Saturday, February 28, 2015

Listening to an HPAC Recital

Tonight is the concert for two of the core members at HPAC to present half recitals.  One of the members of the cello section played and the rest of us cellists accompanied her on Bruch's Kol Nidre. Listening to others play music is one of my favorite things, especially when they are people that I know.  There is something really special about live music, and because often I'm the one making it, it's rare that I have the chance to just listen to other performers.  I can imagine myself being one of those community members that goes to local conservatory recitals, filling in one of the 200 empty seats.  They need an audience and I'm happy to oblige.  I hope that in my next life (in this one) I will have more opportunities to do live listening.  

Friday, February 27, 2015

Call to ANA

I'm going to be flying with my cello again in April which means ANA (All Nippon Airways).  The airline allows me to book a seat for the instrument that is far cheaper than the normal price, so I always call their center in L.A. to make the reservation.

Of course, an expected part of the routine is waiting for the next available agent.  But this morning seemed extreme.  It took 45 minutes of listening to a loop of their theme song interrupted by advertisements for their credit card and newsletter.  I was just about to hangup to catch a bus for a rehearsal at HPAC when I heard her voice on the other end of the line.  I told her I needed to book a flight for me and my cello, and then I added that because I had waited for so long, I needed to be leaving in 15-20 minutes (hard deadline to get to rehearsal on time).   Would it be possible to make a reservation in such a short period of time?

I felt bad being rushed and didn't want to be pushy with her.  It wasn't her fault, but that was the situation.  Without missing a beat she apologized sincerely for the wait and said she would try to get it done.  And she did.  Gracefully and graciously and extremely efficiently.  I'm sure she had had to speak with other irritated customers and her service was impeccable.  As I gave her my address she recognized me and said she had booked the last flight I took with ANA.  She must have been the same woman who had spoken to me about Takarazuka, the women in whom I had heard a touch of homesickness for Japan as she asked about the weather.

As we were closing the exchange, I thanked her and said how helpful she was and how much I appreciated how quickly she was able to book the reservation.  I asked if I could have her name and if there was any way that I could send an email to her superiors to let them know what a wonderful job she does.  She said, "Oh no, thank you for your kind words, but it's just my job."  But as we were really saying goodbye she mentioned her name in case there were any questions about the reservation.

So I sent an email to ANA, partly as a complaint about the wait, and partly as a compliment for her service.  It seems unfair that she would have to deal with irritated customers who had just listened to advertisements for 45 minutes despite paying an additional $25 calling fee.  I mentioned the long wait, the advertisements, and her wonderful help along with her name.  ANA has always exhibited really great service.  I'm always very happy to use them, throughout the whole process of travel.  The two irritations just seemed strange given their record.  

A response came from them about 3 hours after I sent my comments.  About five short paragraphs in length, it specifically addressed my comments and suggestions and said they would be passed along to the appropriate departments.  It also said that they would inform the worker's superior of her performance and that they were happy to hear about it.  It was signed with a specific name, not just, "Your ANA Crew," and even if it was based on a form letter, it did not appear to be.  They thanked me for my input.  It is the first response to feedback that has actually seemed genuine.  It's almost baffling.  Companies should appreciate any customer input they can receive.  And it actually seems that ANA does.  Perhaps there are other evils lurking behind the exterior–as likely there are for any corporation–but in terms of the product, they're doing quite well.

And even more importantly, I got to talk to my friend at the ANA call center, again.  I imagine one day, I'll be in L.A. and just stop in and say, Is K there?  And then I'll introduce myself as that girl booking flights for a cello from Takarazuka.  Thank you for doing a wonderful job.  It's very nice to meet you.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Missing America

Speaking with my brother and Taekwondo instructor this morning stretched the ties between here and America.  People and things that I love.  Sometimes it can be hard to connect with people and things here, to find those sources of love.  I know they are there.  But hearing these voices just strengthened the reminder of their existence elsewhere.  It was a rainy, oatmeal day.  I like both rain and oatmeal, but it's not quite the same.  I miss America, and all the people that live there.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The First Sign of Spring

It's the first sign of the coming of spring:  the children are out in droves!  They covered the playground and the surrounding service roads of our apartment complex, playing the international games of tag and hide-and-go-seek.  Next will be the blossoms of spring, the warm winds, the mosquitoes, the cicadas, the chirping frogs, and the smell of rice paddies as the stalks grow higher.  But there is still time.  It is only the excited and emboldened children for now, the first sign that it is coming.



"My names is Souji!"

"Nice to meet you."

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Quartet Engines

It was another day of striving for perfection, only this time with three other people.  It is difficult to get a brush to find its journey at given second, but to create and listen at the same time and be left with no traces of what just happened save for one's memory requires another set of skills.  Or perhaps fine-honing the same skills.  Maybe rehearsing quartet is like doing shodo blindfolded.  Unless one records it, there is no way to see a definitive result.  And then to do it with three other people, and to try to communicate in second languages about what we all think is happening; it's a pretty incredible feat.  But there were moments today when things really felt together.  It made the other 90 percent feel a lot messier.  But it's progress.  It takes a lot for a quartet to find a breath together, but it's an incredible thing when it happens.  So we'll keep working, keep trying to understand one another more closely, and grow something that is more than our powers combined.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Sakurafubuki in Shodo

There is an upcoming shodo exhibition for our class.  Because I haven't come to class very often in recent months, and because I will not be here during the exhibition, it didn't really seem feasible to include me in the show.  Which is fine.  I enjoy the act of doing shodo and am too much a beginner to really understand the importance of an exhibition, or to push to make it happen.  I'm just happy to be in class as much as I can in the few months that remain in Japan.

But everyone else there is far more experienced and invested.   For the past two classes I've attended, I've found a changed classroom environment.  There is an incredible amount of focus and concentration.  Everyone is working together, looking at pieces, critiquing them, talking about the paper and the ink.  There is always a space for me to set up my stuff and work, but they are occupied on another level.  This morning my table faced them and I could watch them between my attempts to draw straight lines (and sometimes curved lines).  Several women, gathered around tables pushed together, unwrapping long, soft pieces of calligraphy paper, gently arching each piece upward and laying it on the table, patting it down, smoothing out the creases.  It reminded me of my grandmother who was a quilter, and my aunt who quilts and teaches quilting as a profession.  The beauty and grace of their movements, the care in their gestures which likely comes from the care in their craft.  The quilters of Japan, preparing their canvas.

I got started again with "spring breeze (harukaze)" from two weeks ago.  It had most certainly eluded me then, and this morning seemed to be no different.  The straight lines still seemed impossible, the diagonal curves and sense of direction still mystifying.  Part of me felt like this was going to be the end of me and shodo.  I would be stuck on this spring breeze forever, into the summer, fall, winter, and still stuck and stale into another spring.

Take it apart, just keep looking, keep trying.  And finally I did one I felt I could show to Sensei, even though there were still things about it.  I think she had noticed my stasis and very generously circled it and praised it and passed me along.  The groundhog emerged!  Spring was on its way!

And then she gave me another one.  A word concept that we don't have in English.  "Sakura fubuki," which is when wind blows through blossoming trees.  It looks like snow.

The first character, "sakura (桜)" is the only kanji and is comprised of the characters for "tree(木)" and "woman(女)."  I spent some time on the component parts and on the spacing of them.  I spent some time on the hiragana for "fu(ふ)," "bu(ぶ)," and "ki (き)," as well, enjoying the way the brush leaves the page and then falls back down to the next part of the character.  It's such a living thing, the way the ink touches the paper.

They handed out tea, coffee, and sweets as usual, and having finished their scrutinizing work for the day, I saw them circle up around the tables and sit together to enjoy the refreshments.  I kept working, sipping some tea, and made a version I though good enough to give to Sensei.  And then I sat and watched them and listened to them talk, picking up words and ideas here and there that I could make some sense of.

It's a wonderful thing to be able to craft something, to seek perfection in some art or some task, even just a routine matter of work.  I think it's one of the most satisfying things that a person can do in their life; to invest themselves, their actual self, in the acts that they do.  And it is a pleasure to be surrounded by people that are able to do this and practice it, even if I can't understand all their words.  There is a sense of fulfillment, I think.

When the conversation seemed to have broken off enough, I asked Sensei to look at my "sakurafubuki."  She looked at it for a minute and reached for her orange-inked brush, but instead of writing on my copy she reached for her sample that she had given to me and started to write on it.  Was she correcting her own work??  She was telling me that it was really good.  Apparently good enough, in fact, that it could go in the exhibition.  Really???  Sugoi!  She wrote my name on the lefthand side of the original and wanted me to write my name on my copy as well.  A little more anxiety and a few practice trials and I managed to do it.  And if only I had an inkan to stamp right below it.  And I did!  Not a nice shodo inkan, but one with my name in katakana that I use for official matters.  The whole class was watching now, happy for my work, amused at me trying to write my name on it and stamping it with a tourist-grade inkan.  But there it was!  So exciting!

But now I don't have that copy.  Sensei has it and will prepare it for the exhibition, as I understand it.  But I wanted a picture, since I won't be there.  And then one of the members of the class took a picture of me and Sensei with it.

Spring blossoms falling from the trees in the wind.  Sakurafubuki.

It's really exciting to be a part of this, to share something with the other members of a class (though in a very fractional way compared to the work they are doing), to have something that I did on display in Japan.  I wish that I could continue along with them for years to come, to grow and share experiences together.  But I'm really grateful to have had this time and opportunity.  So many thanks to Sensei for letting me participate.  And now spring blossoms will carry something even more beautiful with them.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Shimono-san and Me

This is the first picture that I can recall taking with any conductor or soloist.  It's just not something I usually think to do.  It has been wonderful, such a pleasure, to work with Shimono-san.  Wanted to remember it.

Saturday, February 21, 2015


It'd been years since I caught a whiff of that smell; and why, how could it be backstage (and on stage?) at HPAC.  In America, sure, it happens.  Not usually at a concert, but maybe sometimes, especially if there are "young" people there.  But in Japan?  I was so surprised that I whispered to my stand partner as we were adjusting our chairs before the first piece, "I smell weed."  "Yeah, me too." Wait, really??  It's not just me?  And then we had to play.

I realized a familiar feeling that is generally absent in Japan, that of not being so sure that everyone around you is sober.  Who could it be?  Of course no two people experience anything in life in the exact same way, but when a person or a group of people around you is high, or drunk, or otherwise compromised by substances it's hard not to feel a little alienated.  And also unsure about the predictability of their behavior.  It's a common feeling in America, with drugs being far more prevalent and far less punishable than in Japan.  It was strange to smell that smell here, and strange to have that feeling, not realizing that it had been a feeling that belongs to certain situations in America, but not here.

I've come to the conclusion that it must have just been a mix of strange tobacco smoke and cologne or something of that nature.  Perhaps an unusual mushroom in a bento box.  The chances of it actually being marijuana are just too unbelievable.  But the emotional response it conjured was telling.  Another difference between the tapestries that color American and Japanese culture and why these worlds feel as different as they do.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Stage Space

Another day of news and more topics of sensitivity.  I'm grateful for all the people who dedicate their lives to righting some of the many injustices in the world.  And after today, I'm also grateful that I live a life that is so relatively free.  It was such a pleasure to listen to the sounds of the orchestra pull out the different dramas of three pieces today.  To sit on a stage, in peace, with my fellow musicians and have a unified focus to create something beautiful, something terrifying, something ardent.  What a privilege to be able to do such a thing, especially when others in the world cannot imagine such a life.   When I was a bit younger, I remember that I and the musicians around me might sometimes think about how we should be dedicating our lives to more useful things–curing diseases, fighting injustices, or at least making money.   But I think that music, and art in general, is very important.  It reminds us of our humanity, the thing we are trying to save and improve upon.  Again, I'm grateful that the stage exists, that there is this space in the world.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Blackface in Japan

In the Community section of the Japan Times this morning was an editorial by an African-American man living in Japan, expressing outrage about a new television show that will feature a Japanese doo-wop group in blackface.  As an American I was surprised that this existed in Japan and shared his sentiments (though admittedly, I can only imagine his full disgust, not being able to experience it first-hand in the same way).  There is a long history of blackface in America and Americans generally regard it to be very strongly offensive and inappropriate, to put it lightly.  It's simply not something that is done anymore.  Perhaps there are some productions that do it for historicity, or something along those lines, but it would not be ok outside of that context.  At least in no other way that I can conjure.  It's simply not acceptable in America.  It evokes a time of extreme inequality and abuse.  It's not ok.

But this is Japan.  Does that matter?  I've been trying to grasp what it means here.  It's a very strange thing.  One take is that it is done out of respect.  The idea here is that Japanese people like African-American culture and want to emulate it through music and appearance.  The problem with this–as the author of the editorial points out–is that if this is the case, they have completely misunderstood the context of African-American culture.  And ignorance of the history and context of blackface (another defense of the practice in Japan) seems incredibly disrespectful given the ease with which a person can search the internet, especially if one supposedly wishes to emulate the culture out of respect.

But it's a tricky thing.  How does one express to a Japanese person why this is so wrong?  In America, we learn about issues of race our whole lives, whether it is formal education in schools, or just simply living and acquiring experience and awareness within the diversity of our country.  Japan has no context in this regard.  It is an extremely homogenous nation, one of the most in the world, so to explain how something like this can be offensive is even more difficult than normal.  Even to some Americans, it can be hard to put into words exactly what is wrong with it apart from the historical era it evokes.  Reading through the comments on these articles or doing internet searches speaks to the elusive nature of pinpointing the offense.  What is racism?  Is this an instance of racism?

Yes.  In my eyes and to my definition, it is.  There are many degrees of racism and I most certainly place this on the spectrum (yes, even though it is in Japan).  No, in itself it is not an act of violence against members of a certain race; and no, it alone is not withholding rights from people based on their race.  But to the extent that it diminishes a group of people to their appearance and the music associated with them, and chooses how else to fill in the remainder without question or even curiosity, it is racism.  It has replaced dialogue with assumption.  It has ignored a painful history and made light of the efforts of millions of people.  It is this sort of blindness that leads to far worse acts of racism.

And it is not, as has been suggested, an instance of "free speech."  It is ignorance, oversight, perhaps even disregard.  To consider something to be "free speech" implies that it is making a point, creating a call to action.  This instance is not carefully considered enough to require that status to maintain its legality, nor would one fight for its continuance with that argument.

Of course, we are all ignorant.  It is impossible for me to understand what it is be an African-American living in America, or living in Japan, or witnessing the continuation of this sort of practice in any cultural context.  I am, and will be my entire life, ignorant of this experience.  But it is not impossible for me to become sensitive to the issue and to take responsibility for that sensitivity.  And while it is understandable that those who have not grown up in the midst of America's diversity might be more ignorant from lack of experience, it is not impossible to become more aware and better educated and to thereby increase one's sensitivity and sensibility in regard to these matters.

And if nothing else, listen.  If someone says it is offensive, listen to that, and keep listening until it starts to make sense.  These can be opportunities to increase awareness and sensitivity.  There is no end to understanding the people with whom we share this world if we listen and try to become better educated.

Blackface is not ok in America, nor is it ok in Japan.  And there are many reasons for why it is not ok.  Some of them are shared between these two cultural contexts and some, like the history, belong primarily to one.  Some of the reasons that it is wrong are explicit and clear and can be learned by anyone; and some must be understood through respect for those who are far more capable of feeling the offense acutely and voicing those feelings.

So listen.  Become better educated.  It's not ok.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ode to Shimono-san

Sometimes, after we play a long passage of music, Shimono-san refers back to a rehearsal number and makes a comment to us about it.  Maybe it needs to move forward, maybe it needs to be lighter, or we should pace a crescendo or diminuendo in a certain way.  And then he keeps going to the next section, even skipping over certain sections of music.  That he doesn't go back to make us play through the comment he's just made gives the sense that he trusts us, and we appreciate it.  And it gives the sense that he respects us as musicians and respects our time and energy in rehearsal.

Whenever Shimono-san wants to begin, he asks us if he may start from a certain point.  "May I start from the beginning?"  And it gives us the feeling that we are a part of the decision about how rehearsals are going.  Sometimes he asks us to help him.  Why do no other conductors do that?  Do they really think they can make us do anything?  Shimono-san always includes us fully in the process.

And if it's not about us making music, it's about what he's learned in score study.  His rehearsals are efficient because he knows the score very well and knows what aspects he wants to share with us and the audience.  In the Yoshimatsu piece we are playing, he highlights ensemble characteristics that we might have missed in the cacophony, making the piece make more sense to us which should help us give it more meaning for the audience.  I feel like I'm learning something about the pieces that we're playing.

It's such a pleasure to work with such a humble and hardworking leader.  There are so many qualities in him that I would hope to bring to any ensemble with which I'm working and any students with whom I'm working.  It's a pleasure to have him back on the podium.  He is most certainly someone that I will miss working with in Japan.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Good –"

A lot of wonderful things happened today.  I rode my bike from HPAC for the first time in a month, the office seems to have extended some liberties to me and a few others that were unexpected, we started working with Maestro Shimono (so wonderful, probably more on him, again), and we rehearsed a piece by a Japanese contemporary composer that is super cool and super unlike anything we've ever played at HPAC in my time here.  And I took a bunch of left-over cabbage and saved it by making another batch of okonomiyaki which should last for at least 4 or 5 meals.

But before all of these things happened, something else happened which is far more quotidian, though not without an equal amount of joy.  As I scurried to the bus stop this morning, I encountered a resident of our apartment complex.  Even behind her medical mask, I could tell she was smiling very brightly, perhaps amused by the cello on my back.  I said "Ohayo gozaimasu (Good Morning)" to her, to which she then responded, "Konnichiwa (Good Day)."  It is a pleasure of mine that in Japan, for people over the age of roughly 50, before 11am is "Ohayo" and after "Konnichiwa."  You can set your watch by it.  (For some reason HPAC people don't follow this rule; "ohayo" seems to be used well into the evening as long as it is the beginning of your day with another person.)

I don't really understand the rules, but the interaction always brings me a lot of pleasure.  The precision in calculating the correct greeting makes we want to hang out outside from about 10:45am and just start saying "Good Morning" to everyone I see, waiting for them to switch to a return of "Good Day" to know the hour had changed.   I wonder what they would think; a friendly greeter, misinformed about the hour of the day.  But well-meaning.  Well-wishes upon you!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sunny Governments

The sun was out in all its glory today and everyone could see how much it has been changing in the last month.  Spring is coming.

We celebrated by going to the Hyogo Prefectural Assembly this morning to play a concert for the people that give us money.  Or more accurately, decide to give us other people's money.  They filed in as I've seen them do the past two years, bowed to the front of the room, sat down and automatically lifted their name markers before realizing this wasn't business as usually.  Oh, there's an orchestra there!  And then they quickly recovered and returned to their business-as-usual glazed expressions.

It's a funny thing to cross paths with other people's professions.  I spend so much time with musicians that for me, that is life as usual.  Lawmakers are in the news a lot, and the decisions and actions they make can have huge consequences for the way the government works and how people live.  They're a big deal!  But seeing these sleepy faces walk in, I could see how easy it might be for them to slip and be human and maybe not fully complete some prerogative, not fight for a cause that many care about.  The government is a castle on a cloud in my mind, and being on their turf made me realize how human and changeable it might actually be.  Maybe they see us the same way.  Why didn't we put in a little extra effort to really play in tune, really find the meaning in a phrase?

We played for them, and had them sing along in Furusato, and clap their hands in the Radetzky March.  As we stood up for the last time, our enthusiastic Wakuwaku conductor (Maestro "Subito open your heart") called out to them through the microphone as they rose to their feet in a standing ovation, "Vote for me!"

Well, maybe he said something else, but being a little rusty in Japanese and jumping a few steps of literal translation,  I came to that as the ultimate meaning he was conveying.  Give us money!  Yay, Radetzky!

And the sun was still there when we left.  Hard to believe it would wait through all of that and still be unfolding the day, so young.  I came home and biked to do some errands, and opened the doors to the rooms in my home to see the sun.  Spring is coming.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Chocolate Day

Yesterday was Valentine's Day and there was chocolate everywhere.  I constantly forgot and then remembered again that it was a special day.  In Japan, girls give chocolate to guys on Valentine's Day and wait for a month, until White Day (on March 14th) to receive white chocolate in return.  Seems little unfair in principal, yet in actuality everyone gets chocolate.  So we were all happy at HPAC for our first rehearsal, snacking on love in the breaks.  Happy Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Turn the Beat Around

Work.  Almost everyone does it.  It can own you, if you let.  Or maybe it owns you regardless, but some people fight it, others absorb it.  Most probably mix the two.  How does one maintain their freedom?

I began my time at HPAC determined not to call it work.  It's playing music and I consider that to be something I choose to do, not something that I do for money.  Money is not my primary motivation for doing it, anyway.  And yet somehow, I must admit that it feels it has become that.  It has become a job.  I spent the last week practicing for myself a piece that has nothing to do with the orchestral job I currently have, or is directly related to getting me another one, or is needed for any concrete scheduled performance.  That was music that wasn't work.

Is there a value to calling something work?  To delineating work from play?  There is a time that I'm free and I only know it because there are other times when I'm not.  Is it possible to live happily with no vocation?

Some people want to retire as early as possible.  And some, despite being able to do so, simply can't stop.  Work becomes the thing that keeps us going.  It's a friend that we acquire and maintain throughout life.  It seems that even in retirement, people find projects, become involved in other types of work.

My hunch is that self-guided work, or work that has elements of such, is the most rewarding.  It seems that this is work that one can own, or at least legitimately feel one owns, even if it owns them because they need the money to survive.

And in lieu of self-guided work, what can one do?  Is there a way to claim freedom in the middle of imposed drudgery?

I don't know.  I know I'm looking forward to a life of more diverse musical projects, teaching included.  To the extent that I can control my career, I hope to do this.  But in the meantime, I think there may be more that a person can do to control one's work situation.  There are opportunities everywhere.

Today it was the violist sitting next to me and the cool syncopated part that Sibelius composed for the line in Finlandia.  Counting rehearsals, I've probably played this piece over a hundred times at HPAC, but still, this person next to me was alive and playing something that was related to what I was playing.  We were doing something together.

Maybe every job has some opportunity to find a pocket of ownership.  Maybe every moment does.  Maybe it's just waiting for us to remember that and take control.  And maybe there's some value to saying something is work.  It's work, but it doesn't own me.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Friday the 13th Okonomiyaki

Back in America, an acquaintance of mine has a tradition of having a party every Friday the 13th.  It always seemed like a nice idea, so I had one this evening with okonomiyaki.  It had been too long.  Everyone brought a few things to add to the batter or some desserts or snacks.  One of my friends even brought all the pans, mix-ins, and skill needed to make beautiful Hiroshima style okonomiyaki, which are layered with noodles.  It's a pleasure to host.  And luckily, this Friday the 13th being in February of a non-leap-year, it means another one is just around the corner in March.  Another occasion to get together for dinner.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Past the Post Office

The post office was open this morning.  I had prepared myself for a repeat disappointment, not understanding why it had been closed in the first place.  That if would be open seemed somewhat impossible.

But it was open, and there was no line.  It took only a matter of minutes to release the immense drama that had been building for the past day. So I walked outside and stood by my bike in the warm winter sun, wondering what I should do.  Go home, I guess.  And then as I was riding I found myself turning left on a street that hadn't existed before.  And then another left on another street that hadn't existed, past some topiaries, past some rice fields.  I created a whole neighborhood of streets and homes and gardens, spun out from the tires of my bike.  I found the edge of creation, a street that had existed before, a road I already knew, and I turned back into the unknown to create some more.

I found a temple tucked in a grove of trees with several crows breaking the silence as they tumbled down branches.  I stepped into a world within a world.  Sunlight sparkled among the leaves as I walked, followed me like stars, glistening.

I got back on my bike and created some more.  A park, with some swings and sleeping cherry trees, more houses, more parks.

When I became immersed and felt the tinge of being lost, I happened onto a street I'd recently created, and rode into the portal that would take me past the still-open post office, home.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Beckett in Japan

There were no cars, no bikes, no postal service mopeds parked outside of the post office this afternoon.  Not a good sign.  But it was a weekday, about 2pm, not even in danger of being a Monday (or Tuesday or Friday) holiday.  Perhaps business was just slow.  As I approached the outer automatic door, I was relieved that it opened and let me into the antechamber with the ATM.  And then I saw a decisively not-open post office to my right.  In front of this interior door was a dry eraser black board with the business times posted (9-4, and on other days 9-5, the same as posted on the outside of the building).  And on top of this easel was taped a laminated white sign written in Japanese.

Luckily enough, I was able to read the entirety of this extra sign.  It literally said, "When it becomes time, an employee will open the door.  Until then, please wait."

Despite understanding the Japanese on this sign, I was left with no information to help guide my next action.  Why was no one there, now?  Are there siestas in Japan?  And when would they return?

I considered taking part in this absurd play, but eventually decided against it.  I left, noting that Godot was not around on (this) Wednesday at 2pm.  I'll go back tomorrow and see if he's showed up. Somethings are not mine to be understood.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Visit to the US Consulate

I live in a foreign country and fairly frequently have to travel outside of its borders.  This requires a passport and since mine was set to expire before my contract at HPAC I made an appointment at the US consulate in Osaka to renew it.

I went after shodo class yesterday, laden with lots of objects that couldn't be carried past security.  I took care of my lunch by sitting on the edge of a planter outside, fighting the snow and wind, eating my leftovers from tupperware and trying to seem as cool and collected as possible as I watched the well-dressed businessmen walk by pretending not to notice me.  In any other country I probably wouldn't have felt so awkward, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone do this in Japan.  But then I was outside the American consulate.

Outside the entrance, I got in the back of a line of Japanese people.  The security guard asked me if I was getting a visa.  Most certainly not.  That may the first time anyone has mistaken me for Japanese, though I'm pretty sure it was only because he was on auto-pilot.  He made me leave my water and tea outside and escorted me inside to the security checkpoint.  I surrendered my iPad and cell phone and just as I was putting my bag on the conveyor belt to be scanned I remembered that I had been gifted many little sweets in shodo class.  I opened my bag and started pulling them out, putting them in the bin with my iPad and cell phone.  The security guard started chuckling!  What a welcome surprise!   And I laughed, too.  It was pretty silly to have so many little sweets in my bag and I didn't know how to explain that I had received them in a shodo class, at least not in a way that would be believable.  A little touch of casualness, a small taste of America.

Upstairs, I had several comedic errors involving a photo booth and an elevator that only went down.  I sat in a lounge and overheard Americans talking to one another, getting marriage documents and birth certificates notarized, going through milestones in this little pocket of Japan together.  I gave the receptionists my documents, photo, money, LetterPack envelope, and old passport, and look forward to having my new passport in my hands in 3-4 weeks.  No traveling in the meantime.

As I left, the security guard returned my bin with iPad, cell phone, and pile of sweets, still chuckling.  I offered him one and he laughed and shook his head.  And then I left America, and the tide pool Japan-America, and went back into the ocean of Japan, back to the street to reclaim my water and tea and be on my way.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Capturing Spring (Return to Shodo)

It was so wonderful to return to shodo class this morning.  It had been almost 3 months since the last time I was there.  I returned to the poetic world of kanji, to the voices of the middle-aged Japanese women speaking almost intelligibly, to the calm focus of harnessing movement on the page.  Throughout the class, the other members–far more regular and advanced than I–worked with Sensei on long pieces with varied brushstrokes, and tones.  They know how to mix ink in different ways, they know how to play with time and space on the page.  And all in the service of the text they are copying.  It seemed to be a different sort of class going on behind me (I always sit in front), almost more like a masterclass with everyone absorbed in one another's works.  The time was mixed with silences and explanations, with paper attached to the magnetic board in front, and on the long desks behind me, and at one point, even an explanation including the singing of a song.

I began class by occupying myself with a lesson I had studied several months ago.  I chose "poet."  The combination of straight and arched lines attracted me to it.  It seemed like an appropriately aesthetically pleasing depiction.  And once again I was drawn into the world of recreating movement from stasis.  It's incredible how lines on a page incite the imagination to understand the movement that created them, or even their own intrinsic movement.  I think it might be the process of acquiring the brush as a part of my body.  How does it contact the page, how does the arm draw it across?  Does it turn, go straight, double back on itself?  What is its volition?  

I studied the two characters of the example Sensei had drawn.

"shi" meaning "poetry"

"jin" meaning "person"
The spacing of the horizontal lines between the right and left parts in the top figure was difficult to capture.  And each of the lines in the bottom figure presented something to contemplate.  It's in these two lines, and lines of their sort, that I search for volition; how quickly the swoop downward, at what angle throughout the motion, the stop in the one on the right, the nature of the release of the brush for both.

I managed to do one to at least partial satisfaction and sensei approved and gave me another–"spring breeze."  Looking back at the one full example that I completed in that second hour of class, I think I was doing ok.  But at the time, I became obsessed with the short horizontal lines of the first figure and how those interacted with the swooping lines that intersect them.

"spring breeze" "haru kaze"
and horizontal lines
I found myself becoming blinded in the slight upward rise that they take.  I became dizzy and disoriented in the vertical and horizontal dimensions, like what I imagine happens to air pilots in certain foggy weather.  I kept working and working, realizing that I was getting nowhere.  I the end of class, I finally asked Sensei for help and she guided my hand through several different strokes.  I've put it away until next time.  Maybe spring breezes just aren't ready, yet.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Jet Lag's Infrequent Glory

One of my colleagues in the string quartet here has an unusual schedule of waking up at 3am every morning.  He then does exercises, takes a bath, practices, and I'm sure does various other things before greeting the day.  (He also doesn't eat until lunch time.)

These days of waking up at jet-lag-o'clock I can sort of see the pleasure.  I didn't get out of bed until 6:30am, but was in some sort of awake state long before that.  And then I exercised and did a Feldenkrais lesson and read some New York Times Op-Ed pieces and listened to some contemporary string quartets.  All this put me in a perfect mood (along with a pot of green tea) to start a newly inspired practice session (with freed hips and new ideas about dramatic articulations) at 10am.  Some days just flow.  Even a visit to the mall this afternoon went smoothly (even enjoyably?) and without any internal breakdowns on my part, something perhaps unprecedented. 

So thank you, jet lag, for this day.  I've been pretty down on you in the past, and maybe some of it wasn't entirely deserved.  Actually I think it was all deserved.  But it does seems proper to balance the karmic scales a little.  I'll give you this one.  And now for another early bedtime.  

Friday, February 6, 2015

San Diego Symphony Audition Personal Report for HPAC (Reflection on the Audition Process)

Because Japan is far away from the country where I am trying to take auditions, HPAC has a benefit as part of its contract which gives core members audition grants to help pay for international travel.  And part of getting that audition grant is to fill out a form and write a personal report about the audition.  The form asks for information about one's age as of the first day of the audition, how long one has been at HPAC, the audition date and venue, when results will be given, and a line where one has to circle "Pass" or "Fail."  It's like those notes in middle school, "Do you like me?  Circle Yes or No."  (Or so I've heard.)  After one has "Failed" an audition it can feel a little harsh to have to circle it.  There's no "Failed, but I killed it," or "Failed, but hey I learned a lot."  Nor is there a "Pass, woohoo it's about time!"  It's just "Pass," or "Fail."

I assume the rest is fodder for the personal report which is supposed to accompany the form.  No one is really sure what this is supposed to be.  It seems open to interpretation.  It could be short and simple such as, "I ate a hot dog right before.  Not gonna do that again!" And maybe this is what they would prefer, since no one reading this report is a native English speaker.  But I happened to meet a good friend of mine at the audition, and it prompted us to get in touch over Skype this morning, and it was great to talk with him about the process of taking auditions.  He has taken several more than I and having some great experiences and thoughts in the process, ones that I have been reflecting on for myself.  It was a stark contrast from Japan's stark contrasts.   I had been wanting to reflect on this past experience and HPAC's personal report just happened to coincide with the timing.  Perhaps not what they were looking for, but it's what I have to give.  And here it is: 

San Diego Symphony Audition Personal Report

When we are faced with a goal, it is easy to become obsessed with conquering it. The outcome becomes the sole focus of our endeavor and the measure of success is diminished to two possibilities: success or failure. Along these lines, when taking auditions, musicians often find themselves in a mentality of singular purpose: to win. Most certainly, to be awarded the honor of playing in an orchestra, of synthesizing one's love with one's livelihood, is a dream most people cannot imagine, nor dare to do so. Work is work. Play is play. Certainly it cannot be possible to escape the reality that life must be filled with passionless hours in order to fuel the meat of living.

As musicians face the possibility of overcoming this barrier, it is easy to become greedy, to hoard the outcome. To be sure, in order to enjoy a life of financial security as an orchestral musician one must appeal to an audition committee and be offered a position. One must win. This is the goal.

Or is it?

With this audition I absorbed a new perspective of the process. While one does not take auditions to not win them, winning need not be the only focus; such a mentality can even be detrimental to the desired outcome. When one approaches an audition with such a singular focus, one forfeits one of the greatest privilege of musicians: to love what we do.

There are a lot of talented musicians and cellists in America. It is often a long process of subbing in major orchestras, taking lessons with symphony musicians, networking, and taking many, many auditions before one is ready and ripe to win. Many people look at such a process as grueling, stressful, and sacrificial, yet there is a benefit to the seeming impossibility of the endeavor: the process itself becomes elevated. To focus solely on the outcome is to be crushed many times. To enjoy the process is to walk the path of fulfillment.

Certainly, one must work towards winning. One must become the best instrumentalist and musician that they are capable of being, must go down many paths of internal and external growth to cultivate themselves, to walk up to that gate and ask again and again, “Is it time? Am I ready?” It is a practice of respect to do the best, and be the best that one can be. And this is one of the beautiful things about this process. How often do we have the opportunity in life to reach out towards perfection? To live with the cultivation of it for month and years? It is a never ending process, and it is a privilege to be able to embark upon it through these auditions.

Every audition committee is different. Certainly it is a requirement that everything one plays be in tune and in time. But committees differ in their preferences. I think that to play to what one thinks a committee will want to hear, to play to the goal of winning, will only hamper the process. At least this is true for me. To play towards the goal of winning is to open oneself to self-doubt and the unknowns of the committee's preferences. However, the more that I can prepare for an audition with the intrinsic goals of discovery in the music and growth in my capabilities of that expression, the more the fear of failure turns into the desire to search for more.

My goal in future auditions is to develop this outlook. The San Diego audition was a new level of success for me in the process and the way that I played, even though I didn't advance. I look forward to continuing on the path.  

Groundhog Quartet

After a month of focusing on preparation for an orchestral audition, I got to bring all the refining skills of the process to quartet rehearsal.  Perhaps I will just continue to take orchestral auditions for this reason alone:  to become better at what I do through demanding standards of orchestral committees and thereby enjoy it more, to come closer to my own ultimate way of performing and expressing.  This past Groundhog's Day I watched the Bill Murray movie of the same name with a group of people in California and I couldn't help but be reminded of the audition process and the journey of practice in general.  Living something over and over again, trying in one way for awhile and being completely wrong, and then another and still not getting it, and then another and another until accepting that that is life.  And then wake up with Andie MacDowell in snow-covered Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.   But in the meantime, learning to ice-sculpt, and memorize French poetry, and for me, enjoy quartet a little more.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Travel's Rub

I'm sitting in Tokyo's Narita airport, waiting to board my final flight back to Osaka.  It's about 3:30pm local time, but 11:30pm in my body.  Traveling has such a puckering quality to it.  Holding on and letting go all at once.  Meeting people and loving them.  For an hour as conversations and observations open them on a plane, for a week of sharing meals together, for years of checking in through all of life's circumstances.   Loving them and letting go of them. 

I got caught up in the woman next to me this morning.  Someone I'd never met before and never will again, a unique expression of life's difficulties and pleasures.  She told stories of her father and his children's hospital Boy Scout group, how he included everyone and made them feel welcome despite any medical problems.  She told me he was dying and she was going to see him.  She called her husband as we entered the runway before take-off, gave him a quick message about a health-related call.  He has prostate cancer.  And then she started scratching her palms and I saw how nervous she was and that's when I started talking to her and learned all of this and more.  She spoke loudly and softly, laughing openly and whispering words like "terrorist."  And when we got off the plane, there was no goodbye.  She was off to the life she had to meet, off to her next destination.  And I said goodbye to the cellist I had met, who live in Rio de Janeiro and was spending his holiday at home in New York until returning for the next orchestra season in Brazil.  Maybe we'll see one another again at a another audition.  I've met two more people in the world.

And in the background of all of this are the memories of the places and people that I'm leaving in California.  The opening of lives there.  And the arrival again in Japan, to meet the friends that I have here and opening that space a little further.  And yet in the end, all of these will close, just like the people that I met on the plane.  I left California and the people there, and will leave Japan and the people here.  Letting go to hold on again to let go again.  Little deaths.  Traveling is a practice in living in the space between past and future, a nowhere land, one which intersects with the nowhere lands of many of other people.  

It seems like a healthy response of the body to experience the jet lag of travel.  What would happen if we switched so easily from one place to the other that we didn't feel the rub of the change?  

From here, a week of recovery from a week of being elsewhere, a hazy state of not being in one place until I land again.  I miss California and the friends and family there.  What a wonderful feeling, to miss.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Birthday in San Diego

It was so wonderful to be able to spend my birthday in San Diego with my Andrew's parents.  They have been such wonderful hosts this entire week.  This morning they took some time from their busy work schedule to take me to Torrey Pines Nature Reserve.  We walked through the peaceful trails of pines and cacti and down to the beach.  There were whales in the water and pelicans flew overhead, grazing the cliffs.  The sand sparkled with black iron deposits and deeply colored stones.

And then this evening they treated me to an incredible dinner at Stone Brewery.  A beautiful restaurant with graceful fires and ponds and delicious food.

And shortly after we walked in the door, two friends rang the doorbell and carried in two different cakes to share.  It has been so wonderful to be among friends and family this week.  Tomorrow, early in the morning, I'll be leaving again and returning to Japan.  It's been so short, but the time gets shorter and shorter until I'll be returning for good.

on the beach at Torrey Pines

Dinner at Stone Brewery 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Audition Completion

And finally the audition is done.  I've grown a lot and feel like I've started the next phase auditions, of having control and awareness in them, of having a method of preparation that leads to an accurate performance of my abilities.  It's an exciting new step and I'm looking forward to continuing to learn from them, for my own sake and for those of my future students.  There is a standard list of excerpts, and I'm starting to see them as my children.  They are still young, but most of them are at least in adolescence now, and a few are turning into beautiful people.  It's exciting to watch it happen, to be a part of it and to be outside of it.  They will develop with me and without me.  And during auditions it is the time when I become a parent and appreciate them and love them, with awareness but with as little judgment as possible.  There will be more growth to come.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


Tomorrow is the audition and I can feel the nerves starting to creep in.  I know there is no real danger here.  In my mind I feel that I have a good grasp of self-respect for the work I've done, and honesty on what more there is to do.  And yet, my stomach is concerned.  It always happens.  Perhaps I can start to think of it as a good friend, one that will give me the vigilance and energy to do what I need to do.  May I be confident in the work that I've done.  I'm thankful for this process and what it gives to me as a musician and a person.