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Staff writer

Like other members of her Tokyo choir, 91-year-old Chiyoko Hamada has found singing to be the key to longevity.

“Singing relieves stress and it’s good for your health,” Hamada said as she sat down, resting her cane beside her. “I feel refreshed after singing.”

The Tokyo Senior Cooperative Association is the first group to organize a choir consisting mainly of the elderly. Its chorus will sing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from his Ninth Symphony at a concert in December.

About 310 people, ranging in age from 14 to 91, have signed up to join the choir since it was organized in May. The association planned the event after the United Nations in 1992 designated 1999 as the International Year of Older Persons. Beginning Oct. 1, the U.N. aims to promote better understanding of elderly people.

“Beethoven composed the Ninth Symphony, which includes a song that celebrates human life, when he became deaf and was desperate to kill himself,” said Yoko Tanaka, executive of the association. “That’s why we think ‘Ode to Joy’ is perfect for the elderly to sing.”

At choir practice earlier this month, some 280 members gathered at a local hall in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward.

Members leaned forward trying not to miss a single word as opera singer Kiyoshi Kojima, the chorus’ adviser, demonstrated how to sing with a resonant voice. “I’m surprised that the members are so enthusiastic and have their eyes focused on me,” Kojima said. “Most choirs I have directed before were too busy following the musical notes.”

One of the participants, Naoe Nomura, 76, said she has wanted to sing “Ode to Joy” since she saw her little brother sing in high school. “Our generation could not sing freely because of the war. I have much admiration for songs like ‘Ode to Joy,'” she said.

But chorus members face a difficult challenge. They are required to learn notes and German lyrics by heart. Many have trouble pronouncing German correctly and some cannot read music.

Most of the participants have katakana written above the German words so that they can more easily read the lyrics. Kojima holds German pronunciation lessons prior to regular practices.

Considerable press coverage has put the association in the public spotlight, and it has had to turn down a flood of requests from people interested in joining the chorus, since the stage can only accommodate 300 people.

“There are already 150 people on the waiting list to participate in the concert next year,” Tanaka said. The concert will be held at Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall in Shinjuku Ward under the command of world-famous conductor Yuzo Toyama, so people are rushing to sign up, she added.

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