Monday, March 30, 2015

Hiroshima Peace Museum to Miyajima

We started the day with a breakfast in the Peace Park.  As we sat there, an older gentleman carrying a jar of cheap liquor came over and we had a conversation more cogent than many I've had in Japan.  He seemed to have opinions and advice on a number of things, some that I understood and some that I didn't.  But I don't think the incomprehension had much to do with him.  Despite his appearance, all the information that he had given us that morning seemed to be true as went throughout our day.

We finally graceful cut off the conversation and headed into the Memorial Peace Museum.  Unfortunately the first building was under construction and we began the exhibit by walking through some of the memorabilia of the victims, their stories, and details about the effects of the bomb; and at the end more information about the historical background and the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  As I had remembered from before, it was a troubling experience but valuable to have the opportunity to reflect on the balance of power in the world and how those who run the most powerful countries are still people and can make harrowing decisions when they forget their humanity.  

We then strolled through the Peace Park, walking by the Genopaku Dome which was the center of the bomb and still stands in ruins as a reminder.  There was a woman with more information, handmade books filled with more perspectives on the incident, the granddaughter of one of the surivors.  There are so many parts of the story that are missing.  So many questions about why decisions were made and how the aftermath continues to unfold as the world tries to contend with the incredible power that they've created.

A long walk along a major vein of traffic and the side greenery on the Peace Boulevard brought us to Hijiyama Park which is a park in a more American sense.  A huge expanse of hills of uncontrolled greenery except for the pockets of cherry trees which blossomed flocks of picnickers under their branches.  We hiked through the paths and came upon the clearings, finding views of the city and a closed contemporary art museum.

And with the extra time we came a little early to our next hostel, which despite the name of "Miyajima Backpackers" is not on the island of Miyajima but right next to the pier.  We checked-in, got some conbeni food and caught the ferry to have dinner while watching the sunset behind the floating tori.  We had to fight a few fairly docile dear, but managed to enjoy our meal and a beautiful walk around part of the island.  

Many pictures along the way.  It's beautiful in Hiroshima and Miyajima, a wonderful time to be here.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

To Hiroshima

It has been a long and beautiful day.

We opted for a 5:30am bike ride to the station rather than a taxi.  The sun was just coming up, and although there is nothing more quotidian than a sun rise or sunset, it still seems impossibly magical.  This is the time that belongs to busy families, to early risers who want to start the day cleanly, to sleepy workers obliged to an alarm clock, and to the occasional travelers who revel in the miracle too seldomly.  

We reached the station too early for the bike parking and it was only by luck that the attendant was there a bit early and able to help us with our bikes.  We trained to Umeda, found the Sky Building with the help of several station masters, and checked-in with the bus ticketing counter there. 

Shinkansen is such a luxurious way to travel in Japan.  It's smooth, it's incredibly fast, it's clean, it's cool.  But the bus in Japan is a close second and perhaps in some ways, superior.  Yes, it's slower, and a little more bumpy, but it stops about every 90 minutes at another fun roadside market, and there are hoods on the chairs so that you can block out the light around you, and curtains on the windows, blankets, neck cushions, foot rests, and it's slow enough that it's possible to marvel at the landscape moving by.  In six hours we arrived in Hiroshima, a bit hungry and tired, but happy that the rain slithering down the bus windows had exhausted the sky to blue.  

And then we walked.  We walked from the bus stop at Hiroshima station, found a chain udon/tempera restaurant, walked to Shukkeien Garden and visited the Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art, walked to the castle and around the grounds, walked to our hostel and after checking in, walked to dinner.  

The Shukkeien a Garden was beautiful and Hiroshima is starting to bloom in earnest.  Every angle of the park yielded something new and striking; to walk was to change the landscape.  Several new artists emerged to my eyes at the art museum and offered yet further new ways of looking.  Even if I didn't really understand how Dali's Dreams of Venice fit into the curatorial theme of "Kawaii, Kawaii, Kawaii" (cute, cute, cute) it was still striking to see the work as well as many others.  The Hiroshima Castle was stunning in the evening-lit blossoms, the moat surrounding it.

Our hostel is very nice.  We have a double futon on a tatami (matted bamboo) floor with a little balcony.  Unfortunately we are only here for the night; there seem to be a lot of fun activities centered in the hostel life for those hanging out in Hiroshima for a longer portion of their travels.  And it seems like a cool place to mix with other international travelers.  

After we checked-in, we found our way to a recommended okonomiyaki restaurant.  Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is a special thing, with layers of noodles, cabbage, egg, meat, etc, rather than the Kansai-style of mixing it all together.  There also seems to be a difference in the flavoring and some of the toppings.  This was my first time trying a spicy lemon sauce.  We waited about 40 minutes for the priviledge of dining at this particular establishment.  Very popular place.  

And now tired, but looking forward to another day in this beautiful city and a night in Miyajima.  Unfortunately I can't upload pictures while I travel, but will post them upon returning.  It's wonderful to be here.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Children's Concert

After great gnawing and gnashing of teeth, it was, of course, all worth it in the end.  Walking onstage to see a hall filled with excited children holding melodicas and recorders, a few violins and various percussion instruments, brimming with anticipation brought a new meaning to the endeavor of the past few days.  They were truly excited about seeing an orchestra concert, about participating in whatever way we would have them.  And even though there were forces which worked against this simplicity, it was impossible for them to win.  The common trope that even children learn in the midst of a childhood that knows nothing else, that children's innocence is holy, only becomes more believable as I grow older.  And only much further away.  That children have a naivety that allows them to believe more than adults cannot be true in this case.  Believing in the power of a child's innocence is the Santa Claus of adulthood.  I do not regret the knowledge that life has given me so far.  It allows for so many more options, so much more awareness.  But it's comforting that there is more to life's perspective than what is gained from experience, awareness, and knowledge.

Tomorrow we head to Hiroshima for a short trip to the city and Miyajima.  Looking forward to seeing this beautiful part of the country, again,  perhaps with some blossoms along the way.

Friday, March 27, 2015

By the River

No clouds today.  Not one all day long.  Our conductor released us from rehearsal about four hours early and so Andrew and I went to the river, to sit on the sandy, rocky bank of a side tributary, to watch small dogs run up and down hills and children throw rocks in the water.  Does spring ever stop feeling miraculous?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Preparations for the Children's Concert

A three day project for the annual Children's Concert.  This is different from Wakuwaku.  It's a one time deal, ticketed for the whole family.  Apparently there will be a recorder soloist with us and the usual play/sing-along for the audience.  And we'll end with, of course, the Radetzky March.  Likely, most assuredly, it will be a lot more fun than rehearsing these tired pieces over and over again.  It's quite a change to be in orchestra again, after a weekend of quartet.  Another day of rehearsals before the concert.  It will be a relief to perform it for the intended audience.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Spring in Minoo

Several months ago I trekked to Minoo, a spot in Japan famous for the fall leaves, and caught the last bit of their beauty.  Minoo is a town where even the sewer covers are patterned with the outline of the Japanese maple leaf, where even now in spring they are selling tempura (fried) maple leaves and the shops are still selling maple leaf souvenirs.  It's always fall in Minoo.

Except that really, it's now spring.  The crowds are very thin.  No one is so interested in seeing the soft pink haze of the Japanese maple trees which don't burst into blossom like their plum and cherry counterparts.  They will only undramatically open into the star-shaped leaves that must wait for several months of simple service to their trees before displaying their life's work in a flourish of graceful beauty.  But for now, silence.  A building of something to come, unmarked, unnoticed, uncelebrated.  A different kind of viewing from that of the spring blossoms and the autumn leaves, invisible.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Last of the Last Plum Blossoms

Today was a day of recovery, of cleaning, of going to the grocery store.  It was day of doing whatever felt right in the hour.  And there was a visit to Nakayamadera to view, once again, the last of the plum blossoms.  It seems this is the only way that I will view the plum blossoms of Japan, in their very final states, in the calm quiet aftermath of the blossom hungry crowds.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Last Day of Japan String Quartet

This was the culminating day of Japan String Quartet Masterclass Seminar.  We began with a series of rehearsals and sound checks, and then launched into the concert.  And afterwards, the obligatory reception, with start and end times that must be adhered to, and to which had seemed impossible to bring significant others and family.  Surprisingly at the last minute, I discovered that Andrew would be able to join.  A man gave a toast at which he offended half the people in the room by saying that the first half of the concert wasn't as good as the second, and then the host had all the teachers and then all the participants speak.  The teachers tried to do some damage control and offered some words of wisdom, and the participants offered their thanks.  

It's hard to fully feel a part of such an event, with language and culture being such a division.  I felt very much like an "other," and I have great gratitude to the members of my quartet for translating and helping me understand, for crossing some barrier so bravely.  

The day got a little longer when the Hankyu trains seemed unable to leave the station for more than 30 minutes, something unprecedented in my time in Japan.  We gave up and went to another train line, and managed to get home, just in time to Skype with my parents.  

And now, it's time for bed.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Japan String Quartet (Day 3)

In place of a surprise performance today there were many hours of rehearsal and coaching.  After our morning warm-up hour, the cellist of the Japan String Quartet arrived and worked with us.  It was an interesting coaching in that he spoke a lot of English and I could learn a bit from the way he was teaching. 

We got some udon for lunch and then headed back for more rehearsal before our last coaching with the second violinist.  I'd heard she was a tough teacher and I was not disappointed.  She studied at Indiana University during a time when some of my favorite teachers studied there.  After the coaching she reminisced on what an incredible place it was, something she accredited to the number of talented Jewish members on the faculty.  Regardless of the origins of the faculty there during the 60s and 70s,it was an incredibly talented group of musicians and teachers (Starker, Sebok, Gringold...), from whom I've tried to grow as much as possible through the strong teaching they gave to their students.  

And her coaching carried what she had learned.  Unlike the previous quartet members with whom we had worked, she gave practically no praise. And she seemed unconcerned about how her words or her manner of speaking might fall upon our soft hearts.  She had things to tell us, things she thought were important and relevant to helping our quartet, and she was going to make herself as clear as possible.  This was the way she shared her love.  It wasn't soft or apologetic.  It was direct and honest, working through each section of the third movement, pushing us to understand how to better phrase, how to listen to one another; a familiar way of working to me, though admittedly couched in a slightly stronger tone.  Throughout the coaching (mostly in Japanese but with English to help as needed) I perhaps detected a small amount of derision towards us as orchestral musicians.  We were too bound to the beats, too much like a conductor, too regular and predictable.  

It was a wonderful beating, an honesty and calling to truth that is too rare in these orchestral days of my life.  I wanted to hug her everytime she told me I was too loud, that I let the phrase drop, that I pounded every note, that I was early and not paying attention to the melody.  Grow me, please, grow me.   

What is it like to be such a person, to be such a teacher?  She is unlike her quartet mates in this regard.  Unrelentlessly demanding, never satisfied.  Does she miss having one to follow?  Perhaps, as with the other Indiana University music students of her generation that I've known, it comes across in the constant evocation of her teachers and her admiration for them.  Hardly an encounter goes by without recalling them.  Perhaps this is how one can sustain oneself; not in the self, but in what one admires and seeks to emulate.  

After about 5 hours of quartet today, we were all tired, but we've grown.  And I wonder if it is something that we can take with us to the next quartet, or if it belongs to us, to only our particular group.  I think perhaps a bit of both; just as the things learned by a student from an incredible teacher belong to only that time, but are passed along.  It won't be the same, but we can carry it forward. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

JSQ Masterclass (Day 2)

We arrived at the hall in Umeda around 9:30 this morning and after about an hour of rehearsal we found ourselves onstage for an open masterclass.  Had I known this would essentially be a performance, I would have worn something other than sneakers, but there are bound to be things that fall through the cracks of understanding, and in the end I felt no animosity for my ill-informed attire. 

We played through the entire quartet (also a surprise) and then the first violinist and violist of the Japan String Quartet preceded to give us various bits of advice and feedback for the remaining 40 minutes.  I listened; of course I listened.  There was very little else for me to do.  In a different setting perhaps I would have asked questions, explained my perception of the performance, or why we had decided to play things a certain way.  But in this situation, I listened and tried to squeeze as much meaning from my ears as possible.  Throughout, Chihiro graciously gave me a heads up as to where we were to start, or other hints, but for the most part I gleaned more information from the hand gestures, from the vocalizations without words, from the changes in the playing of my colleagues.  Ah, so we're playing the third beats a little longer, more resonance from the karots (an articulation). The answers are there, the words are just guides.  

Performing in quartet is one of the most exciting things.  One has to depend and be dependable.  One has to trust and be forgiving, both of oneself and of those with whom one is playing.  And to listen.  If there could be a religion on this simple virtue I think it is the one I'd like to follow.  Listen.  Good string quartet playing is one of the ultimate tests in listening.  It is always possible to more fully sing with your colleagues from the inside.  And to do so is an act of giving, of trust.  

Later in the day, we attended the masterclass of one of the other participating quartets and a different type of challenge presented itself.  To the degree that one can do all the incredible and impossible things that are required in good quartet playing, can one help others do those things, as well?  I got to listen to a young but talented group play the entire Op. 95 by Beethoven, and as I listened to them play the difficult passages and challenges that I remember struggling with in past quartets, I tried to imagine how I might begin the lesson.  What was really important at this point?  What words or ideas might I share with them and in what manner, in order to bring them to whatever place I seem to think is where they should come?  Can I trust that intuition?  

It's the same kind of listening that I strive to achieve in quartet playing.  It is a listening that goes beyond the surface sounds and seeks to understand the person that creates them; and at the same time imagines an alternate, more perfect version which is completely achievable.  It is a very satisfying striving.  A fulfilling way to live.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Japan String Quartet- Day 1

Today was the beginning of a 4 day experience with the Japan String Quartet.  It's an adventure that I'm able to be a part of thanks to the quartet I'm playing with at HPAC.

This morning we went to the hall in Osaka to attend an orientation and concert given by the Japan String Quartet.  And afterwards a reception so that we could meet the quartet that will be giving us masterclasses for the next two days.  It's going to be interesting.  Unlike HPAC, or the Affinis Music Festival last summer, or the chamber music trip to Hokkaido two years ago, I'm the only foreigner in the room and apparently the first one to attend the workshop program.  So there was no translator and no thought of accommodating someone who might be unfamiliar with accepted protocol in Japan.  I'm in the unsheltered world of trying to figure things out.  But luckily for me, I have a quartet to help me through.  I'll follow them to the hall–perhaps everyday–find out where I need to go, where I can leave my things, eat, warm-up, etc.  They will guide me through what is obvious to everyone else.

It's mostly the deceptive wall that surrounds me that is difficult.  During the reception, as our quartet met the members of Japan String Quartet, some of them just spoke in Japanese and I regretted having not introduced myself as "Andrea, I only speak a little Japanese(desu)."  And so throughout meeting them there was uncertainty in there eyes as they looked at me and spoke.

But the cellist had studied at Juilliard and currently lives in Dallas and he came over to me and started speaking in English.  A very friendly man (as were the other members) and we had a fairly long conversation about his studies with Casals and Shapiro, and his thoughts on making a career in different places, all aided by the intervention of the host of the evening, another man who had an English conversation with me about his experience as a newspaper writer covering the Pacific Music Festival in Hokkaido for several years (it was this festival that introduced me to Japan and the idea of joining HPAC).  It's a new thing for a foreigner to be in the program, and I'm grateful for them for warming the space around me.

It was also wonderful to hear an established quartet play three quartets by Beethoven.  There is a sense of time that an established quartet has, despite all attributes of the individual members.  It's an interesting thing to witness.  I'm looking forward to working with them, to learning more about how they think about making quartet music, or at least as much as I can glean from what they say and do.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Living the Norm

I'm straddling vacation and non-vacation.  Andrew is here and the world is new, even as I travel through well-grooved routines.  Japan is a territory to be explored once again, even the grocery store or the hundred yen shop, or the possibilities of the foods in my kitchen, things that are outside the norm of life but have become the norm.  One day, perhaps, we'll be making grilled cheese in a kitchen in America, and remember the nights of miso and Japanese sweet potatoes.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Okuno-san Trip to Kyoto

This morning I introduced Andrew to one of my favorite places in Japan, Okuno-san's luthier shop near Kinkakuji in Kyoto.  It is a land of wood filled with the smell of varnish and glue, of care and craft.  Okuno-san's father sometimes enters, as does his three-year-old son who is already learning the trade by putting away a few tools.  He works carefully and thoroughly and time seems to pause within the space, just as it does in the generations of the three luthiers, past, present, and future.

We then walked through the Nishijo Market in Kyoto, looking at the special foods of Kyoto–pickles, fish, rice crackers, desserts.  And then the train ride home, coming into the rain.

Good to share these things.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Today has been a little different than many.  For one, on most days I don't Skype with my parents, and I did that today.  But also today, I decided to take the time to search for the library that I have heard lives on the fifth floor of the mall on the other side of the station.  

Of course, this mall has two disconnected buildings, bridged by an outdoor commons on the second floor.  And of course I picked the one on the west.  Luckily, even though there wasn't a library on the fifth floor of the west building, there was a woman there who told me that it existed in the other building.  I went down to the second floor, prolonging my anticipation, and up to another fifth floor.  And there indeed it was, a huge library.  Closed until tomorrow.

But I have found it and there is a certain closure in that.  As I rode the escalators up and down and up and down again, I thought about the excitement of this new library prospect.  I think perhaps I learned this from my mother. 

And over all this anticipation is an even greater anticipation.  The night has fallen and I'm sitting in the lounge of another fifth floor, this one in HPAC.  The office behind the glass doors is dark, everyone has gone home.  And I'm waiting.  Soon a bus will arrive from the airport.  And then he'll be here.  An impossibility it seems.   

Monday, March 16, 2015

Warm Winds

It's that time of year when I've yet to trust the weather.  I sweat in my layers of clothes and jacket and gloves and hat as I easily peddle along the river in the warm air.  It doesn't suck away my body heat as it did last week, doesn't antagonize the skin on my face, or stiffen my muscles as I push again the frigid wind.  My bikes cuts through the air easily, and the bugs are there waiting lovingly, waiting to jump into any orifice they can find, to sacrifice themselves to be spit out.  Spring is beginning.  Bug-filled, embracing spring.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mayor of Takarazuka Presents Thanks to Our Quartet

Last week, Chihiro, the first violinist in my quartet passed along a message to me from Bucho (the head of the orchestra office), that the mayor of Takarazuka would be coming to HPAC on Saturday at 2pm to present a thank you card to our quartet for playing at the memorial in January.  Sounded good to me.  I should be free then, just eating lunch in the lounge.

Over the next few days the office staff continued to add more details.  We should change into our concert clothes beforehand, be ready 10 minutes early, and we would all go down to the third floor to a special room on the third floor to meet him.  And then we would take come pictures.  So it's a formal presentation, ok, can do.

And then Saturday arrived and our whole quartet was dressed and ready 10 minutes before 2pm, standing with the office staff on the fifth floor, waiting for the time to pass.  We then took the elevator down to the third floor and went into a secure wing of HPAC to a meeting room.  Shortly thereafter, the mayor arrived with the head of HPAC carrying a flat box.  They set it on the table and we went over to the painting at the front of the room while the mayor pulled out a framed certificate.  He said a few words that I didn't understand, and then took a breath and seemed to begin more formally.  He read the placard and there were several more bowing exchanges and then he turned it around and presented it to us.  Chihiro went forward and took it with both hands and said a few words to him.

And then it was over and the mayor confessed to having been nervous as it was his first one of these ceremonies.  We took a lot of pictures with everyone.

Our quartet center (Yulia, Chihiro, me, Keita) with the mayor of Takarazuka (right) and HPAC office staff (left)

It had all seemed to go quite smoothly as far as I could tell.  There was a plaque of thanks and we received it.  And then on the way to the elevator the others in the quartet along with one of the office staff replayed the different parts of the ceremony, the posture of receiving it, the words, etc.  I could only understand enough to understand that it was worth being replayed and pondered.

I asked Chihiro about the ceremony.  In America, we don't have such formal ceremonies of thanks.  Apparently the word for this is 贈呈 (zōtei) which means "presentation."  It is a very, very formal sort of ceremony, like graduation.

It's so hard for me to have a cultural reference for such a thing.  I know how to get nervous for a performance, but a ceremony of thanks is far more unfamiliar to me.  Looking at this picture and realizing the gravity and sincerity of the gesture I can start to understand the air surrounding it.  If I had grown up knowing about even the existence of such presentations, I think I would have had more of a feeling of anticipation going into it, the energy required to put on another hat and be someone in a presentation, in a performance; it's the hat that the mayor took off when he confessed his nervousness.

As it was, it was just another incident of me being a child again, of not knowing why people are excited, or laughing, or scared.  Something in the air not yet able to be understood or read.  But after having gone through it, I'm a little bit older by Japanese cultural standards and coming to appreciate as an adult child the existence of these ceremonial gestures.  Perhaps it is something I will take home with me and share in a future life.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

de la Salle

Our soloist this week is incredible.  Lise de la Salle.   Judging by her website, this 26-year-old is being marketed for her looks (judging by the pictures one might wonder, does she really play the piano?), which is often the case with soloists, especially of that age.  It isn't uncommon that they walk onto the stage in jeans and messy hair after a redeye flight from Europe and we don't recognize them.  Lise de la Salle was no exception.  But in place of her captivating soft-focus photographs emerged a strong and graceful beauty, a direct gaze and assuredness, both demanding and understanding.  It was the mind behind her face which caused her gestures and expressions to disclose a beauty that perhaps most photographers would find elusive to capture.  Of course they might resort to something the public can more readily understand.

Her rendition of Rachmoninoff's Third Piano Concerto is completely understandable.  She seems to have a truly complete concept of the work, one character moving to the next, an entire drama unfolding over the course of three movements.  The way she touches the piano, the colors that she finds in each section, her tempi and rubato, and her incredible sense of ensemble playing with the orchestra make it extremely thrilling and convincing to play with her.  She is so sincere, trustworthy, and committed to what she is doing.

And her curtain calls to a very excited audience (and orchestra) are endearing a little awkward.  Not the glamorous hair tossing and smile one might expect the woman on her website to practice.  More of a courteous thank you, with a short bow and then a slow walk off the stage, again and again.

And then, of course, the encore.  Yesterday she played a solemn Sicilienne in G minor by Bach.  It was beautiful.  And afterwards, someone on the left side of the balcony began applause immediately following the final cadence, giving no time for the pensive air to lift.  A few others joined but quickly stopped realizing that she hadn't finished.  It was a disruption of the mood.  She was still in the space of the Sicilienne.  And then her hands lowered and the audience began their full applause and she rose and bowed.

And again, the same courteous short bow, walking off-stage and back on again.  There was no part of her that held offense at the interruption.  It wasn't a part of her.  And it wasn't a part of the audience.  Such a small portion of these two thousand people.  A soloist cannot be upset by such a thing.  It must melt away.

What if we could see each person as a whole audience, made up of two thousand people?  And what if we could offer such grace to them in the face of such errancy, to bow to them after an offense, to offer courtesy to all their better selves?

It's been real pleasure to work with her this week.  She is a truly inspiring musician and human being.  One more time, and then another thing that must be let go.

Friday, March 13, 2015


My apartment is filled with balloons.  It's Friday the 13th, and in keeping with the tradition so far this year, it seemed that it would be nice to have another okonomiyaki party.  But it also happened to be the birthday of one of my good friends here.  A very good friend.  So we all got together, made okonomiyaki, sang Happy Birthday, ate cake, ate more cake and yet even more cake (there were three of them), and now I have an apartment filled with balloons.  So Happy Okonomiyaki, Happy Friday the 13th, and Happy Birthday, Ani!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Frustration (Working Under Difficult Conductors)

It's admittedly been a bit of a challenge to work with this conductor this week.  There is a pacing and a method in his rehearsals and conducting that many in the orchestra find a bit difficult.  That being said, today was an improvement, so perhaps there is a method to the madness.

But it seems to happen quite often in life that we have to work with people that may have authority over us but who we don't easily respect.  I think one can learn to respect anyone and everyone on some level, but there are those characteristics of individuals which can rub one's ideals the wrong way.  What does one do in those situations?  I think it's an unanswerable question in the general sense, but one that is important to consider in all the many manifestations in which the conflict can arise.

This morning as I prepared to go into rehearsal I thought about the boundary that one can create between oneself and the rest of the world.  It's a difficult thing to do, to leave work at work and to claim one's space at home, or on break; to make one's voice be the center of our lives rather the one that seems dictates our time.  One's life does not need to be caught up in the frustrating matter at hand.  If there is something that can be done, then perhaps reflection and action are best, but in the situation of working under a conductor that one doesn't enjoy as much as others, there is no action.  He is a dictator.  We must start where he wants, take his comments, start and stop on his command.  There is no discussion, there is no suggestion box.  And so in that situation, it can perhaps be easiest to acknowledge the paucity of control that one has and to accept it and create one's space as needed.

This doesn't mean disengaging, but rather engaging differently.  And in this situation the other ways to engage are with one's colleagues on the stage, with one's imagination of the score, with curiosity of orchestration and form.  It doesn't mean cutting oneself out of the picture, but rather gerrymandering the perception of what is happening.

And another thing that I remembered today as I sat in rehearsal, was something that a professor of mine and fellow string player in the Lexington Philharmonic told me several years ago.  It's something I respected but didn't quite fully understand.  She said that years ago, when she first started playing in orchestras, she made a rule for herself that before the first rehearsal she would try to prepare it as a conductor, to see what she would do with the music.  She was also a music theory professor and I thought it was probably just an exercise in fusing theory with practice, but I now see another motivation.  Certainly it would make the rehearsals more engaging, but I think also it would allow one to better understand the perspective and challenges of the conductor as well as to be empowered to need them less.  We think we need the conductor and it's easy to hold this against them.  And we think we know better, but if we were to actually try to do the same, I'm sure we would be humbled.

Frustration can become habitual.  It can become a friend, a guidepost that lets us know that we are alive.  But there are better ways to live.  We can choose to improve upon the situation either through internal readjustments or external actions.  Perhaps it means finding a better understanding of the people or things that cause frustration.  Perhaps we can do something to work towards some change; or if not, perhaps it means allowing ourselves and what is important to us to have a bigger piece of our picture.

I think this conductor is going to be ok in the end.  Perhaps not my favorite, but all-in-all fairly harmless.  And along the way has incited some reflection for times when that might not be the case.  Not a bad week.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Today marks the 4 year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, most centrally in Fukushima.  The world is aware of the rippling disasters that occurred in its wake, the nuclear power plant, the contaminated water and soil, the people who were and still are displaced.  There are still a lot of questions and threads left open, and still a lot of lives that continue to be affected.  It can be easy to forget them and their losses as the news rolls on to other atrocities.  But difficult, life-changing events can happen to anyone.  And as the world moves on, it is good to take a moment to remember those punctures to normality that bring the absurd and unimaginable within us.  In one part of the world, an earthquake, a tsunami, a hurricane.  And in many, many parts of the world, stories of personal loss playing out on a far smaller but no less important and meaningful way.  We all feel loss, we all feel suffering, and it never leaves us; we can only find sustained distraction.  But in the midst of the times of memory, it is an opportunity to have compassion.  And on these days of loss on a grander scale, when it is possible to point to the suffering of many people from one event, it is an opportunity to reflect on loss in general, and to share that moment, even from a distance, with others.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Learning from Conductors

I think my time at HPAC has taught me some general dos and don'ts for conductors who want to build a rapport with an orchestra.  It seems most conductors exercise various aspects of both categories.  It's seems like something worth reflecting upon, something worth an attempt at making explicit.  

-Rehearse.  Be clear about the concept of the piece by showing what you desire in each part of it. 
-Specify ideas of articulation, of phrasing, of dynamics, of balance.  What is important at any given moment?
-Come up with these ideas before rehearsal.
-Exercise humility. 
-Assume that the musicians you are leading are more qualified than you are.  
-Phrase commands as requests, perhaps even in the form of a question.
-Score study.  Have a vision of what the composer wanted and put that first and foremost.
-Be curious.  Never stop asking questions about the score and never assume that you know it.

-Just run things.  Don't go back further than necessary to make a correction or keep going longer than necessary.  Respect the orchestra's time and energy.
-Be the commander.  You only lead by the grace of those that follow.
-Pretend not to make any mistakes.  Everyone makes mistakes;  at the very least, everyone has more they can learn.
-Crack open the score for the first time on the podium.  A score should likely be well-marked and dog-eared, or memorized.  
-Assume you know more than the members of the orchestra.  They are the ones making the sound in the end.  

I think it is probably impossible to be a perfect conductor.  But there are those whose only imperfection is that they haven't learned everything they can learn and this is a different sort of imperfection.  When one realizes that one still has more to grow, one becomes humble and this humility in itself becomes an asset.  These are the best conductors, the ones that place the music higher than themselves and ask the assistance of their fellow musicians to help in the endeavor.  There are still many more conductors in my future; I'm looking forward to learning from all of them.  

Monday, March 9, 2015

Everyone's Rainy Day

I think the chance of cats and dogs coming for the sky was highest in England and really only during a certain period in history.  Maybe occasionally it happens today, and ever so often in the States.  But I'm not sure it ever happens or happened in Japan.  But if this were England fifty years ago, cats and dogs would be coming out of the sky.  But as it is, it's just raining.  Or perhaps it's doing something else that only native speakers of Japanese can see, some other invisible mysterious happening, surrounding everyone on what otherwise is a universally accepted grayer-than-normal day.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Something Different

Something seemed a little different about the cashier.  Perhaps she was just a little younger, less seasoned.  Her gestures were less exact, the way she turned the basket at the scanner was less practiced and efficient, and her posture was a little more casual.  All in all, nothing terribly unusual.

But when it was my turn and she started to pull the things from my basket and scan them and place them into another basket, as is the custom here, she looked at me and then casually asked, in English, "Do you understand Japanese?"  I was a little stunned.  This was not the rehearsed exchange that I've come to expect.  She's supposed to ask me two questions in Japanese and for each I indicate "no," in some manner, usually awkwardly.  I stumbled a bit, "Um, yeah a little."  "Do you have a point card?" "No," I said in English.  "Do you have a shopping bag?" "No. I mean yes, I mean no, I don't need one, thank you."  And then I continued, "Thank you, your English is very good."  And she answered, "Yes, it is now I am studying English."  It was a little broken, it wasn't actually perfect, which made it all the more touching that she would bother to use it.  And she continued with some other information about Vietnam and French, maybe a friend of hers?  I couldn't quite make it out and it didn't matter.  I thanked her.

This is the first time this has ever happened to me in Japan.  Maybe twice before I've had a short conversation in Japanese with a particular cashier at another super market (the one I've come to know that has given me coupons when I didn't have them), but those were always initiated by me, somewhat out of thanks for her kindness.  She had a mask and I asked if she was sick, for example.  Never has someone offered me English, never as someone offered me information about themselves unsolicited.   It was wonderfully shocking.

I had dinner with a friend tonight.  Her boyfriend (who is Irish) works in an office in Japan and just recently found out that he doesn't have to be at the office everyday.  But everyone always is.  He asked one of his coworkers why everybody always comes into the office if they don't have to and could work from home instead.  "Nobody ever does it," was the answer.

Social inertia.  And today I experienced a ripple.  That tension of the tide as it pulls yours ankles to shore or back into the ocean.  Change.  And in such a simple and innocent way, unaware of being an impetus, it begins.  Over time, perhaps others will see and hear, perhaps I will start to speak with the cashiers more, realizing the possibility.  Perhaps with a unknowing natural nudge, something will start to change.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Brief Encounters

We had our second and final concert with Nabil Shehata today.  As with this whole week, it was wonderful to have his presence on stage.  His grace and spontaneity made the music breath.  It became a living practice to perform, not the mere result of rehearsal.

Every conductor and soloist brings something to the stage with them.  For a week, or often times even less, we can grow closer to them and establish a trust that grows even more deeply during the concerts.  It doesn't always happen, but it does happen often.  And it's so strange to say goodbye to someone after such an intense but brief encounter.  They usually take off right after the concert to get back to their country or onto the next leg of their tour.  And somehow knocking on the dressing room door to thank them or get a picture is never really enough.  It's too short, too awkward, far less sincere than the work that has preceded it and merited the gratitude.  But it's something.  Something to blunt the absurdity of the whole affair.

It's wonderful to meet so many people.  I suppose it would be impossible to sustain such relationships in their full blossom forever.  There needs to be room for more.  And then a trace of blossomings, of gratitudes for one another.

Friday, March 6, 2015


It makes such a difference when a conductor trusts the orchestra.  And in turn, it is easier to trust the conductor.  It makes such a difference when we have the liberty to play chamber music together, to make mistakes without inciting a scowl or causing the energy to retract.  And there are fewer mistakes in such a concert.  Mistakes cease to be mistakes when they do actually happen.  I wonder what it takes to create that trust.  It's such a powerful thing, capable of melting fear.  And how does it begin?  How can we help it start in all areas of life?  What's happening when it isn't there?  And how can we get it going?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Chamber Orchestra

Our concerts this week are led by the bassist Nabil Shehata.  We're playing a Hoffmeister quartet (which is a virtuosic show piece for bass), a bass concerto by Nino Rota (composer for the Godfather), and Mozart's Symphony No. 39 for which Shehata is conducting.  It's always interesting and inspiring to see fellow instrumentalists take up the baton and always a relief when they do it so well.  Shehata is not only a very talented bass player; it is a pleasure to work with him as a conductor.  He is very efficient and considerate in his use of rehearsal time, and his ideas and comments are musical and relevant.  As a conductor his is clear, trustworthy, and generous.  It's one of the pleasures of this position that we get to work with so many different talented musicians from around the world. Looking forward to the final two days of playing with him.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Sailing the Morning After

It rained yesterday and the sky fell to the pavement, again.  This morning I flew to HPAC, riding above the clouds.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Words from Master D'Amico

Last weekend was one of four special annual events in our Taekwondo club.  In addition to fall and spring color belt tests, black belt tests are held in Boston twice a year.  The first one, in early spring is a pre-examination for the official one the following September.  Master D'Amico will either say the student is ready or will request that they wait another year to develop further in certain areas.

I've never been to the Boston tests, but whenever other members of the club return the following week, there is a change in the way they speak and in the way they move.  In today's class, lead by one of the red belts that tested this past weekend, I noticed a lower and slower tone in his voice.  Something was calmer than before, more peaceful and at ease.  It was comforting to simply hear him speak.  This seems to be the effect I've noticed after most of the visits to Boston.

And I can understand it to some degree.  I've met Master D'Amico, the one who presides over the tests there, only twice but on both occasions I grew a great deal from the few words that he spoke to me.  And on both occasions they were words that grew in me over time, that I came to better understand as they helped me grow more aware of myself and even my family.  He sees a great deal in the short time that he is with a person.

Perhaps it is like the "pointing out" instruction of Zen masters.  Just a few words can incite enlightenment if said in the right way, at the right time.  Maybe there is as much wisdom in the master knowing the proper timing and carriage of their words as there is in the words themselves.

That being said, several times the words and ideas of Master D'Amico have been passed on to me and they have been a comfort and a source of growth.  Today, the red belt who led class shared several of his words and ideas, including this one that he closed class with:  Everyone you meet is your extended family.  Everyone you interact with is touched by you and you are touched by them.

And everyone I see in Japan, who seems to be so foreign and unrelated to me, is a part of me.  These are my family.  It's a comfort to be with them.

Monday, March 2, 2015

My Neighbor

I didn't recognize my neighbor nor he, me.  It was only that he went to the door adjacent mine that I know what place he has in my life.  In two-and-a-half years, I've seen him maybe that many times, usually just the door closing behind him, once his wife.  How is it possible?  I see their light on through the peep-hole, in the summer the door is propped open to allow a breeze.  I know they live there, and they are not nocturnal.  How have our paths crossed so infrequently?  Perhaps it is my own schedule that is disrupting our inevitable entitled meetings.  It's hard to tell.  Perhaps on the other side of the divide, they are living a life not unlike mine, wondering the same things, experiencing the same sorrows and joys, trying to make sense of life in Japan, of life alone and with others.  I wonder if I will see him again before I leave.  Maybe we have lived the entirety of our relationship and are beginning the denouement.  Or maybe once again; and in that meeting we will finally know one another, after waiting all these years.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Growing Up

The coming year occurs to me more and more.  Senioritis is sinking in and the signs of gradual detachment which will buffer the change are becoming more prominent.  Last night I started to think of some of the possibilities for life after Japan.  Living in a big city, living in a smaller city, living in a town, living on the coast, or the midwest.  In my current life, I have free days and during those days I practice and exercise and read, and usually speak to no one.  I can't imagine a life after Japan that will have free days like this for me, regardless of where I end up being.  Most likely the coming year will involve more involvement.

Sometimes from Facebook, I piece together the busy lives of my friends back in the States, teaching, performing, balancing family, getting jobs, getting different jobs.  I feel a little out of practice but also very eager to jump in again.  I see their faces and they seem so foreign.  Is that where I belong?  Will I somehow merge with that life?  Is there a place for me there or will I be able to create one?

Life seems so vast.  Maybe it always does on the edge of change.  Before I came to Japan I remember frequently falling asleep imagining that I was lying face up floating on the ocean's surface.  But now my mind is full of possibilities, so many things that I could be and do when I grow up and move away from this Never Never Land.