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Mr. Saito, Professor Okabe, Saskatoon and Me
My Introduction to the Saito Conducting Method - by Jim Tempest

The final chords of the Alberta Tattoo had barely ceased ringing in my ears as I headed to the Edmonton International Airport in the wee morning hours of July 23rd. After a week of stumbling about the Rexall Centre with 300 other musicians presenting a show about the 90th anniversary of Canada’s historic battle at Vimy Ridge and the efforts to erect the Vimy Ridge Memorial, I had to “shift musical gears” and prepare myself for a week long workshop with the preeminent teacher of the Saito Conducting Method in the world in, of all places, the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. And I only had a short, one hour plane ride to make the transition from performer to conductor.

In 2004, I had assumed the position of Bandmaster of the Band of the Fifteenth Field Regiment, RCA, an army reserve band based in Vancouver. The former conductor of the band, Richard Van Slyke, had decided to step aside and pursue other interests in the army reserves, starting with a tour in Bosnia as a peacekeeper. During the two years I had been conducting, I was happy with the results I had managed to attain musically with the group, but there was a nagging feeling that my conducting chops were not up to the standard I expected my musicians to deliver. I needed to address my weaknesses if I was going to take the group where I knew it could go. Throughout my professional career, I had been a “player” and like most performing musicians held a great distain for the “idiots” I had tried to follow from the podium for so many years. Now, with the shoe on the other foot, I felt the need to come to grips with what I knew were my own inadequacies as a conductor and to hopefully learn how to more effectively communicate with those I now led. If I was successful, I hoped to be thought of as something more than an “idiot”!

Like most university music students schooled in the United States, I was totally unfamiliar with the Saito Conducting Method. My limited conducting training had been drawn from the American band traditions as espoused in the texts of Elizabeth Green and Donald Hunsberger, which has its roots in the military band tradition. Further instruction I had received in the Canadian Forces came from the same tried and true approach to directing large ensembles. I knew Saito came from an orchestral perspective because several of my colleagues had studied with Dr. Gerry King at the University of Victoria or with Bruce Dunn at UBC, but that was the extent of my knowledge of the method. I was excited to try something new as I had heard so many positive things about the method but wondered whether it would apply to the work I did. I hoped the workshop would give me some of the tools I lacked and that it would allow me to get the musical results I wanted from my band with greater effectiveness but I wasn’t sure. At worst, I felt I would get some constructive feedback on what I was doing wrong that would make me a less awful conductor and that would at least show me more clearly what I needed to do to improve!

For those unfamiliar with the Saito method of conducting, a brief explanation. During his career as a professional cellist in the 1920s and 1930s, Hideo Saito had the opportunity to observe and perform for many of the great conductors of the time. A keen observer, he began to note what made one conductor more effective than another. What gestures did he use that allowed him to communicate most clearly with the musicians he led and obtain the best performance? Over time, Mr. Saito determined that the overriding secret to great conducting was clarity of gesture and a precise indication of where a conductor wanted “the beat” to be. The elaborate flailing exhibited by many conductors was, in his opinion, mere theatrics and did more to confuse the musicians than lead them. Those with the most refined and simple technique were most successful in obtaining the performances they desired from orchestras.

Saito began to develop a conducting method that concentrated on a clearly defined set of patterns, gestures and techniques that would allow a conductor to clearly communicate his or her intentions to the musicians he or she led. The resulting method has become known as the Saito Conducting Method and is primarily accepted as the “Japanese” method exhibited by virtually all of the great conductors to emerge from that country in the last fifty years. Seiji Ozawa and Kazuyoshi Akiyama are two of the most famous students to emerge from the school, but there are virtually hundreds from all over the world.

When I arrived at the airport in Saskatoon, Mr. Wayne Toews, the organizer of the workshop, was there to meet me and provide a lift to the University of Saskatchewan campus. Our first class was in an hour and I had to check in, set up my room and get organized! Wayne is one of many enthusiastic proponents of the Saito Method to be found in Canada. He studied the method during the 1970s, had participated in the preparation of the english language version of Mr. Saito’s text ten years later and gone on to be one of his most ardent proponents in the ensuing thirty years of his career. As a result, he was a close friend of Professor Morihiro Okabe, the guest lecturer who had come from Japan to instruct us.

Professor Morihiro Okabe is the preeminent teacher of the Saito Method in the world and has taught at Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo, Japan since studying with Mr. Saito during the 1950s. He has taught virtually all of the great Japanese conductors of the past two generations and still is vital and active although in his mid eighties. Through Wayne’s concerted efforts, Professor Okabe had agreed to come to Canada to lead a small group of us through a concentrated week of Saito Method. The syllabus was ambitious and Wayne explained that I was about to receive the same amount of material in a week that he had learned in his first year of study with the professor so many years ago!

There were twenty of us in the workshop and we spanned the spectrum in age, experience and ability. The youngest, Brendan, had just finished his second year as a music student at the University of Manitoba and the oldest was David, who had retired from a long career as a violinist with the New York Philharmonic only months prior to attending the workshop. We all sat nervously in the hall and awaited the arrival of Professor Okabe and wondered what the week ahead held.

After some brief introductions, we dove in. We began with an overall introduction to the method, an explanation of the overriding principals and then spent the next week working through a series of exercises developed by Professor Okabe to address each of the essential elements of the style. Days were long and action packed, often lasting twelve to fourteen hours. Divided into two groups, we spent half our morning with Wayne Toews or Professor Okabe and a pianist working on one of the exercises. After a short break, we would switch instructors and continue with the same material. Afternoons were spent with the group as a whole working on the morning material or learning new material. After a short break for dinner, we spent our evenings in discussion sessions or watching videos of conductors. Throughout, both Wayne and the Professor were there to encourage, instruct and challenge us. Mr. Ken Hsieh, presently of the Vancouver Symphony and a recent graduate of the Toho Gakuen School, was also on board to provide translation for the professor and offer his guidance. Two superb pianists, Dianne Gryba and Bonnie Nicholson, rounded out the staff. These two worked tirelessly for the entire week, and responded to our every conducting gesture, whether we wanted them to or not! And, every session was video taped so that we would all have a record when the week was done.

As the week wore on, everyone had his or her chance to work closely with the instructors and to receive wonderful critical feedback and guidance. Wayne is the consummate technician and has a masterful approach to teaching the subtleties of baton technique. His warm manner and amiable personality allow him to offer pointed criticism in the most positive and constructive way so that no matter how terribly badly I did, I still felt like I had made progress after each session with him. The Professor, on the other hand, concentrated on the artistry of the method and constantly challenged us to step outside our comfort zone and to extend ourselves to new heights. Despite a language barrier, his indomitable sense of humour and ability to communicate through gesture and expression allowed him to express exactly what he wanted me to do. Even though I never felt that I achieved what he was asking, each session with him left me inspired to try! Together, the two were the perfect complement in style and approach; I couldn’t have asked for more competent and effective instruction.

From the get go, I struggled with all the things I needed to NOT do to communicate more clearly with those I led. Although the patterns looked simple in the book, learning to control the speed of the baton throughout the entire gesture, determining where the “beat point” was and how to direct energy both into and out of it to obtain the desired response from the pianists proved to be extremely challenging. At times, I felt completely at a loss and wondered what the hell I was doing and whether I would ever figure this “Saito thing” out. Other times, when I did manage to control the stick and get exactly what I intended from my performers, I was elated. Fortunately, everyone else seemed to be on the same roller coaster as I was, so I knew that my experience was okay and that it was part of the “unlearning” that needed to be done so that I could grow as a conductor.

As I sit here six months later, I realize this workshop has had a profound effect on my ability as a conductor and, perhaps more importantly, on my perception of what my role truly is as one. I still struggle to maintain clear and precise baton technique whenever I am on the podium but the gestures I learned last summer are starting to come more naturally and I hear the results. I still refer to the text and materials I received at the workshop regularly, but I now understand that my job is to allow the music to come alive through the musicians I am fortunate enough to conduct and I continue to work towards that goal. And, given time and effort, I think I may achieve it.

There will be another workshop in July, 2007. Due to his advancing age and frailty of health, Professor Okabe may or may not be there to instruct. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him and would encourage anyone interested in conducting to consider the workshop whether the professor is there or not. Wayne Toews and his staff truly go above and beyond to make the experience positive and fulfilling for everyone who attends and you are guaranteed to find yourself a better conductor when you are done than when you arrived.