It took 7 years between the day I first heard shakuhachi on a CD and my first shakuhachi lesson. And then another 8 years before I could make enough space in my life to consistently practice shakuhachi daily. As a flutist, I was of course already practicing regularly my Western flute, but didn’t have much time left for the shakuhachi. And I can assure you that from the moment I eventually had time to practice shakuhachi (almost) daily, it made a huge difference. I know this is quite obvious, but it really works. It’s true for every single music instrument, but it’s really critical for sound quality and intonation for the shakuhachi. In order to make progress, you need to practice regularly, even for short sessions. The shakuhachi is a flute asking you to make your own mouthpiece with your lips and mouth muscles. This is very subtle work, and if you don’t train regularly, you can’t build up properly the strength and endurance needed, neither the right balance between tension and relaxation. Playing shakuhachi is physical and should engage your entire body, like sport.
Maybe this sounds quite demanding, but I’ve seen many people getting disappointed (or even very frustrated) to discover that the shakuhachi was not “a kind of recorder” with which you can immediately and easily get a sound (don’t get me wrong, playing the recorder properly is also not easy, although the sound production is much more easier).
But sometimes, as shakuhachi is a particularly challenging instrument, you can have the feeling you’re not making much progress and it can be difficult to find motivation to carry on practicing. So here are some tips to help you hopefully to establish a daily routine and stick to it.
I recommend to start your practice with taking time to warm up. Start with a few breathing exercises to find your inner peace, your quiet space, to calm down from your busy day and life. And then blow long tones. Just blow, don’t practice. Use this time to check with yourself: how are you feeling today, physically, emotionally? Can you focus easily or is your mind wandering?
Before you start blowing, set up an easy exercise and stick to it: for example, I like to blow each tone twice, from ro otsu to i (go no hi) kan and back. No stop, no repetition. No judgement, no expectations. Just blowing, listening to myself, checking the tensions in my body, relaxing them. Don’t have expectations when you warm up, don’t start to practice yet. If you stop or don’t know anymore where you are because your mind is wandering, start again from the beginning. Counting in your head your breath in and out can help to calm your mind and focus your attention.
Another way to do it is to put on a timer and decide to warm up for a limited time. Use this time to focus on physical feelings: lips, arms, shoulders, wrists, fingers, breath… Are there any tensions? If you can’t immediately make a sound, check your posture, your fingers, your lips. In winter, by cold dry weather as we’re having in Holland at the moment, lip balm can do miracles. Don’t get frustrated and tensed: relax and try to find back the feeling when it did work.
Another exercise I like to do is opening chakras. It’s still experimental at the moment and I’ll write later more about it. I basically associate each basic tone with a chakra, and open one chakra after the other while opening the holes on the flute. It feels like warming up (with) my entire body.
A warm-up alternative is to walk instead of sitting. Walk mindfully without stopping, as you should not stop breathing even if the sound doesn’t come out the way you want it. Set up your exercise plan or your timer. Start to walk, keep on breathing, keep on blowing, don’t stop the mouvement until you’re done or your warm-up time is up.
Never think you are wasting your time doing a warm-up. It’s not only physical, it’s also an essential mindset for the rest of your practice.
No matter what
Use this warm-up time to check with yourself and decide for the rest of your practice of the session. If you feel tired, or have little time, don’t start practicing a new piece. Play instead something easy you like, like a folk song or a meditation prelude. I very often start my practice with a short piece like Choshi, Yamato Choshi or Hijiri-no-shirabe.
If you don’t have time or energy to go further, tell yourself you already achieved something. It’s much better to play only 5 minutes than not playing at all.
If you have limited time every day, do a shorter warm-up (but don’t skip it), and practice just a fragment of the piece you’re working on. With little steps (and some patience), you’ll eventually get to the end! When I started meditating, I always got stuck at a moment because I couldn’t find 20 minutes every day as it was recommended. Until I decided that I would do every day what I could and be happy with that: sometimes it can be 3 minutes, other times 1 hour, and there are both fine.
It’s the same with the flute. Don’t skip your practice because you don’t have half an hour. 5 minutes are better than nothing. Enjoy every single breath, every single tone of these 5 minutes, and you’ve done a great deal.
Don’t forget to play something you like during your practice. It can be a tune, or a single tone, something to gladden yourself and make you want to practice again the next day.
If you feel you’re getting tired or tense, take a break to release the tensions. Don’t practice too long anyway and take breaks regularly.
And if you have the feeling you haven’t made much progress although practicing regularly, think back to a few months ago. What were you playing at that time? Try to play it again, how does it feel? Can’t you hold the notes longer now? Isn’t the piece of 6 months ago much more easier to play now?
You could also use a notebook to write down your progress and feelings, and read it back from time to time.
Here are some ideas, but I think that the most important is that you find out what works for you. Everyone is different. So try different exercises, routines, and make up your own one. And share it in the comments below if you like.
Be kind to yourself and enjoy your practice.