Wow, I can’t believe that we are here.”Those were Susan Ochi Onishi’s thoughts as she stepped onto the podium of America’s premier concert venue, Carnegie Hall, in New York City this past March. As the sounds of her Kaimuki Middle School Symphonic Winds students resonated within the walls of the world-famous concert hall, Ochi-Onishi said she struggled to stay focused on conducting and from being overcome with emotion.
“As they were performing, because of the acoustics and the students’ hard work, it just sounded so beautiful, and seeing them focused and concentrating, it was really enjoyable,” said Ochi-Onishi, the school’s band director.
The Carnegie Hall performance of the Kaimuki Middle School Symphonic Winds students earlier this year marked not only a milestone for KMS’ distinguished music program, but a nationally historic one, as well. Kaimuki Middle School hadn’t just become the first middle school from Hawai‘i to play on the stage at Carnegie Hall — they had become the first middle school ever invited to perform at the concert hall. It all started two years ago when KMS students had an opportunity to visit Carnegie Hall during an East Coast study tour by the school’s music department. “I remember saying to our principal, Frank Fernandes, that it would be incredible if we could someday perform at Carnegie Hall,” said Ochi-Onishi. That dream began to grow from pipe dream into reality when Ochi- Onishi learned about the New York Wind Band Festival.
“We’ve enjoyed a good reputation for de- cades, but Carnegie Hall seemed to be a stretch,” admitted Fernandes. “But we all knew schools had played there, so it gave us the sense that it wasn’t out of the question.”
Although the New York Wind Band Festival had featured high school groups, Ochi-Onishi submitted an audition DVD in the hopes that the Kaimuki Middle Symphonic Winds band would be accepted into the competition, despite it being a middle school.
On Sept. 12, 2013, she received an official invitation letter from the New York Wind Band Festival.
“When I found out we had been accepted, my first reaction was, ‘Wow, that’s really good for us,’” said assistant band director Derek Fujio. “Then it immediately turned into, ‘OK, how are we going to make this happen?’”
Kaimuki Middle School has been recognized as a distinguished school, receiving numerous awards over the years, including the prestigious National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence award. More than half of its approximately 1,000 students are involved in the school’s music program. The Kaimuki Symphonic Winds is the premier wind band in the KMS Music Depart- ment, consisting of highly skilled and motivated seventh and eighth graders who audition for a seat in the band. They have received consecu- tive “Superior I” ratings in the annual Oahu
Band Directors Association Advanced Intermediate Parade of Bands event year after year. While these kids are no strangers to the rigors of rehearsal, Ochi-Onishi knew she was going to be pushing them to their limits in order to prepare them for this performance of a lifetime.
“The majority of the students in the Symphonic Winds band were also in the Oahu Band Directors Middle School Select Band,” explained Ochi-Onishi. “So with the festival just a month away, in the addition to having the Carnegie rehearsals, they had to stay an hour and a half longer on top of the two-hour Select Band rehearsal to learn another set of pieces.” And, keep in mind as Principal Fernandes pointed out, they had school home- work just like everyone else.
“Susan wouldn’t have been successful if she didn’t push,” said Fernandes. “Our teachers, like Susan and Derek, truly are people with heart, and believe they need to challenge the kids, not just their minds and bodies, but their spirit. Ultimately, we believe that will lead to success.”
“It was a lot more pressure and a lot more practice, like every day,” said soon-to-be ninth grader David Kimu- ra, who played trumpet in both bands.
However, both he and band mate Cuyler Murata, who was in the seventh grade when the KMS Symphonic Winds played at Carnegie Hall, agreed that the additional work for the opportunity to appear on the biggest stage of their life was worth it. “The motivation was basically that dream of going to Carnegie Hall and just performing,” said Murata, one of the band’s four euphonium players.
Seven high school bands and the University of Wisconsin Madison Wind Ensemble were invited to perform at the festival. Kaimuki Middle School was the first group to perform during the two-day program.
Understanding the caliber of talent that the band would be up against, along with the pres- sure of representing not only their school, but also the entire state of Hawai‘i, Ochi-Onishi selected compositions that she hoped would be provocative enough to impress the judges — pieces that had cultural significance and yet were works that her students could execute with great éclat.
For the ensemble’s first performance, Ochi- Onishi chose Samuel R. Hazo’s “Fantasy on a Japanese Folk Song.” The judges described Kai- muki Middle’s performance as “extraordinarily beautiful” and “a true test of the ensemble’s musicianship and the group played it with deep meaning, beauty and sonority.”
Their second performance was James Curn- ow’s “Where Never Lark or Eagle Flew,” an impressive work based on a poem written by an American pilot in World War II that reflects the young man’s love for flying. “Highly ma- ture” and “sonorous grandeur” were among the judges’ comments on the band’s performance.
Kimura, who had a significant solo in “Lark,” described the moment on stage as a rollercoaster of emotions.
“I was nervous before the song, but when it started, I just focused on the music and forgot about it. When it came time for my solo, I got those butterflies in my stomach, but I listened to the resonance (from my trumpet) and just played through.”
“Hawaii (March),” composed by Elmer Bernstein and arranged by Bill Kaneda, rounded out the band’s concert at Carnegie Hall. A standing ovation following their performance precluded the high scores and the Gold Award from the three adjudicators, which was the festival’s highest commendation.
“I was already immensely proud of my students — how the kids handled themselves, with all that pressure, the jet lag, the 30-degree weather. They did such a remarkable job,” said Fernandes. “Whether they had done well or not, I felt proud already. So, if there’s such a thing as frosting on the cake, we got the gold frosting on the cake.”
It may have been only 20 minutes on stage, but the memories will undoubtedly last a lifetime. “What I remember is just our whole band, in that moment, with all those band players, in Carnegie Hall,” said Murata with a recognizable tinge of pride in his voice.
Ochi-Onishi gets emotional whenever she reminisces about the trip, appreciating the commitment and work of her colleagues, the students and their parents that enabled them to debut on the stage of the iconic concert hall. “We’ll keep it forever; it was a huge part of our life experience. Having everyone go through it all together, it makes it that much more special.”
Fernandes and Ochi-Onishi said they have not yet decided where Kaimuki Middle School ensembles will perform in the coming years. The idea of playing at other festivals in the Midwest, or even auditioning for another festival at Carnegie, has been suggested. One thing is for sure: The bar has now been set much higher. Their hope is that other middle school music programs in Hawai‘i will take their lead and aim for their students to be exposed to similar experiences.
For the Kaimuki Middle School students, the question remains: After playing at Carnegie Hall at age 12 or 13 or 14, what else do you do?
Fujio was introspective. “You take stock of yourself and how you’re different and try to continue to do well and try to do better,” he said. “Now that you’ve had that experience, you know what you can do. Yet, you still don’t know what else you can do, so the sky is the limit. I don’t think Carnegie is the end.”
Added Fernandes, “I think for them, at a really tender age, they got a glimpse of how much is really possible if you’re willing to work towards it, and if you do it with others, it’s even more special. Hopefully, they all took away that sense that, ‘Wow, all things are possible.’” HH
Jill Kuramoto was a reporter and news anchor for KITV4 News for many years. Earlier this year, she was appointed director of communications for the Hawai‘i state Senate.