Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, August 25, 2006

And Now That I'm Back Again...

The day after coming back from Down Under (August 4), I went to ye olde academy, picked up four of the girls that had also been in Australia, and drove us all to the music club's summer training camp in my BLUE RAV4. Mr. Ogawa had wanted us to depart first thing in the morning so we could be there in time for lunch. I knew that that would be taking a really stupid risk; as exhausted as I was, I needed a good night's sleep in order to be fully confident of my driving safety. As it was, with the help of my car navigation system (though I ignored it half the time in favor of alternate routes I knew would have less traffic and would therefore be faster), I was able to deliver myself and the four girls at about 2 p.m., just in time for the afternoon set of rehearsals.

Last year's training camp was held at a place in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, which is mainly famous as a ski resort but also has a lot to offer in terms of summertime entertainment. Unfortunately, it was bloody hot and miserable there last year. The teachers' quarters were like a sauna when we tried to sleep at night, especially since the air conditioner wasn't working properly, but we weren't about to keep the windows open. In some of the rehearsal rooms the students did keep the windows open, which meant we had a horrible problem with mosquitoes, hornets, and obnoxious, biting horseflies. In the end, we vowed never to go there again.

But we did. You see, both they and some of our alums that had recommended the place in the first place insisted that such weather was highly unusual. Therefore, we gave them the benefit of the doubt. Actually, things were much better this year. It was a lot cooler, and the air conditioners were working, so we kept the windows shut. There was less sweat and much, much fewer bugs. That allowed us to relax, enjoy ourselves, and just concentrate on what we were there to do (i.e. drink a lot).

It was a very good summer camp in other ways, too. This year's concert band is going through an off-year phase. We didn't even expect them to make the prefecture championships and were quite surprised when they did. However, no one had any illusions of our making it any further, so we just kind of relaxed and allowed ourselves to focus on other things. For the first time in years there were no gripes from any of the guest clinicians about my jazz band rehearsals (which they usually try to terminate, claiming they "burn the kids out"). On the contrary; I actually got a lot of helpful support. I should also point out that, unlike last year's disastrous group of new 7th graders, this year's rookies are showing amazing promise. Some of them are good enough that they've already been put in the regular concert band. (I also just put three of them in my jazz band, and one of them, a sax player, is almost outplaying some of her seniors even though she is a new beginner!) All in all, it was a very good summer camp, and I felt far less stress than usual.

I might also add that I played regular golf for only the second time in my life. The first time in my life was during last year's camp, and this year I did better (though I started out worse). In fact, on two holes I actually scored better than Mr. Ogawa...who is an experienced golfer. He was pretty amazed by that, and I felt pretty good about it.

However, at the same time, something happened that I didn't expect at all. In some ways it made me feel very good. In others, it has me a little worried about the direction things might take in the future.

You see, I still can't figure out Mr. Ogawa. Sometimes he gives me so much support, instruction, and encouragement, makes me a full part of the program, and makes sure that the students, parents, and everyone else recognize and respect me as such. However, at other times he seems to be trying to toss me in a closet and shut the door, getting dismissive if not openly irritated if I try to come back out again.

Ever since Mr. Karatsu joined the program four years ago, Mr. Ogawa has been enforcing with increasing strictness a fixed division of responsibility. Specifically, Mr. Karatsu is in charge of the concert band, I'm in charge of the jazz band, and Mr. Ogawa himself is in charge of the symphony orchestra, string ensemble, and, for the most part, the (temporary, mainly for training) junior high wind ensemble. Mssr. Maestro Ogawa is becoming less tolerant of any attempt to cross those boundaries. For the most part, though I would like to work more with the orchestra, I can respect such a setup. However, there are times when it just doesn't seem right. One of the biggest problems is that Mr. Karatsu gives only very little instruction. He is becoming a very able director, but his style is still very straightforward and simplistic. He doesn't even try to give coaching to the different parts or individual players. True, we bring in guest clinicians for that, but they can't come anywhere near often enough. But if Mr. Ogawa catches me giving individual coaching outside my jazz band, he quite often either makes snide comments, discouraging the students from listening to me, or interferes directly. I have confronted him on the issue in the past, and he has always replied, "Just concentrate on your jazz band. That's all you need to worry about."

Last year was the first year I kept my hands completely off the concert band, or would have, anyway. As it turned out, Mr. Karatsu asked me to fill in for him a couple of times when he wasnt available for rehearsals (and Mr. Ogawa seemed surprised he did it). I took that as tacit permission for me to give some coaching before the contest, and I did so...till Mr. Ogawa intervened and shut me down. Then I went back to my "hands off" policy. When our band took a gold medal in the prefectural championship and went on to the East Kanto Regional Championship, Mr. Karatsu asked me to come along. I wasn't able to hold my tongue very long, and I found myself runnning around during the rehearsals giving pointers here and there. Mr. Ogawa wasn't there to stop me, and I even managed to fix one nagging problem in the sax section that had been plaguing them till them. (Basically, the lead tenor player hadn't even been blowing right!) Though we didn't succeed in advancing to the next round, we still got a very good result, the best ever, and Mr. Karatsu thanked me for my assistance.

This year my "hands off" policy wound up going even deeper. Mr. Karatsu never even asked for my help. (On Mr. Ogawa's recommendation, he asked alums instead.) Clear up until this year's prefectural championship, I didn't even have any idea what the band was playing. I was completely disconnected from it. Apparently our guest clinicians didn't like that.

It was probably my biggest surprise of the past several years, let alone this year's summer camp. Some of the guest clinicians called me over one evening, sat me down, and asked me what I thought of this year's concert band. I replied quite truthfully that I had no idea. After all, I hadn't seen a single rehearsal. The clinicians were surprised. Some of them were irritated. One of them, our oboe instructor, went ballistic.

"What in the world is Mr. Ogawa thinking?" he railed. "Doesn't he care about this music club at all? I mean, no offense to Mr. Karatsu, but..."

I was surprised to be getting this kind of support from these noted professional musicians and conservatory instructors. At the same time, I was more or less aware of Mr. Ogawa's stated reasons for his policy. All I said was, "It's...complicated."

The other clinicians chuckled and shook their heads knowingly. They were also aware of Mr. Ogawa's stated reasons. After all, two years before, when Mssr. Maestro thought I couldn't hear him, he told them all those reasons quite bluntly...and loudly. (More like "rabidly"...) Some of them did make sense. Others didn't. Some seemed positively daft...if not outright bullshit, and attempts to defend me just made him frothier. At any rate, Mr. Ogawa had made it abundantly clear that, for whatever reason, he didn't want me to be in charge of the kids. Not in any "serious" musical capacity, at least. I was to be in charge of the jazz band only, and that was that.

"I think we all know the real reasons here," said our bassoon instructor. "It's not going to change, either."

The oboe instructor was seething. "Well, someone needs to pound some sense into Mr. Ogawa. I mean, putting his ego ahead of the club's welfare like that..."

I really wasn't sure what to say, but I was getting worried. A confrontation wouldn't help things at all. "Please, sir, it's probably better not to push it."

The oboe instructor looked at me very intently and said, "Well, anyway, [Moody], just remember that you have fans here."

I was speechless, and I was thankful I had a good supply of beer at hand. As I said, I never expected such support from these high-ranked musicians...let alone respect...

The next day, when Mr. Ogawa and I wound up alone in the teachers' quarters, I very carefully, gently, and indirectly brought up the matter. As expected, Mr. Ogawa immediately raised his hackles.

"I always do my best to give you tasks that suit your abilities," he said. Then, glaring at me, he added, "Besides, how would you like it if I started coming into your jazz band rehearsals and telling the kids what to do?"

"Actually," I said, "I would probably appreciate it, to a point. I believe there is a big difference between mutual support and interference. As long as you don't make me look bad, I think your coaching would be a very good thing."

He didn't seem quite sure how to respond to that, but he said, "Right now the guest clinicians are making Mr. Karatsu look bad. Very bad, actually. We pay them for it, so it's okay for them to do it." I took his point, and that ended the discussion.

Mr. Karatsu invited me to come along to the prefectural championship. I wound up bowing out. I just didn't feel up to it.

After we came back from summer camp and the Bon holidays, Mr. Ogawa once again seemed to be determined to keep me as far away from everything except my own jazz band as possible. However, when I asked him if he was interested in playing a clarinet duet at the upcoming culture festival he seemed both very surprised and very delighted. The piece he suggested was one we attempted nine years ago but weren't able to perform because, well, it was simply too difficult for me. It was way over my head, so we finally wound up giving up. This time I surprised myself (and probably him, as well) by pulling it off on the first reading. I guess my clarinet playing has progressed quite a bit since I've come to ye olde academy, particularly since I've started playing with the Kashima Philharmonic.

And why shouldn't it? After all, I work with Keiji Ogawa, one of the best clarinet instructors around.


  • Gosh. Okay, it's hard enough proving yourself in the arts even in your own country.

    For you to do it in a foreign country, especially a closed culture like Japan's, is especially admirable.

    You really need - and must have, the way you manage it - a thick skin and a strong personality.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 11:03 PM  

  • Thanks, Olivia.

    They may not be thick and strong enough, though. Actually, one of the biggest reasons why Mr. Ogawa is reluctant to let me participate more than I do has to do with my exploding and threatening to quit five years ago. It's a long and very complicated story. It had much less to do with Mr. Ogawa than with the senior students that were in charge of the music club at the time. A lot of bad things had been going on for some time, and it finally came to a very ugly head.

    What it all boiled down to was the fact that many if not most of the kids in that group were particularly spoiled and conceited. They all more or less worshipped Mr. Ogawa, saw me as an unfit, undeserving pretender, and were angry that I was directing the concert band instead of him...especially since my style and tastes were different from his. I took a lot of crap from the most snobbish members of that clique before I told them to shut up or get out. After that there was all kinds of evidence that I was being undercut.

    I would tell a section to play a part a certain way, but at the next rehearsal they would suddenly play it completely differently. I would then (with increasing annoyance) reiterate what I'd said before, eliciting a reaction of puzzlement and confusion, but at the next rehearsal, they'd be back to playing it differently again. Things like this went on continually as we were building up to the big, main concert in March.

    On one such occasion, after I'd reminded a part to play a particular phrase the way I'd instructed (for the umpteenth time) I distinctly overheard one of the (snobbish) senior members say, "Don't listen to him. Do it the way "sensei" (teacher) said." I had no idea whether the "sensei" in question was a guest clinician or Mr. Ogawa, but I began having my doubts.

    The last straw came when the senior members asked me to give up my last concert band rehearsal in favor of Mr. Ogawa's orchestra rehearsal. At the time I understood; the orchestra was having a lot more trouble than the concert band. However, I then found out that an alumnus of the music club, a music major at a prestigious college, had been invited to conduct a concert band rehearsal without my knowledge. I was told he was going to direct an "emergency" orchestra rehearsal during Mr. Ogawa's absence, but I was made suspicious by all the obvious hush-hush going on. Then I actually overheard them practicing my piece (when they thought I was at a meeting...I'd intentionally skipped so I could investigate). I secretly listened in on that rehearsal, and I overheard the following dialogue:

    Student: (irritated) "That's the way [Moody] told us to play it."
    Alum: "If that's what he said, then of course that's what you should do! It's the director's call!"
    Student: "Well, how would you do it?"
    Alum: (embarrassed)"Well...I suppose I agree with Mr. Ogawa."
    Student: "Okay, that's the way we'll play it, then!"

    That's when I went in there (I wish I had a picture of the looks on their faces!), called out the student chief and vice-chief, sat them down, and demanded an explanation.

    They insisted that everything they'd done had been in accordance with Mr. Ogawa's orders. They still do to this day, though Mr. Ogawa himself continues to insist that it had all been a misunderstanding. As for that alum (who I trust completely), he said Mr. Ogawa had specifically asked him to conduct an orchestra rehearsal, but then the senior students had suddenly told him he was supposed to "rehearse and correct" the concert band only after he'd arrived.

    Anyway, after that I told Mr. Ogawa very bluntly that either the backstabbing stopped or I walked. He was pretty upset. (I overheard the senior students saying they hoped I would walk, but I directed them at the concert anyway. Afterward they gave Mr. Ogawa the traditional thank-you speech but pointedly ignored me. That's the only time that has ever happened.) The next year Mr. Ogawa actually took an extended leave of absence, leaving me fully in charge. (I got along with the senior students that year very well, but after what had happened they were understandably nervous about dealing with me.) Then, the year after that, Mr. Karatsu joined the program, and I was suddenly restricted to the jazz band.

    It has been five years since that incident (and that incident took place after I'd been there for five years). I think things are improving in some ways, but it will probably take even longer to work it all out.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:45 AM  

  • phew... so many politics! i'm not sure i could deal w/ it as well as you do. is it like this everywhere in japan? or is this an isolated case? i've heard the japanese can be very difficult and not straightforward... but you never know if what you hear is the truth or what.

    i've taught here and didn't like it for some of the reasons you state here - lack of respect and such. but, i'm not teaching the arts and i have no training - unlike you. truly, i feel for the stress that you're under.

    i'm glad this year's camp went well. altho, i disagree w/ Mr. O not allowing input from other teachers and not allowing you to give advice and such to the students. i think this is very wrong, especially in music.

    By Blogger tooners, at 7:20 PM  

  • is it like this everywhere in japan? or is this an isolated case?

    It's tough to say. Japanese often tend to have a "we know better" attitude with regard to foreign coworkers, and it's not uncommon for them to try to "fix" what their gaijin colleagues do behind their backs. Actually, when I first started working at Seishin one of the older English teachers started trying to "correct" what I was teaching in my classes during his own lessons! (His excuse was that I was teaching "colloquial" rather than "proper" [i.e. outdated] English, which was "dangerous" to the students...)

    i've heard the japanese can be very difficult and not straightforward... but you never know if what you hear is the truth or what.

    You're right. Directness is considered bad form here, and telling white lies is considered good manners. There's a rule of thumb that says that one's honne [true intentions] and tatemae [stated intentions] should be different. With that in mind, it's very possible that Mr. Ogawa thought he was trying to cover my arse. It's also possible he was trying to cover his own ego. There's simply no way of knowing.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 8:35 PM  

  • very interesting, cuz the same happens here! you never know when talking to someone if they mean what they're saying or if it's a white lie. lying is part of the culture here - most do it. it sort of drives me insane at times.

    ppl run all over you here and what gets on my nerves is that it's difficult to get things done because no one wants to piss the other off, so you're always walking around on your tip toes trying to watch everyone's feelings. because the last thing you want is to upset someone and for that person to make trouble for you elsewhere. so... ppl are overly polite which, in turn, lends itself to a lazy type of atmosphere. meaning - getting things fixed around the house, good plumbers and such.

    By Blogger tooners, at 5:45 PM  

  • Oh my gosh, Mr O is holding a five year grudge!?!?

    This, along with circuitous protocols and no one being honest, would simply drive me MAD.

    Actually, I am surprised you are still there - a) having not walked out and b) having avoided being forced out.

    Oh heck, I never get the blogger code right first time. I swear I typed what I saw on the screen!!!

    *pulls out hair and stamps about*

    Crap, it wouldn't take the second one either. I think Blogger is slightly broken today because I am getting blank pages too.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 5:09 AM  

  • Olivia, the word verification code rarely works for me the first time if I take more than a couple of minutes to type the post. That thing almost seems like more trouble than it's worth, but the alternative is all those spam posts.

    Oh, and I want to make sure you understand that Mr. Ogawa and the "Mr. O" I have ranted about in earlier posts are NOT the same person! I would probably be easier just to use everyone's name, but...

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:06 PM  

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