Interview with Joel Biedrzycki
Joel Biedrzycki has been living and playing percussion in Japan since 2011, first with the Hyogo Performing Arts Center Orchestra, and now with the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra. He lives with his wife Sayuri, and their dog Pepper. We discussed his experience with auditions, orchestra politics, and life as an expat in Japan.
When did you first move to Japan?
In 2011 I won a position with the Hyogo Performing Arts Center Orchestra, which is a training orchestra in Japan similar to the New World Symphony based Miami Beach, FL. Before that I had just completed a Performance Certificate at Lynn University studying with Ted Atkatz. And that summer I participated in the Pacific Music Festival, which is also in Japan.
What was your audition experience like in Nagoya?
The audition process was pretty typical for the first two rounds, short first round, longer second round, and both were screened. Where things became different was in the final round the next day. In Nagoya, the entire orchestra is there to observe the audition, and then each member votes to decide if you earn a trial with the orchestra. Then after a three-month period the orchestra then votes again to decide if you will become a full member of the orchestra.
Your position in the orchestra is Co-Principal Percussion. Could you explain a little how your orchestra is structured?
I was originally hired as Section Percussion. But, in my orchestra every three years there are elections within the orchestra to determine who will be the principal players. For the last election I decided to put my name in for principal, and I was selected. So now I share the role with Takeshi Kubota, who was already principal. Also, in my orchestra there is no distinction between Principal Timpani and Principal Percussion.
Is there an instrument that you will usually play in the orchestra?
Since we have a lot of different programs each month the other principal and I will sit down and split the timpani parts, and then amongst the section we will decide who will play what. More often than not, if I am not playing timpani I will be playing cymbals, unless there is another rather difficult part.
Is there a different sound quality that you have brought to your orchestra that was not there before?
Snare drum, absolutely! In Japanese orchestras, there is a lot of German influence, so the snare is more open, no muffling and very loose snares. When I came over with my Pearl Philharmonic, with the 3 snares, lots of muffling and with a very crisp sound, it was totally different. In fact, one of the older members of the percussion section recently told me that when I first joined the orchestra he HATED my snare sound. Now he says that when I play snare it is THE Nagoya Philharmonic snare drum sound!
Could you describe what your season is like?
We typically have between 120 and 135 concerts a year, and work about 50 weeks. This is pretty standard for an orchestra in Japan. There is quite a bit of focus on cultural development in children. I would say roughly one third of our concerts are for children or families. It’s one of the things I’ve noticed that I feel Japan does so well; fostering the arts and trying to imbue children with a respect for orchestral music from an early age.
Was there a moment that you felt more at home in Japan?
There wasn’t necessarily a moment, but since I moved to Nagoya it’s been funny to see foreigners, and knowing right away if it’s someone who lives here, or is someone who is a tourist. Especially when I go somewhere like Tokyo station and see tourists that obviously don’t know where to go. That’s when I realize that I know what I am doing!
What is the expat community like in Nagoya, Japan?
There is a fair amount of expats living in Nagoya. Most are English teachers from England, Ireland, or Australia, or people who work for Toyota, whose main headquarters is nearby. There are a lot of great resources here. There is an International Center where you can get magazines and newspapers in English, and take books out of the library. And it is also a great place to meet other expats.
How do you stay connected back home?
Facebook is a great way to see what is going on back home. Something that I have been meaning to do is to post more things about what I am doing in Japan. I also use a BBC app to stay up on world news.
What advice can you give to someone who is thinking about living abroad?
Be prepared that you are going to feel uncomfortable for a while. It will be overwhelming, but it will get better. Immerse yourself in the language and the culture, and you will have an easier time adjusting. Be patient…it will get easier.
by Chris Tusa 10/25/2016