Recently, several phenomenal Japanese student wind ensembles, including the Mama Elementary School and the Kodaiva Junior High School Girls Big Band, plus the recent phenomenal success of the Musashino Acadamia Musicae Wind Ensemble at the Med West Band Directors Congress in Chicago, USA, have caused enormous chatter on the Internet. The evidence is abundant that music education is alive and very healthy in Japan. Whether it’s an elementary, junior high school or the Musashino Academia Musicae, a university, these organizations represent the very best there is in student ensembles, anywhere.
At this time, however, the very existence of music education in North America is threatened. Funds have been cut back so severely that an alarmingly large number of schools have simply removed music from their curriculum. Similarly in Europe, countries like Italy, with its musically rich historiy, have to resort more and more to private funding if music education can hope to continue to exist. At the present time, however, Japan’s economy is relatively healthy, and with its growing and passionate quest for making music a part of its national culture, there is little question that funding needed for this quest will be available.
As well as the good fortune that allows musical growth to flourish in Japan, there is much more to this music education success story: Japanese students have the will, perseverance and discipline needed to achieve these extraordinarily high levels of performance. Many western teachers and band directors have marveled at the openness of the Japanese students to new ideas and remarked at the seemingly absence of “Attitude” or a “Chip on the shoulder” (The accumulation from unknown sources of a resistance to accepting new information and learning), which they have all experienced in their home institutional environments. Japanese students want to learn, they accept the information and instructions given them and most importantly, they do the work necessary to realize the desired results.
These sensational performances that were seen on YouTube and caused all the exclamation on the Internet, were most certainly the result of an extraordinary amount of rehearsal. First of all, it should be noted that both the Mama Elementary School and the Kodavia Junior High School Bands played by memory; that alone indicates a massive amount of rehearsal time! Further, the performances from both bands were of their concerts that were prepared for the Japanese school bands competitions; this means they most probably had most of the school year and several days a week to work up to the level they achieved.
The preparations of the Musashino Academia Musicae Wind Ensemble, being a music university was, of course, more professional. However, the preparation time was still extremely generous, perhaps between two and three months and at least two rehearsals a week, plus the advantage of some of the very best and world-renowned American band directors. The results have been absolutely amazing.
Of course, not all these accomplished musicians will become professional players but ironically this makes the Japanese music education system even better. Many of these very accomplished young players become teachers themselves and continue high-level music teaching in their respective home environments. The future of music education in Japan is in very good hands.
Now an important question has to be addressed: Performing musical organizations today, for example symphony orchestras, need to present as many concerts as possible, as frequently as possible, attract as much public as possible in order to make as much money as possible so the musical organization can continue to exist; that’s the reality the professional musician faces today. Are the concerts presented by these Japanese musical institutions, which are prepared with nearly unlimited rehearsal time, appropriate in our present day world, where an absolute minimum of rehearsal time is scheduled in order to present a maximum of performances?
The answer is a very clear and resounding “Yes”! Such thorough and complete preparations give the students of these Japanese institutions the opportunity to experience excellence, and such experiences create an understanding of what finished preparation can be, and helps it become easier to achieve superb ensemble playing in the less idealistic professional circumstances.
Another aspect of teaching music in Japan that needs to be approached is the development of musical individualism, a singular musical personality. This is a more delicate part of the pedagogical process, not only in Japan but also all over the world. There is in Japan, however, an old saying that “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down”! This is a wonderful image for maintaining perhaps the most socially harmonious society in the world but one has to seriously question if it represents a healthy attitude for developing a creative musician. Japanese players, especially brass players, strive for perfection but in the musical world we live in, a world that is composed of examinations, auditions, competitions and performing under all conditions, perfect is, quite simply, not good enough. Of course, performances need to be perfect but that alone does not determine greatness.
True greatness requires musicality and musicality is the composite of our personal use of dynamics, rhythmic energy, variations in articulation, vibrato and all the other facets of music making. It is using these musical tools with the right mix, knowing when to use them, knowing when not to use them, how much to use, and possessing a passion that can make music special. Great musicians must have the courage to show their individualism, to show their musical personality.
Japan is blessed with an abundance of great musicians and with the characteristics of discipline, perseverance, will and dedication it is absolutely inevitable that we will see an increasing presence of Japanese musicians in the international musical community.
Written in Jeju, Korea and Okinawa, Japan, and finished August 27, 2010
Republished without change from original, September 19, 2012