Japanese guitarist Kanahi Yamashita is an exceptionally gifted young musician. Her playing has captivated listeners across the world and she is emerging as a powerful voice on the guitar among her generation. On the tail of releasing her first solo CD of works by Carlo Domeniconi (review to follow shortly), Kanahi sat down with Six String Journal to share some of her experience with our readers. Enjoy.
When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially?
I started playing the guitar when I was four years old and it was very natural to begin with, because I was surrounded by guitars and their sound since I was born. Thanks to my parents, I also started learning the violin, the piano, and some traditional Japanese instruments over the years, and even Noh-Theater chanting and dance. It was fun to learn various instruments and their music and that experience has been very important in my musical formation. Since I was five years old, I’ve had many opportunities to be on stage with the guitar, so the sound of the guitar has been the most stimulating and inspiring. I naturally spent most of my time playing the guitar and became more and more focused on this instrument. The other instrument I study with as much passion as I do for the guitar is singing, which I currently study at the University of Arts Berlin as part of a double degree with guitar.
What is it or was it like to come from a guitar “family”, how did it impact your desire to play?
The most precious thing I received as a member of a musical family was that I was always surrounded by music since I was born. Music was always a part of our daily life and was connected to everything we did at home. So I could learn music not as a special subject, but as a very natural part of my growing up. The process of musical training by my parents was also very multifaceted, by learning several instruments at the same time. In addition, I’ve enjoyed composing, improvising, and writing poems since I was a child. I didn’t learn everything in the strict sense, but rather enjoyed it in my own way, inspired by the special environment at home. One of the important lessons I’ve learned over the years is to not only focus on my major instrument to try to learn about music and repertoire, but trying various approaches to music and recognizing music from multiple angles.
What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?
Since childhood I played on a Ramirez III built in 1985 and since 2017 I’ve been playing an Italian guitar built by Rinaldo Vacca. I also met a great American guitar maker, Michael Batell in Berlin and from him I learned a lot about guitar and its construction process. I’ve played several of his guitars in concert and I also recorded the new CD “Selected Works VIII – Guitar solo Kanahi Yamashita”. The strings I really like to play on and use regularly are EJ45 Normal Tension by D’Addario.
Which recording/s are you most proud of?
Beside two CDs I took part in as a member of “Kazuhito Yamashita Family Quintet”, I just released my very first solo CD in April 2021. This is part of a series of CDs featuring the music of the famous Italian composer, Carlo Domeniconi, with whom I’ve been studying with since I moved to Berlin in 2015. On this CD I performed four solo pieces by him, two of which are dedicated to me. I especially appreciate and am honored to have experienced the collaboration process during the recording of this CD. I learned these pieces directly from the composer and it was a unique opportunity and gift to spend such an intensive time with him, and then to have recorded the project under his advice and musical production.
What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?
Right now it is, of course, very difficult to announce exact dates of coming concerts due to the pandemic, but in coming years I am expecting to perform as a winner of the Deutscher Gitarrenpreis 2019, which I won in Darmstadt and I will be performing in several cities of Germany. Beside that I was also invited to perform in several projects in Berlin with a Tenor, an Eurythmist, and an actress. In addition, I am planning to perform solo recitals in Berlin and Darmstadt this year including CD Release Recitals, which were postponed from spring this year. This month I will be performing in Kyoto as a Scholarship student of the Rohm Music Foundation Japan.
In the past months I suffered very much from not being able to perform regularly. I spent most of my time investigating and increasing my repertoire, so I am really looking forward to being able to perform more and more on stage again.
Technique and Performance
How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?
It is hard to say how much I practice each day, since it really depends on the condition I am in each day or schedules. But I do practice more without guitar the in my hands and this mental practicing time is much more than the time I really physically train on my guitar. I spend much more time reading and playing from the score than before. I started being more careful about notation, precise reading of the music, and only less than 3 weeks before the concert, I start learning by heart.
Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?
The most difficult thing is to accurately read and understand the music that the score is trying to express. I think this is the biggest aspect of being an interpreter, learning and struggling. We consider vibrating the notes written in the score, and thus the musical expression, as sounds in the room, and pursue technical topics for that purpose. For example, in order to gain a deeper understanding of early music, it is necessary to have knowledge of historical performance forms, musical instruments of the time and their playing techniques, articulations, and how to place ornamental notes. The areas to be investigated are enormous. That is also the reason I will be studying these topics with the German theorbo and lute player Björn Colell at the Nuremberg University of Music from October 2021.
Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?
In 2015 one of my compositions for solo guitar, Variation & Fantasia on ‘Star of the County Down’, was published and is available from my website. Right now I do not have any plan to publish more of my works, but I am definitely interested in composing more, especially for voice and guitar, which I perform as a singer/guitarist.
Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
Not especially, but I just try to be relaxed on that day and usually I rather not play or practice too much. I do look at the scores and study them mentally without the guitar in my hands.
Advice to Younger Players
What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?
I highly recommended that you develop your sight-reading skills from childhood. That way, you can learn more repertoire in less time. And beyond the stage of understanding the enumeration of notes, you can spend enough time on the more important stage of considering the style and background of the work. I think it’s far more important than the ability to memorize and play without mistakes from start to finish.
What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why?
Naturally as a daughter of Kazuhito Yamashita he taught me how to play some of his transcriptions, such as the 9th Symphony “From the New World” by Dvorák and “Pictures at an exhibition” by Mussorgsky and I can really recommend at least to take a look at those scores because they taught me thousands of different sounds on the guitar. They expanded my technique, helped me communicate with the sounds of my own instrument, and gave me insight into his way of thinking. To know the instrument and its many various types of sounds is an endless pursuit and it will accompany you as a guitarist forever.
Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?
I was always listening to not only guitar CDs, but a lot more of other instruments, where I was exposed to so many great musicians and their different approaches to playing pieces, their musical languages beyond instrumental and technical tasks. I cannot name only one particular recording, but I encourage young players to become familiar with the recordings of different types of instruments and their music from different parts of the world.
What is the last book that you read? Favorite author/s?
Right now I am reading the book written by Jose Ramirez III “Things about the Guitar” (SONETO Ediciones Musicales).
Do you meditate in any way?
Not particularly, but sometimes I very much like to sit in the darkness in my room with my guitar and improvise for a while forgetting about time and any other practical issues from daily life. This is one of the moments I meditate.
Follow Kanahi on her Facebook page