Contributed by Morit Gaifman
Like David (Surtasky), my role is the mae-shite (his, in the primarily male cast with a women’s chorus, mine, in the primarily female cast with a men’s chorus). There have been a number of challenges, the most obvious being to memorize long lines of Japanese of which I only comprehend a small fraction. Another has been to remember sparse, but precisely timed and significant movements. Yet another has been to push my voice as low as it will (or won’t) allow and still sound strong.
However, one unexpected challenge has been learning to take charge. I am no wall-flower and have no problem taking center stage when need be. But the world of Noh has trained me differently. I have spent many summers at Noh Training Project (NTP) learning in the traditional way: listening, imitating, following. Sure, there is structure and notation, but understanding of that structure and the many details of notation comes only after learning how to do the thing — the particular way a section is chanted or a movement is danced. I have been lucky to have such great women pave the way before me at NTP and show me how it’s done, and for many years now I have been a contented follower and learner.
Suddenly I am in the position of leadership. As shite, I set the pace and the pitch, and when I sing with the shite-tsure or the waki, they are expected to adjust to me. I can no longer rely on a jigashira (chorus leader) to hold the melody securely. Nor do I have total freedom, as I am often singing with one other performer and must always be attuned to the drummers and the chorus as well.
During the first week of rehearsals I found this daunting. I often waited for the waki, played by a wonderful performer with far more experience than I have in Noh, to begin a line or set the pitch. My struggle has translated into a new practice at the NTP: when we sing more familiar songs during our morning utai we now rotate the jigashira position among the more advanced students. The practice trains us all to lead, to learn where we are weak in our knowledge of the utai, to learn how to pace the singing with the expansion and contraction of rhythm that is unique to Noh and makes the singing come alive. It also trains us all to follow better because we have to follow a variety of leaders and adjust accordingly. I have discovered facets of my voice and the voices of my fellow chorus members that I had not known before.
This week, my ability to lead has improved. Certainly, memorizing the Japanese words, and learning the blocking and musical cues have helped. Practicing both to lead the chorus and a new kind of listening has been transformational. I am now working on not only commanding those parts that are mine to command, but on using my listening skills to be effective so that I can come together with all of the participants on stage and create Noh magic. For that I must both hold my own and be attuned to those I am with.