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.

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.

Long4

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:

Long5

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.

Long6

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.