A Celebration of Music

A Celebration of Music

Timeline of music at Punahou School
Featured musicians – Punahou Bulletin cover
President’s Desk: A Legacy of Music
Punahou Sessions
Profile: Shawn Conley ’01
Profile: Sarah Hicks ’89
Profile: Jon Magnussen ’86
Profile: Sarah Tochiki ’03

By Diane Seo ’85

Those of us who have experienced the beauty of music as performers, creators, aficionados or simply enraptured listeners know it’s a wondrous thing. Music fills us with hope, creativity, imagination. It’s there when our spirits are soaring, and likewise when we are depleted. It calms, excites and inspires. We recall chapters of our lives by the music we loved.

Creating music requires discipline and heart. The brain must focus, measuring notes and rhythms, while allowing emotions to flow. It’s language, math and poetry combined. 

Allen Murabayashi ’90, Lorraine Sim ’19, Max Ignas ’02 and Luanna Farden ’56 McKenney at Dillingham Hall.
Allen Murabayashi ’90, Lorraine Sim ’19, Max Ignas ’02 and Luanna Farden ’56 McKenney at Dillingham Hall.

This year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Music School, although music has been a signature part of the Punahou journey from our earliest years. The School has long valued the power of music, and many past and current students have been ignited by its force.

Erika Kwee ’23 keeps focused during her violin solo.

While many acknowledge teachers who helped them learn an instrument, others recall the camaraderie of being part of a band, orchestra or choir. Still others remember the emotions of performing a solo on the Dillingham stage, or at Holokū, with Hawaiian mele filling Hemmeter Fieldhouse.

For Shawn Conley ’01, it was George Wellington Sr., a bass instructor at Punahou Music School who convinced him after eighth grade to enter an international bass contest. He didn’t perform well, but after seeing master musicians in the zone, producing sounds that stunned him, he became obsessed. He dedicated himself to music throughout high school and now plays with the likes of Sting, Peter Gabriel, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma.

For Sarah Hicks ’89, it was the moment during her senior year when she was handed the baton during an orchestra rehearsal, and instantly felt its magic. She’s now hailed as one of the country’s most notable female conductors.

And for Sarah Tochiki ’03, it was the guiding words of former Junior School Band Director Karen Murata and other instructors that resonated with her as she pursued her musical ambitions. She still hears their voices as she leads her own band students, some of whom are venturing on to become music teachers themselves. 

But there are also current students like Andrew Hong ’19, a promising viola player who recently performed as a soloist in the Punahou concerto concert and is a member of the Punahou Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Music Program. Although he’s not planning on a professional musical career, he’s keenly aware of the influence Director of Orchestras Craig Young – his mentor at Punahou – has provided. “He’s always encouraging me; I don’t think I would have found my passion without that,” he says.

Banyan Little ’26 (front) and Caitlin Martyn ’26 (back) learn to play the xylophone. 

Flutist Lorraine Sim ’19, this year’s senior class president, likewise credits her instructors at Punahou for helping her mature as a musician and person. “They gave me the love of music,” she says.

Punahou’s nationally recognized music program, which runs from kindergarten through the Academy, has grown over time, an ensemble effort initiated by committed teachers; mission-focused School leadership; visionary donors; supportive parents; and of course, passionate students who have embraced and flourished with the abundance of offerings.

Tens of thousands of students have participated in music education at Punahou through both the Music Department curriculum and Music School, which provides private and group instruction to both Punahou students and those in the community. Although these two entities are distinctive, they work in collaboration to guide the overall music education.

From kindergarten through fourth grade, Punahou students take part in a comprehensive general music curriculum, as well as Chapel, May Day celebrations and other events. Starting in fifth grade, students select a music direction – either band, orchestra, choir or general music. They continue on this path (or can choose another musical route) through eighth grade, with opportunities to participate in musical theatre productions and other co-curricular offerings. In the Academy, music becomes an elective, yet the offerings expand considerably.

Punahou Music Department

Each year, 450 students in grades 5 – 12 take part in nine different choirs; a similar number join one of a dozen bands, while some 570 students play in nine orchestras. There is also an Academy guitar program and Hawaiian music ensembles. The Punahou Music School, meanwhile, has an enrollment of 800 students, ranging from preschoolers to adults, taking everything from voice to violin. A quarter of those taking lessons come from the community.

The numbers undoubtedly are impressive, but to understand the scope, it’s helpful to visualize a day in the life of music at Punahou. 

A warm glow from the orchestra room lights the Montague courtyard as students head to an early-morning Symphony rehearsal. Meanwhile, the rhythm of drums echo across Alexander Field as the Marching Band powers through its rehearsal. Third graders spend the morning learning a new Hawaiian song, while a fifth-grade pianist performs a solo at Chapel. Throughout the day, more than 100 students will flow through Montague for private and small group lessons, and evening performances of the Academy Choirs will be held at Dillingham Hall.

Punahou Symphony Orchestra during a rehearsal.
Punahou Symphony Orchestra during a rehearsal.  

It’s this depth and breadth that makes Punahou stand out, says Donald Yap ’49, who served as Punahou’s Music School Director from 1992 to 1998. It’s also the abundance of opportunities available to younger students, adds Alicia Scanlan, Junior School music department head. Very few schools can offer this range of instruction to elementary and middle school children. Even at the high school level, it’s rare to have such an extensive music program because of the coordination and commitment that’s required. Music School Director Helen Chao-Casano says it’s also noteworthy for a K – 12 school to house a music school on its campus that serves both students and the community.

Julian Kwon ’20 (left) receives advice from cello instructor Pauline Bai at the Punahou Music School.

So why has Punahou committed to such a robust program all these years? To put it simply, music is rooted in Punahou’s core. 

From the timeline, the School’s long musical legacy is clear, dating back to 1842, when music lessons first began. But the spirit of music runs far deeper than just milestones. It strikes at the heart of what Punahou aspires for its students.

Faculty members aren’t necessarily focused on turning out professional musicians, although there is definite pride in the abundance of talent that has emerged. The intent stretches further, to encompass those who may not aspire to become professional musicians, but who will become music advocates and appreciators, attending the symphony, reveling in seeing seasoned jazz musicians at a jam session, encouraging their own children to study an instrument.

Punahou wants graduates to leave with an appreciation and understanding of music, because it believes in its power.

“Music changes the world,” Academy Music Department Head Michael Lippert says. “We have faith that when we send musicians out into the world, their musical education will directly impact what they do and who they are. We are training the next generation of doctors, lawyers, educators, engineers, public servants and artists. Music changes how they understand the world. Our hope is that they will retain and continually nurture their musical self and express that musical self no matter what they choose to do.”

Numerous studies offer quantitative evidence on how music education enhances language skills, memory, concentration and abstract reasoning. But the benefits are far more than cognitive.

Learning music is acquiring a language of connection, Chao-Casano says. Participating in music also builds memorable experiences. Students remember special performances, how it felt to be under the lights at their band concerts, how they overcame their fear of being on stage, or even pivotal conversations they had with a teacher.

“We hope the lessons students learn from music, whether it be determination, perseverance, grit, creativity, cooperation or camaraderie transfer to other things they will do in life,” Scanlan says. “We want students to realize the potential music has to move people, move themselves.”

So we celebrate more than a century legacy of music at Punahou, with its gifts now flowing through graduates across the globe.

“We want our students to have meaningful experiences while they’re here at Punahou and throughout their lives,” says Punahou President Jim Scott ’70. “Music is one way students can feel enriched. It’s a way for them to express themselves, channel their creativity, learn about themselves and others.”

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