Tag Archives: Japanese bamboo flute

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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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?

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Tutorial Videos

When I opened my Virtual Shakuhachi Dojo on Patreon last February (https://www.patreon.com/shakudojo), I started to film tutorial videos for the patrons of the KAN Tier. Once a month, I address a specific topic or technique. So far I have published videos about abdominal breathing, embouchure for (absolute) beginners, the basic scale otsu, how to play in kan, how to attack a sound, how to warm up, meditation in nature. When you subscribe, you also get access to a PDF-file with basic exercises for practicing long tones, fingers, octaves and intervals. In the coming months, I’ll be filming how to practice these exercises and release the videos in my Dojo.

Why do you have to pay to get access to this content?

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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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SEIYU and the YUU

It has been already one year. One year of pandemic, lockdown, restrictions,… To continue working, I set up online lessons, online meditations, online workshops, a virtual dojo… I even composed a ZOOM-Duet!

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.

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Practice Practice Practice

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.

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Invitation to my virtual Shakuhachi Dojo!

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.

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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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