A Japanese Lesson.

John Robert Brown

There's a saying that before you criticize someone you should walk a mile in their shoes. Then, when you do criticize, you're a mile away and you have their shoes!

Other people's shoes, and the other person's viewpoint, were very much on my mind when I arrived to give a workshop for the talented students of Yuhigaoka Senior High School in Osaka, Japan. The school is housed in a roomy modern building in a suburb of Osaka. With almost three million inhabitants, Osaka is Japan's third largest city. Yuhigaoka school has a total of 800 pupils, of which 120 are selected talented musicians between the ages of 16 and 18. To understand the nature of the school in British terms, think of a sixth-form-only equivalent of Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, or the Purcell School in Bushey, but with the local authority (the prefecture, in this case) providing the funds. Parents contribute some ¥200,000 per child, equivalent to just over £1,000. The school is public, coming under the administration of the Ministry of Education. Here, students prepare for the entrance examination for national universities. After graduation from Yuhigaoka, all continued their studies elsewhere. Of the leavers in 2002, twelve entered national or public colleges, including universities in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. Thirty entered private music colleges, in Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto. A few go overseas.

For my visit to Yuhigaoka I'm accompanied by a prominent local piano teacher, Kazumi Okada. Her sister, my friend and education expert Michiyo Goto, acts as interpreter. My wife Wendy has come along as well, to join in the fun.

On arriving at the school we change our footwear. Outdoor shoes are left at the entrance, which is the Japanese custom. We all wear the smart green slippers provided. The first piece of advice I'd give to anyone travelling in Japan is not to pack lace-ups, and make quite sure that you have no holes in your socks. Tying and untying shoelaces takes up a significant amount of one's time when visiting museums, private houses or schools. School slippers are, of course, too small for an Englishman weighing more than two hundred pounds. The sight of my feet in minuscule green slippers, decorated with elegant Japanese writing in gold, provides side-splitting amusement for the young musicians.

Now, appropriately shod, we are met at the school entrance by the head of music, Mr Kawasaki. It's clear that the school is thoughtfully run, and well funded. There is a piano lift to the upper floors. Hobbling along a shiny corridor to the fifth-floor concert hall (walking with dignity in dwarfish slippers isn't easy), I count six generous-size hardwood-lined practice rooms, each containing a matched pair of glossy black grand pianos. Goodness knows what's provided on the other floors. The concert room, where I will deliver my workshop, has theatre-style seating (tip-up upholstered seats) for 350 people. The stage is large enough to take a full symphony orchestra. Here is another pair of grand pianos, in pristine condition. The provision, both in equipment and curriculum, is better than in many British music colleges.

Before leaving Britain I had prepared for this workshop by posting several of my compositions on an internet site. The music has been downloaded by the young musicians in Osaka.
With typical diligence they have printed the music and rehearsed carefully. It's reassuring to see the familiar sight of my pieces on the music desks, an exemplary use of contemporary print-on-demand (POD) technology.

Here in the music section of the school there are four full-time teachers and 43 part-time lecturers. There are 120 music students, 40 in each of three years, aged 16 to 18, with 25 singers, six string players, 18 wind, five percussion and 66 pianists - though all music students study the piano. School ensembles include a symphony orchestra, a 100-strong choir, and various other ensembles.

Yuhigaoka High School also encourages Japanese classical instruments, particularly the koto and the samisen. The koto, described to me by principal Takeshi Oka as a Japanese zither, is a horizontal log-like instrument about 180cm long, with 13 strings arched tautly across movable bridges along the length of the instrument. Players adjust these bridges before playing, stroking the strings with picks worn on the fingers. Mr Oka describes the samisen as a Japanese banjo. It's a square-bodied, three-stringed instrument with long tuning pegs. Played with a large triangular plectrum, traditionally it was one of the instruments played by geishas.

Currently in Japan there is a surge of interest in Japanese traditional folk music. The Yoshida brothers, Ryoichiro and Kenichi, a pair of twenty-something brothers from Hokkaido, the most northerly island of Japan, play tsugaru samisen, an instrument associated with their home region. The Yoshidas are behind a boom in traditional folk music, having sold nearly a hundred thousand copies of each of their two albums, huge numbers for a genre which would normally sell in the low hundreds. The popularity of the Yoshidas is enhanced by their appearance (spiky hair, dyed brown) and the subtle ways in which they have updated the samisen. The samisen is currently used on a Japanese television commercial for Toyota. There is now a twenty-first century version of the instrument, an electronic samisen. Coincidentally with this rise of interest, last spring Japanese middle schools added the study of traditional instruments to their curriculum. As a result the Yoshidas have been invited to perform for students all over the country. The Yuhigaoka school staff are aware of the trend. The school's catalogue carries a photograph of Yuhigaoka's traditional orchestra in concert, with twenty koto players, twenty samisen players and two flutes.

But it's strictly western music this afternoon. Just me, my miniature green slippers, my clarinet, my music, expert help from Michiyo's interpretation - and no fewer than 120 Japanese students, bright and well behaved. Much is new to me. By now I'm used to the rituals of bowing, the many politenesses, the exchanges of small gifts. My newly published Concise Guide to Musical Terms is useful as a present for the musicians I meet.

I speak slowly, in short sentences, in the present tense as far as possible. I can manage a few words of Japanese, and all these children are studying English, but nevertheless Michiyo's brilliant help is essential if we are to have an effective workshop. For me, teaching through an interpreter is a novelty.

In order to create a relaxed atmosphere I begin with an unaccompanied clarinet piece of my own, deliberately incorporating growls, split notes, glissandi and vibrato. Inevitably, this generates questions. One girl asks whether I am playing a special clarinet, so I borrow her instrument for a few moments and play the same way - to great amusement.

Now it's the students' turn. They have prepared well. The first piece, Kanpai! (Japanese for 'cheers') is a canonic ensemble piece for low woodwinds. They play beautifully. It was deliberately simple, to avoid problems. I didn't know what standard to expect. After two ensemble pieces, I switch to some jazz-influenced items, and teach them a blues scale. We play antiphonal 'follow-my-leader', using the new scale they've learned. After outlining some 'rules', I lead some twenty-odd players in an aural game which they enjoy, and accomplish well.

All too soon the session is over. Here again I'm caught out by cultural differences. It is the custom for pupils to wait - all 120 of them - until any guest has left the room. While I'm dithering and gossiping, there's a tension, which I hadn't noticed. Interpreter Michiyo whispers to me. She says I'm to leave, not to keep them waiting!

This fabulous, unforgettable, afternoon is one I hope to repeat. Nonetheless, I'm glad to shed the slippers.

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