Tag Archives: Honkyoku

REFLECTION

Reflection CD Cover

My new CD “Reflection” is live !! This project started in the last trimester of 2019 with the composition of the first meditation pieces and it followed me into the Covid-19 period. Just when the pandemic started, I was about to perform some of my new pieces during a meditation concert that got cancelled. The first one of a long row… But these compositions and this recording project supported me day-in day-out, until I felt that it was time to release them into the digital world.

So here it is and you can listen to it through this link on your favourite digital platform.

The beautiful cover photo was taken by my husband Wim Scheenen. Please have a look at his inspiring website.

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Shakuhachi Wisdom

Inner & Outer Journey

In the history of shakuhachi, there is a strong shift: when the shakuhachi went from being a spiritual instrument to becoming a music instrument. It was at the end of the XIXe century, during the Meiji era. Actually it was a dreadful period for Zen Buddhism, thus shakuhachi. The Komuso monks were not allowed anymore and had to give lessons and concerts to survive. The shakuhachi took its part in chamber music with koto and shamisen to play “sankyoku“.
Apparently the zen tradition was still allowed in a couple of temples (to be practiced secretly?) and after some time, was allowed more officially again. I am not an historian so forgive my approximations in this story.

What inspires me is how the shakuhachi survived this transition: opening to the outside world. Like it followed an underground stream to reappear further, when its time had come again. In the meantime, the Tozan school of modern shakuhachi was born and Japanese music was more and more influenced by the Western culture.

And then, in the 1960’s, shakuhachi was almost dead again. Shakuhachi master Yokoyama Katsuya realised that the shakuhachi had to be brought further to the outside world, meaning outside of Japan. Shakuhachi reached the USA, Australia, and later Europa and the rest of the world, other Asian countries included. The interest for traditional shakuhachi in Japan is still low (please correct me if I’m wrong here), but still exists. And shakuhachi has reached different of styles of music: jazz, pop music , movies, video games, etc.

Yet, the spiritual tradition is still alive and has been developing more and more outside of Japan as well. This is fascinating. It makes me wonder whether you need a balance between the inner and outer world to embrace shakuhachi fully. If so, how do you find this balance?

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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.

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5 Steps for A Meaningful Shakuhachi Practice

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”.

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Dark and Light in 2020

What a year!!

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

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 breath to 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.

Connect

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.

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Online Presentation on December 13th

Honkyoku for beginners

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:

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HONKYOKU for Beginners

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 along with.

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!

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SHAKUHACHI REPERTOIRE SPOTLIGHT #2 – CHOSHI 調子

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.

(The International Shakuhachi Society www.komuso.com)

Here is a short selection of my favorite ones.

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African Memories

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 Music Deezer, 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.

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SHAKUHACHI REPERTOIRE SPOTLIGHT #1 – Low Register

In the coming months, I will release a series of posts about a selection of pieces, from the very beginner pieces to some advanced ones. In addition to the information about the piece itself that you can already find in the “Repertoire” section, I will give some tips to practice them.
NB: Practice tips don’t replace the guidance of a shakuhachi master.

I rarely teach folksongs and sankyoku (only if the student asks for it). So this selection will mainly consist of honkyoku and some modern music (among them, some of Fukuda Teruhisa’s compositions and my own compositions).

Let’s start with the beginning!

#1. What pieces can you play only in the low register (otsu)?

When you are a beginner, the upper octave (Kan) can be challenging. There is only a couple of honkyoku (to my knowledge) that you can play entirely in the first register: HiFuMi Chō and Kyorei (depending on the version: some versions of Kyorei contain a “kan” section).
To provide my students with some extra pieces in the Otsu (low) register, I wrote “10 Easy Pentatonic Melodies“. The first 6 are exclusively in Otsu.

Let’s have a look at these pieces:

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