Following a song's melody (whether by notation, or listening to an artist) is very beneficial in the beginning, as it builds confidence in what you play. As you play the song more, you will naturally start to see the song's “skeleton” underneath the “skin” of notes. When you feel the time is right, keep the skeleton and add your own skin! (Hopefully that makes sense)
Note to beginners: Above all, imitate and copy a player/song as long as you need, because mimicry is very, very important to learning an instrument/art. This point of this episode is to express encouragement to add in your own flavor whenever you feel like it. Know that it's purely your decision. If you feel a yearning to add some of your own ideas into the piece, that's great. If you prefer to play the piece exactly how the notation reads, that's great too. :-)
Extra notes on this episode:
I had a recent email correspondence with a Bachido member about notation, which got me thinking about how different tsugaru style is from nagauta or jiuta style.
Unlike nagauta or jiuta pieces, which hardly/never differ because the pieces are played from notation, there is an expectation for tsugaru players to incorporate their own feeling into the tsugaru pieces, while keeping a feeling for the song's structure.
Originally, I got into tsugaru shamisen because I was tired of “half-learning” songs from CDs (or just following the shakuhachi part), and wanted to take a few lessons with Kevin to learn songs note-for-note.
Years later, after playing the songs note for note for years, I think I'm getting an internal comprehension for the song's structure, and can start to incorporate my own feeling into the song (which means changing the melody to fit the way I feel) while keeping the song's structure.