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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, April 5, 2005

The band plays on

"I try to look after the band members like family. If all of their needs are met and they're happy, it shows in the music."

— Michael Nakasone | Royal Hawaiian Band leader
Photos by Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Michael Nakasone was in the third grade the first time it happened.

New bandmaster Michael Nakasone directed the Royal Hawaiian Band at last month's celebration of Kuhio Day at the Prince Kuhio Federal Building. The band has 13 performances scheduled this month.

Photos by Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Michael D. Nakasone

Age: 60

Family: Wife Brenda, children Kenneth (attorney) and Shelley (pharmacy student)

Experience: Director of bands at Wahiawa Intermediate School (1968-73), Mililani High School (1973-77) and Kamehameha Schools Summer School Performing Arts (1990-2005); conductor, Hawaii Youth Symphony Association (1989-2005); director of Performing Arts Learning Center, Pearl City High School (1995-2005); director of bands, Pearl City High School (1977-2005); bandmaster, Royal Hawaiian Band (2005-present)

Education: Bachelor of education (UH-Manoa); master of education (UH-Manoa).

Major awards: School Band & Orchestra Recognition Awards' "50 Directors Who Make a Difference" (2002); Hawaii Music Award for Lifetime Achievement (1998); Hawai'i State Teacher of the Year (1996); United States Collegiate Wind Bands Citation of Honor (1996); John Philip Sousa Foundation Legion of Honor Award (1995); Sousa Foundation Sudler "Flag of Honor" (with Pearl City High School Concert Band, 1992); Certificate of Recognition and Appreciation from Hawai'i state Senate (1984).

"There were 150 people in the audience," Nakasone recalls. "We got up there and played our ukuleles and when we were finished, they gave us a standing ovation.

"I'll never forget that feeling," he says. "As a musician, you never, ever forget that feeling."

The ovations have followed the 60-year-old Nakasone from hometown Hilo to adopted Honolulu, from his first tentative strums of the 'ukulele to his later mastery of piano and saxophone, from his first teaching jobs at Wahiawa Intermediate and Mililani High School through 28 celebrated years as director of the Pearl City High School band and finally to his latest position at the helm of the storied Royal Hawaiian Band.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann tapped Nakasone to replace Aaron Mahi, who had served as bandmaster for 24 years. And while Mahi's ouster drew protests from some Native Hawaiian groups and others, few directly questioned Nakasone's general qualifications as a band leader.

Setting the standard for local high school band programs, Pearl City under Nakasone's leadership was the only high school band in Hawai'i ever to receive the John Philip Sousa Foundation's Sudler Flag of Honor — a major honor — and the first to perform at the prestigious Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago.

Nakasone's national affiliations (he's one of a select few to be elected to the American Bandmasters Association) and proven ability to raise funds were also cited as major factors in his appointment. Nakasone was instrumental in raising the millions of dollars necessary over the years to send the school band to its numerous high-profile national performances, including those at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York and the Tournament of Roses Parade in California.

For Nakasone, who spent a career developing the talents of emerging musicians, the opportunity to lead a band of artists in full bloom has been exhilarating.

"This is a band with incredible, highly trained musicians at the top of their game," Nakasone says, a pinch-me smile breaking across his face. "During our first rehearsal together, I had to stop just to tell them that. I'm amazed at the quality of sound and the quality of their playing.

"I'm honored to be able to conduct this band," he says. "I feel that with this band, the horizon is unlimited."

Nakasone's enthusiasm is apparent in the hours he now keeps.

Since taking over the nation's only full-time municipal band on Feb. 16, Nakasone has been a whirl of plans and preparations, a font of ideas and designs for realizing them.

"It's a seven-day-a-week job," Nakasone says. "But I love it."

Nakasone wakes at 4 every morning and, after a brisk half-hour on the treadmill, sets to work researching new music, rehearsing the band, tending to administrative duties and working his contacts in the community.

The band, established by King Kamehameha III in 1839, keeps a busy schedule; it has 13 performances scheduled this month alone. Each performance consists of 14 selections, drawn from a broad and constantly expanding repertoire of old and new Hawaiian songs.

"Hawaiian music has the most beautiful melodies," Nakasone says. "I want to promote this music nationally and internationally. We should have everyone singing our Hawaiian songs."

Nakasone is working on several initiatives designed to build stronger relationships within the community, support local composers and enhance the band's standing here and abroad, including inviting local hula halau to perform with the band, commissioning new haku mele (with the hopes of having those works published and distributed internationally), and establishing scholarship and internship programs for Native Hawaiian students and musicians.

For Nakasone, the keys to realizing these goals are perseverance, cohesiveness and collaboration, lessons he learned at the feet of mentors like Henry Miyamura, Richard Lum and Saburo Watanabe.

Michael Nakasone, directing the band's Kuhio Day performance, also handles its music selection, administration and community contacts.

His approach to managing the band, however, is inspired by his wife, Brenda.

"My wife supported me through my whole career and she's always found a way to keep our family happy," he says. "When a family is happy, it shows.

"I try to look after the band members like family," he says. "If all of their needs are met and they're happy, it shows in the music."

For Nakasone, the notion of success as a continuum of shared stewardship is significant.

Royal Hawaiian Band's April Performances


Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, Hibiscus Court, 1-2 p.m.


Polynesian Cultural Center's Celebration of Youth Parade from Fort DeRussy to Kapi'olani Park, 6 p.m. start


'Iolani Palace, noon-1 p.m.


Windward Mall, 11 a.m.


Kapi'olani Park Bandstand, 2-3 p.m.

April 15

'Iolani Palace, noon-1 p.m.

April 17

Kapi'olani Park Bandstand, 2-3 p.m.

April 22

'Iolani Palace, noon-1 p.m.

April 24

Kapi'olani Park Bandstand, 2-3 p.m.

April 29

'Iolani Palace, noon-1 p.m. Michael Nakasone | Royal Hawaiian Band leader

He can't talk about his love of music without speaking of the elementary school teachers who taught him to play the 'ukulele and to understand the meaning of the Hawaiian words he sang. He won't accept praise for his accomplishments at Pearl City High School without pointing to the advance work of Pearl City Highlands Intermediate School band director Boniface Leong.

And he can't talk about the future of the Royal Hawaiian Band without first acknowledging his predecessor.

"I feel Aaron Mahi did a great, great job with the Royal Hawaiian band and he left a tremendous legacy," Nakasone says. "I'd like to continue and expand his great work."

As averse to controversy as he is allergic to talk of his personal accomplishments, Nakasone remains reluctant to address the controversy that surrounded Mahi's ouster and his own appointment.

"It was difficult for both Aaron Mahi and myself," Nakasone says. "I'd like to put that behind us now."

Nakasone says that when he and Mahi recently met over breakfast, Mahi was generous with his support and advice.

And when Nakasone arrived for his first day on the job, he found a copy of Scott Stone's book "The Royal Hawaiian Band: Its Legacy" with a handwritten message from Mahi: "To Mike, Take this as my gift of support to your tenure as the new director of the organization I loved and cherished these last twenty-four years. With my aloha and best wishes, Aaron Mahi."

This time last year, Nakasone assumed he would spend another 10 years at Pearl City before retiring at age 70. Today he's staring out into that unlimited horizon, wondering how many ovations are yet to be raised.

"I feel privileged, blessed and very humbled," he says. "I've had a great career, and for this to happen to me now — what a way to top it."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.