Analyzing the Present Japanese Band State

Originally published in the Band Journal 56(7) (2014 June issue), Ongaku No Tomo Sha Corp, p.49, titled “「シンガポールの吹奏楽事情から日本の現状を考える」, the following content is translated from the original article written by Kurokawa, Keiichi in 2014, republished under the permission of Ongaku No Tomo Sha Corp.

Analysis of Present State Of Japanese Band through Singapore’s Wind Band Scene

The Singapore Youth Festival 2014 Arts Presentation for Band was held from 1 to 5 April. It is regarded as a band competition in Singapore, and it comprises of three categories based on grades – primary school, secondary school and junior college, with each category (‘primary school’ and ‘secondary school / junior college’) held every two years. This year, it was the primary school arts presentation and my arrangement “American Riverside Medley” (published by Brain Music) was chosen as one of the set pieces.

I visited Singapore during the session, and had a precious opportunity to exchange with people and visit local schools so that I can see the real band situation in Singapore. Here, I’d like to introduce some of my experiences for Japanese readers.

Through my band visits, I discovered a series of new findings. In Singapore, band activities are known as extra-curricular activities, similar to Japan. But on average, students train only 6 hours a week. The government positively supports band activities from the start, and distributes budgets to schools every year. Professional band directors are hired for the school band activities regularly, and they rehearse in English even though Singapore is a multi-language country.

In the SYF, the average standard of performances was unexpectedly high. My straightforward expression was that the total standard of primary school bands would exceed those of Japan. Of course, the highest performance level in Singapore still has not reached the top level of Japanese bands, but they seemed to achieve considerable level from the perspective of the practice time. While some players had high technique, they did not have aggressiveness for music expressions.

The judgment style of the SYF was introduced in the August issue of the Band Journal, p26. The awards are divided into Distinction, Accomplishment and Commendation but the end result of the competition seemed to have a rather big effect.

Band on Stage - SYF 2014
Band on Stage – SYF 2014 / credits: Keiichi Kurokawa

I heard that if a band is awarded “Commendation”, the school would sometimes ask the band director to leave to avoid the decline of the school’s evaluation, or even put a stop to their band activities. In fear of achieving a lower award, and because their careers may be at stake, band directors tend to select pieces which have received good results in previous years.

Thus, some music such as the works of James Swearingen was played many times in the contest. Although many band people have pointed out that these facts can be thought as negative effects for the competition, I also felt that the directors had worked under severe circumstances compared to the band’s rich actuality.

One particular point to note was that I was surprised that Singaporean directors had deep knowledge of the Japanese band situation. They know very well about the name of the Japanese pieces, composers, groups and so on. People often buy scores from import agencies or get them directly by visiting Japan (they seemed not to be using illegal photocopied music, but instead purchase the originals properly). There is also a widespread increase in watching the DVDs and video clips of Japanese bands.

Furthermore, people said that the market situation has been changed in recent years. In the past, American pieces used to occupy a large part of their repertoire; but recently Japanese works have dramatically increased.

Upon my arrival to Singapore, I heard a march from the All Japan Band Competition set piece at a secondary school the day before the SYF. Basic training such as long tone, balance and harmony training were used in their practices. In addition, some students answered, “Hai!” like Japanese students when I had band class with them. These were the most astonishing things for me in Singapore as the growing public interest to Japan can be seen from not only in market share but these actual conditions.

With my discoveries above, I have roughly mentioned about the Singapore band scene. How do Japanese readers feel for them? Asian countries share the history that Western music has been “imported culture.” We have short histories in our society, and how we feel about the western music is different from Westerners. Thus, by sharing similar backgrounds, we may relatively find the real band situation of our own country.

Most Singaporean band directors said in chorus that Japanese bands are special. There is no question that the Japanese top bands have prominent skills and high standard in the world. However, it is also the fact that these skills come from long practice time (I feel that it’s very similar to extraordinary long work hours in the Japanese society). The bands in Singapore have set Japanese bands as models, but, when you consider the Japanese scene including “average standard bands” or the productivity per practice hours; can we really be proud of the band situation in Japan?

I would like to deepen my argument about these points, unfortunately the space come into the end, though. I hope that you would take my article for the opportunity to think the present Japanese band state again.

Keiichi Kurokawa
Keiichi Kurokawa

Keiichi Kurokawa was born in Saitama, Japan in 1980. He graduated from Saitama University majoring in East Asian Cultures. He participated in wind band club while in school, playing trumpet in junior high and high school, and bass and alto clarinet at university. He began arranging during high school and since then has made many arrangements and compositions for wind band and chamber ensembles.

His arrangement, American Riverside Medley (Wind Band / Brass Band) was selected as one of test pieces of Singapore Youth Festival 2014. Almost his works are published from Brain / Bravo Music.

Kurokawa is now a music engraver and editor and a band director. He is a member of Japan Band Directors Association (JBA) and teaches computer music (notation software) at Yamaha Music Avenue Shibuya in Tokyo.

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