Wednesday, December 27, 2006

It's all over but the shouting

posted by Jason Tiller
It's Christmas Day, and we've been back for about 24 hours. The "No Jet Lag" that Missy forced down my throat every hour turns out to have worked pretty well! While I didn't sleep on the plane, after a 5-hour nap yesterday and then 7 hours or so after a Christmas Eve service, my wife, Diane, and I are happily on our way to Kansas for some much needed R&R at her parents' house.

The bells are silent, the clapping has faded away, and we're back to being just folx once again. It *is* fun being on tour: getting treated like royalty, playing in drop-dead gorgeous concert halls, performing good music for appreciative audiences, being silly and goofing around, and generally making the most of these fantastic experiences. Almost every night that I step out onto a brightly-lit stage, I breathe a simple mantra that reflects the moment:

"I am so fortunate."

Truly, my life has been blessed, from musician parents who encouraged me in my own studies and provided a rich environment in which to grow, to my wonderful wife who shared my handbell journey for a while and now supports me in every way possible; from the visionary founders of Sonos, to the felicitous coincidences that led Diane and I see the group and throw caution to the wind, to leave our comfortable existence and embark on this long and twisty road. I know there are many more talented and capable than I who have never had the opportunity to experience the things I have, merely due to circumstance and situation.

So, while it's always good to get home after a long tour like this, to see my parents, hug my wife, and terrorize our kitty, those pleasures are always tinged with regret. Who knows? Sonos may find itself unable to continue in the future; this may be a bubble in time that will never be reproduced. Sometimes we teeter on the edge, struggling to maintain the balance of a demanding musical art against our families and "outside" lives. It hasn't been easy for Sonos, despite outward appearnces.

But, while the opportunity exists to make music, perform, and affect people in a real way, we'll be doing our best to fulfill our dreams: play the best music as well as we possibly can.

Until we meet again,


The Japan '06 Tour Song

posted by Jason Tiller
Without further ado, here is the complete "Twelve Days of Tour." The links are to other blog posts that provide commentary and incisive analysis.

"On the first day of tour, Sonos gave to me
a plane ticket and a bell case."

On the second day of tour, Sonos gave to me
two funny hats
and a plane ticket and a bell case."

(You get the rest - here're all of the verses.)

"a plane ticket and a bell case"
"two funny hats"
"three bullet trains"
"four encores"
"five shticky songs"
"six natto beans"
"Seven-Eleven & Lawsons"
"eight bento boxes"
"nine days of coughing"
"ten bottles of airborne"
"eleven parfaits with cornflakes"
"twelve phantom monkeys"


Those are bells?

posted by Jason Tiller
At Harmony Hall (again, a fabulous venue), we gave masterclasses to three handbell ensembles local to the Fukui area. What fun! They brought a piece of music and three of us (me, Jim, and... who?) worked with them. Other Sonosians helped out with suggestions and feedback. My group was ringing an arrangement of "Sakura," which was awfully convenient for me, since we happen to play a fabulous arrangement of that by the late, great Katsumi Kodama. Working with them was really fun! However...

As we walked into the room, almost all of us did a double take and thought to ourselves "What the heck are those?"

These bells are not English handbells - they don't have a restraining spring, nor do the clappers only move in one plane. The clapper head a just a plastic sphere mounted on a simple, tubular spring attached to the center of the lightweight, metal casting. The castings are tuned, but the tonal quality is more of a "thud" than a pure bell tone. In fact, the fundamental is quite weak and has no sustain whatsoever, meaning that stacks of chords have little effect.

The pictures here are taken from the group Cheryl worked with. My group had a slightly different brand or style of bell, with the pitch indicated on a little badge that was attached to the side of the handle, and the casting lacquered (painted?) in silver, not gold. Still, I have a feeling the effect was similar.

Since normal, "rung" notes were pretty puny, most of the sound was generated by shaking. Given their construction, these bells are awfully easy to shake. That's their main redeeming quality (well, and, I'm guessing, their price!).

My group, however, was lovely to work with. Very attentive, quick to pick up my musical nuance, and eager to learn. In fact, this might be a capsule summary for most of the Japanese people that I've met over here. I wasn't really looking forward to the masterclass, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm so glad Jim asked!

Just to let you know, these are called "Music Bells" in Japanese. Michele says you can purchase them from Lark in the Morning, a well-known music store with a big Internet presence.

Your intrepid reporter, signing off,


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Rest Stops and Fish Market

posted by Patti
Well, the map to the women's restroom at the rest stop is quite a bit more complicated than the one in the men's.

One of my favorite excursions was when Yoshimichi (sorry, I didn't learn how to spell his name) took Jim, David and I to a fish market.

These guys could clean an eel lickety split.

And this woman grilled them to perfection.

Jim and Yoshimichi are checking things very carefully.

These are tuna tails, sliced and ready for soup.

Yummy, octopus tentacles.

Fish head soup, anyone?

And, finally, we ate some of this fish at a great little grandma-mom-daughter restaurant.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Everything Is Better in Japan

posted by Jason Tiller
So, we're on the bus, heading from Tokyo to Yamanashi prefecture to play a concert at Masuho-cho Bunka Kaikan. It's a long trip (2.5+ hours), so we stopped on the way at a truck stop. You know, sort of like Flying J in the U.S. I needed to brush my teeth (which I'm always doing - kiddies, always brush your teeth!), so I went to the bathroom.

Dang! Even the blankity-blank highway rest stop bathrooms are gorgeous. Yes, those are real fowers!!

There were so many stalls, and they had so many different types> of stalls, there was even a map to the bathroom!

The Japanese are big travellers, so I guess the "facilities" have to be appropriately sized to handle the volume during the rush seasons. Wow!


The Sky Observatory

posted by Jason Tiller
During our stay in Fukushima, we had some good sight-seeing slots. I've already posted about the Tempozan Giant Wheel(tm) - Largest in the World! - but on the next day, a group of us went to the Sky Observatory. It looks like this from the bottom:

Here's another, a little closer in.

The intervening foliage is from a lovely garden through which we ambled on our way to the Observatory. Here's Ben sitting on a little bridge in the garden:

You enter on the East side (obviously, the are two buildings). Then you take an indoor escalator up two floors, after which you cross over on a moving walkway between the buildings (the horizontal bar on the lower part of the picture). After that, it's up a glass elevator to the 35th floor. Finally, you hop on a glass escalator for the trip up the final five floors. These are the diagonal tubes in the middle of the above picture. Here's what it looks like from inside:

Unfortunately, it was a fairly cloudy day, so it wasn't all that thrilling a view from the top. Still, it was a heckuva lot of fun *getting* there. :) Here's a scale model of the building:

We had a great time jumping into a photo booth and getting all six of us on a picture. Diana has a copy of it, and when I get it I'll post it here.

After that trip began our concerts at the most spectacular halls. My next post will be of our wonderful venues!

Until then, I'll leave with an utterly bizarre advertizement on a wall housing multiple hot drink vending machines. These four pictures represent the bizarre text on the wall (sorta "faux-graffiti"). We found them at the main Osaka JR station while waiting for the bullet train ("Shinkansen"). Weird.

Here's the whole text:

Somtimes a cup of coffee makes you SMILE.
You know why?
It's not because you're just addicted to caffeine, or just thirsty.
Well, the ANSWER is...
you might know by
now much better
than I do. The answer
exist in the heaRts of
each one of you.
For me?
Mm... why I've got to tell
YOU that here, on a
BIG panel
of a station!!
WheN you
cup of coffee
in your LIFE,
who were there right beside YOU?
You still remember
when you felt like
a gentleman or a lady?
I DO remember!
when I start
drinking my coffee
milk & sugar,
yeah - it's just a
couple of days ago!

Uh... yeah.


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Serious Musician

posted by Ruben Mendoza

Merry Christmas !

Follow-up (with Link)

posted by Michèle Sharik
In a previous post, I promised to tell you the URL at which the pianist from "Oh! Jazz" would post pictures of our quartet from our appearance as "Guest Artists" at their concert.

The pianist is Kudo Takashi (in Japanese, the family name comes first, then the given name, so his "first name" is Takashi). He has a blog and posted all about the concert - complete with pictures!

Of course, I can't read what he said (I can read hiragana and katakana but not kanji!) - so I will have follow up again after I get a translation!

Anyway, here's the link to his blog about us! Scroll down for our picture! That's me in front!

btw, the sax player's name is "Ken G" - no really!

An Ode to Tokyo Dome Hotel

posted by Jason Tiller
(Sung to the tune of the original "Spiderman" TV series theme song.)

Tokyo Dome, you're the best
Superior to all the rest
Your lobby's huge
Your rooms are too
Rollercoater, it's so cool
Thank God - back at the Tokyo Dome

Yours Hotel, it's the pits
Now we're gone, it won't be missed
Loud banging
Construction site
And they worked all through the night
Thank God - back at the Tokyo Dome

Tokyu Inn Hakata
Had no Internet at all
By river's side
Was it placed
Stinky vapors in our face
Thank God - back at the Tokyo Dome

Now we're here at Tokyo Dome
I'll never leave my Nippon home
I always feel
So welcome here
It's almost as if my wife is near
The Dome - it's always in my heart

::Bows:: Thank you!


Friday, December 22, 2006

Personhole covers

posted by Patti

Japan has some of the most beautiful personhole covers I've ever seen. Here are some photos.

Sonos: Media Product

posted by Jason Tiller
On our last trip, a quartet was on live TV, promoting handbells and our upcoming concert to a local audience. We've been marketed much more heavily this time around. In addition to taping another promo on two local TV shows (once each in two one-hour shows), a quartet made a guest appearance in the aftermoon with "Oh! Jazz", a trio that played a set of Christmas carol arrangemets in the same concert hall we played in that evening. I'm not in the quartet this time (Ruben, Michele, Tess, and Sunghee), but they said it was a fabulous time. We joined "Oh! Jazz" as they improv'ed around a twelve-bell arrangement of Jingle Bells, and the bass player noodled while the quartet rang Jim's arrangement of Sakura. It sounds lke a good time was had by all.

However, the real fireworks were three days ago, when NHK (Japan's national broadcasting system, like PBS, but much more widely watched) taped our Yokohama concert for broadcast in February. Wow, what a blast that was! It was a five camera shoot, all HD. Those who got to sit out in the back said the camera-work was incredible. I can't wait to see it!

Taiko was interviewed. Yes, in Japan, it's "Taiko Otsubo and Sonos Handbell Ensemble!" Of course, she's the only one of us who speaks fluent Japanese!

So, yes, when we get back, if you want to talk to us, you'll have to set up a meet-n-greet with our secretaries, since we'll be far too busy handling the fan mail from our rabid Japanese groupies. So sorry,

(The Artist formerly known as Jason)

The world's largest ferris wheel...

posted by Jason Tiller in Fukushima! With a morning off we trekked (by train, then by subway) off to Osaka harbor, which has an aquatic museum, a human rights a museum, a pottery museum, and the Tempozan Giant Wheel. At 112.5 meters high, it indeed ranks #1 in the world. Here it is from the square that has the aquatic museum, et al.

A complete revolution takes approx. 15 minutes. The car was incredibly smooth and balanced. Ruben is slightly acrophphobic, so he was a little queasy on the way up, but once we hit the top, he was fine. There was plenty of room for the three of us (Cheryl, Ruben, and me).

Here's the aquatic museum, which, unfortunately, we didn't have time to explore.

For whatever bizarre reason, not everybody wanted to go on the wheel - we caught a few of them waving to us as we started up.

Turns out that the wheel broke down after we got off, and they had a hard time getting it going again. Fortunately, I hadn't gone too far off, so I was able to leap into action. Here I am giving the wheel the final push to start it up again. They thanked me profusely and promised to name their next children after me. "It's all in a day's work," I demured.

My work there was done.


A Rare Treat

posted by Missy
That might be how I would describe the yummy parfaits we had the other night in the J Cafe (described in an earlier post by Kathie) (Jim, who is up for any new food experience involving chop sticks, gets suddenly picky when it comes to ice cream–he didn't finish his corn flakes and proclaimed the concoction not to his liking). But I am actually referring to the rare treat of being able to see Taiko's group, Kiriku, in action.

Upon our return to Tokyo from Fukuoka on Thursday afternoon, about eight sonosians headed straight from the airport to Tokyo Disney, a few returned to the hotel and did their own thing, while Lois, David and I followed Taiko to her evening concert with Kiriku, an hour's train ride outside the city. The concert was a special holiday performance for families, so there were lots of kids in the audience. I was somewhat surprised initially that the program included several slow, lyrical pieces (two Ave Maria's and Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, for example) until I realized (or remembered might be a better word...) that the bells themselves are incredibly fascinating to children. And Kiriku's beautiful, flowing motions are mesmerizing on those pieces. They play with the same graceful freedom of motion as their founder and director, Taiko, who has taught four of the other five ringers everything they know about handbells. The melody is always clearly articulated both aurally and visually, allowing the listener to "hear" some of the long notes even after they may have stopped sounding in the hall. Another thing that caught my attention was the velvety texture of the bass bells. Taiko told me later that she doesn't like the sound of the clapper attack with the hard or medium settings, so she has the group keep the bass bells on the soft setting all the time and just play with firmer strokes to get the necessary clarity of sound. Personally I like being able to use all of the options available, but this practice really works for Kiriku. Once I realized the bells were all set on soft I listened more actively for any muddiness, but heard none. Amazing!

If the slower numbers were mesmerizing for their lyrical beauty, the fast numbers were breathtaking for their flawless precision. The group did an arrangement of Mozart's "Rondo ala Turka" that was unbelievable. The plucking and malleting in the bass were mind-boggling, as were the treble runs and mid-range offbeats. (I have played those offbeats with Sonos–and we play it with 12, not 6–and was not nearly so accurate, though I thought I had done a pretty good job at the time.) The piece that really got the kids going was Leroy Anderson's "Plink, Plank, Plunk," another fast, precise, and fun arrangement complete with five or six different whistles, wood blocks, and popping balloons! You couldn't help but smile out loud with this piece. If these two show-stoppers were not enough proof of Kiriku's expertise with handbells, they left no doubt with their first encore, Kabelevsky's "Comedian's Gallop." All I could think all the way through was, "Wow!" Kiriku finished the concert with a second encore of Silent Night, with the audience singing along.

I learned later that Kiriku rehearses about 10-12 hours a week, and it really shows. I would love for Sonos to have that kind of rehearsal time too! I have always thought that if we can do what we do with the four hours a week we typically have (or the 10 hours every two weeks that we had before this tour), how much more we could do if we really had the resources to do this full time...

Musings on Addiction

posted by Kathie Fink
Everyone knows that handbell players become addicted to the art. They ring when they are sick, leave spouses for weeks at a time on tour, agree to sub in three bell groups on the same day, and travel hours to rehearse with their favorite community group.

Our United States version of this addiction pales in comparison to the Japanese version embodied in a young woman named Taiko. She personally owns two sets of bells, “air bells” her parts non-stop, and leaves an afternoon concert with Sonos to rush to play an evening concert with her own bell ensemble, Kiriku. She even wants to commute long distance to ring with Sonos in the spring! I wouldn't be surprised if she lives, breathes, and eats handbells. If that is the case, then I highly recommend her diet. She appears very healthy and maybe weighs a total of 100 pounds. Thank you Taiko for sharing your time, talent, and enthusiasm with Sonos.

Woe is Me

posted by Kathie Fink
Osaka had no Starbuck stores close to our hotel, and that was a shock to my caffeinated system. Fukui had a Starbuck look-alike that I located in the refrigerator section of a 7-11 store. Tokyo came to the rescue, with a Starbucks on every third corner... just like San Francisco.

Is It Food?

posted by Kathie Fink
I just can't get into the healthy Japanese fare and portions....unfortunately. I tired early of rice and fish., but trying an American food restaurant such as Denny's only resulted in an “exotic” interpretation of American food. My favorite was a BLT served between pancakes and an omelet served over Spanish rice. OK, not too sure it's Spanish rice, but it was red.

After our Thursday concert in Fukuoka, Jim wanted ice cream... Jim ALWAYS wants to go for ice cream. Taiko found us the QCafe that rocked with strobe lights and loud music, but not too promising that ice cream would be on the horizon. However, they did offer a parfait with chocolate, and that was all Jim needed to agree to stay. We each ordered this concoction of vanilla ice cream, green tea ice cream, marshmallows,whipped cream and chocolate. A huge serving arrived (complete with a sparkler!) with the added components of banana, some kind of berry, a mysteriously sweetened bean, and cornflakes layered throughout. It seems to me that my breakfast stateside of cornflakes might be enhanced with chocolate milk! Even Disney (by the Sea) has their own version of chocolate covered cornflakes for sale.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Too many cables!!

posted by Ruben Mendoza

I finally learned how to travel lightly but then I started bringing with me all of my electronic gadgets and all the cables!!

I'm ready for my closeup

posted by Ruben Mendoza

A few of us did a promotional appearance at a local TV new program in Fukuoka.

While they had a day off...

posted by Michèle Sharik
On Tuesday, we all flew to Fukuoka. Most of the group had the rest of Tuesday (and Wednesday morning - the Porcelain trip) off, but 4 of us had volunteered for extra duty: Ruben, Tess, Sunghee & me. While the others were off visiting temples, the 4 of us walked over to the concert hall with Tamamura-san. The hall is attached to a giant multi-level shopping mall (which has several floors of office space above it - the Japanese are masters at efficient use of space). Near the hall entrance, NHK - Japan National TV - had set up some cameras and lights. That's where we were headed.

It seems that our Wednesday night concert was going to be featured on the evening news' "Entertainment" section & our quartet was to appear on live television!

We met with the tv crew and went over what would happen. There were 2 segments for the show.

We got out our bells & played through our pieces for them. They asked for a few modifications to fit their time constraints, which we readily agreed to, of course. They also walked us through how they were going to interview us - yes, interview! The main hostess lady smiled and asked us questions in Japanese, and there was a lady standing behind us who quietly translated. It was difficult to listen to the translator while the host lady was speaking directly into our faces, but we managed.

Soon the first segment began -- the host did an introductory shot in front of the mall's Christmas tree & we shook our bells & waved at the camera. Cut to commercial. When they came back, they introduced us & we played a short version of "Jingle Bells" (from the Porta-Four Carols collection). Then they started interviewing us, asking us things like, "Are you very busy during the Christmas season?" and "Are handbells very popular in the United States?"

After the interviews, we played Jim's quartet arrangement of the Japanese folk song "Sakura".

Then we had about an hour break in which Tamamura-san took us over for coffee and sweets. After our break, we went back for our second segment. For this segment, we opened with the Porta-Four version of "Carol of the Bells", then Ruben got to give the host a handbell lesson - she tried to ring the G2, and he pulled an E8 out of his pocket to many "ooh!"s and "aah!"s.

After the lesson, we played the full version of "Jingle Bells" and waved bye-bye to the camera.

All in all, it was VERY cool!

But the coolness does not stop there!!!

The next day, our quartet went back to the hall where a jazz combo (sax, bass & piano - the name was "Oh! Jazz") was giving a lunchtime concert. We were their "guest artists". We played through "Jingle Bells" for them & they wrote out a lead sheet so they could play along - we extended the arrangement a bit so they could let us play by ourselves for a verse. Then we played through "Sakura" and the bass player improvised along with us on the 2nd time through the piece.

When it was time for the concert, they brought us onto the stage & introduced us. They then played an arrangement of "Silent Night" which segued into our "Jingle Bells". It was totally awesome to play along with the jazz group!! The audience certainly seemed to enjoy it - we got cheers! :-)

After "Jingle Bells", we played "Sakura" and some of the audience hummed along - and again gave us a wonderful ovation with cheers!

After the concert, the combo thanked us profusely. We gave them a copy of Sonos' new CD "Contrasts" & they took pictures to be posted on their website - I'll post the link to that when I dig it out of my luggage later.

We think we dispelled some handbell myths that day. When we arrived, the combo seemed a little uncertain about having us - kind of like "who are these people & what are they doing with those toys?" But after hearing us & seeing how easy we were to work with (ie. flexible with our arrangements), they were "totally jazzed"!

It's too bad Jason wasn't there with his video camera; this is something I wish we had been able to preserve for posterity....


posted by Cheryl Woldseth
Jim led us on one of his famous excursions to something we found in a tour book. We started out from our base in Fukuoaka, and took the train to Arita to visit what was called the Porcelain district. It seemed like fun in the book, so six of us decided to go.

After a 20-minute walk to the station, the schedule showed that the train ride would be 90 minutes long - each way. Aaaaah! This was the first red flag. Suddenly our morning off seemed not long enough. But having already trekked this far, we jumped aboard.

The train ride itself was fascinating, as it went through the countryside. It was flat with small farms and nearby undeveloped foothills. The farms were all producing vegetables or rice (lots of rice). Considering all the pork, chicken, and eggs that are a staple in the Japanese diet, I had to wonder where the pigs and chickens might be. They don't seem to drink a lot of milk, but they do use milk products like yogurt and cheese, but I have yet to see cows yet either. It makes me wonder.

Upon arrival in Arita, the train schedule for the return trip created red flag #2. In order to back in time, we now only had 50 minutes to see everything that Arita had to offer. Right.

So three went shopping, and three went to the ceramics museum. It was basically a run on the town. I was a shopper with Missy and Patti, and we breezed through only about 200 yards of town, going in and out of about six tiny shops packed with tea sets, vases of all sizes, soup bowls, chopstick holders, baubles on chains, spoon rests, statuettes, and wall art. They were gorgeous, but without time to look carefully, it overloaded the senses.

Jim, Diana, and Kathie went to the museum, with its beautiful collection of Imari ware. The museum also displayed the process of turning clay creations into porcelain works of art.

With a quick in/out at the corner convenience store for a grab lunch, we were back on the 90-minute train ride to Fukuoka and comparing stories of what we had seen. It was definitely not enough time in Arita, so we agreed that the ride itself to and from counted as part of the experience. Now that's positive thinking!

Monday, December 18, 2006

The wonderful Japanese audiences!

posted by Jason Tiller
Earlier, I promised some pictures of the throngs of people that mob the stage after our shows. Here are a few taken by our intrepid Company Manager, David Kail. These are from Harmony Hall in Fukushima. This was an incredible venue; amazingly gorgeous! Yashiro was a nice, community concert space... but Harmony was a full-on, professional stage. Ooh, it was fun! The sound, the sound!

This is in the lobby at Harmony - I love this stuff!

And, because I haven't gotten around to posting about our incredible trip to the Sky Observatory in Fukushima but I really love this picture, here's a fountain in the plaza near the Observatory. Behind the water sheet is a restaurant!

OK, type more at ya later!