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Conductor-composer hits right note with Tokyo children’s choir

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Steven Morgan creates instant harmony with the wave of his hand. For 15 years, he has been conducting some of Tokyo’s leading English choirs, bringing the pleasure of choral music performances to both singers and audiences alike.

Since 2009, Morgan has served as assistant professor of chapel music at Rikkyo University, but originally he taught English to children here. A pioneer in the field of incorporating music into English studies at Japanese elementary schools, he will soon be making music with a new generation of children through the Tokyo International Children’s Choir.

The new choir, which is not affiliated with any church, is open to all students of elementary and junior high school age, and begins regular weekly rehearsals at St. Paul International Lutheran Church at the end of this month. Assisting Morgan as accompanist is classical pianist Chihiro Tan.

He is delighted at the opportunity to associate with youngsters on a regular basis again. “It is such a joy to teach young children, because, unlike adults, kids respond with their whole selves — with their bodies, minds and spirits — to whatever activity you ask them to try,” he notes. “In other words, they have not yet learned to shut down their creativity to blend in.”

Morgan got his own first taste of choral singing as a child through his local church and it was soon apparent that he was musically gifted. Although his family lived in a small farming town of just 1,800 people in Illinois, Morgan considers himself fortunate to have grown up in a culturally diverse area, with parents and teachers who supported his musical aspirations.

Not too many small boys have the honor of conducting a choir at the tender age of 8. “The choir director was sick and she called my parents, asking if I would stand in for her,” Morgan recalls.

At 14 he left home to attend the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, one of a handful of performing arts schools in the United States, and a real-life equivalent of the iconic school from the movie and musical “Fame.” Afforded the opportunity to make music on a professional level while still a teenager, the highlight for Morgan was conducting with his graduating class on a concert tour of Denmark. “My horizons opened. Fabulous concert halls — the whole thing. It was amazing.”

Plans to become a school choral director went by the wayside after Morgan discovered that while he loved working with kids, the faculty-room politics that went with teaching in a public high school were not for him. He went straight back to college to pursue a graduate degree in conducting.

“There are many fine amateur choirs, but to have a job as a conductor, you have to be in a university or school, or be involved full-time with church music. I knew it was a bit of a gamble.” Fortunately, a combination of talent and a knack for being in the right place at the right time saw Morgan landing a series of university jobs.

During a trip to Canada for the 1986 Vancouver Expo, Morgan fell in love with the city and the lifestyle and moved there the following year on a student visa. While pursuing further graduate studies in music at the University of British Columbia, he worked with several choirs, including the university’s prestigious Choral Union. He also wrote liner notes for classical CDs and was a frequent guest on public radio. “I could take the historical information I had as a musicologist and make it relevant to the general public.”

However, a full-time job in Canada proved elusive for someone who was not a citizen. By chance, Morgan had taken a course in teaching English as a second language while coaching other immigrants for the Canadian citizenship exam. “On a whim, I left my university program and applied for an English teaching job, ending up at this language school in Tokyo. It was only going to be for a year or so. Famous last words!”

Morgan arrived in 1994, just as interest in English classes for children was growing. “I was the oldest teacher at my school, and with my teaching experience, I naturally ended up with the kids’ classes. I drew on my musical education background, and it was a hit with both the students and teachers.” This success led to an unprecedented offer from Keio Yochisha Elementary School for a full-time position teaching English through music. “At this stage, I could see that my career had shifted to ESL with music on the side, so I decided to enroll in a distance-learning Ph.D. program, with a double major in language and music education, and psychology.”

Morgan found another outlet for indulging his musical passion in 1998, when he began his association with the British Embassy Choir. A mix of Japanese and foreign nationals and entirely voluntary, the choir started out performing at the embassy and only had about 15 singers at the time. “They said if I helped them get through a concert, they would allow me to lead a program of my choice after that. My Japanese skills would make this impossible with a Japanese choir, so it was a superb opportunity.”

The choir has gone from strength to strength under Morgan’s leadership, and membership fluctuates between 50 and 60 people. “We’ve moved from singing in hotel lobbies and at Tokyo Disneyland, to concert halls and university chapels.” Money from the concerts goes to designated charities, with the most recent performances benefitting the Tohoku areas hit by the March 2011 disasters.

Currently, he also conducts the Chiba International Singers and serves as occasional guest conductor with the Rikkyo University Chapel Choir, and will be even busier now that the children’s choir is set to become a regular fixture on his calendar.

In the past, various parents from Tokyo’s international community raised the idea of an English children’s choir with Morgan. “Every year for the last five or so, I’ve been asked about the possibility. But I was still busy with my Ph.D. and that was taking up any spare time I had.”

Everything finally fell into place earlier this year when mutual friends introduced Morgan to Ellen Yaegashi, a parent of two children at the American School in Japan. Yaegashi’s family had recently returned from a posting in Geneva, where her older child had greatly enjoyed participating in a children’s choir, and she was keen to facilitate a similar opportunity for children in Tokyo.

Morgan smiles as he recalls their initial meeting. “I had just got done with my Ph.D. I’d always thought that if I ever did a children’s choir here, it would have to have strong parental involvement. After meeting Ellen and seeing her enthusiasm, I knew that if anyone could make it happen, she could.”

An initial orientation meeting for families before the summer proved there was enough interest to make the project viable, and it is expected that more children will join as the choir launches this month. Morgan and Yaegashi have already lined up some performance dates, including a mini-concert at the South African Embassy in November. There are also tentative plans to offer a music day camp next summer.

In addition to his conducting, in recent years Morgan has been honing his composing skills. In 2007 he created a piece titled “Sounds of the Winter” for a joint Christmas performance with the British Embassy Choir and the BEC Festival Orchestra in Tokyo. “There are very few secular pieces for December, so I composed my own, pairing poetry by people like Emily Dickinson and Carl Sandburg with my music.”

The thrill of conducting an original work for the first time is something Morgan will never forget. “I surprised myself! It was like being in high school again and discovering what it felt like to conduct a proper choir.”

Now a piece he composed for the Rikkyo Chapel Choir is to have its U.S. debut later in the year. “In Pace: A Requiem of Peace” draws on various cultures and religions for inspiration, including Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Native American spirituality. “It’s a work about hope — a requiem for the living,” he explains.

Morgan will travel to Denver in the fall for the opening performance. With the city still reeling from the cinema massacre last month that left 12 people dead, the theme of his piece is very pertinent. “The contract was actually signed ahead of the Denver shootings, but I hope people will find the music healing after the tragedy.”

With a life that refuses to slow down, Morgan is grateful for the opportunities coming his way. “Before coming to Japan, I was a bit like the frog in the well. And now to have a chance for my first major work to be performed in the U.S. — it’s exciting.”

Morgan hopes to gradually shift to teaching less and composing more in the coming years, but his affiliation with the various choirs will continue. He is looking forward to seeing what can be achieved with his youthful choristers in the Tokyo International Children’s Choir. “As a child, I sang with and learned from adult choirs. TICC is a way for me to give something back.”

The Tokyo International Children’s Choir will begin meeting from Wednesday at St. Paul International Lutheran Church in Chiyoda Ward. Children aged between 6 and 13 of any nationality are welcome. For more information about the choir, contact the choir’s manager, Ellen Yaegashi, at tokyokidschoir@gmail.com