Japan Gets a Taste of Berklee

Jason Camelio
August 1, 2007
Daryl Lowery leads a brass and woodwind clinic.
Student band Abacus Dastardly performs a live show in Nagoya. From left to right: Andrew Toombs, Frank Silva, Karl Rasheed-Abel, and Dan Platzman.

The pristine Nada concert hall in Kobe was busy with activity. Young musicians arrived with instruments in tow. As they found seats, they gazed towards the stage, where a panel of familiar and not-so-familiar faces was seated.

"Over the next few days, you will be given a glimpse at what it's like to be in a Berklee classroom," I announced to the audience. "Our hope is that during our brief time together, you will take advantage of this opportunity to ask questions and get as much as you can from what we have to offer."

This was the opening ceremony for one of the highlights of Berklee's international travel schedule. It was the annual visit to the Koyo Conservatory in Kobe and Nagoya, Japan in August 2007. Now in its 12th year, this event provides Koyo students with a foray into the Berklee classroom experience through the clinics and master classes delivered by Berklee faculty members and by performances from one of Berklee's exceptional student ensembles. Much of this visit is made possible by the support of Takanori Sugauchi, Koyo's president and founder, and the conservatory's professional and attentive faculty and staff members.

The team this past summer included faculty members and clinicians Daryl Lowery, John Pierce, Mark White, Steve Wilkes, Darcel Wilson, and myself. Major gifts officer Virginia Fordham and Michael Shaver, assistant director of international/BIN, also participated in the visit. Our crew was augmented by a stellar student ensemble led by drummer Dan Platzman (Altanta, Georgia). Abacus Dastardly, his fondly named group, included pianist Andrew Toombs (Cincinnati, Ohio), tenor saxophonist Frank Silva (San Jose, California) and Karl Rasheed-Able (London, England).

For some travelers, this was their first time in Japan. "I thoroughly enjoyed the initial culture shock," Karl Rasheed-Able said. Oddly enough, he also found that he "heard John Coltrane and Miles Davis being played on the stereo in nearly every bar or restaurant entered."

Those of us who had made the trip to Koyo in previous years noted that by traveling with people who were experiencing a culture for the first time, our sense of discovery was rejuvenated. Members of the team had ample time to share in the exposure of the Japanese musical and social culture. At one point, we even had the chance to a meet with a small group of Berklee alumni at an event organized by the Development Office and Koyo.

Our schedule during the visit was packed. Immediately, John Pierce and I were whisked away to participate in the judging of the Student Jazz Festival featuring performances by some of the top high school jazz bands in the country. Having attended the festival in previous years, John and I were once again astounded by the level of musical skill and maturity of these young performers. We judged 28 bands that were competing for various awards. We also selected two all-star talents from the hundreds of performers as scholarship recipients for one of the Berklee summer programs in 2008. To get a demonstration of the quality of these young musicians, one needs only to get a copy of the movie Swing Girls, which was based on the concept of this big band competition.

After the opening ceremonies for Berklee Week at both branches of the Koyo Conservatory, the students and faculty broke off to accomplish their separate tasks, reconvening at the closing ceremony the following afternoon. The faculty members conducted a series of clinics that touched on a wide range of topics from Berklee's core curriculum and their uses in the contemporary music environment. Some of these included harmony, ear training, improvisation, arranging, and instrumental techniques for bass, brass, guitar, percussion, piano, voice, and woodwinds. A new addition to the program was a production clinic developed and conducted by Mark White.

While the Berklee faculty and staff were conducting auditions, interviews, and clinics for Berklee Week, Abacus Dastardly had a full schedule of events at locations such as Fujitsu-10 radio station, Maiden Voyage (a Koyo music club in Kobe), and other locations in Kobe and Nagoya.

Berklee students also got a chance to use their talent for a good cause when they visited one of the orphanages set up for the children who survived the 1995 earthquake in Kobe. This trip allowed the students the chance to stretch musically and act in the capacity of educators and musical ambassadors when they held a small concert and interactive clinic.

"Playing with Daniel Plaztman, Andrew Toombs, and Frank Silva a tremendous learning curve for me," Karl Rasheed-Abel said. "The band grew stronger after each gig. We were taking loads of chances. We were not afraid to make any mistakes and generally having a blast."

The students weren't the only ones who benefited from the trip. The Berklee team members were left in awe of these young talents, who performed at an exceptionally high, professional level, took musical risks, and left audiences stunned into silence at the end of each piece, only to explode with applause moments later. "On show the interaction between Andrew and Daniel appeared almost telepathic," Karl added. "The show was wonderfully received and resulted in a standing ovation from the audience."

Platzman provided this whimsical description of his quartet. "The difference between Abacus Dastardly's first and last show is like the difference between my little league baseball team and the Red Sox. We were finishing each other's phrases, playing in unison for whole choruses, and creating a music purer than I've ever created before."

This team of faculty members, staff members, and student performers/ambassadors represented a diverse array of musical backgrounds and experiences. Naturally, this gave rise to a fertile exchange of musical ideas and collaborations all benefiting the next generation of artists who will join us at Berklee. Karl put it all into perspective. "The 10 days in Japan were an amalgamation of shock, excitement, and awe. After the arduous 17-hour journey to Japan from Boston we were welcomed with open arms. I have developed a yearning to travel around the world and play music with creative and inspirational musicians."