Meave McIver-Sheridan: Koto lessons

This semester I continued to attend group koto lessons with Iwasaki sensei. We were joined by two more KCJS students, giving us the chance to work on learning and preparing to perform a piece together. Although I have been learning to play the koto, our new classmates took up the shamisen. Because of this I was able to learn a bit about the shamisen and even got the chance to try playing the shamisen once.

One major difference with my previous musical training, having only been exposed to the Western musical tradition before this, lies in the way the instruments are tuned. For example, although the shamisen reminds me of the violin in form, its tuning changes depending on the piece. The same is true for the koto. This reminded me of the way wind instruments in Western style orchestras sometimes receive music that has been transposed to different keys, although the instruments retain their standard tunings. With the koto, the tuning of the strings changes while the musical notation remains constant. While this makes the music much easier to read, because the notation is relative it has made understanding the music theory much more difficult.

Another characteristic of the music that I have noticed involves the way it is arranged. Most of the pieces that I have heard, even more difficult ones, are more sparsely arranged than much Western ensemble music. The spaces and pauses are more integral to the music, I think, than in music I am more familiar with. Only the shakuhachi and the vocal line provide sustained melodies, while the stringed koto and shamisen are plucked. This allows for longer spaces of time to elapse between end of one note and the start of the next.

One of the most pleasant aspects of this semester’s weekly koto lessons has been our sensei’s hospitality. Every week she provides hot tea and sometimes sweets or other snacks. Many weeks she also invites the students who are able to attend out to dinner. This welcoming atmosphere gives a homey atmosphere to Iwasaki sensei’s studio, making it easy for her students to look forward to returning each week.

2 thoughts on “Meave McIver-Sheridan: Koto lessons

  1. Wow! Koto sounds really fun and you must enjoy a lot. It’s nice to hear that you and other students from KCJS can perform a piece together and show what you learn so far. Since Koto is a traditional Asian instrument and it is not very popular back in the State, I’m interested to know if you will continue learning Koto after this program or recommend your friends this instrument.

    • Hi Richard! Learning koto has been really interesting for me. Both the instrument and the musical styles are really different from anything I’ve been exposed to in the past. I’m really not sure what options there are for taking lessons in the states — if I could find a teacher, I might consider continuing. Regardless, I think that playing koto this year has given me a very different perspective on music and hopefully will help me expand my musical boundaries in the future!