Koto: A Summer Tradition

Koto: A Summer Tradition

by Nasci Lobo, Director of Communications and Marketing and Curt Patterson, Japanese Music teacher

Almost 20 years ago, former YIS staff member Joseph Amato created the Japanese Music Program at YIS. The well-known traditional Japanese stringed instrument, the koto, was introduced as part of the program. Since its introduction, students of our koto ensembles have performed across Japan and overseas, acting as ambassadors for the traditional instrument, under the tutelage of accomplished koto player and instructor Curt Patterson, who continues to run the Japanese Music Program today. A pillar of the experiential development of our koto players is participating in the Fukuyama Koto Festival open to all elementary and junior high schools in Japan every summer. Eight students from our Middle School and High School ensembles, chaperoned by Mr. Patterson and some parents, continued the tradition by participating in the 40th anniversary edition of the festival this past summer.

The city of Fukuyama in Hiroshima Prefecture has been Japan's largest producer of koto, and it is for this reason that the local community and business associations have been generous supporters of the contest over the years. The city also built a beautiful concert hall in 1994 with a capacity of almost 2000 people to support the development of the city as a music hub. The acoustics are excellent and provide the students with a rare chance to experience playing on such a stage and to really hear themselves playing as musicians.

a group of asian middle and high school students standing in front of a restaurant waving at the camera

YIS koto ensemble, Mr. Patterson and accompany-ing parents after enjoying Hiroshima-yaki.

a group of asian middle and high school students standing with their koto instruments at a train station

The ensemble at the train station in Fukuyama.

Several of our students attended the festival for the first time. Erik and Himari, two of our soloists, thought the experience would allow them to make new friends and to enjoy traveling as a group. The preparation involved practicing twice a week as an ensemble, taking private lessons, polishing skills at home, and performing at a concert in Meguro. Although the preparation was demanding, the students remember it as being fun because of the mutual support that helped them refine their skills. That mutual support continued to the day of their performances, backstage as they nervously prepared for their turn on stage.

Participants of the summer festival can enter ensemble and solo competitions. Our ensemble was one of 12 groups performing in the Middle School competition. Of our six soloists competing in the elementary level and junior high school level, four progressed to the finals to perform their solos again, validating their dedicated preparation. With musicians coming from across Japan, the level of competition is quite refined and impressive.

The event itself was shrouded in an aire of precision and strict observation, as are many competitions in Japan. "We were all nervous backstage", says Gr. 10 student and second-time participant Miu. "We know that the Japanese school ensembles practice everyday after school, but this was our first time performing together in front of judges!", she continues. "We also had to tape our finger picks to our fingers so that they didn't fall off. If they had fallen off, the mistake would have counted against us", she adds.

Our group of students and parents were elated to hear that Grade 7 soloist Erik was awarded second place in the elementary division playing the piece Tori No Yo Ni 鳥のように (Like a Bird).  As an ensemble playing Sekijun 石筍 (Stalagmite), their strong performance demonstrated their focus and dynamics as a group of young musicians developing their craft. Gr. 9 soloist, Himari, says determinedly, "because I didn't progress into the finals, I want to participate again next year to overcome that setback."

Congratulations to all the musicians who took time during their summer to work passionately on something they love, and thank you to the parents and Mr. Patterson who accompanied and guided them in their pursuit to live, learn and lead.  Staff and parent involvement is a cornerstone of student agency and leadership.

Participating musicians were: Erik, Masaichi, Anna, Coco in Gr. 7; Lisa in Gr. 8; Himari, Mari and Junsei in Gr. 9, and Miu and Eren in Gr. 10.

Our koto ensembles will be performing at the Food Fair on November 6, and in a Japanese music concerts in early December and in the spring.