Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yes, Ukraine!

Ye Olde Academy holds a so-called "music appreciation event" every two years. (It used to happen every year, but now they alternate with a "drama appreciation event".) Basically, Mssr. Maestro Ogawa contacts agents, checks the listings to see what culturally significant music groups are currently on tour, and books one of them. The performance then takes place either at the school or at the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall. The students watch the concert and then write a report about it. It's hard to predict what we're going to get each time; during the decade plus that I've been at Ye Olde Academy, we've seen the following:
  • Rhythm & Brass - a modern, jazz-based brass ensemble based in New York,
  • A Balinese (but staffed mostly by Japanese) gamelan ensemble accompanying a (genuine) Balinese dance troupe,
  • The Salzburg Mozart Ensemble, which is the only Mozart performance group officially sanctioned by the Salzburg Mozart Museum,
  • A choir from the Upper Saxony area of Germany, part of former East Germany (and staffed largely by Russians),
  • A pair of Japanese opera singers accompanied by our own orchestra,
  • A string ensemble from Florence, Italy, and
  • Quartet New Generation - a German recorder quartet with a modern (and kind of sexy) twist.
A look at that list will show the reader that it tends to be not only a musical event, but an international one as well. And since two of my main jobs at Ye Olde Academy involve music and international affairs, I think one can guess what usually happens: a lot of it lands in my lap. Most of the time I just act as a sort of gopher (i.e. I "go-fer" whatever people need). I have also had to do my share of interpreting, including my first migraine-inducing experience translating between German and Japanese. In the case of the ensemble from Florence, I even had to go so far as to cram as much Italian as I could into my brain on short notice, partly to be polite and partly to be ready in case any of them couldn't speak English, which turned out to be the case!

When I heard that our music appreciation event this time was going to be a selected ensemble from the Kiev National Philharmonic Orchestra, I really looked forward to it even though I knew damned well I was going to be going through a wringer.

Mssr. Maestro Ogawa went to the Ukraine a number of years ago to participate in a joint Japanese-Ukrainian music event. He told me that one of the things that struck him about that experience was the fact that a very large percentage of the Ukrainian musicians were unable (and/or unwilling) to speak and understand any language but their own, Ukrainian. Even Russian, which is very closely related, tended to elicit nothing but scowls. Since I knew only a few words of Russian and nothing at all of Ukrainian, I got on the internet and dug around for any language source I could come up with. Fortunately, I found a couple that were easy to use and even one that had audio samples. I then crammed and drilled myself any chance I could get, occasionally driving students nuts by flinging Ukrainian phrases at them. It was my first real contact with a slavic language, and it was a challenge even though (or even especially because) I didn't pay much attention to grammar. Instead, I just built up a stock of phrases I thought might come in handy, such as place names, directions, greetings, and the ultimately essential, "Do you speak English?" I also worked on learning the Cyrillic writing system, which is nowhere near as intimidating as it looks...though making signs written in Cyrillic turned out to be a problem simply because my computer kept insisting that I really wanted to use either Japanese or Roman letters instead.

I was excited and ready the day before the big day. When the bus arrived, I thought I was going to panic.

The ensemble certainly had a wide age range, its members including both youthful-looking individuals in blue jeans and more intense-looking veterans. They could have passed for any ordinary tour group if it weren't for the instrument cases. When they came into the school, I immediately put my Ukrainian to the test...and wasn't encouraged by their reaction.

It was kind of like when I spoke German to the Quartet New Generation two years ago. On that occasion, the members literally jumped with surprise and then eyed me warily for a moment or two before one of them responded to me in English. After that, almost all my attempts to converse with them in German were rebuffed; only one of the members was willing to speak to me in German at all. Although they were all very friendly to me, it was almost as if their language represented a private zone that I had tried to violate. I got kind of the same impression from the visiting Ukrainians. My "Dobryy' ranok" (good morning) was met with a mix of turned heads, wide eyes, some smiles, and a giggle or two, but then most gazes were turned full away from me and the general conversation volume abruptly dropped. Worried that I'd made a grievous mistake, I was then approached by a tall man who turned out to be the double-bassist. I asked him in Ukrainian if he spoke English, and he smiled and replied (in Ukrainian) that he did before switching to English. That helped me relax a bit, and I managed to get everyone to the right place without too much fuss. (I only hope my Ukrainian signs, written in Cyrillic, didn't turn out to be like the "Engrish" one tends to find on signs and T-shirts in Japan!)

The director of the ensemble, a conductor well known throughout Europe, was certainly an imposing figure. A charismatic bear of a man, he stood out in the crowd long before we were introduced. Our early communications with him showed him to be someone who was open to suggestions but would not relinquish his entitlement to the final word. On arrival he was strictly business and immediately to the point. When the group moved to the auditorium for the rehearsal, he was clearly a driving force who pulled no punches. Afterward, when he came to talk to me about the program, I asked him how he was in Ukrainian. His only reply was laughter, but he warmed up a lot and became quite cordial. Fortunately, he spoke fluent English. He turned out to be a really great guy.

There was a certain amount of tension during the rehearsal and preparations; the ensemble had been on a regular concert tour, not an educational one. Their appearance at our school was a new and unexpected experience for them, and in many ways it was a bit awkward. Mssr. Maestro Ogawa had also stuck something of his own into the middle of the program, and that required some literally last-minute rehearsal of some challenging material. They were competent professionals, however, so we got it all worked out.

During the rehearsal, as I ran around like a kurcha with its holova cut off tidying up loose ends, I couldn't help noticing the man with the briefcase and dark glasses hovering around in the shadows. At one point he sat down in the back of the hall and cleared his throat loudly, whereupon the conductor glanced back at him with what looked like anxiety in his eyes. I'm sure the guy was probably a tour agent or something, but he sure conjured up images of Cold War stereotypes not to mention Mafia Wars.

The morning performance was for the junior high school. The program kicked off with an excellent rendition of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. This was followed by an introduction of the individual instruments with a solo performed on each, accompanied by my (totally ad-libbed) Japanese explanations. Ye Olde Academy alumnus Yoichi Hembo, now both a professional musician and a teacher, was then called to the stage to play Vivaldi's Concerto for Sopranino Recorder accompanied by the Kiev Philharmonic string ensemble. It's a challenging piece that would normally require weeks of rehearsal rather than fifteen minutes, and it's a testimony to the competence and professionalism of the musicians that they were able to pull it off as well as they did. That was followed by a ten-minute intermission, after which the string ensemble finished off with Tchaikowsky's famous Serenade. After a bit more ad-libbing on my part in Japanese with a few phrases of Ukrainian thrown in for effect, the ensemble played an encore, a beautiful tune called simply, "Melody" (I don't recall the composer.). Amazingly, the students, including that notorious 9th grade rabble, were good as gold through the whole thing and gave a warm round of applause.

Lunchtime was a bit of a surprise. It had always been a tradition for Mr. Ogawa and I to have lunch together with the visiting musicians. Not so this time. We had ordered boxed lunches for all of us, but the Japanese tour guide accompanying the ensemble brought our share back to the music office and said the Ukrainians wanted to eat by themselves, the conductor in his own private room. Once again I found Cold War stereotypes floating through my mind, and I kept having to slap my subconscious self.

Although the program was the same, the afternoon performance for the senior high school was a bit of a different animal. For one thing, the auditorium was quite a bit hotter. For another, since the performers were all more relaxed, they didn't try quite as hard, meaning a bit of a loss of energy. The audience also wasn't as cooperative; not only were members of the notorious 11th grade class a bit noisy and uncooperative, but one of the teachers got up, left the hall, and came back in again twice while a performance was in progress. (The conductor later complained about that teacher...who responded to the subsequent scolding that he was being unfairly victimized.) The senior high students also weren't nearly so generous with their applause as the junior high kids had been. There was also the matter of the maintenance person who decided to start using power tools during a soft movement of Tchaikowsky's Serenade. Nonetheless, it was still a good performance and a generally positive experience.

Visiting music groups in the past usually followed (or preceded) their performance with some kind of mixer event, e.g. signing autographs, offering instruction to members of our music club, and so on. Not this time. After the Kiev National Philharmonic string ensemble was done with their stage show, they gathered their stuff together and headed out to their bus immediately with hardly another word. To be fair, though, when a couple of our music club members came into the hallway and greeted members of the Kiev ensemble that played the same instruments, the latter seemed amazed, even touched by the contact. They were even more surprised when I led a group of eager students out to their bus to see them off. It was clear that the Ukrainian musicians simply weren't accustomed to that sort of thing. To underscore that point, the conductor came over to us and cheerfully asked if we were their fan club. The students, who had seemed a bit disappointed at the lack of acknowledgment, were delighted.

Finally, before he boarded the bus, the conductor came over to me, shook my hand, and said with a hearty laugh, "Now that you're learning all the languages, including Ukrainian, you need a bigger job!" I'd say that was quite a compliment! But actually, the job I have right now seems plenty big enough, and it's still growing. Heaven only knows what part of the world I'll be touching on next! :)

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

As the Gods Disappear...

The traditional Japanese name for October is "Kannazuki" (神無月), which could be literally translated as either "The Godless Month" or "The Month When the Gods Go Away". My classical Japanese sources say that the name stems from the fact that it was once believed the gods all gathered during that period in what is now Izumo City in Shimane Prefecture, described in the old chronicles as having been a sort of capital of the earthly kingdom founded by the children of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Doing so naturally left the rest of the country godless, for better or worse.

I guess the expression, "Where is your god now?" used to take on special significance in October in ancient times, but anyway...

Part One - Annivelsaly Cereblation
Most married couples celebrate their anniversaries by exchanging gifts or flowers, having a nice dinner, taking a trip, know. (Either that or they spend the day with the wife yelling and/or throwing things at the husband for having forgotten it, but whatever.) Eventually my wife and I did do some of the same things, but we acknowledged the date of our wedding by...

...teaching a class together?


My wife, who currently teaches a fifth grade class, is also in charge of the recently-developed (and still in its formative stages) English curriculum at her elementary school. She wound up getting stuck with yet another demonstration lesson for visiting members of the Board of Education, and it just happened to be on the day of our anniversary. The lesson she planned to do, which was based on their regular textbook, called for the presence of an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher, also sometimes known as either a "gaijin under glass" or a "human tape recorder"). However, since her school's usual ALT wasn't available on that day, and since I happened to have that day off, she roped me kicking and screaming into doing begged me to do the lesson with her.

My wife always spends a lot of time and effort preparing her lessons, but she really tore into this one. The language targets were "Do you have (a) ___?" and "What color do you like?" The idea was to have the students play a sort of shopping game. Therefore, we turned an extra classroom into a clothing store, and yours truly got to be the shopkeeper. We had a ball putting it all together.

The lesson basically started with my wife pretending to be a customer visiting my store. She was looking for a particular item of clothing of a particular color, so we went through it using props. At intervals we would pause for explanation and practice. We were well underway when the BoE people showed up and stood at the back of the room taking notes.

After a bit, my wife decided to demonstrate some practice questions for the students to try, and she used the model provided in the textbook. It was something we hadn't rehearsed, and, in retrospect, I should have been the one asking. Anyway, my wife beat me to the punch. The first question was, "Do you like T-shirts?" The model showed a circle under T-shirts, so I answered, "Yes, I do." Next was, "Do you like pants?" I glanced at the model again, and there was an "X" under pants, so I said, "No, I don't." That got the students going. Then my wife, whose eyes were starting to widen, asked, "Um, do you like...skirts?" As it happened, the model, which was supposed to involve a female character, did indeed have a circle under skirts, so I was obliged to say, "Yes, I do." I made sure and hammed it up a bit when I said it, but said it I did.

The kids erupted into laughter. The Board of Education people immediately walked out.

I was deathly afraid that I had just earned my poor wife damning marks from the bureaucrats if not an angry letter to my principal (who didn't even know I was doing this, let alone approve of it), but we went through the rest of the lesson as planned. It actually went very well. The kids were fully into it, and they looked like they were having a great time. When we did the shopping game at the end, though we'd expected only a few brave souls to try it, half the class were falling over themselves trying to get to my "register counter"! Not only was it a lot of fun, but the kids seemed to have the language target down, so we made their future junior high English teachers' jobs that much easier. In that respect, I'd say my wife and I made a great team.

Apparently others thought so, too. Far from damning, the report from the BoE people was extremely favorable. One minister even went so far as to write, "I don't know who that ALT was, but he was by far the best I've ever seen! His way of speaking was clear and easy to understand, he used clear facial expressions, he was as entertaining as a TV personality, and he kept the students engaged!" I guess those nineteen years of experience (twenty-two if you count the tutoring I did at Oregon State) mean something after all. I'd call that a shot in the arm...especially when looking at all those drowsy and disinterested faces in my lower-level 9th grade Oral Communication class...

So...was it a worthwhile way for my wife and I to spend our anniversary?

Part Two - The Influence of Influenza
We'd thought that H1N1 flu thing to be over and done with. A lot of students had been nailed with it back in early summer, but by the time summer vacation rolled by the wave had pretty much gwugged and gone. We thanked our lucky stars that it hadn't been worse and went on our way. Boy, oh boy, did we wind up with monumental egg on our faces! Right at the end of September two students wound up down with the bug. A week later a couple more were out. Then, right around the second weekend of October (i.e. just recently), we wound up with an explosion of flu infections on a thermonuclear scale. One 7th grade homeroom wound up passing the critical limit imposed by the government, and the whole class was shut down and ordered into quarantine for a week. A few days later (yesterday, to be exact) another 7th grade class was sent off with almost half its students down. We're seeing an unprecedented wave fanning through our students like a zombie epidemic. However, as it turns out, it's not without a very simple explanation.

The overwhelming majority of the recently flu-stricken students are in the junior high, specifically in grade 7. Almost all of them are in athletic clubs. As it turns out, there was a major combined sports meet involving all the junior high schools in our region last weekend. Almost all of the sickened students participated in that event. Moreover, it was announced recently that some students from other schools had participated in the event despite being members of classes that had been ordered into quarantine. Some of our coaches say that they saw kids there that were very obviously sick. Apparently some schools' coaches think the prospect of losing a competition is far worse than causing an epidemic of a potentially-deadly disease. Now we are paying the price for their dedication. At least no one has died so far.

At Ye Olde Academy, students are continuing to drop like flies, and now a couple of teachers are down. I'm doing my best to follow the safety procedures and avoid the danger spots, but I wonder if it's only a matter of time before I wind up taking a long and extremely painful vacation.