(Part II of our Saturday in Kyoto…)
In the land of “shame culture,” I was pretty shameless in the backseat of The President’s Mercedes-Benz. I asked for help with a restaurant recommendation for Kyoto. He asked what kind of food we were interested in, and I answered with one word: “Delicious!” They laughed and immediately jumped on their cellphones to make a reservation for us. They sounded it out from the Japanese and wrote it on a slip of paper: KAWAKAMI, 7 pm. It is in the Gion district of Kyoto, down a back alley way that the taxi could not navigate.
We arrived punctually, but we were still last on the scene, the 9th and 10th diners at a 10 seat bar. The star of the show was clearly the chef, “Captain Kutoh,” as the blue insignia proudly said against the backdrop of his white tunic. There were three or four younger men in matching white jackets who orbited him, along with one older man who came in every once in a while to carefully replace a piece of porcelain or glass.
We had read online that there would be no menu, and that the chef would serve seasonal specialties, omakase-style. “Omakase” means “I leave it to you,” or perhaps more deeply, “I trust you.” But that only describes the transaction and contract between chef and diner. The other element can only be described as performance art!
Chef Kutoh moved deftly from one item to another with great precision and rhythm. There were ramps and fiddleheads, harbingers of Spring. There were chopstick-like items I had never seen before, used to fold small leaves or neaten the way a slice of fish leaned against another. It is Kyoto, so there are literally hundreds of small dishes and cups and tiny containers that are lavished on such a meal. The hardest worker of all in Kyoto may be the dishwasher! The knives are each initialed by the maker, and there is no question about whether the fish will surrender to their blades. When building the dish that he is about to serve, it is as if he looking through a microscope and dancing with the shape of it at the same time. Each course has its own specially shaped plate, like the butterfly, below.
I don’t have a picture of the Kobe beef course that was served, and I think that is mainly a function of how gloriously sinful it felt to eat it! It had no relationship to any Kobe beef that I have ever encountered in the U.S., and in fact no relationship to any steak I have ever had. The meal ended with simple fruit slices, cut masterfully in front of us: an orange, a grapefruit, a strawberry, with one carefully placed mint leaf. Off we sauntered down the alley way, our hearts (and our wallets!) lighter. Once again on this magical day in Kyoto, we had been taken care of – another ripple in the pond.
Nothing about teaching artistry in this entry. Nothing about workshops or arts education politics. Purely personal reporting from the weekend in Kyoto.
We had always planned that this weekend would give us both a chance to get out of presenting mode and experience a bit of old/new Japan. And the hype is true – Kyoto is a wonderful and charming city. But what has really floored us: the people we have met.
In coming to Kyoto we had help from many. The college faculty team, led by Dr. Keiiji Kubota, set up our hotel reservation at a place with fabulous onsen (Japanese hot spring baths) near Kyoto Station. Friends of Deborah’s family gave us tips for traveling here and advice on which temples to visit. But perhaps most important of all, it was Mrs. Hiroko Onoyama, a former vice-president of Sony and a longtime friend of the Young People’s Chorus of NYC, who truly set us up for our weekend in Kyoto. We just didn’t have any idea how moving those connections would be.
She advised us to visit a tea shop called Ippo-do, and we arranged an appointment. Her friend, Mrs. Miyaka Watanabe, said she would be glad to escort us to a temple once we were done, but that she needed to leave after that, because she was busy. We figured we would stop by, taste some tea, and she’d leave us at the gate to the temple. It sounded like a wonderful way to get started in Kyoto; we budgeted an hour or two and figured we’d make more plans after that.
When we arrived at the shop, we realized we had vastly underestimated the kind of establishment Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe run. Ippo-do is often described as the “grand-daddy of all the tea shops in Kyoto.” It has been in business for 300 years, run by the same family. When you enter the shop you see a host of shop attendants in traditional Japanese outfits. We were greeted by Mrs. Watanabe and a young man named Axel, who was a Harvard grad.
He had been assigned to give us an extensive Japanese tea workshop in a private room. We spent over an hour, tasting the subtle nuances that differentiate the various types of green tea: which ones are grown in the shade, which in the open sun, which are pulverized, which are roasted.
Then Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe announced we were all having a private sushi lunch together, with yet more superb green tea. The highlight for me was the pickled plum sushi. Afterwards, Mr. Watanabe (or "The President," as everyone seemed to refer to him) pulled up in his Mercedes-Benz to drive us to our next engagement. He dropped us off and we scampered into the grounds of a vast complex of different Buddhist temples.
Mrs. Watanabe led the way, and we struggled to keep up. We passed one temple entrance after another, never going in. We passed a beautiful garden gate, and we didn’t go in there, either. Suddenly we found ourselves against a non-descript wall, with a small wooden panel that was about chest-high. There was no sign, no doorknob, no indication that it was anything but part of a wall. Mrs. Watanabe somehow located a sliding bolt that was invisible to us, and she pulled it. The door opened, and she invited us through, warning us to watch our heads. We passed through this secret entrance into a temple that we had not been able to see from the outside, and we entered in.
We took off our shoes, and we were ushered by another woman, who was clearly expecting us, into a private room with tables and chairs. We sat down, and soon we were joined by a Buddhist monk. He was roly-poly and very jolly. He told us stories of when the Young People’s Chorus of NYC had sung in their garden and how much he enjoyed their harmony. He said, “You will hear me, but I have no harmony. Only one part, and while they sing beautifully, I sing low and rowdy!”
He informed us that we would be doing a Buddhist meditation, and he instructed us in the best ways to go about it. He took us out into the courtyard garden. He rang a bell four times, struck a pair of wooden sticks, and we were silent. For an hour. It was bliss. I thought about a million things, but eventually, as meditation will have it, I began to think of nothing but the tree I was staring at, the way it reaches out and fills the courtyard, the way it emerges from the mossy ground, the way it moves in the breeze.
When we left the temple, we were speechless. And we decided to have no more plans for the afternoon. We needed time to let it all soak in. From the people we knew in the United States, and the new people we were meeting in Japan, we had experienced such deep and abiding forms of kindness – it was moving, even a little overwhelming. From small moments of kindness and connection at home, through a ripple effect, we were being treated like royalty. These people did not know us, and yet they made our brief stay in Kyoto magical.
Though we did little the rest of the afternoon, I will continue in the next installment with a report on the dinner that Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe arranged for us at a 10 seat restaurant called Kawakami in Gion – more on that soon!
(…continued….this is Part II of the workshop for Japan description)
After the break, we sit down for a short presentation on “What a Teaching Artist Does in the US.” I use the seven categories that Eric Booth has been promulgating at places Lincoln Center Education and across the country:
The Six (plus one) Purpose Threads of the Teaching Artist Field
Work of art. To enhance the encounter with art works.
Skills development. To deepen the development of art-making skills.
Arts integration. To catalyze the learning of non-arts content.
Community quality of life. To increase the livability of communities.
Social development. To develop personal or social capacities.
Other instrumental goals. To achieve institutional goals through the arts.
+ Digital. To activate personal artistry in digital media.
I provide personal examples of every kind of work listed above - a case study for each. We have already done a live example of the aesthetic ed model, so that’s covered. I am lucky to have good documentation for work that exemplifies skill development (a 6th grade choral project and a 5th grade graduation project from PS 199), arts integration (a 4th grade literacy workshop), community quality of life (a Carnegie Hall creative learning project), social development (the Lullaby Project), other instrumental goals (Metropolitan Opera HD conference for teachers), and digital (here I use Eric Whitacre’s online choral project…). We have subtitled all the films and slides so they can be read in Japanese! Once they are steeped in these examples, then we talk about teaching artistry and how music plays out in their lives. Lots of questions and comments, and the threads provide a terrific framework for discussion. So once again, thanks, Eric Booth!
At Kobe College, we ended the week on a high note. Deborah and I hopped on a train for Kyoto, where we have just spent a glorious and moving weekend. More on the much needed weekend break in the next blog entry!
The bullet trains really are as fast they say. After three days of workshops in Tokyo, we headed to Osaka and Kobe, and we covered the 320 mile distance in less than 2 and ½ hours. We put our heads down, and we were there! Friday was a workshop at Kobe Women’s College, where I encountered the most spirited group yet (pictured).
We have begun to find a rhythm with these workshops. We start with some circle singing, all wordless and mainly about making some music in the space. There are usually some pleasant surprises for the instrumentalists – that they can sing and rather instantly sound pretty good. We do some introductions, sing a little more, and then launch into our workshop.
We start with a pretty typical aesthetic ed experience, where the work of art is the focus and the source of the activities. I chose to bring my “Sketches of Venasque” – six short pieces for solo piano so that I could play them live and because it is a kind of travelogue, and I thought that might be interesting, given that I am on journey now. It allows us all to share experiences of travel, and I can make some connections to my everyday disorientations in Japan.
First, I play a couple of the sketches with a short intro, using more pictures than words. Some of them are here below – in front of St. Siffrein, showing off our rental car, sitting at the piano in the studio looking out at Mont Ventoux - all from the Spring of 1990.
Then I ask them to turn to a partner and recount the details of a trip that had great meaning for them. I ask them to make a sketch of an image that has stayed with them from that journey. We title them and have a little gallery walk. Next they convert their sketch into a sound, and then in a small group they create a short piece, combining the different sounds of their journeys. We share the pieces they create, with generous amounts of reflection and analysis, and then I perform the piano pieces again. Invariably, there are lots of insights and epiphanies, and the feeling is pretty good as we take a break for lunch or tea.
That’s Workshop Part I – more on Part II next!
The workshops here in Japan cover a lot of teaching artist ground, and sometimes we are able to drill down into a specific area of work. One teaching artist function is to collaborate with students in the creation of a new musical work. The students are charged with creating a melody, and the teaching artist fashions an accompaniment, so the piece can be performed. Teaching artists then become harmonizers and arrangers. One of the professors here, Tomomi Ohrui from Senzuko College of Music, asked a question, my responses below:
“...which reminds me of my question for you: do you have a routine work to develop the sense for harmonization just as we performers need to at least be able to maneuver scales and arpeggios at all times? I want to develop the skill to make more interesting accompaniments. I think what you have been doing in your community work is really wonderful.”
Here are a few steps:
1. Analyze the melody for its tonal center. Most often, there will be a tonal center that the participants have used because they are working by ear. Other times they may wander away from the tonal center and return, still other times there may not be a clear tonal center at all. Then you need to decide how you will treat the idea of the scale degree 1. If the work is truly atonal (this is very rare), you can decide on the most important set of intervals to emphasize. The more time you spend getting to know the melody and the harmonies they imply, the easier it will be when you sit down at the piano. My advice here is wait until you are completely versed in the melody before you touch the piano. It can also be useful to analyze the melody's scalar content (is it all pentatonic? diatonic? octatonic? etc.), and notice what it is doing rhythmically.
2. Every melodic phrase can have its direction: will it reaffirm the tonic? Will it move away from the tonic? Is it headed for a modulation? Is it creating harmonic tension or is it relaxing? I usually plan out the harmonic scheme by improvising under the beginning and the end phrases. Once I have the essential sound or progression of those phrases, then the arc between them becomes clearer.
3. These original melodies may not be ideal from a harmonic point of view. But even so, you look for the strength and special characteristics they have and try to bring those out. If there is a specific emotional goal, you try to bring that to the accompaniment, even if the melodic idea might be weak or incomplete. As the teaching artist, you can bring your best artistic self to this work, acknowledging that it is a collaboration.
4. I always bring a draft of the accompaniment to the students, play it for them and then ask them for input. Sometimes they are amazed and love it and have no edits to suggest. Other times they have very strong opinions and want things to be different, and I try my best to accommodate, demonstrating other possibilities and solutions. Sometimes this is the richest learning experience for all of us.
5. Once I have completed the accompaniment I write it out and give it to the students. Sometimes there is a student who already plays piano, and they enjoy learning (or trying to learn) the part. Even if they are not music-readers, I like them to see what the work looks like.
6. The best way to learn how to do this work is to do it. The more pieces you harmonize, the easier it will become, and the more you will recognize your own harmonic tendencies, your own harmonic vocabulary. This is a good thing, and it will probably tell you a lot about the music you know and the music you love - much of it will come out in your accompaniments.
I know this is a big field and it takes many years of compositional training, but maybe you can share what you think is useful to work on.
Compositional training can help, but if you play by ear or practice songwriting, these things can be equally helpful. Sometimes being "up in your head" about the work can be an obstacle rather than a help. Sometimes it is better to try things and use your instinct. (I realize this might seem like it is in conflict with the steps above, but it really isn't. Analysis can take a lot of forms, and sometimes the best way to analyze a melody is to play it, sing it, and memorize it. That will probably tell you a lot.)
I hope this helps! Feel free to ask followups or we can discuss further.
More soon, from Kobe and Kyoto!
Just as the air in Tokyo began to clear this week, the point of my workshop series was clarified by its most important element: the students. Like music students everywhere, the Japanese are studying their craft, forming ensembles with friends, and dreaming about the future. Teaching artistry is being offered to them as one possible ingredient in their future, and they are fascinated, but skeptical. I think they are right to be both.
I have been showing them a diverse group of teaching artist projects – some from schools, others from hospitals and shelters, and still other from prisons. They are moved by the Lullaby Project and intrigued by work with very young children. But they do not have a tradition of teaching artist work in Japan, and there are very few structures in place for financial support. “I could see doing this work,” said one student, “because it seems quite worthy, and we need it here, too, but in Japan it would just have to be a volunteer project. How could it ever be professional?”
Good question. And of course, I cannot create support structures that are not there. But what I am saying to these passionate young students is: start small, but have a big vision. If you see a need and you can envision the way that music could be transformative in meeting it, then see if you can get a little support. Maybe a small grant or a small donation. Maybe a little pilot project stipend, but something that says this work is valuable and worthy of support. Do the project and - here’s the trick - succeed. I know I should be saying something here about how you have to be willing to fail, and you should, but if you want your arts education venture to garner funding, it’s better if you succeed. And make sure that people see the work and the impact it has. If you can make all that happen, and you will have to do it yourself at first, then there will be an argument for financial support. Cultural organizations may not be quick to support teaching artistry, but if they see valuable work happening, they will want to attach themselves to it.
Thirty years ago, the Juilliard School did not have an extensive community engagement program; now it does. Nine years ago Carnegie Hall did not have a Lullaby Project. You tell me that Japan does not have a commitment to teaching artistry, and I hear you – so when will that be? The air is clearing, and so is the work that needs to be done.
Halfway to Tokyo, I realized the reason I have been invited here is to be a foreign body. My stated mission is to introduce the practices of teaching artistry to Japanese music students. Though there are many wonderful arts educators and teaching artists here already, they feel they need some testimony from an outlander. I certainly feel like one. I don’t speak any Japanese, and I have never even visited the country before. My workshops will need to be translated, and I know next to nothing about the culture of Japanese music schools.
One thing that often happens to foreign bodies is they get rejected. They do not fit the chemistry of a particular system or culture, and so rightly, they are refused. While that may happen to me and the notion of teaching artistry over the next two weeks, it is also true that the Japanese are known to be unfailingly polite, so I doubt it will take the form of a protest or riot. I may not even know that I am being rejected as it is happening!
Through infection, foreign bodies can also be successful in changing chemistry. While we generally associate infection with sickness, there can also be the more positive connotation of something that is “infectious.” I think that is what I am gunning for in Tokyo and Kobe, but of course the sense of infection and things infectious can go both ways. I’ll try to do my part to communicate the richness of teaching artist practice in the United States, but I also wonder what I might catch!
In previous posts about operas for babies and our OTOYOTOY, I have been trying to reflect on some of the discoveries we've made in creating and performing with the very youngest children. Consideration #1 is a simple one: fun.
There are vital ingredients for fun: you need people in the room who are playful; you need imaginative ideas and situations, and you need that little extra something that creates a surprise. When I am looking for fun, one of the most reliable sources is the music of Saskia Sunshine Lane. She wrote THE OOVATOOLA SONG (click to listen) that opens our show, and you will find all the ingredients and more. Our performers: Saskia, along with Onome Djere (pictured above), Nick Demeris and Sasha Bogdanowitsch are expert, playful vocal improvisers. When we first created the show, we were joined by three other amazing singers: Jascha Hoffman, Emily Eagen, and Sofia Ribeiro. The song itself is sung in an invented language, courtesy of our librettist Zoe Palmer:
Ee yay O (I am)
Osay iyo (sunrise)
Moonkulunkulo (moon go)
Cheep cheep cheep!
Aton atonton (sun)
Ee yay O
Saskia sets the words with a strong Afro-Latin groove (the bass line is a fragment of a clave rhythm) and a lilting tune in B major. She uses a slightly irregular phrase structure to keep you guessing, and yet it seems the most natural music in the world. In the middle of one of those irregular phrases comes the bird-mimicking: "Cheep-cheep-cheep!" not sung on pitches at all, and I have yet to meet the audience that does not chuckle at that little surprise moment. Amidst all the invented language, the familiar "cheep" is something we recognize, but it's not really language either! These are the ingredients of delight, all mixed together in a delicious cross-Atlantic collaboration.
(Above, the ball collecting moment from OTOYOTOY; photo credit: Deborah Cabaniss)
More findings, continued from Part I:
Include a mix of fixed and improvised musical structures. To allow for children's vocal contributions, you need moments when there is "space" or silence. You also need structures that will allow the performers to improvise based on what is happening in the room. In a recent performance, a young girl came into the circle with a series of non-verbal yelps and riffs, and Nick Demeris, who plays OTOYOTOY, entered into a call and response game with her. He had a musical and dramatic continuity he was trying to fulfill, but he was able to let it go and allow her to take center stage. I loved that moment. At the same time, we want moments where the music can take over and entrance. Here is FIREFLY from the end of the show. Give and take musical "room" in equal portions, keeping it relational all the time.
Let the sensory experience be your guide. Last year I was lucky enough to work on an opera for babies in Norway. The piece is called LULLA and is created and produced by dybwikdans, based in Stavanger. When I first arrived there in June of 2017, I was astonished to find that the set was complete. There was no libretto, no score, not even a sense of how the piece would unfold. But there was a very beautiful transparent tent and various tactile and sonic objects. There was already lighting and elements of the sound design. Siri Dybwik and Nils Fossdaal invested in the environment for the children first and trusted that the story and the music would follow. They were right, and you can see the fruits of their labors here.
Cool it with the jazz hands and find your zen. As entertainers and performers, we are used to investing in a role and using our considerable energies to engage our audiences. I attended a play (for adults) this week, and afterwards an actor talked about how hard he was trying to connect with an audience member who was clearly bored or sleepy. When performing with (not for) babies, it is the opposite. To create room for them, to achieve a platonic incompleteness, we have found we need to create an intentional mix of performance stances. Sometimes you can be eye to eye with a child, but too much is inhibiting. Children need their own space, too, so as performers we acknowledge it is not about how much they are paying attention to what we are doing. It is how much they are paying attention to what they are doing. That is a bigger shift than it might appear - much easier to say than to pull off.
As artists, we are generally trained to create "whole grain, organic" works that stand alone and fulfill an audience's expectations. In creating operas for babies, we aspire to the beauty of incompleteness.
At the beginning of OTOYOTOY, an opera for babies which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2017, children and their parents enter an empty space, outlined by a circular pool of light on the floor. The children automatically enter the space and play in it. There are a couple of props and bits of fabric on the floor, which immediately become their toys. The event has begun, because the babies have arrived.
One of the challenges of creating a work for the youngest children is making space for them in the work itself. You cannot predict whether any given group of babies will be vocal or quiet, active or sleepy, jazzed or unfazed by what they encounter. It is different every time. If you create traditional singalong moments, you cannot rely on babies to join in the way older kids would. In short, you cannot predict what interactions might look like. So how do you prepare? How do you design a piece that creates the space for children to contribute but does not rely on them for specific outcomes?
Here are some things we have found. Pay attention to the arc of theatrical experience. Story and linear thinking can be part of what you do, but it is not necessary in creating a piece for this age group. But even if you deemphasize story, pay attention to the shape of the experience. It needs to be strong and clear. Does it follow the shape of day from sunup to sundown? Does it follow the shape of a journey from one place to another? Does it follow the experience of a dream? (In OTOYOTOY we do have a kind of a story about a group of imaginary birds who encounter a human who is the spirit of play. But it's a very loosely told tale, more emphasis on the encounter than on traditional dramatic conflict.)
Create opportunities for the audience to do things. In OTOYOTOY, at the climax of the event, our title character opens a bag and scatters hundreds of ping pong balls on the floor. It's a simple but powerful moment which makes an impressive sound and presents the audience with a question: what now? First, we take a moment to register the drama of what has just happened. Then we wait to see what the babies might do. Do they pick up a ball? Do they throw one? Do they watch to see what their mother does? Do they just watch the balls roll away? Then we pick up some empty cloth sacks and open them. And we wait. Invariably, the babies know exactly what to do. They begin to put the balls back into the sack. We do not tell them to; we do not make an announcement that we need help picking up the balls. In fact, as this is going on we do what you always do in an opera - we sing. Sometimes it happens right away and sometimes it takes longer, but it always happens. Along the way, the performers get to negotiate the ball clearing process with the children, and they can bring their characters into contact with the babies in unplanned, improvisational ways. Our imaginary bird characters are determined to clean up the space, and the spirit of play just wants to - you guessed it - play!
Design the experience with play styles in mind. Our librettist, Zoe Palmer, draws on the work of Colwyn Trevarthen (watch him here), a child psychologist, to design the arc of the event experience according to play schema. Some children love to throw things (trajectory), others love to wrap themselves in cloth (envelopment), others - as I do - love to spin (rotation). Zoe creates an architecture of play schema to ensure that children with different orientations to play will see themselves in the piece. They might enter into the piece by playing a game of catch with a ping pong ball or lie down under a swath of fabric. Or they might just watch. But the invitations are part of the design.
More findings in the next post.