Recently, I had the opportunity to sit in with the Hamamatsu (Japan) Commercial High School band. It was eye opening.
The band rehearses seven days a week. Each rehearsal begins with 45-minute sectionals, led by a student section leader. Exhibiting an extraordinarily high level of discipline and focus, the section played a short exercise or passage, followed by animated critique from the leader. The group answered with a shouted, “Hai!” This procedure was repeated many times with remarkable consistency.
I worked with the trumpet section leader, Jay, who aspires to be a professional jazz musician. The rest of the students crowded closely to observe and occasionally giggle. I only managed to extract two questions from the group: “What kind of mouthpiece do you play?” and “How do you play high?” This questioning suggests that trumpet players are the same everywhere!
Once the band assembled, a senior student led the group through an extensive tuning exercise built up from the low brass, culminating in an ensemble sound that shook the rafters. After the exercise, the musicians spoke to each other simultaneously, discussing the performance, or sang their parts. A robust trombone note signaled the start of the next exercise.
Upon the entrance of the band director, the group shot to attention as one would expect when a general enters the enlisted barracks. Stepping to the podium without a word, he kicked off an arrangement of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” The parts were played to perfection yet curiously without swing feel.
I stood up to play a trumpet solo, then joined the section for the rest of the piece, finding it challenging to fit in with such a well-oiled machine.
This band has won many awards. The Japanese students exhibit a drive to excel and a work ethic unlike anything I’ve experienced in North America. We had questions about whether individual expression might be suppressed by a rote approach, but there was no denying the spectacular ensemble performance.
A Personal Note
With this column, I take my leave from Halftime Magazine. After 10 years, I feel another perspective might be welcome. My thanks go to publisher Christine for the opportunity and to you, the readers. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you!