Ethnomusicology in the band room

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ March 23rd, 2013. Filed under: Teaching, World Music Studies.

One of the ethnomusicologists I follow closely is David G. Hebert, currently a faculty member at Bergen University of College in Norway, but in fact, born and raised in Seattle.  His specialty is the study of concert bands in Japanese high schools which on the surface, would be as far as you could possibly get from the usual exotic location common to ethnomusicology. You could say in response that Japan is exotic enough, thank you very much, but Japan’s band program follows the “North American” model to a T, so you would find yourself in any high school band room in any province in Canada.  Except you’re in Osaka.

Or are you?

First exposure

Several years ago I was invited to attend a joint concert of a local band and a Japanese high school concert band. It was held in the Chan centre on a Spring evening and sorry to say, there was hardly anybody in the audience, not surprising, considering the basically unknown musical forces. So I settled in my seat in the midst of a sprinkle of moms, dads, friends, friends of friends…

The Japanese band appeared, comprised of the usual timid junior high school members in sailor boy and sailor girl uniforms. They looked very sombre, even a bit nervous, with expressionless faces set in studied determination. They quietly assembled in their chairs, and then arose as the affable conductor arrived at the podium, beaming his smile to audience and players alike. The first piece began and within the first eight bars, I found myself riveted to my seat in utter astonishment.

As the piece progressed, sections of like instrumentalists and soloists subtly, gently moved their instruments in response to the emotion of the phrases. The clarinets in particular were stunning as they lifted their bells upward as the crescendo in their music rose to double forte, then slowly dropped them back to position when the phrase ended. Other times, the brass players stood during their heroic moments, or also moved their bells in response to the emotion of the music, usually cued sonically by dynamic contrasts. The theatrical bodies told us in the audience that, “I am being carried away by the emotion of this phrase, but I’m still in control.”

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I was deeply moved.

Then the local band appeared. In standard fashion, they sat like stone statues, staring intensely at their music stands as they played, rigid in their chairs. The only movement was the hugely annoying tapping of feet by some (but not all) players, made even more aggravating by the lack of unison movement. Although I had seen this kind of clumsy performance practice a thousand times, I never let it distract me. Now I felt deeply ashamed of “our” (North American) lack of ability to convey music when compared to this gaggle of high school girls and boys.

During the intermission I attempted to ask the band director about the stunning performance practices I had just witnessed but my halting Japanese, even with an interpreter at hand, got nowhere.

Perhaps I should add that I am aware of the “theatre” seen in swing bands with their constant standing and sitting. And then there are the marching bands with their amazing half-time show choreographies. And then there are the new stage presentations of brass bands in England with their constantly shifting stage positions.

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But what I am describing is something different. It’s subtle, like the slowly lifting hand of a Noh actor as he touches his cheek, an expression of ineffable sadness, or the slumped shoulder of an actor when learning about a tragedy.


It was not until the publication of David Hebert’s book Wind Bands and Cultural Identity in Japanese Schools that I got a glimmer of an answer. But only a glimmer.  More on that later.

Mr. Hebert studied high school bands in the early 2000s during several extended stays in Japan. As an American musician (trumpet) who had come up through the American band program, he knew what he was looking for.  But he was equally curious about oddities that he had heard about in the States.  American high schools and their band conductors had been engaged to conduct band clinics in Japan, and when they returned, they were beside themselves with admiration, even awe, at the sky high levels of technical perfection. If they wanted to highlight a point of interpretation missing from a performance, the young Japanese players were as responsive as a Porsche.  But even more revealing was the amount of time the students engaged in rehearsal – twenty plus hours per week, six hundred hours per year, week-ends and holidays included. After regular school hours. When I thought back on my own high school band practices, amounting to maybe five hours per week, scheduled as a regular class, I initially looked at the Japanese band kids with deep sympathy. Their staggering commitment of time and energy to the band, in addition to the after-hour tutoring and homework that is so much a part of Japanese high school culture, reminded me of the famous lead up to Examination Hell (shiken jigoku  試験地獄).

A case has been made that the Japanese band program is not morally questionable, but rather the perfect, all-consuming activity for restless tweenies and teeners – a perfect blend of socializing and focused dedication. I have read that the Japanese band program is like a typical sports team that also conducts the same insane hours practice. I suppose a comparison could be made to piano students, but their countless hours of effort in solitary confinement leave me cold.

Suddenly my memories of band program leave me feeling unsettled. Our level of achievement was hit and miss. We were always held back by those in the band who knew that the credits for band were practically a give-away with no real effort required. Granted, there were some high school bands in my home town that achieved greatness, and then there were the after-school city-wide bands that really fired the imagination of young players. But the usual band program seemed to struggle with half-committed students looking for an easy grade.


Now that I have given you a very brief taste of the sociomusicology of Japanese bands in comparison to North American bands, “show me the ethnomusicology,” you say. We find a couple of areas worth considering.

The band program, along with so many other Western Art and Folk Music endeavours, are favoured over indigenous music-making. I have been following the efforts of the Japanese education ministry to introduce traditional Japanese music (hōgaku 邦楽) programs into the school system but it seems half-hearted. And I’m not surprised. WAM (Western Art Music) is a niche interest that is piggy-backed on the juggernaut of Western Popular Music, even if the latter is hybridized. Japanese traditional music can barely compete with it. WAM currently has the cache of upper class education, but that is not enough to sustain the interest. Symphony orchestras replace their audience practically by 100 per cent each season, as the majority of ticket-holders are given their single-season seats as a reward for graduating.

Then there is the hint of neo-Confucianism (rigaku 理学) in the rehearsal and performance processes. The level of “team cooperation” is much higher than that found in North America, but with the added dimension of a loss of individual expression in favour of group expression. The East Asian expression, “The nail that sticks up is hammered down” is at work in the bands. As the world adjusts to the new economy of the Far East, this style of thinking will no doubt get a second look, but for now it seems to work against individual initiative and imagination. In terms of the band, players learn to play their instruments as if they were cogs in a brilliant clock, rather than as individual musicians coming together to make a holistic experience. But then again, that was my memory of high school band for most players. Curiouser and curiouser.

There is a dark side to Japanese high school bands (and Korean high school bands, from what I’ve heard) that is called ijime (いじめ), bullying directed at players who do not match the intensity, dedication and skill-level of the rest of the band.  Professor Hebert told me that the topic will figure into his follow-up research.

The subtle and obvious source of the theatrical gestures come from a traditional world of acting techniques ( engi 演技, as opposed to gei, 芸 or藝, acting) which are largely based on kata (型 or

形), the time-honoured technique of repetition to achieve perfection. Both are highly studied and self-consciously applied, in the hopes that the core of their spirit (shin 心) will become internalized at some point. Thank “waxed on; waxed off.” In other words, the gestures of the band players were constructed, a fact I later learned to be true.

The theatre of phrasing

So what are we to make of the physical expressiveness of the Japanese high school players as they approached the apex of the phrase?  Professor Hebert was familiar with the topic but didn’t explore it in his book. I later learned about the process during a Japanese high school band workshop I attended in North Vancouver, of all places. (Right in my back yard!) I was told that the gestures were devised by the students themselves, not the band director.

I detect a Ph.D. dissertation in the making, asking questions like: Why do they make the gestures? Are they motivated by an inward need to be expressive? Or are they influenced by the histrionics of the Japanese pop world, called Visual kei (ヴィジュアル系 bijuaru kei)?  Is it a case of transformation suggested by Whistle a Happy Tune?

The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell
For when I fool the people
I fear I fool myself as well!


David G. Hebert (2012) Wind Bands and Cultural Identity in Japanese Schools

Boye Lafayette De Mente (2003) Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese

Carolyn Stevens (2007) Japanese Popular Music: Culture, Authenticity and Power

Lucy Green (2011) Learning, Teaching, and Musical Identity: Voices Across Cultures

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