Resonating with the Koto

Resonating with the Koto

by Curt Patterson, Japanese Music teacher

Life is full of coincidences. But I am often reminded that there just may be some force directing us in a certain direction at crucial points in our lives. There was something about the koto’s simple structure, along with the pentatonic tuning and sound of the strings that drew me in and connected with me. I think the same is true for many of our students. Similar to my luck in happening upon the koto as an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college in the United States, YIS students are fortunate as they come to learn about Japanese music in a very natural way - as a fundamental part of Music class. 

The YIS Japanese Music Program was established in 2003 by Dr. Joseph Amato. First involving children in the early grades, the program has been developed steadily to the point where students at all levels of secondary school work with the instrument. As far as I know, ours is the only curriculum based music program in the world, incorporating a traditional instrument to this extent. My involvement with YIS grew with the needs of middle and high school students as they pursued increasingly demanding music. I had been performing and teaching koto professionally in Tokyo, and started as a full-time teacher in 2011 with the founding of the International Center for Japanese Culture here at YIS.  

a group of gr. 6 students playing the Japanese stringed instrument, the koto on stage.

Gr. 6 students performing at the Kanagawa Kenmin Hall, December 2014

Currently, I work with close to one hundred students from grades five through twelve who participate in Japanese Music through class and after-school ensemble activities. A distinguishing feature of our program is that students are able to work with the koto continuously, all through secondary school if they choose. This is in contrast to Japanese schools where exposure to traditional Japanese music is quite limited. With the introduction of the Middle Years Program in 2011, much of the student work in Music shifted to inquiry-based projects. The koto, with its movable bridges allowing for experimentation with virtually any kind of tuning, along with a range of techniques producing a fascinating palette of timbres and percussive sounds, has proven to be an excellent tool for students to explore creative possibilities.

Regular student performances for the YIS and broader communities have been fundamental in adding excitement to the momentum developed in the classroom. Over the years, students have proudly shared their artistry and the grace and beauty of Japanese culture with audiences during tours to Australia, China, Germany and New York. Other venues where our young koto musicians have shone are national contests such as the annual All Japan Elementary/Middle School Competition in Fukuyama. I have no doubt that these experiences have been instrumental in driving YIS music students to pursue degrees at such prestigious institutions as Tokyo University of the Arts, The New England Conservatory and London’s Royal Academy of Music. One of our students is the first student at London’s RAM to study the koto.

group of high school students in black performance clothes, along with their teacher, posing on stage in front of kotos

YIS High School students at the New York University after their koto performance, during a musical tour of New York, Fall 2015

I am delighted when I hear from YIS graduates and students who have moved on to other parts of the world about how they continue to play and share their music. Recently I was touched when an alumnus returned and sat through an entire middle school rehearsal. He seemed to be mesmerized - drawn back in time as the group played an ensemble piece he well remembered and loved. The YIS Japanese Music Program and the koto - these are very special parts of YIS that touch us and provide a genuine bond between us and between us and the koto. The future of our Japanese music program is bright and exciting for our students and for me.

Have a look at our recent koto ensemble performances on the YIS Youtube channel’s Performing and Visual Arts playlist to see our talented students in action.

YIS Koto Ensemble performing
二つの群の為に(沢井忠夫作曲)Futatsu No Gun No Tameni by Sawai Tadao
May 2015