Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Confessions of a Shakuhachi Ronin, Part II (an extended footnote)

Before continuing wherever I was headed in Part I....

My quixotic reference to being a "Shakuhachi Ronin" begs to be misread and misused. Remember, professional journalists themselves troll Internet forums and blogs for one-sided opinions and baseless assertions to use as 'facts'. They do it by the day — really by the hour. (I should know. I've been working in daily journalism for the past seven years and public relations 10 years before that.)

An imaginative term like "shakuhachi ronin" is bound for the Seven Hells of thoughtless repetition, mis- or non-attribution and bizarre Wikipedia entries. So excuse this extended footnote but please read on.

"Ronin" means a masterless samurai -- more accurately a masterless warrior. A warrior is a military servant of his master or lord. But to be "masterless" a person should once have actually _had_ a master to begin with. The ronin I'm familiar with in translated literature or in films are either looking for a new master or prove themselves to be too unhappy or too inept to have the will to live. A ronin really shouldn't be glamorized — too much at least.

To understate, shakuhachi is an absolute bear of an instrument. It does require a warrior's heart to survive the first six months, first year, first two years of struggling with the bare basics of the instrument. (Editor's note, Dec. 29: Phil Nyokai sensei would probably correct me "First ten years".)

But like the craft of swordsmanship, the craft of playing shakuhachi cannot be learned simply by one book or a couple of videos or by good intentions and great desire. It's just too subtle and too tricky (and available tutors in the form of current print and video media are just too spotty).

For example, it is very easy to deceive yourself that you are playing meri and dai-meri notes at accurate pitch. It is very easy to convince yourself that a reasonable facsimile of appropriate pitch is acceptable and you wind up playing a facsimile of that pitch for years to come and wonder why you are never satisfied with your sound.

There are shakuhachi players who are considered masters who commonly play meri flatter than Western pitch while others play meri sharper of Western pitch.

The best advice anyone has given me -- and this comes from the late Yoshizawa Masakazu-sensei and one of his senior student-teachers Jim Thompson -- is learn to hit the meri dead-on at A440, not one cent sharper of flatter. (Then, you can adjust for expression, style, etc.) Tough stuff. Not only that but learn to hit it in the traditional manner (which is a whole other part to the lesson and six months of struggle in itself). And it goes on and on from there.

It does take a teacher.

You get the idea.

Yoshizawa said to me once concerning the breadth and depth of shakuhachi studies "It's endless ... just endless." He shook his head in resignation, then smiled a little smile and we were on to the next thing.

In part III of Confessions of a Shakuhachi Ronin I will attempt once again to take a personal and candid look at the predicament of learning shakuhachi in the non-Japanese speaking West and how ancient traditional Japanese customs may contribute to or inhibit the advancement of the instrument's development outside of its native land. Very academic sounding, eh? Stay tuned, it promises to be a little spicier than that.

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