Working in Japan – From student’s heart to conductor’s baton

In this piece, Ben Sellers shares methods for collaborative composition with pupils with additional needs, discusses how to avoid tokenism, and describes how to use video to support pupils to take ownership of their work. If you haven’t already, we recommend watching this video to give context for the blog:

From student’s heart to conductor’s baton (and back again): Making the Kawasaki Suite

Since 2017 Drake Music have been developing a close partnership with the British Council Japan and Kawasaki City, alongside Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, with the aim of strengthening inclusive practice in Kawasaki and across Japan.

Training musicians in our approaches

In early 2019 we ran an intensive training course for community musicians, followed later in the year by visits to three Japanese Special Ed schools where we demonstrated the creative, flowing, pupil-centred approach that is now standard good practice in the UK.

It was intense. It was emosh. The lack of clear translations of many concepts, musicians who had very limited experience of working in inclusive settings, and a pedagogy based on radically different foundations, forced me to reassess and explain my own approach in granular detail.

But it worked.

The image that sticks in my memory is a pupil with very limited movement throwing his head back in ecstasy as he played a BB Kingesque electric guitar solo on an iPad, accompanied by Tim on acoustic guitar and a cadre of people who had ‘just come to observe’ rinsing it on tone chimes.

We were deep in what Csikszentmihalyi would call ‘Flow’ and Victor Wooton ‘the Groove’ – the value of this way of working plain to see.

Performance plans & COVID changes

The next step, scheduled for 2020, would have seen some of the same students perform on stage with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, but alas COVID made this impossible, so we shifted focus away from pupil performance and towards pupil composition.

The idea: Musicians from the Orchestra and Kawasaki city would work in schools, developing the ‘raw ingredients*’ – melodies, rhythms, words, concepts, soundscapes, sound effects, dance moves – that I would then ‘cook’ into a finished dish to be ‘served’ by the TSO as part of their summer season finale concert under the baton of Keitaro Harada, one of Japan’s most innovative conductors.

The inspiration for our composition would be Verdi’s Opera Aida and in particular the famous Triumphal March, handily programmed to be performed at the same concert.

Not able to travel to Japan myself, I would plan the sessions with the facilitators then watch complete videos of the sessions, before debriefing with the facilitators and planning what to do next time.

Avoiding ‘tokenism’

The pupils we were working with ranged in ability and cognition widely, from pupils that in the UK we would describe as ‘sensory’ – without clear concepts of time and language, connected to the world through sensory experiences – to very able, canny pupils who also happened to be wheelchair users.

In order for our music to be authentic and meaningful for ALL the pupils and avoid tokenism or ‘product over process’, we needed to get a few things right:

We needed to emphasise the relationship between cause and effect at all stages of the process.

How could we show to pupils that the music that they made (perhaps improvised in the moment) was theirs and for them to be able to recognise it when played in a completely different context by the TSO?

We needed to present and creatively respond to Aida without using notation, discussion of complex terminology or in some cases even narrative, all of which would have presented barriers to pupils.

When the students were composing directly using instruments (iPad, marimba, drum, piano, voice) we needed to balance harmonic and rhythmic freedom (which may be intentional, or may be a result of a imperfect fine motor skills) with the students’ desire to create something that would be enjoyed and accepted by an audience who were there to listen to music in the western classical tradition (assuming they even had that desire?).

Related to this, we needed to reflect the musical tastes and interests of the students whilst also exposing them to and exploring new music, and then bring the resulting sonic melting pot back into the final composition.

Finding Solutions

Solutions emerged as we began the workshop process and got to know the students.

One important solution came when I asked myself: ‘if our main man Giuseppe Verdi was here, what would he want to communicate to the students?’.

My answer: ‘the range, depth and validity of all human emotions, and the importance of human connection, even when times are tough’.

And in fact perhaps this is the true intent of all compositions?

So the aim became to create spaces in which pupils could acknowledge their own feelings, either explicitly or implicitly, and then together with the musicians evoke these feelings in music.

We did this in several ways:

  • Creating soundscapes or grooves** and allowing the pupil to solo (or duet with a musician) over the top of them, either with voice, instrument, or by using the movement of their arm to direct a musician. I would then either transcribe the solos directly, take the key motifs, or riff on what I considered to be the essential intent of the music. The violin and viola duet in the second movement of the Suite is based on a pupil vocalising, with viola player Tai using harmonics to closely follow their vocal inflections.
  • Composing ‘sonic signatures’ – a term coined by fellow DM associate Alex Lupo . A sonic signature takes the syllables and natural inflections of a person’s name to create a melody, which is then developed in discussion with a pupil (using words or visual cues) to reflect either the student’s general character or mood in the moment. We created sonic signatures in the first session, then began each subsequent session by singing/playing them. This embedded them in the group’s memory and ensured that each person had a recognisable motif in the final performance.
  • Responding to movement – Music and movement are, in many cultures, inseparable artforms, and in special ed settings many pupils express their emotions through movement. Inspired by intensive interaction and the work of theatre company Oily Cart, the workshop leaders would ‘tune in’ to the movements of students, big and small, and begin to dialogue with that movement through music, in turn creating new movements and new music.
  • Mixed media – we also used group storytelling and drawing/colours as the basis for developing motifs. In one workshop, facilitators used the story of Aida alongside finger puppets, dance and drawing, to discuss emotions and generate musical ideas.

Together these approaches worked well, and I felt that I had plenty of ingredients to begin the orchestration.

Connecting the process to the final piece

The next challenge: How could we make it as explicit as possible to pupils that it was they who had created the core of the musical material?

The answer lay in video.

I had cooked up my arrangement based on ingredients I had watched and heard in the workshop videos. I was able to zoom in on these moments and edit them together, showing students exactly which bits had inspired me (and for me, a way to make sure that all voices were included).

I then made a second video for each school that used the same workshop footage, but this time with a synthetic recording (using Noteperformer with Sibelius) taking the place of the workshop audio.

This visual anchoring allowed students to understand exactly how their ‘ingredient’ had been elaborated across the whole orchestra.

Finally, I created a third video that involved footage of me thanking the students for their music, playing some of their melodies on my clarinet, explaining my process, then introducing first the workshop footage video and then the overdubbed video.

In a final twist, I was then able to watch the students watching me watching them…. And I saw from their facial expressions that many understood the concept. Phew!

The Kawasaki Suite

We called the piece ‘The Kawasaki Suite’: a collection of four movements, each from a different group:

1. Fushigi na poketto (The Magical Pocket)

2. Egao ni nareru bansou (Music that Makes Us Smile)

3. Mizuiro no sumairu (Sky Blue Smile)

4. Kiirotoridori (Yellow and Various Colours)

The performance took place on 9th August 2021 with many of the students in the audience, and reports were of many an ovation, many a tear of joy. However, for me the strongest indicator of the project’s success came earlier.

In a reflection session at the end of the project, one young TSO musicians had passionately suggested that this project wasn’t enough to really meet the needs of young musicians with additional needs, and suggested a variety of things we should do next. The fire and determination evident in him is essential to accelerate and normalise high-quality provision in all corners of the world: passionate individuals who are prepared to not only make music, but also make change. So hearing this lifted my heart.

Watch the world premiere of the Kawasaki Suite

In summary…

The approach used in this project included:

  • Creating various methods for pupils of all abilities to express their inner world
  • Thinking about the orchestrating process as a dialogue
  • Using video to show the pupils exactly how their ideas have been developed for the orchestra.

These processes felt good to me, and hopefully they will expanded upon in Japan and elsewhere… Let’s see what happens next.

Ben Sellers


*There is one language more universal than music, and that language is food. Many a shy class has become animated on the subject of takeaway, many a new friend made over a school hot dinner. And it almost goes without saying that in Japan, cooking is just as refined an artform as composition. I found that talking about music-making in terms of cooking to be an incredibly effective way to reach across language and culture.

**A groove: a harmonic progression with a strong rhythmic element. This was perhaps the most difficult concept to explain to Japanese colleagues.


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