Music: The Universal Language

University of Northern Colorado Professor of Music Richard Mayne spent 10 weeks as invited guest conductor of the Musashino Wind Ensemble at Tokyo's prestigious Musashino Academia Musicae, a private college-level conservatory of music that's one of the oldest and largest music academies in Japan.

Ten weeks of rehearsals culminated with a performance in the famous Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall.

The trip also allowed Mayne to reconnect with Musashino professor of piano Hidesato Uemura, who Mayne hosted during the 2011-12 academic year when Uemura was a visiting scholar at UNC's School of Music.

Mayne was recommended for the position by Ray Cramer, emeritus director of bands at Indiana University. Cramer has been a guest conductor at Musashino for 20 years and was given the responsibility of recommending future guest conductors.

Here, Mayne shares some of the 1,200 photos he and his wife took, as well as some of his thoughts about the experience.

One of the first things we did upon our arrival was take a walking tour from the academy’s guest house to campus with students Kaoru and Toshiaki. Despite having a map, they suggested we take photos along the way to use later as a reference if we (when we) get lost. The streets in Tokyo aren’t on a north-south/east-west grid so it’s very hard to get your bearings, and easy to get lost.

At this, my first rehearsal, I didn’t know any names and I didn’t speak Japanese. I was quickly introduced to the band by the band manager and then, the rehearsal began! Our only common languages were music, some Italian musical terms and body language. The students in Japan play a major role in the running of ensembles. They didn’t want me to arrive at rehearsal more than 10 minutes before start time because they wanted to make sure the room was totally set up and ready. The students take great personal pride in always showing their best effort and making sure everything is ready for rehearsal before the conductor arrives, which is a part of their training from the public schools.

Although the Japanese students can be very shy in some ways, they were very happy to have their photo taken as part of my plan to do a photo exchange between the UNC Symphonic Band and the Musashino Wind Ensemble. I soon discovered that almost all of the Japanese students flashed the peace sign every time they had their photo taken. I don’t know if it means “peace” to them, but they all do it automatically when a photo is taken. The students from both bands enjoyed seeing the photos of each other.

The level of clarinet playing was very high and the students were all very strong in their playing, both musically and technically. The Japanese students move when they play. It was very invigorating to conduct them when they showed so much visual and physical connection to the music. This movement is a part of their culture and musical training from a young age.

Notice that the trumpet section is all female (and unanimous in their use of the “peace” sign). Approximately 70 percent of band students in Japanese public schools are female. Band is an after-school club activity in Japan, not a class during the school day as it is in the U.S. Many of the male students choose to be in one of the sports clubs rather than in a music club. These clubs at some schools meet nearly 365 days a year. Much of the teaching in the club school bands is done by the students. The conductors of the bands conduct the large ensemble rehearsals after the students have practiced individually and in sectionals run by student peers. As part of their culture, there is a strong personal commitment and desire to pull one’s weight as a member of one of “the club”.

This group photo was taken at the end of a rehearsal during my second week. Afterward, the entire band went to a conductor’s welcome dinner. The Musashina Academia Musicae is a private college-conservatory of music and is steeped in tradition. There’s a very thorough and strategically planned series of events designed to create cultural exchange between the conductor and the students. In addition to considerable rehearsal time, much of this organized cultural exchange takes place in social events, mainly meals.

This is what the welcome dinner looked like as all the students were arriving: a traditional sit-on-the-floor Japanese-style event. The meal began with a short speech and then a toast by me (which I didn’t know was expected until I arrived). After that, the entire group formed a single-file line and snaked through the room, greeting each person present with "Kanpai!" (“Cheers!”)

My first Japanese meal: salad of shaved dried fish. Delicious! The students and faculty there were very interested to know what I liked to eat and were equally interested in watching how I would handle chop sticks. Thinking this might be a form of entertainment for the students, I made sure to get plenty of practice and some chopstick-etiquette tips far in advance of the trip.

The Musashino Academia Musicae has a world-class musical instrument collection that includes more than 100 pianos. This piano was once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte – very rare. The collection also comprises hundreds of wind and stringed instruments from around the world.

This photo shows just a small sampling of the Musashino’s enormous inventory of percussion instruments in the museum collection. With the exception of a few pianos, all the instruments are in good playing condition.

This is a real Taiko drum with a genuine calfskin head made from one cowhide with no seams. This drum was recently used for the cannon shots in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

Shortly after the start of the fall semester each year at Musashino, there’s a large, traditional three-day music festival run entirely by the students. The official opening ceremony is followed by a parade through town to publicize the event. The students call the parade band the “funny band.” They dress up in costumes of their choice, with the clarinets choosing a Halloween-pumpkin theme this year. The first day of the festival is a fun dress-up day with light musical events. The remaining two days’ events are more serious and highlight the talents of the students in a more serious atmosphere.

This full-stage photo shows the flavor of the finale of the opening night of the Muse Festival. The students also dress up in funny costumes for this event and have a great time just letting loose and creating their own acts. This concert ended with a wonderful medley of rock tunes by the famous group Deep Purple.

Day two of the Muse Festival is a full day of small ensembles (totally run by the students) and then an evening large-ensemble concert. The students select the music and run all the rehearsals. Notice the proportion of male to female musicians.

For the orchestral concert that ended the second day of the festival, the music was selected, rehearsed and conducted by the four students standing in front of the orchestra. These students are chosen by a vote of the student body. The Muse Festival festival was absolutely incredible to witness. Every event was totally designed, choreographed, rehearsed and conducted by the students. There’s a strong sense of tradition at this private conservatory.

During my time in Japan, each section of the band arranged to take us out to a dinner or a lunch. These meals were organized by one of the student “inspectors” (the Japanese term for section leaders) who kept good records and made sure that each section took us to a different restaurant featuring a different cuisine. Here’s the percussion and euphonium section dinner, where we made and ate "konomi-yaki," which is considered Japanese pizza. The ingredients come in a bowl (unmixed) and very nicely presented. You mix everything in the bowl together and then cook it on the hot grill. Many of the Japanese restaurants are designed for the patrons to cook their own food. It’s a wonderful social event and way to get to know people and other cultures.

Students came to our house on occasion to cook Japanese food for us and to share their culture. They also appreciated the opportunity to practice speaking English. We had so much fun talking about music and food, and trying to understand each other. This photo was taken in the grocery store prior to cooking the meal. A good time was had by all of us, and the friendships developed through these get-togethers were very special.

Here I am with Hidesato Uemura (piano soloist) comparing notes on the piano concerto following a rehearsal. Hidesato was a visiting scholar on the UNC campus a year ago. He’s one of 90 piano faculty members at Musashino. When he was an undergraduate student at Musashino, he was ranked No.1 out of 1,000 piano students. It’s a very competitive musical environment at this level in Japan.

This is a view of the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall prior to the concert. Photos aren’t permitted during the concerts. This very beautiful concert hall is where the world-famous Tokei Kosei Wind Ensemble played a concert just two days previously. The Japanese love music of all kinds. Nearly every seat was filled and most concerts in Japan are two hours in length, ending with two or three encores. Two full days of recording sessions followed the concert.

This photo was taken after our farewell dinner. Cindy and I were each presented with a scrapbook of several pages of photos and memories documenting the entire experience as seen through the eyes of the Japanese students. Each scrapbook contains a photo of every student and a written note from each, as well. These books are a treasure for sure!

The band inspectors came to the airport to see us off. It was a very touching moment and it was difficult to say goodbye. My time at the Musashino Academia Musicae was an experience of a lifetime and one I shall never forget.

My final view of the wonderful Japanese students, whom I’d known for only 10 weeks. In typical Japanese style, they saw every detail through to the very end. As I went down the escalator and out of sight, I realized how fortunate I am to have had this opportunity. I also realized how powerful music is throughout the world. We could only communicate verbally on a very limited basis. Once we made music together, a bond was created that is strong, deep and lasting.

This very special opportunity was made possible through the generosity of the UNC students, faculty and administration. I must thank everyone here for being so supportive. In particular: Jennifer Beck, David Caffey, Kenneth Singleton, Justin Zanchuk, Andrew Svedlow and the Pride of the Rockies Marching Band staff.

- Richard Mayne

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