Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Fanfare for an Uncommon Orchestra

I've left for and come back from my one and only bit of work this winter vacation. It was the 2008 All-Japan Selected High School Orchestra Festival (technical but not particularly musical fanfare). This has been a more or less annual duty for me since the first time I accompanied the Ye Olde Academy orchestra there back in 1998. Back then it was a day-and-a-half event involving a total of eighteen orchestras. This year it stretched across three full days and included fifty-six orchestras split into three blocks. (Yes, it has grown a bit.) Since I don't personally direct our school orchestra, my main job on this outing is mainly to help chaperon the several dozen kids that fill its roster as well as serve as a "gopher" (go pher this, go pher that...) for Mssr. Maestro Ogawa. It's a duty that I always least for the most part.

Part One - The Rant
I'll start out by getting the venting out of the way.
  • When this event was first conceived and held back in 1996, one of its main overseers was a member of the Imperial Family, and they were very serious about the "Selected" part of the title. In other words, they didn't "select" just any high school orchestra to participate. Receiving an invitation meant that you had been noticed and judged worthy. Our orchestra was first called in the second time the event was held, i.e. in 1997, and we saw it as a tremendous honor. All of the participating orchestras were very talented and capable, and it really meant a lot to us to be considered worthy enough to be counted among them. However, since the mid 2000s the event has been fully in the hands of the Japan Youth Orchestra Federation, and they are dominated by a very left-wing, "we're all equal, we're all beautiful, we're all happy," philosophy. In other words, there are no longer any standards; they invite whoever seems to be able and willing to come. That means that, while there are still many truly impressive high school orchestras on the (steadily bloating) program, it also means there are some groups that get up there and just make fools of themselves. Yes, I know - they're all proud to have their turn in the spotlight, and they're all doing the best with what they have, but it's still sad to see kids who flat out don't know how to play their instruments get up in front of a very demanding audience, try to play a tune that's clearly over their heads, and wind up being laughed at. Frankly, I feel sorry for them. Left-leaning though I tend to be in the political arena, there are times when I think forced equality is a bad idea. This is one of them.
  • As if to underscore the point, during the opening ceremony one of the reps from the Japan Youth Orchestra Federation got up on stage and lectured everybody as to how to fill out the comment cards they're supposed to send to all the other orchestras. "Don't write any negative or critical comments," he said. "They just make people unhappy. Write only happy, encouraging comments!" Heck, if you're going to be that PC, why have the kids write anything at all? Just give them all standardized ink stamps that say, "Nice job!" That way EVERYONE is equal, EVERYONE is beautiful, EVERYONE is happy! (RETCH!)(No, I'm not a believer in PC.)
  • The PC stupidity also wrecked extended to the "selective ensemble" performances. They used to be purely "participation by audition only", i.e. the creme de la creme, and they were always excellent and a delight to listen to. Again, starting a few years ago when the JYOF assumed full control, it was taken over by that same "everyone is equal" philosophy. In other words, every participating orchestra was given an equal share, with the parts each filled decided by random drawing. I think you can guess the result. There were some very talented kids up there. There were also some poor souls that were totally ill-suited for the tough tunes they were called upon to play and probably had no business trying. You know the old adage, "The road to ruin is paved with good intentions"? That pretty much sums it up.
  • The Nippon Seinenkan, the culture/convention center where they hold this event every year, was barely big enough for everybody back when there were only 18 orchestras participating. 56? Forget it. Our reserved section in the hall (which kept getting moved and resized as the event progressed) didn't have enough seats for everyone, so I wound up spending much if not most of the time either sitting in the lobby listening to the performances via the PA or parked on a bench over in the convention center section reading a book. Meanwhile, it was so packed that getting from place to place was always a problem. We were also rudely booted out of our assigned luggage storage area halfway through the second day so another school could use it, meaning we had to tote our bags and cases with us for several hours. No, it wasn't fun.

Fire Emergent Phone
What the Sam Hill (whoever the hell he was) is a "fire emergent phone"??!? Cell phone pic taken at the Nihon Seinenkan.

Part Two - The Cheer
Don't get me wrong; there are usually a lot of good things about this event, and this year was no exception.
  • The Ye Olde Academy orchestra continued its tradition of audacity this year. We've always had a tendency to play tunes most school orchestras don't and avoid those that they do. Our program this year was a salute to Aaron Copland and included two numbers. The first was "Fanfare for the Common Man", and it was performed by only our brass and percussion sections with the rest of the orchestra waiting offstage. Considering the kids had to play the thing cold after a half-hour wait backstage, I was really worried. Yes, the opening trumpet blare skidded a bit and it took a bit for the horns to get into gear, but once they got into the groove they sounded great. The one that really stole the show, however, was the 7th grade girl (in bright red) who conducted. Once that was done, the full orchestra came in, Mssr. Maestro Ogawa took the baton, and they performed El Salon Mexico, which is a very tricky and demanding piece to play, but the kids pulled it off nicely with some brilliant solo work from the trumpet, clarinet, bassoon, and cello sections. The percussion section also wowed with the interesting array of instruments and toys they brought out. All in all, it wasn't a perfect performance, but it was still a very good one and earned us lots of praise.
  • Speaking of which, it is always welcome and meaningful to get both positive feedback and useful, constructive comments from orchestras which are clearly more capable than us, particularly those that are fortunate enough (grr...) to have elite music major programs (which is generally why they are more capable than us). It is always an honor and a pleasure to be compared with such power groups, to be ranked among them, and even to be considered by them to be on their level. Considering what we have had to work with over the years, I'd say Mssr. Maestro Ogawa and his various trainer friends, not to mention the kids themselves, have accomplished a lot...and the fact that they enjoy doing it rather than treat it as a duty says a lot.
  • On the other hand, at the risk of sounding arrogant (but hey...I'm a bit spoiled in this respect, right?), it's always extremely amusing when members of orchestras which are clearly NOT at our level try to lecture us as to how we should run our program. "You sit too deeply in your chairs," ranted a member of one VERY weak orchestra in his/her comment card. "Sitting fully erect on the edge of your chair to keep your upper body free is one of the most basic rules of music! I also saw a couple of violins whose bowing was out of sync! And one of your doublebasses was holding her instrument funny! If you can't even master such fundamentals, you have no business performing on stage!" Um...why don't we talk about the log in YOUR eye while we're at it, huh?
  • The orchestra that followed us, a group from a very reputable school (with an elite music major course)(grr...) in faraway Fukuoka making its first-ever appearance here, was awesome. They more or less blew us away with an excellent combination of Verdi and Star Wars. But we were fortunate in that we shared our storage room and hotel with them, and they were a great bunch. I have found that it is often (though definitely not always) the case that the best orchestras, the ones that are really good, quite often have good attitudes to go with their abilities, whereas it's the pretentious ones that tend to be insufferable snobs. That worries me, however, because I've noticed our own kids tend to be rather cold...
  • Our 11th graders did their best to manage things efficiently and effectively. I'd say they did a good job in terms of showing leadership, teamwork, and responsibility. I'd say they showed some flaws, however, when it came to coming up with a plan and sticking to it, because they didn't. What they wound up doing was quite often very different from what they'd said, and that did lead to some confusion. It was a good thing that they were attentive enough to avoid disaster, because we did come close on a few occasions. But at least they really were doing their best, i.e. no one was shirking his or her responsibility.
  • Once again the teachers and alums got together for dinner at the usual French restaurant in Shinjuku (a tradition for the past few years). I always enjoy going there, though I have to say I didn't really enjoy squabbling with Mssr. Maestro Ogawa over matters concerning the Kashima Philharmonic. Perhaps it was inevitable, especially considering the position I've wound up in, but I'd still rather it didn't happen.
  • I got sick of sitting out in the lobby (i.e. my butt was getting sore), so I went for a walk during the last hour of performances (missing some of the worst, I was later told). I was actually looking for a coffee shop such as Starbucks, but I didn't find any. What I did find was an interesting shopping strip with several boutiques, restaurants to keep in mind, and some novelty shops that I wish I'd had more time to check out. I also enjoyed looking at the Christmas light displays that were still out and in full swing. Ironically, there was a new Starbucks at the highway rest area we stopped at on the way home, so I was able to get a grande-size mocha.
  • Now that that's over, I have a full week free of work or anything other than family business. Whatever am I going to do with myself? :-)

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Getting In The Spirit of Things (or Not...)

As I sit here in the wee small hours of Christmas morning (just after Santa's timely arrival), a lot of thoughts are going through my mind. Allow me to share just a few:

In the evening on Monday the 22nd the senior string ensemble from Ye Olde Academy, plus yours truly as solo clarinetist on a couple of tunes, played a Christmas concert at the Koyama Memorial Hospital, the newest and largest medical facility in Kashima. It's mainly an emergency center (which is why my only other visit there was when one of my kidneys produced a stone right in the middle of a class one summer)(That was seriously painful, but I digress). However, its other main function is as a care and rehabilitation center for the elderly and those with chronic diseases. Apparently they hold such a concert every year, but usually it's a solo artist with or without accompaniment. We were the first ensemble numbering more than a dozen, and packing us into the hospital lobby was no small feat. We had a good sized audience in there, too, many of whom were in wheelchairs if not stretchers, often with IVs attached. One person collapsed during the performance but insisted on remaining till the end. It definitely wasn't our usual fare, but the warm response from the audience and the appreciative looks on their faces really said it all. They probably aren't given much reason to celebrate, so we did our part.

Christmas preparation was unusually hectic this year, mainly because of increased job loads on both my and my wife's part. I managed to finish the wrapping and prep for my bunch only at 2:00 a.m. this morning. The package for my family Stateside is most likely going to be a few days late. The Christmas cards I'm planning to send to people are going to wind up as New Year cards. As for my wife, she hasn't managed to finish anything. Her Christmas shopping is going to happen this afternoon (i.e. on Christmas Day). That means Santa's load for the kids is rather scant compared with most years, but I'm sure we'll find a way to make it up to the kids.

While my friends and family back in the Pacific Northwest are suffering the worst cold snap there in over forty years, here in the Land of the Rising Sun we're just now getting out of an unexpected tropical air mass that made it suddenly go from freezing to warm to hot. Now it's getting back to freezing again, but for several days it seemed more like late March than December. We even had the stormy weather to prove it.

At the local self-service gas station run by the Japan Agriculture cooperative (i.e. cheaper than the regular chains), gas was 187 yen a liter last August (about $6.75 a gallon at the exchange rate back then). It is now an even 100 yen a liter ($4.44 a gallon at the current exchange rate). It's nice to be able to fill my tank for less than fifty bucks once again. They say prices will keep going down for a while and then suddenly skyrocket back up. Whatever. I'll enjoy it while I can.

Ignorance is definitely NOT bliss. After a death in the family, the custom in Japan is to send out special mourning announcement cards to everyone who would normally receive (or send) a New Year's card. The purpose of the card is mainly to let people know that they shouldn't send us New Year's cards because the bereaved do not celebrate the New Year. Usually the cards are made or ordered immediately after the funeral is over. Not so in my household. For the past four months I frequently got on my wife's case to help me make them; I already have excellent software for that, but since I'd never made mourning cards before I wasn't sure how to design one. Unfortunately, all I got in reply was complaints. Every week she was either too tired, too stressed out, too busy, or too apathetic to do it

FIL offered to take care of it, and he had me use his computer to help with the preparation. That's one of our regular things here. FIL got himself a brand new computer a couple of years ago and has even been taking lessons in its use. Guess what? He won't even try to use it. He just keeps trying to dump everything off on me. After I showed him how to do it (yet again) and even helped with some of the busywork, he gave up and ordered ready-made cards instead. Unfortunately, despite all our help, the cards he ordered had only his name on them. In other words my wife and I couldn't use them. That finally left all our card preparation to me.

Once again the wife gave me virtually no instruction on what I was supposed to do. Running like a chicken with its head cut off, I worked hard to design the card, buy blanks, print them up, do the addresses, and deliver them to the Post Office ahead of the deadline. I managed to pull it off, too, but naturally, as soon as the Mrs. came home and found out what I had done, far from being thanked, I was treated to a steady stream of moans and gripes. You see, it turns out that card blanks come in different types, and mourning cards are supposed to use a different one from regular New Year cards. That meant that, in the end, more than $50 and several hours of work went straight into the dustbin. This time I said I wasn't having any more to do with it. I already put in the time, effort, and expense. I'm probably going to get laughed at by people anyway. I'll just tell them to direct their complaints to the Mrs., who was too busy/tired/apathetic to make the announcements for her own mother within a span of four months. Now it's her turn, I think.

After all those wiped-out weekends, I'm finally getting a vacation! It technically starts tomorrow, but I insisted on having Christmas Day off. Besides, the obligatory lessons ended a number of days ago, and all teaching currently being done at the school right now is more or less voluntary. A lot of the faculty have already left on vacation (meaning my mourning cards are languishing in their mailboxes). As for me, I'm just happy to be free for a while.

Incidentally, I just finished a new song. It's called "Secret Identity", and it was a nice, enjoying bit of patchwork. Enjoy! More info on the song can be found on my Minstrel's Muse site.

It is now 3:30 a.m. Christmas morning. Woah, I'd better go to bed! There are a couple of kids that are going to be seriously climbing the walls and jogging on the ceiling tomorrow!

And I heard him exclaim just before he logged off:

"Happy Christmas to all, and good morning! *cough cough*"

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Standing Guard

Well, here I am sitting alone in the main office at Ye Olde Academy.  It's my turn to shoulder the burden of the rotating role known as "Sunday Day Duty" (fanfare consisting of a single, uninspiring note).  

Day Duty is something that pretty much every teacher in Japan has to deal with at regular intervals, but it doesn't always mean the same thing.  When my wife takes her turn, she has to unlock her school in the morning and then, at the end of the day, wait until everyone else has left before locking up again.  Things are a bit different at Ye Olde Academy.  We have a front office manned by professional staff employed by the school's corporate owner.  They take care of opening the school in the morning.  That means that the Day Duty sucker teacher only has to take care of clearing the buildings of students and locking up at the end (but if another teacher plans to stay late, as is often the case, it is perfectly acceptable to turn the keys over to them and bolt).  On Sundays and holidays, however, the office staff is off, so the Day Duty teacher has to man the guardhouse, so to speak, remaining in the front office all day to keep tabs on who goes in and out.  That is a bit different from what the public schools do, and it can be a lonely job.

I've heard that, back in the '70s and '80s, the Day Duty teacher actually had to spend the night at the school and play night watchman.  Next to the staff entrance there is a little bedroom with bath and toilet facilities that was originally used for that purpose.  (Now the maintenance workers use it as a sort of breakroom.)  There is a TV in there, but I'm sure it must have been an agonizingly lonely and boring night for many if not most.  Sunday Day Duty can be bad enough as it is, and I have the luxury of internet access.

I also have a stack of newspapers to cut through.  These days I've been hard pressed to find time to read them, and they keep piling up.  Since the start of the current school year in April I've rarely sat down and read a single paper.  Most of the time, if I can make the time, I'm having to read them three or more at a time.  This time I have a whole week's worth.  In other words, my newspaper reading has become like my posting on this blog; it just don't happen too much these days.

Only a few staff members are here today.  All of them checked in with me first.  Both the junior and senior high staff rooms are open now, but there are only a few teachers in each.  Most are no doubt here for interviews with parents.  It's yet another time of year for that sort of thing.

Yesterday was my son's 9th birthday.  He seemed pleased enough, but it all seemed so hectic and tentative.  My MIL's death last summer still looms like a shadow over my family, and the Christmas season this year definitely has a very bitter undertone.  In my FIL's case there may even be some resentment; according to Japanese tradition a bereaved family isn't really supposed to celebrate anything for a full year, so the Japanese festive events like the all-important New Year are off.  However, since Christmas is a (somewhat misunderstood) foreign import, it is strangely immune to the ban.  We have our little tabletop Christmas tree set up and surrounded by a pile of packages (most of which came from my parents, thank you very much!).  The usual ornaments are also up, as is the string of multi-pattern lights I always hang around the front window.  FIL tosses his head at all of it when he shows up for meals every day.  He also stated grumpily that he "won't be here" when Christmas Day arrives.  My wife is more glum and less motivated than usual this year, too.  Meanwhile, my collection of Christmas CDs is largely gathering dust.  It is turning out to be one very cold winter even though the weather has been relatively warm.

Tk birthday 2008
Here's a nice family shot of our little birthday celebration. It's pretty easy to tell who's happy and who isn't.

One side effect of all of this is that my usual Christmas splurge hasn't been happening.  My shopping has been tempered (and late), so Santa Claus is going to be a bit more conservative this year.  It has also been difficult to find time and motivation to do much of anything.  I'm afraid my usual Christmas package is going to be arriving Stateside a bit behind schedule.  I'm also uncertain as to what my annual Christmas/birthday present to myself is going to be this year.  Last year I got my digital studio setup, i.e. a Roland Sonic Cell, a new laptop dedicated for music use only, and various kinds of music-related software such as Sonar 7.  This year I'm at a total loss as to what to get...or if.  There is a possibility of my replacing the six-year-old Vaio desktop I use at home with something a bit more current, though it still serves my needs adequately (though the C partition once again has space issues despite my having more than tripled its capacity - accidentally wiping out the boot sector in the process - a few years ago).  That used alto flute I found at one of my favorite music stores last night is also haunting my id right now; I'd never tried playing one before, and I seriously fell in love with it (but I know buying it would probably be tantamount to a death sentence as far as the Mrs. is concerned).  One fact that is very much on my mind is the fact that my daughter is going to be taking Ye Olde Academy's entrance exam next month.  If she passes, it'll take a whopping bite out of my budget.  This school is many things, but cheap is not one of them.  Maybe my gift to myself should be a full tank of gas and a case of beer.

It's sunny outside now, though the sky is a bit on the hazy side.  That's kind of unusual, too.  The sky is usually clear as a bell and deep blue for most of winter here.  Oh, well.  At least I still get a wonderful, colorful view from the office window!

view from the office 2008

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a stack of newspapers to read...and some music to compose. It's gonna be a lonnnng day.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Heads in the Clouds

About a month ago I was told that my daughter's 6th grade class was going to take a trip up to Mt. Tsukuba here in Ibaraki Prefecture. I was also invited to join. Well, after the usual convoluted mess of sketchy information, miscommunications, and seemingly random schedule changes, I wound up going. Although I wasn't happy about some of the complications that resulted, I really was looking forward to going.

The lower two-thirds of Ibaraki is mostly a plain, i.e. flat as a pancake. There is, however, a small cluster of mountains right around the middle, just west of Lake Kasumigaura. None of these is particularly high; most of them are only about 500-600m in height. However, they look imposing simply because the surrounding landscape is, well, flat. By far the most impressive is Mt. Tsukuba, the tallest of the lot (though not the tallest mountain in Ibaraki. That honor belongs to Mt. Yamizo in the far north, which looks far less impressive simply because it's inconspicuously nestled within the alps).

The name "Tsukuba" (筑波, normally pronounced more like "skuba"), translated directly, would come out as "zither wave", but that wouldn't be appropriate. The first kanji, read "Tsuku" or "Zuku", is in fact the ancient name of the island of Kyushu. Therefore, the mountain's name is more properly translated as "Wave of Kyushu". The title fits; with its distinctive, broad shape and twin peaks, it most definitely looks like a great wave rising above the sea of the Kanto Plain. Interestingly, while most Japanese mountains are of volcanic origin and thus are composed mainly of igneous (i.e. volcanic) rock, Mt. Tsukuba is made of metamorphic rocks such as granite. That means it was most likely formed underground and pushed up into its current shape. That is only one of the mysteries of this enigmatic mountain.

Mt. Tsukuba has a great deal of both historical and legendary significance. It is believed that a Shinto deity who came to earth tried to rest on Mt. Fuji but was refused by its spirit, so it came to Mt. Tsukuba, where it was welcomed (which, they say, is why Mt. Tsukuba is lush with life while Mt. Fuji is barren). Its twin peaks, named Nyotai ("female body") and Nantai ("male body"), are believed to enshrine if not embody Izanami-no-Omikoto and Izanagi-no-Omikoto, the celestial pair that spawned not only many if not most of the deities of Japan, but Japan herself. (Interestingly, the story of Izanami and Izanagi has a twist that is remarkably similar to the tale of Orpheus. After Izanami was tragically killed, Izanagi went to the Underworld to find her. He succeeded, but he was warned not to look at her until they got back to the world of light. Needless to say, Izanagi failed to do so. He looked at her and saw that her time in the Underworld had corrupted her and turned her into a grotesque creature. He promptly abandoned her, and she became the proverbial woman scorned...doing all kinds of evil things to mankind and other deities after that.)(I seem to have digressed a bit...) The mountain has long had an important place in the Japanese heart and has appeared in art and literature at least since the early 8th century.

Most people that climb the mountain start their trek at the famous, centuries-old Tsukuba Shrine and take the path that starts there. We didn't. Instead, we went to the Tsutsujigaoka Parking Area, a tolled parking lot and amusement complex on one of the mountain's flanks. Taking the path from Tsutsujigaoka instead of the Shrine adds a bit more lateral distance but cuts the climb nearly in half.


This is the view from our bus looking toward the trail entrance. A group of people can be seen climbing the first (and easiest) stairway. The main peak of the mountain, which is to the upper left, is obscured by clouds. Also on the left is the Ropeway, which provides a much easier alternative route to the top.


Here's a view of the Ropeway station and a clearer view of the ropeway itself. We didn't take it.

Ascending Nyotai 2

Here we are beginning our trek. (The girl on the right foreground is my daughter. Don't ask me what the deal is with the chicken!) It started out easy enough, with lots of shallow steps. We gained altitude fast.

Ascending Nyotai 3

Soon we were looking down on the Tsutsujigaoka Parking Area from above.

Ascending Nyotai 4

For a while it was fairly smooth going up the slope. It wasn't long before things changed, and we were clambering over broken boulders, roots, mud, dead bodies (Okay, I'm joking)... Anyway, things started getting positively eerie once we got off the flank ridge and onto the main peak itself.

Ascending Nyotai 5

Take this, for example. It looks like the kids are heading into a tunnel, right? Guess again. (Incidentally, that rope with the hanging tassels is a Shinto ornament indicating a sacred place, i.e. the presence of an important spirit. There are lots of those on the mountain.)

Ascending Nyotai 7

They are, in fact, walking under a precariously-balanced boulder! (There are lots of those on the mountain, too!)

Ascending Nyotai 10

Here's a tiny shrine tucked under a giant boulder of pink granite. It's said that, if children squeeze inside and touch the rock underneath, they'll grow up to be good people. All the kids did so. (I don't think it worked. More on that later.)

Ascending Nyotai 11

There were lots of huge, spooky-looking rocks all over the place.

Ascending Nyotai 12

Take this one, for instance. It's called the "Seated Buddha" because its silhouette is said to look like...well, you figure it out! Actually, though, the scariest rocks were underfoot. Once we got high enough to get into the (very low) cloud layer, things got damp. The dirt parts of the path became mud, which meant our shoes got poorer traction, which meant stepping on the uneven rocks became tricky. There was lots of slipping, but fortunately no falling. Finally, after a couple of hours of climbing...

Ascending Nyotai 13

...the summit of Nyotai ("female body"), which is the higher of the two peaks by six meters. (Hmm...) Anyway, after that hard climb, we were rewarded with a spectacular view...

Ascending Nyotai 14

...of absolutely nothing.

Ascending Nyotai 16

This is the Shinto shrine near the summit. Part of it was recently rebuilt, so it smelled strongly of new hinoki wood. It may be a small shrine, but it gets lots of visitors...

Ascending Nyotai 17 shown by all the omikuji fortunes tied to the fence! It is the custom to tie an unfavorable omikuji to a tree branch at a shrine in hope that the shrine deity will help reverse the fortune. There aren't any good branches to use up here, so metal does the job just fine. (At least all those people hope it does!)

Ascending Nyotai 18

Coming back down from the summit, we camped out in a wide clearing at the intersection of four paths right below the shrine. Here we had our picnic lunch...and watched all the people go past. Yes, climbers were out in force. What surprised me was how many of them had professional walking sticks, i.e. they looked like telescoping ski poles. That reminded me of the time, eighteen years ago, when I was taken on a hike to the top of Mt. Bandai in Fukushima Prefecture. I had only just arrived in Japan, and I was shocked when I met up with my climbing partners and found them in wool shirts, wool socks, heavy boots, and lederhosen (I kid you not!) with professional walking sticks! (They were a bit flabbergasted at my polo shirt, cutoffs, high-top sneakers, and homemade, hand-whittled walking stick. Can you say, "Culture shock"? Nice try.)

Descending Nyotai 1

After lunch I was ready to hike across to Nantai ("male body"), the other peak, and was disappointed to hear that the group was heading back. We were given a choice of hiking or taking the Ropeway. I was all set to hike back down, but my daughter had a fit. Not wanting to hear her beg, I gave in and joined the group taking the Ropeway down. Before boarding the car, however, I decided to be a gaijin with a camera and snap some more shots.

Descending Nyotai 3

Here's a look across to Nantai, where I didn't go.

Descending Nyotai 4

This is the big guidemap to the whole Mt. Tsukuba area displayed at the Nyotai Ropeway Station. Does that couple look Japanese to you?

Descending Nyotai 5

And here's my little girl giving her shy grin with Nantai as a backdrop.

After that we rode the Ropeway back down to the Tsutsujigaoka Parking Area, did some souvenir shopping, had something to drink, and waited. And waited. And froze. And waited. Then those who had hiked down rejoined us, and the kids promptly took off to the amusement center. And the rest of us waited. And waited. And froze. And waited. Finally we boarded the bus and headed for home.

All the while, during the trip, I was thinking how amazed I was at how well behaved the kids were. They were really being at their best during the trip. It was almost spooky how suddenly that changed once we were on our way home. The parents had prepared some activities for the time on the bus for the return trip, but the kids immediately vetoed them, saying they were too sleepy. That was fine with me, because I'd been hoping for some shut-eye, anyway. Well, I got approximately ten minutes of sleep before I was suddenly awakened by screaming. Yes, screaming. Basically, there was one group of four girls and three boys positioned behind me that had apparently gone hard of hearing or something, because they were practically shrieking everything they said...and kept on shrieking for the better part of an hour. (One girl pointed out that I was trying to sleep and was reassured by the others that I was "only pretending". My own comment that the girl was right was soundly ignored.) That only changed when another boy grabbed the bus mike and started singing; the screamers promptly snatched the mike from him (mid-song) and started "singing" (read "yelling in rhythm") themselves. Meanwhile, the girl sitting directly behind me kept repeatedly jumping up and down using my chair back for support, i.e. my chair was constantly moving. I wondered why the teachers weren't doing anything about it, and then it hit me: There were no teachers present on the trip. It was only kids and parents. And all the parents but me were up in the front of the bus pretending none of it was happening. I suggested passing around a garbage bag just before arriving, and the Romper Room bunch in the back handed it back to me with the assurance they had no garbage left. When the bus arrived, they immediately bolted off the bus ahead of everyone else...leaving a mess of discarded gum and candy wrappers all over the seat and floor. Irritated almost to the breaking point, I recommended calling the kids back immediately and making them clean up their mess properly. I was ignored; the mothers quietly cleaned it all up themselves. Why should I be surprised? Stupid kids = stupid parents. (Now, what was it they said about touching that f*****g rock?)

I definitely intend to try climbing Mt. Tsukuba again. Next time maybe I'll go alone.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Vanishing Breed


This isn't a new pic and is probably a repeat on this site. It's a shot of the Oarai High School BlueHawks Marching Band taken a couple of years ago when they came and performed at my kids' elementary school. The BlueHawks are without a doubt the best school marching band in Ibaraki Prefecture and are consistently ranked among the best in the country. That's an important asset nowadays; having a strong reputation means you'll always attract recruits. Other school music programs haven't been so fortunate.

The music program at Ye Olde Academy had a sudden increase in new members in the early 2000s, increasing every year until it apparently peaked in 2004. We've seen an eerie decline since then. It's not just us, either. And while we've still been able to fill our ranks enough to keep going, the situation with other school music programs here has become dire.

When I first arrived here back in 1990, all of the senior high schools had concert bands with over two dozen members each, and the junior high school bands often numbered more than twice as much. However, from the late 90's senior high bands saw a noted decline. By 2002 most of the local high school concert bands in this area had fewer than a dozen members. By 2005 some of them had fewer than five. The junior high music programs managed to remain strong for a bit longer, but even they saw a massive drop in recruitment from the beginning of the 2000s. Now, for perhaps the first time since school band programs were initiated in this area, we are faced with the hitherto unthinkable prospect of bands being terminated.

That puts me in an unexpected dilemma.

My daughter wants to enter Ye Olde Academy. She's planning to take the entrance examination next month. However, I've been told that, if she does enter Ye Olde Academy, the local public junior high school might be forced to shut down its band program. You see, it's currently down to only three members (from a couple dozen just a few years ago). Among the 6th graders in this district, only my daughter and her friend have expressed an interest in joining it. If my daughter enters my school instead, that may very well leave only her friend. When the current three members, all 8th graders at present, leave the club toward the end of next year, the program will be effectively dead.

That's not a position in which I relish being. It's almost like I'm being forced to choose between my daughter's future and that of a fellow music program.

So why have school bands seen such a catastrophic drop in recruitment? Well, the chief reason is just that kids in the internet/cell phone generation have become more passive and apathetic toward everything. Back in the early 90s most kids tried to some extent to emulate their heroes; it was the norm for them to seek to be able to draw like their favorite manga artists and/or be able to play tunes by their favorite musical stars. They had both tastes and standards, and they could be quite vehement in defending them. No longer. Manga and music are now just something to be consumed; they are a moment's entertainment enjoyed with only half the mind plugged in. They are something to be used up and then tossed out and forgotten. Ten years ago the question, "Who is your favorite musical artist," almost always got a very quick, clear answer. Now the same question usually gets a vacant look and an apathetic hum before the kid shrugs and says, "I don't know." They just listen to what they're told is "in", and then they forget about it.

The same phenomenon can be seen in school art and music classes. They used to be very popular subjects that many if not most students looked forward to. Not any more. A large percentage of the kids loathe and dread both of them. Even my daughter says she and her friend are the only ones that really even try to participate in music class in her grade. The problem? Most kids don't do art or music at home any more, at least not for enjoyment. They draw pictures or practice an instrument only when it's a mandatory homework assignment...and gripe about it constantly (until their parents give up and do it for them). The rest of the time they rely on machines for entertainment. No one wants to do anything that requires any active participation; they just want to be able to sit there and be entertained.

Ironically, school sports clubs have benefitted from the decline in music programs. The reason is that the kids tend to think that sports is nothing but playtime. A lot of them are surprised when they find they have to go through a lot of hard training before they'll even be considered for playing time. By then they've already become part of the fraternity, so peer pressure helps keep them in. However, the apathy comes into play even there; all the sports coaches have been complaining about it a lot recently. The kids are present, but they aren't really there.

Welcome to the (horribly dull) face of the 21st century.

Speaking of music, last Sunday was the 8th annual winter classics concert of the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra. I always enjoy performing, and the KPO gives me plenty of opportunities I wouldn't have otherwise, but this was still the most stress-inducing concert I've yet been in.

The Kashima Music Festival last June was an enormous, high-pressure event that left us thoroughly drained. Half the regular members immediately went on leave and have not yet returned. To make matters worse, as I've said before, Mssr. Maestro Ogawa immediately terminated all further cooperation with the KPO after the KMF (leaving us SOL). We were looking at a December performance that would be an enormous step backward after so many hard-won steps forward up till then.

The frustration never seemed to end. The performance pieces, which were chosen much too late, were very difficult ones that would've taken everything we had even if we'd been at full strength. As far as I'm concerned, in our hamstrung condition we basically had no business even trying them. Unfortunately, I was asked to be the rehearsal conductor. I was (and still am) flattered that they trusted me to do that, but my confidence was hanging by a tiny little thread; I felt I was in waaaay over my head, though I worked very hard and did my best. Conducting also meant I wasn't able to rehearse my own parts with the orchestra, putting me in a dangerous position. Our professional guest conductor, the same one who directed us last winter, is a very competent director who is able to wring our best out of us, but even his appearance seemed like too little too late.

The biggest frustration, for me at least, was the twelve students from the Ye Olde Academy orchestra that volunteered to help. They did so over Mssr. Maestro's objections, and he definitely didn't make things easy for them. (Actually, whether on purpose or not, he really made things miserable for the poor kids.) Those girls made a big effort in seemingly impossible conditions. Even more significant is the fact that a few of them don't have very good reputations. Their mettle was sorely tested. Some of them were in tears more than once. A couple of them wound up getting sick. It didn't stop them. They went onstage with us, and they bore the brunt of it all.

It was no relief when we finally went onstage. As has been the case for the past five years, the house was packed. That meant even more pressure. The regular members were outnumbered by extras more than two to one, and many of the guest players hadn't had much rehearsal time at all. Considering it was a paid performance, and not a cheap one, I was really worried about what kind of response we were going to get from the hard-won audience.

The first tune, the overture from Wagner's "The Meistersinger of Nuremburg", went well. We were (mostly) in the groove, and the tune gelled. After that was an oboe concerto played by a guest soloist with only a minimal string ensemble accompaniment. That was mostly good, though the weaknesses of some of the less experienced string players were clearly exposed. Then the oboist played Saint-Saëns' "The Swan" with only a harp accompaniment...and it was tear-jerkingly gorgeous. Then we all came onstage for the main number, Beethoven's 3rd Symphony (diminished 7th power chord).

What can I say? Last year we performed Beethoven's 7th, a very testing piece we really had no business trying, and though we managed to pull it off, it took everything we had. I think the 3rd is even worse. Our guest director took most of it at a snail's crawl tempo, and our strings were still technically overwhelmed. The musical intensity of the 2nd movement makes it hard for professionals to pull off, let alone a motley assortment of amatuers and underrehearsed extras! Well, to everyone's credit, the first movement did sound good. Unfortunately, the second was more than a little rough. The third movement was a comedy of missed entrances, bad notes, and even two minor train wrecks, none of which brought us down (thank God...though when I listened to the recording they weren't so obvious as it seemed at the time). During the intense fourth movement we seemed to be held together by spit and duct tape and in danger of flying apart at the least provocation. Somehow we held it together. Needless to say, I was very much relieved when we hit the final note.

I'm thankful for the audience's favorable response. I'm thankful for all the wonderfully positive comments they gave us. I'm thankful this didn't all end in disaster. Still, I can't be satisfied. In my opinion, too many mistakes were made in the planning and execution. Too many decisions were made without paying much attention to reality. I intend to continue with the Kashima Philharmonic, and I intend to do my best. I still believe in its purpose, one which the nevertheless appreciative audience showed us all too clearly. I want to do this for myself, for the music, and for Kashima. Hopefully the next time will be better.

But first we need more members...just like all the local school bands...

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Art of Communication Tested

Midterm exams have just ended at Ye Olde Academy, and the results for my 7th grade Oral Communication test were interesting. I was worried I'd made the test too hard, but the kids went and gave me the best average score ever for this time of year. Rarely does any student get 100% on one of my tests. This time eight did. No complaints from me. That's for sure.

On an exam like this interesting things can happen. I know I could just make it based on rote memorization; that's what most teachers in Japan tend to do. I don't. It's a "communication" class, so it's a "communication" test, i.e. the students are never sure just what's going to be on it, and there's always room for variation. I ask questions verbally, and the students write down appropriate responses. Once they realize that I often give credit for "non-standard" answers (as long as they still fit the question), they sometimes get inventive. The ones whose English level has progressed beyond that of their classmates are particularly notorious in that respect. I'm sure questions based on basic grammar are pretty boring for them, so they probably welcome a chance to spice it up. That also helps prevent my test-marking from getting too dull.

A tame example would be the student who responded to the question, "Do you eat sushi every day?" with, "No, I don't. I eat it only sometimes. I want more." Then there's the girl who replied to, "What does your best friend do after school?" with, "She talks. She always talks." The other end of that spectrum would be the boy who answered, "Are you and your classmates busy or free?" by writing simply, "Don't ask."

Even the more static test problems sometimes yield unexpected results. One of the gems this time was the vocabulary portion. One of the words was "wife". I gave the Japanese version (okusan), and the kids had to translate it. Most of them got it, but there were some interesting mistakes. The most common flub-up was kids who remembered the word and its pronunciation but tried to write it phonetically using Romanized Japanese spelling, producing "waif". (Yeah, I'm sure my okusan has been feeling like a bit of a "waif" these days with all the stress she has been going through.) A bit less explicable were the trio of kids that wrote "wolf". (Hey, now that's taking things a bit too far!) And then of course there was the plucky individual that wrote "Worf"! (Woah...hold on! Just WHAT are you trying to imply??? You are definitely without honor!)

Never a dull moment...even in the dullness of exam week.


Speaking of strangeness, I've been tagged by San. This time I'm supposed to list seven strange things about myself. Well, I posted a meme with more or less the same theme two years ago. I wonder if I could possibly come up with seven more strange facts about myself. (Hey, I heard that!) I suppose it couldn't hurt to try:

1. Variety is the spice of life. I think I take it to an extreme. I've already mentioned that my musical tastes are diverse. So are my tastes in just about everything else. In fact, whenever I buy food or drinks (or cat food), instead of sticking with one particular type that I like, I tend to get a lot of different things. I quite often arrive at the check-out counter with six or eight cans of beer and four 2-liter bottles of pop, each a different type. Every once in a while I'll lock into a certain habit for a time, such as when a certain fast food restaurant I used to frequent would immediately pop the same items on the grill when I walked in the door, but it rarely lasts long before I wind up doing something completely different.

2. The nose knows. I like things that smell good. I started smoking a pipe in college (and still do on occasion) mainly because I like the smell of pipe tobacco. I also got in the habit of burning an incense match while studying or writing, which led to all kinds of suspicions about what I was really doing. After coming to Japan and finding that both pipe tobacco and incense matches were extremely hard to find, I started smoking certain more aromatic brands of cigarettes for a while (never more than a single cigaratte per day) and then had a dubious flirtation with room deodorizers before I started collecting scented candles. Now I have a drawer full of the things plus growing stocks of aromatherapy oil, cone incense, and stick incense. And of course they are all of different kinds. I do burn them, too.

3. Once is enough. Once I get dressed in the morning I absolutely hate having to change my clothes except to go to bed. That's one of the reasons why I rarely go swimming...and have had a notorious habit of showing up at the beach in long pants, much to the consternation of friends.

4. We don't wear short shorts. Actually, another reason why I shun the swimming pool and come to the beach fully clothed is that I have long avoided wearing clothing that exposes my legs. The way I see it, I'm doing people a favor. My legs are ugly.

5. Am I Tagged or not...? I mentioned in the old meme that I was something of a precocious child, i.e. I was already reading books and playing the piano by ear when I was four. I also mentioned how my English proficiency was years ahead of my classmates in my grade school days, high enough to earn me some special honors. Junior high was a bit less triumphant. Perhaps the biggest problem was that I simply stopped giving a damn for a while, so fed up was I with being singled out by my teachers, pressured by my parents, and alienated to some extent by my peers. However, I wasn't prepared for the letter that suddenly arrived partway through my 8th grade year saying, "Were you not aware that you were selected for the TAG (Talented And Gifted) program?" My parents replied saying that they hadn't been, and I was promptly whisked off for a battery of tests. A few weeks later another letter arrived, this one saying, "We're sorry, but you haven't been selected for TAG after all." Yeah, whatever, dudes.

6. Anything you can do... Senior high school, on the other hand, brought GATB (General Aptitude Test Battery), the series of tests designed to help kids determine their path in life. I thought it was fun. In fact, I was the only student in the school that got a result of "High Aptitude" in every single occupational category. In other words, theoretically at least, I was cut out to do pretty much anything. So what happened? My guidance counselor talked me into a college major for which I was totally unsuited. My actual career path (if you can call it that) turned out to be almost one hundred and eighty degrees in the other direction. C'est la Vie.

7. Guardian spirits. I tend to have a "guardian" placed wherever I often spend time. My "pendragon" (a Tunturi sculpture of a dragon that is a penholder) sits atop this computer. There are also a couple of laser-etched crystals with images of orcas as well as a "Santa M&M" on my computer stand. The bookcase next to me is guarded by a pair of trolls sent by an old chat pal from Norway. My studio upstairs is guarded by Amidala. The "altar" in the northeast corner next to it is watched by a troll doll, a stuffed Muttley, and a chest full of all kinds of things. Even my desk at work is guarded by a pair of koalas brought back from Australia.

Alright, that's seven. I tag anyone who reads this...if you've got the guts.

Also, here's another new tune I just finished. It's another kind of experimental and totally impulsive instrumental called "Erweina". The title is a fantasy place name known to several regular visitors here (who will probably roll their eyes). More details can be found on my Minstrel's Muse site. Enjoy!