Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Fuzzy Generation Gap

My in-laws' cat, Aka, used to be the undisputed master of the territory. That big, lovable, orange lump of feline charm was a never-ending fountain of affection. He would greet everyone he saw with his distinctive, rich, "Maaaaaaaaooow," as he came trotting over for a scratch, often wrapping himself around your leg so you couldn't escape very easily until he was satisfied. However, if any of the other cats in the neighborhood dared enter our yard (except for one or two that were friendly and therefore "authorized"), he'd quickly turn from lovable lunk to killing machine and send the intruders on their way.

Well, he's still big, still orange, still lovable, and still aggressively affectionate. However, he's also an old man. Already past 14, he just doesn't move as fast as he used to. He also seems to be having a bit of an upper respiratory problem, so he wheezes a lot and can't run for very long. The local tomcats found that out quickly, and our yard quickly became a sort of meeting ground where they'd come and taunt Aka, strutting around him meowing with their tails held high, daring him to do anything about it before they turned and started fighting each other. I started doing my best to chase those yob-cats away with the help of my good friends Smith and Wesson (a plastic model that shoots BBs), but there is no way to keep them away completely.

That presented a bit of a problem regarding the newest member of our family, that little, black tabby named Tora. I was afraid to let him outside mainly because I was worried about what the neighborhood tomcats would do to him. However, once he got to be more than two months old, the house was clearly too small for him. He started tearing around the place like a fuzzy, tiger-striped tornado. He also started tearing up everything around him (including clothes, furniture, walls, sliding partitions, cords, you name it). His cuteness and affection kept us from tossing him into the lake, but it got to be a bit much. Therefore, when the neighborhood cats started showing up less (thanks to S&W?), I quickly started putting him outside. He loved it out there; endless opportunities for play and exploration and lots of room to run. It actually came to be difficult to get him to come back in again! His behavior in the house soon improved, and he became even friendlier. Meanwhile, there was not an alien cat in sight.

However, we all knew the inevitable meeting between Tora and Aka would come sooner if not later.

The first time Tora saw Aka, he immediately put on an impressive, dancing display with his back arched, hissing and spitting. Aka, on the other hand, just stared at the little newcomer for a little while and then started casually sauntering toward him. Tora quickly bolted into the house before that intimidating, red giant came anywhere near him. Aka then started spending lots of time sitting on our front porch listening and sniffing. He also started marking (i.e. peeing on) everything in the yard (including our shoes).

The second meeting was quite a bit different. Tora had apparently decided Aka wasn't a threat, so he decided to try to be friends. He started following his much-larger stepcousin around giving a cute, trilling cry, occasionally batting at Aka's tail in an attempt to get him to play. Aka for the most part just tried to ignore his new tormentor. He'd just stroll around keeping his annoyed-looking face turned away from the bouncy youngster. Every once in a while he'd turn and give a single, low, hoarse "MRAAAAAAWR..." as if to say, "Buzz off, punk!" On one occassion he gave Tora a very gentle swat, but he never did anything more aggressive than that. He mainly just bore the torture in silence...sitting with his back to us to show his displeasure if we gave the little cat any attention at all.

On one occasion when one of the neighborhood tomcats actually did show up, however, Aka immediately planted himself between Tora and the intruder and put on an aggressive display the likes of which I hadn't seen in a long time. It surprised the tomcat, too; normally it wouldn't be intimidated by Aka, but it shrank into a fuzz-puddle and shuffled away immediately. Tora then trilled as if to say thank you, charged Aka, and batted his tail. Aka responded with an irritable "MRAAAAAAAAWR" and slowly trudged away.

Aka has turned into a crotchety, old man, but he still knows who's family, and he's still apparently a sucker for hard luck cases.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Magical (Moody) World of Dis-crimination?

Well, they finally got me.

Ever since my daughter entered elementary school I've carefully avoided being dragged along on the yearly PTA outing. Well, with her now in grade 4 and my son now in grade 1, it finally became the double-punch I'd long dreaded. And with my wife off spending the day yelling at her tennis club, this time there was no doubt as to the outcome. I was dragged kicking and screaming...mainly by my two very enthusiastic kids...into taking part in the event.

What was it, you say? Well, thanks for asking! It was a trip to DISNEYLAND!

Yes, I know what you're thinking. It's something like, "You lucky bastard!" I can't disagree more. Disneyland isn't just a park, it's an experience. It's filled with adventure. It's filled with dreams. Unfortunately, it's also filled with people most of the time...and today was an extreme case.

Yesterday's weather forecast for today called for cloudy skies and occasional showers. As it happened, we wound up with the most beautiful day we'd had in weeks. It was just hot and humid enough to be labeled "hot and humid", but not bad. It was actually rather comfortable. All in all, it was a perfect day for going to Disneyland. A lot of people would think so. In fact, a lot of people did think so. In fact, too f*****g many people thought so. The place was jam packed, mainly with tour groups. The tour bus parking area was overflowing, and everywhere you looked you saw groups of people walking together.

Naturally, many if not most of those groups came ready-equipped with Fastpasses.

Fastpasses are something that the Tokyo Disney Resort started in the late 90s. Essentially, it's institutionalized corruption that has been made legitimate. If you have already purchased an all-day passport, you can spend extra money for a Fastpass to a particular attraction (i.e. you can pay a standardized bribe), and it allows you to cut in front of the line. Quite often package tours to the Tokyo Disney Resort include Fastpasses as part of the deal. That's very convenient, as it means you don't have to wait long to ride major attractions. However, it also means ordinary ticket and passport holders have to wait even longer, particularly when there are lots of tour groups they are today.

The first attraction I and my kids headed for was "Buzz Lightyear's Astroblasters", which is a really cool laser target-shooting game. The three of us went on it once last year, and he loved it. He was really looking forward to trying it again this year. We arrived to find a huge mass of people standing in a line (totally exposed to the sun) that wasn't moving at all. The attendants informed us that it would be a wait of more than two hours. My daughter and I both said no way. My son was disappointed, but he understood. Promising the little boy that we'd try again later, we headed off in search of something more doable.

Navigating Disneyland on a typical day can be a headache. On a busy day it borders on impossible. It's bad enough having to zig-zag through the undulating mass of humanity (a term I use generously) having to deal with families of four that walk abreast holding hands, sauntering couples in no particular hurry, would-be clowns eager to make asses of themselves but unaware they have little room in which to do it, people that think the whole world will stop or at least move aside while they take pictures of each other in a busy lane, and all those &$%#* strollers!!!!! (I once brought my daughter to Disneyland in a stroller and quickly learned that it was a stupid mistake totally pointless. After all, a baby can't do very much there except get in the way!) Then, when you finally get where you're going, odds are you'll wind up having to wait forever...unless you happen to have a Fastpass for it.

After digging our way back out of the vicinity of the "Buzz Lightyear" entrance, we looked at "Star Tours" and discovered it had virtually no line at all. A bored-looking attendant told us it would be a twenty-minute wait at the most. As it turned out, it was only fifteen. Yes, Star Wars has seen its popularity fade, (maybe because the prequels were so disappointing?) but "Star Tours" is still a fun ride, and I always enjoy it. The kids were both happy. We also appreciated the nice and SHORT an air-conditioned building, no less!

After that we threaded our way through the crowds. ToonTown looked insane, so we gave it a miss. "Pooh's Hunny Hunt" had a huge, immobile line and a sign indicating a wait of 140 minutes...and a Fastpass entrance into which people were just casually strolling. That's when I first remembered those damned Fastpass things. It made me mad, so we kept walking. Next we came upon "Small World", and my daughter immediately started begging me to take her there. A combination of my son's agonized moaning and the slow-moving line rescued us from that. Then we came to the "Haunted Mansion". The sign said a 90-minute wait, but the line was moving at a decent pace, probably because the Fastpass lane was eerily empty. We decided to go for it. In the end, the wait was only about 40 minutes (again, because we didn't have Fastpassers getting in the way). My son started whimpering within minutes of our entering, and he spent most of the ride with his guidebook pressed over his eyes. Needless to say, he was not happy about it.

Next, my daughter insisted we head for "Splash Mountain", her personal favorite. My son the scaredy-cat (still reeling from the "Mansion") immediately started protesting, but he was outvoted. We headed into Critter Country to find "Splash Mountain" closed for renovations. My son was pretty happy about that. In a way, it was actually fortunate. You see, without "Splash Mountain" Critter Country was virtually deserted, so buying lunch at the Raccoon Saloon was quick and easy, and we had no trouble getting a table. We enjoyed a nice, relaxing bite before plunging into the crowds again.

My daughter and I were both kind of bummed over the lack of "Splash Mountain", so we headed to another mountain that wasn't so far away, "Big Thunder Mountain". Neither of my kids had been on it, and I hadn't in years, so it seemed like a good choice. The sign at the line indicated a two-hour wait, but since the "Haunted Mansion" had gone so much quicker than expected, I decided to trust my luck. Boy, was I wrong...

You see, a huge mass of Fastpass holders came in to "Big Thunder Mountain" all at once, and they just kept coming and coming and coming. Naturally, since they were Fastpass holders, they got to come in quickly while the rest of us were made to wait. The park did its best to rub it in, too; not only were there very conspicuous (and redundant) signs marking the Fastpass lane everywhere, but there were attendants at intervals that stood there yelling, "Fastpass holders, this way, please! Fastpass holders, this way please!" as if the ropes and signs weren't clear enough. Add to that the fact that the "regular ticket holders" line had been renamed the "standby line" (i.e. we second-class lowlife have to stand by until all the real human beings of class and quality have been let in), and you have something that is, well, insulting. The wait was more than two hours. Most of that time we just stood there, unmoving, as we watched the Fastpass line move along at a brisk pace. (Our line only moved when there was a break in the Fastpass line...perhaps because a child was being checked out at the gate.) Meanwhile, my son spent the whole time saying over and over again, "Is this a roller coaster? I hope it's not a roller coaster! I hate roller coasters! Roller coasters are scary! Is this a roller coaster? I hope it's not a roller coaster! I hate roller coasters! Roller coasters are scary! Is this a roller coaster...?"

By the time we arrived at the platform to board the train-like cars (separated by class, I noticed), I had decided:

  • not to start screaming hysterically
  • not to throttle my son
  • not to grab a nearby blunt object and start beating any Fastpass holders or attendants within reach
  • not to set foot in Disneyland again for as long as I live...or at least until they discontinue the Fastpass system (which will probably never happen).

I'm serious. Disneyland is kissing up to tour companies, guests at their resort hotels, and people with a lot of extra money to burn by humiliating their regular ticket and passport holders. It's discrimination, and it's insulting.

Anyway, as soon as the ride was over, my son loudly declared, "Hey, I enjoyed that!"

It was already getting dark, and they were setting up for the Electrical Parade. I had never seen that before, but I frankly didn't care. I just wanted to get out. However, we still had a little over an hour to kill before our bus would leave. With lanes blocked off and people gathering to watch the parade, it was even tougher going, but we went back to Tomorrowland. It was there that I found something strange. The line at "Buzz Lightyear's Astroblaster" was even bigger than it had been in the morning, but now they were saying only about a 90-minute wait instead of more than two hours. The line was also moving quickly. Then I noticed the sign indicating that the Fastpass lane was closed for the evening! Well, of course the line was moving faster! They didn't have all those people conveniently cutting in front of them! (I REALLY HATE FASTPASSES!!!!!!!! ) I was willing to try going for it anyway, but my son declined, saying he would save it for next time. Instead, we headed for the World Bazaar for a bit of shopping. That's when I noticed the entrance to "Pirates of the Caribbean" had a sign saying there was a five minute wait ! It wasn't even that long. For the first time ever, I experienced a Disney attraction that lasted longer than the wait, and I was all the happier for it.

My son whined all the way in and whimpered when we got in the boat. He covered his eyes when we started off. After it was finished, he said, "That was cool!"

We saw a little of the Electrical Parade, a first for all of us, and it was beautiful even from more than 100 meters away through thick crowds. We did our gift shopping, and then we got to enjoy another first on the way out: the famous Disney fireworks display. It lasted almost ten minutes.

When we got on the bus, I was handed a cold can of hopposhu (lit. "hop liquor", i.e. low-malt beer. Since it doesn't qualify as "beer" the taxes are lower, so the price is less). I don't usually like hopposhu so much, but it really hit the spot, and I was grateful when they gave me another one. Both my kids were worn out but happy, and they were eagerly talking about what they'd do next time we came to the Magical World of Disney.

I hope my wife takes them next time. I'd really rather not. Not unless I'm given complimentary Fastpasses and allowed to wear elbow spikes.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The 4th POPS Concert

Holy pizzicato, Batman! Are we really up to our fourth annual POPS concert? It's unbelievable the way time flies! It seems like only yesterday that Mr. Ogawa decided to come out of his office and take temporary control of the sadly foundering Kashima Philharmonic (off-key fanfare) and show Mr. Sato, the director at the time, how the job was done. He wasn't very kind, and there were some hard feelings, but he managed to whip that poor excuse of a community orchestra into shape and prove to them that they didn't have to suck. He also showed that, with a good program, a good performance, a few perks, and a few risks here and there, we could not only attract an audience (something sadly lacking in our previous concerts) but could pack the house and keep them coming back. That was the first POPS concert. Mr. Sato took the baton again for a classics concert the following December, but he went right back to his old pattern, and the results were rather dismal. That led Mr. Ogawa to direct a second POPS concert the following June, and it was an even bigger success than the first. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Sato quit soon afterward, and Mr. Ogawa's role as "temporary" conductor wound up lasting a bit longer than intended (not that we complained much). The Kashima Philharmonic has followed a pattern of a June POPS concert and December classics concert ever since.

Well, this time it was POPS number four. We were coming off of the surprising successes of our last two classics concerts and POPS number three, all of which turned out rather well and made a huge impact on our audience. Just a few years ago we never would have thought ourselves capable of playing at this level, so we were feeling pretty high on ourselves. I think we were also a bit intimidated at the increased demands being placed on us.

POPS number three had a movie music theme, and it worked really well. Because of that, it was decided that we should have a theme again this time around. Several were suggested, but none of them seemed good for one reason or another. Then I offered a suggestion of my that seemed strange and even controversial but also seemed like it might just work. Without much discussion, Mr. Ogawa decided to go with it, and the program was put together.

The theme for POPS number four? Japanese music.

Actually, it wasn't as easy to put together as it would seem. The first choice was obvious: Toyama's Rhapsody for Orchestra, a dynamic piece based on traditional Japanese festival music. After that we started drawing blanks. Eventually, we decided on adding a few well-known Japanese folk songs (sung by a guest vocalist), a collection of tunes from famous Studio Ghibli animated movies (Spirited Away, Haul's Moving Castle, Laputa), and a number of movements plucked from the musical suites of the background music for the video games DragonQuest III and IV.

It was an interesting program, and it was plenty challenging as it was. The folk songs and Studio Ghibli pieces were easy enough, but Rhapsody wasn't. The DragonQuest tunes, which had originally been written for MIDI (i.e. no worries about the limitations of the instruments), were far worse. It would've been a handful even if they'd left it at that...and there wasn't much chance of that.

About two months before the concert Mr. Ogawa added Takeda Shingen, the rousing theme to a popular TV samurai drama from the 1980s. That turned out to be nothing at all compared with what showed up only a month before the performance.

You see, as with our previous POPS concerts, we'd brought in a celebrity guest emcee. This time it was Masahiro Saito, a famous pianist perhaps best known for his musical clown character "Key-bozu" (a play on "keyboard" and "Bozo") on a popular educational TV program centering on music (which I used to enjoy watching with my daughter when she was really little). Naturally, he didn't just want to emcee; he also wanted to play. Naturally, he wanted to perform a barn burner. He sent us the music just a month before the concert, and when Mr. Ogawa and I first opened the package and looked at it we just about had a heart attack. The piece was Ritmica Ostinata for Piano and Orchestra by Akira Ibukube, the same guy who wrote the famous theme to the original Godzilla movies. Ritmica is positively INSANE. Almost every measure is in a different time signature, and the meter is constantly flipping around. It is based on a regular theme, so there is a sort of method to the madness, but you have to stay on your toes constantly or wind up getting tangled up in the vines of beat and rhythm. We didn't think the Kashima Philharmonic stood any chance of playing it, but there was no turning back. It was do or die.

Actually, our first attempt at Ritmica went surprisingly well, and Mr. Ogawa's spirits lifted again. We somehow managed to get through it more or less together. Still, it was a horribly demanding piece, and trying to get it ready within a month wound up eating up an awful lot of rehearsal time that probably should have been used for the other tunes, some of which were also challenging enough. That wound up costing us. The first full-member rehearsal including all guests and extras was the day before the concert, and it was a bit rough to say the least. (Still, I should be fair. Four years ago we weren't playing even half that well.)

Ritmica was especially disastrous in rehearsal, and the reason was surprising. We had it down, but Mr. Saito apparently didn't. We'd all feared he'd launch into it at an insanely fast, "Hey, look at THIS" tempo, and that was exactly what he did. However, as it turned out, he wasn't able to play it at his own tempo. He was all over the place, flopping and banging around, suddenly slowing down and then speeding up again. After it was done, he stood up, looked at us, and said, "Don't panic, and don't run from it. Just stay with it, and you'll do fine." (After he left, Mr. Ogawa said, "As soon as we start, I'll force him back into a slower tempo." That got some laughs and some sighs of relief.)

(Perhaps I should also point out that, in earlier rehearsals, Seishin student and Flying Egghead pianist Chiaki Oshima [yes, that's her in the picture] learned and played that barbaric piano part herself...and in many ways did a better job!)

Cut to the performance. Because of the Japanese theme, I'd wanted us all to dress up in yukata (summer kimonos), but the non-foreign members of the orchestra opted for Western dress shirts and ties. (sigh...) However, the percussion section did put on haori (festival costume) for the opening number, which was only appropriate as it was Rhapsody...featuring all manner of traditional Japanese percussion including a solo on a big, old taiko drum by Mr. Fujiki, our visiting percussion clinician! Rhapsody is a very passionate number, and it went very well...definitely an excellent start.

Next was the song segment. Ms. Kuroda, currently teaching vocal music here at ye olde academy, was our guest vocalist. She's a very talented and competent singer, but she's of a more operatic bent. I thought she sounded fine on the Japanese folk songs, but when we did the famous numbers from Spirited Away and Laputa I thought her singing was a bit heavy...not quite as enjoyable as the light, airy vocalizations of the guest singer who'd sung the same tunes with us in POPS concert number two. Still, that's just my impression, and I'm sure many wouldn't agree.

Next up was Takeda Shingen, which is a very bold, brassy number. Unfortunately, our brass was starting to fall apart. To be fair (and respectful), our horn section...long our Achilles' heel...did a fantastic job with some particularly brutal, high, roaring passages. The trombone section, on the other hand, did not. Bass trombonist Uchida was solidly on the mark, but the other two players in his section were clearly blown out from overrehearsing (or maybe underrehearsing over the past couple of months?). They splattered every other entrance and fought to stay on pitch throughout the tune. It was upsetting considering the fine performances being delivered by the rest of the orchestra. The fact that it was followed by Ritmica was very worrying, but the tune actually went rather well (because Mr. Ogawa forced it to stay at the prescribed tempo).

POPS concerts two and three both featured interludes of big band jazz featuring me on solo clarinet. We also had a jazz break this time, but I played tenor sax (with no solo), and we performed a Latin jazz/rock version of the Hokkaido folk song "Soran Bushi". The tune went brilliantly during rehearsal. The performance itself was a near-total disaster. Guest drummer Hasegawa started out, as always, with an excellent drum solo. However, he started the tune too slow. The bassist stumbled over the opening riff. After my countoff, the band came in (sloppily), and the audience immediately started clapping along. Unfortunately, the audience tempo didn't match our tempo. That threw off the trumpet section, who wound up playing a full measure ahead before realizing their error (by blowing a critical entrance). To top it all off, two of the kids playing in the sax section (both Eggheads) couldn't figure out a simple dance step we'd worked up for a certain riff, and they more or less jerked around at random. It was a comedy of errors, but the audience still seemed happy.

The second half was mainly taken up by the DragonQuest tunes. Those went quite well for the most part (except for the agonizing splats that kept coming from the trombones and sometimes the trumpets). I had two difficult solos, and I nailed both of them even though (or maybe even because) I was feeling dizzy and nauseous (and desperately trying to keep my lunch from exploding from my bowels). There was also one tune, the "Ending" from DragonQuest III, that had a really fast, complicated run I didn't think any of the woodwinds would ever be able to play, least of all myself. Well, we nailed it solidly. (And then after that there were some pretty out-of-tune power chords from the brass...%$#@*!!!)

The encores included one song/piano performance involving Ms. Kuroda and Mr. Saito, another piece from DragonQuest III, and....once again....Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance. It all ended with balloons flying and a standing ovation.

When we got the audience questionairres back most of them were very favorable, but we did get some scathing attacks. Most of those were directed at the trombone section if not the brass as a whole (or even all the wind instruments for some reason). There was also a surprisingly large number of complaints about the repertoire. Apparently the idea of us playing an all-Japanese concert didn't go over well with some people. They want their European classics and American Broadway/Hollywood numbers. No native fare, please.

I guess it'll always be up to us gaijin to preserve and defend the native culture from rampant Westernization.

Definitely not one of our better performances, but it did have its moments. Besides, it was still a lot of fun, and most of the audience went away happy. In any case, tackling Rhapsody, Ritmica, and DragonQuest definitely gives me some more notches to put on my belt.

Now...what are we gonna play next December? Beethoven? Shostakovich? Salieri? (Salieri? Now that is a challenge!)

Monday, June 12, 2006

Getting Caught Up in (the) Rush

I really love having a hard-drive music player in my BLUE RAV4. Actually, it's included with my car navigation system (love that, too). Esentially, it's like having a built-in iPod in my car. It has just a little more capacity than my wife's iPod mini (though not as much as my 20GB iPod, if I could ever fill that thing!), which, together with a CD player, MD player, AM/FM radio, and an SD card slot for playing mp3 files (or copying them onto the hard drive), is plenty for my driving music demands.

Usually I have a ball flipping around on the menu, indulging my widely varied music tastes (like, new age and hard-core alternative on the same list?!?). This past week, however, has been both very busy and very stressful, so I've just been letting it play through and taking it as it comes. Well, the week is finally over. Yes, it has been a left-hand-in-the-meat-grinder sort of week, but it has also been a successful one in many ways. I got a lot of things done and, despite some nagging sore spots, I'm satisfied with most of it. Now I just feel good. Good and relieved.

How appropriate that the music menu has arrived at my Rush collection. It's somehow even more relieving to know that, despite all these years and the many events (and switches in my direction in life) in between, that trio from Toronto still figures heavily in my musical favorites.

I first heard about Rush in my late elementary/early junior high school days. At the time I was a rabid KISS fan, but people kept telling me I would especially appreciate Rush since I was known to be an equally rabid sci-fi/fantasy sort. I wasn't convinced, possibly out of loyalty to KISS. When someone finally played a Rush album for me, (their first live album, All The World's A Stage,) my verdict was something like this:
a. The songs are too rhythmically chaotic...too hard to follow.
b. What's with that loud, raucous-sounding bass?
c. That screeching singer has got to go!

Needless to say, I wasn't really impressed, but then again I hadn't really given it a fair and impartial listening. Fortunately, the people around me were persistent, and though I went from being a KISS fan to a Judas Priest/Iron Maiden fan in my early high school days, I used to sneak listenings of my sister's vinyl-disk copy of All The World's A Stage, mainly because I had fallen madly in love with two long rock-opera numbers, "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" (appealed to my fantasy addiction) and "2112" (appealed to my sci-fi addiction). It was only inevitable that I wound up hearing the other songs on the album, and I soon found myself coming to like the band a lot. I was also forced to learn the early Rush songs "Working Man" and "What You're Doing" as I was playing lead guitar (or trying to, anyway) for a (poor, short-lived excuse for a) rock band. When my older sister finally moved out...taking her records with her..., I was forced to get my own, first Rush album. That was Signals, which was in many ways a pivotal work. Others were soon to follow, because by then I was a fully declared Rush fan.

My only complaint about this hard-drive player is that you can't change the order of the songs (or at least I haven't figured out how yet). They go on in the order that you record them. That means that, because of an oversight on my part, most of my Rush albums wound up going on in alphabetical rather than chronological order. In a way it's interesting, though, because I'm getting a good comparison of the different stages the band has gone through. Yes, they evolved, but not in a very straight line. They went through many twists and turns. They even came close to falling apart more than once, but like the proverbial DuracellTM rabbit, they're still going and going and going...

The first album, called simply Rush, makes no bones as to the band's roots. One could almost call it "Led Zeppelin with a more dominant (raucous?) bass", though there are some other influences as well. The second album, Fly By Night, marked the arrival of drummer extraordinaire Neil Peart, still considered one of the best in the genre if not the best. However, Neil's contribution wasn't limited to his fancy rhythmical work. He quickly became the band's chief lyricist, and his devotion to literature led to the songs suddenly changing from "baby, ooh yeah" to works based on philosophy, fantasy, and occasionally politics. Fly By Night also featured Rush's first rock-opera, the aforementioned "By-Tor and the Snow Dog". The next album, Caress of Steel, had the first rock-opera that took up one full side of the record, "The Fountain of Lamneth" (actually one of two rock-operas on this album). It was a bold undertaking, and it very nearly wiped out the band's career as people found it a bit over their heads. How ironic that the next album, 2112, also featuring a long rock-opera, actually boosted the band's popularity to a higher level than ever before. Concept albums and long, complex, multi-movement works remained standard fare for the band for a while, but then Rush suddenly switched to arena rock and from there to an even more progressive turn.

On 2112 a synthesizer was introduced for the purpose of noise effects. On the next album, A Farewell to Kings, bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee's Minimoog was first used as a melody instrument, and Taurus synth pedals were used for accompaniment (not to mention orchestral bells, chimes, and a lot of other things). Three albums later (after Hemispheres and Permanent Waves), on Moving Pictures, a polyphonic synth was first used as an ensemble instrument, and a sequencer was first used for rhythm. Signals, which followed, was even more permeated if not dominated by synths, a trend which was to continue and increase over the next decade.

Guitarist Alex Lifeson's style became ever more progressive and ever more inundated with effects, but he found himself being pushed to the side by Geddy's keyboard work. He features strongly in 1984's Grace Under Pressure, but on the next three albums (Power Windows, Hold Your Fire, Presto) he seems almost more like a guest or session artist than a full-fledged member of the group. He reasserted himself a bit more on the album that followed, Roll The Bones, but by then the band had gotten in a bit of a rut, and the album lacked the spirit and emotional depth of the earlier works (i.e there are shining moments, but it's kinda flat overall). There were many reports that Alex was frustrated. There were also plenty of rumors that he was threatening to leave the band. His release of a (kind of cathartic) solo album, entitled Victor, during a lull in Rush's career added further weight to that theory. Hardly surprising, then, that the next Rush album, entitled Counterparts, was a very intense, guitar-driven work with little if any synth to be heard. (It is also interesting to note that, in the picture of the band included in the liner notes, Alex is sitting on a throne-like chair with Geddy and Neil kneeling beside him!)

The next crisis in the band's career came soon after the release of the next (sophisticated but kind of weak) album, Test for Echo. Drummer/lyricist Neil Peart lost his 19-year-old daughter to a car accident followed by his common-law wife to cancer. Understandably devastated, he officially retired from the band and went on an extended solo excursion to try to rediscover and come to grips with himself, a journey detailed very well in his autobiographical novel, Ghost Rider (which I recommend even if you aren't a fan of the band). He surprised everyone by returning to the band, newly rejuvenated, and they put out the powerful, guitar/bass/drums(in excellent balance)-driven Vapor Trails, arguably their best in a long time (though many complain about the mix, which to me sounds just brilliant on a car stereo!). That was a couple of years ago. Since then, they have only put out a single studio work, an EP entitled Feedback which features covers of songs that Rush used to play in pub gigs during their formative years. After all those eventful and tumultuous years, the band has finally come full circle.

Yes, they stuck it out through and through, and I guess I'll do the same. It's a bumpy ride at times, but if the end result is satisfying, I guess it's all worth it.

I think My Bloody Valentine is next...

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Good Afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen...

I tried to find a pic or two to help illustrate the last post. Unfortunately, I don't have any decent shots of the current Flying Eggheads lineup, and the pictures from last March's Big Annual Concert (serious impact fanfare) haven't arrived yet. Here are a couple of pics from a gig we played on the South Plaza behind Mito Station in October last part of a demonstration in favor of educational subsidies (I'm such a rebel!)...

I didn't take these pics, so don't blame me. They do show the Flying Egghead mascot/logo on the box stands used by the sax section, though. Ms. Kitaki (1st alto) is taking a solo, and the others look overwhelmed with enthusiasm!

This was actually kind of a fun gig. We were bussed in by the private school teachers' union, who also paid for everything (to help the government understand that they can't afford anything)(Makes sense, doesn't it?). We arrived to find a group of very drunk, homeless men occupying our intended space. I refused to do anything about it and told the kids to keep their distance while the planners debated calling the cops. (Fortunately, the homeless guys moved on their own...not that they didn't make lots of noise and give our girls plenty of verbal harassment...) Organization was at a minimum; they couldn't agree on who was going to do what...let alone when. They also kept changing their minds as to how long they wanted us to play. After being told, "Please wait a minute," a few too many times, I finally just told the kids to set up and start tuning, did a quick, easy tune as a "warm-up", and as soon as they introduced us I started the program. Halfway through they asked us to stop for a bit while they gave a couple of (horribly boring) speeches (wiping out our audience), and then they asked us to play some more. We'd already exhausted our rehearsed set, so I dug up some other tunes that were "in the folder". (Some of the kids didn't have the music for them, so they had to play by heart or improvise, i.e. authentic jazz.) I won't bother going into all the miscommunications that happened after our performance. This post is already longer than I intended. Still, it was a memorable experience, and the kids actually seemed to enjoy it.

Onizawa didn't enjoy having one of the program organizers damage his trumpet, though, but I think Mr. Ogawa did enjoy wringing the repair costs out of the union!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

"Flying Eggheads"? Say, WHAT??!?

Some people are wondering (quite understandably) why the jazz ensemble at ye olde academy is called the "Seishin Flying Eggheads". I have explained that in the past, but since the blog "family" has gotten a whole lot bigger recently, I guess it's only right for me to tell the story.

The year was 1997. The jazz ensemble I had founded at Seishin Gakuen was now in its second year, but it was still just "The Seishin Gakuen Jazz Ensemble". School jazz bands were and still are quite rare here in Ibaraki Prefecture. (At present I believe there are six counting us.) There are a lot more down south in Chiba Prefecture, and in Tokyo they are quite numerous. All of them have some kind of funky name, such as "The Mad Hatters", "Blue Harmony", "Electric Orchestra", etc.. At any rate, they were all much cooler monikers than "The Seishin Gakuen Jazz Ensemble". Therefore, Mr. Ogawa suggested that I come up with a name.

That year we had a problem. The music club was under attack from a faction of teachers who thought that students should do nothing but study. We're always being criticized for our busy schedule and the diligence of our members (some of whom practice five hours a day), but in 1997 that one clique of teachers really turned up the heat. They started shoving their noses into everything we did, getting on their soapboxes and railing against us during staff meetings, making frequent official complaints to the principal and PTA, taking every little problem out of context and blowing it way out of proportion, putting heat on our more dedicated members, and finally trying to get school rules changed mainly to try to hamstring us. Mr. Ogawa was constantly on the defensive, working hard to defend us without risking his own standing any more than necessary (i.e. being Japanese. In my case it was more like a counteroffensive as I was far less polite and far more willing to attack (read "be tactlessly blunt if not openly insulting with") anyone that leveled a half-assed if not totally baseless accusation against us.

Finally, during our summer training camp that year, Mr. Ogawa and I were relaxing over beers one evening and reflecting on our various issues. The issue of the name of the jazz ensemble came up along the way. We had already been stewing over the attacks we'd been suffering, and that triggered Mr. Ogawa's sarcastic sense of humor.

With a grin, Mssr. Maestro Ogawa said, "We should think up a name that implies the students do nothing but study all day and have no real lives. Maybe something like 'The Seishin Otaku '."

The word otaku means "geek" or "nerd", so I then suggested (wait for it...) "The Seishin Geeks" or "The Seishin Nerds". This was followed by a lot of laughter, after which we took turns trading names that ranged from silly to just plain ridiculous. Still, it was a lot of fun, and it was a much-needed release from the stress we'd both been suffering. Then, somewhere along the line, I said, "How about 'The Seishin Eggheads'?"

Mr. Ogawa stopped laughing and asked what the word meant. I explained that "egghead" basically refers to an intellectual or a diehard academic. Mr. Ogawa thought it was a good one. He insisted that I should run with it like a little boy in a field. (Stonehenge...)(Never mind.) I was skeptical as to whether the kids would like it or not, so I decided to talk it over with the band.

I mentioned "eggheads" as a suggestion, but I also explained to the band what it really meant. That got them talking, but with typical Japanese reservation, no strong opinions were forthcoming. Therefore, the band captain decided to resort to democracy. She told the members to write down one or more suggestions for a band name in order of preference. The 11th grade members would then select the top few and put it to a vote.

As it turned out, everyone in the band but one picked "The Eggheads" as their top choice. The one naysayer was our lead alto sax player, the now-famous (though not for music...though she is studying at Japan's top music college now) Megumi Kasuga. She'd wanted to name the band "Zip", and she was adamantly opposed to having a name that had any academic implications. "I'm NOT an intellectual!" she railed. However, she acquiesced to the will of the majority.

One of the trombonists suggested that "The Eggheads" was too simple. He said, "How about 'The Jazzy Eggheads' or something cool like that?" Everyone agreed with him, and we finally settled on "The Flying Eggheads". Inserting "Seishin" into the mix was my own idea, since most school jazz bands include their school name in their band names when performing outside their campus. Hence, we are "The Seishin Flying Eggheads".

I should also mention that, after we'd decided on a name, the vice-captain of the band came up with a really cute mascot/logo, basically a smiling egg with wings flying across a cloudy sky, which she then stenciled onto the box music stands used by the front-row players. We still flash that logo with pride. (I don't have a picture handy to upload and link, so I'll scan one in later.)

Okay, does that answer your questions?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Testing Their Metal

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen! We are the Seishin Flying Eggheads!"

It's the first Saturday Afternoon Concert of the 2006-2007 school year. As always, the event has kicked off with the Eggheads in what is the first outing of this year's new lineup. Thanks to a shortage of personnel in the sax section, I'm actually performing with the band in the second tenor seat. As much as I enjoy directing the Eggheads, I still like getting out a horn and blatting along with them a lot better. The only problem is restraining myself. Given half a chance, I would probably play a lot louder...and take everyone else's solo. I'm a teacher, though, so I have to be nice and encourage my students. (fume...)

We have just finished playing an old (and, for us, rather hackneyed) big band standard, "Tuxedo Junction", and I am addressing the audience. Once I've finished my customary English greeting, I switch to Japanese and say, "This is the 2006 version of the Seishin Flying Eggheads, plus one extra. No, I'm not a student. I'm actually the director of this group."

The audience laughs and applauds heartily.

I then go on to say, "From all of us in the Seishin Gakuen music club, I would like to welcome you to the 54th..." and then my brain grinds to a halt. The Japanese words just will not come out of whatever dark corner of my cortex they've dashed into and hidden. Maybe it's performance euphoria...since I'm actually playing for a change. Maybe it's that (extra strong) Tully's Compadre Blend I've just drunk. Maybe it's Alzheimer's a bout of airheadedness. I don't know. Total Japanese lockup. I try to restart the phrase, and I force myself through it, but what comes out would probably translate as something like, "Welcome to the 54 time mud flat...Saturday go, go, go Speed Racer aftershock afternoon Concert."

The audience is a chorus of muffled giggles.

I smile, and in English (with an exaggerated drawl) I add, "Sorry. I don't speak Japanese."

The audience laughs, and we play "Oye Como Va" (another one we've done a lot over the years) followed by a Latin-rock arrangement of a Japanese folk song, "Soran Bushi". We then close the set with a shuffle-swing arrangement of "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" followed by an encore, a new addition to our library, a bright, upbeat (rather cliche but totally fun) rock tune called "Over the Edge" in which I finally get to satisfy my urge to take an improv solo.

The performance is over. The new lineup of the Eggheads has completed its first outing. My evaluation? We've lost some strength compared with last year, but not enough to worry. The sax section is still solid. The trombones are not quite up to par, but since they're the same members as last year they know what to do. The trumpets have suffered badly, and there were some bad notes and bad entrances (especially in the solos), but they're still better than what I had a few years ago. They're also a very determined lot, if inexperienced. I imagine they'll improve. As for the rhythm section, they're definitely the strong point of this year's band. All the members are doing their jobs with skill and confidence, and they're begging me to push the band's limits more. It's embarrassing to have to tell them we can' least not yet. We'll see where we are in September.

After the Seishin Flying Eggheads leave the stage, we're treated to a whole raft (as opposed to half a raft) of solo performances. Three of them are piano performances by 12th graders in a music major course. (One of them is a total disaster, one is good but not quite music school material, and one is impressive, in that order.) Three of them are "by request" performances by alums, one of whom has just started student teaching here at ye olde academy. Only one performance is by a current music club member. She's a flautist, one that made it to regional championships in solo competition last year, and she does a fine job. After the raft (rack?) of solos is finished, it's time for the "main event", the headline performance.

The Seishin Gakuen Orchestra takes the stage (actually, it's the library lobby, but we won't tell if you won't) in all its bloated, crowded glory, and Mr. (Mssr. Maestro) Ogawa is already making excuses to the audience. He has always looked forward to working with this year's lineup with about as much enthusiasm as waiting for a tax audit. We lost a lot of key power players to mandatory retirement (i.e. reaching 12th grade), and this was definitely looking to be an off year. Add to that the fact that the orchestra hasn't really been able to rehearse very much as a result of, well, your usual beginning-of-the-school-year schlock. It wasn't looking to be a performance anyone except the mothers could be proud of.

The orchestra performance starts with a selection from the DragonQuest IV (yes, the video game) suite. Yeah, there are some rough spots here and there, but it's not as bad as we feared. We were especially afraid that the loss of our two F-horn wunderkinder would be a disaster, but their successors step right into their shoes and deliver a rock solid performance. The trombones and tuba (the same group that plays in the Eggheads) are actually a bit better than last year, but they still have a little more to go. Two of the three trumpets are in a bit over their heads, but they're showing a lot of determination. The flutes are solid. The other woodwind parts are not, though only the English horn player embarrasses herself. No problems at all in the percussion section. The low and middle strings are doing a good job, but the second violins are a little wobbly and the first violins look like they're on the verge of panic. Still, they manage to make it through DragonQuest IV without any real problems.

Next up is Sibelius' Finlandia, the first time Seishin's orchestra has ever performed it. Frankly, I think Mr. Ogawa is insane for even attempting it, especially since they were only able to rehearse it three times. I am pleasantly surprised. The brass, mainly powered by that horn section (you girls ROCK!), is actually tight through that opening part (though poor Mr. Moriyama on 1st trombone goes a bit sharp on the crescendoing high notes...his Achilles' heel...). The strings sound pretty good through the subsequent soft passage, echoed slightly less effectively by the woodwinds (though the flute is gorgeous). After that comes that famous, rapid-tongued, minor-key fanfare. The trumpets (one of the trumpets, actually) brick it the first time and nail it the second. The piece proceeds through the "dark and stormy night" part quite well and then kicks off into the march. This starts out very well, but then disaster strikes.

Our concertmaster this year is a 10th grader, a boy named Kimiwada. He was asked (by the students) to assume that role because none of the 11th grade violinists are anywhere near up to par. He's a very sensitive and exciteable kid, perhaps a bit childish, who tends to be a bit accident prone though he always means well. Anyway, Finlandia goes into a phrase that is a whole line of descending, offbeat notes. I don't know whether poor Kimiwada panics or gets too caught up in the rush, but all of a sudden he goes completely out of control and loses it completely, sending the entire, wide-eyed 1st violin part into a panicked muddle. He and the rest of the part manage to recover their footing (bowing? fingering?) at the end of the phrase and continue, but the tears are plainly visible on his cheeks.

The tune ends strongly, the audience applauds, and Mr. Ogawa apologizes between nervous giggles. Then the orchestra closes with Takeda Shingen, the title theme for a famous samurai TV drama. It's a very intense, brass-driven piece. Once again, the horns make that brutally punishing part look like duck soup. The trumpets, unfortunately, are more or less blown and the trombones are close to it. There are a lot of iffy entrances and rough-sounding notes. The strings, winds, and percussion, however, manage to do the job well enough for a legitimate performance. After that, Mr. Ogawa giggles and apologizes again, and the concert comes to an end.

Yes, we have a very young and inexperienced group this year. We have also lost some of our metal. Still, things aren't nearly as bad as we'd feared. For the orchestra to be able to play even that well after only a few rehearsals is amazing. Not so many years ago they wouldn't have been able to play even that much after months of rehearsal! Besides, these kids know what needs fixing, and they are clearly determined to do so.

If you don't believe me, ask Mr. Kimiwada. He's currently in the music office freaking out...and tearfully begging Mr. Ogawa to call our visiting violin instructor to come for an immediate lesson. Yep. Exciteable, accident-prone, but he means well. I think he'll do okay.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The New Fuzz in Town

It was the second week in May. I had just come home from ye olde academy. I'd parked my BLUE RAV4, gotten out, hefted that 20-ton black thing I call "my briefcase", and started walking toward the house. My daughter was outside washing a plastic dish for some reason.

With a wide, much-too-innocent smile on her face, she looked at me and said, "Papa, please don't be angry!"

Uh-oh. What was it this time? Had she flunked a test? Had my son broken yet another window? Had one or both of them turned either my computer or Studio Moodio into a pile of unhappy trash? Nope. It was something much less disastrous...and something much hairier. They had brought home a new, fuzzy member of the family.

Last year the kids adopted two abandoned cats. One of them was that lovely and very friendly calico, Mint, who after some initial problems became a very good and much loved member of the household...only to suddenly die in my arms of that strange sickness that had afflicted her from the beginning. The other was a tiny, little, white kitten whose eyes hadn't even opened yet. I knew its days were numbered from the beginning, but it actually wound up dying because Mint had slept on top of it and smothered it (and then she, herself died a few days after that). Ever since then, the kids had pestered me about getting a new cat, and I'd been very tempted to get Mao's next Christmas present at the pet shop. As it turned out, fate beat me to the punch.

You see, someone had dumped a mother cat and her kittens at the kids' elementary school. The mother cat had then been hit by a car, leaving just the kittens. The kids of the school had then taken care of the poor, little orphans, and then they'd divided them among themselves and taken them home. My kids had wound up with one of them, a black-striped tabby they'd named Tora (tiger...unoriginal, I know...).

I have to admit I was rather worried about him at first. His eyes were open, at least (and a wonderful shade of BLUE), but he was awfully tiny, and he could barely walk. He seemed perfectly healthy and happy, though. Amazingly, he was also fully housebroken. Feeding him was a bit of a problem at first because he kept trying to nurse and had a heck of an awkward time trying to drink milk from a bowl. Still, he made it okay. Now he's eating solid food from a bowl. Not only have his eyes changed color, but he has grown some during the past few weeks. Now he can even climb up to the top of Mint's old kitty tower, now his favorite place to sleep, which also gave me a good opportunity to take a picture with him actually holding still:

He's a very friendly and affectionate thing who hates to be alone, but he seems to believe in tough love. He loves to be picked up, but quite often he'll purr and lick your hand for only about a minute before he starts trying to tear a chunk out of it. Yes, he's a feisty sort who loves to play...and a bit on the aggressive side. He's only totally friendly when he's tired, and it takes a lot to wear him out. I imagine he'll mellow out as he gets older, but for now we just have to put up with some scratches here and there...and enjoy every minute of it.

Life in a Bubble


So why am I feeling so blue right now?

Yes, this is definitely exam season. It seems a number of people in my rapidly-expanding blog "family", such as YD, Saba, Pink Panther, and others, are either heading into exams or just finishing them up. As for me, I just finished my three days of hell. I should be celebrating. Instead, I'm sitting here wondering when the walls are going to start closing in.

I realize that giving exams is completely different from taking them. For one thing, it qualifies as sadism rather than masochism, so it's much more enjoyable for people like myself who don't really care to suffer. At least it should be. Unfortunately, there are times when being the test-giver is actually a lot more stressful. Having to plan the test, decide on the grading standards, make the materials, distribute them, collect them, mark them, and compile the results can add up to one heck of a chore. That much is obvious. Unfortunately, there's an even bigger worry:


You see, teachers and especially parents can be a very shark-like lot. Give them a whiff of blood, and next thing you know they are tearing you to pieces. That's a danger we have to live with all the time, but it's particularly acute during exam season. One false move, and you're a little red smear on the meeting room floor. That makes many people wonder why I dare to be so mold-smashingly, boat-rockingly bold with my Oral Communication classes, especially with the 7th graders. What I do in that course is completely different from anything else, so I'm constantly playing with fire. That flame burns hottest right around now, the first midterm of the year, and I may have just gotten my fingers burned...badly.

Since "Oral Communication" is supposed to be "oral communication" (how profound), I try my best to make class content and exams that deal with just that. Therefore, at exam time, I don't just give your usual "fill-in-the-blank" pattern and vocabulary problems or your basic dictation. No, "communication" means listening to and understanding what someone says and then responding to it. Therefore, my listening tests are always of the Q & A (question and answer) format, i.e. I ask or say something, and the students write down their response.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? It's not. Actually, 7th graders here seem to have a lot of trouble with the concept. For them a "listening test" means dictation, pure and simple. Either that or it's a listening comprehension test with multiple-choice answers provided on the test sheet. Listen and respond? What does THAT mean?

Well, every year I go out of my way to make sure the students understand. During the weeks leading up to exams I give them explanations, more explanations, and rehashes of explanations. I show them examples. I give them practice problems and quizzes. I even ask them over and over again, "What kind of listening test will it be," and I repeat it till I get the correct answer: "Question and answer!"

It never seems to be quite enough. From the beginning there were always a few that just didn't get it. Then two years ago about half a dozen students still tried to take the first midterm as if it were a dictation test, trying to write down my spoken questions without answering them even when I used words they obviously never learned to spell. That provoked a bit of controversy among my fellow teachers, some of whom wondered whether I'd been thorough enough with my explanations. Last year I was even more thorough, and the count went up to about a dozen. The grade chief called an emergency meeting (to which I wasn't invited, since I'm not attached to that grade) to decide what to do, but apparently they decided to leave it in my capable hands.

This year I was thorough to the point of nausea...even to the point that students were complaining about my being so repetitious. Guess what? The number of students that tried to take my Q&A test as if it were simple dictation rose to more than 80...almost half the total number of 7th graders. (More than half in two of the classes.) Needless to say, the average score was abysmal...far worse than it has ever been. There was also a record number scoring below 35%...the school's officially recommended "no-pass" line. Bottom line: the exam was a bust.

Even worse: one of the teachers that was a proctor (supervisor) for my test noticed the problem while it was in progress and, after it was finished and collected, asked the students in the class if I had actually explained to them what the content of the test was going to be. The entire class erupted into a chorus of no's...until one boy said, "Yes, he did...over and over again!" Then there was some hesitant denial followed by a moment of confusion followed by sheepish smiles and cries of, "Oh, yeaaaaahhhh!"


That teacher is trying to defend me now, but I doubt it's going to be enough. I'm fully expecting to be roasted alive for this, especially when the report cards go out. I don't follow the (useless) traditional line, and I take risks, so I've been on thin ice from the beginning. This time, despite increased precautions, I seem to have fallen through. There's also the fact that the English chief for this year's 7th grade wants to be very proprietary (He's new...and fresh from a cram school position, i.e. education = rote memorization) as well as the fact that the grade chief of this year's 7th grade has never liked me very much. (He's a responsibility-shirking, ill-mannered egomaniac who is famously greedy, and I have insulted him to his face before.) I don't fear losing my position. That's not going to happen. However, I do fear being marginalized...or being forced to conform with the (hopelessly outdated and useless) traditional line. That would almost be the same thing. I'm not prepared to make rote memorization the core of my lessons, not now, not ever.

I'm still puzzled as to why it happened. This year's 7th graders are actually showing more mettle than last year's. They're both more capable and much better behaved. However, while they are good at studying things on their own and taking tests based on rote learning, they seem to have a serious problem with listening to what they're told and remembering it. Also, an increasing number seem to be unable or unwilling to interact with anyone else, including other students. This is a problem which has existed for some time and seems to be getting worse year by year. It's like they all live in enclosed universes or something. Have their cellphones finally taken over their whole personalities? Are they cyber-autistic? Are they all living in their own, opaque bubbles now, totally oblivious to the world outside? Heck, I bet if I'd given them the exam explanations via cellphone e-mail there wouldn't have been any trouble at all.

Hey, maybe that's an idea...