Junior Choir loves sharing Buddhist music
Throughout its history, the Junior choir has been a tight-knit group of young people drawn together by their love of music and desire to share Buddhist music with the Betsuin, other temples and the community at large.
Their performances have spanned the Bay Area, California, Hawaii, and Japan. Their repertoire has included English and Japanese songs, movie themes, religious tunes, and ones that have featured sign language.
The choir is more like a family, according to Elaine Jones, a former director.
“It’s been 14 years since I’ve seen many of the former choir members, and when I see them now (or get updates from their parents), I am delighted to see and hear about their journey into adult life,” Elaine said.
For one Junior Choir alum, joining the group started out just as another church activity, but through the practices, performances and trips, his appreciation for the group deepened as he grew closer to the members.
“My favorite memory were the recitals when we put on a large production and were able to entertain our friends and families,” he said.
Isaiah, a current member, said: “I joined junior choir because it was a fun, extra activity that I could do with all my friends. I also loved all the food we would get to eat along with learning about our Japanese heritage. We learned some songs in Japanese, and now since I’m in high school, I’ve decided I want to be the first one in my family to speak Japanese since my great grandmother passed away.”
The Junior Choir is open to Dharma School students from ages 3rd to 12 grade. Choir members have also been recruiters for the group, exuberantly telling people at church services to: “Join the Junior Choir!”
The Junior Choir was founded in 1965 by Yumiko Hojo, wife of Rev. Ejitsu Hojo and Buddhist music pioneer in the United States. She wrote and arranged some of the most popular and enduring songs sung in Dharma School services.
The choir practices in the Hondo (temple) after the adult services. They have three major performances every year, at the Bodhi Day service in December, the Hanamatsuri service in April and the Junior Choir Recital in April.
Over the years, the choir has performed not only at major Buddhist Churches of America events but also ones in the wider community. They include the Dharma School Teacher’s Conference in 1996; a visit by the head of the temple sect, Nishi Hongwanji-ha; JACL National Convention in 1996; the Council of Churches Interfaith Service for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001; Kyoto and Okayama during a 2007 trip to Japan; and one of San Jose Taiko’s Rhythm Spirit concerts.
In the early 2000s, the choir performed original musicals for the spring recital, most notably one titled “Dorothy in Dharmaland,” inspired by the Wizard of Oz. Some of the parents displayed their artistic skills by designing building props and sets for the musicals, while others were in charge of lighting and the sound. Another attraction at the recitals has been the food, full lunches years ago and, more recently, gourmet desserts.
When the choir went to Hawaii in 2003, they learned Pokemon Ondo at the Hilo temple, and brought it back to the mainland and the temple’s Obon Odori (Obon dance). It has become a favorite number during Obon and is also part of Obon dancing at other temples.
Speaking of Obon dancing, the choir members and parents sell home-made snacks during the dance practices as a fundraiser.
Echoing a sentiment of all the choir directors over the years, Elaine said: “I am thankful for the choir members and their families’ participation in the Junior Choir program, and hope that they have fond memories of being together. I hold these memories dear to my heart.”
Choir alums also fondly remember their time in the choir.
“Jr. Choir was a fun activity that enabled me to stay connected to the church over the years,” says one Junior Choir alum. “I’ll never forget our trip to Hawaii, traveling to perform in different places and bonding with other choir families.”