Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

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the maintenance, the provider freezeups, the premature obsolescence, the software glitches, the hardware failures, the outdated gear stacking up in the corners, the training, the upgrades that often require more training (or retraining), the viruses (often implanted by our own,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...


  • As a computer professional, I can state categorically that there is no computer problem that can't be effectively solved with an M-4 submachine gun or a can of lighter fluid and some matches.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:08 AM  

  • Or a competant Systems Administrator. Sounds like the problem is a result of the people setting up the system are failing to take advantage of safety features in administrative programs and scan scheduling. All of those things should be scheduled to happen at night when the system is not being used. Of course, that would mean that the system administrator would have to work some "OFF" hours. Chances are your sysman is another teacher...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:29 PM  

  • That depends on which system you're talking about, Pa've.

    Our school's general network has quite competent administration which often burns the midnight oil keeping everything running smoothly. What problems it has are mainly attributable to the hardware it uses. (Almost all "total office solution" consulting firms and lease outfits here offer only NEC equipment, so that's what we use. NEC's computers and ESPECIALLY their peripherals have a bad habit of sucking.) There are also occasional hiccups that occur because of someone changing settings without telling anyone else (such as switching the default printer to one on the other end of the campus).

    The English department's independent network, and the "general-use" internet workstations attached to it, is another story. It was a classic example of one man setting off to pursue his dreams without making sure his bags were properly packed. Armed with a pile of computer magazines and a motley assortment of obsolete hardware found in bargain bins, the administrator (Mr. O) tried to cobble it all together by himself. He didn't have a clue what he was doing, and there were serious problems. I kept having to come to the rescue even despite my limited computer savvy. When the students using the network started coming to me for help instead of him, his nose got out of joint, and he finally hired a consultant (the cheapest he could find) and reconfigured the whole system so only he has administrative access. Since then, he has refused all my recommendations concerning virus protection and maintenance, saying, "It really doesn't matter." (So far we have had at least two machines disabled by viruses and three others wind up with their OS fried as a result of student misuse. I have also more or less begged him to give me access on more than one occasion so I could clean up and defrag hard disks that were in sorry shape.) Another problem is that, while Mr. O still stubbornly refuses to give me an administrative account (even my user account is disabled, and he just can't seem to get around to fixing it), he has given administrative passwords to students that are members of his "linguistics club". I think you can guess what has happened because of that.

    cygvv - Cygnus X-1's less-evil twin.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:02 PM  

  • I got yer access....


    By Anonymous Some Guy, at 2:07 AM  

  • Are those computer technicians in your school aren't that expert?

    Using high-tech softwares are the best way to grade out scores.

    By Anonymous L.C_D, at 1:35 PM  

  • All our scoring is now done using computers...on the school's general network. That is a GODSEND.

    squpen - What happens when butternut squash cross-pollinates with lupins.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:19 AM  

  • Yes, its a Godsend until Sky Net merges with/consumes your school's grading system. Soon Titanium Armoured Cyborg 3rd year students will crush the skulls of aspiring 2nd chair flutists. And the Moody Minstrel will conduct them with equal fervor. When will you wake up to the horror which is/could be the future?

    Think of the precussion section!! Oh God Please!!

    zyesgyqd-An actor designed for infants.

    By Blogger Seymour, at 1:48 PM  

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