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.

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.

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.


The only theory behind the kana used in shakuhachi notation that I have heard of goes like this: The earliest notation (early 1600s) used the kana fu, ho, u, e, ya, i. These were chosen because they evoked the breathy or airy sounds of the solo shakuhachi. At this period in time, most if not all shakuhachi music was solo, predominantly honkyoku.

By the way, the “fu-ho-u” set of kana is still used by some lineages, notably in the Chikuho notation system. The late Watazumi also used these kana to notate his honkyoku. The kana used in Kinko notation, that is, ro tsu re chi ri (or in the case of Tozan notation, ro tsu re chi ha), were chosen when Kinko notation was developed in the18th century. They were chosen because at that time, the shakuhachi was more and more being played in ensemble with the koto and the shamisen. The kana was chosen because they evoked the percussive sounds these two instruments make when their strings are plucked with picks or plectrum.

The conclusion drawn by shakuhachi players who use variations of the “fu ho u” system is that it is more suited to honkyoku and it is older and therefore better than the “ro tsu re” systems. The opinion held by the 99% of the shakuhachi population who use the “ro tsu re” systems is that the above information is marginally interesting, but which kana used in the notation has no affect on the music, honkyoku or otherwise (unless, as Michael Gould pointed out, you sing the notation), and in any case, older is not necessarily better.

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.