You can find lots of videos of shakuhachi players on YouTube, but probably the one that has the best quality is this video of Fukuda Teruhisa playing Shika-no-Tone. It’s pro shot, with multiple cameras, in black and white, and it has lots of close ups so you can see his fingers and his mouth as he plays. I wish there were more videos of this quality to see how the great shakuhachi players perform.
Ro-buki is the practice of blowing nothing but ro, the lowest tone on the shakuhachi. While playing that shakuhachi can be a form of meditation, there is no practice that is more meditative than this. You can close your eyes, play, breathe, play, breathe, and so on, as long as you want.
Nothing is more indicative of how well you can shape and play a note than ro-buki. It’s the shakuhachi naked; with no ornaments, no changes in pitch, nor in volume, ro-buki is the vanilla ice cream of the shakuhachi.
I only started doing this recently, following my teacher’s instructions, but I already see the value of it. It makes you focus entirely on the embouchure, the steadiness of the breathing, and the bamboo-leaf shape of the note. It’s boring; it’s the same boredom of shikantaza (just sitting) zazen. You do nothing other than breathe.
Of course, it’s not as simple as just breathing and blowing. The goal – if there is a goal in what could be seen as a goalless practice – is to make each breath, each note sound as it should. Here are some tips for practicing ro-buki; here are some more tips; and Kaoru Kakizakai has some recordings of him playing ro-buki on four different shakuhachis (1.8, 2.4, 2.7, and 3.2) that you can play along with on his website.
It’s interesting to compare my feeble attempts at playing clean notes with the recording by Kaoru Kakizakai. Viewing his audio files in an audio editor, and recording myself and viewing my files, shows the shape of the waveform. His, here, flows smoothly, with even volume, tapering off with a slow decay.
Whereas mine is a mess, showing how uneven my breath is:
This shows how far I have to go.
I guess it would have been a bit of hubris if I had started writing this blog a year ago, with the assumption that I would continue playing the shakuhachi. That sort of thing would have been like live-tweeting my experience, which isn’t that interesting. I think it’s more worthwhile to look back now on the early days of my experience.
I’ve heard it said that the hardest thing about the shakuhachi is making a sound. I disagree; making a sound isn’t that hard, what is difficult is making that sound every time you blow, and making it consistent. My biggest difficulty over these twelve months has been my embouchure. At one point, I started being able to play quite well, but when I paid attention to what I was doing, I realized that I was pushing my lower jaw out a great deal. This was causing tension in my jaw muscles, and I had to start over (more or less) and learn the right way to do things.
Even now, perhaps six months after that realization, I have moments when I can’t play consistently, but lately this only seems to happen when I’m having bit of an allergic reaction to something (I’ve got allergy to pollen and dust). This swells my lips a bit, making it more difficult to keep my lips in the appropriate position.
But this is an interesting process. Each time I have trouble blowing, I pay attention to what I’m doing to try to find the cause. And, in fact, what is most interesting about playing the shakuhachi – compared to other instruments I’ve played – is that the actual sound of notes is so dependent on a few small muscles.
About a year ago, I started learning to play the shakuhachi. I had long been interested in this instrument, discovering its wonderful sound several decades ago, and had considered trying to learn it in recent years. In early 2018, I bought an instrument and started lessons.
On this blog, I plan to write occasional observations about learning to play the instrument, about its music, its history, and more. Thanks for stopping by.