“A warrior doesn’t ever leave the island of the tonal. He uses it.”
Carlos Castaneda

Tales of Power

Shakuhachi Notation


Yesterday I had my first official Shakuhachi lesson (though it is our second time communicating). When I first purchased a Shakuhachi I also ordered a guide (book and CD) that includes instruction on reading notation. I couldn’t figure it out – and it was rather disappointing – especially because I was told it’s fairly easy!

Now I know better. There is no one Shakuhachi music  notation – there are numerous notations, each representing different schools, traditions and eras of Shakuhachi. Therefore, Shakuhachi notation is best learned with a teacher… and it is fairly simple. A teacher will choose a notation for you – and that choice carries with it hundreds of years of evolving tradition. Each notation is a doorway to musical pieces that come from that same tradition. There are even some well-known pieces that are written and played differently in each tradition. I am guessing that in time a teacher may present more then one notation to a student.

It is of course best to learn notation by learning to play a piece. As we started studying a piece and the notation required to read and play it, I encountered some symbols, such as the length of a note, which were not precise – as I had come to expect from western music notation. I asked my teacher “so this isn’t like rocket science?” to which he replied “no, it’s art”. What a relief… I was scared of notation because I had an unpleasant experience learning to play guitar some years ago – I was overwhelmed by the complexity of the theoretical aspects. Shakuhachi notation feels so different and so right for me. There is so much space for exploration, personal expression… so much space.

Aside from Shakuhachi playing I am reconnecting with the experience of having a teacher present. It is inspiring, supportive and already greatly affected my playing.

I am learning a well known piece called Take Shirabe in a variation & style that is typical of the Fudaiji temple. I have learned the first 6 breaths. This is an excellent rendition of it:

It is, for beginner Shakuhachi players kind of like Pink Floyd’s “Is there anybody out there?” for guitar players. It’s a great starting point – accessible and beautiful.

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