Teach Yourself Beginner’s Manuals

I first posted this section before the widespread ability to have one-on-one lessons over the internet. If you can’t have face-to-face lessons with a shakuhachi teacher, then internet lessons trump ‘teach yourself manuals’. If however, you still want to teach yourself how to play the shakuhachi (I don’t advise it, for reasons that I’ve explained elsewhere), here are my two choices.

I recommend that you purchase both of these books. Firstly, they will provide you with different tools, knowledge and explanations. You will need all the tools and all of the help you can get if you are planning to try to teach yourself shakuhachi. Secondly, you will easily be able to afford both books, with all of the money you save in lesson fees.

I have been recommending for many years to folks who have no teacher and can’t read Japanese, a book by Carl Abbott, called Blowing Zen: One Breath, One Mind.  It is available by writing directly to him: 406 Lincoln St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 USA. It can also be ordered through Monty Levenson’s comprehensive shakuhachi website.

Abbott’s book is in Kinko notation, which, except for in Australia and Hawaii, is the most common notation used outside of Japan. I usually suggest learning Kinko notation before Tozan because of the important fact that the repertoire of pieces called honkyoku (‘original’ or ‘main pieces’ from the Zen Buddhist tradition) doesn’t exist in Tozan notation.

Also, a variation of Kinko notation is used to notate honkyoku of other lineages (eg. my teacher Yokoyama’s pieces and the Meian pieces). In addition, Abbott’s book has a number of features that other teach yourself books don’t have, such as a section on making one’s own practice instruments and another section that graphically and effectively takes a beginner through his/her first honkyoku.

This book includes recordings. Carl also has several follow-on books for the really motivated self-taught person. These books include one with more challenging pieces, for more advanced players, and one with well-known western pieces, in shakuhachi notation. The latter is particularly useful in developing a sense of pitch while playing the shakuhachi.

People who already can read staff notation, can teach themselves to read western staff notation on their shakuhachi in a very short time with minimal effort. For example, beautiful music composed or arranged for the alto/tenor recorder is close to the 1.8 shaku length shakuhachi range. As recorder players know, there is no lack of that sort of music around.

The other teach-yourself shakuhachi beginner’s manual that I recommend is The Shakuhachi; A Manual for Learning, by Christopher Yohmei Blasdel. This superb book also uses Kinko notation. It can also be ordered on-line from Monty.

Here is the link to Blasdel’s website.

The Shakuhachi: A Manual for Learning was recently revised, and most importantly now includes recordings of the pieces taught in the book. In addition, this book also contains a translation of one of the best articles on the history of shakuhachi (by Kamisangô) ever written. I know this because I quoted the same article extensively in my PhD thesis.

I recommend that you buy both books, even if you are learning from a teacher.

Finally, in the Members Area, you can download all of the beginners exercises, folksongs, etc, with recordings and a fingering chart, which I use when an absolute beginner comes to me. The notation is Chikuho as taught to me by Sakai Chikuho II. While this written and recorded material was never meant to be a ‘teach-yourself’ manual, you could use it, perhaps with one or two internet lessons with me, to teach yourself the shakuhachi.


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