Category Archives: Shakuhachi practice

Practicing daily

It took 7 years between the day I first heard shakuhachi on a CD and my first shakuhachi lesson. And then another 8 years before I could make enough space in my life to consistently practice shakuhachi daily. As a flutist, I was of course already practicing regularly my Western flute, but didn’t have much time left for the shakuhachi. And I can assure you that from the moment I eventually had time to practice shakuhachi (almost) daily, it made a huge difference. I know this is quite obvious, but it really works. It’s true for every single music instrument, but it’s really critical for sound quality and intonation for the shakuhachi. In order to make progress, you need to practice regularly, even for short sessions. The shakuhachi is a flute asking you to make your own mouthpiece with your lips and mouth muscles. This is very subtle work, and if you don’t train regularly, you can’t build up properly the strength and endurance needed, neither the right balance between tension and relaxation. Playing shakuhachi is physical and should engage your entire body, like sport.
Maybe this sounds quite demanding, but I’ve seen many people getting disappointed (or even very frustrated) to discover that the shakuhachi was not “a kind of recorder” with which you can immediately and easily get a sound (don’t get me wrong, playing the recorder properly is also not easy, although the sound production is much more easier).

But sometimes, as shakuhachi is a particularly challenging instrument, you can have the feeling you’re not making much progress and it can be difficult to find motivation to carry on practicing. So here are some tips to help you hopefully to establish a daily routine and stick to it.

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Practicing Kokū 虚空

Kokū is considered one of the oldest compositions for shakuhachi, one of the three fundamental pieces together with Kyorei and Mukaiji.

Koku means “Empty Space,” or “Empty Sky,” (“Ko,” “empty”, and “Ku” “space”, or “sky”.)

There are many legends about this piece, and many different versions. Some versions are based on the story of the “Bell Ringing in an Empty Sky”. It refers to the death of the monk Fuke and his disappearance from his coffin. Only remains the sound of his bell coming from the empty sky. Other legends say that this piece has been composed in the 12th century by the monk Kyochiku, who heard this melody in a mystical dream. With the mist blocking the moon, it looked like the sound of the flute was coming from an empty sky.

Koku has a flavor of infinite mist and echoes. It is said that playing this piece helps one explore the boundaries of “mu” or nothingness, transcending reifications, the artificial cognitive boxes into which we place objects, situations and emotions.

Source: The International Shakuhachi Society

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ESS Summer School 2017

In a few days the annual European Shakuhachi Summer School will begin gathering almost 60 shakuhachi aficionados (teachers and participants) together from all over Europe and with Maekawa Kogetsu as an representation of Myōan and Kinpū ryū. And it all happens in the small provincial town Vejle, Denmark – out in the fringes of Europe. Hurray for celebrating shakuhachi all over Europe! See you there! Kiku Day, Chair of the ESS.

I’m very honoured to be invited to this ESS Summer School where I will teach solo and  group pieces from our Hijiri-kai school. The venue is a boarding school, which will enable us to  blow and spend time together as a group. There will be a lot of different styles represented, traditional and modern music, solo and chamber music, pieces with koto, improvisation and original compositions. It is a great opportunity to listen to a lot of music and meet each other.
Although a big part of the traditional repertoire of shakuhachi consists in solo pieces (honkyoku), blowing together is very important in our school. Fukuda-sensei is tirelessly writing new pieces and arrangements for us when we gather in the Summer Schools organised in France by Daniel Lifermann for La Voie du Bambou. I’m very pleased to share some of his music and the spirit of it this summer in Denmark.
These pieces are meant to be performed by players of all levels, everyone playing according to his capacities. Generally, there isn’t a fixed rhythm except the rhythm of the breath (like in most of the honkyoku music), which allows some fuzziness, like a natural echo or reverberation. Playing together means listening to each other in order to tune in one multiple voice. It’s very good to confront your pitch control with the others’!
Here are the pieces: Continue reading ESS Summer School 2017

Recording yourself

In a previous post, Music recordings, I wrote about the benefits of recording yourself during your practice. Have you tried it so far? How is it working for you? For me, it has really become part of my daily practice. Not that I record myself every day (!) but it has become one of the tools I like to use to practice. Like I use a tuner to control the pitch, a metronome to control the tempo and rhythm, I record myself to check how I sound. Or just to do a run-through.

In addition to my previous post, I’d like to add here a few tips to go further.

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Do less

Good resolutions… 5 months later…

How are you doing with the good resolutions you decided to take in January? Did you manage to implement them in your life, are you still trying to do so of did you give up and postpone them for next year? My good resolutions were inspired by 12 zen rules. I can apply some of them regularly in my shakuhachi practice (see post) but for others, I’m still trying to find ways to apply them in my daily life too. Since I’m back from Japan, I’m particularly working on “#4 – Do less“, with the help of “#11 – Think about what is necessary“. Shakuhachi speaking, they are also very interesting. Continue reading Do less

Basic body posture

Shakuhachi is often unpredictable in the beginning. Some days are better than others. In the same practice session, you have good moments and a few minutes later, you cannot make any sound anymore. It can be frustrating. Although there is no chance involved there, but a combination of subtle factors you will learn to master better and better with your practice. Concentrating on the mouth, lips, head position is necessary, but not sufficient. When you play shakuhachi, your entire body gets involved. The flute should become a part of your body.  The sound you make comes from deep under in your belly, not only from your mouth and lips. It starts with your inhalation. So a good body posture is an important factor one shouldn’t underestimate, especially in the beginning. Here are some tips to keep in mind when you practice:

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Blowing together

Last weekend, I gave two workshops about blowing together, which is an important part of our practice in the Hijiri-ryū.

Blowing together means learning to listen to yourself and to the others at the same time. It isn’t always easy to hear your own sound among all the other sounds, but you’ll notice that the sensation of your own vibration will increase, and a new “internal ear” will be activated. It’s a matter of letting go of yourself to join the breath and sound of the others, and find your own voice inside the group.

The shakuhachi is very challenging on this aspect because it is mainly played solo, or with strings instruments (koto / shamisen) which have a more stable intonation. The fluctuations of the shakuhachi and the stability of the strings complement one another. In a group of shakuhachi, the first difficulty when you play with others is the stability of your own sound, and then, your capacity of embouchure control and adaptation to the “common pitch”. The common point of all players is the breath. Blowing together, even if the lengths of breath are different, becomes a way of supporting each other. It asks concentration to find the right balance in the group, but  gives so much energy back. And the best reward is the music you can share.

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