This image above was taken while teaching at Princeton University in 2009, over 35 years later.
No icicles that time.

My Icicle story

When I was studying shakuhachi in Japan in the early 1970s, I kept hearing of shakuhachi players of old doing mind-over-matter things, such as playing outside in the freezing snow until icicles formed from the bottom of their flutes.

One particularly cold night on Sado Island Japan (during a blizzard, probably close to minus 10 C, not counting the wind chill factor), I decided to test this story for myself. I cut off the fingers of some old gloves – thinking that would allow me to feel the finger holes better (hah!) and went outside with my best (only) 1.8 flute. Facing the wind, tears in my eyes, I began to play.

I may however, be stretching the meaning of the word, when I say that I “played” my shakuhachi. My fingers went numb moments after going outside, so I couldn’t feel the holes. I soon gave up even trying to play a piece. The wind, coming straight from Siberia over the Japan Sea, was blowing so fiercely that I could barely make sounds – just a few weak upper octave notes that were ripped away immediately by the wind. I felt breathless and could only sustain these sounds for brief seconds. I could hardly hear the sounds that I did make, amongst all the noise of the blizzard.

AND YET!! After blowing into my flute for what seemed like a very long time (I have no idea how long – minutes?), I had created an icicle about 5-6 cm long. Wow! How cool was that!?!! It had formed at the bottom of the flute, from the moisture in my breath. You frequently see pictures of people with icicles forming on their beards, etc. Similar thing, I suppose.

Riley Lee - content divider

I rushed inside and excitedly showed the others, none of whom were impressed in the slightest. My efforts may not have immediately made me a better shakuhachi player, but doing it, and continuing to do ‘crazy’ things like that, I think does improve my shakuhachi playing. The icicle experience made a lasting impression on me, as it does on others who hear of it. The image of a young shakuhachi player trying to make an icicle form while facing a blizzard is certainlhy a strong one.

During my time in Japan, I often practiced in temperatures approaching 0 C, though in a blizzard only that once. Our lodgings and rehearsal space on Sado were not heated and we also practised outdoors throughout the year. I wasn’t the only person in our group who developed chill blains (not quite frostbite) every winter. Yet, I never had a flute crack on Sado. As others have said, it seems to be sudden changes in temperature/humidity that make the bamboo crack, not low, or high temperatures per se.

What I think really did help my playing, and this has been stated previously by others, was practising outdoors, especially in a wind, even a weak one. It’s very difficult to make good sounds, particularly with a crosswind, but I think trying to do so helped me develop a stronger and more controlled embouchure. It also helped me associate ‘nature’ with what I was playing. In that sense, maybe even my icicle experience was a worthwhile one.

Rather than explaining why the most expensive instrument was the best, the salesperson, an older man and himself a shakuhachi player, instead looked hard at Riley, and said that if he really wanted to know, he should go to a teacher from whom he could learn the difference. The man proceeded to look up in a telephone directory a teacher that he thought was the best in the area (and that had a telephone) and set up a lesson.

With the old man’s introduction, Riley began studying with this teacher, purchased a shakuhachi, and became ever more immersed in the music and tradition of the instrument. The three months stay in Japan eventually stretched out to seven years, the end of which the shakuhachi was the focal point of Riley’s working life.