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Flutes Riley Lee Articles

What sort of flute do you need in order to play Watazumi Dokyoku?

Someone recently was quoted as saying, “you can’t play Watazumi dokyoku songs properly without a very good flute,” and that “flutes that other people have aren’t up to the task.” It was pointed out that this wasn’t really egalitarian, as not everyone can afford a “very good flute.”

I cannot see the rationale behind these statements. I think one would agree that Watazumi himself played the Watazumi dokyoku ‘properly’, yes? As many know, Watazumi made the point, more than once, to play all sorts of flutes, including pieces of lousy bamboo, flutes made by kids, etc.

In fact, Watazumi’s way of looking at things is less egalitarian than the opinion stated above. Anyone can buy, to give two examples of what are considered good flutes and are very expensive, a Miura or Rampo flute if they really work and save enough money. It is not that difficult to save up for one of these flutes. They cost much less, for example, than most new cars and look how many new cars are sold worldwide each year.

In contrast, most people (nearly everyone!) no matter how much time they spend practicing, will never, ever, play dokyoku ‘properly’, that is, as Watazumi played them, especially on any old piece of bamboo! One can’t get more elitist than that!

The game, as far as I can see it, is not about good, better and best flutes. It is about making do with what you have, including whatever flute you have, but also your own self, for example your lips, lungs, patience, ability to concentrate, intelligence, hearing, memory, finger coordination, sense of rhythm, etc., etc. That’s what I think.

Riley Lee Shakuhachi teacher

How much should one spend on a shakuhachi?

In my opinion, one should buy the best instrument one can afford. How much one can afford depends not only upon one’s financial situation, but also one’s commitment to the instrument, and one’s priorities. For example, as a professional player, I can ‘afford’ more expensive flutes than I could if I wasn’t a professional, with the same income.

Having ‘good’ flutes are possibly more of a necessity for me than if my livelihood didn’t depend on it. Everyone has to decide for themselves at what price does a flute stop being a necessity. So it really boils down to a personal decision. There is no reason to wait until one is a ‘better’ player before buying a ‘better’ (or more expensive) flute, so far as I can see. A total beginner will still get more from a good flute than a not so good one.

The issue of choosing an instrument is a totally different one, however. The better the flutes, the more difficult it is to determine their strengths and weaknesses. A total beginner will not be able to tell the difference between a $100 flute and a $10,000 flute, at least in terms of playing, much less the difference between a $9000 flute and a $10000 flute, or a $1000 one and a $1500 one, or two flutes priced exactly the same.

I recommend that you buy the best instrument you can afford and that you have a person or persons who you trust (ideally your teacher, or someone that plays like you want to play) help you choose that instrument. Though I could justify buying the most expensive flutes in existence, many of my flutes are quite moderate in price. A more expensive flute is not necessarily a better one, especially after a certain level (US$2000-3000?).

Finally, what makes one flute ‘better’ than another flute, can be subjective after a certain point. The best way to acquire a good flute is usually through a teacher or shakuhachi player that you respect and trust.

Differences in Sound and Playing Between Ji-nashi and Standard Instruments

There are many differences between ji-nashi flutes and flutes made with ji. But then, there is also an infinite number of differences between all of the flutes that are made with ji. In other words, it’s hard to generalise. Many people (including me) think that excellent ji-nashi flutes are very desirable. But this might be a personal preference thing, rather than something based upon concrete and consistent observations.

Among the subjective words I might use to describe the sounds that an exceptional ji nashi flute might make, are ‘mellow’, ‘rich’, ‘traditional’, ‘complex’, ‘rough’, etc.. None of these words really describe the actual physical sound, but we all know what they mean, at least to ourselves!

Perhaps, if you can’t tell the difference by yourself when playing on the two types of flutes or listening to them being played, then there is no point really in listening to someone else’s opinion on the subject. Generalising about pitch or intonation might also be counterproductive. The quality of intonation varies between all flutes, whether they have ji in them or not.

One might observe floating around more ji-nashi flutes w/bad intonation or dud notes, than flutes w/filler. This doesn’t mean that therefore ji-nashi flutes, by definition, have worse intonation than flutes with ji. It’s just that it is easier to make a bamboo flute w/out ji than w/ji (so lots of ji-nashi flutes), but it’s easier to make a flute with good intonation and no dud notes using ji (so lots of ji-nashi flutes with bad intonation and dud notes).

By the way, one should never, ever think that by playing ji-nashi shakuhachi, one doesn’t need to sound musical. There is only one excuse, or rather reason, for that — not enough practice.

I am blessed with a number of ji-nashi or nearly ji-nashi flutes with good intonation and a minimal of questionable notes. I’ve seen many more ji nashi flutes in others’ possession that play much better than my own. Maybe I’m not so blessed after all…

Here’s what I like about ji-nashi, or nearly ji-nashi shakuhachi. They can be very difficult to control, in other words, they are even more challenging than shakuhachi made with ji. Why would anyone want that!?! [Maybe because shakuhachi players are ‘special’ people. In German, I think the word would be ‘komisch‘.]    :-)

Ji-nashi flutes make various sounds, noises, weird harmonics or no sound when I do lose control. I try my utmost and spend a great deal of time and effort trying to learn how to control these flutes, and avoid the various sounds, noises, etc. And yet…

And yet, it is that extra effort of trying to stay in control, that ever-present risk of losing control and the unexpected, unintended addition to the ‘music’ of the various sounds, noises (or even the ‘no sound’) when I inevitably lose control, that I enjoy most about these flutes.

In other words, when playing these flutes, I try my best to eliminate the very things I like most about playing the flutes. How weird (komisch) is that!?!

In any case, I never have to worry about succeeding in eliminating those unintended elements, because I never will.

Blowing edge inlays and about the flutes I use and play

I have found that inlays do very little to the texture of the sound. I’ve broken inlays and the flutes played no differently. I’ve played on flutes with the inlay totally knocked out. The sound was a little bit fuzzier; that’s all.

I have flutes made by Yamaguchi Shugetsu (Nara), the Kôno family (the deceased father and both sons), Ichijô (Osaka?), Okamoto Chikudo (Okayama?). David Brown (Aus.), and some others I don’t know who made them. My favourite no.1 most used 1.8 flute is one that Tom Deaver made me. My 2.7 (G) is totally without ji, and my 3.1 shaku length flute is virtually a true ‘ji-nashi’ flute, with only small dabs of ji in three places. Its ‘ro’ is F. It is very responsive and easy to play considering its length. Being ji-nashi, it is very light in weight too. It was made by a fellow named Yamaguchi Shugetsu, who lives in Nara.

My longest flute is a 3.6, totally ji-nashi, made by my dear friend, Kurita-san. It is a joy to play. It is the most demanding flute to play. It is really really hard to play. But it is wonderful, in part because with effort it is in tune and can produce all the notes and sounds needed to play my favourite honkyoku. As implied by it’s length, it is exactly one octave below a standard 1.8 shakuhachi, a very low D.

I have four others by Yamaguchi, a 1.1 (F), a 1.3 (G), a 1.9 (D#), and a 2.7 (G). All play very well. I have yet to play a really long flute (over 2.6) that I thought was better than the ones I’ve seen of Yamaguchi. I have played a fair few by Miura Ryuho, which I have seen in the USA, and more recently those of my students who have purchased them while studying in Japan. I think that they are exceptional flutes. I recently acquired a new 1.8 by Tom Deaver that I am thrilled about. It will replace my primary 1.8, which was also by Tom Deaver. It has many of the qualities of the Miura flutes I’ve played on, and then some. It’s price was also much less. I also recently bought a 2.2 (A#) by Tom Deaver. One of the many joys of being a professionaly shakuhachi player is not really having to have an excuse to buy another shakuhachi, even one with as obscure length as a 2.2!

My new ‘fat’ Deaver flute projects well, which is important when performing for anything other than the smallest audiences, especially with other musicians. Plus it is as mellow as any flute I’ve played. I also have 1.8, 2.1 and 2.4 Gyokusui flutes (made for me by the deceased Gyokusui elder in 1972-1973) which have that mellow quality. These flutes are wonderful for honkyoku.

I have flutes made by Gyokusui (son) and a 2.0 by Gyokuzan (younger son of Gyokusui), and a 1.7 by Okamoto Chikugai. I like all of these flutes. Finally, I use ones made by Australian maker David Brown. The best is to try lots of flutes by many makers, if only to appreciate your own flute all the better. More likely, you might find a few flutes that are not better or lesser than your flute, just different. Trying to compare some flutes is like comparing kaki with nashi…