Finding the Sweet Spot

Perhaps the most difficult thing to discover when I started playing the shakuhachi was finding where the sweet spot was; that spot where the space between my lips, through which I blow air, was right in line with the utaguchi. Finding this sweet spot – I don’t know if there’s a Japanese word for this term, but it is used frequently – is the key to being able to make sounds consistently.

Unlike with other instruments I have played – guitar, piano, and viola da gamba, where there is no such position that needs to be found – the relationship between my lips and my instrument is organic and changes daily, even from moment to moment, making it difficult to maintain this consistency. It changes according to the way I breathe, and according to the atmosphere: is the air humid or dry, affecting the lips, or is there pollen, causing my lips to swell a bit because of my allergies?

Blowing leftAnother element I discovered fairly early on is the fact that I don’t blow from the center of my mouth. I had known from seeing myself in a mirror once, years ago, that when I whistle, the space in my lips is a bit to the left of center. If you’re new to the instrument, and are trying to find that sweet spot, whistle in front of a mirror; this may help you.

At first, I assumed that this was a mistake, but after watching videos of a number of performers, I have seen that it is not at all uncommon to blow from one side of the mouth. It’s quite visible in this still from a video of Fukuda Teruhisa, to the left. Not only does he blow a bit left of center, but when he plays meri notes, he tilts his head even further in that direction.

But finding and maintaining this sweet spot is the key to making consistent sounds, and the reinforcement of the lip muscles is essential to achieve this. (And ro-buki helps strengthen those muscles.) So this is a long process, but awareness of how to find the sweet spot and how it varies over time is essential.

3 Replies to “Finding the Sweet Spot”

  1. Interesting stuff. I started with the shakuhachi a couple of years ago but, not long after, I felt drawn to the ney, specifically the Turkish ney which has a conical mouthpiece (the Arab Ney has none). Both are similar in that they have a sweet spot, at a specific angle of airflow, to generate their unique tone.

    The ney, hakuhachi and Indian bansuri are all very warm-sounding flutes as they are made from bamboo or cane, and share that very human-voice-like capacity for continuous glissando. Much more pleasing than the standard Western flute.

    The bansuri is much easier to generate a nice tone but is still difficult to play well. I have no trouble with generating a nice tone on the bansuri as the first instrument I learned as a kid was the flute.

  2. Generally people angle to one side to raise the pitch and the other to lower the pitch. Which side is a choice, but because honkyoku with use the bending of the pitch in both directions, most players adopt a convention. Going between the sharp note and the flat note rapidly works best if they are on opposite sides. A practice exercise is to move the head so that the lips move in a circle and follow the sound.

    The flute will resonate at the sweet notes. Remain conscious of where the air is in the shakuhachi and where the sound is resonating from.

    1. I have seen a number of players who have an obvious side to the way they blow. If you’ve seen any videos of Brian Ritchie, his sidedness is extreme. (In fact, when I asked about it on Facebook last year, he posted a photo of himself by way of saying that many people play that way.)

      But, yes, going from kari to meri does work better if I lean my head a bit. My teacher said that not everyone does it, but it’s not uncommon.

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