Putting the PEP in the Band

For 20 years, before University of Hawaii marching and pep bands can fire up the fans, Gwen Nakamura lights up band members. If it looks like UH band members are having fun, they are - and it all starts with their energetic leader. Just about every day before morning’s first light reaches her St. Louis Heights home, Gwen Nakamura hops out of bed and makes her way downstairs, past a shelf stacked with more than 100 cookbooks and countless newspaper clippings of her favorite recipes, and into a world of succulent, symphonic delights.

Bill Mossman
Wednesday - September 23, 2009
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Russell Hiranaga creates Gwen Nakamura’s balloon hats. With him are Iliahi Robbs (left) and her sister Olianaates Gwen Nakamura’s balloon hats. With him are Iliahi Robbs (left) and her sister Oliana

every high school campus in Hawaii, eager to recruit musicians and offer them achievement waivers to offset tuition costs.

“Few people realize that the 50-plus pep band appearances she makes each year are in addition to her regular 50 to 60 hours each week working with the band program,” Bingham notes.

“She is constantly busy, working so hard for the band program,” Denise Nakamura observes. “But despite all the work, she always has a smile on her face and is always spunky at practice. I feel like a lot of students feed off her energy to get pumped about band.”

Simply put, Gwen Nakamura’s students adore her. Consider the type of unedited comments some of them have left about her on the Website www.ratemyprofessors.com:

“BEST TEACHER! LEARNED AND MEMORIZED MY NAME FRESHMAN YEAR. SUPER FUNNY. WEARS THE COOLEST CLOTHES. GREAT CONDUCTOR.”

“C’mon, who in the world would not get along with Gwen?!”

“My favorite Band teacher “


And then, there’s this little gem - the kind of remark that would leave Nakamura in stitches: “Gwen is absolutely nuts, but I love her to death!”

In many ways, it’s understandable when Nakamura claims, “I have the best job in the world!” After all, what’s not to like about it? She not only gets paid for doing two things she’s absolutely nuts about - teaching music and watching UH sports - but the job also makes her feel as young as she first did when she performed as a UH band member - playing the saxophone, bassoon, flute and clarinet, all with relative ease - nearly 30 years ago.


“It’s fun because the students keep me going,” admits Nakamura, 47. “The cool thing about my job is, although I keep getting older, the students are always the same age to me. In fact, I think I’m actually gaining as far as getting more excited during games.”

Nakamura grew up in Kaimuki, the youngest of three children born to Paul Sr. and Rose Nakamura (who has also appeared on MidWeek‘s cover, first as the founder of Project Dana and again last year as a Forever Young award recipient). Music was highly encouraged by her parents, a pair of health and physical education teachers from the Big Island. Her father, who taught at Waiakea and Hilo intermediate schools, played the trombone; her mother, who taught at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, played the piano.

At about age 8, Nakamura began tracing her mother’s footsteps by tickling the ivories. Five years later, however, she not only made a permanent shift in instruments by falling for the smooth-sounding alto sax, but also made a decision on her career path.

“When I was in the eighth grade at Jarrett Intermediate, I already knew what I wanted to do, and that was to be a music teacher,” she explains. “I loved playing my instrument, and I had all these positive influences from my band directors. So I was like, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ There was no doubt.”

After graduating from Kaimuki High, Nakamura went on to UH-Manoa, where she obtained both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education.

While working on her master’s, she briefly worked as a graduate assistant with the UH band before leaving to accept the band director position at Castle High, and later a similar arrangement at Kahuku High.

In the fall of 1989, however, the assistant band conductor’s position opened up at UH, and Nakamura decided to apply for the job. UH officials welcomed her with open arms.

“It was like a dream type of thing when the school called to say I got the job,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is it. This is what I’ve always wanted.’”

Turned out to be one of the best decisions the university has ever made.

“Gwen’s work behind the scenes has kept the program running smoothly for many years,” Bingham notes. “In many ways, she is the heart of the program.”

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