2014 Eleanor Venture Recipient: David Merrill

Destination: Japan

David Merrill, Director of Bands at Longmont High School, was selected as the 2014 Eleanor Venture grant recipient. David was awarded $3,500 with which he traveled to Japan for what he described as a journey for the “mind, body and soul.”

Below is David’s account of his adventure:


I am profoundly honored to have received the Eleanor Venture Travel Grant. I am so grateful to Eleanor Flanders and her vision of providing travel opportunities for teachers, and to the TEV Board for selecting my proposal.

My two-week trip to Japan was divided into three phases. First was an intensive tour of schools throughout Tokyo and the surrounding area. This portion of the trip would be shared with about 40 public school and college directors from around the United States and Canada. This portion would be highlighted by attendance at the Japan Wind Orchestra and Ensemble Competition.

The second phase was a visit to Chino, Longmont’s Sister City. My hope was to set in motion an opportunity for a band exchange with the local high school there.Taiko Drum

The final leg of the trip was a trip to the remote island of Sado to see the taiko drummers of the world-famous ensemble, Kodo.

I had never experienced a double decker airplane before. My Singapore Airlines flight from L.A. to Tokyo was on the Airbus A380, the largest commercial plane in the world. We departed around 3 p.m. on Sunday and arrived at 7 p.m. on Monday, chasing the sun the entire way to Japan.

Finding my way to the correct train station by my hotel ended up being much easier than choosing the correct exit to leave the Ikebukuro Train Station, Tokyo’s second largest. My hotel, the Daiichi Inn, was only a few hundred meters from the station. But with over 20 exits, finding the correct one on a busy night, at 10:30 p.m. with a full suitcase, wasn’t easy. Fortunately I chose correctly on my 2nd try and made it to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Despite the 14 hour time difference, I slept well and woke up refreshed. The hotel stay included a daily breakfast buffet of both traditional American and traditional Japanese breakfast fare. I happily grazed from yogurt, eggs, and bacon as well as cereal rice, fish, miso soup and pickled eggs.

On my first official day in Japan, I was to visit the Musashino Academia Musicae in nearby Ekoda. The visit wouldn’t take place until the afternoon so that gave me the morning to explore the giant Sobu department store in the Ikebukuro train station.

Walking into Sobu is like taking a trip back in time. The store had the look of what I imagine a Macy’s department store looked like in the 1950’s. Elevator attendants with pillbox hats and white gloves greeted you as you entered. At 15 stories, Sobu was once the world’s largest department store. Throughout Sobu we were greeted with the greeting, “Irasshaimase,” in a high-pitched, sing-song voice. I later learned that high-pitched voices were a sign of formality in Japan.Sushi

After a delicious lunch at one of the thirty or so restaurants that occupy the top 5 floors of Sobu, I boarded the subway for Ekoda. In Ekoda I was greeted by Ray Cramer, the retired Director of Bands at University of Indiana and, for three months a year, guest clinician at Musashino. He and his wife, Molly, lead me through the narrow and confusing streets of Ekoda to the Musashino Academy.

Upon arriving at Musashino, Molly gave me a hand cloth to use for the duration of me stay. Most Japanese bathrooms do not have paper towels so people carry their own hand towels. I was grateful and used it throughout the trip. I was also given slippers to wear in the school, a custom I would grow accustomed to throughout my many school visits.

There were a number of behaviors that I observed that were unique to Japanese classrooms. First, students reply to every direction given by their sensei (teacher) with “hai,” meaning yes. Though not as common, another behavior was the act of raising one’s hand, not to ask a question, but as an admission that he or she had made a mistake.

On Wednesday, the American teachers arrived. The directors for this leg of the trip were Mark Humphreys, of Florida and Aki Murakami of Hiroshima, Japan. They ran the American and Japanese offices of the company Brain Music, the largest publisher of band music in Japan.

Our first stop with the American contingent was at a military base for a private performance by the Central Japan Ground Forces Self Defense Band. Prior to their performance they gave a brief lecture of how the band evolved in Japan. Up until the middle of the 19th century, Japan’s foreign affairs policy was that of isolation. In 1854, American Commodore, Matthew Perry, led expeditions to Japan. Perry’s Navy band was the very first exposure the Japanese ever had to band music. By 1871, Japan would have a Navy band and an Army band was formed the following year.

After their performance, we were asked if we had any gifts to give to the Commander of the ensemble, Colonel Akira Takeda. I had been briefed ahead of time to consider bringing gifts for our hosts. I came to Japan prepared with gifts ranging from pencils with American flags on them, to Longmont High School t-shirts and coffee mugs. I didn’t anticipate how formal the gift exchange would be. Each of the gift-bearing guests lined up and, one by one, gave our gift, exchanged bows and handshakes, and then smiled for a picture. This exchange was followed by a large round of applause by the band and supporting staff.

From here, we spent the next few days visiting schools. Saitama Sakae High School, home of one of the best school bands in all of Japan, was first on our list. Donning our provided slippers, we explored the school grounds.

Band is considered an extra-curricular activity at most schools in Japan. We arrived at Saitama Sakae in the afternoon, when all extra-curricular activities take place. It was fascinating to see students engaged in such a wide range of activities. While most activities (baseball, swimming, tennis, track, golf) were just like what you’d find in America, other activities (Karate, sumo wresting, Odori – a traditional style of dance) were uniquely Japanese.

At every school we visited (Ikebukuro Junior High and Conan Elementary School being the other two schools I visited) I was able to observe student-lead (student leaders are known as sempai) sectional rehearsal as well as sensei-lead IMG_3724full ensemble rehearsals. I left with many strategies I am eager to bring back to my students.

I was also able to teach a little and have some interesting interactions with students, teachers, parents and administrators. I asked a few questions and their answers revealed some cultural differences about how they view the role of band. When asked some students why like band, one student answered, “It gives me a chance to work towards a gold medal.” Another replied, “It teaches me discipline, hard work, respect for authority and how to work with others.” When asked what they do with their free time, without a hint of irony, a student replied, “eat and sleep.”

The gold medal that the Saitama Sakai High School student mentioned was the highest honor at the Japan Wind Orchestra and Ensemble Competition. It’s a high-stakes competition at Sumida Triphony Hall in downtown Tokyo. On Saturday, Sunday and Monday, we attended this event. I heard approximately 80 bands over the three-day event. In a word, it was incredible.

Following the amazing JWOEC event, we retreated to the quiet Mount Fuji area for a relaxing night at a traditional Ryokan Inn. A Ryokan is a style of hotel that originated centuries ago in Edo, Japan’s original capital. Upon arrival, we were given a Yukata, a Japanese robe, and sandals to wear while during our stay.Merrill_Japan

Our room was simple with a tatami mat floor and a few chairs, a table and a television. On the floor above was a Sento, or Japanese bath. The tradition of Sento has existed for more than a thousand years. Despite the elaborate etiquette and relative awkwardness, the experience was refreshing.

Our dinner was as much a feast for the eyes as it was for the palate. We returned to our room after dinner to find thin futon mattresses covering our tatami mat floors.

When we returned to Tokyo, it was time to bid farewell to the American Directors. I boarded a train and headed west to the Longmont’s Sister City, Chino.

Chino is a Longmont-sized mountain town, not far from Nagano, the site of the 1996 Olympics. At the train station, I was greeted by Megumi, the daughter of Yoriko, one of the coordinators of the Sister Cities program. She took me on a tour of Chino before finally arriving at Tokai University Third School.

Like many of the schools I had visited before, the full band rehearsal was preceded by sempai led section rehearsals. I observed rehearsals for a while before being asked to join a meeting. The meeting was to discuss the viability of a band exchange between Tokai University Third School and Longmont High School.

At the meeting was Megumi, Tanabe Sensei, the Tokai band director, Yamada Sensei, the English teacher, and a few other teachers. The tone of the meeting sounded somber and, though I could not understand what was being said, I sensed it was not going well. Megumi acted as my translator for this meeting and at one point I finally asked her if they even thought this exchange was a good idea. She turned to me and said, “Yes, they love they idea! They are very enthusiastic about this!” I had read that Japanese mannerisms are subtle, and in this case I clearly misinterpreted their apparent thoughtfulness and interest.

We made some significant progress and promised to continue discussions. There were some obstacles to overcoIMG_3969me but we all agreed that we wanted to make this a reality.

After band rehearsal, Yamada Sensei, Tanabe Sensei took me to dinner at a wonderful little sushi restaurant. Like many sushi places, this one featured a conveyor belt where you could pick a dish as it rolled past. But my favorite feature of this restaurant was a unique ordering system. Make your order on the touch screen at your table and a few minutes later a racecar would pull up next to your table with your sushi.

From Chino, Megumi’s husband, Nobukazu, drove me west to the port city of Naoetzu. We passed the Olympic Stadium in Nagano and, once in Naoetzu, Nobu took me to lunch and then helped me board the ferry for Sado.

At Ogi port on Sado, my host, Atsushi picked me up in his 90’s vintage Volkswagen Jetta and took me on a tour of this quiet island. Before arriving at the Kodo grounds, we made a brief stop at the Sawazakihana lighthouse where I was treated to a stunning view of the Sea of Japan. Off in the unseen distance were North Korea, and further north, Siberia. I was officially the furthest I’d ever been from home.

Kodo Village is the home of the world-reknowned Kodo Drummers. The village consists of converted school buildings and office buildings converted into dormitories, rehearsal spaces, eating areas and offices. I got a quick tour of their library, museum (a room with lots of artifacts, souvenirs and posters from their many tours and performances), dining area and office.IMG_4072

That night they provided me a spaghetti dinner and a bed in one of their schoolroom dormitories. After breakfast the next morning, they took me to one of their rehearsal rooms where I was given a lesson by a Kodo veteran named Sami.

Sami is a spritely young woman who had joined Kodo 6 years ago after a two-year apprenticeship. Though she knew little English, music was our mutual language. We quickly developed a dialog of drumming and it felt like were in “the zone” for the next two and a half hours. She taught me how to play four different taiko patterns with numerous variations. We played on each of four different taiko drums including one that was affectionately called “pig nose.”

On the journey back to Tokyo I got to ride the High Speed Shinkansen train to Tokyo. Shinkansen are double decker trains that travel between 150 and 200 miles per hour. It was fun to watch the city lights racing past.

The next day I left Tokyo for the long trek back to Denver. The trip was everything I had hoped for and much, much more. I made many friends and learned new strategies for teaching. Best of all, I have invitations to return.

David Merrill

Principal Rick Olsen (far right) and The Eleanor Venture Selection Committee members (L-R) Tom Stumpf, Wendy Durst, Stephanie Busby, and Steve Payne congratulate grant recipient David Merrill.

Principal Rick Olsen (far right) and The Eleanor Venture Selection Committee members (L-R) Tom Stumpf, Wendy Durst, Stephanie Busby, and Steve Payne congratulate grant recipient David Merrill.

Longmont High School