Band & Orch Directors

HYS recently polled alums who’ve become local band and orchestra directors about the role of music in education, for a feature in the Summer 2016 “Of Note” newsletter.
Here are their stories:

Craig Young, Violin, Class of 1970 (Iolani School)

Craig Young
  1. What is one of the most valuable life-lessons you learned from being a part of the Hawaii Youth Symphony?

I was most fortunate to work under the directorship of Peter Mesrobian.  Through him, I learned that mediocrity was not an option.  Striving for excellence through disciplined preparation and awareness to musical details were and still are some of the keystones to measure success for me as a musician.  A successful symphony is a collaborative effort of every member and this was made most clear to me as a member of the Hawaii Youth Symphony.  Instilled in me now, because of HYSA, is the ability to be self-motivated towards hard work and open and excited to the ideas and suggestions of others.

  1. Why did you choose to teach music? What is the most rewarding aspect of teaching students for you?

I find great joy in music.  Music by itself covers the 5 major areas of education as it is an art, it is science, it is physical education, it is mathematics and it is even a foreign language.  I teach music so I can awaken and/or inspire these areas and create an appreciation and awareness on how music functions and expresses.  I want students to realize that music is hard work, it is discipline and it is working together.  The joy of music comes from the students’ faces – a look of total concentration as they play, excitement in their eyes, and the smile and contentment they show at the end of a performance.

  1. What is the most important quality you like to emphasize or instill in your students at Punahou School?

The orchestra, not the conductor, physically creates the sound.  For this reason, I try to teach proper instrumental skills and techniques from the very start so that orchestral sound can be developed.  I have excellent colleagues who, in a collaborative effort, try to develop a good orchestral student.  I want the students to know that a successful orchestra requires devotion, preparation and integrity.

  1. What are some of the challenges you face as a teacher in encouraging students to be disciplined with practicing, etc.? (Example: competing priorities, etc.) What are some of the ways you have overcome these challenges?

There are over 550 students in 9 different ensembles taking orchestra at Punahou.  I try to motivate each group by always applauding their efforts to make consistent progress.  I spend a lot of time researching and listening to music that is pertinent to each orchestra level and hope the students will enjoy my selections.  Each orchestra performs twice a year and in one of those concerts, I have the upper grade class perform for the lower grade class.  The purpose is to inspire the younger students to always strive to be better and for the older students to develop a sense of excellence to create that inspiration.  My main goal is to help the students reach a musical potential that they didn’t think they possessed.


Kristi Kusunoki, Clarinet, Class of 2001 (Maui High School)

 

Kristi Kusunoki

  1. What is one of the most valuable life-lessons you learned from being a part of the Hawaii Youth Symphony?

One of the most valuable life-lessons I learned from being a part of the Hawai’i Youth Symphony was that music can facilitate the connection and building of relationships between people.  Since I was raised on Maui, I barely knew any of the other students in HYS, who were mainly from O’ahu.  Despite this, I grew surprisingly close to some of the other students as the years progressed.  I believe that this can be attributed to the fact that we shared the same interest and wanted to play music together.  Our friendships carried over into college, when several of us entered the University of Hawai’i Band and Symphony around the same time.  The support from my former fellow HYS friends helped me to deal with adversity such as challenging courses and homesickness while working on my undergraduate degree.  The people who were once your competition when auditioning for an ensemble can turn out to be some of your greatest friends when you work toward a common goal.

 

  1. Why did you choose to teach music? What is the most rewarding aspect of teaching students for you?

I chose to teach because I enjoyed helping others learn to play music.  My experiences from playing in ensembles taught me that I was a part of something bigger than just myself.  I practiced with the goal of preparing for full band rehearsals and the betterment of the entire group.  My classmates and I understood that we had to work as one team so our parts could fit together and in turn, ensure our ensemble’s success.  Having relished the cohesive group dynamics during my intermediate school years in band, I seized the opportunity to help other students one-on-one throughout high school.  I wanted everyone to excel at and enjoy playing music.  These experiences led me to realize that helping other students was more fulfilling than playing music, even though I enjoyed the latter tremendously.  This shift in focus influenced me to strive to become a music teacher.

The most rewarding aspect of teaching students is when my students put others before themselves.  It’s noticeable in their actions toward each other, but it’s also apparent in their performance.  They start to listen more to each other than to themselves in ensemble settings.  This leads to increased awareness of and improved tone, balance, blend, and intonation within the group.  Students spend time outside of class encouraging and helping each other to become better musicians.  The focus changes from being self-centered to being concerned with everyone in the group.

 

  1. What is the most important quality you like to emphasize or instill in your students at Kailua Intermediate School?

I try to instill character traits of a good person in my students — respect, responsibility, teamwork, and compassion.  One of my mentor teachers, Leonard Hasuko, emphasized that all students may not grow up to become musicians, but all students would grow up to become members of our society.  The development of the students’ personal qualities and selfless care for others is perhaps more important than their musical development.  Moreover, it aids in their musical development.  When students develop a sense of responsibility, they begin to diligently practice their fundamental exercises and concert music so they can perform it with proficiency.  I think it’s also impossible to play with the sensitivity required by music without having compassion or empathy for others, since we need to evoke these feelings in ourselves before we can incorporate it in our performance so it can evoke similar emotions in our audience.

 

  1. What are some of the challenges you face as a teacher in encouraging students to be disciplined with practicing, etc.? (Example: competing priorities, etc.) What are some of the ways you have overcome these challenges?

A challenge that I face is teaching students that their individual progress in developing their musicianship affects the entire group.  The students grow up with the idea that their grades in other non-music classes are a reflection of their individual progress; it has no impact on anyone but themselves.  Playing in musical ensembles teaches us the complete opposite of this: if one person fails to proficiently play their music, we fail as a group.  I’ve tried to overcome this challenge by emphasizing the fact that students should practice not only for their own betterment, but also for the sake of improving their band.  It helps students to realize the importance of their role in the ensemble and how their choices or actions could potentially lead to the group’s success.  Sometimes this experience in collective success is more rewarding that individual accomplishments because connections are made, relationships are built, and students give of themselves for a greater good that results in their personal development.


Jeremy Lawi, Percussion, Class of 2007 (Iolani School)

Being a part of the Hawaii Youth Symphony has taught me a valuable life-lesson of how to manage my time and activities outside of school. The repertoire also exposed me to a wide range of music I wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to explore. I chose to teach music because of my passion for music and education. I love performing, but even more so, love spreading that joy to others. The most rewarding aspect of teaching students is seeing them develop their own unique passion and pursuit for music. The most important quality I like to emphasize with students is the value of respect. To be successful they need to respect their instrument, peers, teachers, process of learning, and most of all the music. Some challenges I face as a teacher is convincing students that practice shouldn’t be viewed as a burden. Although I’m sure we’ve all experienced our share of frustrations while practicing our instrument, we can’t forget that we are still playing music. I can think of a lot more painful things than picking up an instrument and playing music with friends. Music is a joy!


Derek Fujio, Oboe, Class of 2004 (Mid-Pacific Institute)

1. What is one of the most valuable life-lessons you learned from being a part of the Hawaii Youth Symphony?

Without a doubt, the single most important lesson I learned from participating in the Hawaii Youth Symphony was the pursuit of excellence. In every step of the process – preparing for an audition, starting out in Concert Orchestra, working my way up through the different groups, and finally arriving at Youth Symphony I with Mr. Miyamura, we were always taught and expected to not only do the best we could, but to continually strive to do better the next time. It didn’t matter which orchestra you were in or what school you came from – when you came to Youth Symphony, all of the students were there for the singular purpose of creating the best music we possibly could.

2. Why did you choose to teach music? What is the most rewarding aspect of teaching students for you?

Mr. Miyamura likes to tell the story that at the end of high school, I was fully prepared to go off to university to major in science or engineering. Playing music with others had meant a lot to me in high school, but I didn’t really get a feel for how important teaching music would be until I started teaching summer programs at Kaimuki Middle School. Once I started teaching and getting to know the students, I knew instantly this is what I wanted to spend my life doing.

The most rewarding aspect of teaching students is getting to see wonderful young men and women grow and mature and discover their full potentials. When you teach a core subject like math or language arts, you may have a student for a year or two at most. I get to teach students for three years, building strong relationships with them and their families during that time. After they finish middle school, many of them still stay active in the music community through Youth Symphony or Select Band – during concert season, it’s not at all hard to find my alumni.

After high school, it is incredibly gratifying to go out into the community and see many of my former students discovering their own callings as adults, becoming active through their college studies, their service organizations, or their jobs. Even if they are not making music actively anymore, the memories of those hours of dedication and creation and artistry never leave us.

3. What is the most important quality you like to emphasize or instill in your students at Kaimuki Middle School?

There are many qualities and skills and habits that lead to success in music, but if there is one that I would want all of my students to say they learned from me, it is to care. This concept of care can apply in so many ways. It takes increasingly more care to play all the right notes, to play with beautiful tone, or to play a musically convincing line. On another level, if we care for the music and we care for our fellow musicians, we will put forth our best effort to do justice to the work we are performing and to not let down the other members of the orchestra or our conductor. Finally, at the end of our journey, when we’ve played our last notes together, hopefully we look back at the memories with some sort of nostalgia and even feelings of loss because of how much we care about our experience. Some teachers would argue that teaching music is about notes and rhythms and the technique around that, but I think if I can teach students first to be care-full, that is, full of care, they will then work their hardest with their mentors to figure out all the rest.

4. What are some of the challenges you face as a teacher in encouraging students to be disciplined with practicing, etc.? (Example: competing priorities, etc.) What are some of the ways you have overcome these challenges?

Students are increasingly divided with many different extracurriculars and obligations. To make the most of a student’s total effort, I try to teach targeted and mindful ways to practice. The old adage “practice makes perfect” is not only misleading, but often harmful. Repetitive practice makes things reliable and permanent – if you are practicing something incorrectly, you’ve made it reliably and permanently incorrect! Shorter sessions of targeted practice with clear, attainable goals are much more likely to bring about real improvement in less time. This allows students to productively free up some of their time for other endeavours. I would recommend all students talk with a teacher about practice strategies for targeted, mindful improvement.

I also have students at my school who split the time between my rehearsals and sports practice. As a conductor, it’s a difficult compromise to make, but my goal is to nurture well-rounded students, most of whom will not become professional musicians or athletes. In these situations, I always speak with the student to make sure two things are clear – first, time is divided fairly and evenly. If they are going to commit to both activities, they do so equally. Secondly, even if they are only attending sports or music half of the time, while they are there, they devote 100% of their focus and effort to whatever they are doing. Not only does this help promote compromise, students feel like they are getting a fair deal and are willing to try their best with the time they have.


Ira Wong, Percussion, Class of 1980 (Castle High School)

Ira Wong recently completed his 21st year as Director of Bands at the University Laboratory School. He has also performed as a drummer and percussionist for many groups in a wide variety of musical settings for over 30 years with performance credits including The Del Courtney Orchestra, Hawaii Symphony, Royal Hawaiian Band, Jazz Hawaii Big Band, Rich Crandall Trio, Waitiki, and Diamond Head Theater. A prolific arranger, Ira’s musical arrangements for wind band and jazz ensemble have been performed by student and professional ensembles across the country including the University of Hawaii Band, Royal Hawaiian Band and the Dallas Winds.

1. What is one of the most valuable life-lessons you learned from being a part of the Hawaii Youth Symphony?

More than anything, I learned that talent can only take you so far. Let’s face it, in most cases, discipline and hard work will trump talent any day. When I look back at my experiences playing in school music programs and with the Hawaii Youth Symphony, I had the opportunity to play with musicians who were far more talented than I ever was. However, what I gained from those experiences was the inspiration to work much harder. I just kept plugging away at it, carving a niche for myself in the local music scene and eventually managing to make a career out of it. Albert Einstein once said, “I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious.” Indeed, while I feel I’m only moderately talented, I am most definitely passionately curious about music, and that attitude has served me well over the years.

2. Why did you choose to teach music? What is the most rewarding aspect of teaching students for you?

In the end, Music chose me. My path to becoming a school band director was certainly atypical in every sense of the word as I earned degrees in Journalism and Elementary Education while attending UH-Manoa. However, while focusing my academic studies outside of music at UH, I also managed to find time to play in most of the music ensembles there.

During my first semester with the UH Jazz Ensemble, director Pat Hennessey liked my playing and suggested that I join the musician’s union. That move led to a great deal of free-lance work in Honolulu. Shortly after that, Henry Miyamura, who was then music director of the UH Symphony Orchestra and Associate Conductor of the Honolulu Symphony, gave my name to the personnel manager of the HSO when they were looking for extra percussionists. That recommendation led to my now 30-year association with the Honolulu/Hawaii Symphony. Also, around that same time, Mr. Miyamura invited me to be percussion clinician at the Maui Music Camp (which eventually became Pacific Music Institute), and I’ve been doing that ever since as well.

Upon graduating from UH with a degree in Elementary Education, a unique set of circumstances led to Elden Seta offering me the Assistant Band Director position at Moanalua High School, and my career as a full-time music educator was launched. So, I basically owe my career in music to three people: Pat Hennessey, Henry Miyamura and Elden Seta.

Teaching at a small school, I work with my students for 7 years from grades 6 through 12. That being the case, I would say that the most rewarding aspect of my job is to witness, both, their musical and personal growth through the years. I just try to do my best to steer them in the right direction and see how far they can take the knowledge I pass along to them. After all these years, students continue to astonish me with what they’re able to achieve in music given a bit of inspiration and guidance.

3. What is the most important quality you like to emphasize or instill in your students at UH Lab School?

Above all, I want them to leave my music program with a respect for the art and a lifelong appreciation of music. While the overwhelming majority of my students don’t continue playing their instruments after graduation, I do have a handful of alumni who have gone onto careers as music educators and professional musicians. For the others, when I do run into them out in the real world – even the ones that may not have shown much interest in my class as students, will almost always tell me that they miss being a part of the band. Small victories like that keep me going.

4. What are some of the challenges you face as a teacher in encouraging students to be disciplined with practicing, etc.? (Example: competing priorities, etc.) What are some of the ways you have overcome these challenges?

There is no question that many students today are overextended with too many things on their plate. That being said, I’m in a unique situation at the Lab School where participation in athletics and other extra-curricular activities is HIGHLY encouraged, while at the same time, Art and Music are required core classes for all students in grades 6-12. So, I have no choice but to support their outside interests while still managing to get my work done by bringing students in for sectionals in the evening. Let’s put it this way, this past year, my high school band boasted three state champions in the Hawaii Speech League State Tournament, a ballerina who performed the role of Clara in Ballet Hawaii’s production of “The Nutcracker,” and five members of the HHSAA Division II State Championship Basketball team. How can I not support these students with their non-Band activities? While there are band directors who demand total commitment from students to their programs, for me it’s all about helping my students find a good balance between band and everything else going on in their busy lives.