OKINAWA, Japan --
At Jonan Elementary School in Shuri, Naha, the former seat of the Ryukyu Dynasty, 19 members of the brass band were practicing for their upcoming concert, Saturday, Feb. 25. It is not unusual to see club activities on weekends in Japan, but for these students, the day took on a different meaning.
A little after 9:00 a.m., nine members of the III Marine Expeditionary Force Band of the Marines Corps in Okinawa appeared at the school gate. They came to give music lessons to the children of the Jonan Elementary School brass band.
According to Asako Ishimura, a community relations specialist, G-7, Government and External Affairs, Marine Corps Installations Pacific, although the Marine Band has visited local schools to perform in the past, this is the first time they have held a clinic at an elementary school.
Yukino Niihara, a parent of a fifth grader who has been a brass band member since October, welcomed the Marines, saying, "I couldn't believe it when I heard that Ms. Ishimura had asked us if we wanted to receive a Marine band lesson and our parents' association president replied ‘yes,’” with a big smile on her face.
Upon arrival, III MEF band members carried their heavy instruments with ease and immediately began preparing for their performance before the clinic. After welcoming speeches by parents and the school band captain, the Marines performed about 20 minutes for Jonan children.
In announcing the third and final song, Staff Sgt. Michael Barnett, small ensemble leader, hinted that the students would surely know the song. As soon as it began, the children's faces lit up. The song the Marines played was that of what the elementary band would perform at their next concert.
Photo by Yoshie Makiyama
Members of the III MEF band rehearsed together with students at the last hour of the clinic.
When parents told Barnett that it was a good arrangement, he revealed that he had been looking for a song for their next performance about two weeks ago and the piece he chose was coincidentally the same one the children had been practicing for their concert.
After watching the Marines play, Shu Teruya, a third-year student at Shuri Junior High School and a graduate of the Jonan Elementary School's brass band club, commented, "I felt that many Japanese people tend to think a lot when they play, and play with a lot of restraint, but the Marines all played happily, and I was overwhelmed. I felt that the way they breathed into their instruments was different from the Japanese."
The next part of the schedule divided the students into sections by instrument. Woodwinds, trumpet, low brass, and percussion instruments were taught, each accompanied by III MEF band members. In all groups, the Marines were lively yet serious.
According to Barnett, the sectional lessons for each instrument allow for more in-depth instruction on fundamentals such as how to play, what makes an instrument sound good, matching timing, and proper breathing.
In the trumpet room, the children learned a wide range of skills, including how to exhale and how to strengthen the muscles around the mouth. They listened to the teachings through interpreters who volunteered to support the clinic.
"We are doing our best to pass our knowledge to the younger generation. I am honored to be a part of this.” Sgt. Ricardo Hernandez, trumpet player, said they taught the basics that they themselves practice on a daily basis.
After the Marines shared some music fundamentals, the children began practicing their areas of weakness, and the Marines repeatedly taught the children until they got the rhythm and sound right.
“We learned how to breathe in and out for strong and weak notes, and how to take a breather. I was nervous at first, but I relaxed while we practiced in sections," said Sora Inaba, vice-president of the school band.
“With our Marines, getting into (the local) schools and playing, performing, teaching, and sharing our talent with the children and having them share their talent with us, it’s truly a cultural exchange. I felt like there would be probably nothing that builds relationships better than this type of outreach.” Master Gunnery Sgt. J. Michael Stanley, bandmaster of III MEF Band
One of the clarinet players from school said that she, at first, thought Marine members looked stern and scary, but when she saw them up close during the performance, they were in rhythm and seemed to be having fun. She said even when students made mistakes or did not have the same rhythm, Marines encouraged them to try their best to match up, and showed them the example.
Before long, it was 11:00 a.m., and all the members from different sections gathered in the music room. For the last hour, the two bands rehearsed together. At an hour of joint rehearsal, the conductor and members of the III MEF band repeated the performance, giving instructions to the children on the parts they spotted. A member of the Marine band would play a piece, and the elementary school students would listen, try, and then immediately correct their own problem areas. When the children finally performed in full, the observing parents and volunteers all cheered and applauded.
Yuko Kobashigawa, who has been involved with the brass band for the past eight years and has been a volunteer coach for the last four years, said, "It is not easy to get this kind of opportunity, even if you pay for it. In music, no amount of verbal instruction will help you understand. You learn by hearing a good sound.”
“The best way to teach is to play together.” Kobashigawa stated when children see someone playing happily and in a groove near them, they take it directly from that. “You have to see it live to understand. I think they absorbed a year's worth of lessons in one day."
“I was over the moon," said Master Gunnery Sgt. J. Michael Stanley, bandmaster of III MEF Band, when he was first informed of the idea of the music clinic by Ishimura. “With our Marines, getting into (the local) schools and playing, performing, teaching, and sharing our talent with the children and having them share their talent with us, it’s truly a cultural exchange. I felt like there would be probably nothing that builds relationships better than this type of outreach.”
Stanley stated that at the end of the day, what really matters is relationships; and music can play a really great role in connecting and bonding people, not only in the spirit of artistic creativity, but also in the spirit of building bridges between cultures.