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Ancient Asian musical instrument helps empower children with disabilities

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The koto is a traditional musical instrument embedded in Japanese culture, with a long history of healing — an energy Takako Haggarty is harnessing for good.

The musician teaches children with vision impairments and disabilities how to play the instrument, helping students gain mobility skills and improve emotional regulation.

She has volunteered at a Brisbane special school, and aims to create a warm and welcoming space through the ancient sound.

"My instrument has a history, long history of being a professional musical instrument for people with visual impairment," she said.

Ms Haggarty has drawn upon her wonderful experience volunteering at  the special school and her knowledge of koto musicians to help in her larger research.

Overhead shot of someone playing the Koto.
The Koto has 13 strings and is hand plucked to create the unique sound.(ABC Asia: Sophie Johnson)

How to teach disabled children the koto

The origins of the koto date back to the seventh century, and the modern model has 13 strings that are plucked.

Ms Haggarty employs a range of teaching techniques to encourage the best outcome for her students at the special school.

Focusing on aural skills, as well as describing tone, dynamics and movement are key.

Described as 'singing notation', students will use their ears to learn the repertoire, instead of reading the music.

"You just sing along with the Japanese syllable to [imagine a] whole sort of image of the sound, and then you start apply that when you're playing," Ms Haggarty said.

She is currently finalising her PhD in this field, after completing a pilot study focused on children with vision impairment and intellectual disabilities.

Woman smiling, holding a Koto upright.
Ms Haggarty creates a positive space for her students during her lessons.(ABC Asia: Sophie Johnson)

"It was just one of the best things which led to my research … using traditional music method, teaching method, and employing that in a special school environment," she said.

In the past 40 years, she said about 85 per cent of the koto repertoire she has learnt has been composed by vision impaired musicians.

Ms Haggarty is in the process of writing a music program tailored to disabled children for other teachers to employ.

"My main focus is giving everybody a good time to experience unusual music and unusual sense of sound as well," she said.

"That very important thing is making the happy space and that create the very positive outcome."

Photo of a hand wearing tsume, the tool used to pluck the Koto instrument.
The Koto is plucked with picks called tsume.(ABC Asia: Sophie Johnson)

First learning the koto

Ms Haggarty was born in Japan, and first picked up the koto when she was six years old.

Her parents wanted her to learn an instrument, the most popular being piano.

Japanese child performing the Koto.
Ms Haggarty started learning the koto when she was six.(Supplied: Takako Haggarty)

Due to limited space in their family apartment and affordability, they settled on the koto, and she has never looked back.

Since moving to Australia in 2005, Ms Haggarty has continued to perform solo and in groups with other like minded musicians.

Although her profession is teaching, koto is always her first priority — the core of who she is.

"I think being a migrant, you have a lot of self doubt in many different situations when you try to fit in a new environment and things, but you always have something you know where you belong to, which is my music," she said.

"It's definitely given me a lot of strength."

Four musicians standing next to each other, holding their instruments and smiling.
Ms Haggarty is part of Jade Ensemble, a Brisbane-based group that focuses on cultural fusion through music.(ABC Asia: Sophie Johnson)
Source: ABC

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