Yueran Ding: Shamisen Lesson

Based on my interest in musical instruments and previous experience in playing the flute, cello, and piano, I decided to learn a traditional Japanese instrument for my CIP. Learning shamisen(三味線) with Iwasaki sensei seems to me a natural choice given that she has already taught many KCJS students koto(琴) or shamisen before, and I find my experience learning with her as rewarding as I expected.

At first, I thought I was going to a “private lesson” once a week, but it turned out that for the most of the time I participated in a “group practice”. In the first three weeks, Iwasaki sensei taught me and another student from KCJS some shamisen basics, and those were the only “private lessons” that I had. Three weeks later, she let us join the large group and practice with other senior students, all of whom were in their sixties, seventies and even eighties. I realized that the group practice was indeed a perfect opportunity for me to observe how Japanese, especially Japanese seniors behaved during practice. I once supposed they would be very serious just like what I had seen in in television shows or movies how tea masters giving lessons, but I was wrong. The vibe of the group practice was in fact lighthearted. My classmates loved to tell jokes and especially joked about their ages a lot. When a student who was about my grandma’s age pretended(ぼけ) that she was 20, and another student would point out(突っ込み) her actual age in a funny tone, making everybody else laugh. Iwasaki sensei encouraged such relaxing atmosphere to make sure everybody feel happy and enjoy the practice.

One of the reasons that I came to Kyoto was that I wanted to learn a little Kansai-ben, which means dialect in the Kansai area, so I was excited to discover that the teacher and students here all talked in Kansai-ben. Before I came to Kyoto, the only source where I could hear Kansai-ben was Japanese variety shows, so I used to feel that Kansai-ben was hilarious yet might sound a little disrespectful sometimes. However, students here talked to Iwasaki sensei in Kansai-ben with honorific expressions. For example, they would use “食べはる” and “~してはる”, and always talk with “です””ます” ending. This surprised me because my observation here during the group practice broke my stereotype in the way that Kansai-ben could also be respectful. Interestingly, when I got used to hearing Kansai-ben, I started to feel that talking in Kansai-ben with honorific expressions was actually an ideal way to communicate since the speaker would be able to speak in a relatively intimate tongue while showing respect at the same time.

When it was close to dinner time, Iwasaki sensei often invited her students to go for a dinner with her, so I was also able to eat with my warm-hearted classmates. Although all at the age of my grandfathers and grandmothers, they were still energetic, loved to joke around, and even ate more than I do (wow!). Thanks to such opportunities, I was able to observe how Japanese interact when they were at a group dinner. I noticed that Iwasaki sensei and my classmates never poured liquor by themselves but instead always poured liquor for others all the time. When everybody finished eating, Iwasaki sensei would collect about 1000 yen from each student (but not me or other KCJS students, probably because we were too young to earn money yet…or because she wanted to care for new students? ) and pay at the cashier by herself.

Learning shamisen with Iwasaki sensei makes a perfect CIP for me. I was invited by her to join other students to perform as a group on December 8th, which would enable me to show what I have learned during the past three months-a perfect end for this amazing experience. I not only learned how to play Shamisen, but also had a great experience participating in a small Japanese community, observing how people behaved and interacting with them. I would genuinely recommend Iwasaki sensei and her shamisen/koto lesson to anybody who is interested in Japanese musical instrument, or just want to have a great time experiencing Japanese society and culture.

2 thoughts on “Yueran Ding: Shamisen Lesson

  1. This sounds like it was a wonderful experience —from being able to learn a quintissential Japanese instrument and learning Kansai-ben from native speakers! I also had the experience of worrying the atmosphere in a lesson would err on the side of formal to the point of being stuffy but then finding it to be relaxed, even rambunctious, in reality. Being able to practice Japanese in such a friendly setting is quite a lucky thing, wouldn’t you agree?

  2. It surely was lucky for me to practice both my Japanese and shamisen skills in such a friendly setting! During the group dinner, I had lots of opportunities to talk with my classmates, thereby improving my confidence in Japanese when I found out that I had little problem communicating with my classmates even though they spoke in Kansai-ben. Definitely a great CIP for me!