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Does Anyone Here Speak English? A Muscial Education, and The Adventure of a Lifetime

by Thomas Schueneman



"Does anyone here speak English?"

This was the plaintive inquiry from my friend, Dave, as we entered the bank building, wet from a sudden summer rain...

We were fellow teen-age trombone players - an uncommon bond, as was being just fifteen years old, on a concert tour, and hopelessly lost in downtown Tokyo...

How did we get here, lost and wet, in a bank thousands of miles from home?


He paused a moment, struck a match, cupped his hands to his face, and lit his cigarette in a most "Sam Spade - Private Eye" fashion. The cigarette tip glowed orange as he drew on it. Blowing out the smoke he said, in a low tone, "I'll do it..."

I had just asked Soder if he knew anyone that could teach me how to play trombone. I'd already been playing trombone for several years... I wasn't very good at it. "Dying calf", and "elephant in heat" were descriptions of my sound with which I had become familiar. To make matters worse, I had just finished an eighteen-month regimen of orthodontia that did little good in my progress...

I was a shy, thin, gangling young man with thick glasses and pants that were too short... I was a nerd.

Soder looked at the task he had just accepted as more than teaching someone how to play trombone. I realize that now.

He was going to turn this boy into a musician. He was going to build the confidence that would allow me to "blow my horn", as it were...

At least he was going to try....


"I hope they get this mother off the ground..."

That's what my high school music teacher and mentor muttered under his breath as the jumbo 747 rumbled down the runway toward what seemed, in Mr. Robert Soder's eyes, an unlikely take-off.

Soder was an eccentric man, rife with peccadilloes that would send any good parent running in horror. Except that he was a brilliant musician and music teacher - a musical inspiration to his students. He sat next to me, with questionable sobriety, as we rolled down the runway that early July afternoon. My fellow band members and I were headed toward the glamorous and exotic - at least to my innocent fifteen-year-old sensibilities - a two-week concert tour of Japan. A chance to visit a distant land and perform for thousands of people...

It still seems glamorous and exotic, even to this now somewhat jaded and slightly road-worn forty-three old.

Young musicians from three bands were aboard the plane that day, representing the United States on a tour organized by a group called "Jazz International". North Texas State took the slot for the college band. The "All Star" band was made up of ringers from all over the county - the best of the best...

And then there we were, the Pleasant Hill High School Jazz Band.

We were in good company, and being chosen to be a part of this group was a product of Soders' love of music and teaching. He was able to bring out the best in young musicians, and the ensembles under his direction bore the fruit of his guidance and direction.


"Try that again..."

I put the horn to my lips and blew.

"One more time..."

I did it again...

He sat motionless for a moment. I wasn't sure what to think. Was it really that bad? I actually was feeling pretty good about my tone this morning...

"That's it, you've got it!" He pronounced excitedly, jumping up from his chair and walking out into the hall.

I heard him go into his bedroom and exclaim to his wife, "Carol, that was Tom! Do you believe it?"

"The rain in Spain falls mostly on the plain" - images of "My Fair Lady" danced in my head as Soder walked about the house, "He's got it!" ("By George, I think he's got it!")

The months of work and practice were starting to pay off.

I'm sure Carol, his nineteen-year-old wife and former student (another story for another time) was relieved. Perhaps her Saturday mornings would be a bit less jarring...


Our 747 landed in Tokyo on a hot Friday afternoon, having lost Thursday to the eccentricities of traveling across the international dateline. We arrived at our downtown hostel as the late afternoon sun, big and orange through the thick Tokyo atmosphere, settled into the horizon. I stood watching the endless stream of cars on the boulevard outside our hostel. The smog hung heavy in the air. Friday evening rush hour in downtown Tokyo...

We settled into our quarters, five or six of us to a room. Throughout Tokyo and Kyoto, I would sleep in a room consisting of a small entryway, piled high with shoes, with sleeping mats covering the rest of the room. Along one wall there was usually a small table with a pot and small cups for tea...

A bed was a luxury I would not enjoy until we made Osaka, over a week away. I grew accustomed to sleeping "Japanese style"…

It never occurred to me, as I eyed the bathroom facilities with suspicion that first night, that there was more than one way to... well, "skin a cat", as the saying goes. This I never did get used to. The long line into the only "western" style bathroom suggests I wasn't the only one...

To clean up we used the public bathing pool on the first floor. No showers would be available to us until Kyoto (one shower per floor) and Osaka, where we were spoiled rotten with our own private rooms with beds and showers.

Shared rooms were assigned based on alphabetical order of our last names. Soder was thus a roommate throughout most of our journey...

He would sneak in after we were all tucked away on our mats...

He kept the chaperones busier than the students did.

Exhausted from the long journey, I slept like a baby that first night in Tokyo…


I stood in his studio, trombone in hand, as he sat in front of me, a scotch and water resting on the arm of his chair. This was a make-up lesson on a Tuesday evening, not my usual Saturday morning slot. I liked these occasional make-up lessons. It usually meant I could just stand there with my horn and listen.... A bit of a switch from the normal lesson proceedings. I suspect it may have had something to do with the contents of the glass resting on the arm of his chair, but he was always on a more philosophical bent in the evenings... I just stood with my trombone and gleaned whatever truth I could from his pearls of wisdom. Or basked in the glow of his praise, even if it was all fueled with a slow Kentucky bourbon...

"I love teaching Tom... and you are my pride and joy. Do you remember how it was when we first started?"

Of course, I did. After all, I was the one walking through my young life as a skinny nerd with thick glasses and a green trombone case...

And all that was gone now. Contact lenses replaced the glasses, I was filling out, and I had the mark of a serious student of the trombone; a gleaming, new, "King" model 3BF horn tucked away in it's big, black trombone case as I walked to school. I loved that horn - and still do, I guess. I imagine I'll have that horn until the day I die...

Yes, we'd come a long way since that time. I secretly cherished his words…


Before leaving for Japan, I had purchased a little "book of phrases" so that I might be able to communicate at least essential information and inquiry to natives of this exotic land I was about to visit.

Like, perhaps, "I am lost"...

But to my surprise, it was largely unnecessary. The people of Japan in the mid-seventies were open and eager to try out their English on us. Which was generally much better than my Japanese.

Old Japan co-existed with the post World War II westernized Japan. Ancient and mystical Pagodas, with their colorful gabled roofs, lived next to McDonald's and Mr. Donuts. Vibrant-colored kimonos contrasted against smart, modern business suites. It seemed as if two worlds existed here. I can't say, even to my young fifteen-year-old eyes, that I particularly liked the intrusion of western capitalism in this culture. It appeared to be swallowing up the ancient culture. On the other hand, it was a welcome relief to be able to get some good ol' American fast food when my culinary adventurism waned. As it did on occasion...

Our first breakfast at the hostel consisted of salad, bread, and goats’ milk, if memory serves me. In any case, it was an odd enough selection - not really American, yet not Japanese either - that, on the second morning, I joined the group going to Mr. Donut for breakfast. Not something I am particularly proud of - but one does what one has to when in a strange new land, and it's time to eat...

I soon learned that almost all Japanese restaurants had little plastic models of the food on their menus. I could just point at what looked good, without really knowing what it was I was eating... A great way for a kid used to hot dogs and roast beef to branch out.


All through the winter of my junior year I practiced and rehearsed the piece, "Sonata in F major for trombone and piano". Perhaps not a toe tapper, but it would be my debut as a soloist at the California Music Educators Association Solo and Ensemble Festival.

The day of the festival was bright and sunny, as I arrived for my 11:30 slot, I went to the warm-up room, met my accompanist, and nervously pulled my horn from its case in preparation for my first solo competition. Years of work came down to the next few moments...

Soder couldn't make it to hear my performance. I'm not sure if that was intentional to help assuage my nervousness, or not. But I performed my piece to a judge and a handful of anonymous onlookers... Everything seemed to go well, but I wouldn't know how well until my score was posted after lunch...

I arrived back at the school after lunch with a musician friend, ready for the worst... Which never came. The scores for the various criteria ranged from a one to a four, one being the best. If you received straight ones, you were honored with a "Command Performance" (luckily, that didn't mean you had to perform your piece again... In fact, that day was the last time I've ever played "Sonata in F Major for trombone and piano"...) My friend ran ahead to the big scoreboard to get my score, I hung behind, my heart once again racing...

He ran back and exclaimed, "You've got straight ones! A command performance!"

I was thrilled and relieved.

A few moments later, I saw Soder in the hallway, who had already seen my score. He came up and hugged me, saying, "Tom, I'm proud of you man - we did it"

All those years of slogging away on my horn had paid off...

But all that was yet to come...


The hint of a smile spread on the young bank clerks face as he said, "Yes, I speak English"

"We're lost..." Dave started in as he described where we wanted to go. We would shortly be running late for our required gathering at the hostel to pack up and pile into busses for our next tour stop in Japan.

Our sense of urgency prompted our new friend to guide us toward the subway in order to get across town in time to forestall a panic by our chaperones... We had somehow managed to wonder across town, into the central business district.

I really don't recall how it happened. Dave and I thought we'd walk in a direction we hadn't before, but we never intended to end up across town. We thought we'd just walk a few blocks then circle back toward the hostel. Our American sensibilities, used to grids and straight lines, didn't comprehend the narrow, crooked streets of this ancient city.

We arrived back at the hostel as the entire group was massing in front of the building in preparation of boarding busses to take us to the overnight journey aboard a sea-going ferry to the Pearl Island, across the Sea of Japan.

We quickly changed out of our wet clothes, gathered our luggage, and prepared for our continuing journey across the Island of Japan. As I hurriedly stuffed the wet clothes into a plastic bag, and the bag into my suitcase, I reflected on the past few days... and anticipated the adventures yet to come...


The years into middle age have faded the memories, and distilled them into their essence. Like screen shots from a favorite movie; remembered, but not seen for many years...A quiet reverence hanging lazily in the hot, humid summer air as we respectfully followed, bare-footed, our tour guide through the ancient wooden structure of a Buddhist Temple...

The circus-like atmosphere of downtown Osaka... All neon and glitz, shops, booths, and storefronts. Some with painted ladies seductively posing in front of doors draped with black curtains... What went on behind those curtains? Most intriguing to a naive fifteen year old… Girls - women - being a complete mystery to me - even more so than now...

Sitting in a little nightclub in Tokyo, the band on stage rifling through their "book" to pull out the music for "I Left My Heart In San Francisco...", in honor of all the young American musicians in the club that night...

The policeman that offered to show a friend and I his little one-room substation in downtown Osaka, and talk of his life in Japan.

The temples and shrines, the charm and mystery of an ancient way of life... Being jerked wide awake as the first crimson rays of light filtered into our room, the bells of a Buddhist temple next door ringing in the dawn, as they did every morning in Kyoto...

Riding a bus in the coolness of late evening outside of Tenri, a small college town where we had just performed to adoring crowds. Rice paddies and surrounding forest shown in the eerie gray light of a full moon, casting a surreal feel to the land as it passed by our bus window.

I said to a friend, "This is a magical land..."

"Yes, it is..."

We rode on in silence....


Soder took a sip from his glass, "Tom, these are the days of wine and roses... Cherish them... They will never return"

I stood holding my horn and gave him a quizzical look. What did he mean by that?

And now, years later, I know exactly what he meant...



Tom lives in San Francisco and works as a sound engineer, freelance writer, and entrepreneur. He enjoys traveling, nature, reading, photography, and music.

 

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