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.
WORLD SHAKUHACHI DAY on October 8 – Let’s blow 108 RO!
Blow away Covid-19 !
This week there will be the first World Shakuhachi Day. We will blow 108 R0 to “express condolence with victims of Covid-19, sympathy and encouragement to infected and hospitalized patients, and to dedicate a heartfelt thanks to the medical staff and hope for a solution to fight back the disease. Let’s blow 108 Ro with the spirit of bowing away this global pandemic.”
As my ROBUKI practice lasts normally around 10 minutes, I trained counting until 108 RO and it took me 27 minutes (4 RO / minute). I didn’t have difficulty to count, putting a mental mark every 12 RO up to 9 times. Keeping a regular breathing rhythm and relaxing in the sound help me to stay focused.
For my following sessions of 108 RO, I put on the timer on 27 minutes, with a bell ring every 3 minutes (=12 ROx9). This helps me to hold on to my rhythm of 4 RO / minute and enables me to notice immediately if my breath becomes a little more shallow or my lips tense up.
On Thursday October 8, I will be celebrating the World Shakuhachi Day online at 8:30 PM (UTC+2) with a ROBUKI of 27 minutes (108 RO). If you would like to join, just contact me. All you need is a shakuhachi and a computer or a tablet with a webcam. Let’s blow 108 RO together!
Next to this event, ROBUKI is is part of my regular shakuhachi meditation. I like to put on the timer instead of counting how many RO I blow because it allows me to concentrate fully on my favourites meditation practices, which are the Loving-Kindness and the Tonglen Meditations.
When you start practicing honkyoku (traditional zen pieces), you will discover soon enough that none of them are easy. But some of them are short. These are called “Chōshi” or “Chō”. These short pieces are meant to warm up and tune in with yourself, the room and the audience if there is any. I like to call them “Meditation preludes“.
In the tradition of the Meian school of shakuhachi, the performer first warms up the bamboo and settles the mind for spiritual practice through the playing of a short introductory prelude piece. Expressing the essential spirit of Koten honkyoku, Chōshi (literally, small melody) serves to establish the pitch and to center the musician. This piece is characterised by a pure focus on breath.
While having to keep physical distanciation for who knows how long, meeting online via Zoom or Skype has become a good alternative to connect to each other.
Earlier this year, the “RO-BUKI Wave Across The World” gave me the idea to create a Shakuhachi Online Community to blow and meditate together once a week. During the sessions, the focus goes inwards, to connect to your body, to your inner peace through your breathing, and to blow with full awareness what your heart tells you (solidarity with the world’s sufferings, healing, compassion, love, emptiness, silence,…), uniting your sounds and efforts with those of the other participants.
The experience of the last months – before the summer break – worked beyond expectations (I didn’t have any actually). It brought a new dimension in my shakuhachi path. Meditating together is not teaching, it is sharing. I deeply enjoyed the connection to fellow shakuhachi players from different countries. Level doesn’t matter. Some participants are my students, some are not. How good this feels.
Once a month, we had a Q&A session which brought very interesting reflexions and interactions in the group.
So it’s time to resume the weekly meetings, starting on September 7. Grab your favorite shakuhachi and let’s RO together!
My first debut CD (or single) is released!! It features 3 compositions for solo shakuhachi in which I explore my African roots as well as the relationships between Japanese and African spiritualities. It is now available online on all digital platforms like Spotify, iTunes, Amazon MusicDeezer, etc. In the coming months, the music notations will be available as well.
It was a huge work, the musical result of which being only the tip of the iceberg. I was dreaming of recording a CD already for years. Honkyoku? Modern music? Birds? At a point, it became obvious that my first recording should be my own compositions. Who I am. Where I come from. And what I can do with a shakuhachi.
This is a follow up to my previous post about Stress & Shakuhachi. As I wrote before, this is a topic which cannot be covered in one or even several posts. And I am not a psychologist nor a professional coach. The aim of these posts is to help you setting things in motion if you are overwhelmed by stress when playing in front of your teacher or in public and end up panicking instead of enjoying.
Stress is a natural emotion. But when it becomes overwhelming, it can be annoying. To my experience, if you don’t do anything about it, it doesn’t go better with the years. It can even get worse, if you find yourself in the same situation again and again. I know very sad stories about professional musicians who couldn’t overcome the stress of playing under pressure and got trapped into a vicious circle going downwards. It is not a matter of level or experience (the “you’ll get used to it“… is rarely true).
The shakuhachi can have a beneficial role in this situation – not that it will remove your stress magically, that would be too easy! – but because it works on long breaths and the breath is directly connected to our emotions. Take a look at what happens to your breath when you are nervous, surprised, scared, laughing, crying,… My magical mantra to release stress in non-shakuhachi situations is “TSU-REEEEE………”
But with your shakuhachi, you can also experience stress: stress of performance (playing before people, before your teacher), stress of the sound not coming out when you want it and how you want it. It can lead to frustrating experiences, blocking you in sharing your music and enjoying doing it. Leaving it to chance (“maybe next time it will go better“) is not a serious option. Better have a closer look into it.