The Practice of Shakuhachi

Anyone Can Play Shakuhachi!

By Alcvin Ramos

Shakuhachi can be studied from all walks of life: philosophers, artists, doctors, lawyers, housewives, secretaries, nurses, fire fighters, police officers, grade school students. The motivation behind each individual’s study of shakuhachi varies from the desire to learn a good form of meditation, to a desire to study an amazing traditional Japanese musical art form.

The study of shakuhachi is what you make of it. The world of shakuhachi is deep and broad. You can tread a purely musical, intellectual road or you can dive into the profound realms of meditation and spiritual development or a blend of both. Each student maintains control of their own individual training level. Shakuhachi can be enjoyed by both player and listener; but to understand shakuhachi one must hold and blow the instrument. You must listen to the sounds of nature because it will continually provide you with different stimuli and a feeling for the traditional pieces. During the learning process, you must always strive to keep an open mind. By doing this your technique will become more diverse and take on new meaning.

One of the hardest things to overcome for the beginning student is the feeling that you are not “good” enough in playing. This is erroneous thinking. Shakuhachi is a most humbling path. It requires great patience and the ability to let go of much of what one has learned in the past and open oneself up to a new and different way. We must relearn our most basic skill of breathing, listening, sitting, and moving. This may be the most challenging and perhaps the most rewarding of experiences. Learning something of great quality never comes quickly. Just as a finely crafted piece of art takes time to create, the learning of shakuhachi requires years of study. We must develop patience with ourselves and then add to that, by learning patience and understanding of others.

Caring for your Shakuhachi

Extra care must be taken to keep your bamboo shakuhachi in good condition. It’s important to keep the humidity and temperature level moderate and constant to to reduce the chance of it from splitting. Always clean the inside of the shakuhachi with a cleaning cloth after a session of playing. If splitting occurs, don’t panic! Repairs are fairly easy to do. If you don’t have experience in repairing, it is best to return it to the original maker or reputable shakuhachi repair person.

When not in use, keep the utaguchi blowing edge protected to prevent from damaging it. In more drier climates, keep the flute in a plastic bag with a bit of damp cloth next to the flute to help keep the humidity stable. Bamboo splitting occurs whenever there is a drastic change in temperature and humidity. Therefore, NEVER place your shakuhachi near a heater, fire place, in a trunk of a sun-baked car, or by a wall with direct summer sunlight hitting it for any length of time. Likewise, never leave a shakuhachi outside in a cold, dry place, like a garage or  wood shed. Doing so will increase greatly the chance of the bamboo splitting due to the extreme change in temperature and humidity. Take care of your shakuhachi!

RO-buki and Practicing Long Tones for the Shakuhachi

RO is the first note on a shakuhachi, with all finger holes closed. “Buki” is the Japanese verb stem from “fuku”, which means “to blow”. Therefore “RO-buki” means “to blow RO”. The practice of RO-buki, specifically in the otsu-no-RO (lowest octave of RO) position, as the starting point of shakuhachi playing is very important. It prepares the embouchure for the demands of the music about to be undertaken. There are various forms of RO-buki that one can practice to develop blowing technique and dynamics.

The following are some exercises that I’ve learned through the years, and can also be practiced with all the basic tones of the shakuhachi. Breathing in through the nose and mouth while relaxing the body and pushing the air down into the stomach. Out breath should be emphasized. If you feel your shoulders coming up, push them down and the air should go down to your diaphragm. At the end of your note push out as much air from your lungs as you can.

  1. “Sasa-buki”: Start out as quietly as possible, then gradually getting louder and louder and gradually trailing off to nothing again.
  2. “Kusabi-buki”: Start with a strong muraiki and trail off to nothing. Then reverse: start out as quiet as possible and increase volume to muraiki.
  3. “Kyosui”: similar to the the kusabi-buki, but starting with a more natural breath and trailing off into nothingness as gently as possible, accenting the silence at the end.
  4. “Tsuzumi”: Attack with a blast of air (e.g. muraiki) and quiet down to almost nothing and then ending on another muraiki.
  5. Volume control: Blowing each note as quitely as possible. This is especially challenging in the upper registers. Do not use kubi-furi (vibrato with neck) or breath vibrato as in Western flute playing, while doing long tones.


Complimentary Exercises

Practicing each note for 5 minutes all the way up the pentatonic scale in each octave is a good hour of practice.

To help develop a strong sound, it helps to imagine there is a ping-pong sized ball in your mouth while you blow. Make sure you are blowing “kari” properly. Kari means that you are blowing more up and across the edge, rather than too down and into the flute (meri). Blowing at the proper direction is important to get proper pitch. It’s a common mistake for beginners to blow too meri (flatly).

Play different lengths of flutes from 1.3 – 3.0.

Practicing shakuhachi in diverse situations will help you become a better player such as practicing long tones while facing in the wind, or when you gain enough confidence and skill, performing in public. This helps you develop ease and relaxation, control of your mind and body, and will make you a better player.

Be always conscious of your health: eating well and maintaining a healthy physique and psychology. Doing a proper warm up before exercises and playing is very important and must not be neglected. If your body and mind are not working properly, then your shakuhachi experience will suffer. Take good care of yourself!

Maximizing your sound

Maximizing your sound takes much time and dedicated practice. For most players, when first blowing a shakuhachi the natural tendency is to blow meri (flatly), perhaps blowing about 50/50 or more of their air across the edge down into their flute. But actually the aim is to get closer to 20% down into the flute and 80% going over the top. So, in essence, one is blowing more “kari” (sharply). (Note: In the shakuhachi world, “kari” is understood as the normal first position as well as playing sharper in relation to other notes.) This is very important in creating the desired effect. That means you’re blowing over the top more than into the flute. You can use a piece of tissue paper in front of the flute to guage how much air you’re blowing through the flute. Not only do you need to blow kari, but the lips must stay relaxed and controlled. Blowing kari accomplishes two things: 1) It allows more space between the lips and blowing edged for the air to achieve the effective impact between edge. 2) It allows more space between lips and edge so that access to the meri position is easier. Hitting the meri notes perfectly is very important since most people develop the habit of blowing meri, or flat, too much into the flute. Beginner students often comment that when trying to blow more kari, they feel they get too much of an airy sound and overtones. My advice is not to perceive the airy sound as a negative. It is part of the shakuhachi aesthetic. But once your embouchure becomes more developed, it is possible to blow kari, and in perfect pitch while minimizing the airy sound. Learn to control all aspects of your sound production. The tendency is to blow closer to the edge to get rid of the airy sound. This just makes you blow more meri, thus limiting your range of motion. Also, the cavity of your mouth should be wide. Teeth should be slightly apart. Throat should be wide open as well, not pinched, or tight. Shakuhachi master Yamaguchi Goro advised keeping the inside of the mouth wide open and is important in the production of a good sound. In addition to a controlled, developed embouchure that blows more kari, the air must be pushed from the diaphragm.

On a side note, learning to blow this way may cause you to modify your flute. During my early days of playing, I was blowing in a more meri position. The 2.4 (bass flute in A) I had at the time played at 440hz with my blowing position. When I started playing in a proper kari position, of course my whole flute became sharper (443hz or so). So I promptly sent my flute back to the maker and he lengthened my flute about half an inch to balance with my now new kari blowing technique. I also did some work on the angle of the chin rest for better kari positioning. Once I could play this way with some proficiency my experience of the shakuhachi deepened considerably.

Jinashi (hocchiku) vs. Jiari Playing

When playing jinashi shakuhachi (aka hocchiku) it is a much different approach than with the standard modern shakuhachi (jiari). First of all, the hocchiku style of shakuhachi is closer to the original state of the bamboo as opposed to the ji (paste)-lined/lacqured, refined bore of the modern shakuhachi. When you blow through a hocchiku flute there is more air resistance; therefore, a softer, more concentrated way of blowing is required to play. Also more sensitivity is needed to control the pitch due to the irregularities of the bore. But it is possible to tune the bamboo by oneself by filing some parts of the inner area of the holes of the flute. In the end the skill of the person playing is the final determiner of the hocchiku experience. Of course you can add a little ji  (paste) to tune it and get it sounding close to a shakuhachi as well. But among hocchiku enthusiasts, closer to the original state, within reason, is more desirable. Insertion of sharp-edged inlays in the utaguchi make the sound of the flute brighter and clearer. But rather than the big sound, the power of the hocchiku lies in it’s accent on the still, silent, and often complex sound which is consciously (or unconsciously) achieved when you have control of your embouchure and body. Listening to the flute in a small, intimate space is a subtly intense and beautiful experience. The hocchiku and shakuhachi are symbiotically connected in that playing one enhances the other. So I encouraged the practice of both styles of flute for a wider appreciation of the shakuhachi.

I feel that playing with awareness of pitch and the wide spectrum of tone colors is important when playing the hocchiku. In my experience, I find that with the hocchiku (even more than the jiari shakuhachi) the changes of the bamboo and/or my body from one day to the next are much more perceptible.

All that being said, even if you play hocchiku off pitch, and in a simple manner, even if you barely get a sound out of it, but play from your heart, it still moves me greatly to experience that as well. To be your self, simple, and unadorned is true beauty. This is the real heart of shakuhachi.