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A Study on Japanese Instrumental Training Methods for Non-Japanese Students: Cases of Columbia University Mentor/Protégé Program (Gagaku)

This article was co-authored by Dr. Hanako Yamamoto, and has been translated from the original Japanese publication dated February 21, 2019, on Senzoku Ronsou.

1. Introduction

1-1. Research Background and Purpose

  The practice of Western classical music can be seen across the globe, and as a consequence, Westerners and non-Westerners alike display tremendous musicality in this field. However, the opposite is not as prevalent; the number of non-East Asians studying East Asian traditional music is not as common as the above-mentioned. It is questionable whether this is exclusively due to the lack of world-wide exposure to East Asian heritage music. Rather, it can be argued that the instrumental characteristics that give East Asian music their distinct flare, as well as the unique pedagogical method, hinder numbers of potential learners from embarking on these kinds of musical journeys.


  Accordingly, this research aims to observe and analyze the pedagogical methods of non-Japanese students training in Japanese instruments, from the cases of the Gagaku-branch of the Mentor/Protégé Program (Institute of Medieval Japanese Studies: Japanese Cultural Heritage Initiatives, Columbia University). The Mentor/Protégé Program (hereafter MP Program) is a training program that was initiated in 2007 by Dr. Barbara Ruch, and annually invites non-Japanese students of Wagakki to Japan for training. The program is held every summer for six weeks, and all necessary expenses relating to the training, such as airfare, accommodation, and lesson fees, are paid by the IMJS: Japanese Cultural Heritage Initiatives. Many of the protégés but not all are enrolled in Columbia University’s Gagaku/Hogaku curriculum (applied instrumental lesson). In order to apply for the MP Program, protégés must have served as a member of the ensemble for a minimum of a semester, and submit an application to be considered for the program.


  Japanese musical notation utilizes a tablature and singing notation system and is traditionally taught as an oral tradition in stark contrast to Western pedagogical systems. The purposes of this notation is to guide the method of playing techniques, as well as to instruct the singing form, hence, each instrument has its particular notation. Through history, the Japanese traditional music has been taught by means of shōga (唱歌), a method of singing the melodies produced by Wagakki. As Haruko Komoda explains, “Shōga contains essential musical information such as melody, rhythm (beat and ma), certain performance techniques, and the timbral transformation throughout the piece. In the process, students are able to fully grasp the characteristics of the music”. By using the traditional notation system and shōga, students of the Japanese traditional music memorized their mentors’ every musical movement by heart, and in this manner, the musical form was passed down to further generations.


  As the MP Program’s pedagogical methodology is based on the traditional training methods of Japanese traditional music, we are able to witness the outcomes of how this training method is regarded by the non-Japanese students. Having been involved in the MP program through the inception and the administration of the MP Program, I (Yamamoto) have observed how the protégés of the program bring Wagakki and Japanese music to light in their countries of residences. This article examines the effects and significance of the Japanese traditional training methods on non-Japanese students by analyzing the cases of the Gagaku-branch of the MP Program. Furthermore, we will analytically compare (1) Columbia University’s Gagaku/Hogaku curriculum, where most of the protégés of the MP Program have been enrolled in; (2) the private lessons with a mentor, of which the protégés experience during their stay in Japan; and (3) the group lesson at Kunitachi College of Music, in the expectation to re-evaluate the characteristics of the MP Program for non-Japanese learners of Japanese traditional instruments.

1-2. Research Target and Methodology

  In order to understand the comprehensive view of the program, I (Shimizu), having participated in the Gagaku curriculums in Kunitachi College of Music (Tokyo), Columbia University, and the MP Program, will analytically compare the three training methods. In addition, we have conducted interviews of the mentors, as well as questionnaire surveys for the protégés who have participated in past MP Programs, for the purpose of investigating both perspectives of the mentors and the protégés. 


Table 1. Records of the Interviewees

  All of the protégés were given a questionnaire survey, with inquiries including the reason of enrolling in the Gagaku/Hogaku curriculum in Columbia University, the evaluation of the training methods of the MP Program, the assessment of the traditional pedagogical methodology, and the personal impression and the analysis of the effectiveness of the program. The questionnaire surveys were primarily given to the protégés after their participation in the MP Program, however, protégés who have participated in and prior to 2015 were provided with the questionnaire in July 2016.


  As of 2018, the Gagaku branch of the MP Program has had a total of 33 protégés. Instrumental mentorship includes mainly the three wind instruments; hichiriki, ryūteki, and shō, and the allocation of the number of students in each instrument varies by year. Table 2 displays the number of protégés per year for each instrument. Of those, 19 of the questionnaire surveys were used for this research.


Table 2. The annual number of protégés by instrument (unit: people)

2. Mentor/Protégé Program

  Besides participating in the MP Program in 2015 as a protégé, when necessary I (Shimizu) have provided logistical support to the program as an assistant coordinator, where necessary. Moreover, I have studied in both Gagaku curriculums at Kunitachi College of Music as an undergraduate student, and at Columbia University, as a graduate student. All protégés of the MP Program, in principle, must have been enrolled in Columbia University’s Gagaku curriculum before applying to the program. During the course of the program in Japan, they will take part in Kunitachi College of Music’s Gagaku class. Both curriculums in these two institutions are inherently different in numbers of aspects, including the pedagogical methods and facilities. By highlighting the attributes of the two curriculums affiliated with the MP Program, we attempt to objectively analyze and evaluate the Japanese instrumental training methods for non-Japanese students.

2-1. “Japanese Traditional Music (Gagaku)” (Kunitachi College of Music)


  The Gagaku curriculum offered by Kunitachi College of Music is led by Mayumi Miyata (shō), Hitomi Nakamura (hichiriki), and Manami Echigo (ryūteki), and students are allocated into elementary, intermediate, and advanced classes, based on their experience and skills. Almost all of the students enrolled in the curriculum are undergraduate students of Kunitachi College of Music, and to many, it is a compulsory subject as part of the teacher qualification training. The elementary level students begin with Etenraku and Goshoraku of the Hyōjō scale, the intermediate students with Bairo, and the advanced students are, at times, encouraged to learn contemporary music. The number of enrolled students varies each academic year. For the shō, around ten students register for the elementary level class, about five for the intermediate class, and one to two students are admitted to the advanced. In the weekly one hour and thirty minutes long class, students are divided into different rooms according to their instruments, where the training occurs. A monthly ensemble practice brings all instruments together in the same room. The course is taught in Japanese, and the instructor responds individually in English for the MP Program protégés, when necessary. 

2-2. “World Music Ensemble: Gagaku” (Columbia University)


  The Gagaku course offered at Columbia University, led by Louise Sasaki (ryūteki), meets once every week for two hours. Noriyuki Sasaki (hichiriki) and Yoichi Fukui (shō) assist in practical instruction. The first half of the class is routinely dedicated to each of the three woodwind instruments gathering in groups to practice their repertoires, and the second half of the class to ensemble practice. Of the registered students, those majoring in music[1] few, as many of the undergraduate students often enroll in this course to satisfy compulsory credits in the liberal arts requirements. About half of the students in the class are auditors, made up of students from other universities, performers of Western musical instruments, and artists of other mediums. Although the number of students varies each semester, a total of around twenty students have participated in the Gagaku class in the academic year of 2015~2016.


2-3. Comparison of Practice Conditions


    Whether or not learners of an instrument are able to practice whenever desired plays a big part in the improvement of performance techniques. Kunitachi College of Music offers students practice rooms within a limited timeframe. At Columbia University, each department provides students with different rules to rent a room for instrumental practice. Columbia Spectators points out in the article “For Columbia Musicians, Lack of Campus Practice Space Hinders Talent” (Jan. 2018) the inadequacy of instrumental practice rooms. However, while practice spaces for larger instruments, such as the piano or large percussion, might be severely limited, noting that many facilities at Columbia are open 24 hours a day, students residing on campus can access practice rooms in the university and in student housing 24-hours a day. In other words, for students enrolled at Columbia, it is relatively easy to find space to practice one of the three woodwind instruments of Gagaku. The same cannot be said for those who audit the class, or those who are not Columbia students.


  On the other hand, it is a challenge for many MP Program protégés to secure practice space on their own, especially as they are in a foreign land that many of them are not yet used to the language. Consequently, the protégés are to utilize the practice space the MP Program provides them with. Since instrumental practice is audible to others, it cannot be done at the International House of Japan (IHJ), where the protégés are accommodated. Therefore, practice space is provided by Toyo Eiwa Jogakuin, a private girls academy located adjacent to the IHJ. However, the classrooms are only available for the protégés, when the regular school day is over in the evening. In response to the requests from the protégés for a possibility of extended practice time, the MP Program has additionally provided Musashino Gakki as a potential practice space, and from 2017 extended the possible practice time at Toyo Eiwa Jogakuin. Table 3 displays the comparison of the available hours of practice rooms at the two institutions and MP Program (for MP Program, the table displays the availability of the practice rooms at Toyo Eiwa Jogakuin for the protégés).


Table 3. Comparison of available hours of practice rooms (24-hour clock)

  On the one hand, both Kunitachi College of Music and Columbia University offers substantial numbers of practice spaces, including open classrooms. However, since all practice spaces are open to other students and faculties for reservation, it may at times be arduous to secure an available space. On the other hand, though the available practice times may seem slim for the MP Program protégés, each participant is assured a room for practice, provided during the fixed practice timeslot.


2-4. Comparison of Presentation Opportunities


  Another important component in the improvement of musical expressions is to have opportunities to present what we have learned. In the case of the Gagaku classes offered at Kunitachi College of Music, there are opportunities to perform in public at the beginning of November in the Geisai (or Art Festival), as well as in the “Japanese Traditional Music Course Ensemble Concert”, held every December. Unfortunately, since the program takes place between May and July, the protégés are unable to take part in these performance opportunities. Columbia University’s Gagaku curriculum offers three opportunities for public performances. Every spring, mentors are invited from Japan to give a week-long training and a concert is held in Miller Theatre at the end of the week. A total of two more concerts at the ends of the fall and spring semesters in May and December, are held in St. Paul’s Chapel.


  During the course of the MP Program, protégés are given performance opportunities in a lunch-time concert in collaboration with the high school students of Toyo Eiwa Jogakuin. Other presentation opportunities include giving an introductory talk at an elementary school in the Setagaya Ward as well as sharing the newly acquired knowledge of the instruments in “History of Eastern Music”, a course offered at Senzoku Gakuen College of Music, taught by myself (Yamamoto). These opportunities for output are not a one-way lecture or a concert, rather, it is an opportunity where the protégés can experience the reactions of the listeners instantly. Thanks to these opportunities to showcase their newly acquired skills in a friendly and non-judgmental atmosphere, many protégés leave the program feeling encouraged, and continue performing publicly.


2-5. The Characteristics of the Mentor/Protégé Program


  Both Gagaku courses offered at Kunitachi College of Music and Columbia University are classes for students enrolled in diverse majors, and it is difficult for them to focus primarily on the instrumental training of Gagaku music. On the other hand, the MP Program, as stated above, is an intensive six-week long course for those who have already learned the basics of Wagakki performance techniques in the United States. With all necessary fees covered by the program, it offers students, interested in improving their Wagakki performance skills in an intensive approach, and immerses the students in an environment to concentrate on and dive into the world of Gagaku.


  Moreover, the MP Program provides protégés with multiple lessons to work one-on-one with a mentor. As receiving guidance individually can significantly enhance one’s performance skills, it is one of the contrasts the program offers, when compared with the other two university curriculums. The former protégés stress the importance of experiencing private lessons, where a mentor can offer feedback promptly and precisely. The following is an excerpt from the answer to the questionnaire survey of the protégés.


  Other protégés have also voiced positive views on the individual lessons, as many of the technical details, such as the teutsuri, are not notated in the traditional scores, and students must learn them from the mentors orally. Additionally, the MP Program offers diverse opportunities of mentorship, such as individual lessons with a performer from Reigakusha; participation in the practice sessions of Ono Gagaku Kai, where musicians from the Imperial Household Agency Gagaku Orchestra leads the ensemble; a guided tour inside the Imperial Household Agency and the Imperial Palace; opportunities to participate in the Gagaku class offered at Kunitachi College of Music; as well as invitations to many cultural events.


3. The Traditional Pedagogical Methods in the MP Program


3-1. Shōga


  Shōga plays a vital role in the learning process of Gagaku and new students are, in many of the traditional pedagogical circumstances, not allowed to handle their instruments without first mastering shōga. Every one of the three wind instruments in Gagaku has its unique shōga. The students of hichiriki and ryūteki sing a series of syllables, such as “to”, “ra”, “ro”, “ru”, and “ta”, on the resembling melody of a specific Gagaku music. These lyrics do not individually translate to a specific meaning. The shōga of shō uses the chord (aitake) name for lyrics, and sings the proximate melody played by the hichiriki.


  According to the questionnaires sent to the mentors, all protégés are trained with shōga. This pedagogical method is especially important for the shō, as its shōga resembles the melody lines of hichiriki, which is convenient when playing in an ensemble setting. The protégés also agree on the importance of shōga, as mentioned in the questionnaires. The responses below describe the benefits of learning Gagaku with shōga, as students can be acquainted with the flow of music, control of the breath, pitch, and rhythms of the music.


  One protégé focused on the significance of shōga in Gagaku.


  On the other hand, there were a handful of protégés who felt burdened at some point, by having to learn shōga.


3-2. Traditional Notation System of Gagaku


  Unlike the Western musical score, the traditional score of Gagaku exists as a memorandum that symbolizes key points and does not describe the music in great detail. The scores for hichiriki and ryūteki notates the shōga in katakana, along with the names of fingerings. On the contrary, the score for shō displays chords, as well as names of individual notes in kanji.


  All mentors agree that, when learning Gagaku, students should familiarize themselves with the Japanese traditional notation system. With that said, few exceptions can be made in using the Western notation system, such as when learning contemporary music. Furthermore, after learning shōga, a number of protégés have transcribed the relevant notes to a Western score. Some mentors allow this as special cases, but only if the notes are correctly notated. Protégés who are accustomed to Western notation systems have had difficulties adapting to the new Japanese traditional notation system. There were a number of comments regarding the complication of getting used to the score, as shown below.


  Moreover, some participants felt that learning the Japanese traditional notation system benefited them in ways, such as understanding the musicality between different notation systems.


3-3. Oral Tradition


  In order for beginners to learn Gagaku, mentors must coach and demonstrate precise nuances not notated in the traditional scores. For example, the embai (塩梅) techniques of the hichiriki are not included in the scores and must be learned in lessons. Likewise, for the shō, the teutsuri (手移り) and the particular usage of breathing cannot be notated on the scores, and therefore it must be orally instructed from the mentors. According to the results from the questionnaires, we can see that many protégés agree on the necessity of oral tradition and perceive benefits of a one-on-one lesson with a mentor.


  Aside from being able to learn practical techniques, such as teutsuri, protégés mention the desirable side effects of oral tradition, such as being able to learn the cultures and histories of Gagaku and the instruments.


  In addition, the following answer was also noticed.

4. The Effects and Significance of MP Program

  What effects and significance does this six-week long intensive Gagaku training program have on both the mentors and the protégés? Below are some excerpts from the responses of the surveys.


4-1. Mentors


  Comparing the protégés before and after the MP Program, the mentors have emphasized observations of seeing a deeper musical understanding of Gagaku in the protégés.


  Two issues to resolve include strengthening the students' performance in an ensemble setting as well as incorporating the skills of teaching, directing and organizing an ensemble.


  On top of that, how Gagaku could spread overseas:


4-2. Protégés


  Improvements in many musical aspects are observed in the protégés after their six-week long participation in the MP Program. Many of the responses in the questionnaire were about their improvements in performance techniques, however, some stated that, by being able to study non-Western music (of which they had few opportunities to appreciate before) changed their perspective on music.


  Furthermore, remarks on how the traditional pedagogical method changed their attitudes towards learning were noticed.


  We have also witnessed comments regarding the further understanding of the Japanese culture and hopes to maintain the bridge between Japan and the protégés’ countries of origin.


5. Conclusion


  So far, we have examined the effects of the Japanese traditional pedagogical methods for the non-Japanese learners of Wagakki through the cases of the Mentor/Protégé Program.


  Both the mentors and the protégés agree on the importance and the necessity of acquiring Gagaku through shōga. By familiarizing with the traditional Japanese scores and its notation systems, protégés were also able to understand the deeper structures of not only Japanese music but of Western music as well. On top of that, the protégés learn intricate details not notated on the scores by participating in the  one-on-one oral tradition.


  Moreover, by comparing the characteristics of the MP Program with the Gagaku curriculum offered at both Kunitachi College of Music and Columbia University, the following has become apparent. As the name suggests, the MP Program provides a mentorship of protégés on a one-on-one basis – something that cannot be seen in the university curriculums. On the contrary, it can be said that the classes offered at the universities supplement what is missing from the private lessons – the ensemble experience.


  The MP Program offers distinctive learning experiences in diverse forms and methods and can be said that the Japanese students studying Gagaku in Japan are unable to find any similar program like this one. During the program, the protégés are able to socialize, share, and learn with people of diverse ages, ranging from elementary school students to the elders. It is a short-term, intensive training program that is completely different from classes offered in universities.


  As a result of receiving the traditional Japanese pedagogical method when learning Wagakki, the protégés not only could improve their instrumental techniques, but also widen their perspectives on what music is, discover Japanese cultures, and in the end, potentially mentor others with the same methodology. Mastering Wagakki through this method is time consuming; however, we are able to observe that it certainly deepens the understanding of the instrument as well as the culture and broadens the perspective of the learners. Non-Japanese learners of Wagakki, of whom are living abroad, do not have many chances to learn the instruments in this way. However, by disseminating this method widely throughout the world, we see a direct and more authentic effect of introducing Japanese music to the world. In this regard, it can be said that it is favorable for the learners of Wagakki, both Japanese and non-Japanese, to discover the instruments in the Japanese traditional pedagogical method.


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