Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Judgment of Self

"Forgive me, sensei! I failed!"
"Me, too! I'm so sorry, sensei! Really, I am!"
Both Oshima and Ikeda are distraught and in tears. In fact, Oshima is on her knees at my feet begging for forgiveness.
The trouble is that I don't have the foggiest idea why. Before they came, I was planning to find them and congratulate them on having done a wonderful job.
It is the music club's end-of-the-year party. We've just finished what was no doubt the most ambitious (read "suicidal") Big Regular Concert we've ever attempted, and somehow we managed to walk away with a good result. You see, up till now, the Regular Concert has always been a single, two-hour event. That's typical of any school band's annual performance. However, as Seishin Gakuen has come to be blessed with a wide variety of ensembles of ever-increasing ability, the roster has come to be rather crowded over the years. That's why Mr. Ogawa decided to divide this year's event into TWO two-hour concerts spread over two days, one featuring the jazz and concert bands and the other focusing entirely on the string and symphony orchestras. That meant a lot more performance time for everybody. Also, somehow, the programs wound up stocked with some very challenging pieces.
Considering we had to try to pull this off with even less time available for rehearsal than in past years, we were all convinced that Mr. Ogawa had finally slipped a few too many bolts. The fact that he also decided to have each of the three directors concentrate solely on their primary roles with no overlapping (i.e. me directing only the jazz band, Mr. Karatsu only the concert band, and himself only the orchestras) did help matters a bit, as it allowed each of us to focus entirely on a single performance set, but it still put an enormous burden on the students. There were also some pretty nasty scheduling problems made worse by excessive, unscheduled staff meetings, squabbling among the students, and inconvenient temper tantrums thrown by certain members of the faculty (no, not me this time). There just weren't enough rehearsals for all the groups. Even as late as last week, we were worried it was going to be a total disaster.
Luckily, it wasn't. Actually, the kids proved their mettle once again by giving us a very respectable effort. It was made even better by the fact that we were graced with a good-sized audience on both days. Every time I think these kids can't surprise me any more, they do.
The Seishin Flying Eggheads jazz band (motto: "Yes, we can all improvise...finally...") was the first item on the two-day menu. I was given a full thirty minutes ("plus alpha", as they say here, so I made it thirty-five) to play with. I selected the charts we performed mainly in accordance with the wishes of the students. We started out with "Oye Como Va" (a regular favorite of the Eggheads) followed by shuffle-swing versions of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and "Sesame Street" (a la Maynard Ferguson...and our lead trumpet player brought a stuffed Elmo doll with him when he stepped up to play his solo). We then switched gears to the standards, playing the Count Basie versions of "Georgia on My Mind" and "April in Paris" followed by Glenn Miller's "Little Brown Jug" with lots of solos thrown in. We then finished the set with Charlis Mingus's "Moanin'", a wildly experimental blues/be-bop piece with lots of improvisation...and a brilliant open tenor sax feature that our lead tenor player, Shiiki, in his farewell performance, put out like a glorious star on the Christmas tree of the Eggheads' eight-year history. We then finished up with an encore of an encore, i.e. a reprise of the "It Don't Mean a Thing"/"Sing, Sing, Sing" combo we used as our encore two years ago. Yes, there were still a few rough spots here and there (mainly from one particular individual), but the kids put on a very good show under demanding conditions...and almost every one of them performed a solo, most of them improvised. Definitely a higher standard than in previous years. Except for the few hiccups (which, as I said before, were mainly the fault of a single individual), I was very proud of them.
Which brings me to this party and these two girls tearfully begging for my forgiveness.
Oshima has just graduated from junior high school as a member of that infamous Grade 9 class I've been ranting about so much over the past year. She's actually one of the notable exceptions in that bunch. She is a good flautist, but she's an excellent pianist. Because of her ability to be able to perform a piece accurately and musically almost from the very first reading, she has been a popular choice as an accompanist for solos and ensembles for the past three years and has even won an award for the best solo accompanist in Ibaraki Prefecture. (Actually, she has accompanied me on several solo outings as well.) She has been tickling the ivories for the Eggheads for a year and a half now, including two Regular Concerts. As I mentioned before, she's extremely talented and can play just about anything right off the page. However, as is so often the case, she's too accustomed to being PERFECT. In other words, though she can play expressively, she still tends to do it strictly by the book. That has actually made her kind of iffy as a jazz pianist. I have constantly urged, "Open up!" "Have some fun with it!" "Play what's in your heart, not what's on the page!" As with most before her, she just couldn't seem to get it. It went totally against everything she'd been trained to believe. I thought it was sad, because "Georgia on My Mind" was a wonderful piano feature. She played it accurately but mechanically.
Imagine my surprise when, on the morning of the day of the Flying Eggheads' concert, which was yesterday, she walked up to me in the hall holding a handful of jazz CDs and asked me if I minded if she "played around" with "Georgia on My Mind"...even including putting some ad-lib fills during the breaks. I told her that that was a stupid question because I'd been urging her to do just that for months. I remember the ear-to-ear smile on her face when she hustled away after that.
Imagine my even bigger surprise when, during the performance, for the first time EVER, she threw in ad-lib fills all over the piece, dolled up the solo with all kinds of turns and tricks, and ended the thing by turning a one-measure break into a funky cadenza. I was about ready to kiss her right there on the stage in front of several hundred people.
So why the f*** is she on her knees in front of me, tears streaming from her eyes, as she begs me to forgive her failure?
Answer: she wasn't perfect. Her ad-lib fills were a bit jerky. Her dolled-up solo was cautious. Her break at the end meandered more than a little. I didn't care. Nobody else did, either. We were all impressed. The fact that she did it at all was pretty damned amazing. She'd never attempted anything like that before. Come to think of it, only one other pianist in the Eggheads' eight-year history EVER tried anything like that (Toyama, five years ago), and now he's a semi-professional jazz pianist playing clubs in Tokyo. But she didn't sound like Thelonius Monk or The Count right off the bat, so as far as she was concerned she'd failed. She'd let me down. She couldn't forgive herself for that. The standards she sets for herself are much too high.
As for Ikeda, she's an eighth grader who has just finished her first-ever performance as a jazz drummer. She has only performed on a drum set once before, and that was a simple pop piece the junior high wind ensemble played at the school's anniversary festival. In this concert, she played drums in "April in Paris" and "Little Brown Jug", both of which are fairly up-tempo swing numbers with lots of fills. She slipped a few beats here and there, but she stayed with us, and her fills were on the mark. Considering she couldn't even play a swing beat three months ago, I'd say she did a good job. I was going to congratulate her. Instead, now I'm trying to get her to stop crying and knock off the apologies. She's a good kid and a fairly serious student. Naturally, she sets very high standards for herself, too.
The standards that the youth of Japan set for themselves have become a serious issue of late. Since antiquity, the fundamental rule has always been "succeed or die". You're either perfect, or you're a failure. However, what used to constitute "perfection" seems to have been different from that of today. It used to be that you were "perfect" as long as you simply followed the same rules as everyone else. You were successful if you were obedient. Now the youth of Japan seems to be governed by two extremes. Either you find perfection by exceeding the average, or you say to hell with perfection altogether and find solace in mediocrity. Oshima and Ikeda are both examples of the former. They are both falling to pieces because they weren't able to do with absolute perfection what most other girls their age would probably never, ever be able to do in their entire lifetime.
As for those finding solace in mediocrity, well, a very good example is the Eggheads' current regular drummer, Yokota, who just completed the 10th grade. When she first entered our school, she was one of the top students in her class. Though frightfully naive, she was studious and capable, and the teachers thought she had a lot of potential. Then, about halfway through her 8th grade year, she looked at herself in the mirror and decided she hated what she saw. Suddenly she stopped studying and started coming to classes late if not skipping them altogether. She hung out with a bad crowd, chopped up her uniform in defiance of code, and was suspected (but never proven) of having done all sorts of illegal activities. I think a lot of her trouble stems from the fact that her older sister was a very successful student here at Seishin. Her older sister also played drums for the Eggheads, and she was pretty good at it. Now here she is, playing pieces her elder sister played, feeling herself in her sister's shadow.
Feeling herself to be not good enough.
Yokota loves playing the drums. In fact, she loves it so much that I recently had to talk her out of quitting school to dedicate herself entirely to playing with a rock band she'd joined. She told me then that playing drums for the Flying Eggheads was about the only reason she still came to Seishin. I did my best to help her see things a bit more broadly, but she still mainly lives for those drums. She's actually quite good at them, too. Unfortunately, she doesn't believe that she is. I don't think she believes herself to be good at anything. That's what governs her behavior.
It's also what governs her drumming, and that's the problem. She sounded brilliant in rehearsal. She got the tempos of "Moanin'" and "It Don't Mean a"/"Sing, Sing, Sing" far faster than I'd thought her capable of. Her fills were spot on and increasing in quality. Unfortunately, that was only in rehearsal, and that doesn't really count. During yesterday's performance she kept the tempo, even on the fast numbers, but she blew almost every single fill. On several occasions she wound up offbeat and had to stop and correct herself. It was a good thing that Oshima on the piano and Iizuka on the double bass were tight on, because otherwise she might've brought the whole band crashing down on several occasions.
When the performance was over, Yokota was devastated. However, unlike Ikeda and Oshima, she didn't come to me and beg for forgiveness. She tried to hide. She had fully expected to fail, and so she did. As far as I was concerned, she was the only individual in the entire band that didn't make the mark, the only blemish on an otherwise impressive performance, and there was really no reason for it. I know she can do better because she has done better. All that progress that she'd made in rehearsal was erased by a simple lack of faith in herself.
As the concert band was setting up for its performance set, I spied Yokota sulking behind the other percussionists, copped her on the shoulder, and asked her if she was alright. She couldn't even look at me, so I said, "You know, the only thing that you lack right now is confidence. Unfortunately, that's your biggest problem. I really don't know why, either. There's no reason for it whatsoever. You've proven you can do it. Try trusting yourself for a change and see what happens."
I felt the eyes of the rest of the percussion section on me. They'd all stopped their work and were gazing at us worriedly. Yokota is, after all, one of the senior members.
Yokota didn't say anything, but she gave me a not-quite-but-damned-close-to-tears look that spoke volumes followed by a quick, embarrassed bow, and then she went on with her work. For the record, she played her part with the concert band just fine. Now, during this party, I've noticed she is keeping herself on the opposite side of the room from me at all times. Fine. This is something she has to sort out on her own. No one can do it for her.
The judgment of self can be a tricky thing. It's good to set a high standard for yourself and be critical in your self-appraisal. It can also be healthy never to allow yourself to be fully satisfied, as that will always allow you room for growth. However, your standards should be both fair and realistic. If you know you can't make your own grade, perhaps you should rethink your priorities instead of simply branding yourself a failure. One should also understand that mistakes are an important part of the learning process. If you don't find perfection the first time, and few people ever do, you will be closer to it the next time, but only if you WANT to.
***sigh***
I hate it when girls cry...

3 Comments:

  • This issue of people in the music trade failing reminds me of something that happened to a good friend of mine. She was singing a very tough solo in a jazz choir competition, and did great right up to the last word. Unfortunately, it was the last word that she forgot. For all of us who knew the song, it was a moment of dread, but she finally got the word out, and nobody in the audience noticed. We all told her she did fine, but that didn't stop her from breaking out into tears after the group had left the stage. I think she gave up singing after that.

    By Blogger Pa've, at 9:39 AM  

  • Were her initials "M.M."?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:02 PM  

  • No, it wasn't M.M. it was P.P.

    By Blogger Pa've, at 11:51 AM  

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