How To Play Your Shakuhachi Flute
Learning to play a shakuhachi flute, whether traditional bamboo or my modern plastic ones, is not particularly difficult. Anyone who can blow a note on a bottle has already experienced the basic technique. It may take a little patience, but once you can get a sound, the rest is relatively easy. Of course, mastering any musical instrument, like a martial art, is a lifetime achievement.
Begin by holding the flute straight out in front of you. Don’t worry about fingering the holes yet; just pay attention to blowing a note with everything open. With the sound notch of the flute on top, place the lower part of the round end of the flute against your lower jaw so you more or less feel it against the bottom of your lower teeth. This will place your lower lip inside the end of the flute. Don’t stick your lip out; the technique is about halfway between whistling and tightening your lips for playing a trumpet. Practice blowing until you can get a sound. Changing the angle of the flute, or how hard you press it against your jaw, can modulate the pitch slightly, but you will want to get comfortable with the “sweet spot”.
Once you can blow a note on the open flute, begin covering the holes one at a time from the one closest to the mouthpiece. This will be the thumb hole, which you should cover with your left thumb. Since covering each successive hole will go down the scale, and will depend upon how well all previous holes are covered to make a clean sound, make sure to seal each one securely as you go. The notes for the basic scale will successively be open, then the left thumb, left index finger, then left middle finger. Next will be the right index, then middle, then ring fingers.
Flutes longer than 20” will have a tuning hole beyond these which is not played; it is to tune the bottom note. One can play a full octave by covering all the notes, then lifting only the thumb. This is a higher note than “open”.
Once you can play the scale up and down, and get the octave, you can experiment with getting other notes. These simple flutes are quite versatile in this regard. For instance, if you play “open”, then cover the (second) left index hole while leaving the thumb open, then lift the index to cover the thumb hole, you will discover another scale. You can cover the index, then index and middle finger, then the thumb hole only, to refine this concept even further. This pattern of open and closed holes can be applied up and down the flute to get different notes, and, as pointed out previously, the angle at which you blow across the mouthpiece can further fine-tune each and every note.
There are many techniques used by flautists that you may use on these (I’m still learning too!). For instance, trills. Cover all the holes, then lift your right middle finger, then put it back down again. Do this quickly several times. Nice! This also works well with the right index finger, or with the left index finger. Again, various combinations of open and closed will give you almost any note you want.
Another example of this is covering the holes, then lifting the right middle finger, then also raising the right index. If you do this same sequence, but replace the middle finger as you raise the index, you will get a different note.
It takes patience to learn to play any instrument, but the rewards are worth it. It is another form of communication, one which you can enjoy alone or playing music with other people. Wind instruments such as flutes demand a lot of breath control, but that is also one of the values of learning this instrument. The most important thing is to have fun with it and not to get frustrated if it takes a bit of work to get started. Like I tell my martial arts students, if it was easy, everyone would do it!
-Jeff “Stickman” Finder