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.