“Truth is indestructible. It seems history shows (and it’s the same way today) that the innovator is more often than not met with some degree of condemnation; usually according to the degree of departure from the prevailing modes of expression or what have you. Change is always hard to accept…. Quite often they are the rejects, outcasts, sub-citizens, etc. of the very societies to which they bring so mush sustenance… Whatever the case, whether accepted or rejected, rich or poor, they are forever guided by that great and eternal constant – the creative urge. Let us cherish it and give all praise to God.”
John Coltrane

Coltrane - The Story of a Sound

How to Get a Shakuhachi

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It’s funny that even though I haven’t been playing my Shakuhachi much lately (crowded life) I’ve been asked twice about how to get one. So the second time I though post my answer rather then email it.

Disclaimer: I have owned two Shakuhachi – the first was a very basic one I got to get a feel for this mysterious instrument. This means that I have tasted very few flutes and I still haven’t mastered the one that is with me. However I have had to deal with getting a Shakuhachi where none are available.

Before reading on I invite you to listen to this wonderful recording of Shakuhachi – to me it is a fantastic portrayal of what this instrument has to offer:

I also invite you to a few recordings I made – though they are more about me then they are about Shakuhachi 🙂

Sound

A first thing you should know is that getting a Shakuhachi can be tricky unless you happen to live in or near a community where it is already present. The main reason its tricky is the nature of its sound. Though a Shakuhachi is supposedly tuned for a specific scale, the pitch you will get from it depends very much on your skills as a player. A slight tilt of the head or of the flute will change the pitch of any note. This gives the Shakuhachi a diverse and rich range of sound. However finding a correct pitch within that range of sound is a matter of skill. For me, though I do strive for correct pitch, this isn’t really an issue because I play by myself and usually as a meditation. However if you want to play with others, especially with other instruments, this can be an issue.

The best way to choose a Shakuachi is ultimately to play it before you buy it. However this post is intended for those who can’t do that. Also, if you are a beginner then this option is really not available to you – you simply do not yet have the skill to bring this instrument to life. The next best thing would therefore to be that you listen to it.

This leads me to a critique I feel needs to be voiced to the “online Shakuachi world” where Shakuhachi are usually presented visually rather then through their unique sound. I spent probably two years looking at Shakuhachi and in doing so learning about their visual qualities. I do believe I would have been better off listening to sound-samples of instruments rather then just looking at them. I don’t think that there can be an absolute sound reference – each instrument will sound different in the hands of different players playing different pieces in different climatic conditions (temperature and moisture effect the bamboo and therefore the sound of Shakuhachi)- and of course only a limited experience of sound can come across through a recording. However we are talking about an instrument of sound not of a picture hanging on a wall (though a Shakuhachi can be a thing of beauty too).

Bamboo

I should say that when I speak of Shakuhachi I am referring to an instrument made of bamboo. I’ve come across plastic instruments that are called Shakuhachi. There is, for example, the Shakuhachi Yuu which I’ve often read mentioned as a good beginners instrument. There’s an amazingly elaborate site on how to create Shakuhachi from PVC with flutes for sale at ~$100.The site also goes to great lengths to make a convincing argument that these flutes are better then bamboo flutes in every possible way – sound included.

However, having done my research and been informed, I opted to stay with Bamboo. My reasoning is not an event of mindfulness or logic. I guess it can be best described as a yearning to be with something of and closer to nature (a yearning that has since overtaken my life entirely).

In my mind (and heart), Shakuhachi is an instrument of meditation. That means that it is more then just the bamboo and materials applied to it. It is an instrument that resonates with the karma of the person who harvested the bamboo, dried it, shaped it into a Shakuhachi … even of the people who made the tools needed for these tasks – up to and including every single hair on a brush used to apply Urushi paint to it.

In my mind, the “Goodness” of a Shakuhachi is influenced by the “Goodness” of everything that went into creating it. In my heart I prefer an instrument that was born and crafted as close to nature as possible – hence the bamboo.

Tai Hei Shakuhachi

Shakuhachi is a relatively expensive instrument. There was a time you could only find Shakuhachi in Japan for prices starting in the range of $10,000. Fortunately that is not the situation anymore.

One figure that stands out in the Shakuhachi world today is Monty Levenson of Tai Hei Shakuhachi. Monty pioneered a “Cast Bore” method that incorporates modern technological and traditional Shakuhachi craftsmanship to create a hybrid Bamboo instrument that is more affordable. I learned a lot about Shakuhachi through his website and purchased my Shakuhachi from him. He is a friendly, kind and helpful person which was aligned with my “karmic expectations” of Shakuhachi 🙂 He is also a home-steader and I can’t help but wonder, as I write these words, if his presence in my life through his Shakuhachi, opened up the path for my own home-steading adventure.

Monty arranges his flutes in three price/quality categories – student flutes, advanced student flutes and professional flutes. He also offers a meditation flute – which was the first flute I purchased from him when I wanted to get a feel for Shakuhachi – which is also made of bamboo. My second flute is a professional model – however it was a low-priced model ($1150) in the professional category – I considered it an opportunity since most professional flutes are too expensive for me.

I do not play enough and consistenly enough to fool myself into thinking I can give an evaluation of this (or any other) Shakuhachi. However I do not doubt that my experience with it as a beginner is an honest one. I find it hard to play the flute consistently in tune. I haven’t had an opportunity to hear a capable Shakuhachi musician play my flute. I did take a couple of online lessons with a teacher and from those lessons I was left with some mental doubts about the tuning of the instrument. Monty generously offered that I return the flute for him to recheck and retune it if necessary however shipping costs and taxes and what not make this prohibitive to do. Also, I do not want to part with my Shakuhachi as I have only one.

My main take from this process has been – sound sound sound. Learning about Shakuhachi must be done through sound. Shopping for Shakuhachi must be done through sound. Playing Shakuhachi is all about sound. I still do not feel I understand (so I surely cannot explain) what is the sound difference between a $1000 flute and a $3000 flute.

Shakuhachi Length

A standard Shakuhachi length is “1.8”. The name Shakuhachi actually means 1.8 made up of 1 shaku + 1 hachi (= 8 sun = 0.8 shaku). My meditation flute was a 1.8 Shakuhachi. My current Shakuhachi is a 2.4. A longer Shakuhachi plays in a lower frequency scale – I preferred deeper /low pitch sounds to the relatively higher pitch of the 1.8.

When I first took the 2.4 into my hands I was intimidated – it felt MUCH bigger and I had difficulty even getting my fingers on the holes. It’s a matter of practice and technique. The holes on my Shakuhachi are actually offset to make it easier to play – that means that they are not all on its front – some are rotated to the sides. Holes are offset to accommodate either right or left hand on top. When I played my 1.8 meditation flute I did so with my left hand on top. When the 2.4 arrived I switched to right hand on top.

A 2.4 is also larger then a 1.8. How much larger? It isn’t so much the actual size. Let’s just say that you can comfortably place a 1.8 with a protective case into a carrying bag. A protected 2.4 may not fit diagonally into a mid-sized suitcase. Walking around the with the 2.4 in it’s carrying case looks like I am carrying a small missile. So if mobility is an issue for you – size may matter.

I enjoy my 2.4 very much and I look forward to having another flute, a 1.8. As I write this I would hope to get a personally made (with me in heart) 1.8 from the teacher with whom I studied shortly.

Shakuhachi Shopping Online

There are numerous sources I know off for Shakuhachi online. There are many but some are hard to find. Some are tucked away in small corners where even search engines have a hard time finding them. Here are a few places to start looking:

  • Tai Hei Shakuhachi – Monty Levenson’s website
  • The Trading Post on the Shakuhachi Forum
  • Through the forum you can find your way to some personal websites where you may encounter some fluits for sale.
  • Riley Lee (who’s music was my first taste of Shakuhachi) has an extensive link page with links to (amongst other things) additional makers

 

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