Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Learning to Fly All Over Again


I'm in the music office at Ye Olde Academy pretending to conduct. Actually, miming is probably a more accurate term. The fingers of my right hand are pressed together as if I were holding an invisible baton, and I'm conducting a four-four allegro. My shoulder is starting to hurt. I can see the involuntary wince on my face clearly because I'm standing in front of a full-length mirror, watching myself, analyzing my moves, trying to replicate exactly the motions I've been taught.


The diminuitive, middle-aged woman standing next to me sighs and shakes her head.

"You're still doing it," she says patiently, though it's probably feigned. "On beats two and four your arm is still circling out! You don't need to move so much! Follow the path directly!" She shows me the move for the umpteenth time. "Just like when we did it in steps, just connected! Here, with me!"


"That's it!" she says, a smile spreading across her face. "Keep it up!"


The smile becomes a frown. Another sigh. "No, no! You're doing it again! Can't you see it?"

I stop, purse my lips, and shake my head. "I'm sorry, sensei," I say quietly. "I can't see it. What exactly am I doing wrong?"

"Two and four!" she says, and she jiggles her arm around. "It's not this bad, but this is basically what you're doing! Your arm keeps circling out on two and four! Don't! Stay on the path, straight from the ictus of two, then drop to three, straight from the ictus, then drop to four! Again! Together!"


She sighs again and calls our vocal music teacher over to work with me so she can teach someone else.

Yes, folks, I've started taking conducting lessons.

Actually, Mr. Ogawa and our vocal music teachers started training exactly a year ago with this woman, a well-known (and notoriously strict) university professor who has published at least one book and a DVD on conducting and has trained conductors for a number of orchestras throughout Japan. The lessons started exactly a year ago, actually, but due to a grievous misunderstanding on my part, I thought they'd been going to Tokyo for them, so I'd declined. I found out just a month ago that the teacher had actually been coming to Kashima from Tokyo. That's when I said, "If I'd known, I'd have signed up myself!" Next thing I knew, I was getting Lesson One, which could best be described as "the art of correctly dropping one's arm".

Don't laugh. It took me more than an hour to get it right, and I was hurting, too. (Mr. Ogawa reportedly took three hours to complete Lesson One, which I intend to remember for future reference...) This teacher approaches conducting as if it were a martial art. She is a perfectionist and anything but forgiving. The moves are very exacting and very demanding. Learning them hasn't been quite so hard as UNlearning what I learned before...and what I've been doing for the past decade or two. Thus far it has been fairly encouraging, though. Despite a few hard-to-cross hurdles, I've actually been doing pretty least up till now.


The vocal music teacher announces that I've finally got it right, so the teacher comes over at once, her gaze looking a bit more steely.


"Okay," she says, a hint of hope crossing her face. "You've gotten better. Good. Keep going..."


Suddenly a sigh and a shake of the head. "No, [Moody], you're still doing it! You're still circling out on two and four! Can't you see it? Look in the mirror!"


"You see?" she cries. "You see?"

I don't. I look very deflated in the mirror as I shake my head. My pride is getting trampled into a fine goo between the floor tiles.

"Keep trying," she says. "You are getting better. Keep trying!" Then she goes off to work with someone else.

And so it goes until the end of the hour, when I unfortunately have to excuse myself to start marking final exams. Yes, final exam week has just ended, and grading hell has just begun. At least my conducting lesson, and the resulting ache in my shoulder, have almost helped me forget about it till now. Now I give my final demonstration to the teacher.


She smiles, but it is not a smile of encouragement. She laughs, but it is not a laugh of warmth.

"Here is your homework," she says, shaking her head. "Go home, draw the paths on a big piece of paper, hang it on a wall, and follow them, follow them, follow them!"

"Yes, sensei," I reply quietly. I get my things together and shuffle out the door.

Music is my life...and I feel like I've woken up to find myself back in a crib wearing diapers.


  • I thought conducting was (IS) a Martial Art. With military precision the baton rising, hovering, fluttering and waving gracefully poetical thru space

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 7:53 PM  

  • Thousands of drummers think Neil Peart is the greatest drummer on Earth, but he started over and took drum lessons just a few years ago after being on top for a couple decades.

    It took guts, just as it does for you to be willing to improve yourself this way. Good work!

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:22 AM  

  • Wow, shocking when you're reintroduced to something you thought you knew, isn't it?

    I agree with Don S, it takes a lot of humility...

    What I also wanted to say was I have watched symphonies/operas that last entire evenings, and think to myself how fit those conductors must be. Walking with your legs is much easier than conducting with your arms. But no wonder they grow so old, they have healthy hearts!

    By Blogger Olivia, at 12:54 PM  

  • Try carrying a gallon of milk in each arm over your head to get your strength up.

    Actually, following a chart on the wall sounds like a very good idea. Its like early penmanship when you trace letters. Something I obviously glossed over based on my own hand writing,

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:56 AM  

  • Well, not to be a contrarian (he he he) but have you watched anyone she has taught conduct? Ogawa-sensei is good, so if he was her student I guess that is a very good sign.

    I've played under many a baton and I watch conductors closely even when in the audience. The best conductor I have ever seen (that you would have heard of), well two actually, - Seiji Ozawa and Herbert von Karajan. I'd say just watch videos of them (and try to forget Herbert was a damned Nazi).

    Anyway, good luck with your lessons and good for you for approaching this with an open mind and willingness to work at it. Perhaps you can teach an old dog....uh, never mind...forget I said that.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 9:07 PM  

  • One...two...three...four...

    "Well Done! Moody-san. You improved a lot after one lesson“ Sensei said.
    Thank you!” Moody replied blushingly.

    The above dialogue should be in the second or third lesson.

    By Blogger PinkPanther, at 1:54 PM  

  • having one's arms raised for such a period of time does make the muscles hurt. good thing you're not getting a headache or such.

    i think it's great that you're back on the saddle! especially w/ a teacher like this. i can imagine what she must look like and your writing gives me a good idea of her attitude... when i think elderly Japanese woman... this type of image comes to mind.

    keep up the good work and remember to "FOLLOW THEM!!" ;)

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 3:08 AM  

    You're right, you know.

    Don Snabulus
    Amazingly, I was thinking of Neil Peart, too...though I wouldn't quite put myself in his class!

    Both Mr. Ogawa and I are out of shape and under doctor's orders to exercise, so I don't think the conducting alone cuts it.

    You can't buy milk in gallons here, only in liters (just larger than a quart). Interesting idea, though.

    Actually, it used to be standard procedure in Japan for schools to punish troublesome students by making them stand and hold buckets of water for an hour.

    Interesting that you should mention Seiji Ozawa. Apparently this conducting course was originally developed (by my teacher's father, apparently) for a particular orchestra of which Seiji Ozawa was a regular conductor for a time! Apparently he actually trained under it for at least a little while, though I don't know how long.

    I'd say Mr. Ogawa's conducting style is even better now than it used to be. The vocal music teacher's style has certainly improved a lot!

    Pink Panther
    I had the next lesson today, actually, and it went very well. The teacher said, "You've got it! Great!" She then moved me on to the next level, and I apparently picked it up immediately, because now we're jumping ahead to much more advanced training.


    Um Naief
    Muscle pains, yes, but what's really aggravating is the fact that my shoulder joint keeps cracking on beat three...

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:24 PM  

  • Good Deal! Great way to keep your brain from going to mush... seriously

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 11:55 PM  

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