The Battle of the Embouchure

It’s been more than a year since I started learning the shakuhachi. It took a few months to get reliable sounds, and then, last summer, I learned my first piece: Kyorei. It’s a relatively simple piece, though there are a couple of tough notes (that tsu-no-meri, which my teacher calls “the soul of the shakuhachi.”)

I played that for a while, started learning bits of two other pieces, then, in the fall, I realized that something was wrong. There was a lot of tension in my lower jaw. In short, I was pushing my jaw out and downward to get a sound, and this was certainly not a good idea.

Embouchure is the word for the position of your mouth on the shakuhachi (it’s used with other instruments that you blow into as well). It’s the most important thing you learn, because it’s how you get sound, regulate your notes, and add nuances, such as meri (flat) notes.

Well, my embouchure was simply wrong. I had to start over. And this was very frustrating. It took months of trial and error, of looking in a mirror, of trying different lip positions and different ways of blowing. I discovered that have a central vermillion tubercle, as well as an overbite. (See this forum post from 2006 by Perry Yung discussing the former, and some others in the thread discussing the latter.) This meant that I needed to learn how to get around these two impediments. (It’s worth noting that I also have pollen allergies, and this spring, there has been very high pollen where I live. When my allergies are active, my lips swell a bit, complicating things even more.)

I think I have finally figured this out. It involves placing the flute a bit to the left of center against my lips, because I blow out air to the left of my tubercle, and, today, my teacher helped me discover the additional thing I needed to do to get sound. I have to turn the shakuhachi about ten degrees to the right, so I’m not blowing straight against the utaguchi, but on a slight angle. It’s possible that as I progress, I’ll be able to adjust this and hold the flute straighter – it’s barely noticeable if you watch me play – and I’m sure as I get more confident in my sound, it will become easier.

I’m sure many people can learn to get good sound out of the instrument more quickly than I have. But for me, it has been a long, yet interesting experience learning how to feel my lips and jaw, and learning how to face the frustration of taking one step forward and three steps back.

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