Elevating the Artistry of Teaching Artists: El Sistema Japan
Authors:Benjamin Bayl (Australia & Hungary), Zinia Chan (Australia), Brendan Jan Walsh (The Netherlands)
Having witnessed the devastation amongst the communities affected by the Great East Japan tsunami and earthquake of 2011, Yutaka Kikugawa founded El Sistema Japan (ESJ) with the support of the benefactors as well as the musicians from around the world including the Berlin Philharmonic.
The organisation’s principal goal is to develop essential life skills and resilience in children through an inclusive and joyful music program, thus enabling them to realise their full potential as vital members of society. Although ESJ was founded in Soma just shortly after the disaster, Kikugawa’s careful consideration of both the community’s history and assessment of its immediate needs, allowed him to determine the importance of proposing and integrating a program such as El Sistema into the community.
Research has shown that engagement in music-making supports the development of resilience when dealing with challenges. It also plays a role in supporting the healing of those who have been traumatised. Within this context, ESJ’s pilot program was set up to offer children access to enriching musical education as a medium for psychological rehabilitation, reintegration and mental development, irrespective of their family backgrounds or any disabilities.
In recent years ESJ has expanded to three other prefectures: Otsuchi, Komagane and Tokyo. Today’s program currently reaches almost two thousand children aged six to eighteen, in ensembles including string orchestras, wind bands and choirs, the latter also involving visually and aurally impaired children.
Eric Booth, co-Founder of the International Teaching Artist Conferences, states that “being a part of an aligned and committed community can change young lives”. ESJ’s approach – perhaps unique in Japan – emphasises the joy of making music together and the benefits of teamwork and friendship. Music is very common within and also outside of Japanese schools, however many teaching practices lean towards authoritative or goal-oriented models. ESJ’s endeavours take another path by countering that mentality, leaving behind the “strictness” of such traditional environments, and instead providing an atmosphere of group learning and strong teamwork.
“Research has shown that engagement in music-making supports the development of resilience when dealing with challenges.”
ESJ participants are also positively impacted through interactions and group activities with children from different age groups – many of whom are from single child families – and diverse cultural backgrounds. Kikugawa strongly believes that such formative experiences give children an increased desire to play a social role within their local and global communities. As ESJ alumni become active adult citizens of Japan, they are able to build a better and more inclusive society.
From September to December 2021, our team of three (Benjamin Bayl, Zinia Chan and Brendan Jan Walsh), have been studying El Sistema Japan. We conducted interviews via video conference with Yutaka Kikugawa (CEO and Founder), Sara Watanabe (Viola Teaching Artist and Project Coordinator in Soma) and Anita Lee (former Teaching Artist Volunteer and GLP Cohort 2022 member).
In response to the interview questions, Yutaka Kikugawa was an engaging leader who demonstrated great enthusiasm for ESJ. He spoke with pride of the achievements of his musicians and staff, and the positive impact the children’s music program has on the community. Furthermore ESJ is devoted towards rebuilding communities in parts of Japan where there is an ageing population and general societal decay, by reinvigorating the youth of those regions through music.
Our video conference with Sara Watanabe (Project Coordinator in Soma and Teaching Artist on viola) was thought-provoking and informative. It was also useful to learn more about ESJ from somebody involved in its day-to-day activities. Alongside her palpable enthusiasm, Sara mentioned that she would like to see a more unified training model for both Teaching Artists and Fellows. This particular concern was also highlighted by former Fellow, Anita Lee, leading us to suggest the value-added concept of creating a resource of tutorial materials to prepare new teachers for working at El Sistema Japan.
We find the organisation presently at a crossroads. Despite having expanded to four distinct regions over its decade-long lifespan, the pandemic forced the cancellation of large-scale annual events and a pivot to online learning. Kikugawa stated that ESJ would like to develop activities in other regions in Japan in the coming years, but this is heavily dependent on necessary government support and financial resources.
In-person group teaching has become ever more challenging due to global pandemic restrictions. Similarly, the lack of a uniform training model for ESJ Fellows – potential future Teaching Artists – and their recruitment is cause for concern. At this crossroads, ESJ has to decide on the scope of their future growth.
Adapting to the new challenges, ESJ has indeed already ventured into teaching online. For instance, the teaching staff of the Tokyo Children’s Ensemble (formerly called Tokyo White Hands Chorus) have refined their approach to better suit children with diverse backgrounds. ESJ’s online workshops – particularly for the pupils with disabilities –have proven to be an effective tool for continued musical development. Such lessons are tailored to allow pupils to listen (or look) more carefully to their own voices (or hands) while working in smaller groups.
This online teaching approach deserves further development. We particularly believe that extending this concept to include training for the Teaching Artists and Fellows would provide noteworthy benefits for the entire organisation and its stakeholders. The framework for this online platform would offer:
content: training through video tutorials, inclusive education resources, text instructions, interactive learning games, research library, question banks;
communication: planning modules, integrated correspondence tools, collaborative tools; and
reporting: progress dashboard, KPI data collection, certification.
The main benefits for ESJ Teaching Artists would include:
advanced development of musical, interactive, social, and pedagogical skills (including inclusive pedagogy);
guidance in teaching and learning principles, such as joy, technique, musicality, motivation, practice, planning;
personalised learning and career plans within the ESJ ecosystem; and
a clearer communication infrastructure between pupils, peers and management.
As ESJ has demonstrated success with their digital outreach and community performances, we suggest the development of TATA – a “Teaching Artistry Training App” as a value-added concept that could enhance ESJ’s existing digital and learning services.
We consider this investment of time and funds into technological development and communication as an important opportunity for ESJ to enhance and deepen its relationship with its Teaching Artists and Fellows. By building an online learning platform that teaches the teachers Teaching Artistry, ESJ would also design a standard operating program for its long-term intention of becoming active in each of the 47 prefectures of Japan. As such, this value-added concept would also have a systemic impact on ESJ’s operating processes and growth, fulfilling its need for a more substantial and diversified financing portfolio. It will also help increase the organisation’s reach, brand awareness, staff and pupil retention, recruitment, and fundraising efforts.
“Given that international travel and touring have been put on hold for at least a couple of years, I made a proposal to look inwards instead of outwards for the Value-Added Concept.”
The generated results will help evaluate and determine if this value-added concept fulfils its raison d’être: to support ESJ’s long-term strategy of expanding its activities across Japan and thus implementing a joyful music program that promotes emotional development, executive function skills and resilience at a national level.
The challenges of implementation, sorted by complexity and feasibility, are:
Research: Create one-pager, Logic Model, IBMC, advocacy letter and seed-investor’s pitch;
Design: Set up pilot project (preferably financed by a foundation or government) matching workflow to technological flow and UX;
Cover: Make sure the entire process is documented, written and audio-visually (for PR and internal communications);
Create: Develop, test and launch minimum viable product for beta-testing;
Roll-out: Development of beta until readiness for roll-out in entire organisation;
Expand: Same as steps 1-5 but for training of pupils, teachers, management and external parties;
Communicate: Press releases, reports on human interest, success stories and challenges, social media coverage; and
Grow: Find partners and investors for expansion of ESJ and national and international roll-out.
Above is a very concise and process-oriented summary of the implementation steps. Below we address some of the human and financial resources required.
The first step is to create a sense of participation and belonging amongst the Teaching Artists by inviting them to contribute to the development of TATA. Once on board they can, for example, help to identify a unifying teaching methodology across all ESJ programs, as this is not yet the case.
ESJ will assign a project team, consisting of Teaching Artists, Fellows, a system architect, a UX designer and a project manager (5 FTE). We estimate this initial phase to take six months before reaching implementation of the minimum viable product.
Costs associated with the development of digital teaching resources include research & development, project management, system design and development, public relations, ESJ personnel and fundraising. Although we cannot give an accurate estimate of the costs and benefits of TATA’s development and implementation, we daresay that – following a call for tender – the financial, social and sustainable ROI will become apparent. A project that connects art and technology such as this one is likely to attract both government funding and private investors.
“In-person group teaching has become ever more challenging due to global pandemic restrictions. Similarly, the lack of a uniform training model for ESJ Fellows – potential future Teaching Artists – and their recruitment is cause for concern. At this crossroads, ESJ has to decide on the scope of their future growth.”
In his article “Treasures within a UNESCO Report” Yutaka Kikugawa wrote of the importance of education as understood in line with the four fundamental pillars articulated by Jacques Delors in 1996: “learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be”. We stand with his belief that a music for social change program such as El Sistema Japan is deeply imbued with these key principles and provides social and economic benefits for the wider Japanese community.
We are very grateful to Yutaka Kikugawa (CEO of El Sistema Japan), Sara Watanabe (Soma Project Coordinator and Viola Teaching Artists) and Anita Lee (former volunteer teaching Fellow) for their generosity in sharing their time, experience and knowledge with us during our extensive interviews, helping us to build a picture of the organisation as a whole.
We see the main strengths of ESJ to be its dedication to local community building beyond the socio-demographic barriers of age, education and income, and its wish to ensure music making is always a joyful and rewarding experience for the pupils.
The focus of ESJ has understandably so far been on the pupils and not so much on the teaching staff. Our suggested value-added concept, a Teaching Artistry Training Application, aims to empower the staff to do better at what they do best by creating more resources for them. We believe that focussing greater attention on the training, care and development of the Teaching Artists – and the tools available to them – will considerably enhance the organisation’s overall effectiveness, and allow it to grow.
We consider this investment of time and funds into technological development and communication as an important opportunity for ESJ to enhance and deepen its relationship with its Teaching Artists and Fellows. It will help increase the organisation’s reach, brand awareness, staff and pupil retention, recruitment, and fundraising efforts.
Reflecting as a team on our research into El Sistema Japan, we found that it is essential to address the importance of properly training all Teaching Artists and other staff, not only the students and participants. Providing centralised resources, streamlining systems and creating more efficient administrative practices, can all lead to a better experience for all stakeholders and beneficiaries. The digital tools available to us today have never been better. Full and proper utilisation of them – especially for an organisation whose operating locations are geographically widespread, will in the longer term prove very effective.
“We consider this investment of time and funds into technological development and communication as an important opportunity for ESJ to enhance and deepen its relationship with its Teaching Artists and Fellows.”