I've been thinking a lot about this astounding performance by elementary band students in Japan that showed up on Youtube. At one point in my career a young lady moved to the U.S. from Japan and enrolled at our high school. She had only been playing trumpet for a year, but my colleague Jim and I soon found out that she would strive to achieve whatever was asked of her, and at light speed. Jim gave her state-required scale page (majors and melodic minors) and asked her to learn it. She came back one week later and it was done. She just about broke Jim's heart when she told us she was moving back to Japan two years later (right after we got the invitation to the Midwest Clinic...ouch).
Having had the opportunity to host a high school band from Japan, I know a little about their structure and approach to music. It is not uncommon for students to specialize in something during high school, almost like choosing a major in college here in the U.S. If a Japanese student specializes in band he or she may spend three to five hours in band after "regular" classes each day. Most of that time is not spent in full rehearsal, but rather in small group technique work which is often led by the older students. Technical perfection is the constant aim.
This week at our state convention I had the opportunity to catch up with
James Lambrecht (Augustana) who was asked to work with the Musashino Academy Band in Japan for ten weeks this past fall. These college students displayed a work ethic and commitment unlike anything he had ever seen. Every technical aspect of a new piece of music was completely worked out by the students prior to the first rehearsal. Dr. Lambrecht said he had to work hard to keep from laughing during the first read of a piece because it was so unusual to hear technical mastery as a baseline approach to beginning a rehearsal cycle, as opposed to something you achieve throughout the rehearsal cycle.
He is concerned that wind and percussion students here in the west are in for a rude awakening in the coming years. Having served as a dean of admissions at a major conservatory for five years, I share this concern. I regularly witnessed the top string and piano scholarships being won by international students from Japan, South Korea, and China. And these are also the students who are increasingly winning the orchestral auditions and the international piano competitions. Watching the video above, is there any doubt that Dr. Lambrecht is right about winds and percussion being next? These students are putting in many (many!) more hours and outworking our student musicians, those are the facts.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called Outliers that you should read. He feels that most of the world's greatest artists/athletes/innovators had something important in common: they accumulated and surpassed the 10,000 hour mark in purposeful practice. How many hours do you think the elementary students in this video have already accumulated? With a conservative estimate of four hours per school day and a 280-day school year (yes, much longer than our own) music students in Japan are accumulating over 1,000 hours per year, and that doesn't include practice time at home in the evening, weekends, or during vacation. That means that all of those musicians will reach superstar levels before graduating from college. Whether or not you agree with their model does not change that fact.
By specializing, students in Japan are not considered "well-rounded" by American standards. Yet I have often wondered if we are doing our students any favors by enabling a sort of nationwide broad-based mediocrity, whereby students are getting involved in lots of different things, but not doing any of them with unequivocal excellence. While Japan's approach may seem extreme, and it clearly not tenable in the U.S. for a variety of reasons, I have to think that somewhere between their approach and ours lies a journey that would favor more depth than our students currently have, and perhaps a little more breadth than their students experience. Regardless of that, I have to admit that even though I spent five years teaching elementary band (and thought I did a pretty good job) my perception of what an elementary band student can be expected to achieve has been altered, and I'm sure I am not alone.