Thoughts – 5 Ways Sound! Euphonium Nailed Concert Band Life

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[SPOILERS FOR BOTH SEASONS OF SOUND! EUPHONIUM AHEAD]

Back when the first season of Sound! Euphonium aired in 2014, it was one of the shows that I committed to doing weekly episodic reviews for, having chosen it based on nothing more than Anichart impressions. I believe I wasn’t the only one who expected it to be another one of KyoAni’s sugar-sweet high school dramas. And sure, everything was going as per fluffy-KyoAni-innocence until Kumiko Oumae dropped the ball by declaring that the concert band sucked. That’s when everything changed. I dropped Spring 2014 write-ups mid-way, but of all the shows I’d been following, Sound! Euphonium was the one I was most eager to come back to – at least to wrap up my final thoughts on it. 2 years and a second season later, it should come as no surprise that I finished Season 1 feeling like it was the best show I’d ever watched, which is what all great shows should make you feel.

To be honest, I feel that Euphonium is not for everyone. It stands in contrast to anime that glorify their subject matter in a way that makes the show comfortably enjoyable by “anyone”, prime examples being sports anime in the vein of Kuroko no Basuke, and of course, music-themed anime like Your Lie in April. The point of Euphonium is not to hype up concert band life in any exaggerated way. It’s a show that engages its target audience through the process of their identification with its trip-down-memory-lane portrayal of adolescence. Therefore, full enjoyment of the show is premised on having gone through certain unique experiences, preferably membership of a music group in high school. Those who have this very unique experience will get the show. Those who don’t, could find it boring, or at least enjoy it for reasons different from the former group, such as the shipping wars, which I unfortunately found the most meh part of the show. Probably didn’t help that I like Shuichi, whom everyone hates ☹

I should also add that this “exclusivity” of Euphonium dies down a little in its second season, with the conflicts taking on a more generalised nature. Taki’s motivations for being the band advisor, the Nozomi-Mizore dynamics and Asuka’s arc, are arguably things that aren’t “concert-band” or “music” centric, since you could rewrite them into a show like Free! and they would all work equally well. Only the Kumiko-Mamiko development feels vaguely relatable in a concert band setting. This doesn’t make Season 2 bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it definitely turns it into more of a “high school drama” than a “concert band drama”, in my opinion.

So, instead of doing a review of Euphonium per se, I wanted to give my personal thoughts on five truths about concert band life the show explores that you may have missed…and could perhaps make more sense of its more patently dreary moments for those who think they didn’t “get it” the first time round. Let’s dive in.

 

#1 Practicing Music will Suck, and if you don’t Practice then YOUR Music will Suck

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The first REALITY CHECK Euphonium throws the audience is that if you don’t practice, your playing is more-or-less guaranteed to blow. This stands in stark contrast to the likes of Disney’s High School Musical, which sells the story that “believing in your dreams” is the key to superstardom, or Glee!, the worst offender when it comes to preaching that being an ace performer means “being yourself”. Sure, there’s a point at which all those things become relevant. But before you get there, there’s a long, long journey of getting your basics right…which so far, only Euphonium has bothered to talk about.

Real musicianship often lies in the mundane – the Kitauji band is relegated to training breath control, running laps in the hot sun to build stamina, doing endless scales, repeating bars, taking down lots of notes in coloured pens on scores, attending sectionals, tuning their instruments, and so on. It all looks boring, sure, but it’s reality. Recently a friend asked me how to get good at “singing”, since I was in high school choir and trained in choral music. My answer was that getting good at “singing” is a pain in the neck. My choir used to spend at least half an hour on warm-ups – which meant practicing breath control, singing scales in all vowels up and down the keyboard on repeat. Just like the Kitauji band.

Even making the “beautiful music” is a painful process. Once you’ve moved onto the actual piece, it takes more than just “channelling the emotions” to create something worth listening to. Lots of music-themed anime don’t explore this point, since most of them focus on soloists (for example, Nodame in Nodame Cantabile or Kousei in Your Lie in April), and therefore the issue of dynamics isn’t something that needs to be verbally discussed. In group music, there’s no such thing as personal interpretation. The only interpretation everyone follows is that of the conductor, which is why Taki-sensei spends so much time pointing out exact bars and dictating his preferred approach to playing it. When he says, don’t play it with a “bang”, play it with a “BANG” – everyone is expected to cooperate for the effect to work.

You may be shocked to learn that that’s how enthralling classical music is born. Certainly, as mentioned, there comes a point beyond which all dynamics have been incorporated and there’s nothing left to teach. That’s when it becomes up to a real musician to bring the piece to life – but it doesn’t happen without painful, boring practice to lay the groundwork.

 

#2 Everyone Starts at the Bottom

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The idea of a “genius” connotes the implication that being one is a rarity. And by the way, no geniuses exist in the Kitauji band. Reina is a great trumpet player because she’s been doing it her whole life, and takes private lessons. Asuka has been playing the euphonium since she was a little girl. So has Kumiko. Sapphire played contrabass in grade school. Sound! Euphonium gives credible reasons as to why each of the more outstanding players have attained the standard that they enter the band with, and instead of attributing it to “natural talent” gives the more plausible explanation that these are members who have trained for much longer than others.

In contrast, there’s Hazuki. At the start of Season 1, Hazuki’s untrained ear can’t even tell that the band is pitchy and falling off rhythm, so she responds to everything with sparkly eyes and “uwahhh” sounds. In contrast, Sapphire is the one who discretely mentions that Kitauji sounds more like they’re aiming for a prefectural silver. Hazuki’s enthusiasm to spark off her music journey contains a whole lot of excessive drama about choosing her instrument and giving it a cute name. Then she tries to blow into Tubacabra, and the reality strikes when all we hear is an airy, flat, deflated string of noise. It’s not that she’s talentless. That’s what the beginning of a musician’s journey actually looks like.

Connected is the idea that because there are few geniuses in this world, there are few instances of unnatural acceleration in skill. Natsuki-senpai, who experiences an epiphanic desire to join the competition group, puts in an unusual amount of practice to push herself away from her amateur standard. But the miracle doesn’t come, and her loss to Kumiko for a position in the group isn’t owing to a lack of talent, but a difference in the amount of overall investment into their practice time. You could even argue that towards the audition itself, Natsuki becomes more hardworking than Kumiko, but it’s too late for that. Unless one’s practice is regular and consistent, the harsh truth is that a musician will stagnate.

To be fair, this notion of “hard work” is not uncommon in anime. Naruto can feature characters like Rock Lee, dubbed the “genius of hard work”, whose modern counterpart Saitama from One-Punch Man also got to where he was because of some 1000 sit-ups / 1000 squats routine which I can’t for the life of me commit to memory. Sports anime is all about hard work and arduous training. But if you think hard about it, there’s still always some suspension of disbelief in all of it, or we wouldn’t have all these “Bwaaaaaa—???? He just defeated that veteran????” scenes where the main protagonist manages to surpass former rivals after lots and lots of “hard work”. Euphonium takes a realistic approach what “hard work” encompasses, which means that in Euphonium’s world Hazuki will never overtake someone like Sapphire, not even by the end of high school. It’s just how it is in a world where real geniuses are few and far in between.

 

#3 The Struggle of Seniority vs Meritocracy is REAL

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One of Euphonium’s ovation worthy arcs is the Reina vs Kaori Trumpet-Solo-Death-Match, and probably my own favourite arc of Season 1, rivalled only by Taki-Sensei’s motivation tactics in the first half. It is, after all, Euphonium’s first foray into the inevitable band politics. The notion of “politics” in high school group clubs creates the impression that someone is stirring up drama for the sake of it. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about Yuko. But Yuko’s penchant for whiny outbursts would be most people’s idea of how “drama” begins, by blowing a relatively simple problem way out of proportion. Right?

Well, Euphonium deceives its audience into thinking that the gossip and rumours are the underlying stimuli for the politics of who-gets-the-trumpet-solo. The issue initially seems like a frustrating misunderstanding about favouritism towards Reina, who it is revealed is Taki’s personal acquaintance. All it should take is for Taki to explain himself properly, the band members to stop judging so quickly…anything for both sides to have some trust in each other. That’s what politics is normally about, so the normal way of resolving things is to talk it out, like Kumiko and Natsuki-senpai do over chocolate and strawberry shakes. But as the story unfolds, the complicated truth comes to light.

The politics in Euphonium is always driven by the tussle between two competing “goods”. In the case of Kitauji’s initial hatred towards Taki-sensei, it was a competition between the value of excellence, and the value of enjoying one’s high school years. Neither are bad things, by the way, and if the band had chosen to steer themselves down the K-On!!! route, it wouldn’t have been any less valid of a choice than aiming for Nationals. The problem is that there is no in between. Either their high school days were going to be made significant because of torturous practice and rewarding results, or significant because of fun memories.

The Reina vs Kaori arc is one driven by the competing benefits of awarding a solo based on seniority, versus meritocracy. Initially, Euphonium presented the “meritocracy” approach as the way to go, because for the first time it would weed out all the lazy seniors who had never practiced a day in their lives. The fair results of the auditions amongst the bass section drove home the point, after all. But neither Kaori nor Reina are shown to be less hardworking than the other, so there’s no basis of comparison there as to who should get the solo. Which means that in a utilitarian sense of doing what’s best for the band and for Kitauji’s chances to win the National gold, the better player ie Reina deserves it more, right?

But then comes Yuko, who raises the point that it’s Kaori’s last year. And in that second, it flips the meritocracy argument right on its head. Yuko’s statement is one that will only be significant to those who joined high school clubs, especially those who had to fight for places in their own clubs for a position. After all, club life is incomplete if you didn’t get to have certain experiences that went above and beyond the average member. If you were in drama and never got to be anything beyond a forgettable supporting cast member…if you were in orchestra and never got to have a solo part…if you never got to be part of the committee in the club and take a leadership role…it could almost feel as if you didn’t have a high school life. Reina’s “I want to be special” refrain exemplifies her foresight on that front – it’s actually something only seniors are allowed to openly consider since they’ve “earned” the right, but she’s not unusual.

All the more poignant is the thought that Kaori got played out twice by the cruel irony of her situation – in a year where seniority did matter, she lost out to a slacking senior, and in a year where seniority stopped mattering, she lost out to a veteran trumpet player two whole years her junior. Considering this is Japan we’re talking about, where the rules of seniority are so entrenched that Kumiko has to speak to Aoi differently at school, Taki-sensei’s approach is pretty radical. But the momentary victory of the meritocracy approach is ultimately sobering, because like Yuko says, it really is Kaori’s last year. Euphonium is a high school drama, after all, and the fleeting nature of youth is merciless. Kaori will never, ever get the chance to play a solo in a high school band again. Reina will get two more years to have a go at a solo, but Kaori won’t. In the moment that Reina accepts the solo, Yuko’s wailing outburst of anguish is the perfect embodiment of what Kaori has every right to feel.

 

#4 What Actually makes the Success of a Band? Not necessarily Love and Friendship.

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Because anime is storytelling, it’s somewhat mandatory to keep up the narrative that the greatness of one’s performance must lie in direct correlation to the strength of their character and the state of their friendships. Across mecha pilots, magical girls, athletes…it’s almost a given that where there is inner conflict or discord with one’s teammates, the battle-of-the-week will end in failure, but when everything gets resolved, the opposite happens and there some deus-ex-machina luck is then bestowed upon the protagonist team. Lots of boss-fights conclude by having the rival / villain falter because of unreconciled hatred within their hearts, teaching us the good old lesson that those who persevere with love will overcome anything. Or something to that effect.

Up until the end of Season 1, and arguably the end of Season 2, Asuka Tanaka is the abnormal exception to this rule. Asuka is a talented euphonium player, a charismatic vice-president, and by the looks of things she’s also a fairly effective teacher. But right up to the end, she’s also distant and aloof towards everyone else except the privileged Kumiko, even the friends who’ve stuck by her throughout her band years. She admits that she has made selfishly personal choices in the name of “the concert band”, but still none of this has stopped her from being really good at what she does. In the end, she has some semblance of personal attachment to the band, but of course it’s overshadowed by a stronger desire to earn her estranged father’s recognition, and at graduation her personal preference is to slip away quietly, without so much as a goodbye to the rest of the band members. Asuka is not the band’s most loyal member, although she’s probably one of its star members. Asuka the person and Asuka the Kitauji euphonium player are separate entities; each one is unrelated to the other unless you’re Kumiko Oumae.

The band’s relationship with Taki-sensei rings of that quality as well. By the way, I just have to say, if you’ve ever done competitive sports or music and didn’t want to wring the neck of your coach at least once, then you didn’t get a real coach (kidding). Right to the end, the Kitauji band members don’t “love” Taki-sensei, as is obvious from the scattered awkwardness towards him in the final episode, though their disappointment probably catalysed that response. But Taki-sensei, whilst being professionally amazing at what he does, has never been an explicitly caring teacher anyway, except maybe for that one moment that he drives Kumiko home in a thunderstorm. He’s a sensei in every sense of the word, there to hammer music techniques into his students, not invest in their “personal lives”. It isn’t even an issue of “tough love”, but the fact that he’s doesn’t really love his students; he loves the process of teaching and making good music. Neither students nor sensei connect beyond the music (unless of course, once again, you’re Kumiko Oumae – and maybe Reina Kousaka) but that doesn’t have any bearing on how good or bad his work actually is.

Not that friendships and good values don’t affect the quality of the performances, because of course they do. Euphonium simply does a great job of dispelling the myth that there is a necessary connection between the two things. Whilst Asuka and Taki-sensei are almost regarded like pillars of the band despite being relatively reclusive from the rest once the practice ends, the other members certainly come off as more “normal”. We see that the band’s overall mood and therefore their playing can be dampened by scandals and bad news. In contrast, Mizore’s oboe solo (my favourite solo of the series) blossoms once she patches things up with Nozomi.

A side note, though, whilst the success of a band doesn’t need to depend on everyone’s bonds, the one thing that does matter is its leadership. President Haruka is a gem like no other, a character for whom I could write essays if I had the time. If there was any real reason that the Kitauji band picked up and began to climb, it’s not just Taki-sensei’s brutal training, but Haruka’s determination to put aside her insecurities and lead because she is the President of the band. Haruka herself takes the liberty to voice the one thing even we as audience were thinking – that everyone only likes her because she’s nice. The one thing she didn’t add was that she’s too nice to be respected – at the start, anyway. But once she toughens up and starts having the guts to discipline her members, that’s when the band moves forward.

 

 #5 Ah, the Everlasting “Competition” Dilemma 

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Sound! Euphonium opens with a poignant flashback of Kumiko and Reina’s encounter in the wake of devastating competition results, the rift between them forming because Kumiko reacted the “wrong way” to a dud gold. It probably wasn’t obvious at this point, but one of Euphonium’s subtler messages was that competitions can be a polarising affair. Just remember that the trauma of recalling Reina’s scandalised tears nearly stopped Kumiko from joining the Kitauji band itself.

The “competition” dilemma doesn’t explicitly come up again in Season 1, mostly because at this point the assumption is that “lots of hard work” will sort of guarantee a reward in the form of a gold, and the Season 1 ending doesn’t contradict that. The competition does nevertheless catalyse the problem of auditions to slim down the number of participating members, but it’s not like anyone questions why the band needs to comply with competition rules anyway.

Season 2 is where it all starts to come up again, as they move further and further into the final rounds of the Nationals. Mizore, in her kuudere way, tells Kumiko at the training camp that she hates competitions. That propels Kumiko to ask various people for their two cents on the issue. Yuko tells her that competitions can suck because judgement is entirely arbitrary, with judges being candid enough to dismiss months of hard work with the critique that the band was “doomed from the moment it chose this piece of music”. Reina offers a more heartlessly Reina-like opinion, saying that criticising the nature of a competition is only a right that the winners possess.

Any music group that takes competitions seriously will someday find itself struggling with the same thoughts. On one hand, competitions are good, because they drive people towards pursuing excellence. At the same time, you can really hate them in the heat of the moment, especially after losing one. Try as one might, there it’s virtually impossible to go into a competition settled that you’ll be euphoric if you win but at peace even if you lose, just because all the hard work was worth it. Even Taki-sensei isn’t as enlightened as all that, seeing how Kumiko later discovers that his apparent nonchalance about the band’s choice of “working hard versus having fun” conceals a strong personal desire to lead the band to a gold at the Nationals. Nobody is okay with losing…literally, nobody.

That uncomfortable truth probably explains why episode 12 of Season 2 closes on the note that it does. Kitauji doesn’t win the gold at the Nationals – in fact, it wins a rather disenchanting bronze. The band’s actual performance isn’t even shown, suggesting that the writers weren’t bothering to indulge us with the preachy message that it’s the enthralling performance that truly counts. We’re left in the dark about why the panel thought Kitauji deserved a bronze – was theirs a stellar performance or not? Well, we don’t know. If it was, then the outcome simply echoes Yuko’s sentiments that judging a musical performance is an arbitrary thing. If their playing really did blow, then it just goes to show that everybody is off form on some days. Overall, my own suspicion is that Kitauji’s best at that point was indeed deserving of a National bronze, because even entire bands have to incrementally build up their standards year-by-year.

But anyway, if you notice, literally nobody says that it was “okay” to lose the Nationals. It isn’t! The disappointment sort of gets swept under a rug as the next pressing issue of the senior’s graduation and farewell looms over the band. With the announcement of new anime instalments in the Sound! Euphonium franchise, however, there is a possibility that the members’ true sentiments towards the loss will be revisited as they grab hold of a fresh start to the competition season. I guess you could also say that the loss makes sense writing-wise in view of the upcoming instalments, since that allows the elusive goal of the national gold to remain. But we’d best be prepared that the new Kitauji seniors will be ever more ravenous for the gold.

 

So these have been my final thoughts on this gem of a show that I’ve immensely enjoyed following. I was sucked into Sound! Euphonium feeling like the insider with the special glasses that allowed me to view every detail of every scene with a different perspective. Everything about the Kitauji band felt real, believable, and nostalgic, like I’d seen all of it before. (For the most part, I did, actually.)

KyoAni makes beautiful shows, we know that. But this one was especially beautiful for me. And although I know that the ins and outs of high school concert band life will never be fully appreciated by the world at large, to think that the show must surely have brought comfort and joy to ex-band geeks is one of the reasons that anime is truly a medium like no other. Sound! Euphonium is one such example of a show that makes one’s memories matter. It deserves all the praise that it has received.

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