People | 20 QUESTIONS

Masatoshi Takami: Uniting choirs in beautiful harmony

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

Name: Masatoshi Takami
Age: 38
Nationality: Japanese
Occupation: Choral conductor
Likes: Singing, cats, visiting botanical gardens, mint chocolate chip ice cream
Dislikes: Abbreviations in Japanese


1. Did you always want to be a choral conductor? I wanted to be a professional singer before studying abroad. However, while singing in college choirs and community choruses in the U.S., I was amazed at the power of choral activity to connect people regardless of their differences. It motivated me to be the one who leads the activity rather than just be a part of it.

2. You got your degrees in Kansas and Illinois: Why? The choral ensembles I admired happened to be from America, and I was impressed with their musicianship and approach to music. Simply put, I wanted to be like them.

3. Not many people visit the American Midwest. Did anything surprise you? So many people have asked me, “Why Kansas?” The vastness of the prairie was the biggest surprise. When I drove two hours in the area, the landscape stayed the same: either wheat, corn or soybean fields.

4. What did you miss about Japan? I missed Japan’s convenience stores: There is no such service in the U.S.

5. Currently you conduct two choirs — Choir Lila and the Tokyo Embassy Choir. Do you adjust your conducting style? Choirs with beginners need bigger and obvious cues to bring everyone together, but more advanced choirs need fewer and smaller cues. My conducting teacher always told me to conduct economically. In other words, to conduct as little as possible, and I agree with her.

6. Are there any differences between Japanese and international choirs? Japanese choirs are good at blending voices, while international choirs tend to have more expressiveness.

7. How do you prepare to conduct a piece? The very first thing I do is skim through the overall structure of music. Then, I spend time finding challenging intervals and rhythms and possible solutions to get over them. After that, I go over the music again to look for what is exciting and fascinating about the piece, where the beautiful moments are and where each part shines out so I can “sell” it.

8. Do you think music actually brings people together? Interesting question … I believe it does. When we make music together, we share the same time, space and air for one simple goal: to create beautiful sound. How couldn’t we be united?

9. What’s the most difficult part about conducting in your second language? Because Japanese is more deeply connected to my emotions and body, I sometimes have a hard time finding the right word in English to share my ideas with choir members. It can be really frustrating: I have what I want to communicate with singers, but not the vehicle to deliver it.

10. What piece have you always wanted to conduct? “Eternal Light” by Howard Goodall. The music features a beautiful mixture of classical and accessible popular music. Though it is based on the traditional requiem format, it is written for the living, remembering the lost ones and providing them with solace.

11. Why do some conductors use batons but some don’t? We can give precise beats with batons, while a variety of nuances can be expressed with hands. Because I often conduct small or medium choirs, I prefer conducting with my hands, to communicate more subtleties.

12. Do you have any pre- or post-concert rituals? I put my tuning folk into my pocket before concerts, even when I don’t use it. Also, I smile and laugh more than usual beforehand …maybe after as well.

13. What has been your most rewarding concert experience? It was a student choir concert I directed in Kansas. The choir was composed of students from various backgrounds, including Japanese, Korean, Chinese, French and American, but we were united in beautiful harmony.

14. What’s an underrated musical notation? Rests. How we treat rests between notes and melodies can completely change the overall impression of a piece.

15. Who’s your favorite conductor? Benjamin Zander. Not only is he an insightful interpreter of music, he is also a wonderful teacher. He always guides students in the right direction with encouragement and warmth.

16. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten? Your past does not equal your future.

17. What three things are always in your fridge? Vanilla yogurt, sparkling water and rock ice for drinking.

18. Have any books left an impression on you recently? “Bonds That Make Us Free” by C. Terry Warner. It transformed the way I see relationships with others.

19. Which movie has the best score? “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion.” The tunes are a combination of Western and Indian music and perfectly represent the movie’s overload of action, drama and romance.

20. Do the kanji of your first name match your personality? My parents named me 昌利 (Masatoshi) in hopes I would be smart and benefit people in the world. It’s something to live up to.

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