Monday, March 18, 2013

My First Akita-Style Shamisen Lesson

The shamisen lessons worked out! So here is my first experience with Akita shamisen, a cousin of the northern-Japan Tsugaru style that the Yoshida Brothers and others have made famous. :)

My lesson was two hours and held at my teacher's house, and I will take lessons more or less once a week barring trips out of town, etc. We began with seated bows and "Yoroshiku onegai-itashimasu" (Let's do our best together.) and when we ended as the student I said "Arigatou gozaimashita" (Thank you very much.) while we did seated bows.

Like my buyo (dance) classes, there wasn't much of any learning of "steps" or "notes", like I'd expect in a Western-style class, before we started a piece. He let me borrow one of his shamisen, (futozao, the kind used in tsugaru), showed me how to hold the plectrum and pluck a note properly, and within twenty minutes or so we started on a song. Shamisen have no marking for where the frets are, so because I was a beginner he glued on temporary dots on the side of the neck to help me get used to their position.

I would play through a line of the song, and once I'd done that a few times he'd play slowly and I would try to keep pace with him. There is no Western-style 4/4 beat in shamisen from my understanding, so like my steps in buyo I have to time my notes to him to figure out how long to extend certain notes, etc. (I am a musical idiot, so this part may be wrong! All I know is I asked him if it was 4/4 and he said it wasn't quite the same.)

We added a new line one at a time until we were halfway through the song by the end of the two hours. Needless to say, I wasn't playing that first half like he was. ;) But once he felt I had a basic grasp of the line, we'd move on to introduce more and then come back at a later point to everything we'd done so far.

The sheet music is written as three lines, the top one the highest string (furthest from your body when you hold the shamisen up), with numbers written in on each line for which fret you're hitting per note. A Roman numeral under that number shows which finger you use (I - index finger), and there are small katakana below that if different techniques are used (ス "su" for plucking up rather than down, etc.). Again, there are no indications of how long a note is held, so my complete ignorance of Western musical notation was not actually a problem here.

He also said I can continue to borrow one of his shamisen for practice during class for as long as I need to, which was nice because shamisen are ungodly expensive.

Also, the entire two-hour class was in seiza (where you kneel on a pillow with your legs and feet under you). He, of course, had no problem doing this but an hour in I had to ask for a bathroom break just so I could get up and move around. So I'm definitely going to have to practice sitting in seiza at home.

Overall I really enjoyed it, and even though I have no musical background my teacher was pleased with the progress I made and said he was surprised I was doing this well my first lesson. So there is hope for me yet! :)

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