Under construction…


We get up at 6 again and we meet Tobias at the station. His hotel is next to the rail tracks. Today we experience Japanese rush hour. It’s exactly like what one sees on TV. There are a thousand people on the platform, and in the train itself we’re packed and stacked like the proverbial sardines in a tin, but nobody complains and the silence is astonishing. Since Tobias has checked out of his hotel he’s carrying his suitcase, not a great idea in this morning stampede. At every station another load of commuters tries to squeeze in. I’m at the other end, and i get pressed between the doors (pray they won’t suddenly open) and any number of Japanese bodies. I’m beginning to understand why some of the compartments are “women only” at certain hours.

One of the reasons for the particularly dense human traffic this morning is a series of “personal injuries” as they’re called on the little screens inside the trains. A euphemism for people who see no other way out but to throw themselves in front of some train and end it all. My thoughts are with them, and with the poor railway workers who have to clean up the mess.
It’s a cold and windy day. The weather here has been fickle these last few days, we’ve witnessed the whole gamut of temperaments from sunny spring to autumny storms. Today there seems to be no way to escape the cold gusts of wind outside nor the drafts inside the stations, and once you board a train compartment you’re heartily welcomed by ice cold jet-streams from the air conditioning on full blast.
Today Haruko is playing a special concert at Suntory Hall, one of the world’s most beautiful concert venues. The event is a performance of the “Suzuki Ten Children” group, with which she travelled all over the world as a child in the 70’s. It’s bound to be an emotional day, meeting and playing with musicians and teachers that she hasn’t seen in over 30 years. There will also be a performance of the younger Suzuki generation.

We change to the Namboku Line (i think about “Nabucco” so i’m sure to remember the name for when i get back here later on) and we get off at Roppongi, together with a number of little children accompanied by their parents or their mothers, and carrying violins or cellos on their backs. Suntory Hall is located in a very posh and expensive district. We drop off Haruko at the main entrance and head back to the Underground.

At the Hall’s entrance are all the leaflets, posters and programs of upcoming concerts, and i get a bit sick to my stomach seeing all these big name stars of the established classical music world. It all looks so fake and exaggerated. This whole “Star System” of god-like performers seems terribly outdated to me. I has something very old-fashioned, something primitive, and in a way i find it a bit shameful that evolution hasn’t really brought any changes in the way we always seem to need hero figures to worship. My mind goes off on a tangent again as i think about the differences between this established, unreal “make-believe” music world and how it relates to other ways of making music, both classical and in pop. How far do you want to be from your audience or how close do you want to get?

Tobias wants to leave his suitcase at Tokyo station, then he’s going on a discovery tour of the city. I’ll go back to Roppongi to listen to the Suzuki kids.

As it turns out, all the station’s lockers are occupied: it’s almost 10 am, if you want a locker for the day you have to be really early. We hand over the suitcase to a staff member but we’ll have to pick it up before 8pm. Tokyo station is very big, very busy, very nice and very clean. In Japanese stations you can see people cleaning and scrubbing all day long, with obvious pride in their jobs.

What a difference with the Brussels Central Station’s “Couloir de la Mort” where the stench of pee (if not worse) has impregnated every floor tile and every inch of the walls and ceiling. Welcome to Brussels, City of Waffles and Piss (not to mention the dog shit everywhere). Brussels, proud Capital of the European Community…
At one of the station’s numerous restaurants we have a bowl of noodles (we can choose between soft or hard), then we say goodbye. Now i have to find the way back to Suntory Hall. I’ve been spoilt these days, with Haruko always efficiently leading the way at stations and intersections. Now that i’m on my own, it’s a bit of a challenge to try and remember how to get from here to there. I’m rather woolly-headed in these things. My brain isn’t wired for practicalities, i’m afraid. It’s always busy finding connections between any- and everything, but not real-life connections between trains, platforms, places and cities.
Sure enough, i board the wrong Underground train. After a few stations i realise that i haven’t yet recognized any of the station names that we passed before, so i descend in the middle of nowhere and go back to where i came from. No panic, i have plenty of time to get lost a couple of times. It’s exhilarating to lose your way when you don’t really need to hurry. I remember that last time i was in Tokyo with Les Musiciens du Louvre, i purposely got lost in the city on one of our rare free days, knowing that in the end i’d find the hotel one way or another, never minding if it took me an hour or a day.
As i arrive at Roppongi station, i run into Haruko’s parents who are on their way to the concert as well. They go for a drink and i explore the immediate surroundings before the doors open.

In the meantime, Haruko has been rehearsing inside with her former Suzuki classmates, many of whom have become professional musicians in countries all over the world, from Australia to Germany, from America to the Netherlands.


Suzuki “Ten Children” in the 70’s (with Haruko on the far left).
In 2014 at Suntory Hall (with Haruko next to the pianist).


Rehearsal Pictures of the Suzuki Children.
The concert starts with small ensembles, then we are treated to performances by ever larger groups, from 50 Flute players, over 100 cellists, to an orchestra of over 500 children. The youngest are around 3 years old.

In the West some musicians have a tendency to deride the Suzuki method, but i find this performance very impressive. Whichever way you look at it, it provides plenty of food for thought(s) about music education, individualism vs. group discipline, musical taste, technique vs. musical expression, and ultimately about the role of music in this world. If 3 year-old children have no apparent problems playing a reputedly “difficult” instrument such as the violin well enough to play public concerts, then maybe it’s because nobody has told them that it’s difficult. I have often thought that the word “difficult” itself should be banned from music education, and i try to avoid it whenever i teach. If you believe something to be difficult, it will be, with all the certainty of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Words are powerful tools, both positively and negatively. So are examples. Having good teachers and being part of a group can provide a child with successful examples to follow.

Being more of an individualist myself, i do have misgivings about group discipline, about authority and leaders or gurus, about blind obedience. I’m quite adamant on the subject. But i’m willing to reflect on the implications of a collective teaching method, and at least i can’t deny the success of many former Suzuki students. As i said, food for thought and a motivation to know more about it, and about other music teaching systems for young children, such as El Sistema.

Next to the Hall is “Karajan Platz”. Our friend Herbert, almost forgotten already (except in a few nice jokes) was involved in the design of the concert hall. It’s funny to see his name there, in bright red Gothic letters. Talk about Star System…


There’s a little pipe organ above the entrance doors, that starts to play as soon as the floodgates open to let the audience in. Once inside, i take out the little iPod to take a few photos of the hall’s stage and interior, but i only manage two or three pictures before i’m told taking pictures is not allowed.
The little organ’s doors slide open…


…then close again when the tune is finished. Kawai.


Two photos of the stage, and one last selfie of Haruko’s parents and me, before a panicky Suntory Hall girl tells me that taking pictures is forbidden.
The whole concert is filmed for internet streaming, and is also visible on the big screen behind the stage. In between pieces there is some historical footage of Mr. Suzuki himself, of a visibly impressed Pablo Casals and of other music greats, film fragments and pictures of the Ten Children’s historical trips to the USA (not all that long after World War II, so these tours were political statements as well as cultural ones), and there are live interviews of some of the adult musicians on stage, with a fake American journalist, complete with hat, pencil and notebook and a big old camera around his neck.
At the concert, Princess Hisako Takamado is present. Later on she will give a speech for the musicians in Japanese and flawless English.
During the break Haruko’s old teacher comes to pay his respects to her parents. They haven’t seen him in over thirty years. It’s all very emotional, and despite the Japanese polite restraint i can feel the shockwaves of memories vibrating through the air. It must be a very poignant moment for Haruko’s parents to see their daughter on stage again with the same people she played with as a child. I have come to know this aging couple a little better since last year, and i can sense their feelings of love, pride, and a great nostalgia for years that now belong forever to the past.
After the concert we wait in the corridor for a long time, until she finally shows up. There’s a reception but i don’t want to be a burden at this moment of reconnection with old friends. I decide to try out the delicious-looking French pastries at “Aux Bacchanales”, just across the patio. I buy some for Tobias too and feeling adventurous i decide to take a different route back to Tokyo where we’re scheduled to meet. I haven’t got a telephone, but i did take the miniature modem with me, that we rented for our stay in Japan, so i can contact Toby by mail. I’m early and i take a stroll outside Tokyo station. Evening comes early here, it’s almost dark and the air is soft.
When Tobias arrives, we refrain from a repeat experience of the sardine-tin local train, and we reserve Green Sha (first class) tickets on the Omiya Shinkansen (all for free with our Rail Passes).
The train arrives, but we have to wait for the cleaning team to finish tidying up. When they’re finished they all line up beside the compartment before attacking the next one.
Then the green train is coupled to a red one in what looks like the train equivalent of a French kiss. These magnificent machines look much more like wingless supersonic airplanes than trains.
To be continued…


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