An estimated 40 million people sing in choirs in the USA* alone and in the UK it’s the most popular pastime after sport. But that still puts the UK and Europe way behind Asia, according to Johan Rooze, a Dutch national who has lived and worked in South Korea for almost 12 years. “Here in Asia singing is very much integrated in society and in daily life. Everyone sings in a church choir or a community choir. Every school and university has a very good choir programme too.” And Rooze should know. He’s a conductor and one of the Artistic Directors of Interkultur, a German company responsible for setting up and running The World Choir Games, a bi-annual festival and competition expected to welcome to its 2020 edition up to 20,000 participants and 500 choirs from 70 countries.

Johan Rooze
© Johan Rooze

His first experience of Asian choirs was in 1995 in Arnheim, the Netherlands, as an adjudicator: “I saw two university choirs from the Philippines and I was flabbergasted. They sang classical, folk, pop music, all fantastic. They won all three categories and it was so unexpected. Can you imagine if I as a conductor tried to do Chinese music and bring it to China, the audience will laugh about the way I do it!” Traditionally the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are particularly strong at folkloric music and are very expressive, with wonderful costumes and often explosive choreographies but the Philippines are the most impressive being “very Catholic from the Spanish tradition so they sing fantastic European church music from all the great composers.”

I learn that the technique of Japan, Korea and China is different from elsewhere. “The melodies have a lot of ornaments and there is a banding of pitches, not equal tempered as we have. It’s pentatonic scales and they slide and use all kinds of different vocal qualities and you see that back in their choral competitions. Nowadays they try to blend their own tradition with Western techniques, so it’s very interesting music. When I first started adjudicating international choirs and I heard these Chinese choirs it was very difficult to judge them because they were all the same, the melody, pentatonic with words we couldn’t understand,” but that has changed now.

Guangzhou Yucai Experimental School Choir (China)
© Interkultur

It turns out that teaching choirs in East Asia isn’t completely straight forward.

“When I had my first rehearsal with my choir here in Korea, I walked into the rehearsal room and everyone was dead silent – maybe with a disciplined cathedral choir in England it is the same – but I wasn’t used to that. I have to say ‘shut up’ 5 times before I can start. I found out that they’re very trained in singing for the conductor, so it’s very easy to rehearse, but it also means that what I don’t give them, I don’t get back. With my student choirs in the Netherlands, I got so much input and motivation from the choir itself that it was more a working together and sharing ideas. Here they come and wait for the conductor to tell them what to do. Everything is in rote learning. It should be fast and no mistakes. In the West we explore. We take the risk of making a mistake. The teacher asks a question and we stick up our hands and if it’s wrong we don’t mind. Here they don’t stick up their hands because it could be wrong and they don’t want that. But on the other hand compared by the work attitude of the students here, we Europeans are immensely lazy. They work so hard and the individual voice training is fantastic. It’s crazy. I have an amateur choir of 20 singers and they all sing with professional voices. But sometimes you hear the sopranos or the tenors that are professional singers and you hear them picking out of the blend so they’re not listening to each other, they’re not interacting by themselves. You can teach them but it’s not something that happens automatically. It’s a challenge.”

Asked how the standard of their singing compares with the equivalent choir in the Netherlands, Rooze responds: “It’s very high here especially in the past 20 years when singers and conductors have started studying Western music and going to America, or to Europe to get a PHD or Masters. They see the different style and they import it so it’s changing very fast.”

Johan Rooze conducting at the World Choir Games 2014 in Riga, Latvia
© Johan Rooze

Is it hard to adjudicate singers coming from such very different traditions? “We have 27 different categories which range from children’s choirs, to sacred music to contemporary, to folklore, to pop and jazz and sometimes 80 different countries so there are some things in choral music that you can very objectively adjudicate – out of tune is out of tune. But when if it comes to style and authenticity of music, it’s not always easy but if we have a big competition we have a large panel of 7 international judges and we try to have one from each discipline. Sometimes we need to discuss with the specialist. At some point you can see in the performance, the way they sing, the way they stand, the way they present themselves on the stage. You can also get an impression; is it good or is it so-so, is it chaotic or is it precise. So even if you don’t know the song or don’t understand it you still get the feeling whether it’s right or not.”

I’m keen to learn why choirs come to these festivals. China, Korea and Japan are very competitive and “eager to measure themselves against other choirs. Choirs from other countries come for meeting, networking and exchanging ideas. Another big element is education. We always combine competitions with workshops by one of the adjudicators where we have “evaluation” performances – where the choir will get remarks from the jury – a kind of report. Coaching: you’re learning from other choirs. And finally it’s very important to get together, to sing together – not only with your own group. If you’re in a choir you have a rehearsal once or twice a week, if you go away with them you spend 4-10 days together and it really improves your choral family, your choral blend so it works very well for a choir.”

In addition to the World Choir Games, Interkultur organises either a European or an Asia Pacific Choir Games in the alternate years and in 2020 will put on around 18 small festivals, 11 of which include choral competitions. These will last 4-5 days with between 20 - 50 choirs, while the behemoths “colour the city with choral singing, not only in the halls but with friendship concerts, on open stages in parks and with flash mobs. In a medium sized city we steal all the halls for 10 days.”

The World Games require a big auditorium with 18,000 seats for the opening ceremony which have a definite feel of the Olympics. But according to Rooze, the Olympics make one big mistake. There “the first winner gets gold, the second gets silver the third gets bronze. 3 people get prizes and the rest go into oblivion. That’s it. We do it differently.” Rooze goes on to explain that most of their competing choirs get either a bronze, silver or gold medal and this is vital to help the choirs get sponsorship. “In Korean, Russian and American universities they have a lot of sponsorship. And if choirs come back with a golden diploma they often get rewarded with more funding.” Sponsorship depends very much on where you’re from: “Asian choirs are very well funded, especially the East Asian countries. China most of the time get 90 - 95% of the trip paid for by the government. In Netherlands you have to pay everything yourself.” Government sponsorship for music education can even depend on taking part; “I have been in Beijing for a competition and it was obligatory that every school sends a choir. And those of them that don’t have a choir make one up in two weeks.”

It seems hard to believe choirs can afford particularly long haul trips but it appears that the choirs who compete are very good at fundraising, that they typically book a year and a half to two years in advance and save up so they can take a ten day holiday for a five day festival and do a cultural trip around the festival. “To take part in the festival each participant has to pay a registration fee but everyone has to pay his accommodation.” An upcoming competition is in Hoi An, Vietnam and takes place in a small village, a UNESCO heritage site with a 60km beach nearby with lots of tourist hotels so choirs can choose to stay in 5 star accommodation on the beach, or in very cheap local hotels in the old city. Local choirs are able to take part without having to pay for accommodation if they live within a 150 km radius of the host city and this keeps the cost down and allows local choirs to join in.

Voice of Bali (Indonesia)
© Interkultur

“When we are looking for somewhere to hold the European or World Choir Games I always say that we shouldn’t go to a really big city like New York or Paris because you disappear in it. They don’t need us. There’s so much culture, festivals and other arts going on. We need a city that is big but not so big that we’ll be invisible...but the city should be attractive enough to have a lot of other culture because it’s not only about the competition, it’s also about going out together, having a cultural exchange maybe see paintings or whatever, it’s a cultural trip.” And clearly in some cities the idea takes hold. Following a World Choir Games in Busan, Korea in 2002, the city has kept up the tradition and instigated their own annual choral competition which has grown over time. Last year 50 choirs from 12 countries participated.

When asked about best things about things about the job, Rooze says: “I love to see choirs and I love to travel. I like to facilitate the choirs and promote choral music not only for good choirs (although they’re nice to listen to) but also for young choirs. Sometimes you can coach them. And the next year they come back and they improve and you think hey maybe that’s because they got a good result last time or you coached them. That’s just as much fun as getting a big applause because you conducted Beethoven 9.

Choral singing is good for your brain and your body but it’s also very good for the world. At Interkultur our slogan is ‘Singing together brings nations together’ and I see that all the time. I can remember in Bremen [World Choir Games, 2004] we had a children’s choir from North Korea and one from South Korea and they walked in the parade together with two flags. At that time it was unimaginable. And the same thing happened with Iran and Israel. They had safety guards around but they sang together in a choir, with two flags. No problem. Yes it was fantastic to see that.”

The next big Interkultur event will be in the European Choir Games in Gothenburg in August, followed in 2020 by the World Choir Games in Flanders Belgium.

*Taken from a survey by Chorus America in 2009

This article was sponsored by Interkultur.