Alexa VanDemark: Koto Lessons

When I started learning koto back in September, it was a musical experience like I’ve never had. From the beginning, I considered the presence of both “uchi” and “soto” within that world. Is the student in the sphere of “uchi?” Or maybe “soto?” As it turns out, it’s not black and white – both are valid, though I think one is more appropriate to my particular situation that the other.

In America, I have taken clarinet, piano, and guitar lessons, among others, and they were all done in local music studios. This kind of lesson is certainly a “soto” experience. I would go to a school-like building with individual classrooms, take my lessons in the room that my teacher is renting, and leave that room when my lesson is over. On top of that, because my teachers were borrowing those rooms from the music studio owners, doesn’t that mean that my teachers were also in a “soto” sphere within that space? You can hardly call that an emotionally close experience. However, my koto lessons here in Kyoto are taught at my teacher’s, Noda-sensei’s, own home. Considering that, I had to consider whether this was an “uchi” or “soto” world, in comparison to the clearly “soto” world of my previous lessons. If I were to say “soto,” there are certain formal and polite interactions to consider. For instance, when my teacher is talking to me, not only about her other students and acquaintances, she uses the Kansai-ben word “iharu.” I wondered why on earth she would use keigo with me, her considerably younger student. Through using this language, though she uses it out of kindness, it’s as though my teacher is carefully handling our teacher-student relationship to keep a social barrier between us.

Though I say that, I find the argument that this situation is “uchi” more compelling. Because my lessons are done in my teacher’s home, there are also plenty of experiences that aren’t “soto.” For example, because I’m going into someone’s house, I have to use the appropriate greetings, and sometimes I meet members of my teacher’s family by coincidence. I was recently talking to my teacher about the coming of spring, and I asked if she was planning on going to a hanami. She responded that although she wasn’t planning to go, since she dislikes the bugs that live in the sakura and the crowds that accompany a hanami experience, she can enjoy the ume in her own backyard garden, and opened the shoji separating the classroom and the living area so that I could see through to the ume outside. If I had been taking these lessons in a music studio, there’s no way I could have had this experience.

On top of that, lessons aren’t the only thing I receive from my teacher. She lends me a koto for free so that I can practice on my own at my host family’s house, and so that I don’t have to spend money on my own music, she lets me borrow her own sheet music to copy at school for a fraction of the cost. In addition to that, because I am doing my independent study on the tegotomono genre of koto music, my teacher has given me various things in preparation for that project. For instance, because she works as a koto performer in addition to teaching lessons, she gave me three CDs of tegotomono music that she recorded to use as sources – all for free! These kinds of experiences where I receive all these things from my teacher are certainly “uchi.” That is to say, all of the above-mentioned freebies that I received would normally be paid for, and would be a “soto” relationship, right? But Noda-sensei is not only my teacher, but also my mentor, and as such she helps in any way she can to make my experience a good one, which convinces me that this is more of an “uchi” relationship than a “soto” one.

Of course, you could reasonably say it’s “soto or “uchi” – it all depends on what specific experiences you consider to be more telling. However, I have found that my relationship with Noda-sensei is more meaningful than the relationships I have had with previous private lesson instructors, and so I consider it to be “uchi.” If I were to take lessons again when I return to America, I have to wonder if I’ll pay attention to these same kinds of interactions more than before I took my koto lessons.

4 thoughts on “Alexa VanDemark: Koto Lessons

  1. I never considered the physical location of the music class as a factor in the quality of one’s learning experience – perhaps the “uchi” experience is more conducive towards a relaxed, informal learning experience that is perhaps more effective than the “soto” counterpart. But do you think there are any aspects of “soto” that you would label as valuable elements that cannot be found in the “uchi” counterpart?

    • I think it depends on the person. My first reaction is to say, no, for me it is easiest to have a more “uchi” experience when it comes to music lessons because I am easily frustrated, so a more relaxed, informal setting helps me to learn to the best of my ability. I like being able to have a friendly relationship with my teachers (music and not), because it’s easier to stay calm and have fun while learning. I guess the disadvantage is maybe that a “soto” experience encourages a more studious atmosphere, while it’s easier to get distracted in an “uchi” atmostphere? That doesn’t particularly bother me though.

  2. In my experience with the Glee Club, it seems as though they put a great emphasis on basic form and technique. For example, every rehersal, we practice breath, humming, vowels (…but there’s only five!), and scales. This goes on for at least fourty-five minutes to an hour, wheras in America, a fifteen minute warrm-up is plenty. I am curious whether your teacher enphasizes technique more than to what you are used to in America?

    I find your linguistic comparison of ‘soto’ and ‘uchi’ very interesting, as it is not only a Japanese phenomenon, but also found in all societies. It is just easer to gauge social distance in Japanese, because it is built into the language. The notion that ‘uchi’ and ‘soto’ as not a binary function of status, but as a range on a scale marked by “closeness” is one I haven’t particuraly concidered before. If this the case, it can be quite true that your relationship with Noda-sensei may somehow fall in both categories.

    • Interesting about the warming up. In previous music lessons I’ve taken, I’ve warmed up on a few notes to get air going through the instrument (or to get my fingers moving), but it never took me more than a minute or two. In ensembles I’ve taken more time (like, 10 minutes of scales, for instance), but still nothing like an hour…that’s impressive, though it sounds exhausting.

      My koto teacher actually focuses almost entirely on playing the music rather than technique. We spent the first month or so learning basic technique, but then we launched right into real pieces. I think this is largely influenced by the fact that I only had 8 months to play, but compared to previous music teachers I’ve had, where I would play technical passages to work on my scales and such, it’s almost completely music. (I’m not complaning, I love it)

      I think most relationships have pieces that fall into both categories–it’s not a completely black and white concept. But it’s fascinating to think about.