Shakuhachi study with me is a multifaceted, evolving activity.
Students can expect my commitment and absolute attention.
My goals are centered on shepherding the connection between the breath, bamboo and sounds and your awareness.
And the songs, pieces, riffs, exercises and tones that we use to do this are selected appropriately for each student at each level.
Until I create a more complete Curriculum list with individual pieces, this brief summary will shed some light:
- Honkyoku. The classical Zen Buddhist repertoire: gathered from various monasteries, derived from chant and nature sources and designed for the practitioner’s breath, qi and awareness cultivation. I was trained and am licensed (Shihan or Master level) within the dokyoku lineage of Zen shakuhachi. This means the honkyoku I play is in the Watzumido style: full of life energy and expressiveness while rooted in presence (meditation/Zen). My teacher is Michael Chikuzen Gould; he studied with Katsuya Yokoyama and Yoshinobu Taniguchi in Japan in the 1980’s and 90’s. We begin with Honkyoku study at the very beginning or when the student expresses an interest in it. Everything else on this curriculum list is designed and engaged in to support playing Honkyoku. With the exception of RO (see below).
- Mukyoku. In 2009-2010 I composed 27 pieces and 11 exercises specifically for the large-bore, jinashi baritone shakuhachi flutes known as Taimu. These are made locally in San Francisco near my home by Ken LaCosse, a master shakuhachi craftsman who has been at it since 1987. The difficulties of the larger size pay off for the player in the increased resonance and texture that is experienced even when playing a single tone. This is an incredible gift for a shakuhachi practitioner since much of our time is spent on Long Tone practice, RO practice (long tones on only the lowest note), and aspiring towards ichi on jobutsu (unending awareness within a single tone). These pieces are designed to fill a gap that I saw in the existing shakuhachi repertoire, a gap between a small handful of basic learning pieces and wickedly difficult, demanding compositions. So all of my students engage with these pieces, even if they are playing smaller flutes.
- Folk songs. The flavor of Japanese culture cannot be torn asunder from shakuhachi. Its global journey is still in its infancy, and even a musician like me who is pushing the boundaries of what shakuhachi can and wants to do—musically, energetically, sonically—recognizes that the basic folk song study that is part of almost everyone’s shakuhachi curriculum is, well, correct. They also serve to introduce the element of rhythm into one’s shakuhachi playing, both as a music performance element and a notation challenge. Whereas Honkyoku and Mukyoku are primarily breath-centric (meaning that their pacing is regulated more by the fullness of the player’s breath and less by adherence to a Pulse) the folk songs are Melodies and as such, they demand rhythmic attention and integrity.
- Movie themes. Just as in the case of the folk songs, movie themes provide shorter, recognizable or “catchy” melodies or melodic fragments that help increase our musicality with the flute. I have a large handful of these pre-selected, but more importantly, it is up to the student to request that we work on a particular melody or theme that she or he is inspired and motivated by.
- Etudes, Exercises and Riffs. As I was classically trained on the clarinet (which I retired from in 2015 to focus exclusively on shakuhachi) I am used to a great deal of exercise and “study piece” (etude) practice being part of any instrumental performer’s study repertoire. Although I also have a stash of these at-the-ready, more often than not we create these together within the lessons in order to address very specific issues that we are currently working on such as: breath support, embouchure (lips and mouth shape), pitches, intervals, or musicality (dynamics, tone and song concept). “Riffs” are melodic fragments that are likely to also function as bass lines and/or repeated patterns. In this case, I use the term also to refer to melodic fragments that can be practiced by themselves in order to zoom in on details and increase our subtle perception of the sounds as they connect together. Honkyoku is filled with riffs, and riff study helps demystify a lot of what is going on inside of these great compositions.
- Long Tones. No wind player’s practice routine would be complete without the ubiquitous, ever-present, unrelenting and undeniable presence of LONG TONES. Fortunately, I have spent hundreds of hours practicing, cultivating and contemplating the exact application of Long Tone Practice to a shakuhachi player’s life, and my students can reap the fruits of this exploration, as well as engage in their own inspired, breath-taking (breath-giving?) adventure in the Realm of Long Tones.
- RO. Ro is the name of the lowest pitch on any shakuhachi flute, which means it is the same note as what that length of bamboo would have sounded like if no finger holes had ever been created. Therefore, it is quite literally the foundation of all other sounds that we can create or conjure from the flute. The lore as many of us hear it goes like this: Play 10 minutes of Ro a day and you will soon be a master. The second part of this assertion, which is not always revealed at first, tells us that whoever declared that axiom was meanwhile playing no less than an hour of Ro a day. (Also, note that the term “soon” is in fact quite vague). Because you have read this far, I will reward you by revealing my secret revelation about RO practice and what it means for shakuhachi players. As far as I know, there are no other teachers putting forth this viewpoint: Contrary to the standard knowledge or assumption—that we practice long tones and the like in order to create a solid foundation thus leading us to a higher performance level of songs—my own experience has led my to the direct conclusion that, especially in the case of Ro, the opposite is the case. In other words, we spiral upwards into greater levels of song performance specifically to improve the quality and texture of Ro. Why? How? Because even though it seems like we are engaged in music performance—and of course, we are—all along the goal is actually a certain state of consciousness, not a certain musical performance or emotional effect.