Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Future's So Bright...I Gotta Wear Shades

Well, it's that time of year again; time for me to be a doting band director again. Today was the day of the music club's Big Annual Concert (impressive fanfare), the event which caps off the school year and serves as a farewell to the 11th grade members. We followed more or less the same pattern as last year, holding a two-and-a-half-hour concert three days after the official last day of classes at Ye Olde Academy. Unfortunately, that also meant we had two and a half days of intensive rehearsal leading up to the performance, though this time we did everything we could (short of stun guns or chloroform) to try to get the kids to save their chops for the stage.

This year's 11th graders were definitely a unique bunch. To be honest, we were pretty worried about them when they first joined the music club as 7th graders. The fact that they were members of a problem class (the one that later drove me to throw a desk) pretty much said it all. They were terribly immature, excitable, spastic, noisy, out of control...annoying... They had a habit of neither listening nor doing what they were supposed to. In fact, if they did anything at all they tended to do it in a really half-hearted manner with lots of giggling. Yes, they were a frustrating and tiresome bunch, but Mr. Ogawa, Mr. Karatsu, and I still sensed potential in them. We did our best to engage them rather than dismiss them. We pushed them, gave them responsibilities and goals, and encouraged them to work together as a team. It wasn't easy to do. In fact, it was damned aggravating at times, but today we got to see the results of all our efforts.

Late in the afternoon on the day before the concert it started to rain. On the day of the concert we found ourselves with a raging storm. We were worried that the suddenly awful weather was going to torpedo our audience, but there really wasn't much to do about it. When the stage lights came on and the show started, the hall looked to be about half full...or half empty depending on how you look at it.

(That still isn't bad, but considering the Kashima Philharmonic has been playing to a packed house every time for the past three years...Mr. Ogawa and I have gotten a bit spoiled.)

Last year's Big Annual Concert (D major chord, A bass) kicked off with a brass fanfare. This year it was the strings' turn. A select senior high string ensemble mainly made up of the 11th grade string members marched out onto the dimly-lit stage and played J.S. Bach's "Praeludium pro Organ BWV552,1". Then they marched off again, I went on, and it was time for the Seishin Flying Eggheads (really funky fanfare). They were there to bring to a close what had undoubtedly been their most eventful year to date, and I'm not just talking about the busier-than-ever performance schedule!

Every year, at the Big Annual Concert (Amaj7 chord, diminished 9th), I do my best to let the 11th grade Eggheads decide our repertoire. I rarely intervene or veto a student's choice unless it is clearly mistaken. This year it seemed two such mistakes had been made. Our lead trombonist wanted to play a really difficult trombone solo feature version of "Misty". Our baritone saxophonist wanted to do Charlie Mingus' "Moanin'" with herself as the featured soloist through the whole piece. I told them they had to be joking. We'd last performed "Misty" in 2004 and "Moanin'" in 2005. On both those occasions we'd had outstanding individual players to cover the solo spots, and even they had found the pieces very difficult. They'd also been backed up by bands which were generally stronger than this year's group. As far as I was concerned, "Misty" and "Moanin'" were out of their league, so I vetoed the choices.

Well, compared with their predecessors, what the kids lacked in individual playing power they more than made up for with team spirit, dedication, motivation, and, above all, sheer audacity. They did something I would never have expected from a Japanese school band. They took matters into their own hands. They got "Misty" and "Moanin'" out of the music library and started practicing them on their own. They'd get whoever was available in the morning, during lunchbreaks, or after rehearsals, and they'd jam on one or both of those pieces as best they could. (I could hear them doing it, of course, but I pretended not to know.) Then, after a while, they asked me if they could "try" the pieces during a regular rehearsal. "Moanin'" was already almost down. "Misty", while still quite rough (it's a VERY hard tune for kids to play), was still more than good enough to qualify. Chuckling with amazement, I told the student captain to go ahead and put both tunes on the list.

The kids' inventiveness and courage didn't stop there, however. If anything, I'd spurred it on. During the two days of rehearsals leading up to the performance the 11th grade Eggheads kept coming at me either to ask permission to do something they'd just thought of or simply to warn me about it. I was amazed. We'd had motivated Flying Eggheads in the past, but nothing like this!

Okay, it's time for me to give my annual kudos. At the risk of getting in trouble (or sued), I'll say f*** the initials and give credit where it is due.

In the past, the Seishin Flying Eggheads had always opened their program with a fairly easy number so they'd have time to get over the jitters and get into the groove. This time we decided to take a risk and start on a high note. We kicked off the program with the original Weather Report version of "Birdland", a regular favorite of ours. The trumpet section managed NOT to splat their first note (a curse they'd had all year), and the kids pulled it off really well.

Our first 11th grade kudo for 2007 goes to Yumiko Sato, our enthusiastic bassist this year, who bought a Fender Jazz bass just for the occasion. She pulled off the thumb-slapping Jaco Pastorius break in the middle of "Birdland" better than any bassist we've had to date. Another kudo, perhaps the most surprising, goes to percussionist Masashi Okuta for the awesome conga solo he threw in right after that bass break. Entering our school as a 10th grader last year, he was a capable classical percussionist but had little experience with drums. He entered the Flying Eggheads, played drums on one tune, blew it badly, and quit immediately afterward. Then he came back a few months later, apologized, and asked if he could play percussion rather than drums. I asked him to play congas. He did a good job, but he always looked so damned somber. As it happened, during the rehearsals before today's concert Mr. Sakuma (our part-time soundman, occasional stage manager, and full-time bulldog) finally blew up at him, saying what could perhaps be best translated as, "Oh, come on! You look dull as snot! Spice it up! Live a little!" Well, guess what...he did! He was all over those congas, muting with his elbow, spinning his hands around, smiling, banging his head, and definitely looking totally unlike himself. It was brilliant! (When we watched the video of the performance afterward the whole music club including all our visiting alumni gave him a rousing, whooping ovation.)

After "Birdland" came to its rather abrupt climax, I walked off the stage, and Chiaki Ohshima launched into an extended piano solo, an improvised venture she'd come up with (and informed me about) only the night before. We'll probably miss that girl more than anyone else in this year's 11th grade group. She's a talented flautist, but it's mainly as a pianist that she has earned her marks. From the time she entered as a 7th grader she immediately started serving as an accompanist for all kinds of soloists including Mr. Ogawa and myself. Always battling health issues (apparently due to exhaustion, but she would never let on or let up), she nevertheless would never hesitate to help out when asked, and she provided on-the-spot accompaniment for my sax solos on many an occasion. She was also the loyal rehearsal pianist for the Kashima Philharmonic...and actually outperformed at least two of the guest players (both professionals) she was supposed to be emulating! Obviously a gifted classical player, she had a bit of trouble getting used to jazz in the beginning (as is often the case); as a 9th grader she actually came to me in tears and apologized after playing her first ad-libbed solo, which I thought had sounded fine (inspiring the song "Why These Tears?" on my Open Halls album). This year she seemed much more comfortable, and the little hooks and fills she started sticking in the breaks became a regular feature of this year's Flying Eggheads. Well, now she was in the spotlight by her own choice playing a lovely, little cadenza as a lead-in to the next number, "My Heart Will Go On".

That soulful (if a bit hackneyed) ballad was originally an alto sax feature, but I rearranged it so that lead alto saxophonist and this year's Flying Eggheads captain Hiroko Yamamoto traded off with lead trumpet (and best smiler) Ayaka Karumi. Throughout the year a lot rested on those two. Both rather timid souls, they were nowhere near the best we've ever had at their respective instruments, but Ms. Yamamoto was definitely our strongest jazz player this year, and Ms. Karumi did a lot to make a struggling trumpet section a very credible one (not to mention she played with an unforgettable, warm tone that always reminded me of Miles Davis).

Yumiko put away her electric bass, picked up her wood bass, and we went into swing mode with "It's Only a Paper Moon". It was the only new tune on this year's roster. We opened up the middle to a few solos including Sachie Kitami on tuba. Originally a euphonium player, she picked up tuba this year when our existing tuba player (a bit of a loser) suddenly quit (to no regrets). Sachie took to it immediately. However, she actually seemed more comfortable playing it up high...in the euphonium range! Unlike tuba players we've had in the past, she was totally comfortable standing up and playing a solo and really seemed to enjoy it, too.

Next was "Misty" (clench fists anxiously), featuring trombonist Chihiro Kubota (and a bit more of Chiaki on the piano). As a 7th grader, Chihiro was famous for the fact that she could never figure out her instrument. Even after having studied and practiced it for the better part of a year, she had to learn each piece one note at a time because she simply could not remember the slide positions. We were sure she'd give up and drop out. Not only did she stick with us till the end, but now she was playing a gorgeous and very difficult (and very high ) solo. She had enormous shoes to fill; in 2004 that tune was played by Hirohito Tanaka, by far the best lead trombonist ever to play in the Eggheads, while Chihiro played 3rd trombone. Now Tanaka was helping out backstage (his mouth hanging open with disbelief), and she was in the spotlight. No, she didn't play it quite as well as he had, but she still did an impressive job, more than enough to prove herself.

After "Misty" came to its final, major chord conclusion, I walked over behind the rhythm section. Baritone saxophonist Suzuka Narui immediately stood up and launched into the opening riff of "Moanin'". There was a bit of an uproar from the audience because all of the members (including me) had suddenly put on sunglasses! (It was Narui's idea...another surprise sprung on me the day before the concert!) Like most of Charlie Mingus' works, "Moanin'" is very artsy and hard to play effectively. It is essentially the art of noise, the sound of someone being overcome with either frustration or passion (or both). It starts out with that bluesy bari sax riff all alone. When it comes around again, a trombone and tuba play a quiet but bluesy countermelody. Then two saxes come in improvising together over it. Then two more instruments come in, then two more, and finally the original melody is buried in what can only be called total chaos...which suddenly resolves itself again. Not only does almost every member of the band have to ad-lib, but they have to make it thematic (i.e. melodic) improvisation which starts out solemn and gradually turns into frantic screaming. We first tried "Moanin'" as an encore back in 2001, and since the band had very little in the way of improv power we only played the first half, and I wrote solos for all the members. (It sucked!) In 2002 we tried the whole piece, mainly because I wanted to feature our excellent lead tenor saxophonist at the time, Yuka Okada. We pulled it off mainly thanks to her considerable soloing strength, but the band as a whole still sounded uninspired and kind of iffy. Things were quite a bit better when we tried it again in 2005 because we had several strong jazz players including, once again, our lead tenor saxophonist at the time, Kentaro Shiiki. That was an impressive performance. Once again Shiiki stole the show with his long solo and open break, but unlike Okada he didn't do it all himself. He actually gave part of the solo to our baritone saxophonist, who was none other than Suzuka Narui, then a 9th grader. Now cut to 2007, and Suzuka was going the full ten yards on her own. As I mentioned before, the other members had been practicing their ad-libbed parts on their own for quite some time, so they sounded great...perhaps the best ever. They were just so into it! As for Ms. Narui's long solo and open cadenza, well...it's hard to compare. In 2002 Okada took a blues approach and wailed. In 2005 Shiiki went the be-bop route and was more technical. As for Narui in 2007, well...she was interesting. Her solo was inventive, expressive, and...interesting. It didn't sound like blues or be-bop so much as avantegard...or even modern classical. I kept expecting her to launch into something by Debussy or even Stravinsky. But it worked really well, and went she started up the main riff again she didn't play it square. She improvised around it, something no other Egghead had ever tried. It was really something, and after we ended the piece with a raucous mass of noise as all the members improvised (squawked?) together (another last-minute item they'd come up with!) we were rewarded with hoots and cries of "bravo" from the audience!

I was sure the brass would be wiped out by now, but they only sounded a little bit tired when we launched into our oft-performed, up-tempo medley of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Sing, Sing, Sing". A number of players soloed, but the one who really stole the show was our talented drummer, Ms. IT. That girl has always been amazing, and she just keeps getting better. Best of all is the fact that she's only a 9th grader (which is why I used her initials rather than her name)! Unlike the others I've mentioned here, she WON'T be saying goodbye yet (I hope)! We followed that with a rather predictable encore, "In The Mood", but the crowd always likes it.

And that, my friends, was the end of the 2006-2007 Seishin Flying Eggheads.

Next up was the concert band under Mr. Karatsu's baton. They had a pretty good selection of tunes...and some entertaining costumes and actions...but unfortunately the trumpets were blown out and the clarinets were out of tune. It was undoubtedly the weakest segment of the concert, but it was still well worth seeing, and the audience clearly appreciated it.

As always, the show was capped off by the orchestra directed by Mssr. Maestro Ogawa. First they played Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" followed by Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre" featuring a violin solo by our regular violin clinician (and concertmistress of the Kashima Philharmonic), Sugiko Ishikawa. Ms. Ishikawa, whose sister Shizuka is a world-famous violinist, is herself a well-established pro (not to mention a very interesting individual). Needless to say, her solo was wonderful. After that the orchestra played "The Sorceror's Apprentice". It wasn't a bad performance, but the winds generally sounded worn out and didn't have a whole lot of energy. Luckily the strings were in good form.

For the encore they again used my arrangement combining "Time to Say Goodbye" with Ravel's "Bolero" entitled (wait for it...) "Time to Say Goodbye-Lero". I'd given the tune quite a makeover, mainly to provide solos for this year's departing 11th graders, and this time Mr. Ogawa used the intro that he cut last year. The piece opened with Ms. Yamamoto on alto sax and Ms. Narui on bari sax trading solos with a beautiful duet in the middle, accompanied by the orchestra, before the Bolero part began. Appropriately, Chiaki Ohshima played the first melody, that of "Time to Say Goodbye", on the flute, and her face was streaked with tears as she did so. There was a lot more of that going on all around. Frankly, I was worried that some of the kids wouldn't be able to play, but the piece went beautifully, even better than last year, and it made me feel really proud both because it was my own work and because the kids were honoring me with such an outstanding performance of it. The applause and "bravos" went on for a long time afterward. Almost all of the 11th graders and even some of the younger members had very soggy faces. It was a dramatic and emotional moment, a fitting end to a dramatic and emotional year...or was that five years? Anyway, it really was time to say goodbye. Not just another performance, but another era had come to an end...one we won't soon forget.

19th concert program
(This is the front cover of the concert program. The same pic was used for the promo poster. Don't ask me to explain it. The kids that made it couldn't tell me anything that made sense.)

Another year, another Big Annual Concert. Never a dull moment in this music club.

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8 Comments:

  • Are all your students who play the reeds going to have buck teeth after this adventure???

    Really a long show, I don't think I cold sit still for that long, let alone blow a horn. Most of my performances have at most been an hour.

    But in addition to that I'll just add

    nGark!

    By Blogger Pa've, at 8:37 AM  

  • "The fact that they were members of a problem class (the one that later drove me to throw a desk)"

    That's exactly why I would never think of becoming a teacher, especially for students (if you want to call them that) here in Bahrain.

    Listen to this, when I was in 8th grade, I got so mad at our music teacher. I don't remember the reason behind it, but during break, as I was given the duty to be the music room watchman, I deliberately and single handedly destroyed every single instrument in the room. And I mean destroyed beyond repair.

    Aren't you glad I wasn't your student? ; )

    "We did our best to engage them rather than dismiss them."

    I think that's what should be done in our schools here. The music program is pretty non-existing. And students, as well as administration, never really gave a flying **** about pushing/inspiring the students to prevail. Of course, since the shadow of religion is hovering over society here, many teachers deviously imply how bad and "haram" music is.

    You're a great teacher, Moody. Keep up the wonderful work, and maybe one day you can share with us some of the videos of the band's performance? :)

    By Blogger Hashim, at 7:08 PM  

  • Wow. We had planned to attend this concert and on the day, about 2 in the afternoon K said, "oh! today was the concert!". We just totally spaced (no comment required).

    We were disappointed, but now that read this I am even more so. We really blew it. I'm kicking myself.
    Great stories about the preparation and performance. Glad for you and the kids it went so well.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 10:35 PM  

  • Even I'm not there to watch the performance, from your description, i can feel how awesome and brilliant their performance was!

    Congratulations Moody! Oops u did it again! ;-P

    Somehow, it's always those notty ones who can come up with really innovative ideas, yea?

    By Blogger YD, at 12:45 AM  

  • Pa've
    Our longest ever Big Annual Concert was more than three hours. That was three years ago. That's why we tried splitting it into two separate concerts, jazz & concert band on Saturday and orchestra on Sunday, two years ago. It was an interesting experiment (and quite a production), but it was also a logistical and financial disaster, so we went back to the one-day event.

    Hashim
    Yes, I've heard plenty of horror stories about Bahraini students. I think any country with a generally affluent culture tends to produce spoiled, troublesome kids. Japan is very much in that mold, too.

    You destroyed all the what??? And your teacher let you live??!?!? I probably wouldn't have!!!

    Thanks for the compliment. Maybe I'll see if I can find a way to post a video clip from that concert.

    Pandabonium
    Oh, well...I missed the Saitousai, so I guess we're even. ;-)

    YD
    Thanks, and you're right. A lot of the time the "naughty" students are the ones with courage and initiative, which can be an asset if put to good use. This year's 11th graders were a rather childish and much too excitable lot, but they also had a lot of creativity. If they had a goal (and were interested in it), they would join together and put all their energy into it. They could be pretty amazing sometimes.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:50 AM  

  • Bloomin' 'eck that was a long 'un!

    soundslike it weas your best concert yet! Such classy numbers, too.

    LOL @ "You look dull as snot" in Japanese! LOL!

    By Blogger Olivia, at 5:21 AM  

  • Olivia
    Welcome back, m'lady!

    It wasn't a direct translation, it was "figurative". It's hard to find an exact equivalent of the Japanese colloquial term "jimi" in English. "Dull as snot" is close enough. ;-)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:41 PM  

  • You might look up Jimmy Hat in the Urban Slang dictionary. :D

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:21 PM  

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