My first time encountering the shamisen was at a taiko performance by a student group named Yamatai on Cornell’s campus. I remember sitting in the massive concert hall and awing at the explosive, yet pure beats accompanied by two Japanese pluck instruments. During the performance, one string on one instrument snapped, but the performer remained calm and continued the notes with the remaining strings.
As music has been a part of my life in many different ways and forms over the past 15 years, I decided to keep it in my life even during my times abroad. Learning a traditional Japanese instrument became a natural option and drawing from my memory regarding that taiko performance I saw over a year ago, that accompanying instrument came to mind. I decided to learn the shamisen. With the recommendations of KCJS teachers, I, along with another KCJS student who wanted to learn the koto, contacted Iwasaki Sensei. My CIP became one of the best highlights of my time in Kyoto.
It is fair to say that Chloe and I walked into the unknown. With the help of our teacher, we called Iwasaki sensei in somewhat broken Japanese and arranged to meet that exact afternoon. I thought we were simply meeting to introduce ourselves, but we jumped into practice, and Tuesdays became our lesson time. In the first two weeks or so, Iwasaki sensei taught me shamisen basics like reading traditional Japanese music notation and learning the basic positions. Coming from over 15 years of violin practice, I was able to catch the basic, basic, fundamentals, and we moved onto pieces.
Iwasaki sensei’s classroom is conducted in a fairly unique style with students of all sorts of backgrounds. Our usual Tuesday group ranges from a 6-year-old pre-elementary girl to 60-year-old grandmas, and we always have so much fun. Since I don’t have other activities planned on Tuesdays, I tend to spend around 3 hours at the studio. We play different pieces, varying in difficulty, and I often have flashbacks of my time back in orchestra when we have multiple shakuhachis 「尺八」( bamboo flute), kotos 「琴」(Japanese harp), and shamisens 「三味線」play all together.
This classroom was also the perfect place to observe Kansai’s hospitality and customs. The students spoke with kansaiben「関西弁」 and used kansai-keigo「関西敬語」 ( which is the best invention) and interacted with each other in a fun way. Sometimes different students would bring omiyage「お土産」 or ogashi「お菓子」, and we would teatime in between the lesson and chat freely.
It has been an amazing time, and I really look forward to our Christmas performance on December 14th. I will cherish the few weeks we have left with the small studio and make the best out of it.