Frequently Asked Questions

What sort of flute do I need as a beginner?

A frequently-expressed opinion is that a beginner does not need a good instrument. This is totally false! As a beginner with a poor-quality instrument, it is very easy to develop incorrect playing positions and habits, which can be exceedingly difficult to adjust later.

A beginners' instrument should:

- be well-tuned, so that one doesn't have to adopt strained positions to play in tune;
- easily reach the positions for meri-tones ("bent" tones);
- have a clear differentiation between loud and soft notes;
- have a diameter at the upper end of the tube of at least c. 3 cm, so that one learns the correct blowing position.

It is recommended that one select or try out an instrument with one's teacher. When purchasing via the Internet or without the advice of an experienced player, one can easily waste much money and energy by buying an instrument which doesn't fulfill these basic requirements, and which is thus unsuitable to learn with.

Good beginners' instruments are available made from plastic tubing, moulded plastic, wood, or (somewhat more expensively) bamboo. Please, speak to your teacher before buying a shakuahchi! I can procure suitable beginners' instruments in all these categories.

One must bear in mind that making an instrument is just as much an art form as playing it, and involves much study and experience. There are self-taught shakuhachi makers and makers who have not undertaken a complete course of training. One must be very careful when considering instruments from such makers.

Are there different kinds of shakuhachi?

There are two basic forms of shakuhachi. By far the most frequently played flutes are so-called jiari instruments, with the bore internally shaped and lacquered. Such instruments have a full-bodied sound with a broad spectrum of tone colours. I perform and teach using such instruments. A minority of players use jinashi flutes (without lacquering and usually less reworking of the bore). Such instruments sound softer than jiari. They are harder to tune in the manufacturing process, which can make playing them more difficult.

The lacquering of jiari flutes also functions as protection against moisture in the tube. Unlacquered flutes tend to develop mould in the bore, which can adversely influence the sound and the life expectancy of the flute, not to mention the health of the player.

Is prior musical training necessary in order to learn the shakuhachi?

Strictly speaking, no, but a good level of aural training and some knowledge of musical intervals and rhythm is highly advantageous. The shakuhachi is not an easy instrument. Like every instrument, the most important thing is how much effort and discipline one applies to it - the more one practices, the better one's progress is. Of course, talent also plays a fundamental role. Because the music theory of the shakuhachi functions differently to classical Western music theory, a lack of knowledge of Western theory (scales, harmony etc.) is not necessarily a disadvantage. But in any event one must be prepared to invest time and energy - to practice the instrument, and to learn a small number of Japanese katakana syllable script symbols, which are used to notate the music of the shakuhachi.

Can I teach myself to play shakuhachi?

Not really. Because the position of the lips is so difficult and crucial, it is almost unavoidable that a self-taught player will develop an incorrect playing technique. Experience shows that frequent correction by a trained teacher is essential. Over the years, I have had a number of self-taught players as students, and they invariably have had great difficulty retraining bad playing habits and positions.

Do you offer instruction via the Internet?

No. In my experience, direct and immediate contact between teacher and student is absolutely necessary in order to make proper progress. When the teacher and student are sitting in the same room and breathing the same air, something "resonates" between them which cannot be transmitted electronically. In my opinion, this "something" is essential in learning the shakuhachi. Although some teachers offer instruction by Skype or by exchange of mp3-files, I am of the opinion that a fundamental element is missing from such a procedure.

For this reason, I have student groups in or near a number of major German cities. In this way, it is possible for students to take part in face-to-face instruction without having to travel too far.

What does the title of Shakuhachi-Master mean?

The Master title ("Shihan") is nothing mysterious, but rather a licence to teach and perform. This Japanese word itself means more or less "exemplary teacher". Someone who has received such a title has studied a particular repertoire within a particular school and has undertaken an examination as proof of his or her ability to teach this repertoire. It is thus highly recommended that students seek out a teacher who has such a licence - simply as a guarantee for the quality of the instruction. But one must be careful - the examination process differs from school to school, and can sometimes be somewhat arbitrary. It is thus useful to find out with which school a teacher is affiliated and with whom he or she has studied. My main teacher in Japan was YOKOYAMA Katsuya, and in his school students are not examined by one master alone, but by several. One can thus safely assume that a teacher with a Shihan title in this school has been well trained.

In some schools one also encounters junior masters (Junshihan) and grand masters (Daishihan). But since not all schools issue the grand master title, it is quite possible for a Shihan from one school to play and teach better than a Daishihan from another.

Are there different shakuhachi traditions?

There are numerous schools or guilds of shakuhachi. Some are musically very sophisticated - an example is my school, the Kokusai Shakuhachi Kenshukan, in which jiari flutes are employed and in which the meditative honykoku are played in a musically highly refined fashion. Others, such as the Myoan school in which jinashi flutes are the norm, are quite austere. The largest school, Tozan, has no traditional honkyoku in its repertoire, but rather newly composed "Tozan honkyoku". The second largest school, Kinko, has a broad repertoire of honkyoku and ensemble music. The Kokusai Shakuhachi Kenshukan is loosely related to Kinko, and shares its notation.

Does one have to be a Buddhist to play shakuhachi?

No. The "original pieces" (honkyoku) originated within the Zen Buddhist tradition and are meditative in nature. They can certainly be played as a form of meditation. Sounds, however, are not intrinsically linked to any specific creed. Similarly, meditative playing of the shakuhachi is not an expression of a belief system.

Nevertheless, many shakuhachi students take an interest in Japanese culture. Knowledge of this culture can be supportive in learning the shakuhachi, but it isn't mandatory.

I personally am neither a Zen master nor a meditation teacher. I teach the meditative "original pieces" as primary repertoire, and I am glad when students play them with a meditative spirit. But I also value highly the musicality of the pieces - pitch, dynamics, timbre etc. And in any case, accuracy of these elements is essential, if one wishes to experience the honkyoku in all their meditative depth.