Thursday, December 13, 2007

Confessions of a Shakuhachi Ronin*, Part I (of many)

So You Want to Be a Shakuhachi Student?

You've made the decision, you really want to learn to play the shakuhachi. More important, you really want to be a shakuhachi student and take on the challenge of learning the traditional repertoire of a particular shakuhachi school (or ryu) such as Kinko, Tozan, Meian (Myoan), Dokyoku or any number of branches and sub-schools.

If you are lucky, you find a teacher who lives locally who you can visit on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. In the best case scenario, you are compatible with your teacher and you are a dedicated student. And, hopefully, you can afford --or find a way to sacrifice for-- the $40 per lesson (it is well worth every dime). Anyway you cut it, life for a shakuhachi student under these conditions is pretty sweet. (See Shakuhachi Forum and for teacher listings near you!)

It is also extremely rare in the United States and Europe. (Australia may be a different story. It usually is ... and will be discussed later.)

If you really want to get a feel for what it is like to live in Japan and take lessons from a traditional teacher then read Christopher Yohmei Blasdel's The Single Tone. (See Recommended Books: Shakuhachi and Beat on the righthand column of this blog.) The tradition of teacher-to-student transmission is ancient, ingrained and deep. Many customs and practices in the Japanese system will strike Western musical students as unusual, at least.

Most shakuhachi students who live outside of Japan are fairly isolated from each other and are lucky to have a teacher within 100 miles of where they live. Just hang out on Shakuhachi Forum for a few weeks or months and you'll see one of the major issues Westerners have is access to learning.

Of course getting to one of the great shakuhachi festivals, camps or intensives is great. It's absolutely recommended. But it is not always possible. And even if you can get to one a year (two or more if you are VERY fortunate) how do you, a Westerner who is probably not Japanese speaking, study meaningfully in the meantime?

I don't think their are many easy answers to this. There are a couple of teachers who teach via live Internet connections and they are listed on the right column of this blog. I recommend people who are equipped for live video conferencing on the Internet to give these teachers a heart-filled try. It could be the start of a very useful, productive teacher-student relationship. And there is at least one well known teacher who has been teaching via cassette tape exchange for many years. Still we are only talking about the number of teachers you can count on one hand ... with a digit to spare.

Books, videos? The books which are currently in print are certainly good for bits and pieces of information. None of them serve as complete didactic guides, nor could they as single volumes. Most are designed to work as supplements to live lessons with teachers in specific traditional schools. Something is always better than nothing. When you are hungry for knowledge even scraps and crusts look mighty tasty. Perhaps the best of these books in the Kinko tradition, Shakuhachi: A Manual for Learning is currently out of print, although it's author assures us it is in revision and will be out by the time of the World Shakuhachi Festival 2008.

Still, the question rings in our ears like Fuke's bell ... (Stay tuned for the next installment)

(From Wikipedia: The word r┼Źnin literally means "drifting person". The term originated in the Nara and Heian periods, when it referred to a serf who had fled or deserted his master's land. It then came to be used for a samurai who had lost his master. -- Now, I don't imagine myself to have the skills or moxy of a "samurai" but I love the term and really wanted to use it in this context. It is Quixotic at best in self-reference. -- cm)