Driven, fearless and unwilling to just go through the motions, Sarah Tochiki ’03 has emerged as a musical force on Kaua‘i.
As band director at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School, she revived the Kaua‘i All-Island Band for middle, high school and community college students and flew in professional musicians to judge student performances. Her student bands have also traveled to the East Coast and performed at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. Their next destination – Japan.
As Director of the Instrumental Music Program at Kaua‘i Community College, she leads the college’s Jazz Ensemble, Symphony Orchestra and Wind Symphony. She also launched a nonprofit for music education.
“I never intended to come to Kaua‘i in the first place, but I love the small community, and the people here are so supportive of music education,” Tochiki says.
She arrived on Kaua‘i 11 years ago, after graduating from Wisconsin’s Lawrence University with a degree in music education and trumpet performance. But jobs in her field were scarce without experience, so she did what many new graduates do, and took a job wherever she could find one. In her case, that was in Lihue.
Tochiki’s interest in music began as a trumpet player in Punahou’s seventh-grade band. She liked being able to assess her own progress by what she heard. “If it sounds good, you want to do it again,” she said. “If it doesn’t, you still want to do it again.”
She also loved being part of an ensemble where instruments took turns being in the forefront. Sometimes, the brass section played the melody, then faded into the background.
She believes she devoted herself to teaching music because of her own experience with past instructors, who ran their music programs with an intoxicating passion.
One of those influential educators was former Junior School Band Director Karen Murata. “She helped me get started on the instrument, and every time that I needed advice or guidance, she’s always been there,” Tochiki says.
Instructors Gary Graser, George Nomura, Craig Young and many others also supplied the toolbox that Tochiki now relies on as a teacher. She can hear their words in her own voice as she guides her students. “My priority as a band director is not to play the hardest, most challenging music,” she says. “As a teacher, I’m focused on helping the students become good people and lifelong learners.”
With each student she teaches, each new band and ensemble she leads, Tochiki is motivated by her own education, intent on serving the community she now calls home. “Punahou is about ambition, but it’s also about service,” she says. “It’s not just because I want to do these things, it’s because the community deserves them. We’ve got such a good arts culture on the island, but it has to be renewable. We need the next generation to also have great music education.”
This legacy of paying it forward is already at work. A few of Tochiki’s former students are majoring in music education. Her middle school students recently participated in judged performances, and for the first time, each student received a medal. She’s also empowering student leaders and giving young learners the skills to run ensembles, with the hope that that will spark a student to continue on. “That’s the hope, that they can all come back here and help me and together we can make it better,” she says.
Personally, for Tochiki, a doctorate in education policy is on the horizon. This summer, she’ll return to Haiti, a destination she’s traveled to since college, to teach music to both students and teachers. She envisions bringing a Haitian instructor to Kaua‘i to apprentice with her, learn to fix instruments and do some conducting.
“I know that becoming a music educator is not the typical path for a lot of Punahou students, but what I’m grateful for is that Punahou never tried to pigeonhole me,” she says. “Instead they said, ‘That’s your passion, let’s help you achieve that.’”