As teachers we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we did not actively try to better ourselves and improve our teaching abilities. One of the many ways to improve as a teacher is to try to learn how other countries and societies teach the same materials that we teach here in the United States. Through programs such as the Japan Fullbright Exchange teachers from across the country are able to experience in depth the methods and techniques of like minded educators in a society far removed from our own. Mr. Jim Fritz, band director at Decorah High School in northeast Iowa, recently returned from his own Japan Fullbright experience. Upon his return he wrote an article that was first published in the February 2006 issue of the Iowa Bandmaster . This article is reprinted here on MusicEdMagic with the permission of the author.


This is a multipage article. Use the navigation menu at the bottom of this page to view the entire essay.

At a summer 2003 Iowa Bandmasters Association summer board meeting, I sat next to Steve Stickney and Tony Garmoe at lunch. The two shared their experiences in something called, the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund. Both had been selected to participate in this program and eagerly exchanged experiences. Steve had just returned from Japan a couple weeks prior and his stories were still very fresh in his mind. Tony had gone several years prior but it was interesting to note his excitement about sharing his experiences with Steve and myself. After a delightful lunch and engaging stories between the two, they both encouraged me to apply for this opportunity. That following fall Steve wrote a very interesting piece for the Fall 2003 Iowa Bandmasters Magazine about his experiences in Japan. I read it with fascination and privately committed myself to applying following my tenure as IBA President.


A year later, I found myself embarking upon one of the most rewarding personal/professional opportunities I have attempted in many years.

The Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund was established in 1996, on the 50th anniversary of the American J. William Fulbright Scholarship Program. The Fulbright Scholarship had provided hundreds of opportunities for Japanese students (called “Fulbrighters”) to study in the U.S. following World War II. The Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund was established, by the government of Japan, as a “thank you” to the U.S. for allowing Japanese students to study in America as Fulbrighters. Each year, since 1996, the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund (JFMF) brings 600 American educators to Japan for an intensive 3 week immersion experience in their unique culture. The goal of the experience is to provide a cultural “bridge” between the two cultures through educators of both nations. It is hoped that the Japanese teachers can learn new techniques from their American counterparts and that Americans can have a greater understanding of the Japanese culture. There are 3 sessions throughout the year, each involving 200 K-12 U.S. teachers. These sessions occur in June, October and November. Each selected American educator (called a Japan Fulbright Memorial Fellow) is chosen following a rather extensive written application process. (see http://www.fulbrightmemorialfund.jp for information regarding the 2006 application) However, the most important part of the application is the “follow-on plan”. This follow-on plan formally states what each applicant intends to do, following their return to the U.S., to share their Japanese experience.

{mosimage} In March of 2005 I received a letter from the Japanese consulate. I eagerly opened it to find that I had been selected to participate in the June 2005 session. I was excited, pleased, and proud to be chosen. Little did I realize how big of an honor this truly was. It was only after my time in Japan that I realized the significance of this tremendous gift. I eagerly began to prepare for what was to become a “life-altering” professional opportunity. All 200 Americans were linked by JFMF via an email listserv. The excitement of our collective group was obvious even then.

Finally, on June 12th, I flew from the Cedar Rapids airport to San Francisco for our stateside orientation. As we were one of the final groups to arrive, I walked into a hotel ballroom filled with 200 teachers. The tension and excitement was palpable. In a very short time I realized I was in a room full of some incredibly dynamic individuals and educators. Following a formal banquet, an introduction to JFMF by our Japanese leader/host Kyoko Jones, and a break-out into our smaller prefecture groups (more on this later) we headed to our rooms for what would be a evening of restless sleep in anticipation of the coming days events.


All expenses for this entire experience were covered by the Japanese government: hotels, banquets, airfare, forum speakers, tours, etc. Everything was scheduled with Japanese precision and attention to detail. We were treated like celebrities and dignitaries. Most of us, on a teacher’s salary, could never afford the luxuries that were given to us through this program!

A week was spent in Tokyo filled with forums on educational reform, peace education and initiatives, government, economy, culture, as well as daily banquet feasts of the unique foods of the Japanese culture and evenings spent exploring Tokyo. Following this week, I had the unique opportunity to visit band friends in Utsunomiya, Japan. In March 2005, Luther College hosted the Sakushin-Gakuin high school concert band from Utsunomiya. Our family hosted two of the tuba players from this band during their stay. I spent time getting to know their band directors, Takeo Ishizuka and Hideyuki Miyashi, while they were in Decorah. Their band performed a wonderful concert at Luther and I made arrangements to visit them that following June.

Following the week in Tokyo I traveled with another band director JFMF friend, via Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train), to Utsunomiya to return the visit. Following a tremendous evening of friendship, sake, sushi and sashimi (raw fish) we adjourned to our motel. The next day, a Saturday, Takeo took us to Sakushin-Gakuin high school. It is a huge private high school of 4500 students. My experiences were very similar to Steve Stickney’s. Band is offered as an “activity” not a class. It meets daily from 4 – 6:30 pm and from 8 – 4:30 pm on Saturdays. Takeo and Miyashi taught geography and English, respectively, but ran the band program as the “activity instructors”. There were about 90 in the band, both boys and girls. When we got to the band hall, around 10 a.m., students were busily working with metronomes and tuners in self-run sectionals. We were celebrities in their midst and each group rose to bow and acknowledge us. I spent time working with the tuba section on their contest piece.

The students demonstrated excellent tone and technique but, as in Steve’s observations, they were all focused on a limited selection of contest pieces. Following a light lunch the students met in the band rehearsal hall and began the process of warm-ups, unison play, and chorales. We joined them and watched their rehearsal for the next 2 hours. The use of drill and practice was the standard here as well. At one point we witnessed a 2 measure unison drill that took 45 minutes to complete! The metronome was ever present and Hideyuki worked with one small group after another to reach the level of perfection that he demanded. The other students sat in absolute silence throughout the entire exercise. Only if prompted, would a unison chorus of “Hai!” (yes!) involve the remaining band members in this exercise. Posture was perfect, as was the discipline. Tones were solid, focused and well balanced. However, wrong notes played during the warm-up indicated to us that this group was still developing as a reading ensemble.


At long last we had the opportunity to hear them play some of their contest music. It was approached with the same drill and practice effort. In two hours of rehearsal we never heard more than 32 measures played continuously. Finally, Takeo rehearsed the band in a Japanese arrangement of 76 Trombones. After 20 minutes of rehearsal Takeo suddenly stopped the band, looked at me and asked, “Jim-san, why 76 trombones?” I had to chuckle to myself as I tried to explain the story line of the Music Man to a room full of young Japanese musicians, most of whom spoke very minimal English. Their bewilderment of the foibles of Harold Hill finally turned to smiles when I explained that River City was in Iowa! It was the best connection I could make for them. Upon my return home I sent Takeo a VHS tape of the Music Man, which I understand he has since shown to his students!

After our experiences with the band I left with Eri Saitoh, one of the tubists who had stayed at my home in Decorah. Eri and her parents, Sho and Naomi, hosted us for the next day. They took us to Nikko, one of the many incredibly beautiful natural areas of Japan and to the Tochugu Shrine, one of the largest and oldest in all of Japan.

After our return to Tokyo, we were split up into 10 groups of 20. Each group of 20 American educators was sent to 10 different prefectures (Japanese states) where we would spend the next 8 days. My group was sent to Sabae City in Fukui prefecture. Fukui is located on the western side of Japan near the Sea of Japan. While in Fukui we visited an elementary school, 2 junior high schools, a high school, Fukui University, as well as local manufacturing plants, city hall, and cultural sites.


My experiences in Sabae City schools were similar to those in Utsunomiya. The students were well-disciplined and especially interested in the American “sensai” (teacher). As a relatively tall American, I was a giant in Japan. Students were amazed at my height and wanted to touch my beard and the hair on my arms – something virtually non-existent on Japanese men. The bands in these schools varied from relatively large to as small as a dozen members. It seemed to be totally based upon the ability of the teacher to interest students in being involved. The dynamic teachers had lots of kids, those who weren’t, didn’t.

At Sekiin Elementary, the 5th and 6th grade band was working on John Barnes Chance “Incantation and Dance” for their contest piece…and playing it well! The high school band was very small and not well respected in the school. However, at Sabae Junior High School, the young director there was a virtual “Japanese pied piper”. There were probably over 100 students in his band. We watched a DVD of their previous year’s contest performance. This performance was a tremendous, grade 5 transcription of Richard Strauss’ Salome. I watched with my mouth agape, in awe of the technical and musical virtuosity of this young conductor and his outstanding ensemble. He then led us to his band room. The doors opened to reveal the entire group of junior high students sitting in absolute silence. As we entered the room, they leapt to their feet, bowed and shouted a welcome salutation to us. Their director then proceeded to kick off the band in an incredibly spirited version of “Y.M.C.A.” that included pom-poms, huge sign cards, unison dancing by the band members during a drum break, and a final chorus that brought down the house! All of this for the 2 American “bando sensai” (band teachers)! I left with the biggest grin on my face, happy to finally see students obviously enjoying themselves as well as performing at a level of virtuosity seen only amongst the finest high school ensembles in the U.S.

After our 8 days in Fukui we returned to Tokyo for a de-briefing of our experiences with the other 9 groups and farewell ceremonies. It was a time of high emotion, as my group had grown quite close during our short time together. This was due to our shared experience, the emotions we had all felt during our stay in Fukui, and for the respect we had developed for each other. We now knew how honored we were to be able to participate in this amazing experience. I still stay in communication with my group. One of our members lives in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her home was heavily damaged by Hurricane Rita. The rest of us hailed from all across the U.S. and from a wide range of academic disciplines. Final farewells were done with a heavy heart but with the knowledge that each of us had just experienced something incredible.


Following my return to Decorah, I have shared my experiences with friends and family, my church, my high school colleagues, the Rotary, the Northeast Iowa Bandmasters, and now with my IBA colleagues. With my 8th grade band I planned and implemented a comprehensive music unit on Japanese and Far Eastern music. In November we performed: Fantasy on Sakura, Sakura by Ray Cramer, Canto by McBeth, and Gamelan by Walter Cummings. We studied the Japanese culture and pentatonic music structure, learned elementary Japanese phrases, wrote haiku, made origami, went to a performance of taiko drumming by the Japanese touring ensemble: Yamato at Luther College, and ate sushi. With my high school group we performed Japanese Tune by Soichi Konagaya at our December concert. In addition, one of my students learned to play and performed on the Shakuhachi flute, which I brought back from Japan, for our concert. I also shared some of my photos and movies with my students to help them better relate to the students I had visited during my stay in Japan.

Finally, Steve Stickney, Tony Garmoe, and I will present a clinic on Thursday May 11th at 10 am during the 2006 IBA Conference. One of the assignments given to all of us who are JFMF alumni is to encourage our colleagues to consider applying for this opportunity . It is not hard to speak highly and urge each of you to consider this. It is an amazing opportunity for American educators to witness, first-hand, the beautiful culture, people and lands of Japan as well as to visit their schools. It is an opportunity for both cultures to learn from one another. Hopefully, my sharing this with others will have as much of a “life-altering” opportunity for someone else as my experience did for me. I thank Steve and Tony for encouraging me to apply and a huge “Domo Arigato Gosiamasu” (thank you very much!) to the people and government of Japan.

About The Author:

James Fritz is the band director at Decorah High School in Decorah, Iowa. He is also past president of the Iowa Bandmaster's Association and the Northeast Iowa Bandmasters Association .

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