Isabela Rovira: Learning Shamisen

Before coming to Japan, I had never listened to shamisen or really any traditional Japanese music. It wasn’t until I watched Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings last summer that I first heard a shamisen. Now in my third month of shamisen lessons, I am happy that I was swept away by its sound.

When I came to KCJS, I knew I wanted to take shamisen lessons but was not really sure how I would do it. Thankfully, other students from the fall semester had already been going to a teacher for koto lessons and that same teacher could teach shamisen. In the first few weeks of KCJS, I went to meet my new teacher, Iwasaki-sensei.

My first impression was unforgettable: Iwasaki-sensei presided above the Greenwich Jazz Club in an alley that swept you away from the buzz of Shijo Kawaramachi. As soon as I entered the door, she handed me a shamisen, a bachi (used to pluck the strings) and the opportunity to jump into the piece that the other students were already learning. Scary? Sure. But luckily, with my previous experiences learning violin and piano, I could at least stumble my way through the first few bars.

Since then, every week I’ve learned a new piece or practiced a new technique on the shamisen. As a student of Iwasaki-sensei, there’s never a dull moment. But I’ve also gained so much more from my lessons. I’ve gotten to meet new people and practice Japanese in ways I would have never done in the classroom. I’ve gone from being nervous about using my keigo to casually striking up conversation with new students. Even if you don’t have any musical experience, lean in and take the leap because you’ll learn more than just playing an instrument.

8 thoughts on “Isabela Rovira: Learning Shamisen

  1. Do you think you got more out of this experience because it was in a group setting than you would have if it was just private lessons?

    • For sure! I think that I was able to meet a variety of people from the community, ranging from other university students to elderly people. Being in a group setting also made it more informal. Everyone was extremely friendly and warm. Iwasaki-sensei often teaches foreigners so we often converse in plain form anyway. For that I am grateful (not because I am wary of keigo…but because I gained more familiarity with how normal people talk with each other)!

  2. Sometimes I wonder if should I have tried picking up a new instrument while here in Japan, so I’m glad that you got to opportunity to do so! How much did having past musical experience help in picking up the shamisen, and would you still recommend learning a new instrument in Japan for those who are interested but haven’t played an instrument before?

    • I would say that I had a great deal of experience with classical Western music and it definitely eased the learning curve for me. Once you have a feeling for music in general, it’s pretty easy to adapt to other people’s styles no matter where they come from. For those who have no experience, you have everything to gain and nothing to fear. You won’t know until you try so what’s the harm?

  3. Isabela,
    This is such a poetic description of your experience with shamisen lessons. I had a similar experience of being thrown into things with little instruction at the tennis circle . For me, it was stressful, but also sort of fun. How did you feel about being dropped into the deep end? Did that teaching style continue throughout your shamisen lesson experience?

    • Thanks for reading, Leah! I’d say that I’m someone who enjoys being put into the middle of all the action right away. For me, music is a very comforting activity so even if I am frustrated with learning at first, I am usually having too much fun to notice. The teaching style definitely changed week to week because there were always different students coming in. Some days we would learn a new piece and never play it again while others we would practice Sakura the entire time.

  4. I’m curious, was there anything similar between the Shamisen and piano and violin that you could apply? Is music written the same way, or do they have their own traditional ways to write music down?

    • They are all stringed instruments, haha! BUt other than that, they are all completely different. Both the piano and violin use Western European notation while shamisen uses kanji to denote the numbers of the notes. In addition, rhythm is noted very differently. Instead of notating each note as say a quarter note or a sixteenth note, the bar divisions and the pacing of the musician determine how the music is played.