Shamisen: Less is More… Difficult!
You may have heard a shakuhachi flute whispering notes, or enjoyed a lively taiko drum performance, but the crisp, striking notes of a shamisen might be the most instantly recognizable sound of Japan. I sat down with pro performer and instructor of Jiuta-style Shamisen, Masayo Ishigure, for a lesson, and quickly found how much more there is to this deceptively simple-looking instrument.
Not to be confused with the Chinese instrument played upright, with a bow, on several New York subway platforms, a shamisen is a three-stringed, Japanese instrument, sharing some similarities with the guitar. Both have a long neck, held to the left, and a body amplifying the plucked notes. Beyond that, similarities begin to diverge drastically. For starters, the guitar’s hole is replaced by multiple layers of dog-skin (*sigh*, I know), stretched tight across the wooden body. The shamisen is only strummed with a rigid, fan-like tool, called a bachi. A knit bib stretched between my left hand’s thumb and index-finger, protecting the wooden neck. The sheet music has a writing style unique from any other instrument.
The greatest difference I found, was the attitude toward playing a shamisen. A guitar, even expertly played, resembles an object of comfort, strummed lovingly, or shredded while dangling from a shoulder strap. Shamisen requires a disciplined posture, yet gentle form. Everything, from the angle of the shamisen, to the grip on the bachi in my right hand, had one (and only one) correct position. Hardest of all was playing while sitting seiza – tucking the lower leg and foot, directly below the thigh – a position that even many Japanese natives find difficult to maintain. My teacher said she sometimes spends as much as four hours that way, but the longest I lasted was ten minutes! Of course, she revealed, there are completely valid reasons for each rule. Seiza gives the instrument a level lap to rest upon. Many of the other instructions, such as squaring my shoulders or how to strike each string with the bachi, teach proper technique and improve the visual aesthetic for the audience.
While it turns out, I was not a secret, third Yoshida Brother, I enjoyed holding the elegantly crafted instrument, and trying something new, that is truly old. Learning how much thought goes into shamisen, even before the first note is played, makes me appreciate its beauty that much more.
—– Reported by Greg Beck
Each string has a precise spot and wrist movement for strumming. A flourish is added when strumming the third, while my legs gently weep.
Shamisen are hand-crafted pieces of art, treated with delicate reverence. Here you see the knit-bib worn behind the smooth, fretless, wooden neck.