The student: -I don’t make any progress. How can I make progress?
The student: -But I practiced!
Me: -What did you practice exactly? And how?
Most of the times it turned out that the student didn’t practice that much after all. Or not WHAT I asked him/her to practice. Or not HOW I asked him/her to practice. Why? I wonder. Maybe is it not that obvious for everyone what practicing means?
So here are some thoughts about practicing shakuhachi. And about practicing in general, not only for shakuhachi. I am an amateur photographer and once I asked a friend who is a professional photographer how I could improve my photos and she answered “Practice this and that”. So practice practice practice. Meaningfully.
Even if you think that you know what practicing is, please read this post further. I’ll be happy to hear if it matches what you already know and/or if you have some more tips to share.
What is practicing?
Practicing is NOT playing. Practicing is NOT repeating the same thing which is not working over and over again with the hope it will get better without changing anything. If you don’t change anything, it won’t improve. Why would it?
Practicing is working on a specific point in order to improve it. Practicing is questioning what is not working and finding out how you can make it work. Practicing is having a clear goal to achieve. Practicing is observing, listening, reflecting and encouraging yourself.
Practicing means working on something which is still difficult for you. So it cannot be easy or sound nice when you start working on it. It’s normal. Don’t let the difficulty be an obstacle (and a reason not to practice it!).
How do you react when you face a difficulty?
- Do you take it as a challenge, an opportunity to grow? How high do you set your expectations? Are you realistic?
- Do you beat yourself up for not reaching your goal immediately? Beating yourself up will lead you to build up frustration. “See. I can’t do it. I’m not good enough. I’m not good at it. Why did I choose this… (fill in yourself)… flute?”
- Do you talk to yourself as if you were encouraging a friend?
- If so, what would you say to a friend? Would it be something like this: “Go for it!” “You’re almost there”! “Nail this note/ this technique!””Well done, let’s do it once again”! “I see you’re feeling a little tired now, better to take a break and start again later.””Good job today, time to relax and play now.” In other words, can you be your own coach? Can you be gentle and patient with yourself?
When do you need to practice?
You need to practice a specific point when you cannot play something the way it should be. So the first thing here is to become aware that you are not playing the right way. It can be pitch, intonation (intervals), rhythm, register (otsu-kan-dai kan), a specific technique, etc. First you have to hear what is wrong in what you do. That means that you need to have listened to a reference: a recording, your teacher playing, anything. Listening to the difference between what do and what you should do is KEY to improve it. According to your musical background, you can be able to hear it yourself and know what to do about it, or you would need a (certified) teacher to guide you through the process.
How should you practice?
Listen listen listen. To your teacher, to a recording, to yourself. Record yourself from time to time (and listen back). Follow the instructions and exercises given by your teacher. Ask again if you didn’t fully understand. Take notes during the lessons. Your teacher is here to help you improve, but he/she cannot do the work for you. You have to do the practice.
Sharpening your ear
Music starts with listening. If your problem is intonation or pitch, consider using a tuner. Intonation means that the intervals are not good (for example TSU-no-meri / RO). Pitch means that all your basic pentatonic scale is out of pitch (too low or too high, mostly too low). What do you need to do to come to the right pitch? Is it the angle between your head and the flute, is it the tension of your lips, is it your breathing? All of them? Play with these different factors and listen how changing them affects the result.
Don’t use the tuner all the time though but come back regularly to it to check if you are on track.
Is your problem rhythm? Consider using a metronome if you work on a piece with beats in the notation. If your piece is not written with a fixed rhythm, study it phrase by phrase with asking you questions such as: which notes are important, long, short? How should you divide your breath? What is the place of silence? Where is it room for it?
Sometimes, rhythm problems are directly related to breathing problems, is it the case? And don’t forget this: if you study a piece with beats, the breathing is also included in the rhythm. You cannot stop the metronome to breathe at your leisure.
There are different sorts of techniques for playing shakuhachi: breathing techniques, head techniques, fingers techniques, special fingerings, etc. Don’t practice them all at the same time. Identify where your main problem is and start with this one. Ask your teacher for more exercises and/or make up your own.
Here are some ideas of the different things to practice. Make a routine out of it. Don’t forget to warm-up first (with easy exercises) before practicing what is challenging. Give you a goal and to reach this goal, give you time AND tools.
What to practice for beginners?
- Practice abdominal breathing without the flute. Connect to your breathing and send you breath all the way down your belly. Don’t move your shoulders up. Practice also rhythmical breathing.
- Do the same practice on long tones. It can be one note, or an entire scale. Stay focused on your breathing. Is your sound stable? If not, what is moving? Lips? Breath? Both? Check your posture in a mirror. Aim for stability and length in your tone.
- Practice lips flexibility: octaves are great for the lips and also for intonation.
- Practice fingers mobility: scales, finger exercises, fingers ornaments. Is there in your piece a specific technique or a fingerings succession which is difficult for you? Practice it separately. Identify clearly what movements you need to do and repeat them until they become fluent.
- Practice head movements separately: practice the meri-kari technique always going back and forth. Listen carefully to the pitch.
What to practice for Elementary/Intermediate?
- Start with long tones! Practice the shape of your sound: stability, volume, quality, length, tone colour… Listen to the beginning, the middle AND the end of your sound. Aim for improvement in all areas.
- Practice scales in otsu, kan and dai-kan registers.
- Practice meri-kari technique and other head movements (nayashi, otoshi, yuri,…) separately. Listen to the effects of the different techniques on your sound and practice different types of yuri (head vibrato)
- Practice special sound effects like Muraiki on a scale or octaves.
- Practice separately any technical difficulties of your piece.
Is practicing no fun?
Technical practice is not always fun and it should not be a goal in itself either. Technique is a tool to enable you to play what you want the way you want it and the way it is supposed to sound. So again, you need to know first how it is supposed to sound and what the difference is with what you do. This is part of a musical training. If you have already learned another music instrument, this training will help you. If you don’t have any former musical training and if you have difficulties to hear what you don’t play correctly, you will have to train your ear as well. So take it in consideration when assessing your progress. Never forget what your starting point was.
Practicing might look a bit boring but it is actually rewarding if you invest time and focus in it. Practice meaningfully. Eventually you will make progress, you will learn more and more about the flute and about yourself, you will acquire new skills and be able to play new pieces.
Sometimes practicing can be discouraging. Ask your teacher what to do. Find a shakuhachi mate to practice with. Play along with a recording to motivate yourself. Devote time for PLAYING, improvising, meditating. Find your way to relax with your flute.
Practicing is NOT playing and vice-versa.
At the beginning of this post, I wrote that practicing is not playing. Meaning that you don’t need to PRACTICE your entire piece during each session. Pick up a specific point, a fragment of the piece and concentrate on it. Going deeper into a specific issue is tiring and asks a lot of concentration. Don’t push yourself too much but don’t skip it either.
If you are tempted to skip practicing, be aware that playing is NOT practicing. If playing a piece is our ultimate goal, it is not enough to repeat the piece (with the same mistakes) over and over again to get it right eventually. It won’t happen. You need to practice it, at least parts of it.
Honestly, if you don’t practice seriously and consistently, you won’t get very far. If you are happy with it, it’s fine.
But if you feel stuck, not making progress, and you do want to improve your playing, then ask yourself frankly:
– Did you practice or did you play?
– What did you practice exactly?
– How did you practice? How often?
Tutorial videos & teaching material
I have started to record tutorial videos on different topics called “5 minutes to practice…” that I will be releasing monthly on my Patreon page. I will address different technical points and also provide practice sessions to play along.
Join my exclusive community of patrons and practice with me here.
Besides I have started writing a booklet of exercises for shakuhachi to help you improve your practice. Stay tuned!
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