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Wind Ensemble Breezes Through Japan

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Just imagine the packing list: five flutes, ten clarinets, six trumpets, five horns, four trombones, three oboes, three bassoons, and other miscellaneous instruments. And that was one of the simpler aspects of planning a UW Wind Ensemble tour of Japan.

UW freshman Jeff Eaton meets with Japanese schoolchildren after a concert.

UW freshman Jeff Eaton meets with Japanese schoolchildren after a concert.  Media credit: Press J CP. (Japan)

The 57-member Wind Ensemble travelled to Japan for ten days in March, performing three times and meeting local musicians and their families. The visit—the first to Japan in the ensemble’s history—was life-changing for many of the students.

“Going into this trip, I expected that I would enjoy it,” says baritone saxophonist Jay Easton. “But I had no idea how much I would love it. Meeting the people, hearing the Japanese bands, and getting to see the past and present culture of Japan in such an intimate way was a life-changing experience that has left me with a broader perspective on humanity and music.”

A Haven for Wind Ensembles

Why travel all the way to Japan? For starters, because the ensemble was invited. But there’s also the fact that the Japanese are fascinated with wind bands. 

“Japan has imported the idea of wind bands and, in some ways, improved on it,” says Tim Salzman, director of the UW Wind Ensemble in the School of Music, who has made 18 trips to Japan and was a visiting professor in Kobe in 1997. “There is an unbelievable proliferation of school bands as well as professional bands there.”

One indication of Japan’s passion for wind ensembles is the All Japan Band Association’s annual band contest, in which nearly 14,000 bands compete each year. It was through that competition that the UW was invited to perform in Japan.

“Each year, Japanese wind bands are required to perform one of five new compositions selected by the Association,” explains Salzman. “The Association wanted a fresh perspective, so they invited the UW Wind Ensemble to perform two of the pieces and lead clinic sessions about them.”

The offer was intriguing, but Salzman was concerned that the cost would be prohibitive. He contacted Tomio Yamamoto, a friend who is a high school band director and assistant principal in Kobe and a liaison with the regional band association. With Yamamoto’s encouragement, the Hyogo Band Association and Yamaha Corporation agreed to help sponsor the tour. Additional support came from the UW School of Music, the Provost’s Office, and Seattle’s Japanese-American business community. 

Breakfast Sushi and Homestays

Yamamoto did more than secure funding for the visit. He found housing for the students, planned meetings with local musicians, and coordinated all of the equipment and transportation issues. He also secured rehearsal space, which was essential.

“He wanted to construct this trip like a piece of music, in three movements,” says Salzman, who is still amazed at the effort his friend put into the visit. “First the students shared rooms in a traditional inn in Kobe, sleeping on tatami mats, bathing in an onsen (hot springs) bath, and eating traditional food. Then they spent three nights with host families, most of whom had children who were musicians. Finally, as the end of the tour approached, the students stayed in a hotel with individual rooms.”

Yamamoto’s thinking was that the inn would introduce the students to traditional Japanese culture, the host visits would connect them with the Japanese people, and the hotel would give them breathing room at the end of the trip. “His planning was impeccable,” says Salzman.

In addition to the obvious cross-cultural interactions, a unique byproduct 
of the trip was a new sense of social bonding between Wind Ensemble students. Although the members rehearse at the UW twice a week, they don’t ordinarily have opportunities to get to know each other. “It’s a class,” explains Salzman. “They come in, sit down, and stare at the head of the person in front of them. This was a great opportunity to learn about each other.”

Bassoonist Bruce Carpenter agrees. “It is fascinating to put a voice and personality to nameless faces I have seen across the band all year and find out what they are really like,” he says. “I gained a new respect for a number of them, and made many new friends in the band.” 

Danijela Djakovic, master's student in flute, with her host family in Kobe.

Danijela Djakovic, master's student in flute, with her host family in Kobe. 

The homestays with Japanese families were, for many, another highlight of the trip—and the homestays weren’t even planned with cultural exchange in mind. “We asked for host families because it was the only way we could afford the trip,” admits Salzman. “To ask the Japanese for host families was culturally quite forward of me. They don’t ordinarily have people over to their homes. But as it turned out, there were more families interested in hosting than we could use.”

Most families hosted one or two students. “They were so welcoming, kind, and generous,” says flute player Jennifer Eblen. “They truly opened up their hearths and hearts to all of us, and I think we were struck deeply by that generosity and openness.” 

The students and hosts sometimes struggled with language barriers but found ways to communicate. “With my dictionary in hand and their high-tech dictionaries in theirs, we attempted to talk to each other,” recalls bassoonist Candice Ryu. “We would sit on the floor, around a short dinner table, discussing our days or planning out the next. My host mother probably had the least English training yet it was she who seemed to understand me the most. She was able to read my body language and expressions, even though we come from such different backgrounds.”

A Lasting Experience

Just before saying goodbye to the host families, the Wind Ensemble performed at Kobe Bunka Hall. “This was a big venue,” says Salzman. “The concert was shared with some of the outstanding high school bands in the area.” The ensemble played one Japanese piece; the rest was new American music. “I wanted to introduce the Japanese audience to the works of some of our fine young American composers,” explains Salzman.

That evening, after teary goodbyes with their host families, the wind ensemble headed to Himeji, where they would offer their master class presentations and perform their final concert, again sharing the stage with Japanese high school bands. The concerts generated favorable reviews in major Japanese newspapers.

“Those Japanese bands were so good you could hardly believe it,” enthuses Salzman. “Some of our students are music education majors, and this redefined for them what young students are capable of.” 

Miho Takekawa, a UW doctoral student in percussion performance from Tokyo, performed a solo but also served as principal interpreter and organized many tour details.

Miho Takekawa, a UW doctoral student in percussion performance from Tokyo, performed a solo but also served as principal interpreter and organized many tour details.

That was certainly true for Nadia Zane, a horn player and music education student. “I have received the message repeatedly that you can only expect so much from people at certain ages,” says Zane. “In Japan the students are perfectly capable of excellence by any standard. I have discovered that any limitations students have are placed on them by society and other outside factors, and not their innate abilities. I feel validated and motivated to excel as a teacher, pushing beyond the boundaries we have boxed ourselves into.”

While the UW students were impressed with the Japanese musicians, the reverse was also true. Clarinetist Andrew Chang remembers “a literal horde of Japanese honor band students” waiting to meet and obtain autographs from the UW musicians after a concert. “I was in shock,” he says.

By the end of the visit, everyone was changed by the experience. It was about more than performing. It was about friendship, respect for other cultures, and recognizing the potential for excellence.

The significance of the trip struck trumpeter Brian Chin as the ensemble left their Kobe concert, with a crowd gathered to see them off. 

“There were so many people—home- stay families, students, and friends,” he recalls. “It was then that I realized the impact that people, and musicians in particular, can have on a community and indeed the world at large. I believe this is the way to a world filled with peace and happiness, and my hope is that everyone on our tour, and the thousands of people we met along the way, remember the friendship that was established. I know that I will.”