Playing Short Bits of Music as Practice

I’ve been slowly progressing in my shakuhachi learning, and, since I’m only learning to play honkyoku – rather than starting by playing folk songs – the music itself is a bit difficult. As I go through some of the pieces I’m learning, I’ve been isolating certain phrases that seem to work as self-contained exercises. A recent blog post by Hélène Seiyu, with seven tips for playing shakuhachi, includes the following:

shingetsu-scale

Tip 6: Isolate and repeat each little motif (pattern)
Although you mainly play long phrases, the music for shakuhachi is based on small elements and patterns put together and asking attention and precision. Some of them are recurrent (tsuuu-tsu-re…). Take the time to recognise and isolate them, and practice them properly. If you do so, you have more chance it goes fine each time you come across them! And you can concentrate more on what is new. Otherwise, you keep on repeating the same mistakes or approximations in different contexts over and over again… Every detail matters!

This is exactly what I’ve been doing. And since there are phrases that are found in a lot of pieces, it’s a great way to build up a toolkit that will make it easier to learn new works.

For example, on the left is a bit from Shingetsu. I’m not yet learning the piece, but I asked my teacher for a score so I could follow a recording of the piece. These scales appear from time to time, and you could simply play the scale, but there is a bit of ornamentation here with head shakes. (I’m not sure of the Japanese term for the head shakes; I know there are different types.)

I’ve got a small set of these riffs that I use as practice, and it would be great if there was a collection of short bits that people could use as études in the early stages of their learning. I’ll be keeping a library of the ones I find as I progress.

The Battle of the Embouchure

It’s been more than a year since I started learning the shakuhachi. It took a few months to get reliable sounds, and then, last summer, I learned my first piece: Kyorei. It’s a relatively simple piece, though there are a couple of tough notes (that tsu-no-meri, which my teacher calls “the soul of the shakuhachi.”)

I played that for a while, started learning bits of two other pieces, then, in the fall, I realized that something was wrong. There was a lot of tension in my lower jaw. In short, I was pushing my jaw out and downward to get a sound, and this was certainly not a good idea.

Embouchure is the word for the position of your mouth on the shakuhachi (it’s used with other instruments that you blow into as well). It’s the most important thing you learn, because it’s how you get sound, regulate your notes, and add nuances, such as meri (flat) notes.

Well, my embouchure was simply wrong. I had to start over. And this was very frustrating. It took months of trial and error, of looking in a mirror, of trying different lip positions and different ways of blowing. I discovered that have a central vermillion tubercle, as well as an overbite. (See this forum post from 2006 by Perry Yung discussing the former, and some others in the thread discussing the latter.) This meant that I needed to learn how to get around these two impediments. (It’s worth noting that I also have pollen allergies, and this spring, there has been very high pollen where I live. When my allergies are active, my lips swell a bit, complicating things even more.)

I think I have finally figured this out. It involves placing the flute a bit to the left of center against my lips, because I blow out air to the left of my tubercle, and, today, my teacher helped me discover the additional thing I needed to do to get sound. I have to turn the shakuhachi about ten degrees to the right, so I’m not blowing straight against the utaguchi, but on a slight angle. It’s possible that as I progress, I’ll be able to adjust this and hold the flute straighter – it’s barely noticeable if you watch me play – and I’m sure as I get more confident in my sound, it will become easier.

I’m sure many people can learn to get good sound out of the instrument more quickly than I have. But for me, it has been a long, yet interesting experience learning how to feel my lips and jaw, and learning how to face the frustration of taking one step forward and three steps back.

Chiku Za Plays Honte No Shirabe

Honte no shirabe is a fairly simple piece for shakuhachi, and I’m starting to learn it myself. It’s quite slow, but in the hands of an expert, like Chiku Za, there is a wide range of subtle dynamics and pitch changes. Listening to his performance here, you can see that there is a lot of bad-assery in his playing, but there is also a firm grounding in what it takes to get the most out of each sound.

John Cage and the Shakuhachi

CageAs a fan of John Cage’s music, I found it very interesting to hear Brian Tairaku Ritchies recording of his piece Ryoanji. I feel that the shakuhachi is ideal for this work.

I went in search of links between Cage and the shakuhachi and have so far found two mentions of the instrument. The first was in a letter written around 1948 to his friend Peter Yates, where he mentions the instrument. The backstory to this is that Kitaro Nyoko Tamada, a friend of Henry Cowell, ran a fruit stand in the area of Los Angeles where Cowell lived. When Cowell found out that Tamada played the instrument, he decided to take it up and ended up comparing The Universal Flute (recorded here by Ralph Samuelson). Cowell organized a concert by some local Japanese-American performers, and Cage later organized a concert for Tamada at Cowell’s home on April 13, 1035.

For many reasons, I would prefer to offer again this year the Sonatas and Interludes, and without other music on the program. In the first place I find “programs” no longer useful, because they stand in the way of the proper use of music which is to quiet and concentrate the mind, and not to giddify it with entertainment, no matter how intellectual. In relation to the shakuhachi music, which is so marvelous, there must be no other music. It is against proper being, unnatural. The same is true of these pieces of mine, and I say it in no spirit of self-praise, but simply in simple thought about what music is and does. I am not interested in success but simply in music. I am fairly certain however that there are a number of people in Los Angeles who have not heard the Sonatas, but heard of them, who would like to hear them. I intend to resist recording these pieces and yet I want to offer them to be heard and used. Having heard them once is a very good beginning for hearing them again. I myself have heard them countless times, and I find them more and more useful, rather than less and less so.

Cage also mentions the shakuhachi in For the Birds (page 200), which is a book of interviews with Daniel Charles. In it he says the following. While it’s not clear that the music he describes is indeed shakuhachi music, it certainly sounds like it:

Just a few weeks ago, I had a very odd experience in a Japanese restaurant in New York. In this restaurant, there was a tape recorder playing Japanese music. Usually, rhythm is stressed, and I don’t particularly like it. I prefer Korean music. In terms of Japanese music, I prefer shakuhachi music, the flute suits me better than the koto. We were conversing while the music was playing. Little by little, during the gaps in our conversation, I realized that the silence is included in the music was extremely long, and that the sounds that occurred were very different from each other. I was surprised by my discovery, because the extent of the tape was absolutely unusual, it was very long. And I had never run across that in traditional Japanese music. This piece wasn’t destined uniquely for Japanese listeners, but for the entire universe, exactly in the manner of the music that [Christian] Wolff writes and plays. In fact, it wasn’t very much different from a work by Wolff. There were sounds, which floated in an immense space, a space of time — and doubtless also in space in general — coming from all parts of space at once, so it seemed to me. Wolff’s pieces certainly convey that explicitly. But here there was only one tape recorder. Everything was coming from it. And it was very, very beautiful. I was unable to recognize any tempo, any periodicity at all. All I was able to identify was the arrival of a few sounds from time to time. I was transported to natural experiences, to my daily life, when I am not listening to music, when sounds simply happen. There is nothing more delicious!

In Silence (page 162), Cage says:

And it seems to me I could listen forever to Japanese shakuhachi music or the Navajo Yeibitchai or I could stand near Richard Lippold’s “Full Moon” any length of time.

In M: Writings ’67-’72 (page 144), Cage says:

And I was attracted by the
natural noises of
breathing in Japanese Shakuhachi
playing. However, instead
of studying with
an oriental master, I chose to study
with Arnold
Schoenberg.

Each Sound Is Really Itself

More so than in western music, the shakuhachi is an instrument where the sound of each note is important. Part of this comes from the fact that, at least in honkyoku, it is a solo instrument, and the only musical sound you hear is these notes. But this is also the case because of the philosophy of playing the shakuhachi. When approached as a tool for meditation, as well as music, then each note needs to be played as truly as possible. I don’t think this means that each note needs to be perfect, because imperfection is part of the music, but that each note needs to be played as if it is the only note to be played at that time.

I was recently reading For the Birds: John Cage in Conversation with Daniel Charles, and Charles was discussing a performance of Cage’s Song Books. Cage said, “They gave a very beautiful performance of it I think.”

Charles asked, “In what sense was it a beautiful performance?”

Cage replied: “In that they performed with great care to make sure that each sound was really itself.”

The Single Tone

As I have been exploring ro-buki, or blowing ro, I have been very attentive to the timbre, duration, and decay of the notes I play. I have come to appreciate how blowing that single tone can be a meditative act, though, for me, those tones are not very satisfying. (But, to paraphrase a Zen commonplace, “when you’re blowing, just blow.”)

I came across an interesting article entitled The Shakuhachi: Aesthetics of a Single Tone. Written by Christopher Blasdel, and published in the Asahi-Shimbun in Japan in 1984, this article discusses the use of the shakuhachi, and the focus on the “single tone,” in meditation.

The author looks at the “purity of sound within the Zen-related arts,” such as the tea ceremony, and even the Japanese garden, then the presence of the shakuhachi in the poetry of Ikkyū. He also says that “For a single tone to enlighten, it must be a microcosmic existence unto itself; ‘the only song in the universe.'”

This is similar to the idea of shikantaza Zen, where the act of sitting zazen should be the only thing to do in the entire universe, and that act is complete unto itself.

He closes by saying, “If we learn to search out the profundity that even one tone can hold, it means we have found within ourself a richness that is reflected in the tone.”

Frustration and Just Blowing

I came across this today:

Part of the discipline of mastering the Zen flute is learning to deal with the frustrations inherent in learning to play it. That is why much of its study is dedicated to “forging the mind-body” – developing the intuitive, spiritual side of the performer as much as the musicianship itself. Playing the shakuhachi in this context is called suizen, or “blowing Zen”. To blow Zen, one requires great breath control; yet, after years of training and practice, the shakuhachi player strives not to try to control the breath at all. Instead the breath is observed. The player “watches” the breath with a concentration that consumes both the observer and that which is being observed – the player “becomes” the breathing.

This mirrors my experience. There is a lot of frustration in getting the embouchure right and getting consistent sounds from the instrument. But if one approaches the shakuhachi as one might approach shikantaza (“just sitting”) meditation, then that frustration becomes the seed of discovering the instrument, and the relationship between player and instrument. Just blowing; that’s all we need to do. The rest will come.

My Shakuhachis

The shakuhachi seems to be an instrument that inspires acquisitiveness. From what I’ve seen among other players, they tend to have multiple instruments. In some cases, this is more or less necessary; there are pieces that are supposed to be played on instruments of different lengths.

A different length shakuhachi has different tones; not exactly like western keys, but since shakuhachi music is scored using a sort of tablature, and you play the same fingerings for a piece on a flute of any length, this means that the same piece of music on a different length flute is effectively in a different key.

So far, I have purchased four shakuhachis.

My flutes

From bottom to top:

  1. This is the first flute I bought, a 1.8 jiari by Jem Klein. It’s a bit heavier than I would like, but I very much like the feel and the sound of this instrument.
  2. This is Jon Kypros’s Bell shakuhachi. It’s a 1.8 copy of a jinashi flute, and I very much like it. It’s very inexpensive, and would be the ideal flute for a beginner. If it had existed when I started playing, I certainly would have gotten this first.
  3. This 1.8 jiari is the second flute I bought; it’s a student model by Motny Levenson. I bought it used on eBay; I wasn’t looking for a second flute, but I got this at a nice price so I couldn’t turn it down. It’s lighter than the Jem Klein, and narrower, and I haven’t really gotten comfortable with it.
  4. Finally, this is a 2.2 jinashi by Jose Vargas. I wanted a longer flute, but it’s a bit long for me to play with my limited skills. The right-hand position is a bit hard for me to get used to. (I should probably have gotten a 2.0 to start with longer flutes.)

Right now, the two flutes I play are the Jem Klein and the Bell. I find that I can play well enough with both of them. The narrower bore of the Monty Levenson is a bit problematic for me right now, and, as I said above, the length and finger position of the Jose Vargas is not within my current skills.

Note that since I don’t really play the Monty Levenson shakuhachi, I’d be willing to sell it to anyone in the UK (where I live) for a reasonable price. If anyone is interested, get in touch.