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.

Book Notes: Blowing Zen by Ray Brooks

Blowing zenRay Brooks was a gaijin teaching English in Tokyo who decided to check out Zen meditation in a temple one day, when he heard the sound of someone playing the shakuhachi. He went toward that sound and chatted with the player, who explained a bit about the instrument. This began his journey learning the instrument, and becoming a shihan, or master of the instrument.

This memoir tells the story of that early period when he started playing a cheap, plastic flute, then got lessons from a first teacher before a chance meeting with Katsuya Yokoyama, who agreed to teach him. He then studied and performed with Nakamura Akikazu, and has made several recordings since.

The most interesting part of the book is where Brooks tells about being a shakuhachi busker, a sort of modern komosu, walking up mountains to play for tourists, performing in parks in cherry blossom season, and even doing impromptu performances for yakuza.

The book is a short read, but quite enjoyable; it is motivational for those wanting to learn the instrument, but it doesn’t discuss any technical aspects of the shakuhachi or how it’s played. But it tells the story of a man who was determined to master this instrument after he was smitten by its sound one day in a temple garden.

Buy from Amazon.com,

Apple Music Playlist of Long Shakuhachi Songs

I compiled this playlist of shakuhachi pieces on Apple Music that are more than ten minutes long. I chose this arbitrary length because I like longer tracks. At this time, it contains about 18 hours of music, but I’ll add more as I come across new recordings.

Here’s another limited to pieces 15 minutes or longer. This is currently about five hours long.

If you subscribe to Apple Music, you can sign in here and play them on this page. You can also add them to your Apple Music library. If not, you can listen to brief excerpts of each piece.

Fukuda Teruhisa plays Shika-no-Tone

You can find lots of videos of shakuhachi players on YouTube, but probably the one that has the best quality is this video of Fukuda Teruhisa playing Shika-no-Tone. It’s pro shot, with multiple cameras, in black and white, and it has lots of close ups so you can see his fingers and his mouth as he plays. I wish there were more videos of this quality to see how the great shakuhachi players perform.

Ro-Buki, or Blowing Ro

Ro-buki is the practice of blowing nothing but ro, the lowest tone on the shakuhachi. While playing that shakuhachi can be a form of meditation, there is no practice that is more meditative than this. You can close your eyes, play, breathe, play, breathe, and so on, as long as you want.

Nothing is more indicative of how well you can shape and play a note than ro-buki. It’s the shakuhachi naked; with no ornaments, no changes in pitch, nor in volume, ro-buki is the vanilla ice cream of the shakuhachi.

I only started doing this recently, following my teacher’s instructions, but I already see the value of it. It makes you focus entirely on the embouchure, the steadiness of the breathing, and the bamboo-leaf shape of the note. It’s boring; it’s the same boredom of shikantaza (just sitting) zazen. You do nothing other than breathe.

Of course, it’s not as simple as just breathing and blowing. The goal – if there is a goal in what could be seen as a goalless practice – is to make each breath, each note sound as it should. Here are some tips for practicing ro-buki; here are some more tips; and Kaoru Kakizakai has some recordings of him playing ro-buki on four different shakuhachis (1.8, 2.4, 2.7, and 3.2) that you can play along with on his website.

It’s interesting to compare my feeble attempts at playing clean notes with the recording by Kaoru Kakizakai. Viewing his audio files in an audio editor, and recording myself and viewing my files, shows the shape of the waveform. His, here, flows smoothly, with even volume, tapering off with a slow decay.

Ro1

Whereas mine is a mess, showing how uneven my breath is:

Ro2

This shows how far I have to go.

The Early Days

I guess it would have been a bit of hubris if I had started writing this blog a year ago, with the assumption that I would continue playing the shakuhachi. That sort of thing would have been like live-tweeting my experience, which isn’t that interesting. I think it’s more worthwhile to look back now on the early days of my experience.

I’ve heard it said that the hardest thing about the shakuhachi is making a sound. I disagree; making a sound isn’t that hard, what is difficult is making that sound every time you blow, and making it consistent. My biggest difficulty over these twelve months has been my embouchure. At one point, I started being able to play quite well, but when I paid attention to what I was doing, I realized that I was pushing my lower jaw out a great deal. This was causing tension in my jaw muscles, and I had to start over (more or less) and learn the right way to do things.

Even now, perhaps six months after that realization, I have moments when I can’t play consistently, but lately this only seems to happen when I’m having bit of an allergic reaction to something (I’ve got allergy to pollen and dust). This swells my lips a bit, making it more difficult to keep my lips in the appropriate position.

But this is an interesting process. Each time I have trouble blowing, I pay attention to what I’m doing to try to find the cause. And, in fact, what is most interesting about playing the shakuhachi – compared to other instruments I’ve played – is that the actual sound of notes is so dependent on a few small muscles.

Introduction

About a year ago, I started learning to play the shakuhachi. I had long been interested in this instrument, discovering its wonderful sound several decades ago, and had considered trying to learn it in recent years. In early 2018, I bought an instrument and started lessons.

On this blog, I plan to write occasional observations about learning to play the instrument, about its music, its history, and more. Thanks for stopping by.