Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto – Koto musician, teacher, band leader
Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a musical family whose koto music roots lie in the Chikushi School of kotoists in Japan. Shirley has close ties with the tradition of the Chikushi Kai, learning and constantly performing the core of traditional pieces shared by all koto groups and also the repertoire particular to the Chikushi group. Importantly, it is a group which is also open to contemporary music, for the koto, so that her repertoire encompasses such works as the compositions of Tadao Sawai, Katsutoshi Nagasawa and Michio Miyagi. From that spirit of open-mindedness (within tradition), Shirley also pursued her interest in jazz and as it extends to koto improvisation. Her group, the Murasaki Ensemble, is highly respected and enjoyed in the Bay Area, performing in such venerated venues as Yoshi’s in Oakland.
In 1976, Shirley received her “Shihan” degree (instructor’s license) with “Yushusho” (highest honors) recognition from the Chikushi School in Fukuoka, Japan. She received her “Dai Shihan” Master’s degree from the same school in 2000 for her mastery and dedication of the koto.
“The koto is an extremely versatile instrument,” says Shirley. “Though it seems limited and simple in nature, it’s possible to play a myriad of textures and sounds through various techniques and even percussion rhythms by incorporating the body of the instrument itself. By moving the tuning bridges, one can play just about anything on the koto! It’s really a fun instrument to play.”
Shirley’s approach to jazz comes from western classical music (she learned violin in elementary to high school grades) and traditional Japanese music. Many of the traditional Japanese tunings are similar to the blues. Not coming from a traditional jazz background has given Shirley a different approach to jazz koto. She chose the jazz medium to express herself on the koto, improvising with other instruments without compromising traditional elements…and then, breaking some of the rules.
A dedicated musician for many years, Shirley strives to involve diverse genres of art and music in her performances. She has been teaching privately for over thirty years, and teaches koto classes from elementary school to the university level. Along with teaching traditional and contemporary Japanese songs, Shirley has involved her students in performances incorporating improvisational, storytelling, hip-hop, jazz, European classical, Chinese and Jewish music.
“I am truly honored and privileged to know Shirley for so many years. Her koto playing and energy for constant creativity is inspirational to me. Her spirit and soul touches me deeply. I am forever grateful to her for her friendship and her sharing of musical knowledge and philosophies with me to help me grow as a musician and composer but most important as a person.”
Hiroshima (jazz group)
“Once in a very great while, a person of such immense talent and vision enters your experience that your life is forever changed. Such is the quality of Shirley Muramoto. Very rarely does one find another person whose ability as a teacher matches her superb talent as a musician. Many can play, many can teach. Few can do both equally well at the highest level of achievement.”
PhD., Retired Principal, Montclair Elementary School, Oakland, CA
“As a research specialist in Japanese koto music, I recognize the value of the tradition of which (Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto) is a culture bearer…As a teacher myself, I know her to be very effective and have observed her willingness to “go that extra mile” with students…”
Bonnie C. Wade, Chair, Department of Music, UC Berkeley
“Over all the years I’ve been Shirley’s student, my life has had all sorts of ups and downs, and through it all Shirley has both been incredibly patient with me and also pushed me to work harder when I needed some encouragement. In spite of changes in school, work and family situations, I’ve always been able to come back to koto, and I know that Shirley will always have faith in me. She’s inspired me to strive for things I wouldn’t have imagined on my own, and I’m grateful for the guidance and support she’s given me over the years as I’ve grown as a koto player and as an individual.”
Felicia Kazuou Bock, Shirley’s student, ShihanHo level, Chikushi Kai