Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Universal Language

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: there is never a dull moment with the Seishin Gakuen music club. However, there is an occasional moment of stark, screaming madness. Last July 3rd was a very good example.

Only about a month before that, Herr Maestro Ogawa gave me a surprising announcement (even more surprising in that he was clearly surprised himself as he gave it to me). We were going to be having visitors. Not just a few visitors, mind you, but a whole orchestra worth. Specifically, it was going to be a youth orchestra. To be even more specific, it was the A Orchestra (i.e. the top group) from Garfield High School in Seattle.

That in itself was cause enough for my heart to leap up into my throat, but it got worse.

The Japan Youth Orchestra Federation told us quite a bit about the Garfield HS orchestra even before I Googled it. The fact that they’ve won the All-Northwest Youth Orchestra Contest six years in a row turned out to be only the beginning. They have kids coming from all over to join their orchestra program. Every year, graduating members enter prestigious colleges such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Julliard, and so on.

In other words, they are the crème de la crème as far as high school orchestras on the West Coast go.

And they were coming to Seishin. All seventy of them plus their director and chaperones.


As it happened, they had already had two sister music programs in Japan for some time, both of which were located down in the southwestern part of the country (Okayama and Osaka, to be specific). They had already come to Japan to visit them twice in the previous six years, and they were doing so again this year. However, while one of the two schools had a strong choir program and the other had a very good marching band, neither had an orchestra. Also, since Garfield was traveling from Seattle, they had to come through the Kanto area anyway. Therefore, the director of the Garfield orchestra, a third-generation Japanese-American named Marcus Tsutakawa, put in a request to the Japan Youth Orchestra Federation. They wanted to get together with a high school orchestra in the Kanto area, if only for a brief “mixer”.

Seishin, as it turned out, was immediately recommended.

We were honored, to be sure, but we were also on the verge of panic. We had only a month to prepare for what was looking to be an event beyond anything we’d ever attempted before…and the action-packed schedule in the meantime meant that preparation time was at an extreme premium.

As always, Mr. Ogawa approached the whole thing like a true showman. Even if our orchestra wound up sounding like a bunch of squawking beginners by comparison, he wanted to give Garfield an event that they’d truly remember. When he called together the Band Parents Association and presented his proposals, we all thought he was nuts (which tends to happen quite a bit, I’ve noticed), but we decided to go for it. Shaking our heads and huffing, we set the plans into motion.

I won’t go into a lot of detail concerning preparation. Suffice to say that we made the best possible use of what little time the calendar and the school gave us. In and around exams, meetings, a local music festival, an audition for a national chamber music festival, a Saturday-Afternoon Concert, and an open-campus event, we squeezed in what we could when we could. It seemed like sadly little. Meanwhile, the Band Parents and the 11th graders kept busy behind the scenes. I did my part, too, not only leading rehearsals, but also keeping in direct touch with the Garfield orchestra, first by e-mail and then by cell phone.

On July 2nd, we spent all afternoon getting everything ready. The sense of urgency was so thick in the air that you could probably have poked it with a conductor’s baton and left a hole. Again, I really have to hand it to the Band Parents and the 11th graders. They were showing incredible grace under pressure (A chill wind comes a-rising above the cities of the…sorry…), and their efforts were truly extraordinary.

I didn’t get much sleep that night. I don’t think any of us did.

And then, like Deep Impact, the 3rd came barreling inexorably in. (Cue ominous, pulsing soundtrack.)

In other words, it dropped with one heck of a thump. Or was that my feet hitting the floor when I jumped out of bed? Whatever…

Acting on Mr. Ogawa’s suggestion, we had set up the Flying Eggheads jazz ensemble in the lobby, which was decorated with a pair of Tanabata trees (bamboo boughs decorated with ornaments and pieces of paper on which personal wishes are written in honor of the Tanabata Festival on July 7th). The intention was for us to give the Garfield orchestra a welcome performance as they came through the front door.

A Tanabata tree.

I have to admit that I was leery of the idea. After all, the Garfield A Orchestra was a group with a fair amount of prestige whose members included a lot of dedicated, serious, young classical musicians coming from all over. (Can you say, “Snobs from hell?” I certainly was muttering it under my breath!) There was also the no small fact that, according to the Garfield website at least, their own jazz band had been invited to a very selective All-American jazz event every year for the previous five years. That meant that they were considered among the top twenty high school jazz bands in the country.

That’s right. And we were going to be playing for them in the lobby. Our group of mostly junior high kids with limited jazz exposure.

I figured that, at best, we would get some smirks and a few comments of, “I am so sure,” as they filed on past to their dressing rooms. The thought made it hard for me to feel very enthusiastic about it.

As for the Eggheads themselves, they were so tense with anticipation that a strong draft might have shattered the whole lot of them into a fine layer of dust. It was bad enough that our performance at the Saturday Afternoon Concert the week before, in that very same lobby, hadn’t gone so well. They’d been dying from the heat then. Now they were just too nervous to function. It didn’t help that the warm-up was a complete disaster.

It was at this juncture that Charles showed up as promised. Good, old Charles, Assistant Language Teacher for the Hasaki junior high schools and 2nd violinist for the Kashima Philharmonic. Ever helpful, ever cheerful, ever ready with his smile, his quick wit, and his chocolates to bribe the students. It was definitely nice to have another Japanese-speaking gaijin on the scene to help out. The fact that he is also from the Seattle area definitely didn’t seem like a drawback, either. As soon as he showed his face in the lobby, he wound up hustling around helping with the last-minute preparations.

H-hour arrived, and so did the trucks carrying Garfield’s instruments and the harp they’d rented, but there was no sign of the buses. I had a very bad feeling. I had made a point of calling them the night before and telling them to be sure to instruct their bus drivers to come to the school’s main gate, not the north parking lot. For some reason, tour buses always seem to want to go to the north parking lot even though it’s so far away from the main entrance (possibly because it’s easier to get to from the highway), and they have to be told otherwise.

Just in case, I sent Charles up to the north parking lot. Yep, they were there. That meant that they had to go out again and loop all the way out around Kashima Jingu Station to come in through the main gate. That at least gave me an idea of how much time we had. It took me all that time to get the excited Eggheads to sit back down and get ready to play.

When the first Garfield members came through the front door, we started the Glenn Miller version of “Little, Brown Jug”. We kept it going as they filed on past up the slow, curving stairway behind me. After having worked with Japanese students all these years, it was bizarre seeing kids of so many shapes, sizes, and colors, but since I was facing my band I couldn’t get a very good look. I did see some smiles, though.

When Uchiura finished her tenor sax solo, I was surprised by the cheer that erupted behind me. I glanced back over my shoulder and discovered to my shock that the entire Garfield mob had stopped in the upper lobby and gathered around to watch our show. After we finished “Little, Brown Jug”, they gave us a hearty cheer…something you rarely if ever hear in Japan. The Eggheads were blown away.
I hadn’t expected to play more than one tune, but I started Count Basie’s “Splanky” anyway. By now the Eggheads were pumped up on the energy the Americans were giving them, and they gave perhaps their best performance so far this year. Even more amazingly, the bluesy ad-lib solos played by Yamamoto on alto sax and Onizawa on trumpet were remarkably mature…by far the best they’d ever done…and even they looked surprised, especially when the Garfield kids howled their approval. (That had never happened before in any Flying Eggheads gig!) After “Splanky” ended, the audience called for another tune, so I took an enormous risk and started my recently-completed, Glenn Miller style arrangement of our school fight song. It went very well despite the lack of practice, and again, the audience reaction was great.

I probably could have kept going, but I glanced at my watch and noticed we were already dangerously behind schedule. I thanked the Garfield crowd and directed them to follow our kids to the dressing rooms. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any time left for any real rehearsing. The orchestra concert was going to be cold as sushi.

Setting up took less time than expected, mainly because our kids were prepared and Garfield’s knew the routine very well. Even so, guests were already starting to come into our little auditorium. Seishin couldn’t rehearse at all. Garfield could only warm up a little. Then they cleared off so that Seishin could start the concert.

As rehearsal time had been perilously short, Mr. Ogawa had trimmed down his planned program. Still, it was demanding. They opened with “The Blue Danube” (Johann Strauss) followed by a rather brutal suite from the movie “E.T.” (John “f***ing sadist” Williams). Then they finished the program with “West Side Story Selections” (Leonard Bernstein). Garfield had sounded damned impressive during their warm-up, and our kids were feeling quite intimidated, but they still put on a respectable show. As with the Flying Eggheads performance in the lobby, the enthusiastic response from the Garfield group really helped a lot.

I don’t know if it helped my translating, however. On one occasion Mr. Ogawa used a word I simply didn’t know…so he translated that one word himself. The crowd (which included band parents, members of the Seishin faculty, students from other schools, and members of the community as well as the Garfield entourage) got a kick out of that.

Then it was Garfield’s turn. It was the last concert of their two-week Japan tour. They opened with Holst’s “Jupiter”, which is definitely a barn-burner. Next they surprised us by playing a suite from the Miyazaki animated movie “My Neighbor Totoro”, which really delighted the Japanese audience. Then they finished with Gerschwinn’s “An American in Paris”. Once again, I played interpreter, giving the Japanese rendition of Mr. Tsutakawa’s explanations. It’s far easier translating Japanese to English than the reverse, but at least I figured not many people would catch my mistakes that time around.

The whole program closed with both orchestras getting onstage together and playing “Farandole” from L’Arlesienne. Mr. Ogawa directed. There were some worries beforehand. It was bad enough that Seishin had to retune. (American orchestras tune A=440Hz, whereas Japanese musicians always use A=442Hz.) The fact that Seishin had only practiced the tune twice alone and not at all with Garfield made for some serious anxiety. It turned out to be unfounded. That tune might have been the most impressive of the whole concert. The joint orchestras sure put out a heck of a big sound in that little auditorium! It was amazing to listen to.

Now that the concert was done, it was time for the reception. The huge, throbbing mass oozed its way down to the cafeteria, where we got to see just how busy the Band Parents Association had been. It was quite a spread of food…including a live sushi chef (apparently a friend of Mr. Ogawa). Some of the parents had been rather leery of offering sushi to Americans, convinced that there was no way gaijin could ever stomach raw fish, but the huge, never-ending line that immediately formed at the chef’s booth quickly dispelled those notions. Mr. Ogawa wanted me to provide entertainment throughout by interviewing various people and keeping up a running dialogue, but I carefully avoided doing so. I knew the kids would much rather I just shut up and let them socialize. In the end, I think they were all happier for it.

Mr. Tsutakawa also had an interesting surprise. His cousin and his grandmother, whom he had rarely seen on account of their living in Japan, were there to join in the festivities. For the well-known director of more than one quality youth orchestra, he was a remarkably mellow, easy-going, everyday sort of guy who was totally likable (even if he had gone to University of Oregon for two years...). It was nice to let him have a bit of a family reunion as part of the event.

When we finally did wrap it up, we brought them all back up to the lobby, where the 11th grade girls, all dressed in traditional summer yukata (summer kimonos, also a Tanabata Festival standard) performed a dance number with big, wide smiles on their faces. The dance they performed was one whose tune was a big hit last year, “Matsuken Samba.” In the original, “Matsuken” himself (normally an actor in samurai flicks – picture a Japanese John Wayne, as Charles explained to the crowd) danced the lead part dressed in a gold, sequin-studded samurai costume.

So, in our music club’s rendition, Mr. Ogawa’s son Sanshiro came out dressed in a gold, sequin-studded yukata and danced the lead. That brought down the house.

As a finale, we had the Garfield students load all their stuff on the buses, and then I lead them on a very short hike to Kashima’s #1 attraction which is just a few blocks from the campus (okay, besides the soccer stadium!), Kashima Shrine. I rounded up the whole mass of them at the rear entrance and gave them a brief summary of its history, legendary as well as factual. I expected them to be bored. On the contrary; they actually thanked me, saying, “If it weren’t for your explanation, it would’ve been just another shrine.”

The chaperones went so far as to say they wished I’d been along when they’d visited other historical spots over the previous two weeks. English explanations had been sadly lacking, it would seem, so they’d been through a lot of “just another shrine”.

I don’t know; if I ever run away screaming from Seishin, I might have a glorious future as a tour guide…

I hadn’t been in the shrine for a while, even despite its closeness to my workplace. When I lived in Kashima back in 1992 I used to walk there all the time. As always, it felt like an old friend. Eerie, but still an old friend.

That fact that we were accompanied by our kimono-clad 11th grade girls made it all the more interesting. It was as if we had suddenly gone back in time. Even the girls seemed somehow affected, as if they felt that spirit, too.

While we walked down the broad, forest-lined central avenue, one of the Garfield students said, “It’s spooky in here. These trees are cool. It’s like they’re watching me or something.” I can’t help but smile. People have been saying that for thousands of years, and that’s why there is a Kashima Shrine.

It took a while for all the Garfield crew to find their way to their buses. Several of them had wandered off among all those little paths and buildings. They were heading back to Seattle the very next day (the 4th of July, which, thanks to the International Date Line, they’d be experiencing twice), so Kashima was their last taste of Japan. From all appearances, I think it was a good one.

I, Charles, and the kimono-clad 11th grade girls from Seishin watched the buses go. Then the kids immediately started discussing what they were going to put in the e-mails they planned to send their new friends in Seattle.

I guess we struck a blow for internationalization, after all. How fitting that it should be through music, the one language spoken everywhere.

The Garfield High School A Orchestra


  • My own involvement with music has opened many doors and taken me places I never would have otherwised imagined possible. Good on you for welcoming those Seattle students and sharing your music with them.

    Perhaps music is the univeral language, or perhaps it is just the fact humans all have some kind of music is a connection we can share. I may not understand Thai or Indonesian music because it uses a different set of principles than Western music, but I can listen just the same and appreciate how those people relate to it. Is it the same language? Maybe not, but it is a shared attribute of civilization that we can connect with. (If I am not clear, that means I am functioning as normally do - sorry).

    I remember travelling with my college band to Paris during the final years of the war on Vietnam; of playing the Star Spangled Banner to an audience at the University of Paris where huge protests against the US war had taken place, and where anti US grafitti was everywhere (we were very, very, nervous). We received a standing ovation. Playing the piece was not a political statement, it was music, and was accepted as such.

    Anyway, sounds like you all had a great experience.

    I have loved Kashima Jingu since the first time I saw it in 1987. Those trees are magic and fill me with awe everytime I visit.

    A bevy of kimono clad girls wouldn't hurt either.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 7:00 PM  

  • Hi! Mike here, Garfield parent and Friendship Tour 2005 chaperone. We LOVED your jazz band performance -- what fun! Speaking of which, I have pictures that I'd be delighted to email you. I can say without hesitation that the Sheishin Gakuen concert and reception was as much fun as we had throughout our tour.

    Contact me at (obfuscating slightly here) mike dot pope at gmail dot com.

    By Anonymous mike, at 3:05 PM  

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