DODDS high schools send 180 of their best to Yokota Air Base
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan - Now this is how you strut your stuff.
More than 180 students from high schools in mainland Japan, Okinawa, South Korea and Guam are here this week for the 29th Far East Honor Music Festival, an annual showcase featuring choir, jazz, string ensemble and concert band performers.
It’s the largest non-athletic event sponsored by Department of Defense Dependents Schools–Pacific and Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools–Guam.
The festival is scheduled to end Friday with a two-hour public concert at the Taiyo Recreation Center.
Kubasaki High School on Okinawa hosted the past two festivals. It’s back at Yokota for the first time since 2005.
To get here, students had to go through a rigorous audition process carried out online. They submitted MP3 recordings via e-mail, and selections were made by a judging panel that consisted of independent teachers, band and choir directors, and music coordinators.
Mark Bruschuk, the Yokota band director and festival coordinator, said 160 students applied for concert band while another 160 auditioned for the choir. Only half were chosen.
Seventeen of 50 were picked for the jazz band, he added, while 15 tried out for the festival’s nine-piece string group.
“We have a lot of Far East activities, but this is one where we don’t have kids competing against each other. It’s a friendship thing,” Bruschuk said. “Once they realize that, they come together quickly — making friends, sharing ideas, taking photos together.
“Watching the kids interact is our favorite part as teachers and directors. ... Anything we can share with ideas, we all win.”
The students began rehearsing Monday and attended a barbecue that afternoon at the U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific–Asia facility, which offered up rooms this week for preparations by the jazz and string outfits.
The jazz band was slated to play a special one-hour show Thursday in the Taiyo beginning at 6 p.m.
Meanwhile, the choir rehearsed at Yokota High School while the concert band took the Taiyo as its place to practice.
Most students are staying at Kanto Lodge on Yokota. In between rehearsals, trips to the food court and souvenir shopping, they also have evening study time in their rooms to keep up with school assignments.
Bruschuk says many don’t grasp the magnitude of being selected for the festival until they get here and see the numbers involved.
“The impact is all the sections are full. Their bands and choirs are smaller back home,” he said. “It’s full size here with all the sections. They’re hearing sounds they never heard before. That in itself — there’s a new enjoyment to it for them.”
Seoul American historically sends the largest representation, and this year is no different. The school earned about a third of the slots. Several students are back for a third or fourth time.
“Being selected four years is like making an All-Far East team in sports for four years,” said Seoul American band director Irene Lee.
It’s also the first year for stringed instruments such as the violin, cello and viola. All nine performers are from South Korea, and all except one attend Seoul American.
Senior Esther Kim, 18, who plays violin, is among them.
“At first, it was really intense. Now, we’re getting the hang of it,” she said. “We’re learning how to work harder, find our weakest and strongest points. We’re getting a different perspective.”
Zama American sophomore Kyna Sherman, 16, a clarinet player in the concert band, reached the Far East festival for the second time.
“At first, it was kind of intimidating because you don’t know everyone. As you work with them, you learn that you fit in,” Sherman said. “Now that I know what it’s like, it’s a lot easier ... because I know what to expect. It’s a lot of fun because we all worked hard to get here.”
Seoul American senior Ariella Wright, 18, is at Far East for a fourth year, but it’s the only time she’s made first chair in the French horn section.
“It’s how much you push yourself. That’s the difference really,” Wright said.
Logan Shrader, 18, a senior at Kubasaki, took an entirely different path in picking up a bass vocalist spot in the Far East choir. He was among a group of players recruited for singing duty by assistant football coach and choir director Ronald Geist after a practice last fall.
“He just needed people,” Shrader recalled. “He lined people up and had us sing. Then afterward, he said, ‘You join the choir, you join the choir.’
“It’s a big surprise I made it this far. I always liked to sing, but I’d never been in a choir before. It’s a great honor and great experience overall. It’s awesome. I love it.”