Maeve McIver-Sheridan: Koto Lessons

Right from the start of KCJS, I knew that I wanted my CIP to involve music. While not particularly accomplished, I have played the violin since I was very young. I found it hard to imagine my life without orchestra and lessons every week. Because of this, I initially contacted the Doshisha orchestra, but found that their rehearsal schedule conflicted with my own schedule. Although I was disappointed, I was soon presented with another opportunity. A friend who is excellent at the Chinese version of the koto had found a KCJS recommended koto instructor whom we could take lessons with.

Although I did not expect to have the opportunity to take lessons on a new instrument, my experience learning to play the koto has been very rewarding. Having played only Western classical music in the past, I have found that learning an instrument that is so different from what I have been used to has stretched my understanding of music in many different ways. One aspect that I found particularly challenging was the music notation. Music for the koto is transcribed using numbers denoting the 13 strings of the instrument. Because there are only 13 strings, there are a limited number of notes available with any given tuning. The music can, however, require the pitch of a string to be changed by a half step or a whole step by depressing the string to varying degrees. Although the tuning of the pieces did not come very naturally to me, I nonetheless found myself relying on my ear more than I do with Western music notation, which I know how to read much better. I hope that this ear training will help me to become more acclimated to Japanese music harmonies as I continue to practice the koto.

One other interesting aspect of my time spent at koto lessons involved the other people we took lessons with. For the first couple of weeks, we joined a large group of adult students who variously played koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi. These folks were very kind and welcoming, helping demonstrate techniques for me on the first day and eventually taking us out to dinner on one occasion. One thing that surprised me was how easygoing and approachable our sensei could be, while still presenting rigorous material and expecting our best work. There were also several younger students who joined us at varying times, including one young woman who proved to be a very patient and understanding teacher when she stood in for our regular sensei once or twice. All in all, I believe that studying the koto has been a very positive experience for me and I am enthusiastic to continue next semester.

2 thoughts on “Maeve McIver-Sheridan: Koto Lessons

  1. It’s so cool that you learned to play the koto!

    Even though it is a completely different instrument, do you think your experience with playing the violin impacted your ability to learn the koto? Do you think your experience learning the koto will inspire your violin playing?
    It’s great that you were able to translate your interest in playing music into a very unique experience here in Japan.

  2. Hi Maeve It sounds so much fun!!! I’m so happy that you enojoy your CIP! since you are playing violin, do you think whats the biggest different between the Western music and the Eastern music? between koto and violin, which one do you think is easier for a beginner to learn?