Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Is shakuhachi hard to play?

  This perspective is mainly aimed at the beginner who needs some basic images of what he /she is getting into when undertaking the study of shakuhachi. It could also be useful for teachers to pigeonhole the general aspects of playing shakuhachi.

I hear people talk about shakuhachi being difficult to play. This is true in the beginning but there's need to think this way forever. Gaining confidence in the beginning is about appreciating the small steps and building on your experiences. You can also gain some confidence by just knowing the "nature of the beast", so to speak.  Shakuhachi is a "lazy" instrument so you have to do all the work! You probably have noticed early in your playing experience that there are NO LEVERS  on the shakuhachi to push and pull to help you change the pitches, like on a clarinet or sax. There also are NO CHAMBERS in the shakuhachi nor an external bag like bagpipes to help in the breathing. Also,  there is no mouthpiece to help you in making sound, just a blowing edge. So, here's why it's difficult at first to play:
 1) we have to make the breathing apparatus with out own body; 
2)we have to create levers to move around with our fingers and head movement; 
3) we have to develop the mouthpiece(s) to use for creating different sounds. 

    Let's look at these one at a time. 

     #1. No chambers: you'll have to learn belly breathing. You'll also have to learn correct/effective posture and how to hold the shakuhachi. Even if you have been meditating for years, or singing you'll have to learn how to breath WITH the shakuhachi in your hands and up to your mouth. In other words, make it shakuhachi specific. Learning to belly breath will come sooner than you realize but it won't show up as a result to really effect influence sound for a while. You'll have to learn how to keep your throat open and where to put your tongue. Patience! 

     #2. Once you have some consistancy with sound and begin playing sounds you will learn how to manipulate the sound using your fingers. You'll be doing what's called "half holing" and "shading", sometimes at the same time on two different holes while at the same time moving your head up and down and/or to the side and in circles. These finger movements will need to be very efficient and effective so that you can do the same movement again and again so as to get the same desired result. We have to make the levers we use in playing. Of course, it's very personal since your fingers are going to become these levers and you'll learn to enjoy this aspect of shakuhachi very much. It's another place where you and the bamboo are becoming one together. There are ways to do this that an accomplished teacher can show help you with. Don't overlook this aspect of playing either as it will haunt you until you give it the attention it needs and deserves.

#3. The mouthpiece. Just as in #1 & #2, you'll have to make a "mouthpiece" that helps you achieve your desired goal of making certain sounds. Or, just one sound at the beginning. Most people will form an embouchure from doing whatever it takes at first to make a sound. Then, since it was successful they continue with this. That's about all one can do at first but soon after getting consistent sound you'll need to start taking a close look at this embouchure and seeing if it is really effective as could be. Thinking natural it probably isn't since you haven't been playing shakuhachi very long. You'll need to use a mirror and also get much advice from your teacher concerning this, if the teacher is willing to help you. Some teachers prefer to let you go at it yourself in the trial and error method. In the end, you'll do that anyways but there are some useful tips on this aspect of playing that could help you not "reinvent the wheel". It's best to get help with this early as most stubborn people wait to long thinking they can do it themselves and end up with bad habits. 

    The 4th area of concern will be in learning to read the scores. Approach this as one would to learn a language. So anything you can do to use the language more makes you better at it. Write it down over and over; read it; say it out loud; sing the songs out loud, etc. 

  In a nutshell, you can see that all of these areas of focus mean that you have to make something with your body that doesn't exist yet:

1. A breathing apparatus with chambers (lung, wind pipe, belly movement, etc).
2. Levers to push and pull with your fingers.
3. Mouthpiece(s); (using your lips, chin teeth, bones, tongue position, etc.).
4. Learn some basic japanese.

 Now you know why it's difficult at first. We are lucky to get any sound at all. However, these things can all be done. This is why you should have confidence that it's not going to be difficult forever. You have to tell yourself that you will be able to effectively create all these things and then you'll be able to enjoy playing very much. So, enjoy creating these and making shakuhachi part of you and you part of it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Note of the Week

For beginners, chose one note or even one sound and earmark it as the "Note of the Week". Pick one that you need to use in a song you are learning but it isn't quite where it needs to be. Let's say you need a real nice Kan no Ro sound that expands outwards. This is a good sound to start with as it's right in the middle of everything and the better it is the better it'll set up a lot of other sounds. Play long tones making sure the pitch is good and the note strong. Create the best Kan no Ro you can and let that be YOUR Kan no Ro. Don't settle for anything less when you need to use it. In other words, begin to set your own standards for individual sounds. Practice playing Ro, then another note, then back to the same RO sound. Do this for all the notes and back to Ro each time so that you get used to going back to the same Ro sound. In other words, make Kan no Ro the center of this shakuhachi world for 10 minutes so that everything flows around Ro. If you give it attention and care for it in such a way, it will be much more consistant and much more personal. This is ACTIVE training. Don't be passive and just accept what comes out. It will get better. Everything you can think of for caring for Ro and practicing will make it more uniquely YOUR Kan no Ro. Do this for one note a week. Think of your progress after 6 months!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Playing a New Flute

Naturally, if you get used to playing one flute and another is quite different, then it'll take a while to get used to it.
"Getting used to" implies the element of time passing. Time spent with the flute up to your lips means you and the flute will bond up better.
Some ideas:
  1. If all your flutes are by the same maker, it'll be easier to go from one flute to the other even thought there are differences in flutes made by one person.
  2. If the flute you play is "easy" to play you may have trouble when you meet up with one that is not easy to play.And vice versa. I've had both situations. I had a flute that most people thought was very difficult to play. During that time I found all other flutes to be easier to play then mine. Now it's the opposite: mine is easy to play and I don't want to play other people's (ha ha).
  3. Like Eddy said, going from long to short, ji ari to ji nashi, concrete to glass, usually, the bigger the difference the longer it takes to get used to another. Think "naturally" is the key.
This is very important when you are pressed to switch and play a different flute "on demand". In other words, in concert. Maybe two different flutes during the same song. Or 5 different flutes on one stage. You have to practice switching and playing them back to back.

It's also very common to NOT play the new flute as well as or be as consistent with as the old one , since you are more used to the old one.

Muscle memory is amazing. So is soul memory. It's good to stick to one flute at the beginning to develop your playing abilities. You need to limit what you concentrate on for a while so your body and mind are not so confused. But after you get to a point, maybe after a year or 18 mo., start trying other flutes. You'll be more prepared then and it should be a positive experience. I think after playing a long time some people forget how hard this aspect is for most of us. Like my very talented good friend and colleague Brian Tairaku Ritchie. Brian's way here is not the norm to be found in Japan but probably is the new norm outside of Japan. Of course, nobody ever accused Tairaku of being just normal(complement). Brian has the advantage of having such a variety of different and wonderful flutes that he has learned to play many different flutes well. He also plays a lot of variety music and has..... many skills! The points he shared were right on too.

However, my point in my previous post was not about just PLAYING different flutes. After playing many years, of course I can play many different flutes one after the other. But I still mainly have to stick to 3 flutes. Even though I'm very conscious in my practice of adapting to them. What I was talking about is bringing out the differences inherent in the flutes in a very EXTREME sense. Having songs that demand something very different helps you bring this out and having extremely different flutes helps bring this out. One of my teachers was very very good at this. It was as much about the song and the flute as it was him. He knew how much we depend on the song and the flute to bring out the differences. My other teacher sounded like himself pretty much no matter what he played. Which was very wonderful! Actually though, like Tairaku said, just two different personalities. The first teacher was more difficult for me to learn from and the second one easier because of the consistency. Personally, I haven't heard, in Japan, hardly anyone that can do this(bring out the extreme differences) well. But that's ok too. Traditionally the aesthetic is different. There are people, for example, like Aoki Reibo-san and previously Yamaguchi Goro-san, to name just two players, who play(ed) their 1.8 about 99% of the time. They use one flute for most of their lives and build their sound up to a very high level and present that to the public. That's the traditional way in Japan. And we are all happy they did or do. There are many players in Japan specializing in different types of music and play it at an amazingly high level. So there is still quite a variety.

This may be too much of an answer for a beginner. I do hope that it's not too confusing and just gives you a peek into your shakuhachi future. If it is, bury it deep in your archives. However, I sometimes wish I had all this info when I started shakuhachi instead of swimming in the dark for a long time.

Tongue Position

The tongue acts as a rudder to push air this way or that, so, if you put it on the left side the air will be pushed to the right and vice-versa. In this way, it may also aid you in working with a bad habit. If the muscles are stronger on one side than the other, try blowing with the tongue on the strong side to direct the air the opposite way and get help push the muscle out that you're pulling back to strongly with. I won't go into the little variants of tongue position as you should try them yourself. However, I think we can generalize and look at 4 different areas.
  1. Tongue up front: some people put the tongue out over the teeth just a bit as it is very helpful in getting high notes. It restricts the space for the air to go out of the mouth, at the same time causing higher air speed and sharper focus to a smaller "sweet spot". So, the high notes are easier. For the same reasons it's also good for driving the note out the end of the flute.
  2. Tongue in the middle of the mouth, not touching upper or lower but maybe touching the teeth in the back. This is sort of a generic position, not one of specialization and used by most players as a default placement. It allows the air to go around the tongue on all sides, Lt., rt. up & down.
  3. Tongue in the back: the curled back position is for playing a note that you're not driving out the end of the shakuhachi strongly. For ex.: the note ee. (the note played with all the holes open, or some variant with the #1 & # 2 holes). This note exists mostly in the upper 4 inches of the shakuhachi and the mouth & throat. Curling the tongue back makes the throat open more. Used a lot by Yokoyama sensei for this note.
  4. Tongue jammed behind the teeth: forces air to go upwards and makes a broad flow out. Good for very wide ended flutes. Also used a lot by Yokoyama sensei for these type of flutes.
These are 4 general areas. You should experiment and see how the position effects the air flow and sound. You should consider these as suggestions. They should be a useful start for you. Try them and other positions and trust yourself at least as much as what someone says in a book or on the internet! Ha Ha!

P.S. Tongue In Cheek Shakuhachi:

Try this one: while playing a note role your tongue around in your cheek, over the front and to the other cheek pressing outwards so you see the bulge in your cheek. But don't let the sound get cut off.

Don't Glue a Shakuhachi Yuu Together!!!

Plumbers tape on the inside is best. It comes off easily. Electrical tape is not good for very long. If you leave it on too long it will be very sticky and does not come of well. Especially in summer but all year too. I wouldn't advise you to glue it if you plan on taking it apart again later. Cellophane tape is less than ideal as it tends to crumble or tear when you take it off.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Questions? Ask Chikuzen.

Please ask a question by simply adding a comment here.

First Day In The Life Of A Blog

Welcome. From time to time I plan to post tips and insights on playing the Shakuhachi and hope my students and others interested in the shakuhachi will comment. If you have a question, just post a  comment under "Questions" and I'll respond.