Saturday, January 31, 2015

Remembering Japan

I played through my audition music for two friends today.  One of them was a former friend from HPAC and had shared my first year with me in Japan.  In the past year-and-a-half she has been making a life for herself in San Diego, putting together different music-related jobs, playing, teaching, organizing.  It's very different to see people I once knew in Japan, in America.  Why is life so different?  Is it because we have more options in our native country to get involved in many different things?  Or is there something about Japan specifically?  My friend agreed, there is a weight lifted to be back.  We can communicate with other people, we can balance a life of many variables, can be closer to friends and family and feel that connection and support.  It's as though in Japan we were unformed beings and now born into America, we meet one another in another life.  On the edge of the next phase, of life after Japan, it's comforting to see the guidance of those before me that have adjusted and found places in the world.  Although everyone always seems to miss the food.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Audition Preparation

These days are simply filled with preparation for an audition, and for many auditions in the future, and for learning about learning music.  In the days right before an audition or a performance, I have no obligations, no requirements.  It isn't a fact or a truth, it's just a perspective.  It's a privilege to be able to take a few days to see life in this way, to focus on one thing; and good to welcome the world again when it emerges.  But for now, the tepid weather of San Diego and a single, spacious outlook which colors the passing hours.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


In the months before leaving to go to Japan, an Indian friend of mine in America asked me, "Why are you going? Whatever is the answer, ask yourself that, and remember it because it's going to be hard sometimes."

There were many reasons that I went to Japan.  To have the experience of playing in an orchestra, to learn more about the culture that I had fallen in love with the previous summer, to have the experience of living in a foreign country, something I had always wanted to do and figured the time had passed.  And one of the underlying reasons for all of these reasons was a curiosity about common denominators–the common denominator for myself and the common denominator for people in general.  Is there such a thing or things?  And what might it or they be?  

The question is still very open, but when I go back and forth between America and Japan, one common denominator seems to be suffering.  In Japan, everyone is very courteous and respectful, there are no guns and there is hardly any crime or violence; surely there should be no suffering in a land where this is the case.  And yet the suicide rate speaks differently.  There is an exhaustion and repression that is difficult to miss, there is a lot of weight carrying and burden swallowing.  And in America, it seems to come out in a more anxious tone, one of distraction that constantly looks for a better way.  In Japan, there is resignation that there is no better way.  In America there is anxiety that there might be.  

Which is better?  There still seems to be an underlying suffering in both ways of living.  Maybe which one is better is merely a preference, one which is likely based on a person's upbringing.  It just seems natural that living is difficult.  We have relationships with people, with ideas, with possibilities, and the realization or perfection of those things, or the nonfulfillment of them causes a lot of emotions.  If we let them.

It is possible to live in a way that can detach one from these things and perhaps we often do live in such a way.  There are many means of distraction.  Drugs, alcohol, even television, books and movies.  Maybe all forms of living are as much a distraction from suffering as a cause for it.  I enjoy reading a blog of an American Buddhist nun living in Japan.  She was practicing in a monastery for 5 years in Kyoto, but is currently studying in Japan.  It occurs to me that this is also another option for living and removing oneself from suffering.  Is it a distraction in the same way as these other things?  To me the difference seems to be that it is a very conscious choice.  

Another question I've had for awhile is whether it is possible to reduce suffering, in oneself or in others.  If suffering seems to be a part of living, is there anything that can be done about it or is it all relative?  Who suffers more, American people or Japanese people?  Is there a way of living that has "less" suffering?  How can such a thing be measured?

I don't know the answer; but I'm a vegetarian and I try to treat people with as much respect as my natural disposition, upbringing, personal reflection and training can allow.  Something in me seems to think it is possible to live in a way of less suffering and causing less suffering, whatever that means.  And perhaps there is a spectrum.  I see people and myself and reflect on the suffering that is there, how much each of us has to carry, its source, a solution, an inevitability.  But perhaps stepping away from all the elements that cause suffering–the relationships, the endeavors, the thoughts, the ambitions–could free us.  It's a liberating thought.  All we need is to believe it and the strength to do it.  All we need is the ability to make that choice.  

And also the desire.  It seems a powerful thing to be able to meditate, to train in some way.  It gives one the option to make that choice.  And then it becomes a choice.  If there is a lot of suffering in this life and we can choose to live without it, is that what we choose?   Or if we have such strength, might we choose to live with it?  Indeed suffering seems to be a common denominator, but I don't think it is the only one.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Salad Bar Glory

It's amazing what pleasure there can be in certain simple things.  In Japan, it's kinako,mred bean paste, and hotel breakfasts.  But today, in America, I twice received and remembered the glory of salad bars.  Oh those blessed long counters in restaurants filled with fresh vegetables and different greens, various mixed salads, toppings, fruits.  And at the end a stack of plates, waiting to be filled in whatever way you desire.  It is decidely unJapanese; large heaps of food with no packaging to restrict the intake, multiple person contact with a single plate, free choice of ingredients, paying by the plate or by weight or just all-you-can-eat.  Oh the glory of salad bars, how I missed them and not even realized it.  But I'm happy to have their absence filled.  A lovely balance for the tiny dishes of carefully prepared food in Japanese restaurants, of vegetables in plastic bags in the grocery market, a world away in the land of plentiful greens.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Arrival in America!

America!  It's so great to be back.  California is as beautiful as I'd remembered.  On the way over, my plane flew near a snow-covered Mt.Fuji and along Highway 1 in California, two incredible memories from the past.  America is bigger, less organized, less planned.  Flying over I started to think of the beauty of the theory of America.  It's disordered, but it seems to be so for the sake of trying to accommodate so many different people.  So many people are here because their parents moved here from another country, or they themselves did.  It is such a mix of different classes and cultures, rituals and expectations learned through disparate generations.  It would be impossible to force them all into one common way of living, to abide by strict cultural and societal rules as there are in Japan.  It would alienate them, make it impossible for them all to exist together.  And so in lieu of efficiency, common courtesy, and cleanliness there is acceptance.  And of course, even this is compromised as everyone tries to learn their way through this incredible experiment of a country.  But the idea is there.  It's trying.  And it's good to be back.

Mt. Fuji in the distance 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Eve of Departure

Tomorrow to America.  It is caught in the cloud of the upcoming audition which will hit in about a week.  Rumble, rumble, rumble.

In preparation for departure, I successfully used the conbeni to print and copy some music.  This is a triumph after the last clunky attempt to do such a thing.  No confused Japanese clerks, no need for the helpful English-speaking kami.  I did it all on my own!  Who needs Kinkos?  I'm empowered with the convenience of Japan!

And so tomorrow, with my scores and my cello and a large suitcase, I will go to the bus stop, to the airport, to the skies, and to San Diego.  Up and away.....

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Akuradanchi Laundry Days

Perhaps if I were to get a strong scented fabric detergent my sheets could smell like something other than the air of my apartment complex.  But as it is, they have taken in the wind that dried them on this warmer than usual winter day and I will sleep in scent of Akuradanchi Winter Dreams.  It's something I can't take it with me or ever have again.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Onsen and Meeting New People

There are as many stars in the skies as the Kansai region can muster and a friend and I walked 45 minutes to the local onsen to join her boyfriend and one of his friends for dinner and a soak in the hot baths.  I've never been on such a crowded night, it being a Saturday, and the pleasure of sharing the space with so many people, so many generations of women with no two bodies alike, became as much a part of the comfort as resting in the hot mineral waters.  There is an instant of absurdity stepping in to the locker room fully clothed, followed by a slight hesitation to join the skin surrounding, until everyone becomes the same and more natural than imaginable.  It's a strange thing for Americans to believe it, I think; that nakedness can become such a common and natural thing so quickly; that one can feel so natural in their own body and being surrounded by others.  But it is so.  And there are few things as relaxing as onsen, the hot steam rising off the pools of water into the cold night air.

Afterwards we joined her boyfriend and his friend, and they had a beer while we had green tea soft serve–another superlative pleasure of Japan, especially after a hot soak in the onsen.  His friend is an English professor at Osaka University and currently working on a dissertation in English Literature through a university in America.  It was fun to meet another foreigner from outside the pool of friends I have at HPAC.  Life felt normal for an hour; and I became aware of an expat community that seems to have a strong core in Osaka, other people who have been able to establish a home in Japan for much longer than I.  I'm not sure that my life's circumstances allow enough time to frequently travel into Osaka to spend more time with them, but there is something nice about knowing that they are there.  Maybe one day or a few more times, we'll connect again and the world will be a little bigger than it feels.

Friday, January 23, 2015


When did I or will I become a cellist?  It's not like I can graduate from a school and a diploma makes me so.  I think I get a little closer every time I doubt myself and continue to do in the midst of that doubting.  Maybe that's all it takes to become anything in any realm; doing it and continuing to do it. When does one, how does one become a good person?

Thursday, January 22, 2015


Today was filled with more practice, quite simply.  Maybe 7 hours of it.  It's hard to know what it takes when I've never been there before, but I will try to do the work that I can and rest in between.  Punctuated equilibrium towards a goal.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Brief Quartet Encounter

Our quartet met today to read through Beethoven's Op 18, no. 5.  After spending so much time playing in orchestra, preparing for the duo concert, preparing my excerpts and solo work, it was so liberating to play string quartet again.  It feels like home.  I get to spend a few more days honing my excerpts and solo work now, but I eagerly await the time that we can start to work together again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Now that Mahler has finally concluded and the trip to Okayama is behind me, I look at several days of practice before heading to San Diego to take an audition there.  There is a lot of work to be done.

When I took AP Chemistry in high school, my teacher had an interesting approach:  from the very first test of the year, he gave us an entire AP test to complete.  This meant that most of the material on that first test was something we had never seen or heard of before.  His grading was very liberal and understanding of the impossibility he handed us, but I think the idea was to expose us to the test numerous times and to prime us to what was needed.

I think auditions are similar.  One has to practice taking them in order to know what one needs to know.  I've taken a few, but am very young in my auditioning career and learn something more with every round of preparation.  It's an exciting process to undertake, but always daunting as is anything in which one has far more room to grow.  And always the element of mystery, the uncontrollable factors.  

It's not just about winning, although that is the name of the game.  It's about finding ultimate control and honing the ideal for which that control is needed to express.  Searching further for the motivation of a composer and finding an ability in oneself to convey that; and neither has an end.  We think that once we achieve this unachievable thing we will be rewarded with a job and a badge and have a feeling of completion.  But there is always more.  Chasing after it.

It was fun to have my week filled with agendas.  To take a trip somewhere and enjoy nice food and hospitality.  And now the next week will be my own doing.  More excerpts to learn, more learning to do.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Trip to Okayama for Duo Concert

I went to Okayama today to play a concert with one of the guest players at HPAC.  She is a retired member of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and even though she is Japanese, she has lived in Germany for most of her adult life and speaks broken English with a German accent und a few German words.  She is also one of the founders of the HPAC orchestra, and is heavily involved in the artistic decisions of the organization.  In her early seventies, she seems to maintain a busy life, moving between continents; seemingly with contacts everywhere.  It was through some distant family of hers that this concert came to fruition.

Because language was possible but not entirely smooth, I moved through the planning and execution of the occasion on happily little knowledge.  I got to ride the Shinkansen (the best thing ever!), play a concert, take a picture with a lot of women in kimonos (sadly I don't have a copy), bow and smile, eat a fancy lunch, have a little tea ceremony, and ride the Shinkansen again (still the best thing ever!).

waiting to board the Shinkansen;
someday before I leave Japan I just want to buy a short distance ticket
and ride back and forth on the Shinkansen all day long
The event was held in a fancy hotel on the outskirts of Okayama and like most fancy hotels, it was set-up to please any bridal party.  This is the function of most (maybe all?) fancy hotels in Japan: weddings.  They ceremony happens there, the party happens there, and I suppose it's then very convenient for everyone to stay there.  Quite efficient, why not?  They even have a "church" in the parking lot to make it real.

We went to the "Top" (13th floor) of the this hotel on a hill for the luncheon.  And there was the view of the entire city.  Our bentos were waiting for us but we waited until after the concert to eat them.

our private dining/dressing room

view of Okayama

When we entered the room where the luncheon was being held, I noticed that all the guests were women and almost all (save 2?) were wearing kimonos.  I didn't know why and still don't.  Nor do I know why we held flowers and sang "Hana wa saku" (Flowers Will Bloom) though after some internet searching I do now know that it was a song produced by NHK for the 3.11 tsunami (for a link for more information from the NHK website including a link to the sheet music and English translation click here.)  But we did.  And there were New Year decorations and some sheep masks.  Regardless, it seemed like a nicely planned event and I was glad that my inner debate on whether or not to wash my hair this morning fell to the cleaner side of things.

We played our concert, staring out at Okayama with an added bright spotlight directed towards us from the corner.  We opened with the peppy, though at times awkward Hoffmeister Duo in F Major.  Mizushima-san decided to play next, and chose an appropriately light-hearted Telemann Fantasia.  It was at that point I realized that although I had personally been enjoying the poetic reflection of Bach's D Minor Suite, specifically in the direction of old age and death, perhaps it wasn't best for this bright, high-on-the-hill, ladies luncheon.  But that's what I had, so the various meditations on growing old and dying, tepidly went forth over tea.  And then we happily ended with a B-flat major Beethoven.

They gave us huge bouquets with beautiful flowers as we took our bows.  Mizushima-san being more mature and cooler than I, later explained that we had to ride the Shinkansen and had too much to carry.  She left hers.  I opted to attempt to take home the bouquet.  I love flowers, especially in winter, and always love seeing the exquisite bouquets that get handed out on stage on certain occasions.  I couldn't just give it up.  So I brought that home along with the box of mochi that they gave each of us and the box of extra tea ceremony sweets.  Somehow, four trains and a bus later I got the bouquet, the cello and the large backpack with clothes, mochi, and uneaten lunch home.  I turned used soymilk boxes into vases, and violĂ , date night!

traveling bouquet
(on the Shinkansen!)
train ride home

mochi and tea sweets
I enjoyed both on my date night,
but admittedly not as much as the left-over CalorieMate (plain) from the day
date night (for one....)

They gave us some money and it covered the travel and a bit extra.  More than worth it for me.  I almost went to onsen tonight to make it the perfect Japanese day, but got caught up in the book I was reading on the train and felt like staying in.  I have several days of rest, now, and perhaps onsen another night.  Cheers to Japan, for good trains, beautiful flowers, and delicious food.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Stayin' Alive

I'm getting to recognize some of the regular subscribers.  In particular, the little girl in the front row who today, couldn't stay awake through the entire Mahler.  I felt the same way, and I was playing it; not because the music wasn't beautiful and exciting, but simply because the week has been very long and busy.  Everyone in the orchestra is a little spent.  And she likely had her own causes of tiredness.  Such is life.  So she leaned her head to one side and slept lightly, awakening in the applause at the end.  She was awake for the encore and it made me happy that we had played it, made it fresh even after an hour-and-a-half long epic symphony.  Perhaps it was her first time hearing "Make Our Garden Grow," and she glowed with an excited smile.  Yeah, this is pretty cool.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Great Hanshin Earthquake 20th Anniversary Memorial Day

I caught the 8:18am bus this morning with the two violinists in my quartet and headed to an outreach for the memorial of the earthquake.  Both of them, and one especially, are big fans of the Takarazuka Revue; and so of all the outreaches we might have chosen to join today, they wanted this one,  the one in the Takarazuka Hotel, close to the Revue.  They goggled at the conspicuous performers walking to work–heads poised like dancers, hair cut short and cropped tightly, usually dyed blond, a serious focused expression on their faces.  It takes a lot to be in one of the Revue troupes and they all carry the burden of that training as they carry all the eyes that follow them everywhere they go.  We arrived early and joined our violist in a cafe across the street which had posters of the Revue on the walls and magazines of the stars.  They sat and looked through the magazines, spotting more performers as they got off the train and began the walk to work.

When the time came, we walked to the hotel and and went through the many lobbies filled with Revue pictures and costumes and posters.  The many lounges of beautifully upholstered furniture and drapes and were taken to the huge ballroom/conference room where the ceremony was to be held.  On a platform at the front of the room was a huge alter of carefully layered carnations, daisies, and orchids, all freshly cut and long-stemmed.  It was incredible.  We ran through our pieces to check the sound with the microphones and then went to the green room to wait for the ceremony to begin.

When we re-entered the room an hour later it was filled with official looking people and others wearing dark colors.  A woman at a podium in the corner announced with flawless measured care that the ceremony was about to begin.  A minute later, she spoke again and everyone rose, and then she said, "Mokutou," (close the eyes to begin a moment of silence) and everyone bowed their heads.  After a few minutes, she said thank you and everyone took their seats.  We played Bach's Air on the G String and then a series of speakers began.

I've admittedly been slightly unsure how this day would feel to me.  It wasn't a tragedy I personally experienced.  How do I join in such a memorial with sincerity?  I've been reflecting on what it is to share grief with others and the sincerity of it.  Grief seems like such a personal thing to me; but especially in this situation, where it is a type of event I've never experience in my life that happened on the other side of the world, back when I was a child unaware of world events which had no consequence to my personal life.  How can I share this grief?  At what point can others share a grief?  If they lost a loved one, if their life was changed by it, if they knew someone who was affected, if they have experienced such a thing in their own life, if they volunteered, if they are simply from Japan?  At what point can we understand one another's losses?  Even if we grieve for the same person, from the same situation, do we grieve in the same way?

It was from this position that I began this day, knowing that it would be filled with group ceremonies of remembrance, wondering what it would be like, wondering if I would just feel like an outsider watching the ritual like an anthropologist.

But the ceremony this morning was different, solemn and sincere.  It was a series of acts of personal grieving in the presence of others.  And perhaps what gave it this feeling, was that each of the speakers, relaying (at least to the best of my understanding) personal stories from that day, faced away from the audience and spoke to the huge alter of flowers.  They were not telling their story with any chance of seeing a reaction on the faces of those around them.  Everything they said was emotionally anonymous.  Words came into my comprehension, "child," "hospital," "listening to the radio,"  and the feeling of stillness in the room pressed on me.

It led me to a place in myself of my own personal grief and gave a safe atmosphere in which it could be as it wished.  I remembered my very good friend that I lost several years ago and as our quartet played the slow movement from Haydn's Emperor Quartet, I remembered playing the same piece at her memorial.  Here I was in Japan, sharing grief with all these people I don't know, trying to come to terms with death from very different causes and situations, trying to make sense of life in the face of all the various things that threaten its existence.

Later in the day, we all convened to perform a concert of Mahler 2.  After the mezzo soprano sang a pained and beautiful fourth movement seeking the peace of heaven, I felt the wear of the day.  As I counted rests in the fifth movement, listening to the off-stage banda play, I stared at the tuxedo coat of the principal player in front of me and marveled at its existence.  The stitching, the cut, the way the tails opened in the back just enough to see the buckle of his cummerbund, a three dimensional, real-life, layered piece of clothing, developed and created by human beings, moving with every breath he took.  It seemed impossible to be alive looking at this thing, alive with the other person living inside of it, alive and playing music with more than a hundred other people on the stage in front of two thousand more, being broadcast beyond.  Alive.

I think everyone has the capacity to understand grief and loss.  Even if it comes from different places, it is something we can see in one another, can deeply respect if we choose to do so.  Everyone has lost something, even the child losing a balloon to the sky.  We can all understand that absurd feeling of having and not having, of wanting irrationally something that cannot be had; a person, a memory, a way of life.  I don't think I've ever felt so close to people so far from me before, with whom I don't share a common native language, didn't grow up with the same cultural traditions, haven't shared the same losses.  And yet this feeling transcends them.

I still think we grieve alone.  Alone, together.  And I don't think it ever goes away.  It is a gift we can have, a way to see one another more clearly.  And although it is something inevitably lonely, it is also something that we can share with one another, a compassion that we can have together.  I feel very fortunate to have been able to share this day with Japan as they mark this memorial, to have learned something about grieving together.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Mahler First Performance

It is such a feat and experience to play a Mahler symphony.  Perhaps more so than any other composer's music, these works create a really feeling of communal effort.  At the end, everyone has been through a lot together.  The parts are all demanding, requiring technical preparation; the sheer length requires incredible focus and endurance; and the emotional highs and lows, the spiritual significance in Mahler's efforts, cannot be ignored.  Mentally, physically, emotionally it is a musical workout and we get to do it together.  It was a thrill to play with my colleagues today, the extramusical meaning of the occasion aside.  Tomorrow there will more gatherings and moments of silence in remembrance for those taken in the earthquake 20 years ago.  And the symphony will likely bear much more weight and meaning in this regard than it did today.  Every performance carries something new.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Upcoming Memorial

I wasn't here when the earthquake happened 20 years ago, but I'm here for its memorial.  I'm remembering something I never experienced, watching people go through the motions of remembering such a thing.  Tomorrow will be the first concert but the big day is Saturday, the actually anniversary of the earthquake.  There will be several outreaches performed throughout the area and the concert will begin at a very special time–exactly 20 years and 12 hours after the earthquake occurred.  It seems very special to be able to be here to share it, even if I can only share this part of it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


It was an unusual rehearsal schedule today, not beginning until 3pm and lasting until 9pm.  I spent the morning practicing as I normally would and by the time 2 pm came around I was amazed that the day hadn't even really begun yet.

In the first part of rehearsal we went through the instrumental movements of the Mahler, waiting until after dinner to invite the choir and soloists to join us for the final two movements.  And the voice emerged out of the orchestra as Beethoven had done years before.  Words, the human sound to accompany the lonely shadow trying to imitate its longing.

We went through the movements and the choir sang beautifully as did the soloists.  Resurrection complete.  After quickly running through the encore (Make Our Garden Grow) our conductor paused for a second, and then said, OK 20 minutes break, then back to the third movement for the orchestra.  Oh rehearsals, so incomplete.  The final Resurrection will have to wait for another day.  And then again, and again, and again.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Within Postal Limits

I went to the post office this morning with several letters and cards to mail to the States.   The clerk had a plastic stencil and held up each piece to it, checking the dimensions, making sure they would all fit through a standard mail slot.

One of them was a card from a stationary set from America, a small card about the size of a postcard.  But not quite.  As she held it up to the stencil she noted that one side of it was about 2 millimeters too big and the other about a centimeter too short for the standard postcard size.  And it also didn't fit into the size and shape of the standard letter.  She set it aside and I figured it meant it wouldn't be the standard letter fee.  But no, it was being returned to me.  It wasn't possible to mail it.

It isn't possible??  I asked her in disbelief.  She said no, it couldn't be done.  It wasn't small enough to be a "chisaii" (small size, category) but it also didn't fit into the letter category.  But I mailed one of these before, I said to her.  I used a 110 yen stamp; can't we just do that?

Of course she probably had far greater knowledge than I of how postal workers in Japan sort their mail as they transport it, something perhaps requiring very specific dimensions to fit in specific carriers (perhaps?).  And the culture in Japan tends to inculcate a courteous adherence to rules without question.  She had all this; all I had was a feeling of absurdity.

Are there rules like this in America?  I don't recall discrimination of letter shape, but maybe there are such rules.  I envision a scenario where they exist in order to protect the efficiency of mail delivery, but are foiled by desk workers who too easily overlook them in instances such as the one I had today.  And then an oddly proportioned piece of mail clogs up a postal worker's organization and they sigh at the disregard of their co-workers and bemoan the fact that they must tote all the huddled masses of letters pushed upon them.

I felt bad at my surprise that my mail couldn't be sent for such a (literally) small reason.  She finally had a conversation with her supervisor, and when she returned she sort of sighed and agreed to put a 110 yen stamp on it but she said she couldn't guarantee that it wouldn't be returned to me.  OK, that's great.  Thank you.

I understand I've probably compromised the postal system in some way.  It is an incredibly efficient system, very fast and reliable.  But I do come from a country that sacrifices efficiency for (at least an attempt) at inclusiveness.  It's hard to leave that at the door.  Of course it's just mail, but it's also the way rules are followed.  Themes manifest themselves in many ways.  Today, I came up against the absurdity of one of the postal systems rules at the same time that I benefited from an incredibly prompt delivery of an item I'd ordered.  Hard to take one without the other, but with their kindness, perhaps I did.  Thank you, Japan, now and again, for accommodating me outside the lines.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Beginning a Mahler World

Today was the beginning of our Mahler 2 project.  Known as "The Resurrection Symphony," Sado-san has chosen this piece to mark the 20 year memorial of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which happens this coming Saturday, January 17th.  HPAC was created as part of the revitalization of the area following the earthquake and begins its 10th anniversary year this month, as well.  It's a huge week, it's a huge work.  The numbers are huge and the emotional significance as well.  It takes some pacing or just diving in.  I'm looking forward to the week to get to know this piece a little better and in this context.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Watching Myself on TV in Japan

After our quartet rehearsed a few pieces for an outreach next week, Chihiro invited us into her tatami room to watch the broadcasts of some of the concerts that HPAC has done for television.  I never see these productions, since I don't own a television; after the concert and recording I mostly forget they happened.

So I sat in her floor chair and put my legs under the kotatsu table's blanket and felt extremely cozy and comfortable.  And we watched ourselves several months ago.  It's not often one gets to watch themselves unaware.  It's a little creepy.  I'm spying on myself.  And all the evaluations that I make of myself as I think I am, and make of others as I see them from the outside, get culled together as I watch myself as another person.  It's a strange feeling, but so hard to turn away.  What am I thinking, how am I playing, can I see something here that I can learn from?

It can be easy to become judgmental looking at oneself.  We don't express these feelings to other people as we see them from the outside, but we can be harsh on ourselves from the inside.  It's that time of year when we make resolutions for ourselves based on what we think we need and how we could improve.  I think it is a wonderful thing to seek continued growth and to reflect on what we can do in that way.  But with what eyes do we see ourselves as we make future plans?  Are we looking at ourselves kindly despite the "flaws" we think we have?

It was a very bizarre thing to watch today; to observe myself, to observe myself observing myself.  And to carry that awareness of observation to all the other people in the program, including the cameramen and directors who made the production and their stylistic choices.  Some things I liked and others I didn't; and to simply be aware of that judgment as it occurs, to see what the mind does as it observes and categorizes experiences.

And apart from that, it was really cool to see what the programs actually became.  I had no idea that one of the guys on stage was the architect for the HPAC building, for example.  And as the camera swooped through the 10,000 people singing a highly edited Beethoven 9, I got to see their faces and watch them sing from a much closer perspective.

Maybe it's just been to long since I've watched television.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Revisiting the Familiar

Today was our one and only performance of our program of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Dvorak 9.  I've played these pieces so many times and playing them again brings back memories of the times I played them in the past, especially the earliest ones, when they were so unknown.  Such a contrast to my familiarity with them now.  What would it be like to know the whole orchestral repertoire so well?

I still enjoy hearing new things in them, and as canonic as the concerto is, every violinist brings something new to it.  But I remember the first time I played it, in my youth orchestra with the concerto competition winner, Caroline Lee.  It was the most beautiful thing in the world, specifically one passage, from measure 162, "molto sostenuto il tempo, moderatissimo."  Something about her touch and timing was so perfect and I've never heard another violinist understand this passage in quite the same way.  I think about it every time I play the piece, wondering if this soloist will get it the way she did, but as beautiful as they all are, my memory preserves her's as the most beautiful.  Perhaps it's the nature of being in high school.  Perhaps she captured something in her playing at that time, and I was in a place to hear it.

No work is ever the same.  The last time I played Dvorak 9 was with Sado-san and it was a completely different concept with a completely different orchestra.  There was something new to it this time, despite the countless times I've played it.  It is less a matter of coming to know a piece than of experiencing it, the sheer sensation of it. How does it feel, in what ways does it resonate?  And this can depend on so many human factors that change just as naturally as people do.

So I'll never be done.  I used to have a list of pieces that once I had played I could retire from cello playing, and I've discovered how useless that is.  It is an itch that can only be changed, not purged.

Friday, January 9, 2015


The news from Paris was so shocking and sad.  So terrible.  What happened to get to this point?  What can be done?  Somehow, people are not communicating.  There must be a better way to listen to one another.  

Different cultures have different ways of expressing ideas and criticism.  In the west, humor and satire are one of those ways; it's something that we take for granted.  But that's not the way it is in the entire world.  Some places have different values, different ways of showing discontent and criticism.

It seems like it is a natural thing to express discontent in some way.  And as an American, it seems like a right to be able to do so.  This is part of progress, part of assuring the many other rights to which one is entitled.  It does seem to infringe upon the space others, though.  But then, so does killing people.

If media organizations were to listen to threats more closely, would that help end the discord?  Is it a question of being heard and respected?  Or is it one of power?  Would obeying threats end the problem, at least as far as media terrorism is concerned?   Or would it simply open the door to increased censorship, even in mainstream media?

Perhaps it's impossible to know.  What is the root of this conflict?  We can ask the question in such a way as to be better informed in our voting, better informed on what we say on the matter, and what opinion we have on it.  I think we can also ask the question in a way as to be better informed on human nature and how we, in our daily lives, act in scenarios apart from this one.  What is it to be offended or outraged?  How do we express that in a way that others can understand and respond to?  And how do we ensure that we are respecting the ways that others live and the values that they have?

Killing is not a sustainable solution.  Everybody involved in this event and what led to it was a human being; capable of making decisions, disposed to acting on beliefs, part of a community in which they were raised.  We are all human beings.  Maybe we can at least learn something from this tragedy in order to find a more sustainable solution for the future.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Being Alive in Winter

After nearly a month, I finally rode my bike home along the river.  It has been sitting, waiting for me at HPAC.  And in a way, it was the first ride of winter.  The last few might have been fall weather.  And because of this, winter is new again, and can grow old again.  That snap, the rush in the lungs, the refreshing chill on the skin as the body becomes warm with movement.  It's such a thrill to move in the winter air.  Perhaps even more so because there is nothing natural about wanting to go out into the cold.  Such a surprising reward.  I remember winter runs in Madison, the world white and crunching under my shoes, the people on the lakes ice fishing, and despite all the signs of frigidness, I was warm and alive.  Winter is new again, and can grow old again, and again.  It's good to be alive.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Cans and Bottles

There's nothing orienting the days of the week for me.  Every morning I've been surprised by what garbage I should take to the curb.  I was so excited for cans and glass bottles this morning, only to discover that it was plastics day.  It was a bit difficult to start the day with such a letdown, but I recovered and am looking forward to tomorrow morning with even more excitement.

And tomorrow, in addition to being cans and bottles day, is our first day of rehearsal for a three-day project of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and Dvorak's Symphony No.9.  Chestnuts, no letdowns there.  I forgot to copy my music to prepare it for rehearsal (a bummer because I'd prefer to be prepared, but I've played them both countless times), and so tonight I listened to refresh my memory.
There is something so visceral about this music, maybe about all music.  Something that gets in the body.  I'd think that being a musician must be the greatest thing in the world, and yet I am one and that automatically becomes tempered by reality.  But it is still pretty cool.  Or maybe to be a dancer.  To be able to feel that pulse moving through your body as you move through space.  And yet I know that this too is tempered by the amount of training, self-criticism, and sacrifice made towards attaining such a body and skill.  I guess life sculpts us towards what we practice.  We become these things and stop realizing that there could have been another way of living.

I remember my aunt, a director, once yelling at a group of dancers leaping across the stage in rehearsal, "Smile!  Most people would love to be able to do what you're doing!"  Oh yeah, a reminder:  this is really cool.  We're burdened by the body, burdened by the reality of space and time and perception, but somewhere in the middle of dance, music, poetry, light, color, texture, sensation, is something that we can find and make real, even if only for a moment.  We have many opportunities to make this happen, so it's a bit of a letdown when it doesn't.

But for sure, cans and bottles tomorrow.  A promising start.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Another Time

I don't think our perception of time is linear.  I think it exists in layers.  In the day-to-day, we experience time in the pacing of our thoughts, in the pacing of the activities that occur around us.  We have an internal tempo which interacts with the external tempo in which we live.  Sometimes it gets onboard, sometimes it needs coffee, sometimes a deep breath.

But there are many more layers to time.  I think it is possible to refine one's perception of it, to open the interstice of the moment-to-moment.  We see this in the performances of highly trained athletes and performers.  During these times, their reflexes seem like that of an insect, splitting the space most of us skip over.  It's like magic, but it's possible.  We can train our perception of time in this manner.

And there is another, different layer of time.  It is the layer in which I am surrounded by all the people I have known in my life, and will come to know.

If we close our eyes, we are alone.  There is no one there with us.  We can sit in this space and make it ours; we can sit in this space and feel the presence of the absence of others.

But maybe there is another person in the room.  We feel that person is there with us, even though they aren't really.  Or maybe there is no one in the room; maybe they are upstairs.  Or perhaps they are on an errand, at work, away at school, traveling, moved to another city.  Maybe they are no longer with us.

When do we become alone?  When do we perceive time in such a way that we are no longer with the people in our lives?

We are alone, and they are there with us.  For all the people that we miss, wherever they are, next to us, far away, impossible, they are as with us as we are alone.  Perhaps we can train our perception in this as well.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Please Think Kindly of Me

Tonight, some of the organizers at the Takarazuka International Friendship Association, invited us to go out to dinner to celebrate the New Year.  "Us" was non-Japanese members of HPAC and Keita, whom they knew from onsen and last year's TIFA concert.  Why do they want to hang out with foreigners?  Why is there a Takarazuka International Friendship Association?  Sometimes I can only think of how one of them somewhat derisively laughs at the fact that I don't speak Japanese, says I'm cute, asks what Japanese foods I eat.  Sometimes I feel like a wind-up monkey and not in a fun way.

But I have to think that these gatherings and the organization are created for more than the purpose of amusement for the members who volunteer and organize with them.  But is it more than for the purpose of making them feel good for reaching out; or out of curiosity, that human trait that brings novelty and beauty into our lives?  Why are people nice?  There is part of me that is wholly suspicious of it, that believes it goes only as far as themselves, even if it does epiphenomenal good along the way.  But there is also the part of me that knows loneliness, and understands the simplicity of wanting to connect with another person.   And whether that is a selfish want or not, I don't know.

Life can be very hard.  People can carry a great deal with them and carry on.  I have no desire to leave someone alone when they reach out a hand, as casual as it may seem.  

And on the surface, perhaps even more deeply than that, the night was very enjoyable.  They paid for our dinner, which was a very generous gesture.  One of them gave me a painting he had done of a sheep, to welcome in the year.

Perhaps there is no such thing as one genuine type of kindness.  I tend to think we are all trying; trying to look upon the world favorably in some way in order to receive the same in return.  And what harm is there in this?  We have incomplete control of our words and actions, our intentions don't always transpire as we had wished, but the intention is there, or at least I believe it is.  Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Remembering Tomorrow

As I was putting pictures from my camera onto my computer yesterday, I came across several from various periods of my time in Japan that I had forgotten.  Going through them I revisited some of the remarkable things that I've experienced here:  the snow festival in Sapporo, a baseball game filled with balloons, some of the foods that I've eaten, some of the friends I've known.  It reminded me of another side of living in Japan; one that isn't my longing for the intimacy of old friends and family, of the longing for the comfort of living in a place where I can speak and read the language, of being able to engage in parts of living that I miss.  I've seen some incredibly beautiful things here.

And yesterday, as I walked through Nakayamadera, I noticed the sounds that were around me.  I returned once more today, with an audio recorder to capture the sound of simply walking to the various temple buildings; through the gate with all the people around me speaking Japanese, into the various alters with people ringing the bells, the recordings of traditional music being played, chanting, children talking, vendors selling their goods, the sound of water being splashed on the Buddhas, more bells, more music, people reading and talking about their fortunes.  So many sounds.  Such an incredible space to be within.  I wonder what it will sound like to me when I hear it years from now.

I feel so incredibly lucky to have had this time in Japan.  And yet, even in the midst of awe at such beautiful experiences, I'm aware of the missing that I have.  Perhaps life is a string of accrued missing.  Perhaps after time, I would find a community here, develop relationships longer than three years, acquire the motivations and the meaning that it takes to feel that this is my home.  But I think I would always be missing.  I would be missing home, whether that is America if I were in Japan, or Japan if I were in America, or some place that only exists in the perfect rendering of my memory of all things past.  I wonder if it is ever possible to arrive.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Nakayamdera New Year's

I went to Nakayamadera today for the New Year's festivities.  In Kyoto I was at a shrine and now a temple.  Such a blur of Shintoism and Buddhism, mixing together to create a unique feeling of religiosity.  And in each of these places, there is a blend of secular and sacred; vendors selling grilled food and carnival prizes compete with the monks selling talismans and incense for good fortune in the coming year.  It is all part of the celebration.

I recall when I was a school child in America that school began quite abruptly close to the New Year.  It seemed the year changed and suddenly everyone was back to work in a hung-over haze on January 2nd.  Even as a child it seemed quick.  Today the crowds were nearly as full as two days ago in Kyoto.  In Japan, the beginning of the new year receives its time to be acknowledged.  It feels far more natural.  Of course, it's just another day, just a changing of arbitrary numbers that organize time.  But it can also be a chance to reflect.  Even in America, people take the opportunity to make New Year's resolutions, thinking about the previous year and what might be improved or desired in the coming one.  Perhaps we could take a little more time to breathe in this arbitrary turning over, as the Japanese culture permits, allowing our desires for good fortune, good health, good living practice, to sink in a little further.  Whether it is to some god or to ourselves, we can take advantage of this communal marker to aspire or reflect; with all the people of the world, we can wish for the better based on what we have learned from the past.

within the gate, leading to the main buildings of the temple

vendors in the shadows of the temple buildings

more vendors and the main building of Nakayamadera 

burning of the old to make way for the new

walking to and from the main temple buildings

the main gate

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Pleasure of Winter Interiors

Such a cold and blustery day, and I was entitled to stay within the comfort of my apartment, practicing, drinking tea, watching the gusts of snow dance across the playground.  I encountered and enjoyed a non-apartment world yesterday, and today, I enjoyed the indoors with equal gusto.  Tomorrow I'll have to venture forth to restock supplies and enjoy the pleasure of Japanese grocery shopping.  May the winds calm and the snow be stoic and serene in the fields on the way.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's Day in Kyoto

I woke up this morning feeling a little discombobulated from a combination of a late-night New Year's concert and lingering jet lag.  A few days ago I was in America, waking up to eat breakfast with my family and boyfriend during the holidays, and this morning I woke up in Japan to the openness of an entire new year before me, empty.  It's 2015, what should I do about it?

In Japan, people go to shrines in the first few days of the new year and it seemed like a good idea, so I went to Kyoto.  I walked around the Yasaka Shrine, the Otani Temple (or so I think), Maruyama Park, and the Gion District.  The snow began to fall lightly as I approached the Temple and the smell of incense was overwhelming.  A huge cemetery of about two-and-a-half acres spread up the foothills, stairs and small pathways leading to the dense plots of stone markers.  At the base outside the gate was a man distributing and collecting buckets of water and ladles for family members to tend the graves of their ancestors.  I stood at a distance, taking in the smell, the sight, the feeling of devotion.

I continued to walk through the Gion area and the Yasaka Shrine, enjoying the snow fall of the new year, and the feeling of welcoming something new, sharing a tradition with thousands of other people who had practiced it for far longer, inherited its meaning and significance from their ancestors, something of which I could only glean.  I thought of how the sanctity of this day–the dark store windows, families walking together, the disappearance of businessmen–seemed in some way similar to Christmas in America.  Perhaps as with any tradition, the years color it beyond its original shade, but in both there seems to be an original idea of bringing in something new and full of hope.

At the end of 2015, I will most likely no longer be living in Japan; it was wonderful to begin the year here.

approach to Yasaka Shrine;
people pose for pictures and cram to get in the entrance

some of the food stalls and vendors
in the approach to the main buildings of the shrine

hot corn and hot dogs

Year of the Sheep

buying hot food from the grill

the center of Yasaka Shrine

Otani Temple (?)

Maruyama Park

 outside Yasaka Shrine

Yasaka Shrine
wishes for the New Year

stalls near the main buildings of Yasaka Shrine

Gion District

dressed for the New Year;


covered in snow after walking;
Yasaka Shrine

snowy vendors and umbrellas

outside Yasaka Shrine;
welcoming the New Year

Happy New Year and Best Wishes for 2015!