For Khanh Nguyen, music and adventure are the two greatest pleasures in life. In the week, he teaches music to elementary students, and on the weekends he is traveling. He has not spent a weekend at home in months.

I sat down with him to pick his brain about these two passions, and he has a lot of knowledge about them. Tune your instruments, and pack your bags.

It’s time for a musical adventure with Mr. Nguyen.

Getting to Know Mr. Nguyen

Give me an Elevator Pitch for yourself

I like adventure, I like music, and yeah that’s pretty much it. I talk a lot, so it’s tough to fit everything I want in an Elevator Pitch. But that seems about right.

Where are you from and where are you now?

Originally, I’m from the Bay Area, specifically a town called Freemont, about 45 minutes from San Francisco. But usually, I just tell people I’m from San Francisco since it’s more well-known. I find that I resonate with San Francisco’s culture a little better than Freemont’s as well.

But at the moment I am a music teacher at Gunma Kokusai Academy in Ota, Gunma. Unlike many other foreigners, I am not teaching English but rather music in English.

It must have been a big endeavor to move across the Pacific for work. What other places have you been?

Well its a long list, so I’ll just give you the highlights.

Khanh stops in Moab, Utah to take in Canyonlands National Park (via Facebook)
Khanh stops in Moab, Utah to take in Canyonlands National Park (via Facebook)
  • During college I crossed America five times, four in a car and one on a motorcycle. I saw a lot of National Parks during that time, and they are some of my favorite places to be in the world.
  • I have taught music in the Philippines a few times at a summer camps there. They were all in Bukidnon, a mountainous region of Mindanao, one of the main islands.
  • During high school I did a couple Orchestra Tours of Europe, so I’ve seen some of those countries. But I was young and in high school, so I didn’t get as much out of it as I could have.
  • My most recent musical tour was in China two years ago during college. I was a part of the Eastman Saxophone Project, and we played in Shanghai, Nanjing, Jinan, and Beijing

Where do you still want to go?

In terms of places I want to go, that answer is a little simpler.

I love Asia, so I want to see more of it. I still have yet to see Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. And my parents are from Vietnam, so I feel a sort of obligation to see and explore the country. I was there ten years ago, but I barely remember, and I’ve heard much has changed in that time.

And one of my big dreams is to do a world-wide motorcycle trip. In my head, I would ride from Japan to London on a small 125 cc motorcycle. I think that would make for an incredible experience and story to tell my kids.

That’s definitely ambitious. Do you have a route in mind?

Yes and no. I haven’t thought this out too much, but I have a list of places I want to hit along the way.

I like the sound of island hopping through Okinawa and catching a ferry to Taiwan. From there I would make my way over to China, and if not that I would go down through Southeast Asia. But at some point I will have to hit China.

I’d also like to see the Himalayas and India, and then I would really like to see Afghanistan. The picture I have seen of Afghanistan’s mountains are breathtaking. I’d like to see the Middle East and Africa as well, especially for the landscapes they each have.

Mr. Khanh’s Musical Musings

So it’s safe to say that travel is a big passion of yours. What are your other passions?

From 7th grade I have always been really into music. I was very emotional (but what preteen isn’t?), and music was something that really spoke to me. And my 7th grade music teacher played a big role in that.

He worked really hard and loved music, and it showed in his work. His goal was to ensure we had the best musical experience, and I admired his dedication to it. He wanted the next generation to have a meaningful relationship with music, and because of his work I decided then that I wanted to be a music teacher.

I pursued that goal all through high school and college, and in 2018 I graduated from the Eastman School of Music. It’s one of the most well-renowned conservatoriums in America, and I graduated with a dual degree in saxophone performance and musical education.

However, Eastman was in Rochester, New York, so I had to cross the country in order to get there. I had to travel far to reach the school, and so did most of the other students.

I met people form all over the world and from many different cultures, and I wanted to learn and see all I could. Being at Eastman really opened my eyes to all the different things the world has to offer, and since then travel has been a big passion of mine.

With teaching music being one of your passions, you must have learned to play many instruments. What ones can you play? Do you have a favorite?

My first was the piano, at the behest of my mom, when I was 6 years old. I hated it and eventually she let me stop, but I wish I hadn’t put it down. Now at work I play the piano every day for my students.

Then in 4th grade my mom made me join band. I told her I wanted to play trumpet or drums, so my dad brought home a saxophone. From then until 7th grade my saxophone skills were mediocre, but after I took my 7th grade class I dedicated myself to playing well.

khanh plays saxophone at a performance for the Eastman School of Music
Khanh plays saxophone at a performance for the
Eastman School of Music

I play each type of saxophone, from the alto all the way down to the bass. My degree from Eastman just says “Saxophone,” so that meant I had to learn how to play all of them.

At Eastman I also learned to play the bassoon, and that I really fun to play. But my favorite to play is definitely the saxophone, because it is just second nature to me.

You mentioned you moved across America for college. How would you describe that experience?

Well growing up in the Bay Area, I kind of lived in a bubble. My schools were all about 85% Asian, so it wasn’t until college that I finally saw a lot of other cultures.

At Eastman, I met people from all walks of life. There were people who came from all over America and the world. But we were all united in our love and appreciation for music.

I don’t think I would call the experience a “culture shock,” but it did open my eyes to what the world has to offer. There were people who came from farms and had worked with livestock, something I had never even seen before. And they loved music just as much as I did.

Along with experience like that came learning new languages and cultures. Eastman is 40% international students after all.

Easily, my biggest takeaway from all of this was the ability to interact to learn about and from new people. In high school I wasn’t “socially fluent,” so I liked interacting with people but I was never the best at it.

However, being at Eastman, in an intensely international community, surrounded by like-minded people, I was able to learn about the world and how to make my way through it.

I really saw the ways that different cultures can approach the same situations. Those lessons really helped me when it came time to move to Japan and completely immerse myself in a different culture.

In what way did those lessons help you?

Meeting all these people from all over the world, some of them were learning English as a second language. I saw how they struggled with life in a foreign environment, and, more importantly, I saw how they overcame those struggles.

Since I came to Japan I have come to sympathize with them, because now I am the stranger in a strange land. And it’s also helped me understand my own students’ struggles much better.

They all attend an international school with teachers from all over the world, from America, to South Africa, to Bhutan, To India, and many other countries. These kids are exposed to so many cultures from a young age, and they are learning everything in English, their second language.

Complex concepts are being taught to them in a foreign language, and they have to approach those concepts in a new way. It’s just like how my international classmates had to learn about complex musical concepts in English.

Music is often described as a universal language, so what’s it like teaching music in a foreign land?

It’s interesting because I didn’t do much formal teaching in America. Sure, I taught private lessons throughout high school and college, but that is much different from how I teach Music now.

My school’s approach to music is called the “Jump Right In” method. Essentially, we treat Music as its own language, so we teach it in the same way that a child learns their primary language.

From 1st grade the students simply listen to music to understand how it sound and works together, in much the same way a child may learn from listening to their parents.

Then in 4th grade we introduce improvisation, and here the students learn how to make their own adjustments to the music, just like how they would compose their thoughts into words.

And only after they learn how to make up their own music are they taught how to read and write music.

American schools tend to use a more tactile method, one which trains students to respond to what they see on the paper. That’s just playing by the numbers, that isn’t very musical. With the “Jump Right In” method, my students are much more creative in their approach to music, and I think that’s what learning music is really all about.

I think it’s such a special experience to see and take part in that, so I am very thankful that I get to teach these wonderful kids.

So the enthusiasm is definitely there. How do you convey that enthusiasm to your students?

In the simplest terms, I put on a show for my students. Teaching elementary school is all a show, and I think that goes a long way in helping my students appreciate music.

Obviously, a big part of that show is playing music for my kids, and I never go more than 5 minutes without some form of music. I might play the saxophone or the piano or I may sing a song, but there is always music present in my lessons.

Another huge part of that is how I mix instruments into individual instrument lessons. From 5th grade each student starts learning how to play an instrument, and the class is divided into four groups. I am in charge of the woodwinds, so flute, clarinet, and saxophone.

When it comes time to teach the woodwind lessons, I actually play each instrument for the students. It helps the students understand how their instruments should sound, and it can be a source of humor for us too.

In the general class, all the groups are mixed, so I also play those instruments when I teach them. One of the groups I play is the brass, and my students all find it funny when I do.

Brass instruments are not my forte, and when compared with my coworker, who has played since childhood, it’s even worse. But it really provides a fun time for my students, and it lets them know it’s okay if they aren’t the best at their instruments.

We are all having fun together enjoying music, and I think that’s what matters the most.

The Last Word

So it’s clear that music will always be present in your life. What do you think the next step will be?

I have no clue.

Basically, it comes down to whether or not I will be able to teach secondary school here. I want to teach at higher levels, and to do that I will need higher tier credentials.

Right now I have a provisional license, only good for five years, and when it expires I will have to renew. Or go back to school to get a better certification, something which would require returning to America.

What that certification will be, I’m not sure of quite yet. I’m leaning towards a Master’s since I would like to teach at the college level, but it also depends on how much I enjoy High School classes.

The only things that are definite are more music and more adventures.

If ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Khanh stops his motorcycle for a brief photo in Nagano-ken
Khanh stops his motorcycle for a brief photo in Nagano-ken (via Facebook)

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aspodi uoasidu oais d

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Song of the Week

Memoirs of a Gaijin Playlist

“One Last Time” composed by David Maslanka

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