How to take apart a shakuhachi

The best method to take apart a Shakuhachi

Blowing Zen

Thoughts on Hocchiku and blowing zen

In some of the discussions about shakuhachi/hochiku/hoki, etc., there seems to be some confusion between music making and spiritual practice/blowing Zen (suizen).

Nothing new here, as this confusion has been in Japan and elsewhere long before we shakuhachi list people came on the scene.

Here is, in my opinion, an example of this confusion. There seems to be the idea that the meditative/spiritual endeavour of a person playing one type of instrument, eg, a shakuhachi, is somehow more or less valuable than that of one playing another type of instrument, eg, a hochiku or hocchiku.

A belief that the nature of one’s instrument defines one’s spiritual experience is as absurd as believing that doing meditation in, for example, a temple (built specifically for the purpose) is, by definition, and always will be, ‘better’ than doing meditation, for example, at home (built for other purposes). Sometimes this may be true, but not because of the buildings themselves.

Some instruments might be more condusive to meditation, just as some buildings are more conducive to meditation. But no material ‘thing’ exists that is more or less inately spiritual than any other ‘thing’.

I would take it one step further: to think that a hochiku is particularly more spiritual than a regular shakuhachi, or an electric guitar or any other musical instrument, is risking mistaking the plate for the food.

I appreciate the pleasure of making and playing simple bamboo flutes, hochiku or otherwise. I also respect and acknowledge the challenges these instruments present to their players. I know that often a challenging instrument can make for a great performance, eg, a recording I recently heard, of Choshi played on a quickly and roughly made flute.


If “the main difference between a shakuhachi and a hochiku is the philosophy behind the two instruments,” and, if one plays a shakuhachi with the same PHILOSOPHICAL attitude as when one plays a hochiku, then where is the difference? There may have been a difference in attitude during the making of the instrument, but we are talking here about playing the bamboo, not making the flute.

For example, imagine (it’s not hard!) someone who practices ‘blowing Zen’ for years on what s/he thinks is a really good hochiku, made in the spirit of the hochiku. But actually the flute is really just a badly made shakuhachi. Or imagine that the person knows that the flute wasn’t made as a hochiku, but, doesn’t care how the flute was made; s/he just wants to do ‘blowing Zen’.

So, for argument’s sake, this shakuhachi wasn’t made in the ‘spirit’ of a hochiku, but rather by someone who had never even heard of the hochiku tradition, and who just wasn’t very skilled at making shakuhachi. The flute can’t play ‘dai kan’; the sound disappears with all but a small volume of air; it is so out of tune that it can’t easily play pitches based on natural laws of physics (such as octaves); it can’t be played together with other folks, etc. It requires a gentle, controlled breath to make it work. (This sounds just like a description of a hochiku.) In any case, the player thinks that this shakuhachi, even though it isn’t a hochiku, does very nicely when ‘blowing Zen’.

What is the difference between the person using this instrument and another person who practices ‘blowing Zen’ on an ‘authentic’ hochiku made by a maker who is very much into the ‘hochiku’ tradition?

In my opinion, sometimes discussions of differences between hochiku and shakuhachi might be attempts at placing a high value on one thing at the expense of other things. Generally speaking, value judgments are counterproductive in meditative practice.

Also, think a moment about the idea that it is very important to hear hochiku live. We are told this is so because much of the tone colour is lost on CDs. This may be true, but how does this differ from regular shakuhachi, or any other musical instrument?

[By the way, someone once asked/lamented how he could ever sound like a performer whose CD he recently listened to. Do not despair. From my limited experience, it is amazing what magic can occur in recording studios. Just try playing in a large concrete stairwell to get an idea of this. A good recording engineer can improve anybody’s sound even more than a good stairwell can!]

If the point of playing hochiku is to do blowing Zen, then the question is: Why would someone want to listen to ‘blowing Zen’ anyway, live or recorded? That would be like watching someone meditating. I suppose that doing so can be a calming, meditative experience, and if it helps one meditate, great.

One could argue that listening to a teacher play his/her hochiku helps one become better at playing one’s own hochiku. But then one is now talking about music making, not about spiritual practice. In general, you don’t get very good at meditating by watching someone else play a flute.

It can be meditative watching people meditate, but likewise, it can be meditative listening to music. Observing spiritual practice isn’t a very rewarding spectator activity. Listening to music however, is.

With spiritual practice, it DOES NOT matter what sort of bamboo flute you blow into. It might be better if you threw all of your pieces of bamboo away, as just more distractions, and got on with meditating.

Music making can be spiritual practice, and spiritual practice can include the making of music. They are, nevertheless, two distinct activities. They work under different rules. Confusing the two can result both in bad music and ineffective spiritual practice.

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.

Relating to the Crane Pieces

There are many Crane pieces. Some of their names are Tsuru no Sugomori, Sukaku, Koden Sugomori and Sokaku Reibo.

Koden means “old transmission”; the word in itself has nothing to do with the Crane part of the titles. In other words, one could have ‘Koden Shirabe’ or ‘Koden Takiochi’, etc. “Koden Sugomori” is not necessarily the original’ piece (there is no ‘original’ in oral traditions), but is considered one of the oldest, if not the oldest version of the Crane pieces. Of course, there are a number of versions of “Koden Sugomori”.

Question for you: how can ‘many’ versions be the ‘oldest’ version? “Sukaku”, “Sugomori”, “Tsuru no Sugomori” all basically means Cranes Nesting. There appears to be two main streams of the Crane pieces. One stream or group seems to have been inspired or adapted or arranged from “Sugomori” pieces that already existed in the shamisen and kokyo (stringed instruments) repertoire. This stream or group of pieces seem to be centred around the Kansai (Osaka) area.

Another group of Crane pieces seem to have originated in the Kanto area, and may have been shakuhachi pieces from the beginning. Almost all Crane pieces share some characteristics, for example the use of ‘tama ne’, and certain embellishments and motifs. They all refer to crane couples, who mate for life, and of course the raising of the young; thus the reference to ‘nesting’. No songs for single cranes! The best reference material I have seen about the family of Crane pieces has been written (in Japanese) by Tukitani Tuneko.

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.

Interesting historical questions around the Shakuhachi

The most important change that occurred to the shakuhachi after the instrument was imported into Japan from China was not the change of bamboo, but rather the reduction of finger holes from six to five, and to a lesser degree, the enlargement of these holes. The reduction was primarily due, so the theory goes, to the growing desire of the Japanese of the time to play music in Japanese modes rather than Chinese ones. The sixth hole was not necessary in playing Japanese music. The enlargement of the holes better allowed for manipulation of pitch which further allowed for playing Japanese modes.

One can easily guess why madake was chosen as the bamboo of choice, replacing the thinner Chinese bamboo used to make the xiao. Madake is the second most common bamboo in Japan, just after the even larger moso. When making bamboo flutes, the first rule is to use bamboo that is available to you! A side effect of using madake is that the bore, compared with the xiao, became larger. This meant that the blowing hole was larger. This, in turn, allowed for the development of the meri/kari technique of pitch manipulation, again conducive to playing Japanese modes.

There was another Japanese bamboo flute descended from the Chinese one, called the hitoyogiri. It had small holes (though also 5 of them), and sometimes used thinner bamboo. It was almost impossible to meri/kari and to partially open and close finger holes with this flute. It is no surprise that it was delegated to the museum of nearly forgotten musical instruments by the end of the 19th century.

The theory behind the use of the roots in the construction of the bamboo is that the instrument made a better weapon when made with the heavier, ‘spiky’ root end. The wandering komuso (‘priests of nothingness’), all former samurai versed to various degrees in martial arts, and perhaps some of their lower status predecessors, the komoso (‘straw mat priests) were not adverse to using weapons to protect themselves while on pilgrimages.

Contrary to what many people think, the Edo period komuso were allowed to wear and use swords. So the root end shakuhachi didn’t necessarily replace their swords, but it appears that it may have contributed to their defences.