Shakuhachi by Heart

The two last months I have been quite busy recording videos in the nature (read previous blog post about it here). It started a bit out of frustration: concert halls desperately closed for so long, impossibility to make plans to work in the short run, living on the hope that it would get better after the summer when most people got vaccinated to start to perform again,… But hope is not enough and I couldn’t just stay put and wait for the situation to improve. The current pandemic has given me the opportunity to challenge myself to find other ways to create and still go on, like creating a virtual Dojo on Patreon (visit it here).

Outside my confort zone

Some artists in bigger structures and/or better network manage to organise live streams, I don’t. Luckily I love birds and birdsongs. Playing and recording in nature turned out to be a very nice activity yet challenging. It means playing in the cold, in the dark, in the rain, in the mud, in the wind, without the supportive acoustic of a concert hall or any amplification… It means going out of my comfort zone and letting go of my blockages. It means playing by heart.
But it also means being surrounded by birdsongs, enjoying space, deep inner peace, being present to everything happening. This is so rewarding!

In this post, I’ll describe how I pushed my limits and I’ll give some tips to play by heart.

Playing by heart is a path to meditation.

It’s too cold to play outside…

All my life as a musician, I found difficult, even impossible, to play in the cold. When I was asked to play for a nature funeral some years ago at a time of the year when the temperature was below 10ºC, I remember rehearsing outside to see how it would sound. I was so afraid that the flute would sound bad and negatively impact the funerals. Playing for funerals is challenging enough, not to mention in the cold. But with a good preparation, things went well and it was a very strong and inspiring experience.

Maybe this specific experience taught me secretly that I could do it again. Because when I first tried it this year, it felt immediately natural to play outside even by freezing weather. Actually it didn’t even crossed my mind that it could be a problem.

In addition to my concern on physical and meteorological issues, on the quality of the videos and the sound (no traffic, no barking dogs in the background, no people talking, etc.), my main challenge was to play by heart. Although I am used to do it even in performances -which is very convenient when the light is suddenly turned off when you perform- this means still a lot of practice.

It means an appropriate preparation and somehow reliable performance conditions. But I didn’t practice. I decided to rely on my memory of months ago and record myself playing just for the enjoyment of it. Like meditations in the nature.

It’s too early to play outside, it’s still dark…

How about playing at 6 am in the cold when you are not fully awake?
In these challenging times, did I want to put on myself an extra challenge and see what I was capable of? No. I just wanted to let go of the performance side and surrender to the present moment. Accept the situation I am in and try to make the best out of it. So I happily surrendered to the beauty and inspiration of the nature. I listened to the birds and played with them what my heart had memorised of my previous practices and performances. Of course there are mistakes, but can you hear them? Do them matter?

Blue Hour Meditation, a Silent Vlog

Playing everything by heart

This experience definitely reinforced my belief in practicing and playing by heart: only when you have practiced a piece by heart, you can really master it. Only then you can make it become your own. Only then the experience of the piece becomes amplified, multidimensional, and there is nothing more between you and the music.
It is for me the ultimate step in practicing honkyoku, and I ask more and more often my students to practice and play by heart during the lesson. The difference in their performances with and without music notation is amazing!

I was happy to discover some months ago that the shakuhachi master Carl Abbott, who is famous for his book “Blowing Zen, One Breath, One Mind”, shares my view on this topic. He even wrote a second “Blowing Zen” devoted to playing honkyoku by heart, called “Blowing Zen, Honkyoku”.

“I am beginning this book with the secret I found to playing honkyoku… playing it by heart. […]Playing by heart permits you to close your eyes and devote total awareness to the sound until you touch the essence of the sound… until you become the sound.”
Carl Abbott in “Blowing Zen, Honkyoku”

But to fully enjoy playing by heart and avoid ending stuck in the middle of the piece without knowing the following phrase, you need to train it. Here are some tips (from my own experience and training, not from Carl Abbott’s book, even though some of them are similar).

Tips for memorising honkyoku

  • 1. Start simple
    Start with a short piece that you know well already: for example, one of the Choshi pieces. Repeat each phrase multiple times, look how the phrases are connected to each other, look at the subtle variations and repetitions, find the structure of the piece and have it clear in your head.
  • 2. Use both visual and auditory memory. Find out which one is strongest for you, if one is.
  • 3. Record yourself and check with the notation where you made mistakes. There are two types of mistakes:
    – minor mistakes -like one repetition more or less- which could be seen as interpretation.
    – major mistakes: you missed an entire phrase or section, played the wrong notes, couldn’t find the next phrase, etc. Figure out where it went wrong and why. I would not be surprised that it turns out to be a section where there was already something a bit unclear for you. You could play it when you read it, but did you fully understand it?
    Following to where you made mistakes, make a mental list of the moments where you have to pay extra attention.
  • 4. Tell yourself a story. The content of the story in itself doesn’t matter, as long as it makes sense to you. It will help you to follow the line and the structure of the piece and play it in a meaningful way.
  • 5. Develop strategies. Don’t rely just on one way to memorise. Have back up strategies if the main one fails. Think of structure, changes of register, visual memory, auditory memory, story, etc.
  • 6. Vary the starting points. Don’t always start from the beginning. You should be able to start at any point of the music. This means that you know for every single phrase what comes before and what comes after.
  • 7. Practice also mentally, without the instrument, singing the piece in your head from the beginning to the end.
  • 8. Practice the performance. If you are going to perform, practice run-through without allowing any memory slip.

So in one word: PRACTICE!! (and enjoy practicing!)

The benefits of playing by heart

Playing by heart offers the opportunity to “blow Zen” truly. […] (it) demands more “in the moment” awareness than playing off the sheet music. […] You will find an extra joy in playing by heart whichever pieces you can mange to learn.
Carl Abbott, same opus

  • You don’t need music sheets anymore which is quite convenient to play outdoors (no more problem with wind, lights, music stand, etc.),
  • You can play anything anywhere
  • You will own the music, you can guide it and let yourself be guided by it without being overwhelmed
  • You will go deeper in the awareness of the music and breathing.
  • You will improve your confidence and play better – because you know the music much better since you practiced every little detail.
  • You will improve your concentration, focus and self-awareness
  • You will find a path to meditation.

Playing by heart […] invites greater awareness on the breath.
Carl Abbott

Try it today!! and let me know how it goes.

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