Alyssa Willeford: Shamisen Lessons at Greenwich House

This semester, I took shamisen lessons with Iwasaki-sensei at Greenwich House, a small music studio located near the intersection of Shijo-dori and Kawaramachi-dori. Every Tuesday, after eating lunch at one of the many nearby restaurants, I would show up, sheet music in hand, to practice with the others at the studio. Typically, the lesson would start at about 1:30, when Ishida-san (a very kind woman and one of Iwasaki-sensei’s friends) and I would practice shamisen technique and drill the songs I had been working on. Because I only started shamisen lessons at the beginning of the semester, I was far behind where the others were, so I needed that extra time. Then, at around 2, other students – mostly middle-aged people, though a few younger and older people too – would show up and we would begin rehearsing our songs. Inevitably, we would break at some point for gobocha, or burdock tea, and a wagashi snack, my favorite of which was definitely ichigo daifuku. I would usually leave around 3 or 3:30, but I would have been free to stay longer too. It all felt a lot like visiting a hippie music studio back home in Seattle, except, of course, for the music we were playing. Most of the other people were practicing the koto, so I was the only one on shamisen and definitely felt some pressure at times to deliver! Iwasaki-sensei was very kind and lent me one of their shamisen so that I could practice at home, which definitely helped me improve much faster. Sometimes I would practice for as much as 45 minutes a night because I found it so calming. The semester was capped off with a performance at Shimogamo Elementary School – a group of us went to serve as essentially a teaching aid for a lesson about traditional music. That was a ton of fun, and it really felt like a spectacular way to finish out my experience!

Overall, I cannot recommend this CIP enough. In terms of things I would change, Iwasaki-sensei could be a little bit spontaneous at times, and I didn’t always feel like I knew what was going on. We played three pieces at the elementary school, and I had only gotten a copy of one of them two days before, so that was definitely a little stressful. Other than that, though, I had a great time! Iwasaki-sensei was very generous with gifts, sweets, and her time – I feel like I got far more out of the lessons than the small fee should really have covered. I played trombone from fourth grade until I graduated high school, and I enjoyed the shamisen because it’s surprisingly similar in a lot of ways. But the main thing that drew me to the lessons was just the chance to reconnect with music and experience again the joy of making music with others.

Also, and this was incredible, but after my first lesson, I got to meet a maiko, or trainee geisha. Because it was the first day and I had no idea what was going on, I was definitely super stressed, but that was still one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in Japan.

I would give my CIP five stars. I would recommend it to anyone who loves playing music – but if you only want a 1-hour-a-week commitment and you don’t like snacks, you should probably look elsewhere.