One of the things I anticipated dreading most before coming to Japan was not having access to a guitar. I was thrilled when I learned that my host family in fact had one lying around that I could borrow. That is to say, I haven’t had to abstain from one of my most immediate needs, to make noise. I’ve also discovered another means of stress relief and enjoyment though my CIP, learning the shamisen.
With regard to the instrument and music itself, the experience has been demanding. As opposed to guitar, in which anyone can pick up a few chords and be on their way within thirty minutes of having touched the thing, shamisen requires diligence in order to achieve its potential. That is not to say the physical action of producing a tone is difficult, like learning a woodwind, but that one must be very conscious of their technique and take care to not play more than what is written. A good shamisen player is precise in their movements. There is also a barrier of entry for first timers: To play along with others, I had to learn how to read a new type of music notation that is counter-intuitive to the notation I am familiar with. Learning has made me much more grateful for how easy it is to make pretty sounds on my guitar at home. The real treat, however, has been playing with others at the studio.
For my first month or so, I visited Greenwich House, a small Japanese music studio, twice a week. I would go once for a group meeting of musicians and once for individual lessons. Recently, I have just been going to group meeting, although I have been spending just as much time there. Last week, I spent five and a half hours playing and lounging, which included dinner out with my teacher. The place has a really laid-back, friendly atmosphere, and in between pieces we snack on sweets and drink coffee that has been prepared in the jazz bar on the first floor.
The individual lessons have been incredibly helpful in the process of learning the fundamentals, but the group meetings are what I’ve come to treasure. A few times a week, shamisen, koto, and shakuhachi players gather at Greenwich House to play together. Depending on the day, the attendance varies. There have been times at which the tiny studio in which we meet has been uncomfortably crowded with players of all types and times in which my teacher and I are the only string players, helping a group of shakuhachi players keep rhythm. The smaller gatherings are preferable in terms of time the teacher can spend correcting our mistakes and teaching technique, but there is something magical about hearing it all together, as the individual parts play off each other and form a lush aural image. While traditional Japanese music is rather humble in light of the music we listen to nowadays, it has stark and devastating beauty when executed well.
I wish that I could continue going to the music studio after I leave Japan. My teacher and the other members of the studio have been incredibly welcoming. This CIP allowed me to integrate with a tiny, very specific group of people in Kyoto who share my interests. Just as I am becoming comfortable playing and conversing with the other players, my departure looms over me. I have thoroughly enjoyed involving myself with this group of people and learning from their experience and company.
Shamisen has always struck me as the type of instrument that looks deceptively simple, and reading the initial part of your entry pretty much confirmed that for me. I’m not as musically inclined as most people, so it was great being able to read about your experience.
It’s too bad you’ll be leaving soon since you seem to have gotten on swimmingly with the people at the lounge. You characterized the environment and people as welcoming, so I was curious what specific factors you noticed (if any) that contributed to that atmosphere. Was there something about the language or way people spoke to each other? Something about the space, maybe?
In addition to the aforementioned snacks during breaks between songs and size of the studio, the atmosphere was largely due to the people there. They range from high-schoolers to middle-aged, both men and women of varying skill levels, but they are all connected by their desire to play. The people were really curious about my life in America and my previous musical experience (my sensei was always very quick to mention my guitar playing whenever anyone commented on the speed at which I have picked up shamisen). I remember one day my sensei asked what type of music I play and my vocabulary was too limited to explain in Japanese so I played a song off my phone. Another time somebody asked me if I remembered 9/11 and that sparked a whole conversation. I guess I would say that even though people thank a player for coming profusely as they depart, people don’t take treat the space as a classroom but as a studio. I would say my sensei’s relationship with the players is very atypical of a typical Japanese sensei’s, and this is why the environment is so friendly.