Frequently asked Questions
Is Shakuhachi a difficult instrument ?
Shakuhachi, despite its ‘simple piece of bamboo’ appearance, is a difficult instrument to master.
Its wide range of sounds and tone colours is very rich and consequently, the techniques (breathing, embouchure, fingering…) are numerous; some of them requiring years of practice to be mastered.
However, Shakuhachi is a flute accessible to anyone (even without any musical background) as long as one takes his time to seek and practice. The basic sounds are relatively easy to find even if pretty chaotic in the beginning.
This instrument leads us on a way to control our breath, calm down a get a good focus.
Thus, from the very beginning, we can experiment a real pleasure in this magical feeling of the breath becoming a sound and the ways to play with this sound.
This pleasure is the same whether you are master or beginner,
what is behind is just a matter of practice !
Which model to choose ?
You can start with any of the models I make.
None of them is more difficult than another.
The choice of a first flute (or a maker) is then rather a matter of budget and feeling.
Most of the Shakuhachi teachers recommand to their beginners students to start with the standard “Shakuhachi Yuu” which is a resin cast copy of a professional flute. The teacher is then sure about the flute’s potential and can clearly see where are the player’s difficulties. I have nothing to say about the acoustical qualities of these type of flutes but I really think that’s a pity to loose the feeling, vibration and spirit of the bamboo which is for me the essence of the Shakuhachi.
I am trying with my work on student and advanced student models to get recognition amongst the professional teachers as I sincerely think that you can spend at least a few years of serious study with these models before switching to a more expansive flute.
Since 2017, I am supported by Hélène Seiyu Codjo (Shihan teacher of Hijiri Kai school) recommanding my flutes to her students in Netherlands.
Which tonality to choose ?
The word “Shakuhachi” literally means 1.8 feet (shaku=feet, in ancient Japanese measuring system and hachi=8) this measure is about 54cm and is the length for the keynote of D.
The 1.8 flute in D is considered as a standard size (as C is the standard size of western flute) but many other keys are played with higher pitch but mostly with deeper tones (up to one meter long flutes !)
The choice of the key and so the size is to be considered.
Indeed, the longer the flute (and deeper the tone) the bigger is the space between holes. It matters then to find an instrument which is comfortable to your hands.
- With rather small hands, 1.6 in E or 1.8 in D are good to start with.
- For average size of hands, you can go for 2.0 in C, 2.1 in B and even 2.4 in A (with offset finger holes)
- For bigger hands or with the former practice of other instruments, you can try to play longer flutes from G (about 80cm) or longer.
On very long flutes, the finger holes are placed offset to achieve a more ergonomic position.
How to care your shakuhachi ?
Non-lacquered shakuhachi may be oiled once or twice a year with a thin layer of linseed oil (tung even better) that you would let dry for a few days before playing it again. This type of very siccative oil leaves a thin protective layer which hardens in time and enhance the sound.
I personally prefer this solution rather than regularly oiling with finer oils such as sesame or almond which ends up saturating the fibre with oil thus blocking its ability of transmitting vibrations.
However, shakuhachi lacquered with urushi must not be oiled.
The oil, penetrating the fibre will unstick the lacquer (which I have seen already on shakuhachi I repaired).
It is important to clean correctly the bore of your shakuhachi after playing to remove the excess of moisture to prevent mould to develop if the flute is let like this.
We use for this a sheet of light cotton with a string and a weight attached to it to pull it inside the shakuhachi.
It is called Tsuyutoshi.
Bamboo, even after years or decades can crack or split.
What is causing cracks to appear is the excessive dryness of the climate or fast changes in temperature or moisture.
The best way to prevent it is to keep your shakuhachi safe in a plastic bag (after cleaning the moisture inside of course) in order to keep a constant level of moisture.
The ideal level of moisture is between 60 and 70%.
I tend to find more cracks appearing on lacquered flutes than on natural bores because urushi is very hard and waterproof and will not follow the movements of the wood due to climate changes.
Thus I always provide a plastic bag with lacquered flutes and sell it optionally for non-lacquered ones.
What music can we play with Shakuhachi ?
Shakuhachi is a very versatile instrument. It is chromatic (you can play all the notes) and offers a wide variety of tone colours.
It is then adaptable to any kind of music and during the XXth century, Shakuhachi found his way in western classical music and Jazz.
However its basic tuning being pentatonic (with five holes), obtaining the other notes requires quite a long learning of all the fingerings and blowing techniques and Shakuhachi will keep it’s specific colour due to the fact that some altered notes (meri) are usually less powerful in volume than the ‘plain’ notes (which gives his specific Japanese mood).
To avoid that, some makers created 7 holes shakuhachi giving a better chromatic balance to the instrument and enabling faster playing on ‘non japanese’ scales. However, great performers still can play any kind of music with their traditionally tuned flutes. It is then just a matter of practice !
Admire how Yamamoto Hozan for instance spread the Shakuhachi world widely with virtuosity.
How to start ?
The first step is to ‘find the sound’ which means to transform a stream of air blown into a sound wave in the flute.
I would suggest to achieve that to first blow with all finger holes opened letting the back of utaguchi lay on your chin in a manner that your lower lip gets close to the sharp edge of embouchure. Then blow gently a constant and deep breath (abdominal breathing) trying do get a stream as thin and precise as possible that would split on the edge.
When the first sound comes to life, don’t rush for other notes, take time to feel how this sound is living, changing with the tiniest change in your way of blowing. By lengthening your breath, try to produce long tones keeping them clear and constant by reducing all the sound of air and other parasites. In this manner, your body will instinctively find his way to refine the sound.
You can reproduce this exercise on each note by closing one by one each hole starting from the back one with your upper hand’s thumb. Slowly go down the scale until the deepest note Ro where all holes are closed keep on with one extra long breath for each note.
Can we learn by ourself ?
It is completely possible to learn how to play the Shakuhachi on your own (which I did in the first years)
You can tame the instrument by searching and practising sounds, notes or scales…
But if you intend to reproduce the sound of the traditional music of the Shakuhachi (especially solo Honkyoku), you really need to learn how to execute certain playing techniques some of them needing years to master !
You have then the option of accompanying your practice with a manual (ideally with a disc) to discover step by step the music, its techniques and eventually notation. I also advice to listen a lot to japanese music to train your ear to its special mood. (listen to Blue Heron Radio for example)
But this lonely practice even if serious is of course limited and nothing will replace the teachings of a master with whom we sometimes get much more than musical knowledge.
How to find a teacher ?
It’s not that easy to get access to the teachings of a master; especially if you live in a village or a small town. Most of them live in bigger cities but usually travel to gives workshops or masterclasses or join the community gatherings.
For that reason, many teachers offer Skype lessons which, even if limited, enable to correct technical details but mostly give a goal to personal practice.
Have a look at the teacher’s list on my link page or even the more exhaustive one on the ESS website (European Shakuhachi society)
The European community of Shakuhachi aficionados is rather small but dynamic; I advice you to join, present yourself on the forum and even if you are a total beginner, you may come to the annual Shakuhachi summer schools.
There are several different schools of Shakuhachi (Kinko, Tozan, KSK, Itchoken, Hijiri-kai…); Discovering them by listening to their different ways of playing can help you choosing what sound you resonate with. The choice of a teacher might be then guided by this attraction to sound.
What scale(s) can the Shakuhachi play ?
With its five finger holes, Shakuhachi is basically tuned to a minor pentatonic scale with those intervals :
1 and half tone – 1 tone – 1 tone – 1 and half tone – 1 tone
(notes depending on the key of the flute)
All the other notes are played as alterations of those basic notes achieved with several techniques (half holing, fork fingerings and embouchure techniques).
Shakuhachi is a chromatic instrument able to play any kind of scales.
Japanese music uses different kind of pentatonic scales in its different repertoires.
How a Shakuhachi is priced ?
While searching on the web for Shakuhachi to buy, we usually get lost with a huge range of pricing.
We can find from 40 € plastic Shakuhachi up to several thousands of Euros professional flutes !
It is then difficult to understand on what base pricing is done and how to justify so high prices for a bamboo flute.
Despite its simple or rough appearance, the traditional way of making Shakuhachi is meticulous and requires a lot of time and experience.
It’s important to know first of all that the material is not easy to find and needs a specific knowledge to be cured properly. Within a bamboo grove, there are only a few pieces amongst thousands that would be suitable for Shakuhachi making. Most of the makers living in urban areas don’t have acces to this material and need to buy it from sellers (a well cured good piece of madake bamboo is around 200 Euros).
The construction then is complex because the natural bore of the bamboo is very irregular (especially the foot part used for Shakuhachi) and it needs a lot of precise adjustments to obtain a well balanced instrument. This process is done empirically and requires to work slowly and gingerly.
The instruments are usually lacquered inside with Japanese Urushi that is expansive and need careful work and experience.
Prices criteria :
The acoustical qualities of a flute are of course essential. Timbre, power volume, balance and tuning are giving it’s main characteristics.
But aesthetic criteria are also very important (especially in Japan); they can even overtake on musical qualities. The type of bamboo used, the number of nodes (ideally 7), the shape of bamboo, it’s weight, the good looking of the root part or nice stains on it are considered.
Also some finishings are adding value to a Shakuhachi and represent skills from the craftsman. The inlay on utaguchi, Urushi artwork, inlaid rattan bindings, and even the use of silver or gold.
The renown of the maker is also linked to the price.
My own prices policy :
As years passed, the prices of my flutes slowly increased as the quality of my work did. I finally came to fixed price that are fair to me on the straight bamboo Shakuhachi. It is important to me to keep affordable price on beginners Shakuhachi; I don’t want the price to be a reason not to discover this great instrument !
For the traditional root-end Shakuhachi, as I just start to feel satisfied and looking at the long apprenticeship opening to me, the prices (unique for each flute) will keep on increasing while the general quality will do so; I cannot be the only one judging for that so the feedbacks I can get from my master, professional performers, teachers or makers represent my guidance.
The overall quality of my instruments has improved over the last years but my prices were kept untuched.Since over a year, the feedbacks I could get from my master, other professional makers I’ve met in Japan or shakuhachi events and several professional players pushed me to a re-evaluation of my prices in 2020 for both making and repairing to be in accordance with the quality of my work, my involvement in the study of shakuhachi and its making and the recognition I get from professionals
What type of bamboo are used ?
Traditionally, the best bamboo specie for shakuhachi making is Madake (Phyllostachys Bambusoides) but another one is sometimes used, Torachiku (phyllostachys nigra boryana). Madake is mostly found in Asia and northern America.
Thus the Madake shakuhachi that I sometimes make are made from bamboo pieces which I buy quite expensively.
I mostly work with bamboo that I harvest myself every year in winter.
Unfortunately, Madake is not well implanted in France thus I use other species with similar characteristics (Ph. Viridiglaucescens, Ph. bambusoides castillonis). I also like using black bamboo, kurodake (ph. nigra) which I appreciate for its aesthetic and acoustical properties. I’ve also been using for many years an imported bamboo from China commonly called Tonkin Cane (Arundinaria amabilis) which is very dense with a straight fibre.