Established in 1901, the Keio Wagner Society Orchestra is the oldest amateur student orchestra in Japan. Named after the German composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner, this orchestra respects the progressiveness, free thought and pioneering spirit of Wagner himself. With a current membership of more than 180 students, more than 2,500 Keio graduates have played in the orchestra throughout its history. Ahead of their 217th annual concert at Tokyo's Suntory Hall in March 2016, the Keio Times spoke with four students from the orchestra to find out what it's like to rehearse and perform as members of such a long-standing organization.
From left: Chiaki Matsumoto (Frenchhorn, second-year student, Faculty of Economics), Miyuki Noro (bassoon, third-year student, Faculty of Law), Yuko Baba (violin, second-year student, Faculty of Letters) and Tsubasa Nozue (violin, third-year student, Faculty of Letters)
Delivering the Ultimate Music Experience
Q: What makes the Keio Wagner Society Orchestra unique?
Nozue: Well, we are very active. We have two or three regular concerts a year, and go on concert tours in Japan and abroad every four years. We also get invited to perform as members of other orchestras or chamber music ensembles outside of Keio that range from regional events to elementary school music classes.
That everybody has a chance to perform is something unique to our orchestra, I think. I know other college orchestras are often only able to give their players one opportunity to perform in their entire college career. That doesn't happen with the Keio Wagner Society Orchestra. No matter what performance level the members may be at, we let everybody play at least one piece every concert. I think this shows our determination to practice together to be better as a group.
Noro: As a member of the orchestra, we even have a chance to perform outside Japan. Our performance at the Wiener Musikverein, home of the world-renowned Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, was unforgettable.
Q: What made you join the orchestra?
Nozue: The orchestra is pretty famous, and I think many of us joined because we wanted to play our instruments at the highest level possible. Personally, was impressed by the quality of the orchestra's performance when I went to listen to one of their concerts in high school. That made me really want to join.
Q: How do you feel now, having joined the orchestra?
Matsumoto: In our orchestra, first- to fourth-year students practice and perform together. Everyone has a different musical background. Unlike other student groups where first- and second-year students take over from the third and fourth years who are busy job hunting, the Keio Wagner Society Orchestra encourages third years to take care of day-to-day operations and fourth years to lead performances. In my case, being able to perform alongside experienced fourth-year members in my first year was a big inspiration. Everyone seems so mature when you're right out of high school.
Nozue: In high school, it feels like everyone is performing for different reasons, but in the Keio Wagner Society Orchestra, I feel like everyone shares the same goal of delivering the best music possible to the audience. I feel that each and every member of the orchestra is very highly motivated.
Networks Born of the Orchestra
Q: What is your usual practice schedule?
Baba: In addition to our three-hour rehearsal three days a week, I try to practice certain parts and sections whenever I can. Sometimes I personally ask other members to take a look at my playing in between practices. On top of that, I try to spend at least two to three hours every day on my own with my instrument.
Matsumoto: Practicing every day is extremely important. For me, it takes about one week to get back the feel of my instrument if I miss even a day of practice. You use muscles throughout your whole body no matter the instrument you play, and that muscle weakens if you don't play. I play the French horn, so the muscles around the mouth and lips are very important. I make a constant effort to slot time every day to practice in order to maintain a good embouchure.
Q: Do you find it difficult to balance your studies with your orchestra activities?
Matsumoto: We usually practice from 18:00 until 21:00, after classes finish. We get to study a lot at the library during the day, but studying can get put on the back burner when a concert gets close, and there are still parts that we can't play. I'll study late at night after I get home just to keep up with my classes.
Nozue: I think everyone is good about finding time to practice and study. I have to say that I really enjoy the times we have going out to eat after practice. The sound of an orchestra has to be in perfect harmony. Verbal communication is hard enough as it is, and with musical communication, it feels like this difficulty is amplified. You can't have a high-quality ensemble unless the orchestra members continue to communicate outside of rehearsals. We end up spending a lot of time together, and I've made some great memories with other orchestra members that I'll never forget.
Baba: It's pretty difficult to come together to play in perfect harmony with one another when 100 other orchestra members are all trying to master their own instruments. To be honest, there are times when you just want to give up or run away from it all because you feel inferior to other players. That's when I remember why I started playing music in the first place. I consciously try to keep my motivation levels high by approaching our rehearsals with the attitude that we are collaborating in order to make great music.
Q: I understand that your orchestra has over a 110-year history. Do you have contact with orchestra alumni?
Nozue: Yes, the orchestra values its strong bonds with former members. They're there to help us out when we're job hunting, and we're able to visit them for advice. We also have frequent events and alumni reunion parties where we can interact. There's also the Wagner Mita-kai, an alumni association for former members that stays pretty active.
Baba: Actually, my mother was a former member of the orchestra, so she invites her friends to our concerts.
Noro: Just the other day, we had a chamber music competition between current and former members of the orchestra. The first performance was a twelve-man trumpet ensemble. The oldest and youngest players were thirty-three years apart in age. Even when former members are old enough to be our parents' age, we can still share the common language of music.
Q: Is there anything unique about Keio or the orchestra that stands out to you?
Baba: I had always idolized the orchestra, and before I knew it, my entire college life revolved around it. I was completely hooked. I think the Keio tradition of independence allows you to find what you love and immerse yourself in it.
Noro: I think that the orchestra has continued to evolve since its founding in 1901. Although more common now, it was a huge leap for an amateur university orchestra to perform the compositions of Mahler and Strauss or to go on tours abroad when the orchestra first started. I think we want to continue to make history in that same pioneering tradition.
Matsumoto: It can be tough to ensure that every member of the orchestra plays at least one piece each concert. We all share a common goal of wanting to master our instruments and make the best possible music together. Of course there's a degree of competition between us, but we put personal ambition aside when we practice. Our orchestra is defined by cooperation. We strive for tight, seamless performances, and everyone helps each other out, regardless of year or instrument. That's what makes the Keio Wagner Society Orchestra special to me.
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