Antonio Mckinney: Koto Lessons

This past semester, for my CIP project, I had the opportunity to take koto lessons at Greenwich House. Learning how to play the koto has been a long time desire of mine so I was excited to start classes, to say the least. Through one of the Japanese teachers who also takes classes at Greenwich House I was put in contact with Iwasaki Sensei and soon after had my first class.

When I arrived on the first day, I was warmly greeted by two of Iwasaki Sensei’s experienced students who began to show me the rendition of Sakura and a number of other folk songs that I would be practicing for the next semester. It’s a little embarrassing to admit but when I arrived that day, because I was expecting the students to be my age or younger, I mistook one of the women to be Iwasaki Sensei. It wasn’t until half an hour into the class that I finally realized that the person sitting next to me was actually a student and that Iwasaki Sensei wasn’t even there yet. However, it became very clear who Iwasaki Sensei was once she did arrive because immediately after, to my delight and horror, we played through the entire number as a full ensemble. Rather, I should say, the rest of the class played the entire number as an ensemble. I just plucked some random strings in the background. Despite my complete lack of ability as a beginner, because I had tried to engage as much as possible the rest of the class kindly accepted me and I was able to enjoy my first attempt at playing the koto.

As I continued to return to Greenwich House for weekly classes it soon became apparent to me that the classroom Iwasaki Sensei had cultivated was warm, friendly and because of the communal closeness the lines between Sensei and teacher were casual and unassuming. Before class, arriving students are always enthusiastically greeted, no one gets mad when we have to stop playing to help someone understand a portion of music and on Mondays Iwasaki Sensei and any interested students go out for dinner. There was even an occasion when one of the Obasans, on the first day she met me, invited me over to her house to continue practicing folk songs while we waited for the rest of the class to finish playing an enka piece.

With the students being so friendly and easygoing starting up a conversation is never difficult and I often found myself chit-chatting with other students before the teacher arrived. These casual conversations have been a lot of fun and great Japanese practice as I will often have to put my listening skills to the test to understand a few of the student’s Kansai-ben. However, even if there are times when I mishear something or struggle to convey an idea clearly any of the discomfort that might arise as a result soon fades away once we begin to play.

Actually learning how to play the koto has exceeded all my expectations and getting to learn from Iwasaki Sensei and the other students at Greenwich House has been a truly special experience. For those of you want to learn how to play the Koto or simply want a supportive community to practice your Japanese in I would definitely suggest you stop by Greenwich house. I am confident that if you are excited to engage with Iwasaki Sensei and the other students everyone at Greenwich house will welcome you with open arms.

4 thoughts on “Antonio Mckinney: Koto Lessons

  1. This sounds like it was a great experience, and a great way to meet people! Was it always the same group of students? Do you think you will continue to study Koto in the US?

    • Hi Rose,

      I would go to class on Mondays and Fridays and each day there would be a slightly different set of students. However, you get to know all the students in the community pretty quick as everyone’s a regular.

      When it comes to playing Koto in the U.S., I would love to keep practicing. I know there is a Gagaku and Hokagu group back at school, which utilize the Koto, so maybe I will have to check them out!

  2. Uriah this looks like such an amazing experience! Both the sound and aesthetic of the koto are so interesting. Playing it certainly looks like an uphill battle though with all of the strings and large size of the instrument. It’s so cool that you did something to both get to know Japanese people and such a distinct part of Japanese culture. There is so much Western music in Japan now – I am so glad that there is still such a tradition with the koto. I hope that you play at the talent show next week!

    • Hi Anne,

      Getting to hear traditional Japanese folk songs with an instrument so closely tied to Japan was something I really looked forward to every week, and I will definitely miss playing the Koto when I go back home. In the mean time, I am just trying to savor the last days I have left with the instrument. Although it might be the last time I am excited to play for you guys at next week’s reception!