“I suffered unbearable torture in silence, weeping internally at the sad turn of events blaming myself bitterly again and again for having delved into the supernatural without first acquiring a fuller knowledge of the subject and providing against the dangers and risks of the path.”
Gopi Krishna

Kundalini – The Evolutionary Energy in Man

My 1st Shakuhachi Decade

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It’s been over a decade since I first held the Shakuhachi I currently play. I am making a note of it because I am looking forward to a new chapter in my relationship with it.

I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with the Shakuhachi. When I am with it, as I have been for the past few months, it has (as far as I can recall) usually been before my Yoga practice. This is because, like Yoga practice, I feel I need to be in a correct state-of-mind to approach it. Like Yoga practice, playing it does not evoke a sense of presence in me, but requires it of me … so if I am not present and spacious I do not approach it.

A few lessons

Way back then I took a few (2 or 3 I think) via Skype. Shakuhachi teachers were not abundantly available in Israel and are not abundantly available in Romania. I was afraid to approach a teacher for three reasons.

The first was past negative experiences with western music. I practiced piano for two years when I was young. The only thing I remember from that was a story that my parents had to sacrifice a trip to Europe in order to get me a piano … and that I did not like being assigned more homework by my teacher … so I dropped it As an adult, I tried to take on guitar and found myself with a teacher who flooded me with music theory (it felt like mathematics) when I wanted to explore music and sound … so I dropped that too. How was it going to be this time, when, on top of it promising to be a difficult instrument, the music notation is in a foreign language too!

The second reason is the most pragmatic: I was in a transition period (and I’ve been transitioning ever since) and money was becoming scarce … and lessons felt expensive for me … especially regular (weekly) lessons.

The third reason is the most delicate. I wanted to approach Shakuhachi music as a meditative practice, not as a musician. That, in my mind, sets a different bar for a “teacher.” I already had a clear notion of what a teacher can be from my relationship with my Yoga teachers and I knew that finding a teacher is a big ask.

Three things stayed with me from my limited interactions with the teacher I chose:

  1. A practice I’ve held ever since of playing bamboo leaves.
  2. Doubt about the quality/precision of my Shakuhachi and/or my ability to play it. This too has stayed with me ever since.
  3. Anxiety. The Shakuhahi has 5 holes which (initially) resonate with 5 notes from a pentatonic(ish?) scale. There is a higher register (in good flutes in the hands of good players, even two higher registers!) but because there are only 5 holes it takes refined breathing technique and capacity to activate it. The first piece I started to study with my teacher, the most basic of Shakuhachi pieces, soon required this higher register and I could not play it.

So … we (the Shakuhachi and I) were off to a bumpy start and that se the tone for the decade since.

Finding my own way

I’ve had to find my own way with the instrument and this is some of what has worked for me and the process I follow almost every time I do play:

  1. Only play when I want to.
  2. Only play when the Shakuhachi indicates to me that it wants to be played. It is a mutual relationship and there is no point in forcing it.
  3. Sure there are “only 5 notes” (which is not really true!) but there is so much subtlety and color to the sounds a Shakuhachi can produce. Embrace the “limitation” and discover that there is plenty to explore in the space.
  4. The bamboo is seasonal … it isn’t just me that changes with the seasons of the year, it is also the flute … tuning is where we find each other and come together.
  5. Go slow. Blowing (bamboo-shaped) single notes is very rewarding … and tells me something about where my breath is. Then two-note connected, then three … and be attentive to a combination of sounds – a phrase that shimmers for me.
  6. When something shimmers repeat it … again and again … until I can feel the next note that is asking to be added to the short phrase.
  7. Add it to the phrase … and repeat … and go back to step 6 until I feel drawn to go somewhere.
  8. Go where I feel drawn to go.

Sounds

I’ve recently started making some recordings again. Sometimes there’s nothing there except for the basic practices. Sometimes there is friction that, when I am able to stay with it, leads to wild and unpredictable explorations, Sometimes something comes together. Here is one recent example of something that felt like coming together:

Finding Nick

During the last few months, I risked a few small excursions into the “search for the higher register” and I stumbled on to it … or part of it. But the effort to reproduce it was not pleasant (felt very forced) … neither was the sound.

I was curious to see what a Shakuhachi online search would yield … it has been more then a decade since I looked online … and I was surprised. There seems to be more … more people, more flutes … some instructional youtube videos. It is still very much a niche … but it is much larger than I remembered it.

I did not find a resolution to the question of the higher-register (despite some tips on how to go about it). I did discover that a younger generation of practitioners, makers, and teachers who seem to have surfaced. Maybe this is a consequence of technological literacy and a willingness to bring online an art that was traditionally only available physically?)

My search brought me to (amongst other places) this video:

… YES …. it is about the breath … NOW THIS is something I’d like to know more about. So I clicked into the channel and ingested this next video. The best description I’ve encountered so far of the essential differences between ji-ari and ji-nashi Shakuhachi:

But it wasn’t just the information … there was something else about this guy. I appreciated his white t-shirt, or more specifically that he was NOT wearing a kimono to evoke a superficial Japanese vibe. I appreciated the Tatami mats underneath him and what looks like a Shoji screen next to him that together speak of authentic immersion in Japan.

Then I moved to this video that describes an arc of relationship with the Shakuhachi ranging from monastic to musical:

… and finally his intimate (and successful) crowdfunding effort to translate a traditional text into English:

… and I felt peacefully drawn … would he be able to gently guide me into my 2nd Shakuachi decade? would he be able to heal and deepen my relationship with the flute I have? would I be able to one day ask him to make for me a flute that would slip beautifully onto my breath? would I be able to advance my knowledge and practice to the point where I could relate to the Kinpu-ryu text as a living text and not just as a museum piece?

These questions sat with me … and I hesitated … until finally I wrote him … and he wrote back. His name is Nick Bellando and we had a flowing and pleasant introductory conversation. He felt to me like a kind and knowledgeable human being. He listened to me and my Shakuhachi story with care and understanding. If all goes well, he may be my guide into my 2nd Shakuhachi decade.

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