Oboe and Shakuhachi

I have always been interested in musical instruments of any kind, although my personal “expertise” and preference is in woodwind instruments. The oboe is my official instrument (and life companion), but I have tried other instruments, one of which is the shakuhachi,

or the Japanese bamboo flute. When I still lived in Michigan, more than 10 years ago, I came across this curious flute that looked so simple in its construction, but so expressive in its sound. After learning more about it in a lecture presented by Michael “Chikuzen” Gould, I took about one semester of lessons with this great master. It was an incredible experience. I cannot say that I know how to play the shakuhachi, but I know where the basic notes are and how to make them sound okay. Since I was borrowing a flute while having lessons, after I stopped the lessons I had to return it. A few years later, I had the opportunity of acquiring my own shakuhachi. Because I live in Arizona and have already enough problems with my oboes and the dryness here, I decided to invest in a shakuhachi made of ABS resin (the Shakuhachi Yuu). It is a student instrument, but for me at this point, it is perfect.

What I came to realize, as I tried to learn more how to play the shakuhachi on my own, is that it has helped me to play better the oboe. Although the embouchure is completely different (and I’ve seen oboists who could not make a sound on a shakuhachi because of that), one of the focuses of shakuhachi playing is in the quality of the sound. There are no reeds or keys to get in the way; it is pure breathing. This is why many people play this instrument for meditation purposes. There is a quite complex technique involved if one aims to become proficient on the shakuhachi, but for my intention here, I am not going to discuss its technique. When I practice it more seriously, I pay attention to my posture, the amount of air and velocity to make the note resonate just right, and how this makes my body resonate together with the sound. It is when I have this feeling of resonance of the body with the instrument and with the environment that I know I found the right spot for that note. The challenge then is to find this spot for every note.

The same idea can be applied to the oboe, and many oboists do that during their regular long-notes practices. What I have always been curious though is what exactly the oboist is thinking at that moment, and what he or she consciously wants to accomplish with this practice. Many would simply say that it helps improve endurance, intonation, and the overall quality of the notes. I completely agree with these goals, but for me, in addition to them, I also need to feel that resonance of the “right spot.” The simplicity of the shakuhachi allows the player to focus more easily on the sound, and this is what I try to bring to the oboe playing. Sometimes I just close my eyes, forget about the tuner, metronome, clock, and other distractions, and just try to find the “right spot” for each note as I play long notes. As I do that, I pay attention to the whole path that the air goes through, from the environment to my lungs and back to the environment, and how each element along the way affects the air (mouth, nose, lungs, diaphragm, reed, instrument, and direction of the sound, among others). It is almost a meditative practice, and it helps me become more aware of my own playing and how I want my playing to be.

Along the lines of shakuhachi practice helping oboe practice, I found a few guidelines suggested for the daily practice of the shakuhachi at Gene Neill’s Shakuhachi Web Site. After reading them, I thought that they could also be useful for the oboe practice, so I am copying them here and hoping that other oboists also find them useful.

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About paulomusic

I'm a musician at heart with a passion for playing and for musical instruments. I used to play the oboe professionally for many years but stopped when I started a PhD in educational psychology. Now, I want to bring the music back to my life and also share some ideas about it.
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2 Responses to Oboe and Shakuhachi

  1. Super cool!
    I’m a big fan of all the world’s ethnic simple flutes. The Andes and West-Coast American Indian tribes have phenomenal instruments and musical tradition. There is something “wholesome” about both the sound of the instruments and the musical style.

    I play a cheap “ney” flute, indigenous of Iran. It is also played in Turkey, It is a piece of overgrown bassoon cane with ONLY finger holes that you blow in the end… NOT the like the transverse flute: it’s literally like taking a piece of copper plumbing pipe, doing nothing to it at all and getting music from it! At least wit a beer bottle, there is a bottom for the resonance, but the ney has no holes other than the finger holes, none for the mouth except the natural hollow opening of the plant itself.

    Egypt and pretty much everywhere from Morocco to Bengladesh, but the Iranian one is more “pure” because the others use a special cap to make the sound whereas the Iranian one is straight: no mouthpiece save an optional brass tube extension just to better accept the blowing.

    Get a recording on you tube for us! Maybe I’ll do the same for my ney,

    Like

  2. paulomusic says:

    Hi Robin,

    I completely agree with you. These flutes have a simple but deceiving appearance. Their music can be very rich and complex, and they bring with them the culture of their people. It is fascinating. When I was working on my doctorate in oboe (which I never finished), I had ethnomusicology as my minor. I was going to focus on the ethnic oboes (zurna, shenai, suona, bombard, etc.). Even if this ended up not happening, my interest for musical instruments has not decreased. I’ve been wanting to add a couple of quenas and a native American flute to my collection.

    I remember many years ago, I ordered a cheap ney, and when it arrived, it was broken. I couldn’t even try to play it, and had to return. It is amazing what this flute can do in the hands of an expert. I think it is really cool that you play it. It’s funny, but I feel a little intimidated by the ney. It is so simple and at the same time so challenging. I would like to hear you play it.

    I will brush up my shakuhachi skills and get a quick recording of it. I know that I also need to make a recording on the Baroque oboe. I sent it to be re-reamed, and I should received it back shortly.

    Like

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