How to play “Kan”?!?!?

Why is the upper register Kan so difficult for many of us?

When I started learning shakuhachi, I was already a professional flutist, and still, as a beginner shakuhachi student, I found that the Kan register was a bit challenging, especially the two higher notes (Hi and I). There was something there that took me a bit more time to feel and master. Although the lips technique is quite similar to the flute’s technique, I needed to find some adjustments. What was going on?

Some tips for playing in Kan

Playing in Kan is the result of a combination of things. The fingers cannot help you, you have to rely only on your lips, air and ears. From a teacher perspective, I often notice that the most challenging thing for a student wanting to play in Kan is not wanting to understand it intellectually but feel it instead. Your mind is not going to help you there, same as for making your first sounds. Concentrate on your physical sensations and look at yourself in a mirror. Observe and feel.

There is no magical recipe for playing in Kan, so here are just some indications to help you:

  • Devote every day a moment in your practice for Kan. Don’t avoid practicing it. It won’t happen magically. Focus on your body sensations when you hear Kan sounds come and go and observe what is changing: check especially your lips and breath. Your head shouldn’t be moving. Train your musical ear regularly as well. In order to play Kan properly, you should be able to hear the proper pitch in your head in advance.
  • Keep a small opening in the middle of your lips.

When your embouchure technique is not very developed yet, what works in Otsu to get a sound may just not be enough for Kan. For example, you can play in Otsu with a rather broad lips opening, but not in Kan. Close your lips a bit more without tensing them.

  • Train your lips flexibility

Tight lips is not good either. Move your lips slightly forward to reach the Kan position. The lips tension in Kan is similar as in Otsu and the difference is very little. Concentrate on the feeling of it until it becomes familiar. The most important is actually to train how to switch between both registers (practice octaves).

  • Increase air speed

To sustain the Kan register, you need to increase the air speed (or air pressure) a little. Air speed is not blowing harder, which is volume. You need to push the air more with your abdominal muscles and close your lips slightly more so that the air cannot go out too easily (closing is not tightening). You support a constant flow with your diaphragm.
For a visualisation of the air stream, I like to use the image of an arrow and a target: if you shoot an arrow without enough speed, it will drop before the target. It is similar for Kan: you need more speed. But not more strength (don’t “push the arrow with your hand”). Think that the target in Kan is just a little further than in Otsu.

  • Practice Dai-Kan!

Due to different fingerings, some notes in the Dai-Kan register (Go-no-Ha, San-no-Ha) are easier to blow than the last two notes in Kan. See how high you can go (depending on the type of shakuhachi you have, not all shakuhachi will allow you to go very high in the Dai-Kan register). Going beyond Kan changes the mental perspective of it.

  • Practice overtones

Overtones are the subtle whistling tones that you can hear when you play. They are close to silence and when you move your lips gently, you can vary their frequency. See if you can bring some high notes from silence into sound (for example, play overtones on the fingering of RO otsu and open the thumb progressively to GO-no-HA) . In any case, there are relaxing tones to blow and it teaches you to relax in Kan as well as in Otsu. With the right technique, you can produce Kan notes without much effort and you can already experiment this feeling with practicing overtones.

  • Practice on a good flute

A cheap bamboo flute can make it difficult to play in Kan at the correct pitch, especially Hi and I (Go-no-Hi) , which are on all flutes slightly more difficult notes. Play a reliable flute.

  • Check the position of your flute on your chin.

Back to my own story, I actually already did all of the tips above, so why was I struggling?

One day, I looked at a picture of myself playing shakuhachi and I discovered that the position of the flute on my chin was not good. It was too high and it blocked partially my underlip. The opening was too big too.

So check or ask a teacher to check if your flute is well positioned on your chin. Everyone is different (thin or thick lips, small or large chin, etc.), you’ll have to find the right way for yourself. It is often only a small adjustment (like everything in shakuhachi playing), but it made for me a BIG difference.

Virtual Shakuhachi Dojo

These are general tips. In my virtual dojo, you can find some extra exercises and tutorial videos on this specific topic.
Chakra meditation is also helpful to develop body and energy awareness and therefore, to find the higher notes from an energetic perspective.

And before closing this post, I would like to add one more aspect of playing the Kan register for beginners.

Physical aspect of playing in Kan

Here is a little story: I had once a student who became very frustrated that he couldn’t play in Kan. Although he hardly practiced the exercises I gave him, didn’t understand the difference between I Otsu and RO Kan (“they are both D pitch, right?”) and therefore replaced automatically RO Kan by I Otsu (didn’t help for the other notes though), playing in Kan became an obsessional problem for him. There was no shakuhachi playing without being able to play in Kan (from himself, not from me) and he eventually totally gave up. A pity. As I wrote before, your mind is not your best friend here 😉

He was not a young man either when he started and I’d like to point out (again) that the physical part in blowing shakuhachi shouldn’t be underestimate . The lung capacity starts to decrease after 30 years old and even more after 50. In classical music, it is well known that opera singers and wind instruments top soloists have to stop their career earlier than string players, pianists, percussionists or conductors. Your breathing system is less efficient. Even if you’ve trained it in another way, for example in sports, blowing shakuhachi is a special training of your abdominal breathing which includes a connection breath-lips-head.

If you start shakuhachi as your first wind music instrument after 50 years old, it is physically normal than you experience difficulties in blowing the Kan register, even with a good lung capacity. And certainly more difficulties than young people or people who started young blowing another wind instrument. It is more difficult, but not at all impossible! And blowing shakuhachi is certainly very good for your health.

What can you do about it?

The right (mental) approach to Kan.

Don’t follow the example of my ex-student, don’t deny it. On the contrary, be aware of it. Be extra patient. Follow your teacher’s instructions.
And to summarise this post, have a friendly approach to it:
Develop body awareness. Don’t get frustrated (be patient, keep faith, be gentle with yourself). Work on your energy level (practice chakra meditations in Otsu and Kan). Relax excess tension (don’t block yourself). Observe and make an interesting journey out of it. Celebrate every little success. Practice regularly (without getting obsessed), don’t give up, your efforts will pay! You KAN do it!

One more possibility is to try a longer flute: the air pressure is less strong and the Kan register is easier. However, you do need more air to fill the flute and it can be more difficult to hold it and close the holes. Give it a try if you have the opportunity. No need to go for a very long flute, already a 2.0 or a 2.1 makes a difference on this aspect.

Hope this helps! Please share your comments, questions or experience below.

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