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Every child gets to be a musician here

Schools starting young maestros off early with the keyboard harmonica

by Alice Gordenker

My 7-year-old is learning to play a uniquely Japanese instrument. The shamisen? No. The koto? No. Like virtually every other first-grader here, my son is learning to play the kenban hamonika (keyboard harmonica).

If you’re not Japanese, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. The kenban hamonika is a simple instrument with a piano keyboard. But it is actually a wind instrument. To produce sound, you press the keys while blowing into a mouthpiece connected to the keyboard by a long plastic tube. Many Japanese refer to it by its most common brand names, Pianica and Melodion.

Although the keyboard harmonica is hardly known outside of Japan, it is based on a German vertical harmonica with keys along the body, according to a spokesman for Suzuki Musical Instruments, the company that introduced it to Japan around 1960. The company modified it by adding the long tube so that the keyboard could sit on a desk.

I’m glad my son is learning to play music at school because we decided against after-school lessons. And studying an instrument in first grade is something he couldn’t do at school if we were back in the United States. There, young students do play simple percussion instruments like tambourines and xylophones. But at most schools, the earliest they can study a melody instrument is fourth grade. Even then, it’s an option, not a requirement. In Japan, every schoolchild learns to play at least two instruments.

For a few decades after the war, most Japanese first-graders studied the mouth organ. This type of harmonica was cheap and portable, but not easy to learn. In particular, students had trouble with notes played by sucking in air, or were confused because they couldn’t actually see how they made the sounds.

Second-graders usually studied the pedal organ. Because the organs were too big for the classroom, they were stored in the music room. In most Japanese schools, the music room is on the fourth floor, far from the little kids’ classrooms. Teachers complained they lost too much time herding students to the music room and back, and clamored for a keyboard instrument they could teach in the classroom.

Suzuki’s new keyboard harmonica solved these problems. It was cheap and small enough for every child to be able to keep one in the classroom. And because kids had to learn to blow and tongue, it was good preparation for learning the recorder, the instrument taught in third grade and up. The kenban hamonika was quickly embraced as the instrument of choice for first- and second-graders.

By the middle of the 1960s, the Education Ministry had issued guidelines encouraging individual ownership of the instruments, and was leaning on manufacturers to step up production so that there would be enough to go round. After that, when demand was at its peak, manufacturers were probably selling one keyboard harmonica for virtually every first-grader in Japan — around 1.6 million a year.

Demand has dropped off significantly now because there are fewer children. Some schools keep a stock to loan to families who don’t want to spend 4,800 yen for an instrument that will only be used for two years. A few kids in my son’s class use these bihin (loaners) — with new mouthpieces for hygiene’s sake — but most have new ones.

There is, of course, more to Japanese music education than learning to play instruments. The students sing songs. They listen to different styles of music. Most kids learn to read music on the treble clef. In the upper grades, students learn a little conducting and try their hand at composing.

At our school, there is an ongakukai (music concert) once every three years, when students get to show off what they’ve learned. At last year’s concert, students sang and performed music from around the world.

I’ve been impressed with the music lessons I’ve observed. Once, a class of fourth-graders groaned when the music teacher asked them to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on their recorders. “That’s too easy!” they complained. “We did that last year.” She agreed it was easy, but told them she had a harder task in mind. Once they had played it in regular 4/4 time, she asked them to convert it to 3/4 time. While I was still trying to wrap my mind around that problem, the kids were already playing it.

Students at my sons’ school get a better-than-average music education because the school is small. Every public elementary school in Japan has one full-time music teacher, regardless of the number of students. Our music teacher teaches every class from second grade up. But in a large school with 500 or more students, the music teacher may only have enough time to teach the fifth- and sixth-graders. The other kids have to settle for music lessons from the classroom teacher, who probably has no music training except what’s required for the general teaching certificate.

Unfortunately, music education in Japan is slated for cuts. Currently, all elementary students get 70 units of music education or two 45-minute lessons most weeks. But when Saturday classes are eliminated in April, less time will be available for music. First- and second-graders will continue to have 70 units of music, but third- and fourth-graders will get only 60. The biggest reduction will be for fifth- and sixth-graders, who will have just 50 units of music education. This means that instead of having music twice every week, they’ll have it only once most weeks.

Our music teacher says the cuts will hurt. “If I teach the fifth-graders a new song for the recorder, but then don’t see them for a whole week, they’ll have completely forgotten it,” she predicts.

I like it that my kids learn instrumental music at school. I worried about the cuts, especially when I heard that the new curriculum guidelines grant the schools freedom to decide which instruments, and how many, they will teach. But the principal reassured me our school will continue to teach the keyboard harmonica in first and second grade, and the recorder in third through sixth grade.

That’s music to my ears.