Last year my friend Christy and a former core member violist, Motoko, had planned to visit one of Motoko's friend's elementary school music classes. It was to be an informal outreach, but due to bad weather the plan never came to fruition. I was honored that Motoko asked me to carry on the endeavor this year in the wake of Christy, and excited for the chance to visit a Japanese school.
I helped Motoko find two other core members to form a quartet, we rehearsed at my apartment yesterday (which warranted the bringing of cookies and wine as gifts from two of the members!), and this morning we went to the school to meet the children and have a playing exchange with them. The taxi went up and up the hill in the clear fall air; we could see Osaka far off in the distance. We arrived at a stern white building and walked by the playground which had a group of children in matching red shorts, white shirts, and hats doing exercises together with their teacher. As we entered the building, we took off our shoes and put them in little lockers, replacing them with slippers, and walked around the corner to the principal's office where we replaced those slippers with other slippers. We sat and they chatted in Japanese while a few minutes later a woman brought us green tea. We then left the office to go to a warm-up space, passing by another entrance where many little cubbies had many pairs of little shoes and an umbrella stand was filled with unneeded umbrellas. The halls were quite bare and the cool air of November was welcome indoors where the custom of central heating has never been.
We warmed-up and when the Westminster chimes sounded, it signaled the end of one period and the beginning of another. We packed up and moved into the gymnasium where we made a grand entrance as the staff raised the screen on the stage to reveal us behind it! We came down to the floor where eighty ten-year-old children were seated––not criss-cross-applesauce as they do in America, but with their feet on the floor and their knees standing in front of them, arms wrapped around––completely silent, intrigued and excited to see us. We played Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for them, then Pachelbel's Canon (because there is something similar in an anime show), and then Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 (because they will be performing it in their upcoming concert).
After we played and Motoko spoke about the music and our instruments, it was their turn to play for us and get advice. These eighty ten-year-olds got up and went to their positions. One of them came up to me and politely asked if he could use my music stand. I let him. One big section had melodicas, another recorders; behind them was a timpani and a bass drum; in front were several xylophones of different registers, about ten accordions, and several pianos (electric and acoustic). It was incredible to see this orchestra perform the Brahms, largely from memory, different instruments playing different parts to create a colorful orchestration.
After they had played they looked to us for advice. For some reason the mic was in front of me first and all I could say was great job. Congratulations on all your work. They smiled at my awkward Japanese and the fact that I didn't really feel comfortable advising them. And then the other members of the group spoke to them in Japanese about the importance of looking at the conductor during tempo changes and breaks in the music. Good job guys! Learning.
We played one last encore of Let it Go (because...why not?) and as we packed up they crowded around us, intrigued by the instruments. I remembered my time in Madison, participating in the Up Close and Musical program through the Symphony, in which I did demonstrations of my instrument for elementary school classes over a hundred times a year. The children would always surround me asking questions, "What is that cloth for?; Why do you have two bows?; Is it heavy?" I knew these kids had the same questions I'd been asked hundreds of times and yet this time, they knew I wouldn't really understand and wouldn't really be able to answer. Instead, I entrusted something to them that I rarely did for the unpredictable students in the states: I invited them to try plucking the strings. They did so gently and with curiosity; and they were amazed when I pulled out the end pin for them to see. I wished I could have performed some other explosive trick, but it seemed unnecessary and the time was up.
They all left; and we left, walking in our slippery slippers back to the other building for one more slipper exchange to the principal's office, one more cup of green tea, reimbursement for our travel, and then loading into a van that would take us back down the hill of clear skies. It's amazing to think that poor weather ever got in the way. That clouds ever existed. Another experience in Japan behind me, another exchange resonating, like all those before today, until who knows when.