My “Top 7” Tips for playing shakuhachi

When you learn shakuhachi, there are some difficulties that almost everyone is confronted to. And there are also some points that deserve a special attention (the ones your teacher keeps on repeating over and over again).
Here is a list of the subjects and issues I address the most frequently during my lessons:

  • Tip 1: Don’t hold your flute with your playing fingers.

The fingers (thumb, forefinger, middle finger, ring finger) can be divided in two categories: the fingers that hold the flute and the fingers that play the tones. The “playing” fingers are the ones closing and opening holes. The “holding” fingers are the ones that don’t close any hole. They have a very different role. You shouldn’t hold your flute with the playing fingers. These latter need to be flexible and not contracted. With a good support of your flute with the holding fingers and your chin, you don’t need the other fingers to hold your flute. The best way to test it is to play Ri-I (go-no-Hi). Is the flute stable when you move your thumb, or not? If not, try to find stability with all holes open, using only with your holding fingers and chin, and then move the thumb to open and close the back hole.

  • Tip 2: Change octaves with your lips.

Don’t use your head to change octaves, it affects the pitch of the tone. Move your underlip forward and backward, and control the pitch with a tuner.
Use your head only for the meri-kari and the yuri techniques.

  • Tip 3: Play meri-kari from a central point… and make sure to go back to it.

Before practicing meri-kari, it is very important to know where your central point for the basic tones is, because you need to start from it and come back to it. Even when you start a phrase with a meri note, prepare yourself always from your central point. And don’t forget to go back to it, don’t hang somewhere in between! Control the pitch regularly with a tuner.

  • Tip 4: Start your practice with a warm-up

I already wrote a post about this subject so I won’t get into the details here: always take a little time to warm-up before you play. Even if you have time just for a few breaths or a few long tones, never skip it. Warming-up is not only physical, it is a mindset, which, if trained properly, will help you to find rapidly your inner concentration and comfort zone in any situation.

  • Tip 5: Sing the musical phrases

Well, my students will say: “but we never do this during your lessons!” and that’s true… It is something I have to implement more often! Singing is a very good way to get the right musical phrasing.  Most of the traditional shakuhachi music can be sung, because the range of tones is limited and the intervals are small. Also because there are some similarities between singing and playing shakuhachi. In sankyoku music, the shakuhachi often plays the same melody line as the voice. For students without a musical background, it can be a bit difficult to sing properly.
But in any case, give it a try.

  • Tip 6: Isolate and repeat each little motif (pattern)

Although you mainly play long phrases, the music for shakuhachi is based on small elements and patterns put together and asking attention and precision. Some of them are recurrent (tsuuu-tsu-re…) . Take the time to recognise and isolate them, and practice them properly. If you do so, you have more chance it goes fine each time you come across them! And you can concentrate more on what is new. Otherwise, you keep on repeating the same mistakes or approximations in different contexts over and over again… Every detail matters!

  • Tip 7: Find your inner rhythm 

In traditional honkyoku music (not in Kinko-ryū though), the rhythm is not fixed nor precisely indicated. This doesn’t mean that there is no rhythm in the music. Some people think that it is less difficult because you don’t have to count beats, bars, nor divide the time. But you cannot play a honkyoku properly without finding first the inner rhythm of the music. Starting with finding yours. That means awareness of your breathing, flexibility and precision of your fingers, lips and head, and carefully listening to the silence and including it in the music.

Hope this little list of tips helps. Please share your comments below.

Happy blowing!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s