All images courtesy of Ken James Kubota
By Fábio Moniz
Ohio has given birth to a kind-hearted cellist, with whom one is about to get acquainted. His name is Ken Kubota, “a midwestern kind of guy,” as he says about himself, and one can find him in New York City.
He was born to a family of musicians, a pianist mother, and a flutist father. Kubota has grown up, “Listening to both of them play a lot of chamber music, and I naturally got a little jealous. I wanted to participate in their fun activity,” he confesses. Kubota wanted to start learning to play an instrument, too, and his parents talked him into the bassoon, for they were looking for a lower register instrument, as they had already the higher register instruments. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a bassoon teacher or an instrument that was small enough for a kid, so the next choice was a cello,” he shares with us, telling us that, fortunately, a cello teacher had recently moved into the town at that time. “It fulfilled the requirement for the low register instrument, so we just went for that,” Kubota says, jokingly.
From the aforementioned story, his lifelong journey started. Ken Kubota went to The Juilliard School, where he studied as an Undergraduate and a Master, and from Juilliard to the World; teaching in both New York and Maryland – at The Peabody Institute, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University; playing in a band – Empire Wild – a trio consisting of two cellists and a multi-instrumentalist, spanning “Across many genres, anything from classical, pop, folk, jazz,” as Kubota says, writing their own repertoire, too, performing around the United States; and a social media content creator. However, this wasn’t the end of it. It is a “lifelong journey,” as Kubota puts it, adding, “That’s why it’s worthwhile because you can never completely understand or master it.”
Two hours is what it takes.
JHMJams is Ken Kubota’s YouTube channel, where he shares one of his projects as a social media content creator. It consists of, “A pop cover channel where we cover pop songs with classical and jazz musicians, all by ear,” he tells us. Basically, Kubota and other musicians, “Get together, and we do all the learning, arranging, recording, in the two hours that we have together,” he shares with us, “It’s very organic and has this very live performance atmosphere.” Featuring, “Around over three hundred musicians,” with around five hundred and twenty videos released, a project Ken had started during grad school, and, Ken confesses, “Is my passion project.”
Just so one understands how amazing this project is, not only does it take a lot of work to get to know the whole song by ear, but also the creative process that is behind all the production of the covers, adding their own ideas to each song. It cannot be put into words, the lots of work it takes, but Kubota has something to add to it: “It’s fun! It’s a lot of creative work and it does heighten your ear training. To be able to learn the melody by ear, learn the chord progression, the form; and then, after all of that, trying to figure out, based on the musicians or the instrumentation that I have, how they work collaboratively to see how they craft a functional arrangement.” Does it sound fun? It does, indeed!
Also! Every video is different, depending on who’s available, “It’s just me reaching out to a lot of my friends, and seeing who’s available; just working with whoever agrees for that week,” He shares with us. Alas! the fun had been cut by half since Ken hit video no. 500, and has started touring with his band, he had to, “Try to balance,” as Kubota puts it. Besides his ensemble, his YouTube group receives invitations to play some gigs; studio sessions; also some other gigs he plays as an independent artist – indeed, it takes a lot of time off him!
Not neglecting other social networks, though, Ken, too, creates content for Instagram and TikTok.
How to create the Ken Kubota as he is?
Ken confesses that one of his greatest obstacles has been, “As any musician, (…) self-discipline,” adding that, “This long game that you have to play of practicing your instrument consistently for an extremely long amount of time to master the craft is difficult.” “Often, for young students, too, because (…) there are more fun things out in the world (…) than practicing your instrument,” Kubota shares with us. But Ken also tells us that practicing and mastering the instrument has its benefits. As Ken says, “Learning how to sacrifice that to benefit something way better far in the distant future,” is hard for a young musician; and “It’s hard to tell how much you’re making progress in the short run – so believing in the process takes a lot of patience and a lot of courage;” but, in the end, it pays back. It really does!
Another obstacle was that of getting to confront reality. How’s that? As Ken tells us, “Going to a school like Juilliard, everybody is (…) world-class musicians just casually walking around, and as a lot of the students who come in for the first time as freshmen, they are usually one of the better musicians in their small hometown.” Kubota tells us about an “Inflated sense of confidence,” and when at a school like Juilliard, that same musician feels like the worst musician in the school; “It’s a reality check,” he says, smilingly. Realizing, “How much you don’t know, or how far you are from being a great musician,” as Kubota says, is the second obstacle he had to overcome; and feeling that pressure and being in that kind of environment “From week to week is tough,” as he says, and one has to have “A lot of mental strength.”
Then, there’s the challenge of burnout. Ken tells us that at a certain point, playing music started to feel like work, “Something that felt just like labor, something that you have to do but (…) that does not interest you that much.” When hitting those walls, one questions oneself, “Why did you decide to pursue music, or why did you enjoy music in the first place?” Kubota had to remind himself of the answers to those questions, in order not to quit.
Mostly, internal issues; more than external issues, such as not passing an audition; being rejected, or not getting to win a competition. “Things that can happen to you can be also tough, but it’s usually tougher when it’s an internal battle,” Kubota tells us.
Is there any way out?
Personally, Kubota shared with us his methodology, in terms of dealing with the burnout. He made a list of things that makes him happy – “Not just about music but in life,” as Ken tells us that he had to reevaluate where he was in life – and from that list, Ken extracted things that would benefit others, creating a secondary list.
From that secondary list, a third list in which, combining “As many things as possible” from the two lists, he could find out what kind of careers were available. Because Kubota did not feel like enjoying what he was doing, he had to know what was, “The most ideal kind of life that I will want to live if money was not a problem and if all the basic needs were met in my life, then what would I want to do to spend my time?” Collaborating with jazz musicians and learning the aesthetics of jazz have been one of the things from his list. “A lot of the pop cover channel that I have on YouTube embodies (…) most of the things that make me happy (…) and enjoy about being a musician,” Kubota shares with us.
As an optimistic guy, as he tells us he is, Kubota likes to do his best, and for every bad thing that happens in his life, he tries to see it from an optimistic angle, “How can I turn this situation around to further progress, to take me closer to something that makes me happier; or is there some new skill that I can learn from this hard time?”
If you aim to be an artist, be empathetic.
Empathy is an important trait to have as an artist. Why? As an artist, as Ken says, “We have to have a large spectrum of emotion because our job often is to be able to communicate human emotion,” adding, “If you haven’t really experienced those (…) human [emotions], then it’s difficult, as a musician, to be able to convey those things that get the listeners to resonate with what you are trying to convey.” When going through a hard time, Kubota tries to remember what that emotion feels like, and later is able to get it from his “emotional drawer” and put it into a piece. In Kubota’s words, “The more that you get to experience a lot of (…) things you become a much more interesting and empathetic person, which, I feel, translates into a more fascinating artist.” Understanding what it is to be a human being, “That’s kind of how I approach life.”
A different life?
“As you grow up, you try to imagine what kind of careers you can have.” Kubota says, admitting that, “A lot of them were short-lived,” and that, “Music was the only thing that sustained throughout (…) and the only thing that made me the happiest.” He confesses that it’s the thing that makes you the most miserable, but at the same time, the happiest. Close friends of Ken were also musicians, and it worked as a magnet to be in that social circle.
Does that mean that Kubota did not think much about other things he would like to do? Ken shares with us that he finds magic a cool thing. Indeed, he thought about being a magician, “I really like magic tricks, and I always thought that was fascinating,” he confesses. And how does a magic trick work? Physicist Ken Kubota explains! It is true that Kubota thought about being a physicist. As Kubota says, “The idea of being able to explain why things happen in the world is something that I was always fascinated about.” Following his father’s steps had also been an option, as Ken says, “My father was an engineer, so I (…) naturally thought “maybe I’ll also be an engineer,” and although Ken has considered those options for his life, again, they were short-lived, for he loves music and he wanted to, “Keep doing this.”
Influences, sweet influences.
To Kubota, “Influences are constantly changing and also dependent on what I’m working at that time,” but he shares with us his influence while he was growing up, and justified it thus: “In my eyes, he’s a great example, (…) first of all just a good human being, as a citizen (…) something that I aspired; and also as a collaborator, he’s not bound by just one genre either,” although he is a classically trained cellist, who collaborates with artists in different genres and to boot, he is a good cellist, and a great player. Can you guess who is this cellist Kubota so admires? It’s Yo-Yo Ma!
Nowadays, Kubota is, “Blown away by people like Jacob Collier, because of his intellect, his ability to understand music at that deep of a level and also have such fluidity (…), adaptability (…), [something] really cool to see.” But on a daily basis, those who influence Kubota are the musicians that he works with, all of them being, “Incredibly talented,” as Kubota tells us; able to learn a lot from them just by playing with them and, “Admiring what they bring to the table.”
And also, as Kubotatells us, especially, “As a classical musician, whenever I work with jazz musicians, it’s always very eye-opening.” Besides these, Kubota also admires some of the performances he finds on social media. But these influences are something that, in the long run, as Ken tells us, do not last that long, but have to be balanced with, “Something that can fuel you (…), that make you happy.” As Ken draws us an analogy, in which, “We rely a lot on inspirations, but those are like (…) caffeine or sugar rushes (…), a short-term fuel. It shoots right up (…) [but] it also dries pretty quickly. Unless you take action on it every time.”
In this inspiration, Kubota sees technique, he sees virtuosity, but Ken is interested in the person behind the musician, more than the technician that musician is, “Because we are all just human beings, to begin with, that tends to resonate with us because sometimes, people can have incredible skills, but if they are bad people, then it’s difficult,” Kubota says, adding that, “The people that I collaborate with does not have to be the best musician on the market, it ends up being who I wanna spend time with, who I wanna hang out with.” As Kubota says, “Often, human first, then all the other skills.”
Kubota has reached a moment in his life in which he is trying to find his own voice, for he had spent many a time copying other musicians’ voices; as he says, “The nature of doing covers, or the nature of being a classical musician.” As Kubota shares with us, “Classical music is a reproductive art form, so you are just trying to most accurately recreate what’s written down.” Kubota adds that after a while, “You start to crave something where you are like, ‘What can I leave behind, in history?'” Thinking of his legacy, the Legacy of Ken!
Messages! Messages for everyone!
Ken Kubota starts by telling us that people, as creators, often forget to care for themselves, “In the ridiculous life that we sometimes live, with this high pressure, or really busy schedules, where we sacrifice our own well-being and our health,” and advises people to, first, “You are a functional, healthy human being, that’s taking good care of yourself,” he says, mentioning the most basic things such as hydrating, eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep. Because, “As creators, we, artists, we need energy, and we need our brain and our body to be functional, in order to produce anything.” Starting from there, as Kubota says, is really a good place, “So you have the energy and the creativity and all of the power necessary to do what you want to do.”
And Kubota finishes with something very special, telling his listeners to, “Make sure you remain sincere, genuine, and empathetic because people will resonate with that.” As a person, “As an artist, or as a friend, or a human being that exists in the community, if you maintain a sense of sincerity (…) and remain empathetic, you’re gonna be okay. Because that’ll translate to anything that you will do in life.”
Curiosity awakened, we see.
– Fábio Moniz is a columnist for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at email@example.com