Shakuhachi in the Time of Global Pandemic

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on this blog, and it’s getting on three years since I first launched it. I originally started this blog to record my path as a beginning shakuhachi player, and over the past three and a half years or so, I have made a fair amount of progress.

I met many obstacles along the way, such as severe thumb pain that caused me to change hands; to play with my left hand on the bottom rather than the right. That change took about six months, and coincided with covid lockdown.But I’ve gotten past that now, and can play “left handed” comfortably now.

The lockdown caused me some motivation issues, and I struggled for a while to practice regularly, going sometimes for a couple of weeks without picking up a shakuhachi. But I’ve made a lot of progress in the past few months, notably learning Shingetsu, one of my favorite pieces, at least in the version played in the Zensabo style, which is very slow and moving.

So, for now, I’ve learned the following pieces:

  • Kyorei
  • Hifumi cho
  • Honte no Shirabe
  • Yamato Choshi
  • Sokkan
  • Shingetsu

And I am currently learning Kyushu Reibo.

I’m starting to feel comfortable with this music, and I’ve gone well beyond just learning the notes, and am paying much more attention to things like dynamics and flow when I practice. It’s a fascinating journey.

How a Shakuhachi is Made

My teacher, Kiku Day, who is a student of Okuda Atsuya, the head of the Zensabo school, shot this video showing Kodama Hiroyuki explain how he makes jinashi shakuhachi. Kodama is also a student of Okuda, and I have a 2.0 jinashi made by him.

It is very interesting to see the process, both of boring and drilling the flute, and of tuning. One thing I note from the way he handles the instrument is that bamboo really isn’t fragile.

Changing Hands

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been having a lot of thumb pain when holding my shakuhachi. At first, I thought it was just a repetitive stress injury and tendonitis, but as it seemed more likely to be arthritis in my right thumb, I decided to try changing hands; to learn to play with the right hand on top.

While this doesn’t seem common, I have seen photos of some shakuhachi players with their right hands on the top of the flute. It makes sense to have your dominant hand on the bottom, in part because there seem to be more need for quicker movements there (such as when playing koro koro), and it makes more sense to have the dominant arm holding the shakuhachi against gravity.

Here’s a photo of Yokoyama Katsuya, playing with the right hand on top (photo from the KSK website):


When I started trying to play with my hands in the opposite position, it was very strange; similar to what I felt when I started driving in the UK, on the wrong side of the road. This is all about muscle memory, which really has little to do with muscles, and is mostly a question of the brain developing familiarity with movements. It took a few months, admittedly, not playing every day, or playing very long, in part because I needed to acclimate muscles in my left hand and arm.

But at one point a couple of weeks ago, it clicked. I got to that stage were I no longer had to think about what my hands and fingers were doing. There are still some notes that are difficult to play – tsu no meri, and ha-ro, for example – but for the most part, I’ve crossed over the bridge to playing left handed.

So if you do have pain, which can be exacerbated by overuse of the dominant hand – if, for example, you have “smartphone thumb” – it is possible to make the switch, but it takes time. I’m convinced that the time necessary has little to do with how much you actually play, but that the brain needs to settle into the idea that the hands are held in the opposite position.

Thumb Pain and Blu-Tak

It’s been several months since I’ve posted here, because I’ve been facing some difficulty in my playing. I’ve had a great deal of pain at the joint where the thumb meets the hand. At first I thought it was tendonitis, but it seems more likely that it’s arthritis. The pain is coming from the angle at which I’m holding the shakuhachi, and from the excess pressure I’m using to grip it.

For the past few months, I’ve been working with a teacher of the Alexander Technique (who is also a recorder player, so is familiar with an instrument of this type) to try to figure out how to hold the flute in what Alexander called the “position of mechanical advantage.” This has made me rethink a lot of what I do with my body: not just my thumb and hand, but also my shoulder and how I breathe.

It’s become apparent that the pain in my thumb will most likely not go away if I continue as I was, so I have begun the frustrating path of learning to play with my right hand on top of the flute instead of on the bottom. This is a surprisingly difficult change, as all the muscle memory that has built up in two years of learning the instrument has to change. While the fingers still cover two holes, they do so at different angles, and they perform differently when playing.

At first, it was hard to play any notes because of leakages. I’ve gotten to the point now where I can play most notes without leakages (when my teacher tried switching hands, she couldn’t play very much either), and my fingers are getting used to their new positions.

One thing I’ve done to help hold the flute more comfortable is I’ve added a thumb rest. This was recommended by a number of players who have had thumb pain (which I have found is quite common). Some use a recorder thumb rest, which is a plastic device that clips onto the instrument. One person recommended tying a leather thong around the instrument. But my Alexander teacher made a suggestion that has proved to be the easiest: Blu-Tak.

Take a small piece of Blu-Tak and position it where it will provide support. It’s easy to move and place anywhere, it sticks to the flute without damaging it, and is easy to remove. Using a thumb rest means that the hand doesn’t grip as hard to hold the flute, which is a slippery piece of bamboo, reducing a bit of stress when playing.

Tsu No Meri Buki

Robuki, or blowing ro – blowing the note on a shakuhachi with all holes covered – is a common practice routine, and some say that every shakuhachi player should practice robuki for ten minutes a day.

But it’s not just ro; you can practice -buki with any note. Take tsu no meri, the difficult note that is a half step above ro. As my teacher said when I first encountered this note, it is the “soul of the shakuhachi.” But it’s a mighty hard note to play, and it’s probably the biggest hurdle for beginners after they learn to make stable sounds.

So as I have progressed, I’ve managed to play tsu no meri much better, but it is important that it is the right pitch. So my teacher recommended, in my last lesson, to play tsu no meri buki, and especially to start by playing another note: either ro, or re then tsu, to ensure that I get the correct interval and the proper pitch.

I often spend a half hour just playing long notes. It’s good practice for the embouchure, and it’s really good for the breath: not only to improve breathing capacity, but also to ensure that my blowing is even and that, as much as possible, notes sound evenly.

My Shakuhachis (2020)

As the new year begins, I thought it would be a good time to post an inventory of my shakuhachis. Last year, I had four shakuhachis, and have acquired new instruments since then, and sold one.

The shakuhachi seems to be an instrument that inspires acquisitiveness. Many players have multiple instruments (my teacher has about three dozen). 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.

I currently have six shakuhachis (click the photo to see a larger version):

Shakuhachis 2020

From bottom to top:

  1. 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.)
  2. This 2.0 flute was made by my shakuhachi hero Kodama Hiroyuki. As you can see, it is as thick as the 2.2, and has very dense bamboo. Its sound is rich and full, and it is my favorite flute.
  3. This 1.8 shakuhachi was made by Jose Vargas. When I bought it, a couple of months ago, I had been essentially playing the 2.0 and 2.2, and wanted a 1.8 jinashi. I love the subtle curve in the bamboo; it gives it a sexy look. It is very light, and very easy to play.
  4. 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.
  5. I bought this 1.8 Edo period jinashi shakuhachi very cheaply on eBay. It’s probably not a great shakuhachi, but I wanted to have an old instrument out of curiosity. I haven’t played it much, but I do like the esthetics of this darker flute.
  6. 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. (I actually sold this to someone who is just starting out shortly after I wrote this post.)

I really only play the top three flutes, all jinashis. I prefer the sound of the jinashi, and all three of these have really grown on me as I have played them. It’s interesting how the sound of a jinashi changes as it gets played; as the bamboo absorbs humidity from the breath. This was especially noticeable with the 2.0, which sounded a bit dry for the first month or so.

This year, I want to try to get a longer flute: perhaps a 2.5. I tried out a 2.4 by Kodama, but it was uncomfortable. I have large hands, and with a long flute, I need the holes to be offset, which was not the case with the one I tried. I know some makers will make a flute more or less to measure; you trace your hands on paper, and they can use that to position the holes.

I would also love to get a flute by my other shakuhachi hero, and my teacher’s teacher: Okuda Atsuya. He makes a lot of flutes, but doesn’t seem to go out of his way to sell them. I’ll have to try to convince my teacher to get me one.

The First Note

There’s something about the first note I play each day. How I take a breath, how the in-breath pauses, then changes to an out-breath; how the breath creates friction on the utagutchi, then resonates in the shakuhachi; how I can feel the vibrations in the bamboo; and how my breath becomes music.

That first note tells me a lot about how I feel: is the note stable from beginning to end? Do I have enough breath to play it as long as I want? Can I feel the connection between the breath and the music? Can I end the note with grace?

I open my beginner’s mind each day when I play the first note on my shakuhachi, and try to retain that beginner’s mind as I continue.

When the Sound Just Won’t Come

At my level, as a beginner – I’ve been playing for a year and a half, but I still consider myself a beginner, as my progress has been quite irregular – I find there are days when I go to play my shakuhachi and I just can’t get a sound. I struggled with getting my embouchure right for a long time, but I’ve mostly overcome these issues. However, there are times when something just isn’t right and I can’t get a stable sound.

I have allergies, and it’s obvious to me that when I’m having a strong allergic reaction to pollen or other allergens, my lips swell up slightly, just enough to throw things off. Other times, it could be the dry air (it’s autumn now, and the heat is on in my house, which lowers the humidity, but it’s still not much lower than 50%).

When this happens, it can take ten or fifteen minutes for me to get my airflow focused enough, and I eventually do get sound, but it can be frustrating. What I tend to do is just play long notes, up and down the flute, to “loosen up.” The sound eventually comes; I’ve learned that there’s no point in trying to rush it.

How to Oil a Jinashi Shakuhachi

One of my shakuhachis developed some mold recently; it had a yeasty smell, kind of like when you let bread rise or make sourdough starter. Apparently, this happens occasionally with new jinashi shakuhachis. (This isn’t a problem for jiari shakuhachis, because the bores are covered with ji paste.)

So I went in search of advice for cleaning it. It was suggested that I clean it using one of the following, together with a bottle brush:

  • Dishwashing liquid and water
  • Vinegar and baking soda
  • Rubbing alcohol

I did all three, because after each of the first two stages, it still smelled a bit. I was initially worried about getting the instrument wet, but my teacher, Kiku Day, told me that she sometimes puts all her flutes in the bathtub to wash them.

After cleaning, it was suggested that I oil the flute, at least on the inside. This would get into the raw bamboo and protect it from humidity. Some people oil their flutes regularly, both inside and outside, in order to protect them, so this seemed like a good idea.

There were many suggestions as to how to get the oil well applied inside the flute, and, to be honest, not all of them were simple. I could take a piece of cloth, such as a tsuyutoshi – that’s the cloth with a weighted string on the end that is recommended to use after playing – but the one I have isn’t very thick, so it wouldn’t apply the oil evenly. Or I could take another type of cloth and push it through with a stick. But I found a much simpler method, one that doesn’t waste much oil. (I’m using camellia oil, which is apparently the most common type of oil to use.)

You’ll need the following:

  • Cotton wool
  • A stick longer than your shakuhachi
  • Oil

Stick a wad of cotton wool in the mouthpiece end of the flute. Pour enough oil on the cotton to wet it completely. Push the cotton through the flute with the stick. When it comes out the end, do it again, maybe a couple of times, if you want to be sure to get oil everywhere. You can then use the oiled cotton wool on the outside of the flute, if you wish to oil that as well.

This was much cleaner than what some people had suggested, which was pouring oil directly into the flute, then applying it with a cloth. Because with that method, you need to put masking tape over the holes; with the cotton, you don’t need to, because it won’t come out the holes.

I’ve done this twice, and will do it again after a few days; my shakuhachi seems to be absorbing the oil fairly quickly. I have been told that some players like to oil their flutes often because of the patina that develops, which one might even want to do with a jiari shakuhachi; I can see that being interesting over time.

Slow and Steady

It’s been a long time since I posted anything here. My last post was in August, when I got a new shakuhachi by Kodama Hiroyuki. This marked a major turning point in my learning, as I shifted from jiari to jinashi shakuhachis. And this was certainly a good change. I’ve overcome the battle of the embouchure, I can play tsu-no-meri, and I’m starting to get kan notes consistently. And it took me a while, but I can now play my 2.2 comfortably.

It’s been quite some time – 18 months now – but I’m patient, as this is one learning experience where I’m really not in any hurry. I’ve learned to appreciate the notes that I play, and to befriend my frustration to render it powerless. Each day, each note takes me along the journey that I’ve embarked on playing this instrument, and I don’t know where I will end up, but I know that I have a real sense of calm as I play.

So my progress has been slow, probably a lot slower than other, younger learners, but that’s fine. Every day I play this instrument I enjoy the moments, and every day I can play a bit more, a bit better.