Healing 'children of the stars' with music

Konatsu Ishiwata, a winner of this year's Magnolia Silver Award, uses the healing power of music to open the hearts and minds of autistic children in Shanghai.

Konatsu Ishiwata, founder of Angel Music Salon

Konatsu Ishiwata, a winner of this year’s Magnolia Silver Award, uses the healing power of music to open the hearts and minds of autistic children in Shanghai.

The 63-year-old Chinese Japanese, born Cao Xiaoxia in the early summer of 1955, is a renowned violinist who heads a number of orchestras staffed by amateur musicians. But she is best known for her role in founding and running a charity program aimed at helping children with autism.

Since its inception in 2008, the program, known as “angel music salon,” has served as a home, school and stage for more than 100 autistic children to experience some kind of musical education, whereby their conditions have improved to varying degrees.

Looking back on the past decade, Ishiwata, daughter of famous Chinese conductor Cao Peng, has many stories to share about how she and her colleagues have got where they are today.

It took her three years to turn the Shanghai City Symphony Orchestra — the first amateur orchestra on China’s mainland which she founded in 2005 — into a pioneer of classical music, and symphonies in particular. The orchestra played on live radio, held free concerts and received invitations to perform overseas.

But Ishiwata decided that it was not enough to just provide “spiritual food” for the general public. A social group in more desperate need of the soothing magic of music, she discovered, was the growing number of autistic children in China. As UN statistics demonstrate, one in 150 newborns worldwide in 2008 had autism. That had now climbed to one in 58, she said.

Ishiwata recalled once reading a magazine article that described autism, then largely unheard of in China, as “spiritual cancer.” 

Children with the condition are referred to as “children of the stars,” so named because of their cognitive handicaps and communication problems. Empathetic toward their travails, she was eager to help them in a manner like no other.

After consulting her father, now 93, Ishiwata started using music therapy on 12 autistic children admitted to a studio she opend in what was then Luwan District, now part of Huangpu District.

With little idea of their behavior, she found herself up against not just difficulty in restraining their waywardness, but also skeptical parents questioning if her method could really work. 

At first, staff at the studio had to shout to quiet their “audience” but soon found that when music was played, they fell silent and listened attentively. When the music stopped, they ran amok again.

This provided Ishiwata with some inspiration: Why not teach them to play musical instruments? Simple percussion instruments like tambourines were given to the children.  Predictably, the first few notes they produced were utter noise, shrill and out of sync, but gradually they learned to play to a rhythm and finally came together to make music.

Seeing the progress they made, Ishiwata replaced tambourines with more sophisticated instruments such as trumpet and violin. “Now 18 kids play brass or wind instruments in my salon, another two chose the violin,” she said.


Konatsu Ishiwata (left) and a volunteer from “angel music salon” help autistic children overcome fears through physical intimacy such as holding hands.

Ishiwata remembers being told by nervous parents to avoid physical contact with their children, lest this freaked them out. But the Japanese-educated music director was unfazed, convinced that if children deliberately shunned contact, they would be forever cloistered in their own world, fearful of even friendly advances toward them.

So she stroked the hair of a few children and patted them on the back to test their reaction. Initially this physical intimacy was given the cold shoulder, or even met with resistance, but over time Ishiwata noted a heartening change as children’s distrust of the outside world began to melt away. “Some parents were stunned to see their children comfortable with physical contact,” she said.

She was amazed at the effects of using music in shaping character. A typical example is the “hands-holding” training. Volunteers encouraged children to dance and hold hands at certain points of a melody.

Reluctance was expected but to the surprise of everyone, children learned not just to hold hands, but embrace each other. These observations filled Ishiwata with both disbelief and a sense of accomplishment. Of all her students, five joined City Young Symphony Orchestra, another orchestra she directs, and traveled abroad to perform in places including Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, where the group even received a prize.

It was obvious that music shored up the children’s confidence, as many would now look directly into people’s eyes, smiling and with their heads held high. “No more wrinkled eyebrows or diffidently looking away,” Ishiwata said.

Many parents expressed their deep gratitude for her services, citing her help in piecing back together shattered hopes. Tears came to their eyes when they saw children, once thought “invalid” and in need of lifelong company, perform on stage.

Yet Ishiwata modestly plays down her contributions, saying she and her team are relieved to rekindle hope for these families. She also credits the constant support of volunteers, many of whom are orchestra members working for free at weekends, as well as the cooperation of parents for the changes witnessed in the children.

According to Ishiwata, music not just opened up the world for autistic kids, or unlocked their artistic potential; its biggest merit lies in developing mental coherency. Some children, when first taken in, had difficulty making sense of words like “me,” “you” and “us.” But a few can now follow simple instructions, run errands for parents and take the subway on their own. These are the very first, and highly comforting, steps toward breeding self-reliance.

She recounted a tale told by a parent, whose autistic son told of feeling “troubled” about the prospect he might become “school-less” should Ishiwata run out of funding. On hearing such accounts, she laughed, but more out of relief that her efforts were successful in spurring logical thinking.


About a year ago she began to offer courses on subjects other than music, in the hope that students would pick up something useful for their future.

What started as a mash-up of basic Chinese, English and math has come to comprise miscellaneous subjects such as computing and painting — practical skills that might come in handy once these children seek employment.

In April, Ishiwata opened a café named “A-Coffee” in downtown Jing’an Park. Its staff were mostly autistic children from her music class. They were trained to make latte or espresso and handle customer requests like any waiters or waitresses. Having been trained according to a strictly programmed regimen based on standard questions and replies, they were occasionally baffled by the diversity of customers’ language, but Ishiwata said only a close-to-reality setting could impart the social skills and practical knowledge pertinent to a real work environment.

Despite a temporary shutdown in May, the café resumed operations, and help came from every corner of society to keep the project afloat. Similar schemes followed, with a vocational school in Shanghai partnering with Ishiwata in providing a full day’s training every week on cooking, computing, calligraphy and social etiquette.

Nonetheless, she figured all these endeavors could not compensate for the lack of systemic education offered by public schools. And she yearned for the establishment of such a school for children with autism only. “Despite increasing societal attention toward their plight, what they need most is a school of their own,” she said.

The excessive drilling of students nowadays to adapt them to academic rigor from an increasingly young age compels autistic children to play catch-up. Many thus lose the appetite for learning. But although they lag behind their peers in computing and comprehension, they impress their instructors with an unlikely aptitude for memorizing things.

This is evidenced by the fact that the children can play entire parts of a symphony without looking at the sheet music.

A longtime resident of Japan, Ishiwata said she was struck by Japanese readiness to help others. For example, mentally challenged patients can be seen being wheeled by strangers around parks when cherry blossoms are in full bloom. 

Active involvement in community service is hailed as a mark of virtue. 

Attributing her charity campaign in part to her years in Japan, she said she expected more people in China to join her in the quest to make a difference in the lives of the needy through music or other means of philanthropy.

Her recent nomination as a candidate for the coveted Magnolia Silver Award — top honors Shanghai officially bestows upon foreigners with special contributions to the city — imbued her with pride. 

With it also came a new sense of responsibility. Instead of seeing the award as crowning glory, she thought of the laurels as a new start, prompting her to work even harder for the benefits of those they care for.

In the spirit of her favorite musical work, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, also known as the Fate Symphony, Ishiwata said she now considered it her fate to change the fate of “children of the stars.”

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