My New Shakuhachi by Kodama Hiroyuki

I have just received a new shakuhachi made by Kodama Hiroyuki (he has also performed under the name Chiku Za). Kodama was a student of Okuda Atsuya, and they are my two favorite shakuhachi players. My teacher, Kiku Day, was also a student of Okuda, and there is a specific style in this school, called Zensabo, that focuses on natural, earthy sounds played on (often very long) jinashi flutes. As the biography I link to above says:

Living in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, he is able to harvest his own bamboo and makes jinashi shakuhachi and teaches shakuhachi honkyoku.

This is a 2.0, with a warm, resonant tone. It is a dense, thick piece of bamboo, and weighs 406g. I’m very happy to have a 2.0 shakuhachi, because since I have large hands, a 1.8 is a bit small, and the 2.2 I have (made by José Vargas, who learned from Kodama) is a bit long for me right now.

Here are a few photos of the new shakuhachi. Click the photos to see larger versions.

Here are two videos of Kodama, the first showing him playing a piece of honkyoku, and the second showing him working on making a shakuhachi, then playing a bit more.

Is a Jinashi Utagutchi More Forgiving than a Jiari?

In my battle of the embouchure, I’ve found it quite a struggle to be able to get a good, stable sound on my shakuhachis. For a while, it was going quite well, until I realized, late last year, that I was pushing my lower jaw forward, creating a lot of tension. So I had to un-learn and re-learn how to blow.

I’ve recently gotten over my issues, and part of the difficulty, I think, is that a jinashi shakuhachi is more forgiving than a jiari. (Jiari shakuhachi have a paste called “ji” in their bore; jinashi flutes are just bamboo with nothing added. Read more about jinashi flutes in this Wikipedia article.)

I started playing a 2.2 jinashi that I got from José Vargas, which I had found too difficult when I first bought it, and all of a sudden, everything clicked. (It’s the top one in the photo with this article.) It seemed to me that the utaguchi (the blowing edge) of a jinashi is more forgiving, is easier to blow. I confirmed this with my teacher, Kiku Day, who agreed that this is the case.

What I think is that the sharp edge of the jiara requires a much more precise air flow than the rough edge of a jinashi. Also, the rougher edge of a jinashi’s utagutchi means that the sound is freer, and that the precision in air flow and direction is less important. While I had to blow a bit from the side on my jiari shakuhachi, I can blow more in the center of my mouth with the jinashi.

In addition to playing more stable notes, I’m also starting to play in kan (the second octave) which was very difficult on my jiari. I prefer the sound of the jinashi shakuhachi, so I’m delighted that I’m making this progress. This has been a very interesting exploration, and I feel that I can now move on and start playing more demanding music.

Playing a Medium Length Shakuhachi with Large Hands

I guess the title of this article is a bit strange, so let me explain. I have quite large hands; if I stretch out my fingers, the length from the tip of my thumb to the tip of my little finger is about 26 cm. Playing a standard 1.8 shakuhachi is no problem; my fingers are quite relaxed on the holes of the flute.

But with a medium-length flute, such as a 2.2 that I own (I’m not sure that anyone really calls this “medium length,” but it’s certainly not a “long” shakuhachi), this is very different. Since the upper left hand is roughly perpendicular with the floor, there are no problems there, but my right hand has to contort to be able to cover the holes. Here’s a photo of me holding the 2.2 in such a way as to cover the holes with the tips of my fingers.


As you can see, my right index finger is in a very odd position, but my right ring finger looks fine. When I showed this position to my teacher, she told me that it looked very strange, and that it was definitely the fact that my hands were very large which made it difficult. A 2.2 shakuhachi is not that long compared to some of the flutes she and others play.

I think many people with normal sized hands would be able to play with their fingertips on a flute of this length, but it doesn’t work for me. So I have to learn to use “piper’s grip,” which looks like this:


Here, I’m covering the second hole with the second pad of my right index finger; you can see it perhaps a bit better with the hole uncovered.


I’d certainly seen people play long flutes like this, but hadn’t expected that I’d need to do this for a flute that is not very long. It’s a very different technique, and will require learning some new skills for shading the second hole, when necessary.

To be honest, the 2.2 is probably not a good length for me. It’s long enough that I need to use piper’s grip, but it’s a bit short to really play that way. I would probably be more comfortable on a 2.5 or so, and, since I do love the sound of longer, deeper shakuhachis, I may look into getting one of them down the line. (Not yet; I’m not in any way proficient enough to make that leap.)

But I also understand now why having offset holes on longer flutes can be helpful. In fact, if I were to want a custom-made 2.2 or so in the future, I’d get the holes offset for easier playing.

I’m curious how other people play a 2.2 flute. Do you have big hands and resort to piper’s grip, or, if you have smaller hands, is it comfortable to play with the tips of your fingers?

Shawn Renzo Head Tutorial on How to Play Honshirabe

Honshirabe, or Honte no Shirabe, is one of the basic pieces of Honkyoku. While it is technically a beginner’s piece, it’s not simple. There are a lot of tiny details in the piece. And it can be played in many ways, with different schools having their own versions. (Check out Chiku Za playing the piece in the Zensabo style.)

Shawn Renzo Head has published a tutorial about the piece. Lasting just over 17 minutes, it goes into great detail. While it won’t help much if you’re a real beginner, if you’ve got some experience under your belt, you’ll find this to be very useful.

Matters to Take to Heart in the Training of Beginners

A fellow Shakuhachi player posted this on Facebook. I find this quite appropriate to consider when practicing.

In practicing alone, exercising the voice and singing, even though you may be all by yourself, in private, you should, all the same, think of yourself as appearing before exalted persons, and adopt
the proper attitude for a fully formal performance, and sing whatever
you’ve chosen that way. Maintain a formal posture, establish the
correct pitch from the start, and be resolute in both mind and body
that this is an appearance before a large and actual audience;
don’t for a minute think it’s just a private matter, but take a
vow in your heart, and sing as if it were an occasion of the greatest
importance. Once you have resolved your mind in this manner, then
your training will proceed correctly and no matter how great the
audience, you will not falter or suffer from stage fright; this is
a method whereby you may avoid blunders and misjudgments regarding the measure of your abilities.

As you train like this and study in the most comprehensive way, you should, as I said before, regard private practice or, for that matter, singing in any traveling performance off the beaten track, as if it were a formal performance before exalted persons; then, when you are actually called upon to do a command performance on an important occasion, you won’t be worried about your exalted audience, but instead have confidence in the power of mind you have cultivated in mastering the matter of your training; you will be able to regard the perceptions of a vast audience, with pristine confidence, as a single pair of eyes, and sing away, thinking – first pitch, second chi, third voice.

Noh master Zeami, from Fuugyokushuu

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:


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.