Tokyo Chorus Group to Perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with Sign Language in Vienna

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Soprano singer Erika Colon, who played a central role in founding the White Hands Chorus Nippon, speaks in an interview in Tokyo in May 2013.

The White Hands Chorus Nippon, a choir whose members include children with hearing and visual disabilities, plans to perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 through sign language in Vienna next February.

The performance is planned after the choir based in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, was acclaimed by an Austrian foundation. Next year will mark 200 years since Beethoven composed the symphony despite his hearing loss. The choir’s members are putting special effort into practicing, hoping to convey to the world that there are no barriers to music.

“It’s fun to interpret the lyrics and express them with my body. I can sing even though I can’t hear,” said Misaki Shida, 15, a third-year junior high school student of Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, during a practice session at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in late November.

Shida, who is hard of hearing, is trying her hand at signed singing, in which sign language and facial expressions are used to express song lyrics.

The choir was launched in 2017 by Erika Colon, 44, a soprano singer born in Venezuela. Signed singing and other methods of expressing music have been widely adopted in the country. When Colon performed at a special-needs school, she saw students with hearing disabilities feel the rhythm of the music with their bodies. This inspired her to bring signed singing from her native country to Japan with the hope that people will “share the charm of music with each other, regardless of disability.”

The White Hands Chorus Nippon consists of about 100 members, aged 6 to 18. They perform either in a “vocal team” that sings using voice, or a “sign team” that expresses music through signing. The choir’s members also include able-bodied and autistic children, and its practice sessions are held in Tokyo as well as Kyoto and Okinawa prefectures.

Koichi Kubota, 13, a first-year junior high school student of Itabashi Ward, Tokyo, was born with low vision and is now a member of the vocal team. “I’m happy that those who can’t see, like me and kids who can’t hear can express ourselves together without any barriers,” he said.

Sara Terui, 7, is an able-bodied, second-grade elementary school student of Kawasaki. She started learning sign language out of her desire to “be friends with everyone” and joined the sign team.

Crowdfunding for travel expenses

In December, the choir received an international award from the Austrian foundation, which aims to realize an inclusive society, for its musical activities that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of people.

The choir is scheduled to give a performance at an international conference to be held by the foundation and other entities at an U.N. office in Vienna on Feb. 23. About 80 choir members of seven prefectures, such as Kanagawa, Fukuoka and Okinawa, plan to perform there. To cover their travel expenses, about ¥13.4 million — 2.7 times more than the target — has been raised through crowdfunding.

In 1824, Beethoven completed the Symphony No. 9 and premiered it in Vienna, and 2024 will mark the 200th year since then.

“Symphony No. 9 is also called ‘Ode to Joy.’ I hope the world will pay attention to the children’s chorus that will be performed at the birthplace of a musical work that overcame challenges,” Colon said.