Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Not Just Another Contest

It's August, therefore it's time for the Ibaraki Prefecture championships for the All-Japan Concert Band Contest. (Punchy, brassy fanfare with a muffled squawk in the clarinets.)

The Ye Olde Academy concert band has made it to the prefectural level almost every year since I've come on board, the two exceptions being years we didn't participate for some reason. During that time we've seen some ups and downs, but since 2004 we've generally done well, taking a gold medal (i.e. top eight out of twenty-five or so) most times and even being picked to go on to the East Kanto Block championships twice. Even so, the level of competition is intense, and the best overall place we ever managed was third.

This year has been kind of an off year for our music program, and the concert band is no exception, yet they've been in reasonably good shape. The tune we picked to perform at the competition was unusual; instead of the modern, dissonant tunes favored by most powerhouse bands, we did a medley of old English folk songs! I like the piece a lot, but there were some problems with it during our summer training camp, and our guest clinicians were pulling their hair. The kids just weren't doing it well enough. There were also a lot of major issues with the conducting.

Since 2004, the concert band has been Mr. Karatsu's baby, and Mssr. Maestro Ogawa has maintained a standing request that I keep my hands off of it (saying he doesn't want me to step on Mr. Karatsu's toes). The problem is that, while Mr. Karatsu is popular among the students and coaches in a way that is very easy to understand, his conducting style is very simple. He is, after all, a math teacher, and his approach is very logical and formulaic. The guest clinicians have a problem with that. At this year's training camp, though I observed Mr. Ogawa's policy and stayed away from all the rehearsals except the last one, the guest clinicians were particularly hard on Mr. Karatsu, even to the point of humiliating him in front of the students. I felt bad for him, but he definitely seemed to improve.

Cut to the contest date. Normally Mssr. Maestro Ogawa, as the chief director of the music program, would accompany Mr. Karatsu and the concert band to the event, but since Mssr. Ogawa had a full schedule, he asked me to go instead. That's always a bit awkward, since I have very little contact with the concert band till then, but I'm usually happy to go, and this time was no different. I was even asked to help out a bit during the last, pre-contest rehearsals.

The rehearsals went well, but there were still a number of minor problems to pounce on and try to adjust at the last minute. I figured the kids could at least earn one of the silver medals, but I wasn't sure if they were quite at gold quality considering what they were up against. The performance itself, on the other hand, was very well done. It wasn't perfect, to be sure, but the kids nailed it quite well. The solo and small ensemble bits went particularly well. All in all, I thought we had a good crack at a gold medal if nothing else.

During the final awards ceremony, the seven judges were introduced. One of them was one of our longtime regular guest clinicians, a horn instructor, but we hadn't seen him all year (because he was a judge at this event). The judges were then sent off before the awards were announced. As he rose to leave with the others, our usual horn instructor looked down at our group, who were massed in the first three rows of the cavernous hall, and gave us a very deliberate smile. At the time we figured it was aimed at our horn section, who'd given us an almost spotless performance.

We were delighted at the gold medal announcement but not totally surprised. We WERE surprised, however, when they announced that WE HAD TAKEN THE FIRST PLACE SPOT!!!!! Our reaction was basically a great, unison, "HUH??!?" We weren't alone, either. It was the first time ever for us to get higher than third, let alone first(!!!), and we had unseated a number of historied powerhouses. There were some sour faces directed at us, to be sure.

The weather was nasty that day. Thanks to the effects of typhoon #9 (known as Typhoon Morakot or Kiko elsewhere), we'd arrived in a raging downpour and had gone from the bus to the hall huddled under umbrellas. It was raining again after the event was done, hard but not driving, but most of us kept our umbrellas furled. We were too busy dancing in the rain to care.

(For the record, the judge that was one of our longtime clinicians did NOT give us the best score of the seven. He was respectfully harsh.)


  • Wow, that was totally unexpected. Like a eucatastrophe ;-) How nice that you, not expecting to be there, got to experience this win. Hope it gave the kids a boost of confidence.

    By Anonymous nikkipolani, at 4:11 AM  

  • It must take a fine ear to be a judge. In every band or chorus contest I have been in I could have sworn we were the worst, but we all managed to do well. Congratulations to the band for taking first. Now all you have to do is get better to keep it;)>-<

    By Anonymous Dave, at 8:38 AM  

  • Congrats to the band! Savor the victory and keep improving.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 11:02 AM  

  • Nice! Congratulations!

    By Blogger HappySurfer, at 2:33 PM  

  • Congratulations. The kids need that kind ofencouragement eh? Not that I like competitions at all though as someone ahs to come last!

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 3:53 PM  

  • Wooohoooooo!!!! Congratulations!!!! *claps* *hugs*

    So.. any parties?

    By Blogger Selba, at 5:07 PM  

  • Nikkipolani
    You're right. Considering I've had little if anything to do with the concert band since 2003, it was great to be back in the picture just long enough to share a bit of history!

    The problem is that different judges look for different things, and that's the way it should be. (I've consistently and stubbornly refused all efforts to standardize judging methods at English speech contests here...including flat out refusing to show the other judges my score sheet when asked to do so.) Even in this contest, among the seven judges, two gave us 9.5 out of 10 in both the technical and artistic categories. One gave us 7 and 7.5, respectively. The comments ranged from, "An outstanding performance with very mature musicianship and skilled direction," to, "Too bad your poor intonation in certain parts destroyed an otherwise promising performance." You just never know.

    Don and Happy
    Thank you very much! Considering this was supposed to be an off year, I suppose we should be able to do even better.

    What was sad and even embarrassing was that, while we were basking in the unexpected glory of first place, the other two school bands representing our district took the bottom two spots. They were sadly outclassed, and I felt bad for them.

    If so, they never told ME about them! :-(

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:05 PM  

  • FAAARRRR OUT! Congratulations.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:41 PM  

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