Sarah Tochiki: Music director shares love of lyrics and notes with students

LIHUE — There were the trio of concerts celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center. This included the appearance of guest conductor Michael Nakasone, retired from the Royal Hawaiian Band, and Pearl City High School leading the Kauai Youth Honor Band. It also included the appearance of Abe Lagrimas, Jr. of Los Angeles who worked with the Kauai Community College Jazz Ensemble.

Then, with just a few days to rest, there was the Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School spring concert at the Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall. Another few days of rest, and there was the craft fair for Mother’s Day benefiting the Kauai All-Island Band — all taking place within a span of a week.

“We’re just working,” said Sarah Tochiki, music director at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. “Everyone is working — working hard.”

What other musical hats do you have?

I direct the bands at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School, which is more than 250 students in their first, second, and third years. We have a marching band in the fall semester and a year-long volunteer Jazz Band that meets after school.

I co-direct the Kauai All-Island Band, which will be participating in the Holiday Bowl Parade, Field Show Competition, and half time show in San Diego this December.

I also direct the Kauai Community College Instrumental Music Program. We have a Jazz Ensemble, Symphony Orchestra, and Wind Symphony all which have a variety of students who take the classes for credit through the college, or through the KCC Office of Continuing Education and Training.

But even with all of these things that I do, it is never about me. It is always about our musicians and whatever I can do facilitate great experiences for all.

How do you work together with the other music directors (band masters) on Kauai?

We have great music educators on our island who put in lots of time and effort into providing their students with the best musical education.

I try to do what I can to support all of the band programs on island by providing opportunities to their students to further the music educations of all students.

For example, we have our Kauai Solo and Ensemble Festival and it is open to all band students on the island. We fly in professional musician judges from Oahu to evaluate the students on solo and small group performances and then they have a chance to win medals for the quality of their performances.

We also have the Kauai Youth Honor Band where we bring in a well-known band conductor to work with the students intensely for a week for a concert. And we’ve revived the Kauai All-Island Band, which was the idea of Mr. Larry McIntosh.

This is a band of students from all over the island to travel and provide the student with experiences they can only get through travel.

Last year, we were the first band from Hawaii to appear in the National Memorial Day Parade on the East Coast.

Our island is really blessed with great music educators.

How does music impact a student in school?

Music is good for students academically, emotionally, and socially.

Being in band is not just about students learning to play instruments. They learn to communicate, work hard, be disciplined, work well with others, strive for excellence, build their confidence, and be brave. Students have to multi-task to play an instrument and it is so good for their brains.

I feel privileged to be able to make music with such wonderful students every day.

How did you get started in music? What was your career path?

I started playing the trumpet in the seventh grade and band quickly became my passion and my place of belonging.

There is no greater feeling than being a part of a group of musicians in a performance, and those fellow musicians turned into great friends.

Following high school, I went to the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin, where I received my Bachelor of Music Degree in Trumpet Performance and Instrumental Music Education.

Then I moved back to Oahu for a while, unsure of what I wanted to do.

I applied to the Hawaii Department of Education and said I would be willing to move anywhere in the state to teach band. About a month later, I got the lucky call from Mrs. Debra Badua, principal at CKMS, interviewed and got the job.

I continue to stay here because Kauai is so supportive of the performing arts and of their children participating in the performing arts. The parents help make our programs and the students are great to work with.

I thought I would only stay for a few years, where after I became tenured, I would move back to Oahu.

But here I am nine years later, still here with even more plans for what I’d like to do for our awesome community.

Who are some of the influential people in your life who helped you on your musical pathway? How did they influence you?

I would not have gotten this far without the support of my family. From the very first notes I played on the trumpet until today, they have always supported everything that I do.

I also had great teachers. Mrs. Karen Murata, my middle school band director was very influential in first inspiring me and I continue to ask for her advice.

My trumpet teacher in middle and high school, Mr. George Nomura, was very strict but I learned so many things about music and life from him.

And Mr. Larry McIntosh — I did not have him as a teacher, but he was very influential in helping me get started here on Kaua‘i. He still inspires me to do good for our island as he did for the thousands of students he taught.

Are there any notable students who are successful after studying music?

I believe every student is successful after studying music.

To me, it doesn’t really matter if they don’t grow up to be professional musicians — what matters is that they grow up to be good people.

If they now have the courage to perform in front of an audience or to persevere even when things get tough, that is a success.

I look forward to watching the accomplishments of all the students and am proud when I see the accomplishments of former students.

My biggest privilege is getting to meet all of our young musicians when they start in band in the 6th grade, helping them learn their first notes on their instruments, and then seeing them progress through their music careers.

What would you like to see happen to music as it relates to student-based music (i.e., concerts, public concerts like the one under the trees at the Historic County Building, etc.), and how would it help the students?

I would like to see us continue to grow our music programs on the island and to expand the opportunities for students to gain proficiency on their instruments to a higher level.

I would like to bring in more professionals from throughout Hawaii and the United States to come and work with all of our musicians. We can learn so much from those experiences.

I would also like to see groups collaborating more with ensembles and musicians from across the state.

This past October, the Honolulu Wind Ensemble did a joint performance with the KCC Wind Symphony and this past April, the Stevenson Middle School Band did a joint performance with the third year band at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. It was a great experience to collaborate and network.

Music brings people together.

How amazing would it be if Kauai became the destination that musicians and musical ensembles want to visit and perform with our musicians of all ages?


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