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Elizabeth Falconer's Biography:

Koto Tales are Elizabeth's original musical versions of folktales that combine the folk tradition of storytelling and the classical tradition of koto playing with her own style of puppetry. Her first release containing a selection of these folktales with koto accompaniment, Plum Boy! and Other Tales from Japan, received a 2000 Parents' Choice Gold Award as well as a NAPPA (National Parenting Publications Awards) Honors Award . Her second recording of these musical adventures, Hana and the Dragon, subsequently received a 2001 Parents' Choice Silver Honor Award. In 2003, the title story "Hana and the Dragon" was awarded an honor by Storytelling World. Her 2003 release, Once Up On A Lilypad, also received honors recognition from Parents' Choice.
Elizabeth performs her stories independently in schools, libraries and museums around the country as well as through education and outreach programs. She has been invited to perform her Koto Tales from Tokyo to DC, from the Smithsonian Institute to International Children's Festivals.
Elizabeth is also a homeschool mom!  Her son, Brian, started playing koto when he was just six and is turning into quite a wonderful musician, and he has started accompanying his mom.
Elizabeth also composes quite a bit for koto as well, having studied under Sawai Tadao and Kuribayashi Hideaki. She has written various articles on the koto and Japanese music in newspapers, magazines, and periodicals. She has a B.A. in Japanese Studies from the University of Oregon, an M.A. in Japanese Pedagogy and a Ph.D. in International Education from the University of Iowa. But of all her educational endeavors, the most important to her has been her studies with Kazue Sawai at the Sawai Koto School in Tokyo, where she earned a master's license in 1990.

The story behind the stories, in Elizabeth's words:
How did I become a storyteller? Like many stories, the truth is stranger than fiction...
Well, first I wanted to go to France, as a summer exchange student in high school, but was instead sent to Japan. That 1973 summer was the year I fell in love with Japan! After that, I majored in Japanese Studies at the University of Oregon, and fell in love with my husband John! We were exchange students together at Waseda University. In 1979 I returned to Japan to teach English, and that was when I fell in love with koto!
Thus began my koto journey, which has led me on so many interesting adventures. Because of koto, I have travelled, met incredible musicians, eaten wonderful food, and discovered things about myself that I never would have known if I hadn't been playing my instrument. (Instruments have a way of doing that.) I was happily playing away, when one day....

One day in May, my husband John and I adopted two little boys, ages 3 and 5. Talk about adventure! Knowing that their lives had thus far been filled completely with television and sandwiches, we got rid of our TV (Yes! We really did!) started cooking actual meals (what an adjustment!) and began reading, reading, and reading with our two young sons, who couldn't seem to get enough stories. I was deeply moved by how much they loved being read to and how much the stories affected their everyday play patterns. Characters from the stories become members of our family! One day, I decided to try to tell a story with koto accompaniment.

My very first "Koto Tale" was Issunboshi, and when I performed it at our local library and saw the look of intense involvement on the faces of the audience, I was amazed. My koto and I had never had people listen so well to what we had to say! I realized then that, instead of playing koto and giving talks about Japan (which I had been doing for years) that Japanese culture can be found in the stories themselves, and that listeners could understand how the koto works by watching me play as I told the stories.
When I first started doing this, I saw myself as a musician, and the stories were a new sort of accessory. But very quickly, I realized how much the stories had to offer, in terms of human values, how they connect with something quite deep in all of us. Soon, the stories were my focus, and I found myself looking for ways to use my koto to enhance them. What an adventure that has become, as a musician: I hadn't realized the many shapes my instrument and my music could take, if I let my instrument and the stories lead the way. This turn of events has also re-awoken the writer in me, and I greatly enjoy creating my own versions of the folktales. Finding stories is not a problem -- my only problem now is finding time to develop an ever-lengthening list of stories that I want to make into Koto Tales! I greatly look forward to where each new story will lead me, and hope that you enjoy the outcome of this very personally meaningful adventure.
What does it mean to be a "Koto Master?" - in Elizabeth's words:

I do not use the term "Master" lightly! I have become a koto "Sensei" (Master) by following certain steps and fulfilling a variety of
requirements. Many people ask me what I did; this page gives my own personal journey to becoming a Koto Master.  As with many traditional art forms in Japan (tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy) each student learns from a teacher who belongs to a specific school. These schools are sort of "schools of thought" - rather than an actual school building, they are different styles of
approaching the art. Each school was started by a Master (some still living) who has been acknowledged by the government as an exceptional artist, and the teachers in the school teach their students in the style that the Master has developed. Some schools may consist of just a few hundred people following a certain style; others number in the tens of thousands. For koto, some schools emphasize certain styles of classical pieces; some emphasize singing; some focus on theatrical music, others on contemporary music. We are all playing koto, and there is often overlap in what we do, but our basic approach to the music, our techniques and the actual pieces that we play, are directed by the school that we belong to.

I began studying koto in Sapporo in 1979. The first few years I studied koto, I belonged to the Seiha Koto School. I had a wonderful teacher, Nagane Utayumi, who patiently taught me the basics of koto playing and encouraged me to earn certificates. Each certificate I earned required me to play a little more difficult pieces. I earned a beginning, intermediate, and advanced certificate, and then I earned an assistant teaching license (junshihan) at the Seiha School in a period of a little over three years. This qualified me as a koto teacher. (This accelerated speed was due to my extreme enthusiasm, hours of practicing, and a lot of
extra lessons and time given to me by my teacher.) I am very grateful for what I learned from Nagane-sensei. The Seiha Koto School members enjoy playing classical pieces, singing jiuta-style songs, and playing modern pieces, especially those written by Yuize Shin'ichi, his wife and head of the school Nakashima Yasuko (whose father started the school), and Miyagi Michio. For each license I learned different pieces, and played them for judges. For the assistant teaching license, I had to learn twelve different pieces and memorize a solo, and take a written exam on the history of koto and the Seiha School as well as basic koto tunings and theory. The exam took two days, and I passed with honors: I ranked number 7 out of 70 people who took the exam.

After the exam, we had a large recital and performed some of the pieces together, and everyone who had taken the exam dressed in matching kimono with the Seiha crest, and we received our licenses. Lesson fees in Japan are quite reasonable, and students can learn as well on inexpensive instruments as well as expensive ones, but when you get serious about your studies, like anywhere else, the cost climbs proportionally. All told, the fees for the exam, the certificates and license, and the accessories such as the kimono, were about the equivalent of earning a master's degree at a university here in the states. I spent a lot of time and money on my koto studies in Japan, and while my friends traveled throughout Asia or paid off their college debts, I acquired a few kotos and saved money by staying home and practicing all the time! Fortunately for me, my husband John loves nothing better than spending time at home reading dictionaries and studying Japanese, so we were happy as clams.

I later joined the Sawai Koto School in Tokyo. At the Sawai School, the emphasis is on contemporary music, and we specialize in music written by Sawai Tadao, Kuribayashi Hideaki, and Miyagi Michio. We also play improvisational and pieces written by non-Japanese composers (including myself!) Even though I held an assistant teaching license from my previous school, since I was a new member to the school, I had to start earning my certificates starting back at Square One. Why? Because I had to learn the
specific Sawai approaches to the music. My first certificate required me to play the well-known classical piece Rokudan no Shirabe, and I had to re-learn the piece in Sawai style, using slightly different music. For me, this was very difficult. It is very hard to change something one has learned one way, to another! But if I wanted to become a Sawai player (and I decided early on that that I did) then change I must.

I felt some conflict with my previous learning as I did this, but my teacher, Sawai Kazue, in her infinite wisdom, suddenly set me at ease with it one day when she said, "You need to learn our version for the test, but after that, you should look at the piece with everything you have learned in mind, and develop your own way of playing the piece. Use your wide experience to your advantage." It was like a revelation to me! Kazue-sensei was always encouraging me to use things to my advantage that had never occurred to me: my foreignness, my "American" mind, my own individual experience. The Sawai School is somewhat unique in how highly they value uniqueness: Kazue-sensei encouraged me to "find my own sound" rather than to try to musically copy others so completely and utterly (as I had done for so long). And so I began to add a new dimension to my approach to practicing; besides copying, remembering what I had been told to do, I began more and more to make my own decisions. This was the most valuable lesson I learned from Kazue-sensei, and I nurture and value it as a musician every day.

But in the meantime, I found myself going through material I had already learned and making small changes in my tempo, ornamentations, and dynamics so that I could play the pieces in Sawai style. Step by step, I earned, yet again, a beginning, intermediate, and then advanced certificate. Then I earned an Instructor's license (koshi), again playing for groups of judges and taking a written exam. I was accepted in a one-year intensive course for advanced players who wanted to become professional performers taught by Sawai Tadao and Sawai Kazue, the heads of the school. During that course we worked even more on performing, playing with others, and interpreting music. As part of the work of that course I composed my first piece, "Higure" (Sunset) and was strongly encouraged by the Sawais to submit it for publication. Since then I have composed quite a few koto
pieces, and several of them have been published in Japan. Then, after nearly 12 years of studying koto in Japan, I was awarded the ranking of a Master (Shihan) by the Sawai Koto School.

One can only become a master by decree of the head of one's school. Becoming a master means a variety of things. It means that it is recognied that one not only has mastered a certain repertoire and can play well, it also means that one is recognized by one's teacher as having the ability to teach with enough skill to actually pass on all of the basic important musical thoughts of the school. It means one is recognized as being a pillar in the school. It is a great, great honor and one that I value very dearly. For me, one of the most thrilling aspects, both personally and artistically, is that I became a master through not only imitation and emulation, but that I am recognized by my teacher as a master who offers something to the school that is unique: My own sound.
Kazue-sensei values and nurtures my creative spirit, and this in turn allows me to do what Sawai Tadao expressed in one of his most well-known pieces, Tori no yo ni: Fly Like a Bird!

Being  Koto Master doesn't mean we all play the same. It means we have enough experience and knowledge to know how to play a large number of works, and the integrity and skills to teach with. It means we have dug deep enough into the music of our respective schools, and understand clearly the goals and outlook and attitude of the people who have taught us, so that we can pass along those same values and approaches to others, and express them in our musical performances. It doesn't mean we have
stopped learning. Rather, it means that we have honed skills that allow us to continue our musical development, and that we are dedicated to enriching the traditions on which we base our playing. At the Sawai School, we work very hard to "find our own sound." My teacher, Kazue-sensei, often told me, "I want to close my eyes and be able to know who is playing by the individuality of their sound. " She wanted us NOT to all sound alike! So, I struggled. For a long time, I wondered what my "sound" was; it is a very rocky and winding path, looking for it. For much of the time, I was working with finding the right strings and basic technique; figuring out how to play quickly without having my picks fall off, or holding my wrist in a way that would bring out the best
sound. But, little by little, I began to develop my own style. I began to sound like "Liza," as my Japanese friends call me.

Sometimes, people ask me what my mentor, Kazue Sawai, thinks of my writing my own music, and more recently, what she thinks of my original concept of combining storytelling (a folk tradition) with koto playing (a classical tradition.) Well, she is my biggest supporter! When she heard my first CD, she called me and said, "Share this with as many people as possible! This is something unique to you!" Finally, I felt like I had "found my own sound." And her words made me very, very happy.

View Elizabeth's recordings


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