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I would like to get some feedback on other teachers on this idea.
Most of my students when they first pick up the flute, develop a deathlike grip on their flutes. And many of them like to glue the flute to their chin incredibly tightly as well. I constantly advise and offer exercises as suggestions to develop a more correct posture and connection between the flute and the body. However, my advise and suggestions in this area sometimes do not get very good results for a very long time. And unfortunately, with some students, i can never seem to get past this problem thus they never develop a good sound. I truly believe that this is one of the fundamental technical aspects of playing shakuhachi that must be understood and developed as early as possible. If the flute is held tightly, every time the note changes, so does the position of the flute and thus pitch and timbre start going all over the place. One finger opens thus releasing energy, that energy is then transferred to a different finger or the chin....so each note has a different connection to the body and the timbre and pitch, once again is flying around uncontrollably.
From lesson one, i suggest that the fingers which control the fingerholes never actually hold the flute. Thus we do not have to change our connction to the flute with every note. And i suggest a light as a feather connection to the chin. So i try to have them cognitively understand this idea from the first time i start showing them how to play. Yet, sometimes i find myself a year or 2 later with a student suggesting at each lesson to lighten up their touch with their fingers and chin.
Lighter flutes help to a certain degree. The Yuu and some other student model flutes are quite heavy.
Some exercises i suggest for this:
intervals back and forth. For example Ro - Re Ro...making sure the second ro is identical to the first one.
Re -Ri Re again making sure one returns to the same exact pitch and tone color.
basic pentatonic scale of ro tsu re chi ri chi re tsu ro, again making sure ascending is identical to descending.
and various other interval exercises not involving meri and kari techniques.
One problem i have is when i start to focus on this problem, some students get frustrated quickly and then the gripping gets harder and some kind of block against this develops.
From my decade of teaching shakuhachi, i find that students who get past this problem start to develop quickly. Those who do not get past this problem, never really develop their technique as thier pitch is so problematic.
So i am putting this out there for other teachers and advanced students who might have other advise and suggestions that i have not worked with yet.
much appreciation for this forum for providing a place to share so much knowledge
I would like to get some feedback on other teachers on this idea.
I have students practice holding the flute with just the middle finger and thumb of the right hand, so they get used to the idea that those are the weight-bearing digits and that the playing fingers have no responsibility other than making music. Once they are able to hold and balance the flute that way, they can understand more easily that the other fingers merely rest lightly on the holes rather than gripping the flute.
That and constant gentle reminders when I notice them tightening up the fingers, jaw, shoulders, whatever. Usually students don't notice when they're tensing up and merely noticing it goes a long way toward releasing the tension.
So that students don't feel too frustrated by this, I also point out that EVERYONE has areas that they tense up when confronted with difficult tasks such as reading the music or producing a "good" sound. For some it's the fingers, for some the jaw, for some the shoulders, for some even the eyebrows. We ALL have to get better at releasing these conditioned responses, myself included.
I have found that concentrating on the form -- how to let go of the tension -- works better than working on the result (the pitch or the ability to produce, say, a clear kan no ro). Drilling on the level of results can be frustrating. Correct pitch will follow naturally from good form.
In a couple of cases simple breathing meditation while holding the flute in position has worked pretty well, having the student just notice everything that's going on in his or her body, any tensing etc., without even trying to make a sound. Then once the body is relaxed, they can simply let the sound start.
When I find myself getting tense, especially when I'm trying out a flute I'm not familiar with, I think that I often have the impression that my fingers aren't sealing properly and I'm subconsciously squeezing down to make a better seal.
Sometimes my fingers really aren't sealing properly, and I have to adjust my position somehow. Other times, my embrasure is at fault and I need to focus on that, but being aware that my fingers must be fine allows them to relax.
Just a thought.
And many of them like to glue the flute to their chin incredibly tightly as well.
I'd like to add my experience as a beginner student a few months into the shauhachi journey.
These last few weeks, I have been working on the "feather touch" chin pressure and related issues. This came out of playing against an electronic tuner and trying to improve my intonation. My low notes were way too flat, partly because I hold the flute too close to my lips. I think it is worth noting (for teachers) that reducing chin pressure is very difficult for students initially. The main reason is that the further away the blowing edge happens to be, the more difficult it is to maintain the accuracy of the air stream right on the sweet spot. Also, pressing up against the chin helps develop a reliable locator for the emboucher.
I realised this last week when I was practicing a tune that covers both octaves. At the end of it, I found that I had unconciously pulled the flute in quite tightly, so that I could get all the notes. When I relaxed the pressure, I couldn't play the tune right through!
My point in posting this is that students will try hard to do what their teacher is asking. However, when playing a tune, a student may be struggling just to get a sound at all, and will do whatever seems to work so that the required notes can be played. The teacher needs to be aware of these difficulties.
A couple of thoughts from a novice.
When I was getting the initial feel for holding the flute, I alternated a bit from right hand up to right hand down, I eventually settled for right hand up, left down, left holding. This is my position of ease, and when my hands would get tired I would change to right hand holding.
I am also a potter by trade and suggest to learner potters who want to work on the wheel, to alternate from clockwise to anti-clockwise throwing. Many learners are only shown one direction, find it too difficult and give up when the opposite direction may well have suited them better. There can be a big difference and I suspect this to also be true for the Shakuhachi, I play quite differently if I change hands.
My point, make sure the student checks out this option early in their training. Don't take it 'for granted'.
Another idea, in the lesson if not at home, give the student a heavier flute for half and hour, then change to a very light flute. This will be a very direct experience of how you want them to feel when holding the flute. Perhaps experiment by holding a heavy pipe as though it were a flute, just for a few minutes, then hold the flute.
One thing I appreciate about learning the Shakuhachi is that it demands a calming of the whole being, so in some ways the light holding of the flute itself is only a part of the picture. Try the four classical meditation postures of standing, sitting, walking and lying, while playing the flute. You can walk quite slowly, I like to blow Ro up and down my hall, one breath up, one breath back and so on.
I also found lifting my elbows a very good loosener.
Also, if I am feeling a bit tense or anxious, I blow muraiki as hard as possible, three or four times, even though I don't know how to blow it, but this helps dissolve tension.
Karmajampa mentioned getting the students to try and alternate their hands early on, which I think is a good idea. I sometimes switch hands during my long tone practice if my hands are getting tired. Riley Lee emphasizes learning to play with hands in both positions. There's a Japanese player who attends Yokoyama Katsuya's spring workshops in Bisei who puts the alternate hand position to humorous effect during the cherry blossom season, doing a rapid dropping of the shakuhachi from one hand to the other and playing in both positions while also holding a sprig of cherry blossom in his teeth and smiling while playing the shakuhachi (something which needs to be seen to be appreciated!). In my short history as a teacher I've been trying to get my students to especially relax their shoulders, which often seem to hold a lot of tension, and concentrate on relaxing various parts of their body -- hands, arms, shoulders, neck, facial muscles etc., while playing long tones; while playing one tone concentrate on relaxing shoulders, next tone concentrate on relaxing neck muscles, next tone relax the face etc. Phil's suggestion to concentrate on the form rather than working on the result makes good sense as students will often tense up under pressure.
In my teaching of beginning students, I teach early on the importance of being aware of the entire body in relation to the shakuhachi. Every lesson before even starting shakuhachi we do about 10 minutes of stretching from head to toe, with lots of focus on finger, wrist, and hand limbering. Contrary to what many may think, I think that gripping a little harder in the beginning develops certain strength for the hand after a while. Especially for tsu-meri/daimeri where you have to squeeze the hole and push the flute into the embouchure to get the pitch down and create the proper neiro (tone color/texture). Once a certain strength of grip is developed, it's natural to be more relaxed. Like any physcial activity, it's always difficult and requires great effort in the beginning. But as one gets stronger, less energy can be expended to create maximum effect.
Of course this is stylistic point, as this way of playing creates a certain, distinct sound.
Phil, this may seem like an overly simple question, but when teaching, do you sit opposite the student and do they have ample time to watch you playing? One of the main aspects of oral traditions is that the student attempts to emulate the teacher both in sound and appearance. Sometimes time allotment doesn't allow for adequate listening and watching time for the student (when playing together, students tend to be too absorbed in their own sound and the task of reading to listen and watch the teacher in depth) and some of the finer points of posture that you've picked up over the years aren't understood as significant by the student, or even noticed for that matter. Just one thought.
As a beginner i'm guilty of this myself as i suspect most have been at one time. My teacher has noticed that the tension seems to build for myself as i approach fingerings that i'm not "hitting" consistently. Presently that happens with fingerings above Chi Kan. At one point it woul dhave been Re Kan.
All along my teacher has kept me aware of where i'm tensing up but as i become more proficient that tension building point seems to elevate. So being aware without beating myself up too badly and over time seeing that point of tension improve seems to work for me.
Ending practice by playing something just under that tension creating point where i can relax and feel the tension dissapate seems to help and end a challenging practice in a relaxed and aware state.
My main flute is a Tai Hei Root 1.8 end and my "carry around" is a David Brown 1.8. I have found that using the Brown which is lighter and smaller in diameter when i'm tired lets me relax a bit more during those pesky fingerings.
Maybe I can post an opinion without too much negative feedback.
I am just a beginner with shakuhachi (about a year into lessons), but it sounds very much like the beginner characteristics of any flute, in that I was that way when I started Native flute, and have seen others who I attempt to help with Native flute, do precisely the same thing. I have also observed people doing that with varius forms of world flutes as well.
I would suggest that it is a natural tendency related to lack of confidence, and actually occurs MORE when in front of the teacher, as the student wants to perform well in front of the teacher, in spite of the weak skills. Partly that is due to the structural teaching environment, where the student is attempting things that he/she knows they cannot do well, but must attempt, to satisfy the learning environment.
My solution for this, is freeform playing, which simply means, going away from the practicing of specific things, for a period of time, and allowing the student to "wander about", freely, in whatever way they feel comfortable.
I suggest this, based on the fact that I have observed several players who began to struggle with the desire to play, while attempting to play with musical notation. The constant effort to practice, and to play what the "assignment" is, took away the most important part of playing.......self enjoyment. So, I would suggest a period of time, in the practice schedule, for purely self-indulgent playing, totally aside from the "lesson plan", of the teacher.
I have seen that work well, for several people, and feel it can be a help to students on any type of instrument.
I myself, have moved totally away from structured study on the Native flute, for some time, and it has made me a much better player, as far as skills development goes. Now, I am again returning to some more structured practice with musical notation again, but in the approach of adding to my improvisational play, and not replacing my improvisational playing, with all structured playing.
The added advantage of this approach, is that the student becomes more "one with their instrument", and becomes more aware of the capabilities, and idiosyncracies of the instrument itself, through totally relaxed improvisation.
One thing that has been quite difficult for me, with shakuhachi, is learning to read the notation. I feel that while it may seem simple to those who have mastered it, it is quite difficult for others, in that it has the "foreign language" issues, as well as the visibibility issues, of the small detail in the notation. Teachers may not recall their own difficulty with it, after a number of years, and not realize it is a "stumbling block" in the learning process. I can read the notation I am more used to, far easier, than shakuhachi notation.
Hope that makes sense. I am not a teacher, and make no claim to be one, on shakuhachi, Native, or any other type of flute.
Every teacher sees his/her students go this experience. This can be an opportunity , if used wisely by the teacher, to help develope 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 'jitteryness".
As for methods, I can't endorse the one you describe but I do things that may be similiar. 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 COULD'NT 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 shakuhchi 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 develope 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.
I hope this helps a bit.
Michael Chikuzen Gould
Sorry, I didn't see the original question but was just replying to Rick. 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.
Michael Chikuzen Gould