Go East, Young Band!

Mike Lawson • Features • October 21, 2006

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Band and orchestra directors interested in a unique travel opportunity that incorporates musical, social, cultural, and educational experiences should consider Asia.

Many schools and communities in Japan, China, and other Asian nations are seeking sister-school relationships in the United States.

Forging a connection with such a school can lead to experiences for students that will have both greater depth and less cost than many so-called “educational” tours organized by travel agencies. The key is to create a dream and to implement it with directors and their colleagues doing the legwork. Yes, the process is labor intensive, but it results in a long-term relationship with the sister school or community that continues for decades. Our experiences will, I hope, inspire and give direction.

Concord-Carlisle Regional High School (CCHS), a public high school of 1,200 students located in the Concord suburb of Boston, has developed a unique relationship with two communities on the island of Hokkaido, Japan. More than a century ago, Hokkaido initiated a relationship with the state of Massachusetts to modernize agricultural practices in Japan, and subsequently a strong educational and cultural bond grew between Hokkaido University and the University of Massachusetts.

In the late 1800s, William Clark, then president of the University of Massachusetts (formerly the Massachusetts Agricultural College), led the first delegation to Hokkaido Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University). His exhortation for the students there to “Be ambitious!” is a phrase that continues to motivate the vital Hokkaido spirit. Upon his return to the United States, Clark’s assistant, Concord resident William Wheeler, assumed the leadership of the Sapporo Agricultural College. Wheeler’s many contributions over succeeding years – including engineering projects, railroad construction, weather forecasting, and numerous other agricultural innovations – were acknowledged by the Emperor, who granted Wheeler the Fifth Order of the Rising Sun.

Planting the Seed 

Massachusetts and Hokkaido officially became sister states nearly a hundred yearas later, in 1990. As a result of that relationship, in 1997 the town of Nanae on Hokkaido’s southeast coast became the sister city of Concord, Massachusetts – the town noted appropriately for “the shot heard ’round the world.”

The previous summer two students from Concord had visited Nanae for a summer language program; one of them happened to be the first-chair clarinetist in our Concert Band. She was dazzled by Japanese hospitality, culture, and, of course, musicality. Her first comment upon returning to school was that we should take our band to Nanae! I responded cooly… but still I thought about the idea for the next day or two. I then presented the suggestion to Dr. Thomas Curtin, a guidance counselor at CCHS, but more importantly a member of the Massachusetts/ Hokkaido Society and one of the founders of the Concord/Nanae Network (CNN). His reaction was also skeptical, but then he, too, thought about the proposal for several days. The seed was planted.

Go West! (which, ultimately lands you in the East… It’s confusing)

The Concord-Carlisle Concert Band undertook its first expedition to Hokkaido in April of 1998 and returned for a second visit in April 2004. While in Hokkaido, we toured Sapporo and Nanae and played joint concerts with bands in both communities.

The Sapporo Shiroishi Symphonic Wind Ensemble, winner of the All-Japan Festival nineteen times, was our host in Sapporo; Nanae High School and Nanae Junior High hosted us in Nanae. Both schools were most proud of their bands and our students reveled in performing with them.

Shiroishi visited us in January of 2003; their Wind Ensemble and our Concert and Repertory Bands together performed a “Japan Night” in Boston’s Symphony Hall. It was a very memorable event, with the 170-member combined bands playing four selections, including John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

The Universal Language

There were, however, several major obstacles that had to be surmounted as we considered a project of this scope. When planning joint performances with bands from distant countries, for example, one always ponders how to select music and, if there is a significant language barrier, how to rehearse those selections. E-mail with expert translators was essential; in our case, native Japanese members of our community, in theirs, English teachers or town government English speaking staff.

We were able to communicate directly with conductors in Sapporo and Nanae about instrument needs, joint repertoire, and rehearsal and performance schedules and format. When we finally got all the musicians together, we intentionally sat them alternatingly by nationality. Once the downbeat was thrown, the result was spectacular; we were all thrilled. The absolute highlight of each of these trips for me, as director, was to watch and hear students from completely different cultural backgrounds communicate and express themselves through the international language of music.

The joint concerts in Nanae and Kitara Hall in Sapporo were outstanding; our band never played better. We had performed two weeks earlier at our state band festival, and consequently our musical skills were never more sharp.

Non-musical Upsides

Because we insist that all international ventures, musical or otherwise, from Concord-Carlisle include in equal parts, educational, cultural, and social components, we expected our students to stay in Japanese homes and, on our trips, the vast majority did. Michael Johnson, a student on the 2004 trip, recalls, “The best things about the trip were the home-stay experiences. They facilitated personal connections to a country and a culture that we never could have enjoyed staring out a bus or hotel window.” Developing home-stay arrangements was daunting and matching students with home stay families was labor intensive, but worth the effort.

We also attended school with the Japanese students; participated in such cultural events as the Japanese tea ceremony, traditional dances, and taiko drumming; and visited local historical sites. The trip in 1998 featured an environmental conference at which students from both countries discussed global environmental concerns. The meeting was held at a state-of-the-art facility with simultaneous translation similar to that at the United Nations.

Both trips also included excursions to active volcanic sites. Japan sits on the Pacific “rim of fire,” and consequently threats from earthquakes are an unfortunate, yet very real and not uncommon, daily fact. Caroline Cardiasmenos, a student on the 1998 trip, notes: “I came to the conclusion several times that I was going to lift up the Japanese countryside, wrap it up, put it in a box, and take it home with me.”

To prepare our students culturally for both trips, we arranged many Japanese experiences, including trips to Japanese restaurants, to local Japanese schools, and to art exhibits at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. We had also arranged workshops on Japanese history, the art of kimono, and Japanese etiquette. Participants in the trip were required to attend a minimum number of such cultural offerings, but all members of the music department could join them, too.

Problems? What Problems?

We were frequently asked, “What about the language?” or “What about the long flight?” or “What about the food?” We found out that none of these elements presented a major problem: Kids are kids in any country. From the moment we arrived, students were talking together, laughing, exchanging phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and, in true fashion, exchanging small gifts. “We were treated like the Beatles!” one girl exclaimed.

Yes, the flight was long, and for a few of our students, it was their very first airplane ride. Imagine: a first flight of thirteen hours, non-stop, from New York’s JFK to Narita International in Tokyo. After a layover at Narita, it was just a short two-hour hop to Sapporo. Several of us successfully experimented with the “jet lag diet,” a regimen that limits and schedules the intake of protein and caffeine; we arrived only minimally disoriented.

Once we addressed various dietary restrictions, allergies, and religious or personal preferences, we found food also was not a concern. Contrary to what some of us had expected, the Japanese do not down sushi and sashimi every night; such delicacies are just as expensive there as they are in the U.S. When we were taken out to enjoy them, we were truly honored. Granted, there did occasionally appear on plates mysterious morsels whose origins were, shall we say…”puzzling,” but the general edict was, “Hey, just eat it!” or ” Pass it to the chaperones; they’ll eat anything!” After a day or two, we were all acceptably dexterous with chopsticks.

Security, Health, & Maintaining Contact with Home

Security restrictions had mandated that our instruments be flown as cargo on a different flight on a different day. We certainly wanted to bring our own instruments, and consequently we shipped them via customs carnet, a document prepared by the United States Council for International Business (U.S.C.I.B.) whose mission is to facilitate passage and inspection of materials through international customs. We packed all the instruments – save the large percussion, the tubas, and the string basses, which we knew the Japanese would graciously loan us – into large, wooden tympani crates; we delivered them to a shipping agent in Boston, and sent them on their way. We had foreseen such inconvenience and conducted our last several practices in Concord with borrowed instruments. Our own cleared customs easily and were waiting for us at our first concert venue. The procedure was very expensive, but it was definitely worth the peace of mind knowing that no one would leave an oboe in Tokyo or have a reed knife confiscated.

Several weeks before our departure, one of our chaperones, Mr. David Nurenberg of the CCHS English department, had designed and constructed an e-mail listserv that parents and interested friends could access while we were on the other side of the world. Mr. Nurenberg recorded a detailed daily log of our activities-even with digital photographs-and sent it into cyberspace every evening. Parents eagerly awaited each newsflash and forwarded it to friends and relatives from Carlisle to California, thereby allowing hundreds of others to enjoy vicariously our adventures.

Two of our chaperones were CCHS nurses. We invited these colleagues because they knew both the students and their medical needs. All our chaperones were, in fact, staff members; there was no difficulty at all in finding volunteers. Mr. Wilson Flight, a thirty-year veteran science teacher stated, “It was the highlight of my professional career.” The nurses were an invaluable asset, as they gathered all the required medications, guided them through customs, dispensed them as prescribed, and even had time to mitigate the occasional case of indigestion.

Check, Please!

How much did these trips cost? The first was for nine days (which in retrospect, I believe was too short), and the second was eleven (which turned out to be just right). We traveled over April vacation, and because our trips included a strong educational focus beyond the music, our administration permitted us to miss a few school days. The 2004 trip had a tab of $2,200 per student, an amount that sounds high, but realistically wasn’t. We planned our trips approximately two years in advance and, as a consequence, students had time to get an early start on personal fundraising and saving. We also did some fundraising outreach for students with demonstrated need.

The main factor that kept the lid on costs was that we did everything ourselves, we booked all our own air and ground transportation; we arranged the home stays with contacts in Japan; and we handled every foreseeable detail, from aspirin to xylophones. It was a frightful amount of work, a load which the band director could not have handled solo.

Without capable parental assistance and collegiality among fellow professional educators, trips like ours just don’t happen. It is essential that the band or orchestra director has a dedicated and capable assistant to manage the ineluctable waves of communication, forms, and non-musical minutiae that sweep in. We had that support, and the money we saved by not booking through a tour agency enabled us to reap from our trips far more than commercial expenditures might have garnered. Twenty-two hundred dollars for eleven days in Japan, all expenses covered? What a deal! We will certainly do it again – probably Hokkaido in 2007. As Mr. David Owen, a parent of two students on the 1998 trip, says, “It is clear that both my children received an educational experience of inestimable, life-long value.”


When asked what she enjoyed most about traveling to Hokkaido, senior trombonist Jacquie O’Kelly recently replied, “I loved comparing the similarities and differences between our two cultures. After living with a Japanese family, I realized that we think the same way and find humor in the same things.” Jacquie adds, “Little things, however, like the way we walk or the way we make our beds, are quite different.”

When asked the same question, senior percussionist Jeff Pan said, “I enjoyed the cultural immersion that I experienced first-hand, especially while staying with home stay families. Learning the language, eating Japanese food, and even using Eastern bathrooms were whole new experiences.”

Senior clarinetist Melissa Andrews “enjoyed virtually everything that we did in Japan, but one event that stood out in particular was the concert at Sapporo’s Kitara Hall. The building itself was beautiful, especially the hall, which had a wonderful organ and undulating banks of seats. The concert was one of the most emotional I’ve ever experienced, not only because I believe we played our music unbelievably well, but because through the concert we were able to forge a connection with the Shiroishi High School students we played with.”

Melissa compares her experience in Japan with more traditional trips in this way: “The greatest difference between the Japan trip and the Disney or European trips that I’ve been on is the greater interaction with the actual people and their culture. In Japan, in my two home stays, while I still felt a bit on the outside (due to the language barrier), I didn’t feel as acutely a tourist as when I traveled with my parents or other students groups.” Jeff says, “I felt like the trip wasn’t focused as much on entertainment as much as learning about a new culture. It was different than a trip to Europe because the customs and language of Japan are so dissimilar to those of America.”

The students were also asked to describe what they got out of the trip and what they took away from the experience. Jacquie wishes, “that we Americans had an ancient culture in common to share as the Japanese do. I learned to appreciate America more from traveling to Japan, but I’m also envious of what they have.” Melissa says, “I have always been interested in Japanese culture, but I realized what little I actually knew about life there until I visited. On home stays…we were able to see, and even participate in, the lives of average Japanese people. Because of this experience, I am even more interested in learning more about the country and plan to fulfill this interest in college.” Jeff’s response is: “One important thing I got out of the trip was the relationship that I established with my home-stay family. We still communicate by e-mail and through letters. Also, I feel the trip to Japan opened my eyes because I now have a broader perspective of the world.”


Our experiences have taught us that Japanese schools hunger for relationships with the West. While in Japan with a group of adults in the summer of 2001, I was treated to performances by several bands from schools eager to initiate relationships. Be it in Massachusetts or in any other of the forty-nine, there exists a growing network of sister-city relationships all over the world. Sister Cities International, an organization devoted to the promotion and enhancement of sister-city collaboration, can be contacted at its Web site (www.sister-cities.org). These relationships are out there, and if adventurous band and orchestra leaders have the time and the energy to find them, what waits is nothing short of spectacular. What better way to take advantage of these opportunities than to utilize the international language of music? All participants, students and adults, will have their ears, eyes, and hearts opened to a rich cultural and musical experience, one that will alter forever their visions of the world.

Alfred W. Dentino, an alumnus of Concord-Carlisle Regional High School, received his Bachelor of Music Education degree from The Ohio State University in 1976. While at Ohio State, he was principal clarinetist and president of the Ohio State Concert Band under the direction of Dr. Donald E. McGinnis. He earned his Master’s degree in Fine Arts from Harvard University in 1991 where he won the “Crite Prize” for his research into portrayals of musical instruments in ancient Greek art. Since 1992 Dentino has served as director of Bands at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School.

Concord-Carlisle Regional HS at a Glance:

Location: Concord, Mass.
Total Students: 1,200
Band Students: 170 in the two bands (Concert and Repretory), 40 in two Jazz Bands, 100 in football Pep Band.
Total Number of Band Students Participating in Each Trip to Japan: 90
Web site: www.colonial.net/cchsweb

Hokkaido at a Glance:

Population: 5.7 million
Capital: Sapporo
Location: One of the four principal islands of Japan, between N Pacific Ocean, Sea of Japan
Land Area: 77,980 sq. km.

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