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How to produce ‘kan’ (upper octave)

Upper octave needs more ‘energy’ than lower octave. That is, the air has to go through the flute faster. You can do this two ways. One is by blowing ‘harder’, that is, by pushing more air through the same sized opening in your lips. The second way is by making your embouchure smaller, ie, pushing the same amount of air through a smaller sized opening in your lips. Both ways make the air go faster.

You have to do either/both enough so that the upper octave is produced. In fact, the upper octave is already present in the lower octave, so another way of thinking of the process is that you have to increase the ‘energy’ of the air stream to the point that the lower octave drops out so that you hear the upper octave.

Making the opening in your lips smaller is more difficult for beginners than blowing more air through the flute, because beginners haven’t developed enough strength and control in the lips/embouchure. But they (you) should try. Even by trying and failing to get the upper octave using embouchure control instead of just blowing harder will still develop the muscles.

Changing the angle that you blow into the flute sometimes helps to produce the upper octave, by helping to make the opening smaller. But this method is never going to help you get a good, easy upper octave. You need muscle control to do that and the only way to get stronger and more controlled muscles is to use them.

The main thing is to keep trying. Ask anyone who can produce ‘kan’ consistently and easily, how many hours she or he’s spent blowing into her flute and you’ll get an idea of why she or he can get the upper octave easier than you. But not to worry; you won’t have to spend so many hours before you too can produce ‘kan’ easily.

One way to develop good muscle strength and control is to play every note, including the lower ‘otsu’ octave as if you were trying to get upper octave. Try to be on the edge all the time, producing a focused sound that is either in kan, if you want to be there or nearly is, even when you want to be in otsu.

How many octaves should a good shakuhachi be able to play?

The answer depends, I suppose, on your definition of a ‘good shakuhachi’. Most decent 1.8 length flutes can produce in the third octave, the pitches e, f#, g, g#, a, b, (or is it a# and not b?) and c. Some can produce a fourth octave d on a good day. These are all pitches above the tsu-no-meri (d#) made by opening the 2nd and 5th finger holes.

If you count the otsu no ro meri, then that’s three complete octaves minus a few pitches, notably f-natural, for example. A 7-hole 1.8 shakuhachi can produce the high f-natural too. Longer flutes, for example 2.3 or 2.4 (with a fundamental or otsu no ro of A below middle C) usually produce the third octave above otsu no ro, or the pitch ‘A’ way above the treble staff.

This means that when the otsu no ro-meri (a-flat) and otsu no ro dai meri (g) are added, one is getting into the fourth octave! Many of these ‘dai kan’ notes are not very useable in performance (for example, with the 1.8, most of the pitches above the g#), but are great for developing one’s embouchure muscles.

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.

Never too old

Someone once asked me if his desire to begin learning the shakuhachi at the ‘advanced’ age of 38 was a sign of mid-life crisis, being too old to start learning a musical instrument. Below is my reply:

If you think 38 is ‘mid-life’, then think again boy-o.

You are still very young and could become a master musician as easily as one who is much younger.

Really the advantage youngsters have over older people is that they are more likely to have the 5-8 hrs a day to practice needed to become a ‘master’. So it is really not age but circumstance that gives most youngsters the advantage.

But in your case, try practicing 30 minutes to one hour a day for a start. The more the better, but that is sufficient for you to reach your goal in a few years (ie., 300-400 hrs of practice).