What Top Japanese School Bands Taught Me About Voice Overs

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This may come as a surprise, but I never wanted to be a voice over.

I still think it’s strange that I make a living talking to imaginary people reading scripts from folks I’ve never met, for clients I’ve never even spoken to.

But it beats digging ditches, flagging traffic in 100 degree weather, working in an Amazon warehouse, or doing the night shift at a meat processing plant.

In my teens I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to have a career in music.

THE MUSIC MAN

From the age of eight I played the cornet in what Americans would call a marching band, even though we didn’t march much. It was more of a concert band. Later on I added organ lessons, and I played the piano. I was also an avid collector of native flutes from all over the world, most of which I could play.

When I was sixteen years old I started taking conducting lessons, I began composing and arranging, and at eighteen I became the interim conductor of my band. After high school I went to Utrecht University to study musicology, even though I was admitted to a conservatory in the north of Holland.

As a university student, I joined a brass band, an orchestra playing broadway musicals, a jazz band, and a choir specializing in plainchant. I simply couldn’t sit still and be quiet. My life was music, and music was my life.

If you’d ask me today to choose between music or voice overs, I would choose music in a heartbeat. No doubt about it.

So, it won’t come as surprise that I’ve kept a keen interest in the world of brass bands, concert bands, classical music in general, and organ music in particular.

WATCH WITH ME

What I’m going to do next is a bit of a risk. I’m going to ask you to watch a spectacular seven-minute music video. What you’re about to see is a selection of the best Japanese high school symphonic bands taking part in a 2019 national competition.

Perhaps the music you’re about to hear is not your cup of tea. On the other hand, you might have played in a high school band yourself, or you may have friends who did. Perhaps you still play an instrument, and you’ll recognize and appreciate the level of musicianship you’re about to see.

Anyway, I hope you will watch a bit of it, or the whole thing, just to get a better feel for what I’m going to talk about next.

I don’t know about you, but when I watched this video for the first time, I was floored. Having played in this type of ensemble myself, I was blown away by the technical abilities of the teenagers on stage, but there was more.

If you’ve ever been a member of any school orchestra, you know there are always a few people who practice really hard, and a whole lot who are simply winging it. You can say the same about sports teams, by the way. It’s rare to have an entire youth orchestra with kids who seem to be so committed and so completely competent.

QUALITY AND DEDICATION

Another thing I noticed was that they’re not playing on crappy instruments. To me, this is proof that the schools are taking their music program seriously. It’s not an afterthought without a proper budget.

Some kids on stage are multi-instrumentalists. At 3:20 you’ll see a girl on the left playing a mallet percussion instrument walking over to the harp. Without missing a beat, she starts plucking the strings. 

What also struck me was the collective level of focus and dedication. No one was phoning it in. Of course this footage was shot at a competition, so that’s what one would expect, but here’s the thing. When you watch individual performances of these orchestras outside of a competitive setting (and there are tons of videos on YouTube), you’ll see the same level of energy, musicianship, and enthusiasm starting at the elementary school level.

Unlike my old orchestra, most of these school bands are also marching bands that frequently travel the world to show off their amazingly intricate routines. Click here to watch one of these shows. 

Back to the 2019 competition video. What impressed me most was that the performances weren’t only technically top-notch, but these teens were making real music with heart and with soul. Here’s the big question: How do they do it?

WHAT’S THE SECRET

As an academic discipline, music in Japan is just as important as mathematics. All of the musicians you see on stage started their music education in elementary school. If you don’t believe me, watch this video of an all-girl elementary school brass band playing “Jupiter” from the “The Planets” by Gustav Holst. And they’re doing it from memory!

So, what can we learn from music education in Japan?

Lesson number one: Start as early as you can, and whatever it is you do, have fun but take it seriously.

Lesson number two: Practice, practice, practice.

Most band members in Japan can’t rehearse at home, so they stay after school for a couple of hours on every weekday for individual and band practice, and sometimes during weekends and vacations as well. A band is only as good as its weakest link. No one wants to let the team down. 

Lesson number three: Keep at it. Don’t give up too quickly.

So many kids are ready to give up when things become challenging, and parents let them. How can you know that playing the piano is not for you after only a couple of  lessons? Successful people aren’t quitters.

Practicing does not come naturally. It requires discipline and needs to be learned. It takes time for habits to form. 

Lesson number four: Stay focused.

We live in a time of many distractions and short attention spans. Cell phones are always within reach, and in many homes the TV is always on. It’s easy for your mind to wonder off, if you don’t make whatever it is you want to become good at, a priority.

Lesson number five: Become an expert.

The best way to master something, is to teach it. In Japan, elder students are expected to educate the young, and younger students have to respect senior students. 

Lesson number six: Have an open, curious mind, and an eagerness to learn. 

Western band directors have marveled at the openness of the Japanese students to new ideas and noticed the apparent absence of “attitude.” Japanese students want to learn, they accept the information and instructions given to them, and most importantly, they do the work necessary to realize the desired results.

Lesson number seven: If you want to be at the top of your game, you have to have reliable equipment.

This means you need to have the means and the willingness to make a serious investment. A cheap instrument will only take you so far, and it will limit what you can achieve. 

Lesson number eight: Setting the bar high is a matter of tremendous pride.

Do these Japanese school orchestras consist of a bunch of overachievers? To the naive outsider that may seem the case, but in Japan these orchestras are of vital importance since they represent each school and its identity. 

Every year, prestigious national competitions are organized to elect the best orchestra. Imagine 14,000 bands with 800,000 competing musicians! This allows pupils to be highly motivated in terms of instrument practice because they want to defend the honor of their school.

Lesson number nine: Study the best performers in your field and keep on learning.

Japanese students are encouraged to watch live performances and learn from them. Observing top orchestras and individual performers can inspire students to up their game. The band director will often bring in professionals for clinics and joint performances to bring out the best in the students.

Lesson number ten: Cultures are different and unique. Not everything that works in Japan will work as well in the rest of the world.

For one, Japanese culture focuses more on the collective than on the individual. To an outsider, there seems to be greater (and an unhealthy) pressure to be perfect. Voice over Sean Daeley who has lived and worked in Japan told me:

“While I admit there is an element of cultural difference in perfectionism, the importance of not letting the band or your family down, and maybe even tiger mom/parentage, I’ve also talked to a number of adult students who reflected back on those experiences, saying while they may have hated it at the time, they were truly grateful they were encouraged to put in the time to enjoy the level of skill they still have as adults.”

BUT WHAT ABOUT VOICE OVERS

Here’s the connection.

Performing music is an art, and so is doing voice overs. A musician interprets the notes in a score, just as voice overs interpret the words on a page.

Before you can start a career as a voice over artist, you have to learn how to play your instrument. This takes time, practice, and concentration. You need careful guidance and a willingness to accept direction from people with more experience.

You have to leave your attitude of entitlement and “I know everything already” at the door. You don’t know what you don’t know. 

When you get advice from a VO veteran, don’t complain about the older generation pretending to be better than you are. Say “Thank you,” and repay him or her by putting it into practice and by paying it forward.

You need to focus, listen, and learn until you become so good at what you do, that you can teach the material to a new generation. It requires relentless dedication, time, and energy.

As someone who will be self-employed, no one will set the bar, but you. No one will get you out of bed, but you. No one will tell you what to do, but you. 

If you’re not disciplined enough to handle that (and most people aren’t), a voice over career isn’t your thing.

And finally…

Your studio will be your stage, and you’ll be performing for an audience you’ll never see.

So, don’t do it for the applause.

Do it for the music!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerdain Articles, Career, Personal

2 Responses to What Top Japanese School Bands Taught Me About Voice Overs

  1. Mike Harrison

    Brilliant!

    I totally enjoyed the competition video and immediately recognized each musician’s commitment to precision, quality. To getting it right… for the sake of the group endeavor as well as their own. Pride in performance.

    Thanks, Paul!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you for checking it out, Mike. There are so many parallels between being an accomplished musicians and a successful voice over. That’s why I like finding examples of excellence.

    [Reply]

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