Benji Hix: Private Koto Lessons

For my CIP, I chose to take private koto lessons. This seemed like a natural choice, given that it had some relation to my major, music. Every week, I took the subway to a little building called the Greenwich House hidden away in downtown Kyoto and practiced with my teacher in a cozy little room full of koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi. It always felt a little magical; the room was lit entirely with lamps scattered around the room, and every square inch of the room was covered; the floor was laden with instruments and furniture, the walls with pictures and newspaper articles, and every spare surface with tuners and sheet music. From the first time I stepped into the room while an ensemble was practicing, it seemed like the perfect environment to make music.

My biggest concern with picking this CIP was the “private” aspect; I was afraid of missing out on the opportunity of making Japanese friends through my CIP. It was a very pleasant surprise, then, when upon entering my second lesson I learned that every lesson would be a group lesson with at least four or five other students, all of whom were Obaachan and Ojiisan! Each week I seemed to meet at least 5 new people, and everyone was exceedingly kind and patient. Learning a new instrument is a lot less stressful when it feels like you constantly have 5 grandmas cheering you on and calling you cute the entire time! On the average day, we would practice for about an hour, then head to dinner as a big group, and this was where the majority of language practice occurred. Through these dinners, I picked up many little tidbits of Japanese culture––the insistence of paying for other people, the unspoken rule of only pouring alcohol for other people, the amount of crazy antics that Obaachan can get away with, and plenty more. Furthermore, having only ever had female teachers, my comprehension of elderly male speech was admittedly terrible before getting the weekly practice provided by my fellow students. These dinners were my favorite part of the entire CIP experience, and erased any doubts I had about picking it.

And of course, getting to learn a traditional Japanese instrument was an amazing opportunity! From a music theory perspective, it’s provided me with some new insight into traditional Japanese pentatonic scales, and the various chordal progressions possible without access to the traditional 8 note scale. One of the most enjoyable parts of playing for Koto for me is the ease with which one can retune the 13 strings; just like a guitar, one can tune the strings to whatever scale one pleases, but the process is significantly faster than any other traditional string instrument, and is done simply by moving small plastic stands up and down the body of the instrument. The sheet music for koto is also completely different from standard western notation; rather than notes on a staff, the music is completely represented through kanji inside of boxes. It provided a real challenge, forcing myself to think of rhythms and chords in a drastically different visual style. Overall, learning Koto has provided me not only with interesting new insights into music, but also with a plethora of funny and interesting stories thanks to all the fun dinners! I would recommend this CIP to anyone with any sort of instrument experience; it’s truly a rare opportunity.

2 thoughts on “Benji Hix: Private Koto Lessons

  1. Your Koto lessons sound like an amazing experience! I also find myself having a hard time understanding elderly male Japanese speech at times; the slurred words and such make things pretty difficult. Would you consider interaction with older Japanese women and men harder or easier than with Japanese people our age?

  2. I’m really late to this party but I’m glad to see that I still get the privilege of second comment.

    I think that the coolest part of your CIP experience was the ability to make friends with your koto obaasan, as well as the fact that the woman at the okonomiyaki restaurant now recognizes you. That’s pretty rad.

    Also now you have another instrument that you can add to your list of, “Things That I’m Unfairly Good At,” so that’s cool.