Kaimuki To Carnegie

Kaimuki Middle School introduced a music program to increase academic scores. Students became so proficient, one of the school’s bands just wowed ’em in New York

When Kaimuki Middle School principal Frank Fernandes decided to give his school a makeover, he did not look to Common Core stan- dards or intensified scientific regimens to improve his stu- dents’ performance. Rather, he turned to the twang of the ukulele and the resonant voice of the tuba.

“We have insisted on not cutting back on music — we think the arts are very important,” says Fernandes, a two- time Hawaii State Middle School Principal of the Year. “There is a wealth of research that says if you are involved in music, it leads to greater aca- demic success.”

Partnering with his music director Susan Oshi-Onishi, they have grown their music department from 120 students to 640, almost two-thirds of the entire student body, ranging from beginning ukulele to chorus to their showpiece, the 70-member Kaimuki Symphonic Winds.

Susan Oshi-Onishi conducts Kaimuki Middle School Symphonic Winds at Carnegie Hall. PHOTO FROM KAIMUKI MIDDLE SCHOOL

Susan Oshi-Onishi conducts Kaimuki Middle School Symphonic Winds at Carnegie Hall. PHOTO FROM KAIMUKI MIDDLE SCHOOL

The Winds are made up of seventh- and eighth-graders who perform locally in many festivals you would expect to find them, such as Advanced Intermediate Parade of Bands and Hawaii Music Educators Association Convention.

But it is where this group played in March that might surprise you.

It all began a few years ago, when Fernandes and some students were on a tour of New York City and it took them to the Mecca of classical music: Carnegie Hall.

As they stood in amazement inside those hallowed walls, a thought occurred to Fernandes.

“Why couldn’t we come back and not just take a tour, but also play there?” says Fernandes.

So Oshi-Onishi began looking into what it would entail to take a group of tweens from the shadow of Diamond Head to this lofty stage. Unfortunately, there are no intermediate school festivals held at Carnegie, but a travel agent recommended they send in an audition DVD for a high school festival.

“Miraculously, we passed the audition, and Sept. 12, 2013, we received an official invitation letter from the New York Wind Band Festival inviting our Kaimuki Middle School Symphonic Winds to perform at Carnegie Hall,” says Oshi-Onishi.

So the practices began, and at first they were rough — many were just learning their instruments and there is no place to hide mistakes on a stage like Carnegie.

“You work so hard and then, at the end of a performance, after the band plays together and sounds really nice, you feel so accomplished because you started out knowing nothing and then you can come to this,” says Lauren Horita, an eighth-grade flutist with the Winds.

With 18 months of practice, they were ready. They had prepared a 20-minute set that stayed true to their roots, including Fantasy on a Japanese Folk Song, Where Never Lark or Eagle Flew and Hawaii (March).

The stage was not too big for them that day, as they received the highest commendation a band can achieve at the festival, the Gold Award, as well as effusive praise from the event director.

“I know I speak for the large crowd in attendance when I tell you that the performance of your group was nothing short of stunning and inspirational, as evidenced by the enthusiastic standing ovation you received from the audience and the high scores from the three adjudicators,” writes William Johnson, artistic director for New York Wind Band Festival.

While the kids nailed the performance, it was not without nerves.

“I was thinking about if I was going to screw up,” admits David Kimura, the diminutive trumpeter who had a huge solo and roundly received praise for the big skill in his small frame.

The obstacles for the Winds came from more than just the four- to five-year age deficit with competitors, but also the 5,000-mile airplane ride and sub-freezing temperatures.

“We were really tired because of the jet lag,” says Sedona Kashiwabara, who plays alto saxophone. “I was kind of in shock and it came by so quickly, but it was amazing just sitting in that seat, where so many famous people have been, and you are in their seat and experiencing it!”

It was all worth it when they took that stage to open the festival.

“We work so hard and then when you play, it is like, ahh, that was fun. To get that, we have to work. We only get that feeling if we play well, and you only play well if you work hard and practice,” explains Everett Amemiya, who plays the bassoon and had performed at the Blaisdell — but it was no match for Carnegie. “It was bigger, and five seconds after you finished playing, you could still hear your sound coming back at you. You don’t get that in normal places. I tried not looking (at the crowd), but out of the corner my eye was like, whoa, that’s a lot of people!”

So what does one do when you already have reached the pinnacle of your musical career before your 14th birth- day? There is lots of talk about earning scholarships to college. Tuba player Kaisei Shigeta dreams of “dotting the I” for the Ohio State marching band. But in the end, it is less about accolades and more about bettering themselves.
“Band always keeps you thinking, so it is good practice for school, and it is a good way to express yourself and make friends,” notes Horita.

The discipline they have learned will serve them well in life, as well as help them understand a famous anecdote about the hall they filled with music:

A pair of tourists were walking around in New York City looking for Carnegie Hall. After wandering for a while they saw a man with a violin, and figured he surely would know how to find it. So they asked him, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

To which the man replied, “Practice.”