12 tips to study Honkyoku

To celebrate the third anniversary of my blog, I am sharing some tips to practice shakuhachi honkyoku. Happy blowing!

The traditional way to learn honkyoku is to repeat after your master and imitate him/her as close as you can. It is an oral tradition and a body-mind learning, like in martial arts. But as soon as we look at notation, our Western mind prevails. We pay less attention to what happens in our body, we are fascinated by the Japanese strokes and lines. At least I used to be when I started learning shakuhachi! My main problem (along with breath, tone quality, intonation, pitch of tsu-no-meri, etc.) was that I couldn’t see the big picture of a phrase or a piece, and I got lost in the details. 

To my opinion, the best way to approach an ancient tradition is to follow the guidance of a certified teacher. But even under this guidance, how do you practice when you are at home on your own, getting ready for the next lesson? How do you approach a long piece without information or recording?
Here are some tips to help you. 

N.B. You don’t have to follow the order of the tips. You might want to start with the title (Tip #3) for example. Choose what is relevant for you for each piece that you study. Each Honkyoku is a different journey.

1. Look at the main melody line

If the honkyoku you are studying looks complicated, try to simplify it, starting with removing the ornaments. What does belong to the melody line, what is ornament? In other words: what is the essence of the piece? What is characteristic of this piece? what makes you recognise it even if played by someone from a different school or style?
Practice the main melody line (rhythm included) until you fully understand it. Then, keep it in mind when you play the “full version” with all ornaments.

2. Look at the structure and organisation of the piece

Even for a short piece, it is important to have a clear vision of the organisation of the piece: how does it start, develop, end?
Many Japanese traditional pieces have the Jo-Ha-Kyu structure, can you find it back in your piece? If so, can you identify the different sections? If not, can you figure out the structure?

3. Look at the meaning of the title

Finding back in the piece the inspiration revealed by the title, even if this one is abstract, will give a deeper insight to your practice and performance of it. Look at some information in my music section, or on this website.

4. Identify motifs and patterns

In Western music, we have melodies, themes, harmony, modes, rhythms. In Honkyoku, you will find mostly motifs and patterns. Some of them are characteristic of a style or an area. It can be a couple of notes or an entire phrase. Study them with all your attention and precision. And look at how they are spread and developed in the piece. Can you couple it back to the structure? (#2)

5. Cut it in smaller sections

If you are studying a long piece, don’t always practice the entire piece. Divide it in sections, sections in paragraphs. The more difficult the piece, the more sections you will need.

6. Slow down and look at ALL the details

When we get more experienced, we must be careful not to give a superficial look to things we think we already know from another piece. It looks like the same, but if you look more carefully, it may be a little different. And in any case, it needs your full attention as if it was the first time you play it.

7. Be present in each tone, each phrase, each silence

Music belongs to the present moment. When you play, your body is not in the past of in the future. So give your mind the mission to be present in each note, each phrase and each silence. Be aware if your fingers, breath, or head go to automatic pilot. If  your mind is not in your music anymore, bring it gently back. Try to figure out where it started to wander. Sometimes, there is a specific reason in the music why it happens here and not somewhere else. Give it more attention. It is also true for mistakes. If you always make the same mistake at the same place, try to figure out why.

8. Study phrase by phrase with a clear idea of what you want to achieve

When you repeat a phrase or a motif, stay focused on what you want to improve. If there are several parameters (fingerings, pitch, tone quality, rhythm, breath, etc.), focus on one at a time. When you get this one well, you can move on to the next one.

9. Sing it

I do it mostly for the difficult parts. But in some schools, it is the way to learn the music.
Listen to yourself when you sing, pay attention to how you phrase the music, how you breathe. Practicing without the flute will help you to gain some clarity about the issues you have (reading, breathing, intonation,…?).

10. Make it breathe

Look at the rhythm of silence. How are the phrases connected to one another? 
Look for the “Ma“.
Don’t be afraid of silence, it is part of music.

“Hâtez-vous lentement, et, sans perdre courage,
Vingt fois sur le métier remettez votre ouvrage.”
Nicolas Boileau (L’Art Poétique, 1674)

11. Learn it by heart

Learning by heart means that you know precisely AND in advance what is happening in the piece, how and why. Where you want to go, how you want to shape the phrases. What is coming next and how the phrases and sounds are connected.

12. Make it becoming your own

Eventually, it is up to you to tell your “own story”, to make it become a whole piece, to give sense to what your are playing. If the piece in your head is clear and well constructed, it will flow naturally.

I hope that this post will be helpful for your practice and understanding of Honkyoku. Please share your experience in the comments section.

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5 thoughts on “12 tips to study Honkyoku”

  1. Great advice! Congratulations on your three year blog anniversary. In the Kinko school I was in we would tap out the rhythm on our knees (sitting in seiza) while singing the piece before playing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much Daniel for your nice comment. Indeed I was thinking of the singing in the Kinko school. Did it too in one of Tadashi Tajima’s workshops in London: while he was playing, we were only allowed to sing along to learn the piece.


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