Click to play an improvisation (4:33) on the Koto by Yoko demonstrating Koto techniques including pitch variation, Hikiiro, Atooshi, Oshihanashi, Zuzu, Syu, Walen, Tsukiro, Utsu, Chirashi, Tremolo, Arpeggio and Glissandi. See the video below for a visual demonstration of each of these techniques.

On the following video, Yoko demonstrates some of the techniques of playing the Koto. The strings are plucked with three picks, called plectrums or otsume, which are attached to the thumb and first two fingers. The pitch of the Koto is determined by the placement of the bridge or oji.

The Koto must be tuned for the key of each piece of music. There are no frets like a guitar. Yoko demonstrates pitch variation, including Hikiiro, Atooshi, and Oshihanashi. She also demonstrates Zuzu, Syu, Walen, Tsukiro, Utsu, Chirashi, Tremolo, Arpeggio and Glissandi.

Techniques of Playing the Koto

The Koto is a stringed instrument producing a delicate sound that originated in China and came to Japan in the 7th-8th century. The Japanese Koto is a large instrument, about six feet long, consisting of a hollow body made from Paulownia wood. It is a 13 string zither and is played on the floor. The Koto player sits at the top end of the instrument and plucks the strings in the area just to the left of the top bridge. The player can use their left hand to bend the strings in the area to the left of the ji. Pressing the strings toward the Koto body causes them to go sharp, and pulling them towards the ji causes them to go slightly flat.

Koto music has evolved for centuries, and continues to change to this day. Originally Koto scores were not written down. Many Koto players were blind (Koto playing was, for a time, an occupation reserved for blind people), and so writing down scores made no sense. As with many other crafts, the repertoire was maintained entirely by memory and passed down through apprenticeship. (One of Yoko’s teachers in Tokyo is blind.)

During the Heian period (794-1185) the Koto was played as a solo instrument in the court. As court life disappeared in subsequent times, Koto music remained in the world of priests and noblemen. For a time, it was an official occupation for blind men, and was apparently limited to this group. Vocal accompaniment to meditative music began to appear in the late 16th century, but its performance was limited to temples. The Koto was open not only to blind male professional musicians, but also became of interest to female members of well-to-do families. In the last century in Japan, a well-educated female will have skills on the Koto, Tea Ceremony, and Ikebana (flower arrangement).

“Sea in Springtime” by blind composer, Michio Miyagi, is a well-known Japanese composition. It begins and ends depicting the calmness and serenity of the sea in springtime. The middle section shows the restlessness of the sea. It is performed here by Yoko Fitzpatrick on the Koto and her husband Dennis Fitzpatrick plays the Syakuhachi flute part on a Synthesizer.

Sea in Springtime

Yoko Fitzpatrick presents 5 of her youngest students (ages 8-14) who were only trained for less than 6 months to play the Koto. They are dressed in their summer Kimonos (Yukata) and performed in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2005 playing “Sakura” (Cherry Blossoms):
Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
The whole sky is misty or cloudy with a sweet smell.
Let’s go, let’s go view the blossoms.

Sakura (Cherry Blossoms)

Rokudan by Kengyou Yatsuhashi, is a very traditional example of classical Koto music from 18th century Japan. Every Koto player will know this piece. It is not played with a Koto stand but in the original Japanese manner of performing on a red carpet.

The piece also uses the Sangen, player here by Yoko Fitzpatrick. The shamisen or samisen (Japanese: literally “three flavor strings”), also called sangen (literally “three strings”) is a three-stringed musical instrument played with a plectrum called a bachi. The shamisen is similar in length to a guitar, but its neck is much slimmer and without frets. Its drum-like rounded rectangular body is covered front and back with skin in the manner of a banjo, and amplifies the sound of the strings. The shamisen derives from the sanshin, an instrument of the Ryukyu Kingdom, now a prefecture of Japan in the 16th century and one of the primary instruments used in that area), which in turn evolved from the Chinese sanxian. The shamisen can be played solo or with other shamisen, in ensembles with other Japanese instruments, with singing such as nagauta, or as an accompaniment to drama, notably kabuki and bunraku. Both men and women traditionally played the shamisen.

Roku means 6 movements. The 6 movements are played continuously. There is a saying, No player until they die can play this piece perfectly. The student performers are all beginning American students after 2-3 years of instruction from master teacher, Yoko Fitzpatrick.

Rokudan (Kotos with Sangens)

The Kotoists perform the slow movement from a concerto in D major (RV 93) by Antonio Vivaldi for Lute and orchestra. The Lute is played with a plectrum as is the Koto. Kotos can easily play some classical music.

Vivaldi Largo (RV 93)