Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

My Picture Page

I guess I should mention this if I haven't already, though at least one person has already found it. I created a second blog page just for the purpose of hosting my pictures (since I haven't gotten on the photobucket bandwagon). All the photos (with links to the full-sized versions) I took during the school trip to Hiroshima and Kyoto are there. The title of this post is a link to it. Check it out if you think it's worthwhile (or not).

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Bella Voce

Just when we thought it was safe to go back to bed... it's the Seishin Gakuen Ongaku Kanshoukai. (That literally translates as "Seishin Academy Music Appreciation Event".) It basically amounts to getting all the students together (usually the junior and senior high sections separately) to see some kind of high-class musical performance, ideally with some educational value.

These things happen about twice every three years, with the third being an Engeki Kanshoukai ("Drama Appreciation Event"). They are usually a lot of fun, especially since my role as co-director of the music program and general staff for Mr. Ogawa puts me in a position to be directly and even intimately involved. In the nearly ten years I've been at Seishin, I have had the pleasure to help with performances by:

- "Rhythm & Brass", a jazz-influenced brass ensemble w/ drummer from New York (who came two years in a row, but I only saw and worked with them once),
- a Balinese gamelan band (whose members included one Seishin teacher and her half-Balinese husband!) performing together with a Balinese dance troupe,
- The Salzburg Mozart Ensemble, the only "officially sanctioned" group to perform Mozart's music under the authority of the Salzburg Mozart Museum,
- A choir from Sachsen-Anhalt in former East Germany whose members were an interesting mix of Germans, Czech, Poles, and Russians,
- A string ensemble from Florence whose director is a big name in classical music throughout Europe.

All of those events gave me the opportunity to see and hear some excellent performances by first-rate artists. They also allowed me to get acquainted with some really good people as all of them, without exception, were really cool even despite their levels of prestige. I was also allowed some other fringe benefits. Rhythm & Brass had toured all over the world, and they had a lot of anecdotes that were as informative as they were entertaining. The Salzburg Mozart Ensemble and the Sachsen-Anhalt choir gave me opportunities to dust off my German, which they appreciated even more than I did (and I was also able to challenge myself with exposure to Austrian and Saxon dialects. Nnnnope). (I might also add that the Sachsen-Anhalt choir, which was staffed entirely by people from countries that I was brought up to regard as "the enemy", showed me a human face from that part of the world for which I was very grateful.) The ensemble from Florence led me to get busy and learn a (very tiny) bit of Italian, and I always love learning a new language, even if I wind up forgetting it within a month. (Then there was that one bella violinista that wore tight, black...AHEM...)

Anyway, this year's event is to feature a performance by:

The Seishin Gakuen orchestra? Conducted by Mr. Ogawa?

Yes, there have been naysayers. Lots of them. The complaints have ranged from, "Couldn't you find anything better this year?" to "Why do we have to take our students out of class and herd them over to the Workers' Culture Hall for nothing but a music club exhibition?" Mr. Ogawa compromised by allowing each grade faculty the option of withdrawing. The senior class (and only the senior class) took him up on that and opted out.

Even so, dismissing the event as "nothing but a music club exhibition" would be kind of like dismissing Mr. M's social studies classes as "nothing but Mr. M yammering on and on". The first part of the performance is most definitely educational in content. As for the second part, it actually features a performance by two professional (read "world class" as both have very international dossiers) opera singers from Tokyo. The Seishin orchestra is providing their accompaniment, and therein lies the real rub.

We didn't really have a whole lot of time to rehearse, and even if we did, Mr. Ogawa clearly had no idea what he was getting himself into. Now, on the eve of the performance, he is visibly worried and mumbling to himself that he may very well have bitten off more than he can chew. The first part of the program is no problem. Moussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" is already on the Kashima Philharmonic set list, so the kids have been working on it for months. The same is true of Britten's "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" (with me narrating). The kids have been practicing it since the summer training camp, and it's mostly down. The clip from Beethoven's 5th, used as a demonstrator for conducting, is no problem. However, when the opera singers showed up last night for their one and only rehearsal, it was a near-total disaster.

Kashima Workers' Culture Hall

The kids have spent the past three weeks (minus the school trip for the 9th graders) working on the opera tunes, which didn't really seem so difficult. When the singers were present, however, we almost had to start over from scratch. You see, it's one thing for an orchestra to back up someone singing a popular song. The music starts, and the vocalist sings along with it. Opera is a completely different ball game. They sing how they want, and the orchestra has to adjust to match. In an actual opera performance, with the orchestra down in the pit, the conductor is out in front, so he and the performers onstage can see each other and judge each other's body language. When all parties are on the stage for a concert performance, however, it is much more difficult. The instrumentalists have to watch the conductor like a hawk, and he has to keep a close eye on the singers. It's tricky to say the least, and it requires a high level of musical maturity on the part of all performers.

KWCH, "Howaie" Lounge

Needless to say, most school bands or orchestras wouldn't even attempt something like this. I think we were all feeling a bit humbled after last night's rehearsal, which ended long before it was finished. Now, in the teachers' ready room at the Workers' Culture Hall, Mr. Ogawa, Mr. Karatsu, and I are all staring blankly into space, chins in hand leaning on the low table, wondering just how insane we really are. The doors open all too soon for the morning's junior high performance. Soon it's curtain time, and there's nothing to do but go for it.

Facing the stage, KWCH

"Night on Bald Mountain" sounds a bit loose and tentative. The kids are nervous, particularly the junior high ones on stage before their peers. I have a feeling that last night's rehearsal may have left them a bit demoralized, too. The strings are mostly on target, but the woodwinds are out of tune, the brass are sagging, and the percussion section is struggling to stay on the mark. Even so, "Bald Mountain" is an entertaining piece even if it squeaks a bit. Besides, the quiet sequence at the end does feature some beautiful playing by a couple of our best players. The winds manage not to muff that deadly last, pianissississimo fermata (known in some circles as "flautist's deathleap").

After that, I'm on, mike in hand, yammering away in Japanese about how wonderful everything is. Then I begin my explanation of the orchestra with the guy standing in front, the conductor. The 7th and 8th graders are actually studying conducting in their music classes, so it's totally appropriate. Mr. Ogawa then talks a bit about how to conduct Beethoven's 5th, followed by a quick demonstration. Next I invite students to come up and give it a try. We asked for two representatives from each of the three junior high grades, but we get a good-sized crowd. There's a lot of enthusiasm, sometimes even some outright comedy, and it's a lot of fun.

One thing I notice, much to my delight, is that the kids in the orchestra are responding to all those guest conductors. I'm not just talking about starting and stopping, either. They actually adjust their tempo...and stay together (providing the conductor doesn't brick it completely, as some do). Even better, I can clearly hear them adjusting their dynamics and style to fit the body language of the person in the saddle. When a couple of kids forget to cut off the last note, the orchestra goes right on holding it out until I desperately remind the current conductor to get back on the platform and stop them. In other words, the members of the orchestra are watching the conductor, and they are following him/her perfectly. That shows a level of maturity I wouldn't have expected.

The comic relief finally comes to an end, and it's time for Britten. The orchestra performed this piece, with my narration, seven years ago for the All-Japan Selective Youth Orchestra Festival (and there were lots of complaints about "that gaijin" speaking the original English!). I hadn't done it until last summer's training camp, where I found I still remembered my lines. I still do, though I rarely perform them verbatim, and I don't this time, either. I ad-lib, making it easier so the junior high kids have a chance of understanding at least some of it. "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" is a very challenging work with lots of solos and small ensembles, obviously, but it is a lot of fun. The kids clearly enjoy doing it, too, though they still appear to be struggling a bit. Last night's rehearsal was much better. Still, they are playing at a much higher level overall than the orchestra of seven years ago, and it's enough to wow a crowd not made up of classical snobs.

The first half is over, and the crowd, amazingly, is appreciative. None of the kids are chatting among themselves, and I spot only a few sleepers. It's a good sign.

Dressing Room #1, which is always the "teachers' room"

The opera singers come out for part two, which I watch on the monitor in the teachers' room while sprawled out on a pile of cushions. My heart is in my mouth, but I'm soon relieved...for the most part. Mr. Ogawa has a much better idea what's going on, and the kids are with him. The first two tunes suffer from intonation problems, but the kids apparently hear it and fix it themselves. The oh-so-dangerous "Queen of the Night" from Mozart's "Magic Flute" goes brilliantly. This is followed by "Santa Lucia" (an Italian folk song but sung in German...apparently from an opera) and then a gorgeous medley from "The Sound of Music" (I know...that's not an opera. Whatever). The encore is a recent tune, originally in Italian and sung in that language but with the title "Time to Say Goodbye". It was also a hideous mess in rehearsal, but now it sounds great...and that tune has a wonderful melody.

The morning show is done. The junior high audience seems happy as it oozes out the exits. As for the kids in the orchestra and Mr. Ogawa, they are shaking their heads with both relief and disbelief. However, they are only halfway there. The senior high performance will happen in the afternoon, and that promises to be an even tougher audience.

Lunch break is long, but not nearly long enough. Round two drops like an overweight cliff-diver.

Actually, though, "Bald Mountain" sounds much better this time. It's tighter, better in tune, and better balanced. When I go out for the Beethoven's 5th conducting session, there are only two brave souls that jump up on the stage to give it a try. Working the audience as best I can, I manage to coax up one more student (the new student body president, who does the best of anybody today!) and two teachers. Not as many as in the morning, but it's still fun. It's also more relaxed and restful for the kids in the orchestra, which helps the "Guide to the Orchestra" to go over much, much, much better than in the morning. No one is saving his chops this time, so there's a lot more energy. It all goes really well, and all those problem punks currently in the audience (I only saw ONE SLEEPER!!!!) actually give us a rousing applause!

And if I thought that was good...

KWCH, facing the wing where I stood behind a curtain and watched

The performance with the opera singers, which I watch from the wings this time, goes superbly. All the sloppiness and poor intonation of the junior high set is gone. The orchestra is sounding tight. And, of course, the opera singers are excellent. That encore, "Time to Say Goodbye", could have moved almost anyone to tears (though I manage to keep mine in my head by sheer effort). Again, the audience response, which I feared would be totally lacking, is very warm.

Ah, it's over. The kids are wiped out. Mr. Ogawa is walking in circles making funny, high-pitched whines. The opera singers are telling me that I have a "bella voce" (lovely voice) and saying I should come and announce another show for them sometime, and I am replying in a raspy, husky hiss between coughs. Breakdown and cleanup goes quickly and efficiently (because it's a well-practiced routine), but the faces around me look awfully vacant. Even so, through it all, I still see smiles. I also hear lots of muffled cries of "Yatta!" ("We did it!") The kids are proud of what they've just done, and they damn well should be. I would have been proud even if they'd sounded like total crap simply because no school band in its right mind would have even tried to do this. They did it, and, when they got it together, they did the job well.

Now, why the heck can't we take this outfit to Sydney?????!?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The 2005 Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival

And now that I've only just come back from Kyoto, it's time for the 2nd Kashima Seaside Festival (really hip, swingin' fanfare). Once again, the Seishin Flying Eggheads have been asked to be part of this new, hopefully regular part of Kashima's rapidly-burgeoning cultural scene. Last year's event was really something else, and this year's promises to be every bit as good if not better. If nothing else, it's always great to give amateurs like myself and the Eggheads a chance to be stars and rub shoulders with the professionals.

If only the timing didn't suck so much.

Like I said, I've only just gotten back from Kyoto. That means that, right before the event, we've gone almost a full week without rehearsing. To make matters worse, during that last rehearsal that I directed, some members were absent...including the student captain/lead tenor sax player. Our rehearsal also got trimmed down to a bare minimum.

Actually, I asked Mr. Ogawa to direct a rehearsal at least once while I was gone, and he did it yesterday, but doing so always entails a certain amount of risk. After all, though I have nowhere near his talent, training, or experience, his idea of jazz is mainly Gerschwin and Bernstein. My own is kind of an interesting cross between the be-bop, groove, and fusion we did in high school, the blues and big band era immersion I got in my early college days, and the be-bop/modern/avantgarde of my late college days. I have a habit of letting my genres mix, but jazz is supposed to be all about creation and spontaneity, right?

As soon as I walk into the music office, Mr. Ogawa immediately launches into the expected tirade. He usually does his best to support me and to give me plenty of spotlight, but he doesn't hesitate to cut me down if I ever expose a flank. Our differing views on how the jazz band should be run are a particular sticking point (which is why he usually stays well away from it). Most of what he says are things I already know and have already addressed in my own rehearsals (with mixed results), but there are a few points of contention, mainly with regard to style. I try to explain that the opening melody in "Splanky" falls behind the beat because I told them to play it that way, but it doesn't compute. Also, even though I know the original Count Basie style is very clipped and punchy (moreso than Miller or Dorsey), I usually have the kids draw out some of the phrase endings just a little more, giving it a bit smoother, more modern feel. Mr. Ogawa informs me that he has "fixed" these problems. Oh, boy.

It is now after 1:00 and the kids are still not getting into gear. I made it very clear (repeatedly) that we are to depart at 1:30 so that we'll have plenty of time to get ready for our 3:00 curtain. I told them to bring the heavy gear, such as the drums and bass, down and leave them by the back entrance after yesterday's rehearsal with Mr. Ogawa (and Mr. Ogawa informed me that he'd told them the same thing). It just didn't happen. I'd like an explanation, but right now I don't have time to get one, because I immediately get hooked and reeled into another inconvenient obligation: eiken interview training.

Yes, tomorrow Seishin Gakuen is hosting part two of the Standardized Test of English Proficiency, also known as the STEP test or eiken (abbreviated from the Japanese translation of the title). Part two is an interview test. Every time one of these comes around, each of the English teachers at our school is assigned students to train, usually at the students' request. This year I have two, they're both taking high-level tests, and they're both scared to death. Since I was gone all week on that school trip, this is the only chance I have to work with them. They're not going to let me get away, either. Gnashing my teeth and digging at my flesh, I tell (more like "yell at") the Eggheads to pick up the pace, and I quickly go to take care of my charges.

My...time flies when you don't want it to...

It is now 1:27, and the Eggheads are only now starting to load the vehicles. I was unable to borrow either of the school's vans, so we're having to use Mr. Ogawa's minivan and my BLUE RAV4 (with the back seat rolled up). A couple of the parents have also volunteered to play taxi driver, which is nice but risky. If anything goes wrong, the question of responsibility could become very ugly. Whatever. My hands are tied.

It is now a little past 2:00, we're finally in the rehearsal room at the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall, and the kids are starting to get their instruments ready. Unfortunately, I have yet another inconvenient task to perform. Our first trombone player opted to take an optional standardized proficiency test today. His homeroom teacher is none other than Mr. Karatsu, the music club's third director. Mr. Karatsu told me he would have the boy wait and take the test tomorrow. Apparently he changed his mind. He also told me he's too busy to bring the boy over to the Hall himself, which means I have to circle back and pick him up. I tell the Eggheads' captain to start a tuning and warm-up session, and I head back to the academy as fast as Kashima traffic will let me (i.e. walking might have been faster).

The trombone player is right on time. We get back to the Hall at about 2:40 to find the Eggheads sitting around doing everything but tuning or warming up. My demand for an explanation elicits a response of, "We didn't want to interfere with the other group..." Never mind that the "other group" in the room goes onstage after we do! This moody minstrel quickly becomes a whole lot moodier. At 2:50 we finally start warming up and rehearsing.

At 2:55 we are told to go on standby backstage. We are virtually going on cold.

3:00. Curtain time. Part Two of the Festival begins with us.

Unlike last year, this year's Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival has a definite theme. They've divided it into sections, each representing a period of jazz history. Part One was dixieland. (African folk songs, field hollers, Haitian dance music, blues, and ragtime would have been more appropriate, but I shan't burst the bubble.) Part Two is the Swing Era. We were asked to represent the latter, so our set is basically a very condensed "who's who" of 30s and 40s swing.

We open with "Splanky", and my teeth are clenched. That was our opener at that political rally in Mito a couple of weeks ago, and it was very uninspired then, even languid. I gave the kids what-for about that, and it appears to have sunk in. Despite Mr. Ogawa's "fixing" it, or maybe even because of it, it sounds pretty good today. The three improv solos in the middle are also much better than in Mito, particularly since the guy at the mixing console is able to boost our somewhat weak bari sax player so her solo can at least be heard. The warm audience response also does much to energize the Eggheads.

Next, at the request of the event organizers, I pick up my clarinet, and we do Benny Goodman's "Let's Dance" followed by Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade". Not one of my most impressive performances, I'd say (and I tend to say that a lot), but it feels really good, and the loud, enthusiastic audience is a shot in the arm. I'm definitely feeling in the groove. I'd happily do several more pieces if the Eggheads had them in their repertoire, but it's time to move on. My clarinet goes back on its stand, and I'm back in director mode.

Continuing on the Glenn Miller page, we play "Little, Brown Jug". That has long been a sort of standard with the Eggheads, and the kids have it down pat. It goes really well.

We follow it by moving on to Duke Ellington, starting with a more modern arrangement of "Take the A Train". It's a challenging piece, and we pull out the stops. It is here that our weaknesses start to appear; there's a sloppy entrance here, a slightly rushed phrase there, finger flubs in a couple of fast 16th-note runs, and a long, be-bop-style tenor solo that ends up being just a lot of uninspired eighth notes, but we still hold it together and keep the energy going. It is also in this piece that our one real screw-up takes place. The Eggheads originally had three drummers, but one of them, the boy who played on "A Train", dropped out a few weeks ago. The girl who took his place is the older of the two remaining drummers but by far the less talented. She also went on the school trip to Hiroshima and Kyoto during the past week, meaning no rehearsal time. Even so, if she is anything, she is determined, and she goes nuts on her extended drum break. She puts everything she has into it, and we are amazed. Unfortunately, she gets carried away, and she loses control right at the final count-off. Her eyes and mouth open wide in horror, she tumbles completely off the beat (and, for a fraction of a second, loses her grip on one of the sticks), but by some miracle (or simply because the kids are good :-) ) the rest of the band comes in tight and strong on the following entrance. We pull out as if nothing happened.

Hey, if it's perfect, it's not jazz! Besides, the audience is still being wonderful!

We follow that with "It Don't Mean a Thing (if It Ain't Got That Swing)", and we are pumped up enough for me to take it fast. That was the Eggheads' traditional closing number from 1999 till 2002, but it has sat in the cupboard since then. I pulled it out only a few weeks ago just for this event, and we only rehearsed it a couple of times. Ironically, it is perhaps the best performance of the evening. In fact, it feels so good...and there is so much time left in our slot...that I am all ready to yell out for an encore (which would have been "Blue Bossa"), but the emcee doesn't hesitate to jump on the stage and start yammering away as soon as the final beat of "It Don't Mean a Thing" thumps down.

She also doesn't hesitate to call me over for an interview (natch). I don't really mind, because I always tend to milk those things for all they're worth, but it just seems so cliche. Oh, long as the crowd is happy, right?

After that I go to see off the Eggheads, but I'm immediately grabbed and pressed into service doing something else. Once the Swing Era bit is done (and there are two professional groups after us in Part Two), they start Part Three, which has a modern jazz theme. They have rearranged the stage into a smoky nightclub scene complete with a neon sign saying "Seaside Jazz Club" and customers at the tables! Naturally, the focus is on combos, and they are all professional (and, in fact, one of the guest soloists, Saori Yano a very tall, female saxophonist, is one of Japan's current up-and-coming jazz stars!). So, what do they want me for? I'm glad you asked! They want me to be an English-speaking announcer, such as you always hear on FM radio stations and in Tokyo's snobbier jazz clubs. I have a ball with that, waxing eloquent in a soft, sensual, moody tone of voice over the PA from offstage. It also allows me to watch the professional combos perform from right at the edge of the stage, so I'm treated to an excellent show.

As with last year, the final act of the evening is our area's very own Blue Notes Jazz Orchestra, a semi-professional big band of which I used to be a regular member (before my work schedule and having children made the long commute to their rehearsal room a bit too inconvenient). They used to...well...stink...back in those days, but now they are sounding a lot better. They also have a lot more members than before. Their set, which they have apparently only just decided on, sounds a bit tentative and haphazard, but they still put on a decent performance.

And then there is the encore. Last year they tried to invite members of all the performing groups and anyone who had an instrument on hand to join in a performance of "Sing, Sing, Sing", but Mr. Ogawa and I were the only ones left, so we wound up being in the spotlight. This year they try doing more or less the same thing, but this time with "It Don't Mean a Thing (if It Ain't Got That Swing)" (a different, much-slower version than the one the Flying Eggheads played). Mr. Ogawa gave the whole event a wide berth this time, but one of the professional artists is here. It's the clarinetist from the dixieland band. Once again, it looks like we're having a twin-clarinet extravaganza, and this time I'm clearly the one who's wetter behind the ears. I'm not complaining at all. The pro (a 45-year-playing-veteran whose name I never learn) is a really good sort, and we have a blast trading improv solos. Then, as the event organizer gives the farewell speech and the curtain starts to close, the pro and I launch into an impromptu duet of "Home Sweet Home" (The old dixieland standard, NOT the Guns n' Roses one, dumb!) climaxing in a lovely "amen", with everyone onstage singing along, just as the curtain finishes closing.

Beautiful!!!!!!!! It's bourbon & Coke time!
And now I can turn my attention back to Moussorgsky...

Friday, November 11, 2005

2005 School Trip, Day 4

The final day has come! And still without major event! Yes, as far as school trips go, this one has been AMAZINGLY quiet. I'm not sure whether to feel relieved or disappointed. As always, the final day's schedule consists of a few group tour stops in Kyoto followed immediately by the journey home.

Our first stop is at a place called Shoguntsuka (Shogun's fortress). Back when the capital was first moved from Heijo-kyo (Nara) to Nagaoka-kyo and then to Heian-kyo (Kyoto) at the tail end of the 8th century (thus beginning the Heian Era, not to mention over 1000 years of Kyoto being the Imperial capital), there were a lot of problems. Not only were there a lot of bizarre accidents (blamed on hauntings...apparently the main reason the capital was moved in the first place) but there was already quite a lot of intrigue among the aristocrat clans. To help keep order, the Emperor appointed his most trusted military captain to top leadership of all his forces, a newly-created rank with an all-new title: shogun. This first shogun was then posted to a watchpost atop a promontory offering a splendid view of the entire valley. Guess what? The view there is still fantastic, even though the sky is gray today.

I’m sure the view would be a heck of a lot better at night, but there isn’t much room for complaint at this point.

Next we visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace, seat of the Emperor until the Meiji Reformation at the end of the 19th century, when the Imperial capital was moved to the shogunate capital, Edo (which was then renamed Tokyo). The old palace is still vitally important, as we soon learn. Visits are possible only through special appointment, and security is very tight. Actually, it is even tighter than usual today for a very surprising reason. None other than President Bush himself is coming for an official visit very soon. As a result, our tour is clipped and rushed, but our guide is a real kick. His talk is easy to follow and a blast to listen to. This is actually my second visit here, and this time it is better even if it's hurried. The fact that our kids are on their best behavior wins some unexpected praise. (The last time I came here was exactly the opposite. I was with a disaster class, their behavior was abominable, and we got chewed out.)

We're ahead of schedule, so we make a quick stop at Higashi Honganji (lit. “East Main Temple), a vast temple ordered built by (arguably) the greatest of the dictator shoguns, Ieyasu Tokugawa, in the 17th century just to show off (and to outdo the Nishi Honganji [“West Main Temple”] that was built by his recently-defeated rival, Hideyoshi Toyotomi). It is currently undergoing a major renovation, so its precincts are a bizarre combination of old and new.

Here is the old...

...and the (temporary) new.

Finally, as always, our last stop is Toji temple, which has the tallest pagoda in the country. Whatever the historical and/or spiritual significance of this temple, which technically is as old as Kyoto (though the current buildings mainly date from the 17th century), to me it signifies saying goodbye to Kyoto and heading home. Depending on the year, that can either bring elation or blues. This year the air inside the two worship halls seems particularly musty and irritating, and my allergies quickly go nuts. That definitely makes me feel kind of blue, and I guess it's only appropriate. As I said before, it has been a quiet trip, but a good one.

Goodbye, Kyoto! I'm sure I'll be back soon...maybe even next year!

Now back to the real world. Tomorrow is the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

2005 School Trip, Day 3

Open Tour Day in Kyoto has finally arrived!!!!

The funniest thing about it is that I have more experience with this than any other member of the Seishin faculty, a fringe benefit of being assigned to the same grade almost every year instead of being rotated. I’m at the point now where I’ve been to pretty much all the really famous (i.e. really crowded) places already, so I do my best to avoid them. Instead, I concentrate on finding the less well known treasures. There are certainly a lot of them in this fabled city.

I still have no idea what I'm going to do today...but there is always serendipity. That has always tended to work better for me, anyway. As it turns out, a Seishin graduate who is attending college in Kyoto is planning on playing tour guide for the newly-promoted vice principal, Mr. I, and the grade chief, Mr. A. I have a look at the tour itinerary prepared by the alum, and it looks interesting…definitely something planned by someone “in the know”. At the very least it looks more promising than anything I could come up with on the spur of the moment. When I'm invited to join them, I jump at the chance.

The first thing we do is hop on a crowded bus (which soon becomes an insanely crowded bus) that takes us up into the mountains ringing the city. It's amazing just how quickly the city disappears. One minute there are houses and convenience stores all around us, and the next it's spectacular scenery. Soon we are in landscape that reminds me a lot of the Oregon Coast mountain range except that the trees are Japanese cedars with occasional elms and maples scattered among them. Wherever those trees can be found, there are splashes of color, sometimes very brilliant.

We get off the bus at the end of its run and then walk up the path that will take us to Sanzenin Temple. As usual, the path is enclosed by shops, but at least they sell unusual and/or handcrafted items. Moreover, they've all gone to a lot of trouble to blend in well with the scenery, and I’m grateful for it.

There sure seems to be an awful lot of cats, though.

We arrive at the temple entrance, pay the admission fee, and head to the first building, where we are immediately assailed by a couple of shaven-headed, young priests that are selling all manner of Buddhist trinkets, from incense to place on the altar to expensive good luck charms and worship books. Things like that always irritate me, but I forget all about it when I get inside the main garden complex. It is both peaceful and almost unearthly beautiful.

We make our way to the famous inner worship hall, actually a national treasure, and listen to an interpretive lecture by a priest who probably should have been a tour conductor if not a stand-up comic! The man is a blast to listen to, and he points out some strange things about the hall. Not only are there unusual little clumps of flowers painted among the rafters: black ones from the Heian Era (9th to 11th centuries), white ones from the Edo Era (17th to 19th centuries), and a little clump of red ones whose origin is a total mystery. Even more baffling about that hall is the fact that sounds are often heard from inside it and large objects (such as the main statues, which weigh close to a ton) found to have been moved when it is completely sealed shut during off times.

Considering the eeriness of the gardens that surround the place, why am I not surprised?

To make things even more interesting, I experience a mystery of my own. Visitors to the hall are required to remove their shoes, which is usually the case inside any Buddhist facility. Afterward, when I put my shoes back on, I feel something inside one of them, like a rock or something. I take the shoe off and upend it, but nothing comes out. As we circle around through the garden and make our way out again, the feeling gets worse, so I take my shoe off again and give it a good shake. Out drops a 100 yen coin (worth a little less than a dollar). I don't have the faintest idea how in the bloody world that coin could have gotten into my shoe! Is someone trying to tell me something?

After enjoying the extraordinary beauty for a while, we circle back down for a bite of lunch. We wind up taking more time than our twenty-something guide hoped, but what do you expect with all these graying veterans? The itinerary winds up getting cut a bit short, so we skip ahead and visit Shisendo, a strange-looking villa (La Villa Strangiato?) with an even stranger story behind it.

A warlord by the name of Ishikawa, who was a retainer of the great shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi, went into hiding when the latter was defeated and overthrown by Ieyasu Tokugawa (thus starting the Edo Era, 17th to 19th centuries). Ishikawa had the villa built as his hideout. Indeed, it stands in a very well-concealed location that nevertheless offers a grand view of Kyoto, particularly from the bizarre, little watchtower on the roof! Apparently he intended to spy on Tokugawa’s forces in Kyoto in order to aid the resistance, but apparently he either gave up or just became too occupied with other things. For one thing, Ishikawa was big on both poetry and lavish parties, so he had a beautiful garden built around his villa strangiato (MONSTERS!) and frequently invited the local beatnik scene to hang out at his place. He even had a miniature Zen stone garden similar to the famous one at Ryoanji Temple installed right behind his back door so he and his lyrical buddies could sit around, drink sake, contemplate the mysteries of the omniverse, and compose verses.

I guess the writing brush really is mightier than the ken.

Now the villa is a small temple (dedicated to…wait for it…learning and poetry) still surrounded by that very lovely garden. It is famous for its autumn leaves, but they've only just barely started to turn. Nevertheless, it is truly both lovely and contemplative; I know I could happily spend long days there letting my thoughts wander. I have to wonder what kinds of creations I would come up with in such a setting! Perhaps it would be worth imagining?

Once again, we cut the itinerary short. We pop into a traditional teahouse for some maccha (extra-strong, powdered green tea) and old-style snacks. In Kyoto after strolling around in meditative gardens, nothing else would do (except perhaps sake).

Back at the hotel, dinner is "shabu-shabu nabe" (do-it-yourself-as-you-go stew), but here in Kyoto even that is different from in other parts of the country! My group gives up and peters out with half a plate of beef left, which makes me feel sorry for the cow and work hard to polish it off so it didn't die in vain. And of course, that means balancing my intake with plenty of vegetables, and mushrooms, and fish, and tofu, and...

Oh, how stuffed poor Moody is! He needs a walk! Fortunately, the kids are being released for an hour of running around the gigantic strip mall just down the street. I get to be a safety patrolman, which means lots of walking. Hey, there's an HMV here! I guess there's time for a little shopping. I don't buy the Boogie Dual-Recto amp & cabinet, though (since I don't have 600,000 yen in my pocket...).

The teachers' meetings every night have been annoyingly straight through the whole trip. It's probably for the better, but it's getting annoying! Ah, but it looks like there's going to be a "second meeting" tonight! Things are looking up!
Still, considering the constant, simmering feud between Mr. O and the other members of the grade staff (especially Mr. Sakuma), I just hope he doesn't make a case out of it after we get back.

Speaking of which, it's time to go! Hopefully I won't be too hung over tomorrow...

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

2005 School Trip, Day 2

It's another beautiful day in Hiroshima, but it's actually time to say goodbye. After breakfast (what, no natto??) and the usual fussing about, we walk past the A-bomb dome again and across the famous T-shaped bridge (Enola Gay’s actual sighting target) to board our buses. Looking back, the morning sun is glinting brightly almost directly over the Dome, and I can envision that August morning, 60 years ago, when, for an instant, two suns could be seen over that Dome. If I had been standing on this spot then, I’d now be a pile of ashes, my shadow etched in the bridge forever. Fortunately, however, there is only one sun, and it is a friendly one.

We're off to Miyajima.

There follows undoubtedly the shortest bus tour of any school trip I've been on to date, but the guide is sure an interesting character!

Arigatou de gansu! (Hiroshima dialect for “arigatou gozaimasu”, thank you very much!)

What a beautiful view of the Seto Inland Sea! For the first time, I notice the Woman of Miyajima. The shape of the Island itself looks like the silhouette of a feminine head looking up out of the sea at the sky. It's sunny this morning, but a bit nippy. I just know the ferry ride is going to be COLD…

…and it is…

I keep hoping that someday I'll see Utsukujima Shrine when the tide is in. This time, not only is the tide out, it is WAY out, the furthest I’ve ever seen. In fact, it is so far out that, for the first time ever, I'm able to walk down to the giant torii gate.'s hard to see just how big that thing is until you're standing right under it! I’m also surprised to find that the main pillars are made of only very rough hewn wood, as if a couple of trees were simply chopped down, peeled, delimbed, painted orange, and propped up in the sand. The braces and crossbeams are smooth, however. Still, the shrine itself is basically the same as always, very beautiful but a bit too crowded to be able to enjoy it to its fullest. Still, I'd say it's worth the trip.

On the ferry back to the mainland, I can't help but notice that the English subtitles of the interpretive video are so hideously bad that, If I didn't understand the Japanese narrative, I wouldn't have any idea what they were talking about. Basically, whoever did it simply translated all the Japanese idioms and colloquialisms directly into English, word-for-word, with no attempt to spell the words correctly. Sorry podner, but that just ain't gonna work. As famous as Miyajima is, I’m appalled at such slip-shod efforts. (Then again, it’s not much worse than all those stupid English catch-phrases [SECs] used by the prefectural board of education…)

We ride the local train back to Hiroshima Station to catch the Shinkansen. Before we do, we pause near an ice cream stand, and pretty soon half our kids have whipped ice cream cones despite the autumn chill. (Kids!)

As the train passes over a bridge, I see a solitary man in a stocking cap on roller skis making his way along the riverbank. This area definitely has its eccentricities.

Lunch is another ekiben (“station box-lunch”. i.e. a boxed lunch, featuring local specialties, sold at the train station) on the train. Those are always a nice fringe benefit of these school trips!

On to Kyoto!

Once again we have a real bus guide, i.e. one that is knowledgeable, entertaining, aggressive, and can keep up a steady stream of chatter as we go. That seems to be a regular feature of Kyoto and one that I always appreciate.

Our first stop is a ways out of town. We are going to the new Watashi no Shigoto Kan” (literally “My Occupation Hall”, but the official translation is a rather dull “Vocational Museum”). It's a vast, modern-looking hall filled with all kinds of funky things for helping kids choose their path in life. It also gives some remarkable opportunities for hands-on experience. There are seminars for graphic design, toy design, studio work, news announcing, fire-fighting, and many other things.

As for me, together with Mr. Sakuma (wouldn't you know it), I sign up for the piano tuner workshop (which we attend together with only two students from a different school). It's a lot of fun, and we learn a lot. Tuning is no problem for me (actually, both I and the teacher were amazed at how quickly I pulled it off), and I find the out-of-adjustment keys immediately and fix them. However, when I try my hand at a little assembly and disassembly of the piano mechanism I have a couple of slip-ups simply because I don't pay close attention to what I’m doing or look carefully at the pieces involved (live and learn...which is the whole point of the seminar after all). I guess that has always been one of my biggest weaknesses; I get overconfident with what I know I can do, so I take the other details for granted. Maybe some day I'll remember to look with my eyes. Even so, I learn a lot about how the piano works.

After the seminar I take their general aptitude test, whose cuteness factor clearly identifies it as being for kids (or 20-something women). Still, I have a good laugh about it. Guess what? The result says that I'm the type who is better suited for working with tools or machines than with people (i.e. I’m a geek). I guess there's some truth to that, but the recommended occupations are either technical or related to research or data management. It also says I'd be a good piano tuner! :-)

Now it’s back to Kyoto to check in to the hotel and have dinner.

Dinner, as always at a traditional-style Kyoto hotel, is fantastic...and of course there is umeshu (usually translated as “plum wine”, though Pandabonium makes a good case for calling the Japanese ume an “apricot” instead of a plum), though not nearly enough. After that, we have a performance/Q&A session from a maiko (geisha [called geiko in Kyoto] in training). This year's maiko is very good...much better than last year's. Her fluid movements, all obviously in perfect control, are positively hypnotic. She also has a much warmer and more agreeable personality, which makes for a more pleasant exchange. Of course, part of that might have to do with the better behavior of this year's 9th graders. Last year's maiko got laughed at and loudly made fun of, which might explain why her performance was stiff and clumsy and her personality frosty.

Once again the evening's teachers' meeting is beerless. *sigh* Oh, well. At least tonight I’ll get a good night’s sleep.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The 2005 School Trip, Day One

It all started bloody early this year....we met at the school at 6:15. At least it's a clear, sunny day. Amazingly, all the kids are here on time. This is the 6th time I’ve been dragged into one of these school trips, and I’ve never seen such eerily good behavior. I’m already spooked.

We ride the regular train to Narita, not the usual Ayame Express. It’s packed solid with commuting students. Getting off the train at Narita Station is a bit of a hassle.

Mr. O (I just can't get away from that guy!) is using one of those suitcases with a built-in hand truck with the handle extended all the way. It's like a long tail dragging behind him, and it's a bloody annoyance when we’re all walking in a great, big line. When we are in Narita Station I inadvertently kick it several times and actually trip over it twice before I start yelling obscenities. Doesn't phase the guy at all.

On the Narita Express the boys have no idea of their seating arrangement (did they even bring their guidebooks? I know, stupid question...). I switch seats with someone who is absent, then wind up trading yet again with a boy who wants to play cards with his buddies. They are playing cards with a Buzz Lightyear deck. Oh, joy.

Arrival at Tokyo Station. The station is a sprawling labyrinth crawling with people. Younger folk and foreigners thread their way gingerly through our oozing mass of uniformed youth. Middle-aged and elderly simply barge their way through. Time was short getting off the Narita Express, so it was a mad rush. Luckily, the Shinkansen (New Trunk Line, i.e. bullet train) is on an extended stop here in Tokyo, so we can take our time getting on and dissolving into chaos. For some strange reason, on the Shinkansen they haven't just divided us by class, they've divided us by gender. The girls have a nice, quiet car to themselves. The boys' car is filled with a lively din (read "cacophony") even before we get started.

So much for getting a nice nap...

Actually, as it turns out, I get about 2 hours of welcome shuteye, even with the three rugby players having a very exuberant (read “obnoxious”) card game behind me!

After we pass Nagoya we get into the eerily lovely, hilly landscape that is the Kansai area, birthplace of Japanese culture. There are splashes of brilliant autumn colors, as if an artist's palette dribbled globs of paint here and there on the hills.

The Shinkansen garbage-collector girls wear uniforms that are bright pink and battleship gray. If this was meant to be eye candy, it sure isn’t very tasty. Whose idea was it, anyway? Was it some psychologist’s bright idea to discourage sexual harassment? At least the puke green dresses worn by girls of Hokota 1st Senior High back in the 90s, designed with the aforementioned thought in mind, made no pretense of being attractive.

Finally we arrive at our first travel destination, Hiroshima. We travel from Hiroshima Station to the Peace Park by riding the famous streetcars. It’s a radical departure from our usual travel procedure in that city, and it’s interesting, if a bit hot and crowded...

The Peace Park.

This is my sixth visit here, and it still hasn't lost its impact. Unlike previous years, however, we are here in the afternoon, and it is crowded! I mean, I have NEVER seen it so packed! Lots and lots of school groups, and they're unbelievably noisy. We have one hibakusha (A-bomb survivor) guide for our whole room (last year they broke each room up into groups, which was a much better idea), and with all those yowling senior high girls and giggling elementary school kids all around us, it's almost impossible to hear what she is saying even with her portable amplifier. She does keep up quite a dialog, though.

Finally, at an old Edo-era gravestone which was tilted by the bomb (and was the only surviving relic of a temple that got completely toasted, as the fireball was almost directly overhead), we get a moment of peace, and she can finally tell her story and be heard. As with last year, the first time we had hibakusha guides, her tale is a nasty one made worse by the fact that it actually happened. Still, amazingly, after all of the expected nightmare images of real-life fire and brimstone, she actually makes a big point of commenting on the kindness of the soldiers of the U.S. occupation.

“In every country,” she says, “including Japan, the U.S., North and South Korea, China, even Iraq, there are both good and bad people. Never forget that.”


The students seem unusually unresponsive this year. Not only is their behavior uncannily good, but it's too good. They're kind of cold. But at least, for once, I'm not getting the "Hiroshima look". I’m also very thankful that no students faint this year.

After the park tour, we make our way over to the Museum, and the place is packed solid...especially the most nightmarish part. It’s a student traffic jam. Finally clearing that mess, we assemble at the edge of the grounds, and the kids are cheerful as if we were returning from a picnic.

Kids. It must be wonderful to live in a world all your own.

An old man on a bicycle stops and asks us where we're from. In Hiroshima, such displays of amicability are actually quite common; a big city with a small-town attitude, a unique culture, a tragic history (even beyond the bomb), and people that are just plain interesting. That is the charm of this fabled city.

Next, each of our four room groups goes to Sadako's memorial (also known as the Children’s Memorial) to leave its chain of paper cranes. Then we walk over to the hotel, literally right across the street from the A-Bomb Dome, where dinner is waiting. We have Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, naturally. (So much for my diet...again). The chief homeroom teacher of my room, Mr. Sakuma (who is also connected to the music club, so I’ll use his full name), is at his “lovable bulldog” best, giving out affection and head-thumpings in equal measure. Yes, he’s a surly, little guy with an explosive temper and a notoriously loud shout, but he really cares about the kids, and they love him for it.

Not all the teachers do, however. At the teachers' reception, Mr. O tears into Mr. Sakuma with his characteristic polite, smug self-righteousness, leading to a surprising confrontation. He quietly accuses Mr. Sakuma of using corporal punishment against the students, concluding by saying, “We, the faculty of Seishin Gakuen, will not tolerate this. Keep this in mind, and change your behavior accordingly.” Mr. Sakuma’s demand for an explanation is far less quiet and far less polite. Mr. O then attempts to dodge the issue, as usual, but it only makes Mr. Sakuma madder. Mr. O then quickly retires, and the rest of the meeting becomes a Mr. O hate party, and somehow I wind up in the very center of it.


Oh, well. At least it’s refreshing to know I have so much support.

Good night!

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Excelling Even Without Excel

Ah...yet another hump crossed. Thankfully, there haven't been any additional casualties or collateral damage. The 2005 Seishin Gakuen Junior High Choral Competition is over, and I and the rest of the judges are in the conference room as the staff tallies up the scores.

In a strange flashback to the comedy routine "Bulbous Bouffant" by The Vestibules, I find myself saying, "I noticed you're not using Ex-cel...Ex-cel." It's true. The last two years in a row they tried introducing the High-Tech Solution (wimpy synth fanfare) to the scoring system. Two years ago none of the eager "experts" really knew what they were doing, so it ended up taking a horrendous amount of time. Last year, thanks to "hardware failure" (read "operator error"), all the scoring data wound up getting wiped out. Twice. Needless to say, this year we're back to the well-proven blackboard and chalk system, which goes quickly and easily.

There definitely seems to be a pattern developing here.

Ever since the end of the '90s, the big push at the academy has been to computerize everything. They installed a wonderful fiber-optic network encompassing the entire campus with hubs set in strategic locations. Every faculty and departmental office has one or more workstations plugged into the network, allowing official documents to be created, edited, accessed, and shared much more quickly and conveniently than before. The digital projector and sound systems in the English classroom, AVR room, and extra classrooms have turned them into bona fide theaters that can be operated by laptop, bringing PowerPoint and digital video into lessons for a whole wealth of possibilities scarcely imaginable a decade ago. Widespread general-use internet access (Mr. O's #1 baby) has also given the students a powerful new tool to utilize when preparing their research projects, opening their minds to a much bigger world than before.

It would all be a dream if it weren't for all the downtime, the maintenance, the provider freezeups, the premature obsolescence, the software glitches, the hardware failures, the outdated gear stacking up in the corners, the training, the upgrades that often require more training (or retraining), the viruses (often implanted by our own, homegrown junior hackers), and the ego wars as our more narcissistic "experts" with hero complexes set things up so no one else can really use them. I look at the benefits of having Mr. O project images on the screen and play CDs or DVDs using his laptop during our lessons, but I also see all the time wasted when Windows Media Player suddenly freezes up or exits without warning (as it does in about 30-40% of our classes, probably due to pilot error) or the computer locks itself into an automatic Windows Upgrade or full-system virus scan, and Mr. O can't figure out how to stop it (and there's no way he's going to allow ME to save the day when the students are watching!). There have been several cases when I simply gave up and said the CD content myself or drew a quick picture on the blackboard while Mr. O continued to fuss with his machine. Not as impressive, but it got the job done quicker and easier than the "convenient" technology.

For all my enthusiasm for computers, I'm beginning to think the high-tech classroom is not all it's cracked up to be.

I seem to have digressed.

Actually, all of the judges and staff agree that this year's choral competition was amazingly good. The "winning grade" of a few years ago was this year's average. The weakest performances were actually quite reasonable. The top ones were spectacular. It's not really all that surprising, considering the unbelievable amount of effort the kids put into preparing for it over the past week. The kids were literally running around screaming, trying to grab valuable rehearsal space before other classes got it, cornering music teachers for a little extra instruction between lessons, landing hard on the slackers within their own ranks. I have never seen the like in my almost ten years at Seishin. Neither have the veteran members of the faculty. The kids were excited, motivated, determined, and they all pulled off good performances.

No, actually, they pulled off a miracle. I'm not talking about the quality of the performances. I'm talking about the fact that this year's choral competition was held at all. It came close to ending in disaster.

When the current school year began last April, the music department greeted a new member, a young, new, part-time teacher who would help take the load off of Mr. Ogawa (passionate orchestral fanfare...a bit heavy on the clarinets, though...)(I mean the music teacher/director, not to be confused with Mr. O, who is an English teacher) by teaching 7th grade vocal music. She was the daughter of close acquaintances of a member of our top administrative staff, who told us that she had been a "lucky find". Sparkly-eyed and brimming with enthusiasm, she was a graduate of the Musashino College of Music, often called Japan's Julliard, where she had studied piano performance under some very famous professors.

At least that's what we were told. Unfortunately, we all found out really quick that she had a chronic case of blimp stuffing on the brain (i.e. she was a hopeless airhead). She didn't have the foggiest clue what she was doing. She tried to conduct 7th grade chorus by lecturing at length - often for entire class periods - about the history and technical points of each tune she introduced before even letting the kids hear it. Yes, she was good at sharing her apparently massive stock of rote knowledge. The problem was what she was NOT good at. She couldn't sight read. (In fact, she couldn't play anything without practicing it for at least a week!) She couldn't play by ear. She didn't know her scales and arpeggios at all, which made improvised or simplified accompaniment impossible. Also, when she actually directed the kids at singing, she demonstrated very clearly to them (let alone us!) that she didn't have any idea what she was doing. 7th grade students were often correcting her stupid mistakes. The students were making fun of her after a little more than a month. After two months her classes were more or less completely out of control. The kids had more or less given up on her. That was only part of the problem.

The students were supposed to be fully able to sing our school anthem and fight song by the time of the Sports Festival, a period of three weeks from the start of the school year, but by then they had only just started both of them. By the time summer vacation arrived at the end of July, the students should have at least tried every song in the collection from which they were entitled choose for the competition. They'd barely even started, and Mr. Ogawa was about ready to blow a gasket.

Actually, I'm amazed that Mr. Ogawa remained as patient as he did. He had repeatedly tried giving advice and instruction to "the freshman", but she either didn't listen or just didn't get it. Feeling sorry for her, I even sat down with her at the piano a time or two (if Phillipa can believe that!) to give her some instruction in improvised or simplified accompaniment. All she did was freak out and get all giggly. Finally, in mid July, Mr. Ogawa gave her a pile of songbooks (containing no more than ten songs each) - the collection for the choral competition - and asked her to have a look at them over summer vacation. "At least get a general idea of the melodies and the keys they're in," he said.

When summer vacation ended, she came into the music office and informed Mr. Ogawa that she hadn't looked at them at all. I could feel him desperately wanting to throttle her, but instead he picked up a piece of music, accompaniment for a clarinet solo, and placed it on the piano. As he got out his clarinet, he said, "Let's start doing some sight-reading practice." She giggled. She twitched. She spun in a circle. She whined. He insisted. I urged. She finally complied. They started. She stumbled around for about a third of the tune. Then she stopped and refused to continue. After that, she giggled, whined, and twitched. My attempt at encouragement only elicited more whining, as did Mr. Ogawa's polite but firm dressing down. Then she grabbed her bag, said, "Okay, I'll do something," bowed, smiled at me, and left the room.

That was the last we saw of her. After that, she called in sick every day for three weeks before her parents appeared before the principal. They said their daughter had suffered terrible psychological harm and threatened to press charges against Mr. Ogawa for his "cruel treatment". Nothing came of that, fortunately, but we were now minus our 7th grade vocal teacher just over a month before the contest. Mr. Ogawa wound up trying to cover her classes in addition to his own. They also wound up calling our other part-time vocal teacher in more often to back him up. The heavy schedule was bad enough; the fact that they had to undo a lot of damage and try to make up several months worth of material in less than one seemed just plain ridiculous. Fortunately, Mr. Ogawa was finally able to track down a savior...or should I say "operatic angel"?

The temporary replacement teacher was a professional vocal performer/instructor (read "operatic soprano") based across the river in Sawara. Mr. Ogawa practically got on his hands and knees and begged her to sign on, but she did, and the difference was immediately noticeable. She obviously knew her stuff, and it showed. The kids were literally getting their act together for the contest at the last minute, but they pulled it off beautifully. In fact, many of us agree that it was probably the best choral competition ever, perhaps simply because the kids were so pumped up about it. (Actually, I might add that it was the first I'd seen in which almost all of the groups actually sang in tune! Wonder of WONDERS!)

Well, I guess we managed to solve our vocal music problem quickly and (relatively) easily. And, wouldn't you know it, there weren't even any computers involved! Technology definitely doesn't cure all ills. Now I'm off to give this year's "judge's comments". Hopefully I won't accidentally say something insulting and wind up having to apologize like I did two years ago...

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Halloween, (Much Too) Liberally Speaking

“Trick or Treat!”

I hold the shopping bag full of candy open, and the smiling horde immediately goes into a feeding frenzy. It’s Halloween at Seishin Gakuen, and the new tradition I started by accident year before last has gone into maximum overdrive.

Two years ago a couple of high school girls, actually problem students, made it a habit to skip their two-hour music elective class across the hall every Friday and hang out in the English department office. They were actually encouraged to continue doing so by our school’s resident narcissistic left-wing radical with a hero complex, Mr. O (who is also my closest co-worker). Any disapproval expressed by me or anyone else was met with a barrage of smugly self-righteous rhetoric (Mr. O’s specialty), and the girls continued to make themselves at home in our office. Most of the time they were content to plunder Mr. O’s lunch (and I made no attempt to discourage them), but one day they suddenly came over to my desk and said, “Trick or treat?” It was then that I realized it was Halloween.

I hadn’t forgotten that Halloween was coming, but I hadn’t made any real preparation of any kind. Since the holiday simply doesn’t exist in Japan, I didn’t see much point in observing it at school beyond the little explanation of it I’ve always given in my 7th grade classes. As it turned out, however, the two problem girls weren’t going to let me get away with it. Mr. O promptly offered them candy from his own ever-present stock, but the girls insisted that they wanted something from me.

Sensei,” said the more outgoing of the two, “we said, ‘Trick or treat.’ That means if we don’t get a treat, we’ll have to play a trick on you. That’s the American way, right?”

They had me there, but alas, I was treatless. The fact of it being Friday, however, gave me a way out.

“I’ve been too busy to do any shopping,” I said, “but I’ll have some time over the weekend. How about we postpone Halloween till Monday?”

The girls scolded me, but they acquiesced. I had already planned to do some shopping anyway, so I just grabbed a couple of bags of candy along the way. On Monday, the girls showed up as promised, said their “Trick or treat,” and I delivered. They left happy, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

And then their classmates began showing up.

That first year, fortunately, the number was small, since word reached only very few. The next year, expecting more or less the same thing to happen, I gave a subtle hint to my 7th and 9th grade students that “Trick or treating” at my office might get them something. That brought an even larger number than before, but I was more or less prepared. This year I decided to really go for it, so I went crazy and bought a whole bunch of candy, almost a whole supermarket bagful when removed from the packages, just in case. As it turned out, I’m very glad I did so. In fact, I seriously wish I got even more.

I don’t know who has been spreading the rumors around, but since lunchbreak started I’ve been getting mobbed…mainly by 8th graders (who I don’t teach!). As the break progresses, the bloated mass of smiley, giggly adolescents just keeps growing with no end in sight. I’ll be lucky if they don’t wipe out my supply by the time the final bell rings.

Mr. O, as it turns out, is conspicuous by his absence. He is always eager to curry favor with the students (often at the expense of other teachers, particularly me), and Halloween in the past has always been a good opportunity for him to kiss posterior. This time he has bolted, and no one knows where he’s gone. I have to deal with the whole mass by myself, but oh, well. I think it’s worth it. Good vibes are almost always a good thing.

I even have a nicely portable Jack o’ lantern this year. A former coworker of mine, a fellow English teacher who remarried and moved southwest to Mie prefecture (near Nagoya), remembered that I always have trouble finding a good Halloween pumpkin. She apparently found several, and she was thoughtful enough to mail me one. It’s a cute, little thing, but it has a good shape and color ([nasal] Awwwww… [/nasal]). I carved it, put a candle in it, and now I’ve been porting it with me to all my classes. I’ve never done that before, and the kids love it…even if I am using a pungent aromatherapy candle (that is melting very quickly).

Good grief (if there is such a thing), look at all those smiley, happy faces! You’d think it were Christmas or something! Why do I almost hear R.E.M. playing in the background? Even so, the kids’ naughty side is rearing its spiky head. Some of them are sneakily planting themselves into different groups in order to get second or third helpings. When I refuse to give in to one boy, he actually gets down on his knees and begs, getting a laugh out of the crowd (and the desired extra helping). I’m only giving them out one at a time, but I keep catching kids trying to dash away with a whole handful. There actually seems to be a sort of competition going on to see who can get away with what.

What can I say? They are all saying, “Trick of treat,” after all. Some of them are saying, “Trick AND treat.” At least they’re being honest.

Still no sign of Mr. O. That’s a funny way for him to show his gratitude.

I say that because, only yesterday, he managed to drag me and the Seishin Flying Eggheads into yet another political event. Although I can be quite vociferous regarding politics, I generally restrict my activism to the ballot box (if I’m allowed to vote). However, this is the second year in a row in which I’ve been asked by the Private Educators’ Union (motto: “Well, we should have our cake and eat it, too…” sung to a very tinny, poorly-tuned, early ‘60s guitar) to bring the Eggheads to a political rally to help drum up support against the government’s threat to slash if not eliminate education subsidies.

Japan already allocates a smaller percentage of its GNP for education than any other industrialized nation. Even so, as part of the baffling array of cost-reducing reforms being pushed through by the Koizumi administration (while at the same time preparing to raise taxes significantly…go figure…), there has been talk of reducing federal subsidies for public education by one-third and cutting those for private education altogether. Public schools already tend to be underfunded, understaffed, underequipped, undermaintained, and generally in sorry shape. If these cuts do go through, maintaining them at even their current, pathetic level would require local governments to raise property and poll taxes. Meanwhile, the cost of private education would skyrocket. (They are saying tuition and fees would wind up being seven times as much as public education on average.) That would be disastrous. Naturally, the Private Educators’ Union (somebody tune that &#%* guitar!) is not willing to take that sitting down. I don’t blame them. However, while I support their ideals in this matter in principle, I have a serious beef with them in practice.

To put it bluntly, the biggest problem with the Union is that its staff includes too many of what conservative columnists in my college newsletter would call “vacuous liberals”. In other words, they’ve gotten so hopelessly caught up in idealism that they live in an ideal world rather than the real one. Their hearts are often in the right place, but their feet just aren’t on the ground. They are so assured of the righteousness of their cause (and, in many cases, have such hyperinflated egos) that they believe reality will bend to accommodate them. That means that, while they are often very good thinkers, they are not very good doers. They are even worse planners. Therein lies the problem.

After all the time and energy I’ve spent flaming my more conservative friends for their irrational witch-hunt against liberals, I’m sure they’ll either faint or gloat at my saying this, but it’s a fact. (Besides, I’ve always maintained that I’m more of a centrist than a liberal, anyway.) (And before Pa’ve gets on his soapbox, allow me to point out that the majority of the teachers at my school, including myself, are NOT members of the Union [yes, it is optional] for the very reasons that I have described.) It’s upsetting to see perfectly respectable ideals wrecked by piss-poor planning and daft execution.

We were asked to put on a “short concert” as part of an hour program that was part of a much larger event. With last year’s disaster firmly in mind, I said I would do it only if I was given concrete information concerning transportation, logistics, and facilities well in advance. When that was assured, I suggested a twenty-minute performance. I was told that was sufficient. However, the information I’d requested didn’t appear until I threatened to pull out more than a month later. Then I was suddenly handed a list of details. However, the paper also said that our band would be sharing a single bus with two different dance groups from our school including the 11th grade girls from the music club. (Amazingly, the girls knew absolutely nothing about it, but they said they’d do it.) I wasn’t happy about it, because it complicated matters, but the student leader of the jazz band is also in that dance group, and she was really determined to see it through. We rehearsed as best we could with the little time available, and we had a pretty good twenty-minute show ready to go.

A few days before the event, we were told there was “a bit of a change”. Dance performances of any kind are strictly prohibited in Mito Station, where the event was to be taking place. The Union organizers, including Mr. O, had actually been well aware of the fact, but they’d been certain the police in Mito would change their minds once they realized the righteousness of their cause. I was then told that almost the entire event would consist of our performance, which now needed to fill the better part of an hour. Needless to say, I blew up. Mr. O and co. assured me that they would do everything in their power to try to convince the Mito police to change their minds, but I had no confidence whatsoever (which was a good thing). I got the Eggheads together, and we made a quick and rather risky revision to our set list. I figured I could fill in the remaining gaps with mindless banter.

When we were on the bus on our way to Mito, we were told that they had designed their program around our set list (i.e. a whole battery of dull propaganda speeches between numbers, i.e. any and all audience would be chased away), but for some reason they expected one more tune than we had written on the program. I asked the kids to perform one tune we hadn’t rehearsed in months (and since a couple of them didn’t have the music for it, they had to play it from memory or ad lib). We arrived at the event location to find nothing. No preparations had been made whatsoever, and the people there had no idea what was going on. It was even worse than last year.

Fortunately, everything got thrown together well enough at the last minute, and we pulled off a pretty good performance. It took the kids a while to get into it, because they’d been numbed by all the lackadaisical preparation, but by our third number (after the first round of speeches) they started to gel. Between our playing, my bilingual yammering, and all those speeches, the event wound up being almost exactly an hour long. Ironically, the best tune was probably the encore, the tune we hadn’t rehearsed. The kids were really getting into it, and it rocked (bossa novaed?). “Audience” was a relative term, since we were playing at a station with lots of people listening as they hurried by but few stopping (and those that did kept getting chased away by the speeches), but a lot of people heard us. Still, we were eager to get out of there and thankful that we were able to get back early. It was in the middle of a very busy period, after all, and we were all wiped out.

That was yesterday, and I STILL feel wiped out…just as the kids are quickly wiping out my candy supply. Oh, well…as long as it makes people happy…and no one gets hurt…I guess it’s worth it. I seriously doubt my candy stock will hold out, though, and the kids are definitely in the Halloween spirit. I just hope I don’t wake up to a mass of toilet paper tomorrow morning…