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Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009

Reaching young people with music

Education specialist Michael Di Stasio uses performing arts program to empower youths


By ULARA NAKAGAWA
Special to The Japan Times

When someone asks his age, Michael Di Stasio sometimes responds that it is the same as the late king of pop, Michael Jackson: "May he rest in peace."

News photo
Hitting high notes: Michael Di Stasio sits in a cafe in Tokyo's Omotesando with his soprano saxophone. ULARA NAKAGAWA PHOTO

He shares a couple more things with the pop legend, including a first and middle name and a life fatefully intertwined with an enormous love of the performing arts.

Di Stasio is an education specialist with years of experience teaching and facilitating at schools in Australia and Japan, from elementary to university level. In Tokyo, his home of nearly a decade, Di Stasio works tirelessly to promote and implement positive methods to empower young people.

One of the important ways he does this is through his role as a producer with Rock Challenge Japan, a branch of the international organization Global Rock Challenge. It builds students' confidence by creating a forum in which they can perform in a professional concert setting.

The Rock Challenge combines dance, drama, music and design for a youth "mini musical" competition. Each year, participating schools do everything from designing sets, choreographing dances and manufacturing costumes to raising funds in a hands-on manner for their own productions. On the final show day, schools perform for a live audience of their peers, families and community members.

One of the main objectives is to use performing arts to increase awareness of social issues among young people and address antisocial behavior. More than 1.5 million elementary and high school students around the globe have hit the stage through Rock Challenge since its inception in 1980 in Australia.

Here in Japan, there have been two previous fully sponsored Rock Challenge showcase events involving hundreds of students. Di Stasio and his team of volunteers drive Rock Challenge Japan through rehearsing, planning, promoting and finding sponsorships where they can.

Di Stasio's dedication to such initiatives is a result of his past. A nurturing family environment and a series of fateful opportunities, including a chance encounter with a childhood hero, are key elements that have shaped Di Stasio's ambitious outlook.

His childhood was infused with music from the start. "Dad played operatic music from when we were babies, mom sang to us. My mother has always been a beautiful singer, but she didn't have opportunity in her youth — she was a Ferrari parked in a garage."

When he took up playing the clarinet at the age of 11, Di Stasio recalls how his parents were always there to support him.

"Our parents would attend almost every one of their kids' concerts. They were never too busy. They were very selfless parents," he says.

"My father came from Italy at 19 years of age with nothing but one bag and a couple of pennies in his pocket and brought up a very big family in Australia. His passion was to see his children do a big step up from where he was. Both parents fed our enthusiasm. . . . It was their style to just watch, nurture, encourage . . . and give us an occasional kick in the pants."

So strong were his ties to home that Di Stasio was 18 or 19 when he had his first meal outside of a family member's home.

"When I went to restaurants in my 20s, I thought, 'Why didn't mom and dad do this . . . with us?' And then in my 30s and 40s I thought, 'They were correct! The best time is at home.' "

Watching music programs on television with his family, Di Stasio developed a strong admiration for several well-known personalities, including the late Australian film composer Brian May.

Through a major stroke of luck, an acquaintance introduced Di Stasio when he was still a high school student to his hero. May gave him experience in his studio, and the two eventually became friends and remained in touch throughout the rest of the composer's life, until he passed away in 1997.

"It was (May) that made me want to be a musician," says Di Stasio, who added jazz saxophone to his studies in his university years. In high school he pursued his musical interests while being surrounded by instructors who were well-known professionals in the Australian music world.

Asked whether he feels particularly fortunate to have had a combined home, school and working environment so conducive to his interests, Di Stasio says: "It was by chance, kismet, destiny. I don't think anything is written. It just happens. If you can create and encourage challenges for yourself, then things just happen around you.

"Why do some kids draw flowers and others draw horses? It's just that something pulls us in a particular direction, whether it's DNA, spiritual intervention, or whether it's just opportunity. Life — it's a menu. I chose this and you chose that . . . but it's all pretty good. It's just that something made me go to the music aisle or in fact entertainment as a whole."

Still, he understands that for everyone, including the young people he works so closely with, making life decisions doesn't always come easily.

"In my own life, maybe I should have turned right instead of left, but I turned left. It's not easy for anybody. At times I thought I was making the right decisions, but I was making wrong ones. . . ."

Here Di Stasio refers to a specific incident in his life when he chose not to join a band because he didn't like its name. The group became extremely successful and well-known.

He now chalks it all up to the past and has no regrets. "That's life. You just make that choice. I've got a really gorgeous daughter and that's the choice I made."

This is one area of his life Di Stasio misses very much. His only child, Amy, a daughter in her early 20s, lives in Australia. Recently she called him in tears, when her car broke down on a highway. That he was the first person she would think to turn to for help an ocean away was a moving experience.

"If you hold up all the good things, the bad, the funny, and the sad things, it is the opportunities you have taken that define you. There are always other things, but mine make up the colors of my composition."

His lighthearted approach to life turns serious when discussing his work with Rock Challenge. With the recent global recession, he explains that in Japan: "Things (are) being denied to children. And all we hear about is poor old Wall Street. No one talks about the cutbacks in schools unless it's about the cutbacks in lunches, which means that the company that's producing the lunches is losing money. But what about the kids in the classroom?"

Such sacrifices are devastating to Di Stasio, who believes that the experiences children have in their most formative years will define the society of a country in the years to come.

"Self-esteem and resilience is a problem with all kids. However, in Japan it's a magnified problem." He points to evidence of this in recent government statistics and media reports on social problems plaguing the nation's youth, including the rise in truancy, in young people suffering from acute social withdrawal, in those with social interaction and communication shortfalls, and even gang violence.

Di Stasio believes the Rock Challenge program, now operating in seven countries and expanding, can help solve some of these problems.

The organization describes Rock Challenge as helping to stem "self-destructive and antisocial actions" and "developing resilience and self-esteem — the absence of these latter two personality skills being at the core of youth depression and social withdrawal."

This year's Rock Challenge Japan event will be held in late November at Yokohama Kannai Hall. Di Stasio's expectations are high.

"One aspiration now is that this product grows and gradually seeps through Japan and is installed in every school campus in five or 10 years."

He says he has seen the value of Rock Challenge for himself. "I taught in some schools where some of their life styles were deeply worrying . . . and then you'd put them in the middle of a Rock Challenge . . . and they changed. They became steady. Music is a global language. If music can move through countries and not create any problems, why can't people do that?"

Asked whether he anticipates ever changing fields, Di Stasio does not expect anything drastic. "I like young people because they're fresh and unhampered. I have great faith in them, and so I continue investing my time and energy into supporting what they do."

More information about Rock Challenge Japan is available at www.rockchallenge.jp


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