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Yamaha Music Education System: celebrating 50 years of growth.

Tokyo 1954: Yamaha Corporation of Japan opens an experimental "Music Class for Pre-School Children." The curriculum centers on teaching musicianship through solfege and keyboard.

Fast-forward 50 years: The Yamaha Music Education System (YMES) has opened schools in 40 countries and produced 5 million graduates. Former students occupy a wide range of positions in the fields of composition, music education, performance and conducting. YMES now encompasses music courses for students of all ages, a Pop Music School, Grade Examination System, Teens' Music Festival, Electone Concourse, Yamaha Music Academy, Music Quest (support for emerging artists), artist promotion, Music Research Laboratory, music publishing and production and aid to charity organizations.

How did one small music class initiate such growth?

One Man's Vision

"We aim at developing children who can appreciate and enjoy music, so that when they grow older, they can look back and say ... 'Music enriched our lives. 'People are born with different abilities; therefore, it is not possible for all people to attain the same high musical skills. But even if one cannot become extremely proficient, if one discovers the delight in communicating with others through music, or can live a more joyful and peaceful life through the act of laying music, I believe that the reason for studying music has been fully achieved." (1)

In the early years of his tenure as president of Yamaha Corporation of Japan, Genichi Kawakami (president from 1950-2002) took a business trip to Europe. While traveling, he noticed young people playing music and singing together. He was struck by the contrast he observed in Japan; rarely did he hear music coming from houses as he walked down the street. Casual, enjoyable music making did not seem to be part of the daily life of the Japanese people. He became convinced that Yamaha had a responsibility not only to produce high-quality musical instruments, but also to provide opportunities for people to learn how to play them. If an effective and exciting method could be developed, Yamaha would achieve one of its major goals--to enrich the lives of people through music.

Kawakami engaged an expert team of Japanese educators, musicians and psychologists to develop a method that would teach children the fundamentals of music and create an atmosphere of joy in which to learn. The project was met with enthusiasm and support, especially from Japanese musicians who were eager to promote the benefits of music and create a method that would appeal to the younger generation. After much research and collaboration, the Yamaha Method was born.

A carefully selected group of schools and institutions in Japan offered the first Yamaha music course for preschool children. After three years, Yamaha Music School enrollment rose to 20,000. After five years, the student base had grown to 120,000, and Yamaha decided to take its innovative teaching method to the United States, Asia and Europe.

While Yamaha offers beginning music courses for every age group, the cornerstone of the Yamaha Music Education System is the Junior Music Course (JMC), a two-year curriculum for four- and five-year-old beginners. The designation "cornerstone" indicates that JMC is the foundation for study in Yamaha advanced courses and emphasizes Yamaha's conviction that four- and five-year-old children are at an ideal age to begin music lessons because they are keenly attuned to sound.

Principles Fundamental to the Yamaha Method

Group Lessons: Teacher + Children + Parents

"I believe that music should not be competitive, but should be a means of fostering friendships. Music provides a context in which goodwill may be exchanged ..." (2)

Lessons are taught to a group of students (typically 8 to 10 per class) and, in the case of the JMC, one parent attends with each child. This format motivates children and provides an opportunity to develop ensemble skills and cooperation within a supportive community of friends and parents. With their peers, children become part of a musical team making music together. With their teacher and parents, the group becomes a musical community.

The group format, in conjunction with the musical content, brings joy and fun to the learning process. Students who attend class with their friends have extra-musical reasons to return every week. The camaraderie that grows contributes to tight, expressive ensemble performances at advanced levels and promotes long-term involvement in music.

Parental attendance facilitates accelerated growth. The parent/child partnership is active, not passive. Each partnership develops into a mini-ensemble, where co-learning, co-practicing and co-discovering can be enjoyed in class and at home. The entire family hears music shared between two members and often is motivated to join in the fun. In fact, when younger siblings of students become students themselves, we often find their sense of pitch is more developed than that of other entering students. They have heard the language of music at home and already have begun to absorb it.

Comprehensive Music Education

The JMC curriculum is broad compared to typical private piano lessons. Children sing solfege, play the keyboard, sing songs with lyrics, move to music, play rhythm and keyboard ensembles and participate in "music appreciation" activities (initially a non-analytical experience). They develop diverse musical skills without prematurely focusing on one instrument or style. This approach allows students to choose their future musical path when they are more physically and mentally mature.

Music is a Language

The method assumes music is a language children can learn naturally in the same way they learn their spoken and written language: we hear, we imitate, we speak and we read. You will find a parallel sequence played out in JMC classes throughout the world--children hear a melody or harmony, sing it in solfege, play it on the keyboard and then learn to read it.

The aural awareness of four- and five-year-olds is more developed than their manual dexterity and visual skills. Therefore, the Yamaha approach for this age group focuses on aural training versus emphasizing piano technique and reading. While early lessons cover the basics of keyboard technique, technical study is more actively undertaken in upper- level courses when students are developmentally ready. Likewise, the introduction of reading and theory takes place gradually in a timely and contextual manner. When students are intellectually ready, it is explained in academic terms what they have sensed and experienced musically at a young age.

Ear First

The Yamaha Method employs "Fixed-Do" solfege (without altered syllables) in both ear training and keyboard activities. Fixed-Do enables a child to connect a specific pitch and syllable, such as middle Do (middle C), with a specific key oil the keyboard. Aural training using Fixed-Do helps children internalize pitch, resulting in a strong relative pitch sense and, in many cases, perfect pitch. Consequently, in JMC classes one will observe students singing solfege by ear and eventually playing keyboard by ear.

Solfege is the core of the Yamaha Method; students absorb this musical vocabulary and use it in both beginning and advanced courses. Solfege becomes each student's first musical voice. In every class, teachers sing melodic patterns and chords that children imitate. Solfege sessions at the teacher's piano account for approximately 15 to 20 minutes of a 60-minute class. Through singing solfege, students begin to acquire a sense of pitch, rhythm, meter, harmony, form, phrase structure, key, articulation, dynamics and mood.

By the end of two years in JMC, students have built a substantial vocabulary of solfege, having sung 50 melodies and numerous chord progressions using the I, IV and V7 chords in the keys of C major, G major, F major, D minor and A minor. Aside from developing musicianship, these solfege experiences prepare children to play in these five keys. In fact, children experience singing in a key for approximately one semester prior to playing in that key.

The Keyboard is a Tool

While a recorder, violin or other instrument could be used as an instrument of focus, the keyboard is chosen for three reasons. First, the pitch of electronic keyboards is constant--a necessity in classes that focus on ear training. Second, the student is able to play melody and harmony simultaneously. Finally, the keyboard provides a visual representation of the pitches, intervals and chords children sing in solfege.

"Keyboard Solfege" is a term we use to describe the teaching process that creates a connection between the ear and the keyboard. One step involves training students to sing solfege while playing the keyboard. This helps establish an internal association between musical sound, keyboard topography and gestures used when playing. Over time, children learn how gesture is connected to the manner in which solfege is sung--that is, they discover the physical motion that will create specific articulations and dynamics.

Electronic keyboards provide additional benefits for JMC students, such as familiarizing them with the sounds of many instruments, albeit synthetically generated. When playing repertoire in teams (half of the students play the right-hand part; the other half play left hand) and when playing simple keyboard ensembles, students develop a sense of the roles specific instruments can play in a small ensemble setting. In upper- level courses, students study arranging and use the electronic keyboard as a vehicle for exploration and experimentation.

The children enjoy stimulating accompaniments while they play in class and at home. A CD recording includes orchestral arrangements of the pieces covered in each semester. This CD serves to accompany students while they play their repertoire at home. To motivate during the initial stages of learning a piece or to reward upon its completion, the teacher may play a piano accompaniment, an electronic keyboard accompaniment, a pre-recorded electronic keyboard accompaniment or the CD.

Cultivating Creativity

Cultivating each student's creativity is a central goal of the curriculum. Solfege training and guided listening activities set the stage for the study of keyboard harmony, a stepping-stone to improvisation and composition. At the end of the second year of JMC and in the courses that follow, keyboard harmony increases in importance. Singing chords and chord progressions in solfege prepares children for playing chord progressions by ear. Through active listening and discovery, they learn how to harmonize melodic patterns. Eventually, students transpose their keyboard harmony pieces and make variations based on the themes.

The teacher "feeds the ear" during the two years of JMC and beyond by demonstrating and drawing the children's attention to musical ideas they may utilize when improvising in the future. One year, while teaching the third semester of JMC, I played a simple theme and variations based on a keyboard harmony piece the children were learning: "How Cute." The left-hand accompaniment pattern of one variation, "How Silly!", included a minor second. This was a music appreciation activity; students did not learn to play the variations. A year later, one of the students (who was then 6) played a variation based on a keyboard harmony piece called "The Woodpecker." With every right-hand melodic note, he played the note one-half step below it, calling his variation, "Silly Woodpecker." He remembered the interesting, "silly" sound he heard a year earlier and made it his own when his fingers and mind were ready.


Recently, I suggested to semester-five students that perhaps they could discover the key of a B section from the arrangement recorded on their CD. The piece was in F major. One student came back the next week and said enthusiastically, "I know--that section is where Ti-flat is Do," meaning that B-flat becomes the tonic. His discovery may lead him to improvise B sections in the subdominant. These two examples illustrate how students accumulate an aural "library" of ideas for introductions, codas, variations, B sections, key relationships and so on, from listening to teacher demonstrations and recorded materials.

In advanced courses, students take weekly group and private lessons, where they build on the foundation of aural and keyboard harmony training by formally studying improvisation and composition. Private lessons include the study of piano repertoire and technique, even though the piano may not be a student's primary instrument in the future. While students work on the technical and expressive demands of repertoire, they also study each piece to gain an understanding of form, style and compositional devices. Through technical studies, students develop the physical and expressive facility to effectively communicate their own musical ideas.

The creativity of advanced YMES students can be seen and heard in Junior Original Concerts (JOC). Often called "Young Ambassadors of Music," YMES students from schools throughout the world perform their compositions for audiences at local, regional, national and international concerts. At many of these events, advanced students spontaneously improvise solos or duets based on a theme given by audience members. Yamaha student Jennifer Lin had the opportunity to share her improvisatory skills at the 2004 TED Conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design), where an audience member, actress Goldie Haven, provided her with a theme. Participants claimed it was one of the high points of the conference and that they were touched in a deep way by Lin's musicianship. This mutual appreciation for the art of musical creativity on the part of listener and performer demonstrates the realization of Kawakami's vision.

The Teacher is the Key

"When looking back at one's life, everyone carries somewhere in their heart a teacher that enlightened them in various ways, in terms of character or intellect." (3)

Here in the United States, initial teacher training is administered over a two-year period. Only teachers sponsored by authorized Yamaha Music Schools may enter the training process. Upon passing entrance examinations, teachers attend seminars locally and at Yamaha Corporation of America headquarters in southern California. In addition, teachers receive feedback from a team of mentor teachers who evaluate videos of their classes. As they continue their career, teachers attend seminars that introduce new and revised courses and participate in workshops on a variety of subjects. The Yamaha Music Foundation of Japan, a nonprofit organization established in 1966, and the Music Education Division of Yamaha Corporation of America develop and distribute a wide variety of materials to support teachers at all levels.

The teacher is critical to the effectiveness and success of all methods. Yamaha music teachers must possess a variety of skills; they must be able to sing on pitch expressively, play piano and electronic keyboards, accompany, conduct, transpose, improvise and manage both children and their parents in a group setting. Of course, they also must enjoy young children and have the ability to motivate them and communicate with them effectively.

In every Yamaha music class, the teacher is responsible for creating an atmosphere conducive to learning. This means smiles, laughter and energy, as well as quieter moments--times for closeness between parent and child and moments to appreciate the beauty and intricacies of music--all should be part of the class experience. The teacher engages the students in many ways, all of which are intended to draw children's attention to the music and build a desire to participate. Imagery, story telling, pictures and movement stimulate the children, but the teacher's musical performance of a piece and his or her corresponding facial and physical expressions are of the utmost importance.

YMES Today

After 50 years of research, testing and evaluating the way young children build musical skills, the Yamaha Music Foundation (YMF) continues to refine the Yamaha Method and courses. In addition, through its Music Research Laboratory (established in 1990), YMF has sponsored a broad range of studies exploring child development, musical communication between parent and child, piano technique, music and memory, vocal range development and many more. The Foundation publishes results and presents them at conferences for psychologists, music educators, music therapists and other professional organizations.

In the United States, nine Music Education Division staff members at Yamaha Corporation of America support the efforts of Yamaha Music Schools from Irvine, California, to Poughkeepsie, New York. The division sponsors teacher training seminars, workshops for administrators, student and teacher grade examinations and student concerts.

The Yamaha Music Education System has had a presence in the U.S. since 1965. Now former Yamaha students such as Noelle Jensen-Owen are becoming Yamaha music teachers. She relates her experience with her own Yamaha students: "Sometimes it seems that the children and I are speaking our own language through what we hear and play together. Yamaha has cultivated a love of music in us that is lifelong--it has become a part of who we are."

Creating Music for Tomorrow

The Yamaha Method has significantly influenced numerous music education programs since 1954. In today's music education community, more and more teachers include singing, ensemble training, ear training and keyboard harmony activities in their studios. This is a positive trend. The music industry must continue to spread the word that actively making music by oneself and with others is a way to make our world a healthier and more harmonious place to live. As Kawakami said:

"Music is a universal language allowing us to communicate our feelings. Feelings of joy--or pain--can be shared in a way that transcends differences in race or nationality. This is natural: we are all human beings. We tend to think that we are divided by race, ideology, and language, but ... music, a universal language, [is] a tool to communicate with each other." (4)


(1.) Kawakami, Genichi. Reflections on Music Popularization. (Tokyo: Yamaha Music Foundation, 1987): 20.

(2.) Ibid., 6.

(3.) Kawakami, Genichi. Children are the Best Teachers, (Tokyo: Yamaha Music Foundation, 1981): 86-87.

(4.) Kawakami, Genichi. Reflections on Music Popularization. (Tokyo: Yamaha Music Foundation, 1987): 15.


Yamaha Music Foundation Website:

Yamaha Corporation of America Website:

Technology, Entertainment, Design Website:

YMES Graduates: Giving the Gift of Music

When a child experiences a happy, positive introduction to the world of music, the stage is set for a lifetime of music participation. As performers, composers, conductors, teachers and music advocates. Yamaha Music Education System graduates continue to give the gift of music to others.

Max Levinson, now an accomplished pianist and recording artist, remembers, "It was in the Primary Course [Yamaha Junior Music Course] that I learned that music was fun. and this I have kept my whole life." Levinson. who completed graduate studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, won first prize at the 1997 Guardian Dublin International Piano Competition, the first American to achieve this distinction. He now travels the world performing with renowned symphonies and conductors.

YMES graduate, the late Linda Martinez developed into a gifted jazz pianist, performing both with Destiny's Child and regularly on a popular late night television show. YMES's emphasis on creativity influenced her desire to devote her energies to composition. After graduating from YMES, she earned a degree in music composition from the University of Southern California, where she was named Outstanding Graduate of the School of Music. In 2004, she won the Turner Classic Movies Young Film Composers Competition, beating a formidable field of 500 competitors.

At age 14, the career of Jennifer Lin is yet to be determined. However, her advanced YMES musical training has already led to recognition. Lin was invited to give a presentation on "creative flow" at the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference in 2004. After speaking about creativity, she improvised a piece based on five notes chosen at random by an audience member, actress Goldie Hawn, The performance prompted ABC News to name Jennifer Lin "Person of the Week."

Kevin Noe, the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, relates his early impressions of Yamaha music lessons: "Yamaha classes gave me a special interest that was mine alone to care about and take seriously. The Yamaha classes also taught me self-discipline. If you don't practice, you won't be able to do the work." Noe is a tireless supporter and promoter of composers, performers and the arts. constantly commissioning and premiering new works for ensembles and orchestras.

Yamaha music lessons can have a profound and lasting influence on students even when they don't pursue music as a career. To USC medical student Katherine Chiu, "playing music is a lifelong activity"--an activity that Chiu wants all children to experience. Concerned that inner-city children did not have the opportunity to take music lessons, she spearheaded a pilot program in which they could receive lessons given by USC music students in general music, keyboard and choir. The outreach program, now called USC Thornton Music in Education, received overwhelmingly positive response from children and parents and support from the USC community.

Chiu's story, as well as the success of former YMES students who became professional musicians, would be music in the ears of the late Yamaha president and YMES founder Genichi Kawakami, whose goal was simply to enrich the lives of people through music.

Kathy Anzis is the director of teacher training for the Music Education Division of Yamaha Corporation of America. She holds a B.A. degree in music from the University of California, Santa Barbara and an M.A. degree in music history and literature from the University of Southern California. She has taught Yamaha courses since 1984.
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Author:Anzis, Kathy
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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