By Patrick Peh
A Door Opens
Beyond this door, you will find young aspiring musicians of Uchimiya Junior High School preparing for their big day tomorrow. Tomorrow is August 2nd, which is the second day of the JHS division for the 70th All Japan Band Competition in Ehime. This band of 30 odd members will perform under category A in the competition. This article hopes to be a refreshing post as I only talk about Japanese bands in schools, which is different from The Sea, The Iwa & The Classroom where I would write about things around the neighborhood.
The two songs they will perform tomorrow are March – Blue Spring マーチ「ブルー・スプリング and – Theme from “Faust” the Opera 歌劇「ファウスト」 〜 バレエ音楽. The first song is the set piece. March – Blue Spring by Suzuki Masafumi is considered a classic among Japanese marching pieces with strong emphasis on different sections of the band coming in and fading away together in harmony. The kanji for “Blue Spring” can also be read as “youth,” and youthful bursts of energy can be felt from this piece. It is also the most popular set piece among four other set pieces. The second song, the choice piece, is a seven part opera theme named “Faust”. This masterpiece by Charles Gounod features notable ballads from the mid-1800s in band arrangement. The juxtaposition of fast and slow verses of this opera theme will leave their listeners intrigued by the narrative of this eight minute arrangement.
This year, due to restrictions concerning the corona virus situation, only performers will be allowed into Shimin Kaikan 松山市民会館 (Civic Center). Those who wish to watch the performance can do so watching the live broadcast by the Civic Center on the day of the performance itself.
Below is what I see in front of the music room. It is the timetable for today’s practice.
The Band Path
While I drop in to check out how ready the students are to perform, I am delighted to hear that they sound good and in tune with each other. I ask the students how they are feeling, many of them say that they feel pressured because they had been awarded the gold award the previous year. Some feel that they may not be able to rise to the high standards set by their predecessors. I look at their music sheets, and see many handwritten scribbles, detailing everything that the conductor said from the beginning of the practice till this point. We can see in the picture below that all the articulation and phrasing has been dutifully noted in the score sheet given to them.
I sometimes practice with the students during warm ups and tuning sessions, usually done at the beginning of the club activities. The students, like students anywhere else, display a range of abilities with some of them still learning the basic scales and time signatures whilst some of them are already becoming proficient with their high notes and instrument specific techniques. Many students were previously from feeder schools in the neighborhood and were from the brass band of those schools. This means that woodwind players and saxophonists have only handled their instrument since they entered the school band in Junior High School. It is impressive to see how quickly they learn and start to play as a band.
Usually, a weekend practice session would be three hours long, but as the date of the performance draws closer, we sometimes see slightly longer practice sessions. After warm ups and tuning sessions, the students get into sectional practice. They would focus on parts of the songs where they needed more practice. Once in while they would have combined practice with the full band and conductor.
Putting ourselves together
We move to the second music room for combined practice. On the conductor’s seat is their music teacher, also the band instructor, Mr Osaki. Mr Osaki is a saxophone player and he has been playing the saxophone since he was a student. He instructs the students during combined practice on how the song can or should be played in the concert hall.
His instrument, a Yamaha Alto-saxophone is a very expensive piece of musical equiptment. During practice, he told us that when he bought the instrument, it cost him 300,000 yen (a full month of an ALT’s salary!). The instrument is now worth 600,000yen and he already had certain parts of the instrument replaced due to long term use.
In the combined rehearsal today, Mr Osaki says something like this to the students: “Right now, as we are rehearsing, it’s okay to make mistakes. But if you make mistakes in the competition tomorrow, it will be recorded and no-one likes their mistake to go into the records. So you can either act as if nothing has happened or you could buck up and play your best tomorrow. Please give it some thought.”
Closer to the Performance
Like other major school events and sports competitions, the All Japan Band Competition (AJBC) is one big chapter in the students’ life. In the August competition, seven outstanding bands from Ehime will be awarded special recognition in addition to the gold award. The selected bands will continue to compete in Kochi prefecture as part of the Shikoku Taikai 四国大会 and then the top two bands will be invited to the finals at Nagoya Congress Center this October.
The rehearsal session ends with a debrief about movement plans tomorrow. The students will bring their instruments, files, and other necessary items to the concert venue. Unlike before the pandemic, they will not be accompanied by friends and families at the concert venue. Just being around these band members this summer reminds me of band days in school. As I finish this article for the blog, I wish them a spectacular performance and good results at the end of the competition.
Patrick Peh is a 4th year ALT from Singapore currently in Matsuyama. Soon after writing the “The Sea, The Iwa and The Classroom” article, Patrick found Tana in Ehime prefecture. Tana is very active in Cyalume Dance and made a video with Patrick in December last year.