I have a blog where you can look up answers to commonly asked questions, and read some of my personal insights into playing the shakuhachi. You may also post comments or your own questions. If you don't see a category or label that fits you question, then simply post a comment to "Questions? Ask Chikuzen." If you have difficulty commenting on the blog, please contact me.

Below are the topics I've posted so far:

  • Playing a New Flute
  • Tongue Position
  • Don't Glue a Shakuhachi Yuu Together

If you would simply like a brief introduction to the instrument, click here.

P.S. While I am in the process of getting the blog started, I've copied some of my contributions to the World Shakuhachi Forum.

  • [Ask the Pro » Tamuke and Shakuhachi lengths » 2008-01-24]
    • It doesn’t matter what length shakuhachi one plays the song on although I’d leave the kazoo at home unless you want to hear "henna gaijin" expressions. It’s the spirit, of course. Most shakuhachi players refer to Tamuke as a requiem and as was mentioned, most funerals don’t have shakuhachi playing. You’re more likely to find someone playing if the deceased played shakuhachi. I have heard it played at a few, Yokoyama Ranpo sensei’s funeral & Taniguchi senseis’ mother’s 3rd year ceremony. For these people it was only natural. As for playing yourself at funerals, I find it a "Catch 22" thing. I played at my brother’s funeral and it was way to personal and I refuse to do so for anyone close to me. I’ve been asked to do so for people who are not close to me and I felt I wasn’t close enough to the person so I try to refuse. If it were one of my students I would take the rest of my students and do it in a group, which I find quite appropriate for sending someone off. One can always do the same in solo at your home and I’m sure it is just as welcome. Or, at least it will be for me when I take off. Taniguchi’s thing was that his sister died when she was young so he always thought about her when he played Tamuke on stage. Tamuke was a big song in his teaching repertoire. When I arrived at his ryokan, after the quick greetings in the genkan he would escort you to the Butsudan and you would sit and play Tamuke before doing anything else. It was not unusual for him to play it for more than an hour. This was an avenue for reconnecting with someone who was important to him. Taniguchi sensei always expressed the idea that it was only when you lost someone who was part of you that you could understand the depth of this song. Another Catch 22. I was in no hurry to get to the bottom of this one, so to speak. However, there are things beyond our control
  • [Ask the Pro » what are the Pros practicing this days » 2007-12-12]
    • TSU-MERI, TSU-DAI MERI & some RO.
  • [History » Meian Honkyoku--Echigo Sanya » 2007-12-12]
    • I think you need to think about your own objective for playing. "Why do you play?" is the question you should keep asking yourself. People play for different reasons. Most songs are made to play in a certain way, with a specific feeling and yet still a few are not so specific. Would you chant the Heart Sutra for it’s capacity to express oneself with great emotion? Probably not, since the number of sounds is kept to a minimum, which limits the melodic range and thus the capacity of emotive singing. It may, however, register as a deep feeling inside yourself. Like a lone tone, it’s deep to the core and can touch you there but the effect mentally is usually meditative and calming.
    • To know your objectives will help you answer a lot of questions. For example,in flute buying, "why would I buy this flute?" "I could play this song and that song with it," could be the answer. Or, turn it around and say, "I want to play this song and so I’ll start looking for a flute that allows me to play the song".
    • Or "why do I play shakuhachi?" It keeps me out of trouble? Or, it connects to myself and to the world in a way something else doesn’t? It helps me to pick up women (or men). Whatever!
      • 1. Each song has a capacity to be played in a specific manner.
      • 2. Each flute has a capacity to play specific songs.
      • 3. Each player has a personality (especially shakuhachi players and especially forum shakuhachi players).
    • My point is:
      • The shakuhachi has to be SATISFIED.
      • The song has to be SATISFIED.
      • You have to be SATISFIED.
    • If you know what it is that satisfies, then you’ll be able to answer questions as to:
      • 1. Why this shakuhachi?
      • 2. Why this song?
      • 3. Why shakuhachi at all?
    • I think the answers to #1 & #2 are easiest to understand objectively. #3 is very personal and therefore, I make it a rule to not imagine that I know why someone else plays shakuhachi. It may be fair and best to ask, and if the answer is too personal, then respect that too. Why don’t you ask Ronnie about the way he played the song? I don’t think someone else can answer it as well.
  • [Random Zen, Religion and Philosophy » Essence intrinsic or created? » 2007-10-28]
    • Since a bit of awareness of the CONNECTION with the shakuhachi is a by product of this activity, maybe we could put ourselves in it’s place and just ask the shakuhachi: "Do you mind if I play jazz today"? "Do you mind if I play Honkyoku today"? The shakuhachi DOESN’T care. But it will probably be very happy if you use it well.
      Maybe you’re talking about music which is time and place specific, like Sankyoku, where you have words which had meaning in a certain time and ways the songs were composed and played at that time along with stylistic performance ways, etc that have been passed on to now and are still practiced. I’ve approached Honkyoku most of my life as EXPERIENTIAL music in nature. Like Sufi dancing, it’s the medium.
    • I asked my shakuhachi about the Rod Stewart song and it just stared at me.
  • [Ji-nashi » Jinashi vs. Jiari » 2007-09-13]
    • Concerning the easy to play shakuhachi and as to the evaluation of if it’s a good flute or not, I learned something from Yokoyama Ranpo and Taniguchi sensei that stands out in my mind that might shed some light on this. Yokoyama Ranpo sensei used Ji at times but never used tonoco. This is stuff that a lot of contemporary makers put in the urushi of Jiari to make it dry quicker. It’s equivalent is airplane glue. The flutes can be made in 3 days. The sound at first is strong and the flute easier to pay because of this crap. So, because of this, most people playing think it’s a "good" flute, just because it’s easy to play. However, the "glue", the urushi and bamboo don’t mix well and after 2 or 3 years of playing they have sort of a "divorce" and the sounds goes south quickly. People who chose to evaluate flutes in this simple manner will notice that they can’t get the same sound out of the flute and go looking for another. They tend to not learn from their mistake and buy another flute of the same value because they chose to evaluate the flute themselves. So they spend another $3000. on a new flutes that honks well at first. This goes on for 4 or 5 flutes and they’ve spent $15000 on the same flute, again and again. If you’re not careful, this is what you’ll get. Easy doesn’t mean anything. Yokoyama Ranpo told me that he made flutes for 50 years before he made a good one. He wasn’t what I would call a slow learner or a slacker either. He was old school and obsessed. His later flutes were definitely great and the early ones a bit harsh. However, even amongst his late flutes the Ro kan was very hard to play and in some instances barely came out. This note had to be played more than any other, sort of squeezing out more and more, and in the end became one of the better sounds his flutes produced. This is why his son didn’t play these flutes: short on patience. Do I do the work or does the flute do the work? If you’re short on patience and have a way of thinking that can’t deal with this you would evaluate a flute that barely played Ro kan as being not such a good flute and certainly not purchase it for the then going price of $6000.
    • I still think a bit of humility is the best answer for making "progress" (something that’s going in a healthy direction). Ask yourself, "how long have I been making shakuhachi" or "playing shakuhachi" and quietly go back back to work.
    • [correction] I should be more careful of relying on my memory before spitting out these terms. I haven’t heard these words for 25 years except Ji nashi, jiari. Yes, the tonoco is a mineral or in other words, "JI" and the "glue" I’m referring to is the plaster or some equivalent. I’ve been told that some makers will put a bit about the size of your little finger tip into the ji and urushi at times and this is what creates the cracking. Yes, this stuff feels awful and sounds gross. Ranpo sensei’s flutes were usually Ji nashi. His situation was a bit different in that if he made the flute from beginning to end, he would put 3 "yaki in" (burnt in name hankos) on it. If they had two or one, then his apprentices did some of the work. It’s impossible to say how much. Other makers put different numbers of" Yaki in" on their flutes but, to the best of my knowledge, this usually refers to the quality or level of the flute. Of course, Ranpo’s only apprentice was Miura Ryuho, who is a great maker now too, but he does use Ji. I played Miura’s for 20 years and Ranpo’s also and they are very different. Miura’s being very musical: in tune with great balance across the board. Ranpo’s vary more flute to flute and have some of qualities of great ji nashi flutes. The 2.4 I have is not great in volume and you may not chose to play it in public except in an intimate space but the sound quality and degree of bonding up with the flute are another world thing.
  • [Ask the Pro » ungripping ideas for students » 2007-03-08]
    • Every teacher sees his/her students go this experience. This can be an opportunity , if used wisely by the teacher, to help develop a strong healthy relationship. I think one important factor is that this is worked out between the teacher and the student in a way that enables the student to realize that the teacher is in this for the student. A big part of my job is to help get the students have confidence, not to be part of them losing confidence. I talk about this with the student and try to bring them along so that they reach a point where they can answer their own questions. I find that just talking to them about the word "confidence" and what naturally is happening to arrive at a point where we have such language as " to have confidence". This can help them lose this "jitteriness".
    • As for methods, I can’t endorse the one you describe but I do things that may be similar. I always blow long tones with the students,when they first arrive but that’s usually after I urge them to warm up and I "disappear" into the kitchen to make tea. I think they know that I do this to give them space. I had a teacher in Japan who would run out into the room when you came so you COULDN’T warm up and got visibly upset if you were to sneak in a couple notes. I fixed that by stopping in the park down the street from his house and warming up for about an hour. I also know that students are experimenting and looking for 'this and that' and urge them to continue to do so. Another thing is that I spend time showing them things they can do soon, techniques like koro-koro, and double popping holes or blowing the flute in different manners (like a pan pipe,etc). They enjoy this immensely as they are "just having fun" with the shakuhachi and feel no stress. After that, we get into the visibly structured section of a lesson and they are able to focus. I think the teacher's attitude also makes a big difference. A firm no nonsense attitude is necessary to impress the inflexible aspects of this trade but the student has to know that the teacher is in his/her corner, so to speak. I think the best situation arises when both recognize the objective of their combined efforts as being the students progress in developing skills and the teacher's progress in teaching as they work together through the connection with the shakuhachi . A healthy trusting relationship should be a "by product".
    • As far as learning to read, it's a language. I would approach it as one. People who have studied Japanese for 6 months or a year have much less or no trouble with the scores. That's a big hint right there. I have students who believe they can never learn the scores but it's usually because they don't have a method to use. Learning katakana and Hiragana might be something to think about. Writing the symbols will help, play games at home with them, make your own scores, compose your own music, stick them on the wall or ceiling, just interact with them and use them. Reading is an act if seeing the symbols more and more. The more ways of using them you come up with the more "confidence" you are creating too. Maybe you have to redefine what shakuhachi study is so that the definition includes learning some Japanese? Eventually you should learn "Kurokami" and "Rokudan". Play them slowly and build up speed later. Just listen to them and follow the score. That will help. I've had two students in my life of teaching that refused to learn to read the scores and wanted me to develop some new teaching method for them. Of course, I didn't, (I thought about it a short time). Their recalcitrance became an obstacle to learning. I think more respect of the tradition should be afforded here.
    • As for the death grip, I can think of two things that will help: 1-don't hold the flute underneath with the meaty part of the thumb (down under the #2 hole). It should be sitting on the side of the thumb. This may feel uncomfortable but you won't drop the shakuhachi. It's hard to have a death grip holding the flute in this manner. Also, the wrist should not be bent under the shakuhachi at all.This goes for the top wrist too where there may be a slight bend but not much. For the top hand, the thumb should not be straight up and down with the bamboo but coming from the side at a 2o'clock/ 8 o'clock position. Back to the bottom hand though where the death grip usually occurs. Holding it on the side of the thumb will also prevent wrist injuries later. I have taught several pros who held the shakuhachi with the wrist bent under that developed big time wrist trouble. The 2nd method is to BREATH; focus on breathing. So many questions are answered in shakuhachi if you return to the roots:meditation (breathing) and chanting.
  • [Ask the Pro » Yuu shortcomings? » 2006-11-06]
    • What has been said here about the Yuu is specific for the Yuu and is true. Likewise, what is true for the Yuu is true for many starter shakuhachi. Crafting methods which endorse differences instead of standardization goes against western musical theory of the present age. Not so when the shakuhachi was being made by monks in a different time and age with a different way of thinking. The yuu is a good starter flute if you don't mind plastic. Whether bamboo or plastic, once you're beyond that point, seek out advise from a qualified teacher/player WHO HAS AN OBJECTIVE VIEWPOINT and much experience. Not a friend or craftsman.
  • [Ask the Pro » "Resting as a feather" » 2006-03-24 ]
    • Concerning pressing the shakuhachi into your lips too hard; if you do this unconsciously then you will limit yourself technique-wise later. To understand this, try pulling the flute slowly away from your lips as you blow and you'll hear the pitch go up. Pull it in tight and you hear the pitch go down. When you're in the regular position you can only pull it into the bone so much. But as you heads nods down to do meri notes, you can begin to pull the flute into your mouth more over the upper lip. This should make the pitch come down drastically and even more so the more the head nods down to do Dai meris. You should be able to get a Dai Meri pitch by pulling the shakuhachi into your lips more when still only in the meri position (chin-wise). If you have the flute crammed into your lips already, you won't be able to utilize this technique.
  • [Technique » Flute straight or to the side » 2006-03-24 ]
    • Always patience with shakuhachi. You'll need to try something new out for awhile to let it reveal itself to you enough that you can decide how good of friends you want to become with it.
    • However, a word of warning as you can stay with something too long and it will become a "bad"habit. That means, not effective as something else. I would issue a note of caution in playing off to the side. You will eventually get the upper octave without doing it on the side. Everyone has their own way for sure and hopefully they will make it work well. But why consciously limit your ability to use the full range and capacity for using the rest of your mouth that your lips will lead you too from the beginning? Yokoyama sensei played with the flute on the side too but he played so much that his facial muscles compensated by pulling the lips equally straight over the blowing edge resulting in a face that was not exactly equally symmetrical. And I don't think the was the goal he set out for!
  • [History » Fuke and his bell » 2006-02-14]
    • I got my bell rung once (in high school football) and walked around speaking bewildering sentences.
  • [Health Issues » Keeping fit » 2006-02-12]
    • It's no secret that in the case of playing shakuhachi you are the instrument (and the instrument becomes part of you). You need to take care of the body and find out what works well for you. Hints from others can help a great deal. But also, if you question whether running will help then you should run and see. The same for doing Yoga and other stretching exercises. I try many things, for example: since my son has gone to college and I have room, time & space in the house I have acquired a Yoga ball for "crunches", a stationary bicycle and a jump rope that I use for stretching. From 6pm I start with 10' on the bicycle, 10'stretching and 10' on the yoga ball, then I play for 30'. I repeat this until 11pm five nights a week (usually). The amount of energy released from the exercising is amazing. I'm still exploring this along with sitting meditation in the mornings (since I can't really move). I'm also now working on a dvd of exercises with several professionals in different fields (Chiropractic, Yogic, Therapeutic muscle work) which I plan on publishing in the near future. Think of shaku as a totally "energetic" activity: the sound is energy, you are energy, etc. Shakuhachi demands that you practice expansive types of energy like Ro, Tsu, Re, Chi & Ri and contractual types of energy as meris and Daimeries. You must create a body (instrument) that produces these kinds of energies i.e. resultant sounds or sound qualities. This energy will come from your body and mind depending on how you work them. Thus, after a while of doing meris and daimeris you need to do something expansive for your muscles, i.e. stretch them, move them, get the Ki flowing through them and the relationship of your chakras energies back into balance and then start again. Try anything. Being "active" in the process of your playing means trying something consciously. It's not a only a passive activity where you do what your teacher does or imitate somebody. You'll only have confidence if you try it and start to answer questions yourself. This means coming up with personal definitions of "health ", "a healthy body", "muscles"(what are they, really), "a healthy sound","sound", etc. Most of this that makes any sense and that is effective will come from your own experience. Thus, you will build "confidence". Of course, you should have confidence in your Sensei. The characters for Sensei mean "before" or "previous" and to "have lived", meaning, they have breathed more breathes with a shakuhachi in their hands than you have, thus: experience. They are "guiders" and "coaches" for you.
    • I think there are advantages to having only an hour or two of practice a day: You do focus in better sometimes than you might if you have all day. Depends on the quality of your practice. Nevertheless, approaching your 'dilemma' of not wanting to wait many years to become a "good"player from a different viewpoint: nobody has to wait years, months or days to have a very valuable and fulfilling experience playing shakuhachi. From a spiritual viewpoint, you may have experiences from day one. You are a spiritual being and therefore in whatever you do you have the potential to tap into that part of yourself and become conscious of it. As a matter of fact, as I listen to most people's "confessions" of how they got into shakuhachi, it seems apparent that they had quite an experience at the beginning and spend the rest of their playing days 'chasing that experience', so to speak. I believe shakuhachi has connected many people to a part of themselves that they want to use again and again, so, they keep playing. If you play 15 years you will become better technically for sure, but it doesn't mean your experience will be better. There's nothing happening in only the fact that you can suddenly play a song. Like Ed just said, along the way is where everything's happening. From day one. I think shakuhachi is difficult enough to demand a high degree of concentration and uses the connection of your spiritual and physical bodies so that it demands energy yet creates energy. High degree of focus and high level of energy leads to interesting experiences! Look at what happens during meditation! Same thing. I'm betting that on the road to acquiring these techniques that will enable you to play songs at the level you want to, you'll reap many unexpected rewards. Not suddenly after playing a long time.

— Michael Chikuzen Gould