The Music Adventures of Kurokawa

(cover photo: Keiichi Kurokawa conducting the Saitama Prefecture Kuki High School Wind Orchestra at The 55th Saitama Prefecture Band Competition / credit: Keiichi Kurokawa)

Mr Keiichi Kurokawa from Japan, visited Malaysia and Singapore on a ten day trip, conducting workshops at some ten to fifteen bands in both countries. The Band Post interviews him on his career as a band advisor, his SYF 2014 set piece for primary school bands and also his travelling experiences.

As a band advisor, what are some of the problems you find when teaching music to students, and how do you solve them?

In Japan, and likewise in Singapore and Malaysia, band activities are considered as extra curriculum activities that are not part of the academic schedules. Japanese bands however practice almost everyday after school, and some bands also have practices on Saturday and Sundays, especially in Senior High Schools.

The purpose of band activities is not only to grow our musicians and work on their music knowledge, but also cultivate the personal characters of students like improving their concentration to learn new things.

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Group Shot with S.M.J.K Poi Lam Band Members / credit: Keiichi Kurokawa

Academic classes unlike band activities do not have a common purpose because members join the club by their own will. Band teaches students discipline by focusing on the same aims, making it more interesting for students to work hard together. Hence, in band activities, teachers can instill discipline for character building more effectively, especially in Junior high schools where the 1st grade students are 12 years old and they are still quite new to the school.

In Japan, school bands usually directed by school teachers. The teachers have various professions such as mathematics, science or social studies but not many of them do not have the ability to teach band. Of course, there are a few music teachers, but their focus as a school teacher is mainly to teach students how to sing in a choir or play the recorder in academic classes. On some occasions, the academics also take up more time, leaving limited time for band activities.

I am not a school teacher, but a freelance band adviser that supports school teachers in teaching bands. I observed that some teachers have good musicality, but do not teach their students any manners or discipline. I believe that without these two aspects, students will not learn anything, even if they spend a long time in band activities.

In Japan, the main purpose of club activities is not to grow a good player, but to cultivate the personalities of students. Although it is difficult for students to be motivated and disciplined, the least we can do is to try and cultivate good manners. This is because, once the students achieved them, they can then apply the values in their lives. And, to achieve this result, good music activities are necessary in their band programs.

Your piece “American Riverside Medley” was used as the set piece in SYF 2014 last year. How do you feel about it? Do you think the bands played it well?

I really enjoyed the performance by the bands in SYF 2014. I understand that bands do not practice for long hours each week; maybe only 6 hours on average, but the total standard of performances is quite high.

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Visit to Naval Base Secondary School Symphonic Band, SINGAPORE / credit: Keiichi Kurokawa

In foreign countries, people often think of Japanese bands as high standard, but these top bands are only popular because their videos are on YouTube or their performances are spotted by other people (it is seldom that people will want to watch average band performances).

Comparing the standards between Singapore and Japan, I would say that the elementary band education in Japan is lower than that of Singapore’s, but our high school band education would be slightly higher.

Most of our band directors are music teachers in the elementary school, but some of these teachers have no experience in training bands. Perhaps, Singapore bands use their practice time more effectively than Japanese bands.

My observation in SYF is that Asian bands seem to have the same problem. We do not have our own culture for Western music, and hence, we do not have harmony in our music, where the sound is not so tight. While some bands in SYF were very good, the others had some difficulties in keeping tempo, listening to each other, or showcasing the contrast between melodies and accompaniment.

You teach computer music notation as part of your job. What are the key differences compared to the traditional writing of music by hand?

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Visit to St Michael’s Institution (Michaelian Military Band), IPOH / credit: Keiichi Kurokawa

I teach the Finale software in my classes, where students are a general mix of adults in various professions, such as a doctor with a flute playing hobby, a college professor teaching kindergarten education, and a wife of a programmer.

When it comes to writing music, one must have a musical concept in their head. With the computer software, it saves trouble for the composers in terms of music playback. Before these music notation software came about, compositions were very difficult to write – only people with proper music education could do so. Nowadays, even high school students without music education or composition abilities such as Solfegge can write music for their hobbies or commercially.

As mass compositions and arrangements are being produced every year, there may be some lower quality works published into the market. These music often have issues in scoring techniques and music theories, and can affect the learning of younger performers where they will may be educated in incorrect music teachings.

You travel a lot to many countries outside of Japan including Singapore and Malaysia, what are some of the music cultures you experience different from Japan?

For the last three years, I visited USA for the Midwest Clinic in Chicago. The band scene in USA is different from Asian countries, in the sense that the Western culture is strong, so people consider music as part of their everyday lives. This is different from Asian countries, where we do not have that culture instilled in us from young. The band culture only came to Japan 150 years ago, and in Malaysia and Singapore, the people adopted the Western culture from British colonization times onwards.

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Visit to S.M.J.K. Poi Lam, IPOH / credit: Keiichi Kurokawa

Hence, although students love and enjoy music, parents and schools often do not have the support and understanding for it. Music enrich peoples lives, but some band members or parents always think that music is categorised by prize, e.g. Gold, Silver or Bronze.

For example, if a band receives the Gold award, it is a good band; but if a band receives the Bronze award, it is a bad band. I do not think we should judge band or music this way. The important thing is the quality or substance of the band activity. For example, if a band received a Gold award but students feel that its band activity is boring, then only you can judge the band as bad.

Even in classical serious music, there is not much appreciation coming from Asian countries. I have observed that students are only interested in the music or notes to be played, but not interested in the composers and the background of the music. While it is true that Japan has a longer history in Western music culture than other Asian countries with more than 30 professional orchestras and many school band activities, I hope that this culture appreciation continues to grow in the region over the next few decades.

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