Waikiki, Ichigenkin and Yamada-sensei

In 1992, I studied ichigenkin with Chie Yamada, who had achieved a master status in a number of Japanese traditional music styles, and was not only an adept musician, but a masterful teacher. I had first taken some lessons with her a few years earlier, but this was the first time I could spend an extended period in Hawaii just to study ichigenkin. On my arrival her husband was not supportive of my lessons, as Yamada-sensei (sensei means professor/instructor in Japanese) was in therapy for cancer and some days the medicine made her quite ill. However, Yamada-sensei insisted I come every day to study, and her husband acquiesced.

Yamada-sensei playing ichigenkinThe ichigenkin is a rare one-string Japanese zither that some believe may have come from the Chinese seven-string qin. Both instruments were played by philosopher-musicians who would sit in front of their instruments without striking a string, believing that if a musician and an instrument are in the same room, then music is also present, no action is necessary to produce the music. “The music can be heard,” they would say, “if you know how to listen.” Before beginning my lessons, Yamada-sensei described this philosophy to me and added, “Sometimes I just look at an instrument and I hear it play, the music is instantly born inside me.”

This strong sense of philosophy is inherent in the ichigenkin, and Yamada-sensei would often explain: “The ichigenkin must be part of your body. It has only one string and no place for the sound to resonate; it cannot produce a strong sound by itself. The sound must resonate from your body.”

“You can not hide the sound with other notes,” she would say, “the ichigenkin has a pure sound. It can only be played as part of you, and the music should come as naturally as any movement.”

Studying daily with Yamada-sensei was challenging and rewarding. I worked hard to understand and apply the philosophy of the ichigenkin while I developed my finger and picking techniques and memorized each piece. It was only through listening and feeling her play and trying to copy it as well as I could that I made any progress. This was not music that you could learn from reading notes off a piece of paper; this was music you had to experience. She often remarked, “You can either read music or play it. You can’t do both at the same time.”

One day after I played a piece, Yamada-sensei sat quietly for a minute and then nodded saying “With the ichigenkin, every note must come from deep inside you. You must play from your center, deep in your body, because this is where the real sound is. But when you play you must also bring the sound out of your body into the air. Today I can feel the music come from you, this is the sign of a good player.” She then would regularly tell me if my focus on my centre (hara) was too high, too low, too forward or too back. She knew the instant it was not correct.

In the last days of my lessons Yamada-sensei would often look at me and scowl, “You are so relaxed on the instrument that it resonates inside you. You play like you are Japanese, yet you are not. You must have Japanese blood.” Then she would shake her head and in a sad voice ask “Why aren’t you Japanese…you should be Japanese?!”

On the day of my last lesson her husband thanked me for studying with her and being very patient with the occasional repetition of lessons (the medicine made her forgetful). He said that I had given her a lot of energy and made her days meaningful. He said that I was her best student and gave me the contacts for the Ichigenkin school in Tokyo, asking me to be in touch with them.

I was Chie Yamada’s last ichigenkin student. She died of stomach cancer a few months later. Her husband gave me the instrument that she taught me on. yamada1

She was the best teacher that I had ever had. She could see things that were inside of me and guide me to use them, sensing things about me that no other teacher ever had. I could sense hundreds of years of knowledge being passed to me; lessons that she had learned from her teacher before her, and likewise for centuries. When she taught, every note sang, as she would place it deep inside of me. I was taught to play each note as if it contained the whole piece of music. The piece should be as complete playing only one note as it was playing all of the notes. She taught me to feel the rightness of every note, to give each note time to exist and resonate in my body. She somehow had a deep understanding of the music that I always had felt inside of me, but never knew how to release. She nurtured my internal music, gave it life, and brought the deepest parts of me alive with it.

While I studied with Yamada-sensei, I stayed in a dorm room with 6 people, so to practice I would go and sit on a bench at Waikiki beach for hours every night. This was actually quite dangerous because the beach was where drug dealers, pimps and other underworld folks did business at night. They each had their spot, and any intruders were not welcome. However they fully accepted me. I had a spot I could practice, and many times a bunch of very scary looking people would come and listen. They asked me questions about the music, and myself, and we developed quite a personal relationship. They were totally fascinated with the ichigenkin and its philosophy, sometimes sat for hours just staring at the dark ocean and listening to me play. The only time somebody started to be aggressive to me, a number of big guys came up and told him that I was their friend and anyone wanting to mess with me had to mess with them first.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

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