Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

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...


  • With the high tech and gadget, kids become so uncreative and no imaginations... Poor them!

    If I'm still in school and live in your area, I would join the local school band.

    By Blogger Selba, at 10:43 AM  

  • Music and art is suffering in schools all over the world, I've been hearing it for years now. Public funding cuts are felt in the arts first. Not to mention the more technological bent of recent generations.

    But it's a relief that some schools, like Ye Olde Academy, break records of excellence.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 1:31 PM  

  • Selba
    Killing kids with convenience, eh?

    What instrument would you play?

    You're right about that. The same has happened in Japan, but not because of funding cuts. The traditional curriculum is being cut back more and more to make way for such radical things as "general studies" (one of the modern educational buzzwords, though no one is sure what it really means) and elementary school English education. Naturally, however, no one wants to see the core subjects like math and language arts reduced, so guess what has been getting the axe.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:48 PM  

  • When I was a kid there was a budget battle between music and athletics (I guess the two most "expendable" pursuits in the view of school administrators). No shortage of funds for nuclear weapons of course, but then our school district didn't get any of those either.

    Don't get me started on cell phones and their (anti) social consequences. Sort of like an electronic form of drugs.

    We missed this concert as we didn't hear about it until we already had plans to go to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. I wasn't even sure there still was a KPO, actually.

    Glad it went better than expected.

    As for your daughter - do what is best for her.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 3:27 PM  

  • MM, how is it that there is so much drama and edgy stuff in an area of life that appears (on the surface) to be calm and uneventful?! But you seem to pull through. Perhaps it's your ability that makes The People In Charge feel as though they can throw any kind of ill-timed poorly planned project, and MM will do his magic.

    By Anonymous nikkipolani, at 5:38 AM  

  • A philharmonic orchestra held together with spit and duct tape--that's what I call soul and dedication.

    I love high school marching bands. It's too bad they're declining, but what you say about the passivity factor makes sense. Too much sense. I was even a bit dismayed to learn that my own kids' elementary school teachers--10 years ago--didn't emphasize the learning of cursive. "We very seldom write on paper these days--" one teacher said, "--we write with our keyboards." True. But I love to receive something written by hand--a card that has been actually addressed an mailed is a rare treat. I'll stop venting now.

    You have an award over at my place...

    By Blogger San, at 5:43 AM  

  • Its the same here in the secondary school i'm in. (Secondary - age 13 - 17)

    There's absolutely no music classes, music organizations, or music whatnots here in the school.

    So the only choice left to me and my friends is to form our own "band". (But not the marching band type)

    I hate to criticise my own country and make racist remarks, but the good schools (those funded by the government) are usually not for us Chinese.

    So, Chinese schools here (Private-funded) are unable to get funds for musical instruments, etc.

    Or they do, but they prefer spending it on making our school a "Smart School" instead (using cards and stuff, which is considered "high-tech" in Malaysia)

    Or they know that a marching band won't get much support from "pro-technology"-students?

    Who knows?

    I'd gladly join one, even if i have to add another instrument to my list.

    Come to think of it, i'm actually jealous of life before the 21st century. Well, perhaps around the 50s to the 70s anyway - They don't have computers, camera-mp3-game cellphones, or PS3s to rob away their time. They live a happy, carefree (uh, is it?) life, trying to achieve their dreams, trying to "emulate their heroes" (so goes MM). In my opinion - life back then was "fuller".

    Perhaps i just got into this world at the wrong time?

    By Blogger ❤ IceGlacial™ ❤, at 4:23 PM  

  • Pandabonium
    I'm sure the War on Culture™ has been going on for a long time.

    The audience thought the performance was okay, which I guess is most important. As for the musicians, well...considering the biggest f***-ups were made by long-time regular members with plenty of experience under their belts, I'd say we have a problem.

    The flip side is the possibility of them trying to blame everything on me since I directed (and will apparently continue to direct) most of the rehearsals. I was worried that would happen this time and was relieved when it didn't.

    As I said, culture in general is giving way to exam subjects.

    At a PTA meeting for Ye Olde Academy we had our new PTA chief take us teachers to task for wanting to promote "practical, real-life education" when, as a parent, all he cared about was seeing his kid pass the entrance exam of a prestigious college. He actually said (in Japanese), "I don't really care if my child is educated. He can learn about life after he enters college."

    Unfortunately, we have teachers at our school that fully agree.

    You amaze me. Seriously.

    And what you say about your schools doesn't surprise me for some reason.

    I've been told more than once that I was born in the wrong decade if not the wrong century. I guess that's something we have in common!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 7:26 PM  

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