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  • Brian Munguia

On singing in Japanese Choirs as a Foreign National

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

Any foreign national living in Japan for an extended period of time is sure to come to several realizations about its cultural and societal norms and expectations. These realizations can be recognition of cultural differences or even Japanese perceptions and understandings (or misunderstandings) of foreign cultures and people.

In my personal experience living in Japan as a foreigner and working with other foreign nationals in Japan, I have come to understand how hard it is for us to find our place within the Japanese community. No matter how good your Japanese language ability, it is still easy to feel like it is difficult to fit in (or even feel alienated). Howeverーas with any interpersonal relation regardless of nationalitiesーa common interest is often a great way to not only make friends but also find a community.

After 12 years of singing in academic, community, and professional choirs as well as performing recitals and opera, I made the decision to move to Japan and start a new life here. In the 5 years since, I have changed jobs 3 times and moved 5 times. Going from having a large network of friends and fellow singers in The States to starting from square-one in Japan was difficult but with my decision to continue musicーthough it only be as a hobby due to my residency statusーmade it possible for me to network and make new friends, not only within the choirs that I sang with, but also with other singers around the country.

Reservations About Joining a Choir

Before making the decision to even look for a choir in Japan, I thought (rather, "worried") about 3 things:

・Is my Japanese good enough?

・Will I fit in?

・Will I like the music?

Before joining the choir that I did, I had relatively good Japanese (about JLPT N2) but zero knowledge technical music terms in Japanese. I had also never performed or had any real exposure to Japanese choral music. Growing up and studying in the Western tradition had taught me to perceive, understand, and interpret music in a certain way and it was a bit intimidating to even think about how to approach Japanese choral music. Most of all, I was concerned about whether or not I would be able to fit into a group as one of the fewーif not the onlyーforeigners. Would there be people close to my age? Will anybody speak English? Will we have views of music so different that it would be disruptive to the creative process and my endeavors to grow my personal social network?

While these were genuine concerns of mine, I also understood that I would never know what it was like unless I tried singing with a group. Learning musical terms in Japanese could be done gradually and with context as I sang with a group. If I could have simple conversations with people, a friendly relationship could start and as I spend more time with the group and talk with many different people, my Japanese language level would undoubtedly improve.

As far as musical views and whether or not I would like Japanese music, I had to understand that I could not have any views on Japanese music until learned moreーthis was indeed something that I was interested in both as a musician and an academic.

For the reasons above and more, I decided to look for a choir:

Looking for a Choir in Japan

One challenge in finding a choir to sing with in Japan is knowing where to look. Most people my age and younger, would probably attend a quick google search and hope to find something. This is exactly what I did. However, depending on where you are in Japan you may find that many websites (if they exist at all) are poorly made or are not optimized for internet searches (i.e. have terrible SEO ratings) if they even exist at all. Most existing websites are made with a free web-hosting service and without a dedicated a domain.

I ended up looking for groups on online message boards and other pages sponsored by the Japan Choral Association which has regional chapters with information on member ensembles. Information on each ensemble is often listed by the size, type (chamber, men's ensemble, women's ensemble, etc.) the genre in which the group specializes (i.e. early music, renaissance, baroque, sacred music, etc.). Another place to look for information on non choral association groups would be at the local municipal office which will usually have a list and flyers for community groups on display.

One thing that may be important to keep in mind when searching for a group aside from the type of group and music that it performs is the average age of its members. Japan has a rapidly aging population and this can often become very apparent in many ensembles. So much so that many groups are called mom and pop, grandpa and grandma, or silver choirs. While many groups don't define themselves as such, many in the musical community often view them as such despite each groups' efforts to include people of all ages.

Another thing to keep in mind is the skill level of the ensemble. This is especially hard to judge without having seen or heard the choir. If skill is something that you care about there are several things that can be done to get an idea of what the group sounds like:

・Look at past choral competition results

・Look for Youtube videos of a group you are interested in

・Go to choral concerts and/or choral competitions

・Sit in on rehearsals

The Japan Choral Association and it's regional chapters hold regular choral competitions throughout the year. Schedules and contest results can be found on their respective web pages. Competitions are open to the public and tickets are available at the door for very reasonable prices.

If you find a group that you are interested in you can also look on their website or local listings for upcoming performances or contact the group directly to request permission to sit in on a rehearsal. Email will probably be the main form of communication for many choirs and though Japanese would probably make things a bit smoother, many groups have members with good English reading and writing skills. Do not be afraid to write in English if you are not confident in your Japanese.

How to Join a Choir in Japan

When you have found a group that you would like to join, get in touch.

The process differs by group, but many require that you sit in on a few rehearsals before giving you a provisional membership. In most cases provisional members pay a reduced membership fee and become full members after singing in their first concert with the group. In other cases, promotion to full membership may happen after attending a specified number of rehearsals. There are also some groups (though not many) that will require that you pass an audition before being admitted.

In general, it's very easy to join a choir in Japan. This is largely due to how most ensembles fund their operations. That is to say, the bulk of operation expenses are paid for by the members of the choir and more members means more income and less expenses for each individual member. Very few choirs have sponsors and every singer is responsible for contributing to the payment of their directors, rehearsal space rentals, performance space rentals, ticket sales, sheet music purchasing, and much more. This is something that was very new to me coming from singing with groups in the USA that only asked for a flat annual fee that covered membership and basic operation expenses while very generous sponsors covered the costs of everything else through their donations.

While there are some ensembles in Japan that operate as non-profit organizations or limited liability companies they are very few and far between. The vast majority of groups in Japan are volunteer organizations (i.e. community clubs). This being the case, being a part of a choir in Japan can be a bit more expensive than in some other countries.

What to Expect

If you do join a choral ensemble in Japan, you can expect to be almost over-enthusiastically welcomed into the group (at least, this is how it has been whenever I joined a new group). As a foreigner (possibly the first and/or only one in the group) most people will be very interested in learning about you and ask you many questions about how you would approach the music at hand. Don't be by and give your opinions as best and as honestly as you can.

As mentioned before, being part of a choir can be a bit costly in comparison to other countries. In addition to your monthly membership fee be prepared to cover the cost of your own sheet music, your share of concert hall rentals, concert tickets (in the event you are unable to sell your share), transportation and lodging for choir retreats and away concerts, post-rehearsal/concert meals/parties.

Outside of rehearsals (usually immediately before or after), you may be asked out to meals or other social gatherings. Some groups will pay for the first few bills, but you should ultimately expect to be able to pay your share. Though attendance to these choir gatherings are, in principle, optional, you will find that there is often a social expectation (and even a bit of pressure) for members to attend these events unless there is a reason that makes it difficult.

Other than the monetary and time sacrifices that you would need to make to sing with a group, you can expect to learn a lot about Japanese society, their approaches to music, and how to communicate with people from a background unlike your own. You can also expect to find a group of close-knit friends who are eager to support you in all of your musical, personal, and professional endeavors. Not to mention you will have a lot of fun.

While it may be intimidating and difficult to know where to start your musical journey, don't let your apprehensions get in the way of the positive experiences that await in you in the Japanese choir world.

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