In times of financial crises, statements like “music is not a luxury, it is a need” are thrown around as a means to justify why the arts should be promoted. I hope that the following account will give such empty clichés new meaning and substance.
A year and a half ago it seemed that life in Japan was about to collapse. A string of terrible events led to a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions in which many people lost their lives and which caused great suffering and damage. I could never have imagined then that I would be traveling to that devastated region to teach young musicians. But so it was: in August 2012 the Tokyo Foundation gave me the opportunity to travel to Japan.
Once in Sendai and after meeting my students for the first time, I knew that there would be some obstacles to overcome. Not only was there very little time before the concert in Tokyo at the end of the week, the reserved nature of the students also presented me with a very big challenge. Fortunately I had brought along enough chocolate with me from Austria, which proved to be an ideal icebreaker during the first minutes of our acquaintance.
In order to get an idea of the level of my new 20 students, I got them in a circle for a round of practice drumming. Once in position I asked each of them to play three simple exercises that drummers need to learn and which would give me an understanding of their proficiency. The results left me somewhat perplexed, as there were only two students who were capable of playing the exercises! I couldn’t imagine how we would be able to play the difficult program assigned.
My worries turned out to be unfounded, though, when we met an hour later for the first tutti rehearsal with the full orchestra. I was very surprised to hear how well each one of the students had prepared their part and with what delight they merged into the orchestra. It seemed that the group dynamic motivated them to achieve a level of playing that was not possible at our first meeting.
This led me to change my teaching strategy, shifting the classroom lessons into orchestra rehearsals. The students seemed intimidated during the individual lessons, but now, in a group rehearsal context, they were relaxed and open. This change made it possible for me to work on what I considered most important and achieve good results within the short time frame.
The lessons took place anywhere—even in the hallways if the situation required it. It was precisely this casual teaching approach, something that Japanese students were not familiar with, that yielded the best results. When Keiko Abe, in Sendai for her double marimba concert of “Prism Rhapsody II,” attended our general rehearsal, the happiness of the students seemed complete.
On the day before the Suntory Hall concert, I and other Sylff fellows went to the region where many of the children were from to perform a mini-concert. It was quite shocking to still see the devastation, 18 months after the March 2011 disaster, and to feel the desolation that pervaded the coastal city. It was there that I realized the contrast between the laughter of my students on the previous days and the terrible images of the recent past that must have been anchored deeply in their minds.
That is exactly why music—and the arts in general—is not a luxury but an essential part of the everyday lives of people. It gives us hope, strength, courage, and joy and possesses undeniable healing powers. This is proof enough for me that the arts have infinitely more value than mere entertainment.
Our final concert at the prestigious Suntory Hall in Tokyo was not only a great success but will definitely be an event that will stay with those children throughout their lives and hopefully be an important source of motivation in their future.
This article was originally carried (in German) in the November 2012 issue of the monthly newsletter of the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna.
Born to a family of musicians in Austria and started playing drums at the age of three. Attended the Konservatorium Wien (KWU), from where he received his bachelor’s degree in music (percussion). Recently received his master’s degree from the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna (MDW), where he learned about the Michinoku project and volunteered to participate as a member of the Sylff Chamber Ensemble. Has studied with world-renowned marimba artist Keiko Abe, who graciously accepted an invitation to participate in the project as well. Performed the solo of Abe’s “Prism Rhapsody II” at the Suntory Hall concert with the composer/musician, along with a high school student from Tohoku. Now has an assistant teaching position at MDW.