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Introducing the Shakuhachi

The Shakuhachi is the simplest of musical instruments, but in the hands of a master musician, the flute is capable of an immeasurable variety of dynamics and timbre. The long diminishing notes, coupled with unusual techniques and almost inaudible grace notes, produce beautiful, haunting melodies. Phrases are played to the full ability of one's breath. The sound has a distinct Zen flavour, depicting with skillful simplicity the beauty of nature.

One very striking feature of shakuhachi playing is the wonderful use of movement and physical gesture in performance. This is because fine pitch and timbrel control is achieved through the repositioning of the blowing edge to a consistent embouchure. Moving the flute in space also provides the musician with visual and tactile cues to monitor these finer parameters of sound control. Sideways movements of the head, tilting of the flute and head are all common techniques seen in shakuhachi playing. These movements are interpreted from the score as fingering patterns written to sound another pitch; tilt and head movements are then used to compensate the pitch resulting in specifc timbrel and dynamic effects.

Unlike the Western flute, the shakuhachi appears basic and economical. In reality, first impressions can be very deceiving. Five large open holes allow for cross, half, quarter fingerings for accurate micro-tonal control of pitch. In fact, several Ryu (schools) of shakuhachi have categorised up to 60 divisions of the octave so tuning control now becomes a life journey, not a constraint.

Advice for Beginners

Points on getting a strong tone

When you play Shakuhachi you ideally want an embouchure that is fixed like a recorder mouthpiece, so the high octave, and the low, can be played easily, without having to change the lip shape for each note played. (Holes on the shakuhachi are numbered from the bottom up, so the back hole is 5)

  1. Play 'C' (1, 2, 5 closed). Play it as strong and loud as possible. Not much goes wrong when this note is blown hard, as the sound is produced by a hole high up on the tube.
  2. When this note can be blown strongly, and pitched at 'C', immediately play the note below it: 'A' (4, 5 closed). Play it as strongly as the 'C'.
  3. Play this 'C' again, powerfully, then go up a note to 'D'. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 closed). Don't reduce the breath power just because you have changed notes. You have now gone from 'C' to a note in the low octave and from 'C' to the first note of the upper octave. Retain the same embouchure for these transitions.
  4. Gradually, add more notes going down and up from the 'C', all with a fixed embouchure, and all played with the same strength. To do this you must have good support from your hara (centre) - strong diaphragm!
  5. If the notes fail as you go further down and up the scale, then the embouchure is incorrect, and you have to experiment to find a better one.
P.S. With a poor shakuhachi this is not possible as the lower notes will 'flip' to the high octave, or 'warble' and 'burble' with the 'wolf' notes. This is one reason people do not play strongly, and the pitch of notes will be too low.