Sarah plays the koto

The koto question

Why didn’t I take up the piccolo?

This has been one of my life refrains, and it came up again last weekend when I brought out my koto to play for a gathering of friends. Because instead of a portable instrument — piccolo, flute or, heck, even the guitar — I have focused my musical life on the piano and the koto, Japan’s 13-stringed zither.

Neither of these instruments is portable, although at least pianos are easy to find. The koto? Not so much. My first koto (yes, I have more than one — that’s another story) I shipped home from Japan. Airmail. For roughly $300. (Its size is such that it wouldn’t fit the crates required for sea mail … at least that’s what I was told.)

Ever since koto No. 1 came home, I’ve koto-tested every car I (and then we) have purchased. Will it fit an inflexible, nearly 6-foot-long instrument? The answer has to be yes, even if said koto is only hauled around a handful of times a year. Or less.

Fortunately, the koto is worth it. It is visually beautiful, and its sound is like nothing else.

So what if it’s cumbersome? When it emerges from its case, it draws people — children love it. And when I play it, I have a sense of being part of the century’s worth of Seiha koto musicians whose lineage I have joined … and the 1,300 years’ worth of Japanese koto musicians that preceded me. Its music resets my mind, and playing it leaves me refreshed.

And thankful that I didn’t take up the piccolo.

Click here for a short video and a little more about the koto.

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