered.  I chose to sit close but not too close to her, to count our blessings in the conversation had, and allow it to rest.  She got off a few stops later and wished me farewell, leaving a trace of unnecessary kindness in a world of quid pro quo.   Maybe it sustains her, and what harm is there is in that, for it sustains me, too.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Evolution of a Wakuwaku Autumn Audience

Today's morning audience at Wakwaku began with uniformly white faces, cold catching and sharing mouths and noses hidden under their surgical masks.  There were a few children that had somehow been left out, or hadn't chosen to wear one, and their spot in the hall was a little muted dot in the masses.  When the staged thunderstorm began, the black lights of theater magic took the place of the blaring stage lights and the audience glowed back at us in illuminated purple, but for the muted dots which disappeared.  And for the last piece on the program, which requires the voices of children, the masks came off and the audience became human again and we saw them smile or smirk or yawn, no longer hidden.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Growth of a Quartet

Sometimes in quartet, the other three members will speak in Japanese about a topic and come to some conclusion.  Sometimes I understand, others I assume that it doesn't concern me.  They're so polite, so courteous, so well-studied in the score, that I trust the times that they don't bother to translate little snippets.  And we carry on, and I notice that things are better, more in tune, more together.  Magical to watch the world grow from the outside.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Soccer (attempt #2)

My second time playing soccer!  I'm proud of myself for going, I'm proud of myself for successfully kicking the ball in the right direction and even scoring a goal once!  However, after about an hour, I wasn't feeling so well and the fluorescent lights and the constant Japanese pop music and the mental effort of constantly being aware of what was happening was a little overwhelming.  When another person came to fill out the ten, I bowed out.

But in the time I was there it was a lot of fun.  There are a few really good players in our midst, a bunch that can generally kick the ball with some accuracy, and then me.  I also learned to pass today (rather than my previous strategy of just kicking the ball towards the goal, no matter how far away) and had a better feel for the space of the field, to make sure our team members were covering it fairly well to allow for the aforementioned notion of passing.  I'm starting to realize how much is involved with being a good player; balancing the skills of footwork with the constant awareness of the formation on the field.  I imagine if I had more experience in either of these–established skill or strategies–I could have overcome whatever physically misgivings I was having.

Perhaps I'll keep trying in small chunks, perhaps to practice scrimmage with a ball or to study a bit of strategy.  I really enjoy playing with friends, laughing at misses, enjoying the scoring of everyone's goals.  Arigatou to Chihiro for organizing these meets, and gambarou to everyone for a fun and successful game!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Ways of Seeing

Some of the images looked liked faces.  One apparently was Santa Claus and others resembled animals or certain expressions.  But only vaguely so.  There are so many ways the mind can contort disconnected curves and lines to becomes a face.   And some of them weren't faces at all.  They were made up of curves and circles and lines and crosses, often asymmetrical.

I stared at 100 of these images for some time in shodo class, trying to pick one.  Each was only about 2 inches square, six per page, and I was supposed to select one, perhaps to write for the spring exhibition.  What do they mean?  I asked.  "Fuku" was the answer, a word difficult to translate but I gathered meant something along the lines of wishes for happiness.   They were all "fuku," good fortune.  Somehow I had to pick one.  Eventually there were two that stood out among others and I asked Sensei for her recommendation.  There was something really relieving about making a purely irrational decision based solely on inclination, using only my perception.  And to see what others had selected, figures that had no interest to me.

It was interesting to see how differently people viewed a semi-random group of lines and curves.  For me, I was definitely more inclined to the ones that looked like faces and certainly didn't prefer the ones with crosses where their mouths should be.  I was looking at the character of each, the feeling of them.  And yet I saw the woman next to me work through the decision-making process, saw her tracing the lines with her finger, perhaps feeling the movement of the figures on the page.  Perhaps others were drawn to the individual parts of each figure rather than the feeling of all the parts together.

I wonder what it's like to have another brain.  I've always wondered; from the time I was a kid I wondered what it would be like to be a different person.  This has no connection to a dissatisfaction with being myself.  It's simply a curiosity.  And to see simple tasks like this where a certain disposition arises outside of reason, reminds me of how differently people can take in the world and how differently we process it.  And it's a reminder of how confusion and misunderstanding can so easily occur between and among people, especially when different cultural upbringings are brought into account.

But it's impossible to really know how we process the world, or how others do it.  Just the vague sense that it isn't identical, and that's really cool but also sometimes really difficult.

The picture on this blog of the blue, green, and black painting is one that was painted for me by an artist in Chicago, Peter Hoffman.  He had a project a few years ago where anyone could send in an application of questions similar to a personality test and based upon that he would paint for them a free painting.  I was amazed at how much I liked it.  I once even realized that it was next to another poster in my room of a tree against a blue sky and dark green ground.  It really fit.  I assumed all his paintings must be somewhat similar, appealing to a generally pleasing aesthetic, one that was comforting to me.  And then I looked at his website which has the paintings he made for this project.

They are all really different.  Some of them speak to me and others are so foreign.  So many ways to see.  And that's just one of the beginnings.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Work Day

In every corner surrounding the apartment complex this morning there were residents carrying brooms and rakes and large bags for all the leaves they collected.  The Sisyphean task, full-heartedly undertaken every fall of collecting all the leaves ensued this morning, the third Sunday of the month.  People were standing in the gutters of the street, on the lawns, on the playground, the sidewalks, and small roadways between the buildings.  It was like a huge party at 8am, all ages, working together at a time when there is nothing else to do.  I wanted to work, too, but alas I'm not endowed with that entitlement, be it time or status that makes it so.  I hope one day I live in another community that gets together to rake the fall leaves.  What a pleasure.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A New Kind of Safety

I could only understand about 60% of what Mizushima-san told our quartet during the nearly two hour long coaching that we had with her this morning.  I did understand roughly that much.  But the remainder was a search in the eyes and the air for what should be done.  Sometimes she would make a comment and I wouldn't understand anything but her gestures.  And sometimes those gestures merely let me know to what passage she was referring.  In those times of meaning's absence, I had to pay attention.  The next time through those few measures, something would be different and I would have to know it before it came.  Often her words said to me, Pay attention, there is something you're missing.  And I woke up in a way, remembering a state of being from years ago.  She encouraged us to forget orchestral playing–the transparent sound, the strict sense of time–and become more present, more flexible.  But orchestral playing is primarily what we practice.  A large percentage of our playing time is spent striving for anonymity in sound and expression.  There is safety there.  But in these hours a new kind of safety returned.

How many years of living in Japan will it take to earn the right to see the people around me?  What level of language proficiency will I need to ensure that it is not my foreign ignorance that treads on the space of others, but rather a conscious decision in the face of inertia?  What will it take to allow myself to move freely in an orchestra, to break ranks and play with the violist three feet away from me?  What reserve inside of myself do I need to trust?  Must it be silent for a long time, must it go without expression until it accrues the desire, until it becomes a need?

There are so many ways to live.  So many wonderful ways to live.  And sometimes inertia and group mentality cancel some of the best ones.  What happens if we trust ourselves?  What beautiful and amazing acts of creation and expression could be possible?  Perhaps a new appreciation for living in the full sense of what the brain and body can do in the time we are here.  But how can we teach and learn this?  It seems it must be such a difficult thing to teach, for to correct a person easily undermines their self-trust; and to learn it we must look for guidance beyond the examples immediately in front of us.  I think it must take great imagination and courage.  I'd like to try.  Living here is teaching me a desire to try.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Japanese Audition Application

This afternoon, with the help of several Japanese friends and our personnel manager, I completed an application to audition for an orchestra in Japan.  This has been a slow process of several weeks and already I'm learning a little more about what it's like to work in Japan.  Luckily this orchestra's application process is very friendly to the foreigner with an instruction site and application form in English.  But the style and expectations are a little different than in America.

Generally in America, the first step to applying for an orchestra audition is simply to send a one-page resume.  This should reflect where one has studied, one's major teachers, musical employment, festivals,  competitions, and references.   Perhaps one could include chamber music positions as another category, or significant performances, etc, but only one page.  Often before one sends this, perhaps as much as 3 or 4 months prior to the audition, the repertoire and specific excerpts that will be required are posted to the website.  This is all done through email except for the occasional need for an audition deposit check which must be mailed.

In Japan, there is a form one must complete.  Upon receipt of that application form, the orchestra will send the excerpts sometimes as little as 1 or 2 weeks before the audition.  The form requires such information as whether or not one is married, whether that spouse must be supported, whether there are any dependents, the reason for applying (perhaps that one feels this orchestra is a perfect musical soulmate; or maybe just that they want a job), as well as a 4x3 cm photo which must be pasted to the page in the upper right corner.  There is also an area to list Education and Work Experience and a separate one to list Musical Experience.  Figuring out what was appropriate for these categories took some questioning; I did not include my work experience as a shelver at the public library, but wasn't sure if my time playing in several paid orchestras was Work or Musical Experience.  And all of the experiences are listed in chronological order from the earliest to the latest, with separate entries for the beginning of study or work and leaving that study or work.  I chose not to list my high school, but high school (or earlier) are where it can typically start.

Additionally, this form must be handwritten with no mistakes.  Luckily there's white out.  I managed to only have to use it once, but the daunting task of writing something by hand perfectly in pen was nearly enough to make me turn away in fear.  And luckily, because the form was in English, I completed it in English.  As per their request for foreigners, I sent my normal resume as well, with a Japanese translation to go with it.  Hopefully all this will add up to to be what they want.

I'm interested to go through this process, to see what is of value based on what is asked.  It's amazing to have so much personal information required on an entry application, including a photograph, something usually kept private in America to avoid any discrimination.  I'm curious to see what happens next.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Orange-Shoed Violinist

The man who is leading the second violins this week wears bright orange dress shoes.  Perhaps this wouldn't be so shocking if it weren't for the expression with which he wears them.  At all times his face carries an immense concern, perhaps worn into it from roughly 60 years of being so.  Concern, or fear, or anger.  And yet it isn't true.  I've seen him smile with this face, maybe even laugh while maintaining the seriousness of his sinking eyebrows and underturned lips.  And at some point, perhaps not so long ago, he went to a store or online and felt that bright orange shoes would be most fitting.  And to match, an orange watch.  And a confetti patterned button-down shirt.  There is something else in this man, something more than the way he looks out upon the world.  I wonder how he sees it, I wonder how he sees himself.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fall Winds

It's one of those nights where the misty pavement knows some memory I've forgotten.  One of those perfect nights for a bike ride home, to be welcomed by the indoors, to hear the wind outside in the remaining leaves on the trees.  It gets quieter and quieter throughout the fall, softening its voice but not its bite.  But come spring it will sing again in the leaves, and brush us with warm sun.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Brain Subscriptions

The transition to orchestral life continues.  I wonder if in some way this blog could be like Flowers for Algernon, in which the reader witnesses the slow change of the narrator as his diary reflects a psychological experiment being done on him by doctors.  What happens to the brain of an orchestral musician?  Maybe it's beyond words.  But maybe I have a wordy brain which just makes it a little harder.  It's something to bring to the table.  All those words which get in the way of proper bowings but explain what's going on.

The brain is capable of doing so many things.  Of thinking in words and beyond words, thinking in pictures and sounds, communicating and reflecting, perceiving and planning.  To what extent do we have control over the way we think, of the path that life gives us?  Do our natural mental tendencies incline us to go in certain directions, which then create a positive feedback to thinking in a similar way? How do we get where we are?  Am I supposed to be a musician?

It certainly seems like one of the least natural things I personally could have chosen to do.  Have I changed my brain by subscribing myself to such a life?  What more could I sign-up for that might alter the way I think and live?

Switching back into the schedule of orchestral rehearsals is highlighting the unique balance of mental tasks required of the orchestral musician.  I'm falling back into it and realizing how well practiced a role it is for me, but also how unnatural it is.  But maybe that's true for everyone.  It is a pretty unnatural thing in many ways.  It takes years to learn to do it.

So one switch in my brain is slowly raised and the other lowered.  The creative spark may dwindle in certain regards, but perhaps it can be harnessed and enhance the service I've chosen.  Finding more ways to think, more ways to live.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Service (Return to Orchestral Playing)

After ten days, a return to orchestral playing.  And how long has it been since I played a piece new to me?  After a long period of solitary practice I was suddenly in the middle of the orchestra, contending with my bow, my left hand, the notes on the page, the sounds of the winds and the brass and the basses and the violas next door, with a new person on the podium, with a new piece of music.  So much was happening!  And although I've grown as a cellist in my time away from HPAC last week, this reintroduction to the orchestra was eye-opening for what a skill it is to be an orchestral musician.  There is so much to balance, so many minute decisions to make very quickly, so much to register and to respond to.  To become a part of a machine, to blend in with it seamlessly.  I've been on my own for a few days and forgotten what skill that takes.

It is an act of serving to be a great orchestral musician.  To fit completely into what is asked of you; what the composer wants, what the conductor wants, what your section wants.

I'm reading a book by the great American author, John Steinbeck.  In it, he, or the narrator, exults the mind of the individual and claims that no great idea was ever created by more than one person.  Granted, he was admonishing the group mentality of war in his statement, but still, it struck me as quite a strong assertion.  As I sit in an orchestra in Japan, I have to wonder.  My voice is not mine while I play.  I'm not creating, I'm serving.  Perhaps we are creating a performance together, but still, there is a leader in our thoughts.  We must put ourselves aside, and some of the great gift that Steinbeck believed has been endowed to human beings, the ability to think creatively, is silenced.

But Steinbeck was an American writer.  He is likely to be disposed to a certain set of values.  And he also writes of a servant who speaks of the value of serving.  This character claims to be a great servant, but he is not an open servant.  He hides himself from his master, there is a part of him that is not fully serving.  Although he knows the art of it and the value it can have for oneself, I wonder if he serves the idea of serving as fully as one can.  But maybe one can never fully serve, perhaps no matter the intentions, one always retains a bit of themselves, of their individual humanity.  Even in Japan, where service and courtesy are so valued, individuality cannot be entirely broken.  To do so might be to achieve enlightenment.

These are thoughts without conclusions.  I have a passionate inclination to side with Steinbeck as I understand him.  I believe very sincerely in the unique energy that every person carries with them; and that they should be empowered to develop that energy as fully as possible.  And yet today, as I left HPAC, I saw our facilities manager on his way out of the building, bow to the theater shrine which sits in an alcove in the wall.  He bowed several times, clapped his hands; it was a formal and sincere gesture made by a man who enters and exits the HPAC building many, many times.  What is it to serve something?  To serve oneself?  To serve a person or an ideal?  What does that mean?

I don't know.  To serve, to create, to follow, to lead.  These are ideas without conclusions.  Only a reflection on the many ways to make music, the many values a culture can have, the many ways one can live.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Playtime Deviation

I looked out my window this morning to see a minor act of vandalism.  One of the cute guards in our neighborhood, which warn of playing children (!), had been removed from his post and lain elsewhere.  To see such a thing was to realize its rarity.  Here in a land where respect and disinterest compete as behavioral motivations, few things are moved from their designated locations or used in a manner deviating from their designated purpose.  This little fellow, who normally works very hard to protect the playtime of others, finally had some of his own.  While defiling property is never something to be condoned, sometimes seeing something out of order is refreshing.  Someone thought to step out of expectations, someone thought to do otherwise.  I took a picture knowing it wouldn't last, and surely enough, an hour later, this little guy's truancy came to an end.

edge of the playground

taking a break from the usual

Saturday, November 8, 2014

If you ignore them...

I travelled into Osaka today to see a friend's string quartet concert.  Concerts in Japan have subtle differences to those in America.  There is always an encore, often either the performers or the audience will not be wearing shoes, and the performers–if they are women–wear dresses usually only warranted for a concerto performance in America.  And they may say it's the last piece, but what they are really saying is, There will be an encore.  Because there will always be an encore.  Otherwise I was surprised at how translatable the sentiments in the American String Quartet by Dvorak could be to a small room in Japan.

On the way to and from the concert I had a lot of train time.  I love train time.  Were it not cheaper and more convenient to often ride the bike, I would ride trains all the time.  I dream of taking a train just for the sake of it.  Maybe I'll make it a point to do that one day before I leave.

Whenever I ride the trains, I often have a small sense that maybe people are looking at me.  I can rarely verify it, but whenever I see foreigners I notice them.  I always feel a little guilty about it, but it's hard not to notice.   I think it's natural to notice when someone or something is slightly different, but people in Japan are so skilled in the way they look that it's very hard to catch them.

Tonight I was reading the whole time I was traveling.  I was quite preoccupied, but every so often I would look up to check where I was, at what station the train was stopped, and several times I caught eyes upon me.  Yes, I met eyes with others on the train.  Some apologetically looked away, but others smiled in a hidden way, as though their face naturally carried such an expression.  And maybe it did; what would be the difference?  And it was so good to catch them, as though to say, Yes, hello!  It's good to see you, hello, hello!

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Lesson in Looking (Kyoto's Art Museums)

On the train home from Kyoto's art museums, the view from my window became a woodblock print.  The edges of the rolling mountains cut across the darkening pink sky and the silhouettes of the Japanese roofs moved in and out of the frame.  The fluorescent lights of the stations we passed through barked like bright oils.  The reflection of the man sitting opposite to me in the train seemed magical with every breath and his voice, speaking to the woman seated next to me, an impossibility. What would it be like to be an artist, to be awake to every moment, freezing it in some frame?  Some tell the story of time on the canvass, of paint's motion from a living hand.  Some depict beautiful scenes, forcing them to sit still, teasing as though they'd been captured.  Some juxtapose images in such a way as to create a message or a new concept our minds could not have conjured in reality.  We use our eyes and our ears our whole lives but no one teaches how.   Today, I felt that Hiroshige taught me something about how to see Japan.  Look, he said, this is what is beautiful, this is how you see.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Waiting for Us

There was a moment tonight when I became filled with an overwhelming sense of love for Fukunari-sensei.  An hour earlier I had been hoarding the future, trying to negotiate and calculate weekend plans that would result in happiness.  I rode to her apartment, in need of something I was sure I wouldn't find there, an uneasiness that detracts from the most pleasant things around us.  And then the moment opened in her presence.  Maybe it was her, maybe it was me.  Something about her tireless need to teach couched in a breath of vast patience and understanding.  Something about her presence at my side, standing next to my chair the whole time, leaning over the table with her pencil, writing with an intensity beyond herself, the lead breaking, the characters blurred.  And yet always so clear, her explanation never vague despite millennia of accrued linguistic divergences.  Something about her skin, like cream, probably because of the foundation she uses which seems as natural as if nature had made it; her creation, something from her.  Something about her eyes, so focused and unwavering yet aware of the periphery; calculating the coming minutes from the needs of the present.
Sometimes I wonder why I study Japanese at all.  I've learned enough to know that I will not master it in the coming year, before I leave Japan.  And the chances that I will use the language skills I've acquired thus far is quite low.  I wonder if Fukunari-sensei has any idea of the value that I get from these lessons; what I'm actually learning from her, the reason that it is worth more for me to visit her than for the simple prolongation of the distracting yet thrilling hobby of learning a language I won't use.  Is it possible to know all the relevant values when we try to sculpt the future to perfection?  Sometimes things appear and we don't know from where, but there they are, waiting for us.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Sea Changes

A little over a week ago I noticed that HPAC had posted a cello position for next year on an online musicians' forum.  That would be the position that I'm currently in and will be leaving in August.  Strange how time passes.  It most surely passes.  At this time next year somebody will have taken my place and perhaps I will find a new one somewhere else in the world.  Hermit crabs, we are.  Finding news homes, giving up old ones, not even realizing that by the time we're settled, we'll be moving on to a new one.  I had no idea life would bring me here and I have no idea where it's going.  The world is my oyster.  

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Elementary School Music Exchange

Last year my friend Christy and a former core member violist, Motoko,  had planned to visit one of Motoko's friend's elementary school music classes.  It was to be an informal outreach, but due to bad weather the plan never came to fruition.  I was honored that Motoko asked me to carry on the endeavor this year in the wake of Christy, and excited for the chance to visit a Japanese school.  

I helped Motoko find two other core members to form a quartet, we rehearsed at my apartment yesterday (which warranted the bringing of cookies and wine as gifts from two of the members!), and this morning we went to the school to meet the children and have a playing exchange with them.   The taxi went up and up the hill in the clear fall air; we could see Osaka far off in the distance.  We arrived at a stern white building and walked by the playground which had a group of children in matching red shorts, white shirts, and hats doing exercises together with their teacher.  As we entered the building, we took off our shoes and put them in little lockers, replacing them with slippers, and walked around the corner to the principal's office where we replaced those slippers with other slippers.  We sat and they chatted in Japanese while a few minutes later a woman brought us green tea.  We then left the office to go to a warm-up space, passing by another entrance where many little cubbies had many pairs of little shoes and an umbrella stand was filled with unneeded umbrellas.  The halls were quite bare and the cool air of November was welcome indoors where the custom of central heating has never been.

We warmed-up and when the Westminster chimes sounded, it signaled the end of one period and the beginning of another.  We packed up and moved into the gymnasium where we made a grand entrance as the staff raised the screen on the stage to reveal us behind it!  We came down to the floor where eighty ten-year-old children were seated––not criss-cross-applesauce as they do in America, but with their feet on the floor and their knees standing in front of them, arms wrapped around––completely silent, intrigued and excited to see us.  We played Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for them, then Pachelbel's Canon (because there is something similar in an anime show), and then Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 (because they will be performing it in their upcoming concert).

After we played and Motoko spoke about the music and our instruments, it was their turn to play for us and get advice.  These eighty ten-year-olds got up and went to their positions.  One of them came up to me and politely asked if he could use my music stand.  I let him.  One big section had melodicas, another recorders; behind them was a timpani and a bass drum; in front were several xylophones of different registers, about ten accordions, and several pianos (electric and acoustic).  It was incredible to see this orchestra perform the Brahms, largely from memory, different instruments playing different parts to create a colorful orchestration.

After they had played they looked to us for advice.  For some reason the mic was in front of me first and all I could say was great job.  Congratulations on all your work.  They smiled at my awkward Japanese and the fact that I didn't really feel comfortable advising them.  And then the other members of the group spoke to them in Japanese about the importance of looking at the conductor during tempo changes and breaks in the music.  Good job guys!  Learning.

We played one last encore of Let it Go (because...why not?) and as we packed up they crowded around us, intrigued by the instruments.  I remembered my time in Madison, participating in the Up Close and Musical program through the Symphony, in which I did demonstrations of my instrument for elementary school classes over a hundred times a year.  The children would always surround me asking questions, "What is that cloth for?; Why do you have two bows?; Is it heavy?"  I knew these kids had the same questions I'd been asked hundreds of times and yet this time, they knew I wouldn't really understand and wouldn't really be able to answer.  Instead, I entrusted something to them that I rarely did for the unpredictable students in the states:  I invited them to try plucking the strings.  They did so gently and with curiosity; and they were amazed when I pulled out the end pin for them to see.  I wished I could have performed some other explosive trick, but it seemed unnecessary and the time was up.

They all left; and we left, walking in our slippery slippers back to the other building for one more slipper exchange to the principal's office, one more cup of green tea, reimbursement for our travel, and then loading into a van that would take us back down the hill of clear skies.  It's amazing to think that poor weather ever got in the way.  That clouds ever existed.  Another experience in Japan behind me, another exchange resonating, like all those before today, until who knows when.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Culture Day

Today is Culture Day in Japan.  Culture.  That's what I do.  That's my "job." My job is to make culture.

But what is culture, and why does it warrant having a holiday?  From what other aspect of life is it divided?  What isn't considered culture?

Maybe business, economics, math, medicine, politics, any job requiring labor.  Jobs that are done for the sake of income, for the sake of saving lives, governing people.  Maybe these are the jobs that are not celebrated on Culture Day.

But are the real world and the world of culture really so separate?  Perhaps they are and perhaps that is why it is good to have a day to reflect on what culture is; what it means to society, what it means to us personally.

I just finished a book about Abraham Lincoln, and the prevalence of death in the Civil War and in life in general during that time of history is astounding.  Life was filled with death.  It was all around Lincoln, personally and professionally, as it was with any other person alive during that time.  To live was to be with death.

Today we are lucky that to a greater extent, we need not be so surrounded by death.  Medicine allows us to live through infections and childbirth more easily, quality of life makes us healthier and stronger in general.  But death is still real.  We are mortal and as humans we know that.

Throughout his life, during his presidency, even on the worst days of the war with thousands of casualties occurring, Lincoln still recited and read poetry and Shakespeare.  He frequently attended the theater, which he loved.  People thought it strange that someone with such a laden job could take pleasure in such things.

If culture can give us anything, I think it can help us open the space between birth and death.  It can remind us that there is more than survival to living.  Sometimes it seems frivolous, but if we reduce ourselves to the bookends of life, we have lost a great deal of value to the time that we are here.  It is terribly important that we appreciate the act of play, the act of reflection, the act of pleasure.  These are what culture and can remind us of.  What else is there in living?

As a musician, though I am a part of the "culture world," I realize how often the approach to our art is nothing like what I imagine the value of culture to be.  It is a job.  It is about survival, making money, having a career, feeling safe.  It is possible to do culture in a non-cultural way.

And so too is it possible to perform any other "non-cultural" task in a cultural way.  I think the heart of culture's value is the realization of how beautiful it is to be living.  Anything that we do while we are alive can be filled with this.  Whether is it saving a life, holding a child, solving a math equation, watching the rain, delegating work responsibilities; all of these things are part of being alive.  Poetry, literature, theater, music, art, dance, philosophy–they all exalt the most human parts of living; the feelings and sensations of being alive.

I think culture can be a way to concentrate the realization of living.  It is so easy, no matter what our profession–cultural or otherwise–to become focused on the act of survival, to take life so seriously that our grip suffocates it.  It seems the line which divides culture from the rest of the world is mistakenly drawn:  it is not between the arts and the sciences, philosophy and economics, literature and politics; it is rather a perspective on the act and purpose of living.  And it is not a line, but a practice.

So what is culture and what does it mean?  Today in Japan–and perhaps it can be shared with the rest of the world–we are given an opportunity to reflect upon it, to show our appreciation for it, to enjoy some manifestation of it.  It is an invitation to bring some culture into our lives.  May we take culture very seriously; it is part of our vitality, what makes us human, what makes us living.  It is so easy to take these things for granted, but it is so important that we not.  Today, we have a reminder, a marker for their importance.