How to Play the Shakuhachi

Start your journey into playing Shakuhachi

There are many ways to partake in the shakuhachi. The one thing every mature player has in common is the connection to the tone. Playing music will be an endless exploration that can last a lifetime. But, even before we get there we must understand the essence of the shakuhachi - the tone.  Here is the most basic way to start your journey.

September 23, 2004

Sasa Buki Breath Exercise

Here is my method for getting started on playing the shakuhachi. I call it Sasa Buki (breath of Bamboo Leaf). It will guide the beginner into developing the necessary skills required to play and appreciate shakuhachi at the fundamental level. IMHO, playing with Sasa Buki in mind is the best way to practice. Half of playing shakuhachi is listening. Sasa Buki will introduce the beginner to the essence of shakuhachi - the shifting tone colors.

Let’s start.

The first thing that is required is to shape your lips properly. This is called the embouchure. Make a gentle smile with your lips. This pulls them against your teeth, which is ideal. Then blow the air stream with a gentle release. Think of blowing a tiny pinpoint air steam, one that is round and not splayed or flat.

Next, Visualize the shape of a bamboo leaf, thin on the ends and gradually getting fat in the middle.

It’s best to try your first note without covering any holes.

When you’re comfortable, take the deepest breath you can hold in your lungs. In Yoga, it would be a three part breath - fill the abdomen, chest and throat. Then put your embouchure directly onto the center of the utaguchi for centering and push your chin slightly forward (chin up) to create a gap of about a 1/4 inch from the center of the lips to the center of the utaguchi (letting the back of the flute rest on the area under your lower lip and above the chin). Now, release your pinpoint air stream onto the utaguchi.

After a trial and error period, you will have produce a sound. You will have discovered that aiming the air stream perfectly creates the sound. The idea is to split the air stream in half on the utaguchi, half going into the flute, half going over the edge to the outer surface of the utaguchi. If you are having trouble, keep this in mind. Every time you inhale, fill your lings to capacity. Every time you blow, relax and let the air stream flow evenly and continuously. It’s just like breathing. It doesn’t take much embouchure force to produce a sound. Experiment with blowing over the utaguchi and into the flute until you hit the “sweet spot”.Remember to maintain a direct and focused airstream.

When you can make a sound consistently (it can takes days), make the note last as long as possible. If you can hold the tone for more than 5 seconds the first few days, you are doing very very well….really. Time your self with a watch and see how much you improve in a few days. When you can get up to 20 seconds, you will notice some wonderful things happening around you. when you feel you can handle a simple Sasa Buki, try playing it covering the thumb hole as the next note to attempt. Then work your way down covering the holes in front from top to bottom (when covering holes, the previously covered hole must remain covered for the music scale to work see my web page on the static site for how to hold the shauhachi).

Once you have a grasp on consistently producing a long sound or tone, start to manipulate the sound into Sasa buki - thin at the beginning, gradually get louder and back down to thin at the end, like the shape of sasa. Work on shaping your lips so that the sound is the most beautiful sound you can imagine, one that comes from nowhere, captivates you and then fades out in a way that makes your ears reach out to hear it dissipate. Imagine the last bit of rays from the sun that dissapears on a horizon at sunset. That sort of greenish orange glow that happens after the last rays dissapears is the “Ma” we all refer to - the silence that is part of the music. If you practice with an awareness of musical growth, you will notice major improvements in a very short time. The full and deep breathing technique that is required for Sasa Buki will also have beneficial affects on your mind and body. Try keeping a shakuhachi journal of how long your tones are and see the growth every few days. If you are primarily playing during meditation, you won’t be timing yourself obviously. Try to do this before or after your practice.

After a while (that depends on how much you practice and how well you can develop and retain the lips muscles), you will play longer, louder and more beautiful tones. Your lips will adjust to the natural pressure increase from daily build up of technique. Obviously, daily practice is important for skill development. Your lips will learn when to bear down, when to open up, when to get close and when to pull back to achieve Sasa buki. Just be aware of what is happening with your lips moment to moment, from the beginning of the tone to the end of the tone. Pay attention to the sound and what your lips are doing to get that sound. You’ll be amazed at how your lips are constantly adjusting, however miniscule, to timbrel shifts. Always take note of developments and use them the next time you practice to build your technique.

Blowing Sasa buki is the basic skill necessary to play and enjoy the shakuhachi. After some time, you may need to understand pitch. If you have a grasp on Sasa Buki, you will easily adapt your playing into proper pitch for playing music. Finger movements will come easily and naturally once you have a grasp on producing and maintaining long beautiful notes.

It’s good to play at the same time everyday. It doesn’t matter when. Keeping a daily schedule helps you get into that frame of mind.

Enjoy the deep breathing!



Zen saying for Perry.