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Shakuhachi Anecdotes

Shakuhachi is interesting

Shakuhachi is an interesting instrument. Take a piece of bamboo of appropriate length, ream the joints to make a tube, make an oblique cut at one end for a the utaguchi (mouthpiece), open five fingerholes, and you have a shakuhachi. Despite the simplicity of the bamboo flute, the ways of playing with it are myriad. Or perhaps it is because of limitations inherent in simplicity that honkyoku (solo works played by komuso), especially , gave birth to wonderfully intricate finger technique and breath usage. I believe that finding infinite ways to play with simplicity is an important element of the Japanese culture, and that shakuhachi is especially symbolic of this trait. This is also true in regard to both performing on the instrument and making the instrument. I used the word "play" a few sentences ago, but actually, performing on shakuhachi and making shakuhachi are such difficult activities that they go beyond the concept of play, and are best described by the words "dripping with clammy sweat". Even if you achieve the impossible and do the perfect performance or make the perfect instrument, the words "interesting" or "play" no longer seem to apply. It is when I am playing or making shakuhachi and I can't see my way ahead that I seem to find shakuhachi infinitely interesting. But maybe the same can be said for any activity that involves work and play, not just shakuhachi. (Back to top)

How shakuhachi got me into trouble

@When I was young and working in auto repair, I once cut the ends off the shop's bamboo brooms to make shakuhachi. The saw I used to cut the bamboo was one I had taken without permission from the woodworking shop where they made flatbeds for trucks and suchlike. I put the saw back exactly where I had found it, so I was surprised the next morning when someone from the woodworking shop started yelling, "Who's been using my saw?" After the man finished bawling me out, I asked him how he had known that the saw had been used. Being a professional woodworker, he could tell right away that the teeth had been blunted by a hard material such as bamboo. So it was that my lack of judgement gave me an indelible lesson about bamboo's amazing properties. I now use a type of hacksaw made exclusively for cutting bamboo that can be filed to sharpness over and over again. ( Back to top)

A story about how well bamboo burns

@One time during my apprenticeship to Chikusen Tamai, one of the other apprentices, Fukuchi-san, went out on the second floor veranda to check on the bamboo being cured in the sunlight. (Fresh bamboo has to spend time being cured in the sun, it is turned every day to make sure all the surfaces receive sunlight. When it rains, the bamboo is covered with a piece of canvas.) Suddenly Fukuchi-san shouted "Fire!" All of the apprentices ran to the veranda saying "Where? Where?" thinking we'd get a chance to see a fire, and weren't we surprised to see smoke roiling along the roof of our own building. We all rushed downstairs and out into the garden. Smoke was pouring out through cracks in the door of the bamboo storage shed. We formed a bucket brigade from the pond and tried pouring water over the closed door, to no avail. Susumu-san (a wonderful idea-man who was to become the next Chikusen, but has unfortunately passed away due to illness) courageously threw the door open, and we were met with the roar of fire and a huge coil of flame and heat. We doubled our efforts at the bucket brigade and managed to extinguish most of the fire by the time the firefighters arrived. But fire is a truly awesome thing, and there were places on the main building and in the attics that were quietly smouldering and had to be put out by the firefighters. Just as things began to calm down, the wooden wall of a building adjacent to Chikusen's began to smoke. The firefighters put that out, and finally it was all over. Police came to investigate and told us that the fire was started by a cigarette in the bamboo storage shed. Of course none of the apprentices had any recollection of smoking near the shed. Tamai Sensei cautioned us to be very careful with our cigarettes. All of the cigarette smokers, including me, answered in very small voices that we would be careful. This incident reminded me of something my father used to tell me. When I was a child, we used to heat the bathwater by burning wood under the iron bathtub. My father used to warn us not to use bamboo as fuel, as the heat from the fire would burn a hole through the tub. With the fire at Chikusen's, I experienced how much heat bamboo releases when it burns. All in all, it was a very exciting lesson. @@@@@iBack to topj

A leaking shakukuhachi causes the blues

This happened about one week before the graduation recital for the 27th term students of NHK's music training program (27th term). I noticed that the lowest note on my 2.4, which I was to use in the recital, was not playing as well as it should have been. It was the kind of thing where it's hard to tell whether it's a problem with the instrument, or with your own amberture. I was nervous enough about the recital as it was, and this was not helping. I remembered that once, as a Tamai Chikusen apprentice, I filled in a tiny, tiny hole in a shakuhachi with urushi(lacquer) and the lowest note regained it's fullness of sound. So I went to the sink and immersed the 2.4 in water. I was right about there being a leak. The water temporarily covered the leak, wherever it was, and the shakuhachi played well until the water dried. There was only one week left until the recital and I didn't have time to search for the leak, so I went home and added two more layers of lacquer to the bore thinking that as water had stopped the leak, surely lacqer would, too. Fortunately, this held until the recital was over, and then I did a careful diagnostic. The instrument had seven holes, and the leak was in the area of the hole opened directly over the nakatsugi joint. (That's the joint that allows your instrument to be dismantled into two pieces.) Since then I have done many repairs of this kind. When someone calls me on the phone to say something is wrong with the lowest note, it makes me feel good to be able to say, "So is it a seven-hole instrument? Hmmm. Yes, I see." This type of leak is very common among seven-hole instruments. If you notice the lowest note isn't sounding as clearly as it should and if you are wondering whether something is wrong with your lips, then check the hole over the nakatsugi joint. Clean the area well. You may be able to see a hairline crack in the lacquer. (Note: hairline cracks in the lacquer do not always indicate a leak.@They do indicate the possibility of a leak, however.) Sometimes you can fix the leak yourself by filling it with a little Crazy Glue, but be careful that the glue doesn't flow into other areas of the instrument. (You do not want it adding thickness to the bore!)@@@@(Back to top)

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