Conductor Tonio Shiga: Overcoming communication struggles with a baton

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

As a conductor for the City Theater of Bremerhaven in the north of Germany, Tonio Shiga is used to being at the center of the action whenever he leads a musical performance with his orchestra. He is equally at home, however, sitting behind a piano and accompanying the theater’s performers for a rehearsal or concert. In fact, the two roles go hand in hand for this maestro.

“To pursue a career as a conductor in Germany, it’s important to be an excellent pianist, as well as having conducting skills,” Shiga says. “You need to be able to play all styles of music, including opera, classical and modern. When I first came to Germany to audition for music school, I was practicing the piano up to eight hours a day in order to get up to scratch.”

Born and raised in Kanagawa Prefecture, Shiga is the son of a Japanese father and German mother. Although he grew up speaking both languages, he was educated entirely in the Japanese school system.

Like many youngsters, he started learning the piano and then the violin as a child, but it was the saxophone that captured his imagination as a teenager. He went on to further study at Tokyo’s Toho Gakuen School of Music, where he also added conducting to his repertoire.

“After graduation I was playing the saxophone professionally, while also teaching and conducting school orchestras. It was then I realized that conducting had become my main passion.”

While the level of musical tuition available in Japan is excellent, such training is expensive and it is very hard to make a full-time living as a musician in this country. Even though they were well aware of the potential pitfalls in a professional musical career, Shiga says his parents were always very supportive.

“I am grateful that they encouraged my ambitions,” he says. “My mother is very musical herself. As a young woman she sang with a famous choir in Munich.”

At the age of 28, Shiga made what he says was primarily “an economic decision” to go to Germany for further musical training. “Age-wise, I knew it was probably my last opportunity to make it there as a professional musician,” he says. “However, there was also the fact that Germany is the center of classical music.”

After careful consideration, Shiga decided to apply for the conducting course at the Rostock University of Music and Theater. Passing the audition wasn’t just a matter of demonstrating his musical ability, however.

“I already had good basic conducting knowledge from Japan but I really had to improve my piano playing,” Shiga recalls. “On top of that I had to learn how to showcase my skills and put together a suitable audition program.”

His efforts eventually paid off a year later when he gained admission to his chosen course.

Shiga has been working with the City Theater of Bremerhaven for the past four years. Located in one of Germany’s major seaports, the company offers musical theater, including opera, as well as spoken plays and ballet performances. Conducting and accompanying for these various genres provides plenty of artistic variety for Shiga.

Reaching this point in his career has not been without its challenges.

“Of course, there were some language issues at first,” he says. “Although I could speak German, Japanese had been my main language growing up. The German and Japanese characters are also different, and there are people from other countries working in the theater, including Russia and Eastern Europe. Some of them have strong personalities — something which I was not used to in Japan. I had to learn to speak up and ask for what I wanted.”

“On the other hand, being Japanese has also been helpful at times. In this industry, people often clash and egos get in the way. However, since I grew up in a group-oriented culture, I was able to draw on this background when I needed to get various types of people to work together in harmony.”

As he doesn’t look “typically” Japanese, Shiga admits that he sometimes enjoys gently teasing Japanese people he encounters in Germany. “They can’t imagine that I was raised in Japan, so when they express surprise at my language skills, I have some fun with them and say I studied Japanese very, very hard to get to this level!” he says with a boyish grin.

Not surprisingly, Shiga met his wife through music.

“She played the viola in an amateur orchestra for which I was conducting in Japan,” he says. “We started off as just friends but stayed in touch after I left to study in Germany and then we met when I came back to Japan each summer. Things just progressed from there.”

They are now the proud and busy parents of four little girls under the age of 6, including a set of twins. A typical day sees Shiga working from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then coming home to spend time with his family before heading back to the theater to work again from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Home is just a 10-minute bike ride away.

According to Shiga, Germany is ideal for raising children. “It’s easier to raise a large family here than in Japan, due to the state support for education,” he says. “Also, support for tuition in music and the arts makes it much more accessible and affordable. My oldest daughter has started learning ballet and the piano. Sometimes I take her with me to rehearsals and she watches. I can’t imagine that happening in Japan.”

Shiga notes that one rewarding aspect of his work is the chance to collaborate on productions with his theater’s youth division, which offers programs for youngsters between the ages of 3 and 18. “It’s important to encourage the future generation in order to keep traditions alive,” he says.

He also makes an effort to connect with the community during summer visits to Japan with his wife and children.

“I want to share what I have learned in Germany and give something back,” he says. He has given lectures and concerts for Japan-German friendship associations and conducted local wind orchestras in his home prefecture of Kanagawa.

Shiga has his sights set on honing his skills further and moving up in a few years to a position at a bigger theater in a place such as Stuttgart or Hamburg. Regardless of where his work takes him, he aims to please both his orchestra and the audience when he waves his baton.

“As a conductor, communication is vital,” he says. “If the musicians feel they have done a good job then that reflects on me. Their success is my success.”

And for the audience watching and listening? “I hope they will feel something in their heart,” he says with a smile.


Name: Tonio Shiga
Profession: Conductor and pianist
Hometown: Yokosuka, Kanagawa
Age: 41
Key moments in career:
2004 — Decides to go to Germany for further study
2009 — Graduates from Rostock University of Music and Theater
2013 — Begins current position with the City Theater of Bremerhaven
Life philosophy:Katte kabuto no o o shimeyo.” (“Don’t rest on your laurels.”)
Favorite composer: “Mozart. You can play his music differently every time and it’s always fresh.”

● 志賀トニオ

2004年 ドイツに移り住む
2009年 ロストック音楽・演劇大学を卒業

2013年 ブレーマーハーフェンの市立劇場 で指揮者として働き始める