Images by Jonas Maon

It’s 3 o’clock on a summer afternoon, and a group of seniors gather in a circle as Elden Seta, the music director at Moanalua High School, calls out for the start of the Menehune marching band’s drumline practice. “Breathe in the positive and out the negative. Heat up the coals in your soul,” Seta says as the students close their eyes, take deep breaths, and stretch their limbs. Frederick Schulz, the 2016 graduating class band president who continues to help with practice, provides some explanation of the curious sight: “Before each practice, it’s important to warm up your body and get into the right mindset. Mr. Seta believes you need to take the time to focus in about what you need to accomplish during rehearsal. It’s kind of like a meditation.”

As it turns out, it’s quite common for band members to experience muscle soreness and stiffness, and even injuries—types of things most often associated with competitive sports and athletics—due to the demands of their practice. Much like traditional sports, students in the music department undergo rigorous training regimes, spending countless hours honing their crafts. “Music is the most influential thing I am a part of,” Schulz says. “Through the music we play, we learn to be the best person we can be for the world, not in the world, so everyone around you is also a better person.”

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This mantra is reiterated among the students. Band practices appear a well-orchestrated utopia, where raging adolescence is quelled, if only momentarily. “There’s a common misconception about kids that play in the band—that they are the goodie students, or the more intelligent students—and to some point it might be true, but it’s true for a reason,” Seta says. “We get students from every walk of life, but music is what creates that person. They strive through the music to gain that discipline of the art, to understand what respect is. They learn to be at their best, not just for their self, but for others.”

Seta has molded Moanalua’s acclaimed music program, one of the largest in the state, into one of the nation’s 10 best, as called by visiting judges of the band at festivals and competitions. Though humble and self-effacing, the director was recognized by the John Philip Sousa Foundation as one of the top eight band directors in the country in 2012. Born and raised on O‘ahu, Seta graduated from Pearl City High School, where he played clarinet in the band, and was offered the directing job at Moanalua in 1987, shortly after graduating from University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa with a degree in secondary music education. Having begun with a struggling group of 38 performers, Seta, now in his 29th year with the school, leads close to 600 revolving students each year in orchestra, choir, marching band, and concert band.

The success of the program, Seta says, centers on the idea of breaking apart what’s on the surface and creating music from within. “Instruments are just amplifiers,” he says. “Like a speaker, it only amplifies what’s being generated from the inside. Educating music from the inside out is key. Organs have to be nurtured, taught. You take out the bad, and put in the good. The older they get, the more the sound matures.” Once band practice begins, languid teen indifference turns into sharp focus. Chatter ceases among the woodwinds; percussion stands at attention. Instruments are readied, eyes turn toward Seta, and fingers are careful to react to the slightest cue.

The marching band’s training—which takes place mostly outdoors from July through November, thrice weekly, for a total of 10 hours a week—prepares the students for challenges they may encounter while performing. This was the case when, in 2002, the band marched in 20-degree weather during the New Year’s Day Parade in London. It was a significant time, right after the terrorist attack in September 2011, and most bands that had been accepted to march in the parade were canceling. But after a security meeting, Moanalua’s then principal, Darrel Galera, gave the school’s band an official approval to attend. The day of the performance turned out to be frigid, numbing the players’ fingers and chilling instruments. “Nothing was working out, and they couldn’t play properly,” Seta recalls. “But when the time came down to it, they told me, ‘We are fine. We will make it happen.’ And they played their hearts out.”

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Music has taken these students around the world, from the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, California to the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee; from the Osaka Midosuji Parade in Japan to the International Youth Music Festival in Austria. They’ve also played three times at prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City. For Wesley Hadano, the orchestra president for the graduating class of 2016, and one of the students who played at Carnegie Hall, being a member in the band is about more than just learning music, it’s also about developing personality and morals. “One of the most profound things Mr. Seta has taught me is that changing the world always begins with yourself, and by doing that, you have to be willing to help others and sometimes put others before yourself,” says Hadano, who began playing the string bass in the fourth grade. “He always said, ‘If you are going to be leading, to lead is to serve.’”

Hadano and Schulz, like many other alumni, have gone onto bigger things upon graduating from the band program. They will both be attending the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa in the fall—Hadano is planning to major in engineering, and Schulz wants to follow in Seta’s footsteps to become a music teacher. Other graduates of Moanalua’s music program have achieved success as professional musicians, like Clarinetist Gunnery Sergeant Joseph LeBlanc, who plays in “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band.

But regardless of where life takes them, they are all bound by the deep and lasting benefits of their efforts: self-discipline, confidence, and camaraderie. “They are family forever,” Seta says. “Once you’re in this program, this is your home forever.”

This story is part of our School Spirit Issue.