K8: Mentorship and Championship in a winning Koto ensemble

K8: Mentorship and Championship in a winning Koto ensemble
K8: Mentorship and Championship in a winning Koto ensemble

K8: Mentorship and Championship in a winning Koto ensemble

by ensemble member, Eddie

A self-organized group of eight of our HS koto players took the grand prize at the "Kono Oto Tomare! Koto Competition" finals held on January 2 at the International Forum in Yurakucho. The contest, sponsored by the popular manga Kono Oto Tomare! which tells the story of a koto club at a Japanese high school, was open to high school and university ensembles. Close to twenty groups from around the country made the initial application, with only five being selected to perform in the finals. All the groups demonstrated high levels of technical skill and precision but, as one judge commented, in the end it is the degree to which an ensemble's performance conveys their enjoyment of the music itself that makes a performance shine. We're delighted to say that YIS's student-led K8 shone brightly. The creation and success of the group is an encouraging example of self-initiative, mentorship and teamwork underscored by friendship and a passion for playing the koto. Students organized the logistics as well as the musical components of the pieces played; teachers were used as a resource to support their work rather than leading the students in the process. Ensemble member, Eddie, reveals the history of the group and their effort leading to the competition.

The original ensemble was formed for my first IB recital in 2016-2017. I wanted to perform the solo portion of Esoragoto (絵空箏) by Hikaru Sawai (沢井比河流), son of Tadao and Kazue Sawai, founders of the prestigious Sawai Koto Institute. The piece is written for five different parts, and being a commissioned piece, the score is unfortunately unpublished. Upon my request, Mr. Patterson was able to order a copy from the Institute.

At the time, the high school koto ensemble, made up of students from all year levels practicing different pieces, was the only extracurricular ensemble at YIS. I needed accompanying players so quickly asked my friends Kazuki, Masaki (both G12 at the time), Johan and Arunansu if they could join me. In preparation for the recital, Kazuki led all group rehearsals providing his musical direction and arrangement advice. This was the birth of K5.

After the recital, it was suggested that we perform the same piece at the school Spring Concert. I wanted to expand the ensemble so asked friends Saya and Megumi to join. In the little time we had, they quickly practiced and memorised the whole piece. This gave birth to K7. We performed a shortened version of the piece on the last day of school in front of the school. This was also Kazuki's and Masaki's last performance at YIS as they were graduating.

A week after school ended, Mr. Patterson had arranged for us to perform the whole piece in a workshop organised by Kazue Sawai and professional violinist, Midori Goto. Ms. Goto and a few of her students watched as we performed Esoragoto and Leo Konno (Class of 2016) performed another piece .

The beginning of this school year had left us with only five members from the original ensemble. Upon deciding to compete in the Kono Oto Tomare! competition after being told about it by my mother, I wanted to increase the size of the ensemble so asked friends Lisa , Haruna and Reina if they wished to join. Due to conflicts in everyone's schedule, we had to have early morning practices before school once or twice per week. With fewer rehearsals than I had hoped for, we all agreed to meet at 7:30 am in the music studio three days before the submission due date to record our performance for the competition. Mr. Noonan very kindly let us use the school's recording equipment and mixed our audio for us. I then combined Mr. Patterson's recorded video and the audio into a video and sent it to the competition organisors. This achievement took plenty of effort from all involved.

In the second week of December, just before winter break, I was told we were selected as one of the five finalists, giving us approximately 3 weeks to prepare for the finals. Mr. Patterson and I discussed what equipment and instruments we would use. He also offered to let us use his personal kotos. Megumi offered her house for rehearsals. Kazuki, who would be back from university during the break, offered to provide direction and arrangement advice once again. All the equipment was then brought to my house. We all agreed to meet in the morning at my house the following week to take it all to Megumi's house by train, and begin our first rehearsal. We had three rehearsals per week, with every session lasting from 4-6 hours. We would all meet up at 11:30 at Tsunashima Station, have lunch together, and then begin our practice. Our last rehearsal was on New Year's Day.

We then competed on the second of January, 2018 and were very fortunate to be awarded the Grand Prize. Once again, we had to load our instruments into several cars to take them to the venue. Kazuki accompanied us providing advice to the last minute if needed. We were so excited to have performed Esoragoto in front of the composer himself! Our performance along with a personal interview was broadcast on NHK-FM the following day.

Picture courtesy of NHK

We'll continue with the ensemble, passing the leadership role onto new members every year. Our philosophy is to pursue new compositions to change the traditional view of the koto. This stemmed from teachers and students telling us that our performance changed their perspective and understanding of the instrument. They began to see the possibilities of the koto as a modern instrument, and were delighted by what we did. This achievement was truly a team effort of students and alumni, supported by dedicated teachers and parents.

The talented members of K8 are Eddie, Arunansu and Johan (G12); Saya, Lisa and Megumi (G11) and Haruna and Reina (G10). They wish to thank Mr. Patterson, Mr. Noonan, and alum and former member, Kazuki Doi, without whom they would not have achieved what they did.