Choral Director Christine Howlett

Christine Howlett spent time in Uganda in 2013, teaching songs to children that they would later perform in Japan.
Christine Howlett spent time in Uganda in 2013, teaching songs to children that they would later perform in Japan.

The most meaningful part of my experience with At Home in the World was to see all of the performers—the Vassar College Choir, the Ugandan children, the taiko drummers—come together the way they did. Everyone brought strengths to the table, but it wasn’t until we were all together that the program began to really take shape.

That was a first for me—to do the program in such a short timeframe (especially while the students were jetlagged) was pretty incredible. It was challenging for the Vassar students at first; there were a number of cultural differences they didn’t anticipate. The bathrooms were communal, which is something we are not accustomed to in North America. In Kokoro Juku (“Heart Academy”), Ashinaga’s facility in Tokyo, the Japanese would have morning meetings at 6:30 a.m. that included announcements and tasks such as cleaning. The intent of this is to build community, but it was still an adjustment for some of our students who are used to a bit more flexibility and autonomy.

The surroundings were quite luxurious for the Ugandan children coming to Japan. They loved the public baths (“Can we go swimming again?”) and their new clothes, which were donated by the Japanese retailer Uniqlo. I was surprised at how easily they adapted to their new surroundings, but I think there was a great deal of preparation by the staff at Ashinaga in Uganda to get them ready. The food was an adjustment, to be sure. Miso soup was not their favorite!

Our first concert in Sendai was the most compelling and the most anxiety producing. It was an intensely emotional process, and at times I found it difficult to keep a sense of perspective. At one point in rehearsal, I looked at a student and asked, “Is this good?” I couldn’t tell.

When Cappy and the administration arrived, their reaction was even more positive than I had expected. I was so glad our students—and all of the performers—received such great feedback for their excellent work.

Christine Howlett is an associate professor of music and the director of choral activities at Vassar, where she conducts the Vassar College Women’s Chorus, Vassar College Choir, and teaches music theory and voice. In addition to this recent performance in Japan, her choruses have sung at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and have toured in Italy, Turkey, Germany, Spain, and the United States.

Read more about her work in Uganda.