It has been already one year and it is also Spring time again, like last year, when everything closed down. From last year I remember the urge of going outside after months of rain and suddenly the emptiness of the streets. I remember contacting people to find concerts and suddenly all events cancelled. I remember wanting to make more (Dutch) friends and suddenly having to avoid people on the streets. I remember going in nature and feeling suspected when I sneezed because of allergies…
When this second year of pandemic started, it was Spring again and Spring shows you how strongly life goes on. Birds are singing, trees begin to bud, timid flowers come out of the ground, you cannot miss it. As I am lucky enough to live close to nature, I have started a new project: playing shakuhachi outdoors and filming it. Watch it here.
The student: -I don’t make any progress. How can I make progress? Me: -Practice. 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.
In the Netherlands we entered 2021 in full lockdown. No fireworks, no party. With the hope that the world situation will improve dramatically in 2021 with vaccination, I started to dream more and more of a virtual space to develop my activities and connect with more people. This dream has become a virtual shakuhachi dojo on Patreon! Discover it here.
What it is exactly ?
It is a space where I will share every month the different aspects of my work with shakuhachi: recordings, meditations, tutorial videos and creations. Choose your abonnement and you will receive monthly benefits and exclusive contents. If I get enough Patrons, it will help me to realise some of my dreams!!
When you realise that the ultimate happiness is being yourself and that nobody can be better than you at it, then the competitive ego disappears. Remains the deep motivation to do your best at being yourself, for you and for the world. This is what this project is about.
The first meditation lesson I listened to this year was by Charles Freligh about “10 Principles for Daily Living”. It resonated deeply with my shakuhachi practice, especially when he came to talk about Authenticity.
Authenticity is a combination of vulnerability and courage to show who we really are.
The answer to his question “when do you feel most authentic?” was immediate: “when I play shakuhachi“. At the end of his lesson, I realised that when I practice shakuhachi, I cover all the 10 themes he talked about.
I found it so interesting that I translated his lesson into a “5-steps meaningful (daily) shakuhachi practice”.
More than any year I have been struggling this year with the question of the usefulness of being an artist. The pandemic situation revived in me the urge to do something for others. What could I do as a shakuhachi player?
Insecurity is already part of an artistic life, whether you like it or not. So maybe, as an artist, I was better prepared to deal with the feeling of insecurity caused by the pandemic. This shows us how fragile – and strong- we are. Playing shakuhachi helps me to accept my vulnerability. At the same time, the deep breathing with long breaths quiets my mind and gives me strength. “A long and healthy breathto all” has become my daily prayer. Just blowing one note, RO, is enough to connect to the deep peace inside me. When I play ROBUKI online together with my meditation group, I feel my sense of groundedness increasing, I feel the energy flowing through my body and the negative emotions being chased away.
Connecting to people became suddenly challenging. Coping with the lockdowns and the constant changes of situation throughout the year, months after months, has been really difficult. I am grateful that some of my students followed me online and that I could continue teaching and interacting with them. I am grateful that I got to know new students from different countries. The closing of physical borders opened a digital world of Zoom lessons ; travel issues turned into Internet connection stability and digital sound quality problems ; but still we remain connected and this feels good.
As a teacher, my best reward is when I hear students connect deeply to the shakuhachi. It can be during a few notes or an entire piece and it has nothing to do with technical level. During these magical moments, it doesn’t matter that the sound travels through the microphone and speakers of the computer: it just goes directly from heart to heart.
2020 = SHARE
So what could I do? Nothing else but keeping on doing my work, as good as I can. Teach, compose, inspire, send good vibes and share shakuhachi music. SHARE has been my main goal for 2020, the one I set at the beginning of the year in January, it has been my mantra, my good resolution. I am grateful I had one because it truly helped me through the year. Although it turned out differently from my intention in January, things happened that not had happened without the current situation.
A bit more than a month ago, I released a booklet for beginners made of simplified versions of four short honkyoku. To celebrate the 4th anniversary of this blog on December 13th, I will be giving a ZOOM presentation about one of them, Yamato Choshi. My wish is to explain how to go from the simplified to the full version of this piece. I will be introducing along the Hijiri-Kai style. The presentation will be followed by a Q&A. To register, contact me or scroll down.
A few weeks after I released this booklet, I found this quote, from one of the greatest shakuhachi masters, Yokoyama Katsuya:
“It is important to grasp the main themes and melodies of a piece without getting lost or caught up in the pursuit of various techniques and minor themes.”
“Grasping the main themes and melodies” is exactly what my booklet for beginners is about. I think that it is not always easy to identify them when you are a beginner. The Japanese musical notation is very often seen as challenging. Actually, what is challenging is to notate a honkyoku! As Yokoyama Sensei writes:
“Honkyoku are alive. It is very difficult to capture them on paper. Honkyoku sheet music is like a snapshot of but one aspect of the piece. It is helpful in giving us an idea of what the song is about, but it cannot come close to describing the totality.”
But what is a honkyoku at the first place? Here is a definition by Yokoyama Sensei:
An original composition for shakuhachi and string quartet
How do you compose new music for a traditional instrument like shakuhachi? Do you take your inspiration from the traditional repertoire? Do you think of a Western flute and adapt your composition to be played by a shakuhachi? Do you need to play the instrument yourself or do you collaborate with a specialist of the instrument?
Zac Zinger is an outstanding composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, jazz saxophonist and shakuhachi player. He plays shakuhachi with a deep respect to the instrument, a good knowledge of its traditional and folk repertoire, and an amazing virtuosity. His compositions and arrangements are brilliant. He recently premiered “Haiku in Variation“, an original composition for shakuhachi and string quartet, for which he had won the Fumi Onoyama Grant from the “Salon De Virtuosi“.
Fortunately, the concert (featuring The Resonance Collective at Merkin Hall at New York City as part of the Salon De Virtuosi Awards Gala on October 14th, 2020) was videotaped and shared on YouTube.
Listen beyond the “WOW!” first impression
When I first listened to it, I was impressed by the virtuosity. Virtuosity on the shakuhachi and also virtuosity of the composition. My attention was especially caught by the Variation aspect, the variations of styles: from Traditional Japanese at the beginning, we go through different “sceneries” where Zac shows his vast musical knowledge: ballad, cartoon, romantic film music, classical flute with cadenza, to mention a few, until the short Japanese style coda like a short memory of the beginning. I called it “Passacaglia of styles”. Just to put names on influences, because throughout the piece, Zac’s music is just his and inimitable style. Virtuosity is so natural for him that it reaches the harmonic goal: playing chords with a melodic instrument. Don’t get me wrong, such virtuosity means thousands of hours of practicing.
But where was the Haiku?
The YouTube video’s description mentions:
The piece begins with a musical haiku of 5, 7, and 5 notes, and what follows is a series of variations on those motifs.
I listened again and was intrigued enough to contact Zac to ask him whether he would like to send me a few words about his music. Here below is his answer.
A Honkyoku is a traditional old shakuhachi piece which was played by the Komuso Monks to practice Suizen, the breathing meditation. There are no honkyoku for beginners. They are all difficult. But so beautiful. At least, some of them are short and can be played by beginners.
The Japanese traditional way to learn shakuhachi is to start with children songs and folk tunes. But most of my students don’t take shakuhachi to play this repertoire, they want to play zen music. As I did when I started to learn shakuhachi.
So I decided to write simplified versions of some short honkyoku to make them more accessible and to enable my students to understand the spirit and the right blowing experience of them. Because of too many information too soon in the learning process, the pure line of the music and the spiritually of the piece often disappear behind the technical difficulties.
After practicing these simplified versions, my students go to the original versions and they can follow the line and add the ornaments much easier. It is more rewarding.
Introduction to Kyorei, Yamato Choshi, Honte Choshi and Tamuke
Some time ago I thought that my teaching material for beginners might be useful for other students who don’t have a teacher to guide them. Therefore I have been working hard the last months to update those simplified versions of Kyorei, Yamato Choshi, Honte Choshi and Tamuke, add preparatory exercises, record them all and put them all together in a booklet for self-study with an audio playlist to play alongwith.
As the shakuhachi repertoire was originally transmitted from master to student most of the time without notation, listening to the master and repeating after him was the way to learn a piece. So I would like to encourage shakuhachi students to listen and play along as much as possible to integrate the sound, breathing, pitch and rhythm. The ultimate goal would be to learn all the four pieces by heart and play them with the audio files.
So here it is! A step-by-step guide to your four first honkyoku!
In this post, you will find 5 meditations with shakuhachi on the Chakras of Earth: the Root Chakra, Sacral Chakra and Solar Plexus Chakra.
Those three Chakras are related to the abdominal breathing which is used to play shakuhachi.
Hence theses meditations on the Chakras of Earth will improve your awareness of your abdominal breathing. If you practice them regularly you will feel more grounded and you will be able to connect to your breath more easily in any situation.
Beside the physical awareness, the Chakra meditations also work on an emotional level, which will be also explained.
NB: In order not to spam my followers who are not interested in this topic, the next Chakras Meditations will be published as Pages and not as Posts. You will find them back here.
Chakra Meditationwith shakuhachi is a meditation technique I have been developing in the last few years and started to share online this year during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is inspired by Chakra breathing meditations but its purpose is not to provide Sound Healing, nor it is a musical practice. It is a technique to improve and go deeper into your daily meditation with shakuhachi.
Practitioners do report feeling better afterwards. And it can help you a lot to improve your shakuhachi playing through increasing your physical awareness and relaxation. All you need is a few minutes a day… and a shakuhachi.
In these challenging times of Covid-19 pandemic, I notice that meditating on the chakras with shakuhachi gives energy and helps people to feel more grounded and better prepared to tackle negative emotions. I experience it myself every Monday evening with my online group during our common shakuhachi meditation.
“Can you hold the body and spirit as one?” Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu
These courses will enable you to practice with me at home, at your own time and rhythm.