A hundred honkyoku traversed
Atop a solitary note
Shakuhachi is one of the more difficult flutes in the world. It certainly reminds me of this fact each and every time I pick it up. With that said, a person doesn’t need to be a musician, a monk, or a savant to play the shakuhachi. Rather, one just needs sincerity, patience, and some guidance to get off the ground. Despite its simple appearance, the shakuhachi is without a doubt, a very difficult instrument. Many people will understandably give up. However, it’s that very difficulty that can reward some of us with an endless journey of discovery and a vast amount of expressiveness. This “tube with five holes” humbles us, time and time again.
Shannon M. student since 2012 writes – “I have played saxophone, banjo, and a hand full of other instruments… Most of them I easily made good steady progress and was at a good level in a year or two… I have been at Shakuhachi 8 years and still feel I struggle with it and am still no where near the level of playing I was at with other instruments. However… I never enjoyed the other instruments as much. Maybe it’s the challenge that keeps me going.”
Who should study shakuhachi from me
Most of my students come to me because they want to focus solely on honkyoku, which is all that I teach. We often share an interest in jinashi shakuhachi but I don’t mind if a student plays on a contemporary jiari shakuhachi (I’ve also played extensively on jiari, so I know the approach).
Thanks again for the awesome shakuhachi lesson today! I think you struck the perfect balance between explanation and playing/practice, and I love your teaching style. You’re a very good teacher, and I look forward to our next lesson!David Erath, 2015
Honkyoku Zen music
Honkyoku are the most venerated pieces for the shakuhachi and are considered to be a Zen art form. Many consider the playing of honkyoku to be a meditative practice which is also known by some as Suizen or “blowing Zen”. They were mostly composed by the Komuso monks during the Edo period and many distinct regional styles developed, though few have survived to this day. Honkyoku (本曲) literally means “original/true/real music” and the word can refer to a single piece or to the genre as a whole.
The first honkyoku that I teach
As for this page, let’s look at the first honkyoku Zen piece that I teach, Jin Nyodo’s version of the piece Kyorei or “Empty Bell” (Jin’s Kyorei traces its roots back to Myoan Taizan-ha and they trace back to Fudaiji temple’s Seien Ryu). If you’re unfamiliar with the Katakana notes you can find a basic note-chart here.
The small excerpt above is of me playing the first 5 phrases on a large bass shakuhachi nearly 3 feet long (Jin Nyodo was also known to have played this on large shakuhachi).
While honkyoku scores may look intimidating at first, most of my students are surprised at how fast the pick it up in their shakuhachi lessons. Many agree that it’s much less complex than Western staff notation, for example.
Honkyoku are read from right to left, top to bottom. You’ll notice that I’ve numbered the lines or columns for convenience. Each phrase is separated by a circle which is where one takes a breath. These breaths create a unique relative silence known as Ma.
Honkyoku are written using the Japanese katakana alphabet. Each katakana represents a certain finger-position. For example, the character Ro (ロ) corresponds to having all finger holes covered (you can find a basic note chart here). The relative length of a note is indicated by the diagonal lines going outward from certain notes.
My students teaching some shakuhachi lessons of their own
Thanks a million, Jon! That hour yesterday saved me years of learning and gaining confirmation (confidence). Knowing that I’m on the right track, rough around the edges tho I might be, enables me to concentrate on enjoying playing. I played both of your flutes today and they remind me each time I do just how lucky I am to have them.
Your help is amazing, and my dominant ‘left-brain’ translated your very last line, of your last message, to a very enjoyable an productive session this morning. The ‘physics’ aspects of Shakuhachi are so important to me as I begin this journey, and I feel I have a very clear vision of body posture, head position, diaphragm, to ensure optimum airflow to my lips. Embouchure is a process and I feel there is progress understanding and feeling what the goal is.
Thank you for the class! I know the road is long and the journey ahead of me with the Shakuhachi is going to be very difficult. I am learning many things through the process, however, The Shakuhachi is an amazing instrument. It is almost as if an extension of our being with all its moods, turbulence, longing for solitude and peace. One day things play so nice and the others as if back to ground zero.
The goal is not to seek perfection or to entertain as much as it is to overcome the self, the ego, the inner voice that keeps on telling us all what we can not do instead of all what we can accomplish. Thank you for being my teacher. Thank you for being kind and patient with my slow learning. You are a very kind soul Jon. You do not make me feel bad when clearly my ability to play is so jarring.Peace!
I’m making progress daily with the exercises in your book. I realized that if I start with the otsu exercise then it makes the kan exercise much easier for some reason. I’m getting pretty consistent sounds in kan, and I’m getting better with the octave jumping exercise too. My kan notes are more windy than my otsu notes, and not nearly as nice, but each day I can play them a little quieter and a little less windy. I totally see how important just having a very small opening between your lips is, and how the pressure in your mouth is the key.
Thanks for an enlightening session! The devil is in the details as they say… As a visual artist it makes me think [about how] I could spend a lifetime learning just how to draw a perfect circle, or even a truly straight line. Each song, Life, moment etc., even the simplest, is so grand it contains a universe. Tremendously appreciative of this moment. Deep deep deep Bow
At least three times now you have honed in on problems I was having with the sound of my flute and suggested corrections that were immediately effective, with lasting result. Nothing I could have read in a book, or gained from listening to a Master player would have solved these difficulties, and I doubt I could have solved them on my own. I certainly had tried. It takes a good teacher.
I have been trying to play for a little more than a year (with a teacher) and yours is the first decent explanation I have gotten on achieving Kan. I experimented with the tighter lips and higher pressure and saw an immediate result. THANKS!
You are a great teacher. You actually helped me with my embouchure for bansuri (indian side-blown flute). The large bore and larger mouth hole makes it difficult. Your instruction is helping me think about lip shape and pressure in order to make improvements.
Yay! I made a note. Now I gotta go do it again and again. Thank you so much for the lesson… I love it so far even if I can’t make it work constantly =-) *progress!!!
You are responsible for helping me make my first sound on my new Shakuhachi. Thank you sir!
You are a very good teacher. And thanks for the tips. Bless ya! :)!