The natural scale – Minor pentatonic
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Note: Ha is usually represented by the katakana character Ri (り); however, Ha is used in the first style of honkyoku that I teach—the Seien Ryu of Fudai-ji (西園流 譜代寺). It may be of interest for some readers to also know that the use of the character Ha in the Seien Ryu pre-dates Nakao Tozan’s use of it in his Ryu (Tozan Ryu 都山流). It’s likely that Tozan adopted the Seien Ryu’s use of Ha instead of Ri to differentiate his school from the many more schools that used Ri like the Kinko Ryu. Tozan Ryu and Seien Ryu are originated from the same area of Japan.
Like most shakuhachi notation this chart is read from right-to-left and top-to-bottom. A black dot represents a closed finger-hole, a ring is an open finger-hole, and the horizontal line separates the front four finger-holes from the rear thumb-hole. The shakuhachi has two full octaves and some third octave notes. In Japanese, the first octave is called otsu (乙) while the second octave is called kan (甲). The first sound you get will most likely be in otsu because kan requires more air-pressure. Later on I will go into detail on how you can get kan.
Notice that Ha and Ii are played with the bottom two finger-holes closed. This is done because it helps produce a more solid tone on these two notes by raising the pressure. When going from Ha to Chi notice that the bottom two fingers must lift-off in sync with the top-hand index finger coming down on the 4th finger-hole. This transition is one of the more tricky ones in the beginning but with practice it will become second nature. Strive for a smooth, clean transition between these two notes.
Useful notes to practice
Every note on the shakuhachi has a different range of power and volume and some notes are also more difficult than others. For practicing and exploring otsu, Re, Chi, and Ha tend to be expansive offering room to explore while Ro and Ii tend to be difficult and Tsu is usually not very expansive.
Common Meri Notes
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This chart has the most common meri notes (the listed pitches are for a 1.8 “D”). Most meri notes are played around 25 cents flatter (-25 AKA 75 cent interval). Ro Dai Meri, Tso O’meri, and U Dai Meri are all played in an even deeper head position, i.e., with the lips closer to the blowing-edge, and they share a pitch with a note from the regular scale. It can take time to play these notes at the right pitches.
Most important points for meri
- Keep the bottom hand still when lowering the head so as to close up more of the top and bring the lips closer to the blowing edge
- Remember to use much less power/pressure/squeezing from the abs for meri notes so as not to over-power them
- When playing meri notes in Kan it’s essential to use a higher tongue position like saying “ee” which shrinks the space in the mouth and pressurizes/focuses the more gentle air-stream needed for meri notes.
Holes 1 to 5 (5 being the thumb). From right to left, ichi, ni, san, shi, and go.