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Universal Language

A tour of Japan provides marching band members with an educational and cultural exchange.

In fall 2018, the Ohio Northern University marching band, The Star of Northwest Ohio, embarked on a trip to Japan for a series of performances and an educational tour of the island nation. For many marching band members, the trip was their first time abroad, and the experience is one none of them are likely to forget. 

Part concert series, part history lesson, the trip comprised the kind of give-and-take that rises above mere tourism. The trip was intended to share and appreciate cultures through a universal appreciation of music, and that is precisely what it did. 

Prior to ever boarding the 14-hour flight to the other side of the world, the students in the marching band did their homework. ONU faculty members gave lectures, and students prepared presentations of various aspects of Japan – its history, traditions and culture. The students were challenged to meet both academic and performance expectations. It was clear from the start that it was more of a business trip than a vacation.

The Ohio Northern University Marching Band stops for a photo amidst the majestic backdrop of Mount Fuji.Upon their arrival in Tokyo, the students found themselves putting their preparation to the test. They were immediately immersed in Japanese culture. Wherever they went, they were accompanied by experienced tour guides who educated them on the historical, social and cultural significance of the things they saw. For instance, they learned that something as seemingly simple as a kimono, the traditional Japanese garment, can provide a wealth of information about the wearer – everything from age to marital status. 

The students performed for lively crowds at Yokohama’s Hakkeijima Sea Paradise and Makuhari Seaside Park Nagoya. The band played a variety of music during its concerts, including “Sukiyaki,” a song written by native composers Rokusuke Ei and Hachidai Nakamura and made popular by Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto. The spiritual song was written during World War II and offers a positive message, saying, “Don’t look back, always look ahead, even in the face of adversity.” It holds great significance to the Japanese people.

The next four days of the tour were intense, as the band worked their way from Tokyo to Osaka and back. They visited the Fushimi Inari Shrine, the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the Kiyomizu Temple, the Gion Geisha District, Nijo Castle, the Nishijin Textile Center, the Togetsukyo Bridge, the Golden Pavilion and majestic Mount Fuji.

This was my first time traveling outside the country, and it was a great experience,” says Lily Brautigam, a freshman music education major. “I enjoyed getting to perform with students from Japan. It was amazing to be able to meet and talk with those students and talk about our love for music. But I think my favorite part was traveling to Mount Fuji. The view from the summit was gorgeous.

An exchange concert with the bands from Tokyo Metropolitan Chihaya High School and Tokyo Daito Bunka University gave ONU students opportunities to interact directly with Japanese students. Each group performed a short concert, and then all of the groups came together to perform a musical finale. The shared selection was John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It was a marvelous musical performance with both style and energy. After the concert, there was time for the students to mingle. 

The Ohio Northern University Marching Band members playing in Japan.“We got to play our music for one another, and then we had time to chat with each other. While there was certainly a language barrier, we were able to easily connect over our mutual interest in music. This was living proof that music really is a universal language,” says Travis Yammine, a senior marketing major.

Another universal language appears to be selfies and social media. Once the concert ended, the cell phones came out, and there were so many group selfies and smiles and hugs, one might have thought the students were old friends. 

The most poignant moment came when the Northern band was ready to leave. Four of the Chihaya High School students came in to the changing area and sang “Sukiyaki.” Some of the Northern students were moved to tears by this final gesture of friendship and respect.

“An experience like this is really one that you can only have by traveling with a group like the marching band,” says Yammine.