Isabel McPherson : Shamisen Lessons

As a music education major, I knew as soon as I heard about the community Involvement Project that I wanted to learn a traditional Japanese instrument. The quarter before I came to Japan, I took a class on Asian pop music and was introduced to a duo called the Yoshida Kyoudai, brothers from Northern Japan who play a three-stringed banjo-like instrument called the shamisen. I became entranced with their music and decided I would try and learn the shamisen as well.
Having learned many other instruments before, I expected it to be pretty easy, but it came with its own challenges. Finding the individual pitches was not very hard, but I found the bachi (pick) extremely difficult to use. I worried so much about it that my wrist would get tense and keep me from being able to play properly. My teacher, a very motherly older woman, would tell me to relax, repeatedly. It was something I had heard from teachers before, but it had a different meaning with her. While other teachers had told me to relax so I could play correctly, she would tell me to relax because to her, the emotion behind a piece was so much more important than whether or not each individual note was correct, so it wasn’t worth it to stress over playing perfectly.
In her I also noticed an interesting change of personality during and after lessons that I hope to emulate one day with my students. During my lessons, she would rarely praise me (unless I was extra worried that day and she felt the need to reassure me that I was doing fine) and was very business-like, only saying what she had to to get her point across. However, after my lessons, she would chat away without hesitation, discussing everything from music to the intimate details of her life as if we were old friends. At times she surprised me with how much she felt comfortable sharing not only about herself, but also about her other students. I think Japan and especially Japanese teachers can come off as having a very serious, businesslike approach to things, but as I’ve learned, that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are unfriendly or don’t want to have a close relationship with you. The philosophy is that during the lesson, the teacher’s job is to teach, not to be friends. However, afterwards, the teacher wants to encourage a positive attitude towards learning and having future lessons, and so will talk as if you’re friends.

4 thoughts on “Isabel McPherson : Shamisen Lessons

  1. This sounded like such a cool CIP- her teaching style sounds so different from all the other ones Ive experienced in learning music. So many mentors of mine have been of the “Give a compliment for every critique” school of thought that I have a hard time imagining how a lesson would go in its absence. Did you feel like your teacher was ever overly critical because of this? Also are you going to continue shamisen lessons? I dont know if it interests you, but I think a group lesson could have a really interesting dynamic.

    • I didn’t think my teacher was overly critical at all! I definitely think we have a tendency to over-compliment students in the West, which can lead to a false sense of accomplishment. It’s really rewarding for me to have had to work really hard just to get a ‘good job’, but some people might not feel that way.

  2. It’s so awesome that you were able to find a CIP that meshes so well with your natural abilities and interests! I’m also glad that you got to participate in an environment that is so relevant to your future plans. Do you feel that playing the shamisen required or encouraged a different type of emotion than Western music does? For instance, did you feel like you had to be more focused (while simultaneously being relaxed), or could you sort of let go and put yourself into the music?

    • I’m not so sure about emotion, I don’t know that I’ve gotten to that stage yet! It takes a lot of focus just to figure out the words and the music together, so I haven’t had as much time to think about if the emotions are different. I think emotions are pretty universal, so if anything that’s the part I can focus on the least! I’m always focusing really intently when I play, but hopefully in the future I won’t have to as much.