Confessions Of A Sanshin Sensei

Confessions Of A Sanshin Sensei

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In the End, It’s All About Leaving a Legacy

Grant “Sandaa” Murata
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

When I first began learning Ryükyü uta/sanshin with Henry Masatada Higa-Sensei, I studied with many Uchinanchu Issei. Today, I realize how blessed I was to have had that experience. These elders had worked hard all their lives to give their children and grandchildren a better life, and in their twilight years, they wanted to be able to play the music of their homeland and reminisce about their beloved Okinawa.

Higa-Sensei must have wondered at times what he had gotten himself into, accepting a young yonsei who could neither speak nor understand Uchinaguchi (Okinawan language) and trying to teach Issei students who challenged his knowledge of the language. I was at least able speak Japanese pretty well at the time, so I got more out of Higa-Sensei’s instruction than the average yonsei. He did his best to teach me, and between his scoldings and the laughs he got from my pronunciation, he somehow managed to get me to where I am today. For his guidance and instruction, I am forever grateful. I dyed his teachings and wisdom into my heart like the tinsagu nu hana dye for one’s fingernails.

As I write this essay, I wonder what kinds of confessions Higa-Sensei would have had about me and my fellow Issei students.

I remember that many of them would try to teach Higa-Sensei, probably because he was a Kibei-Nisei who had born in Hawai‘i, but raised in Okinawa. Because he was a Nisei, those Issei thought they knew better than he did.

“Kuma, Taa gadu shinshii ga?” — in other words, “Who is the sensei here?!” he would ask them. I would have gotten a good laugh out of that if I’d been able to understand Uchinaguchi at the time. My pronunciation was horrible back then. The Issei in the class tried to teach me the proper pronunciation, as they all knew I was a Yamatunchu (non-Okinawan) boy growing up in a “Yamatunchu” household. (I wonder how they would react if they found out, like I did decades later, that I actually was Uchinanchu. But that is a story for another time.) I was teased about my pronunciation, but it was all done in a loving manner, so I still have fond memories of them.

In January of 1981, after receiving my kyöshi menkyojö (teaching certificate), I started my own sanshin döjö (school) and began teaching. Most of my students were young Sansei and Yonsei Uchinanchu who had their own reasons for wanting to take up uta/sanshin. Some wanted to learn uta/sanshin in the hopes of breathing life back into a sanshin that had once been played by their ojiichan or obaachan. Others came because their parents wanted to spark their interest in Okinawan culture. Still others were forced to come. I’m sure many of my former students will chuckle as they read this, wondering which category they belonged in. Regardless, I hope they benefited from my instruction.

Some students took lessons for a while and then left, only to return years later when the time was right for them. I’ve learned that no one can push you to study sanshin: That desire must come from within. Some develop into serious students who end up taking the uta/sanshin proficiency exams in Okinawa. Some even commit several years of their lives to studying sanshin in Okinawa at the Okinawa Prefectural Traditional Performing Arts College (Geidai) in Naha City.

Through the years, I’ve had the opportunity to pass on the art of uta/sanshin to many students — from 7-year-olds all the way on up to 80-year-olds. The younger students are like a piece of clay, open to shaping and molding. As the student grows older, it gets harder and harder to do mold them. Remember the movie, “The Karate Kid,” which starred Noriyuki Pat Morita as the wise “Mr. Miyagi?” One of his lines from the movie stuck in my mind: “No such thing as bad student — only bad teacher!”

I’ve contemplated what Mr. Miyagi said and find it to be true. As I noted before, students are like clay that can be shaped and molded. The teacher is the ceramicist. The clay may set and harden at times, and you may have to carve into it or reshape the hardening clay instead of molding it while it is still pliable. Whenever I have a new student, I always consider his or her background, lifestyle and musical knowledge. I have had students who come to me with fabulous musical backgrounds, but when given a sanshin, are completely lost. The opposite is true, as well. The challenge comes when I have the two types of students in the same class. I know I need to provide enough of a challenge to one while trying to elevate the other to the same level as the classmate. This isn’t always attainable; sometimes, you will lose some of them. I used to take it pretty hard when a student quit. Some do come back, however, when the time is right for them — and when they do, it is oftentimes with a greater passion for the art. Some will persevere and one day become an instructor themselves.

Getting there, even for such an enjoyable genre of music as uta/sanshin, means traveling a long road full of peaks and valleys for both student and teacher.

Many teachers of uta/sanshin, both in Hawai‘i and on the U.S. mainland, are tripped up the uta in uta/sanshin. Since the word uta, meaning song, or to sing, precedes sanshin in the art’s name, it would seem to make sense that the student is expected to sing.

In Hawai‘i, however, students almost consistently come to me protesting, “I came here to learn how to play the sanshin. No one said I had to sing!”

Well, surprise! Surprise! Surprise! “You going sing whether you like it or not! That’s what uta/sanshin is all about,” I tell them. And they do, once they get over their self-consciousness. I’ve heard every excuse in the book for why I wouldn’t want them to sing: “I’m tone deaf.” “My voice is too low.” “My voice is too high.” I’ve heard them all. I always tell them that I have never met a person that was born tone deaf or could not sing. If you have a voice to talk, you have a voice to sing — you just need to learn how to use your voice.

“Do you sing karaoke?” I ask. When they reply, “Yes,” I tell them that there’s no question then that they can sing. And then the learning begins. Everyone has to find their voice and, eventually, they do.

Most students come to class with a very western concept of music, so they expect a structured learning experience. Musical notes, called kunkunshi in Okinawan uta/sanshin, were developed to help the student remember what he or she learned. It was meant to help the student in the absence of his or her teacher. Over time, the kunkunshi became an automatically distributed material that students came to rely on as the music.

I disagree with this concept. In Okinawa, traditional uta/sanshin is referred to as Dentö- Ongaku — dentö referring to a musical art that is passed on from master to disciple, rather than learned from a piece of paper or a book. Our master sensei in Okinawa, Terukina Choichi, who has been designated a National Living Treasure of Japan, uses the expression saru mane, meaning, “mimicking like a monkey” in describing this practice. In essence, it means you don’t have to think about anything — just follow your sensei’s fingers and voice.

I believe Terukina-Sensei is right, which is why I follow his method of teaching. Some students come to me and immediately want the kunkunshi. In certain circumstances, I will give it to them. The results are usually the same — the student’s reliance on the kunkunshi results in complacency, and nothing is committed to memory. The music hasn’t really been learned, so the result is a false sense of confidence.

I’ve had students come to me, saying, “If I no mo’ da Kunkunshi, I cannot memorize da song!” to which I reply, “Oh really? So, tell me which song that I gave you the kunkunshi for that can you perform for us as a solo?” Nine times out of 10, the answer is, “I cannot.” When asked to play a solo of a song they were taught using the rote system, they perform it perfectly — or at least to the expectation of their sensei.

As the weeks turn into months, most students grow accustomed to the system and are able to match their fingers with their sensei’s fingers and to train their ears to hear the correct notes. Most also start to find their “Okinawan voice” and the long process of learning the correct pronunciation of the Okinawan lyrics. After all, the ultimate goal is to sound like a native Okinawan singer, which is probably the hardest aspect of uta/sanshin. Some people think it’s unnecessary because, “We’re from Hawai‘i, so it’s OK!”

However, I believe that it is the call of the master, and I work with my students to help them develop their voice into that of a native singer. We need to set the bar high, not low, so we can strive to attain the highest point possible.

The most difficult Okinawan words or Japanese kana characters/alphabets for Americans to pronounce are the words with the phonetic U, KU, TU, NU, etc. Interestingly, I’ve had a number of Japanese nationals as students who have the same problem with these pronunciations.

The difference is that speakers of English — or, maybe I should say Pidgin speakers — quickly notice the difference in pronunciations. Native Japanese speakers have a harder time hearing the difference, so they have a more difficult time making the distinction. What does this mean and what do we do? It seems to be an issue found mainly outside of Okinawa.

In early August, I had the honor of being invited to serve as one of five judges for this year’s Ryükyü performing arts Konku-ru, a sanshin proficiency test, which is sponsored annually by Okinawa’s Ryükyü Shimpo newspaper. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the proficiency test in the Afuso style of uta/sanshin, which I teach. It was the first time that a practitioner from outside of Okinawa had been invited judge the competition. This opportunity was made possible due to the support of my teacher in Okinawa, Terukina Choichi-Sensei and our sempai (older teachers) in Okinawa, the HUOA and Hawai‘i’s Uchinanchu community, friends, students, my wife Chikako and our family.

In addition to my being selected as a judge, this year, two of my Hawai‘i students — Naomi Oshiro and Mindy Oumi — and Tomio Prejoda, a student of my former student, Ryan Nakamatsu-Sensei, who leads the Los Angeles school of Ryükyü Koten Afuso Ryu Ongaku Kenkyu Choichi Kai, traveled with me to Okinawa to take the shinjinsho (first level test) in Afuso Ryu uta/sanshin. Judging gave me an opportunity to closely observe the students from Okinawa, Hawai‘i and all over mainland Japan.

One applicant who impressed me greatly was a young hapa man named Jacob from Texas. I was really impressed when he started to sing, as he sounded like a native Uchinanchu singer.

I spoke with him briefly after he learned that he had passed the exam. Interesting, although I spoke to him in English, he would reply only in Japanese. He said he was studying Japanese in Okinawa and decided to take up uta/sanshin to learn more about the language and culture of Okinawa. Jacob’s pronunciation was almost perfect, and I think he received high scores from most on our judging panel. His insistence on speaking only Japanese even if spoken to in English is probably what brought him to this level of proficiency.

Another thing I noticed, and this was quite disturbing, is that native Okinawan students are having a hard time pronouncing the Okinawan lyrics. No doubt, this is the result of the Okinawan language slowly being lost — native speakers, most of them elderly, are growing fewer and fewer by the day. Something must be done to turn the tide on this alarming trend.

The judges themselves tended not to focus much on pronunciation and definitely did not penalize the applicants for it. I noticed that even the sensei in our Okinawa studio do not pay as much attention to pronunciation as they do to the fushi, or vocal intricacies. Maybe they think that the pronunciation will repair itself. I’m not convinced that this is a good thing, but time will tell.

In addition to my family, playing sanshin and teaching the art to others has been my life’s passion. This instrument captured my heart when I was still a young boy and never let go of me. Sometimes I wonder why I teach sanshin; after all, it requires way more time than I have, and I’m not getting rich as teacher. Oddly enough, the day before I received the invitation to judge in this year’s Konku-ru, I was talking with Herald editor Karleen Chinen about something related to one of my classes. She told me that while watching a Barbra Streisand special on PBS, Ms. Streisand had recited an old Greek saying that went something like this: “Old men plant trees even though they know they will never stand in their shade.”

“Sensei, that’s what legacy is all about,” she said. “This is what you are passing on to your students, with the hope that they will pass it on to their children and/or other friends and family members.”

Hearing that made me think about Higa-Sensei especially, as he had been my first sanshin teacher. Could he have known where his nurturing and patient teaching would lead me? “Old men plant trees even though they know they will never stand in their shade . . .”

Grant “Sandaa” Murata, a Hawai‘i-born yonsei, is shihan (master instructor) and chapter president of the Afuso-ryu Gensei Kai Hawaii Shibu. He has been playing sanshin for nearly four decades. He is also the Herald’s advertising and promotions manager.

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