I am learning the shakuhachi.
That is probably a misrepresentation of the development of my ability to this point, however. Because really, even though I’ve owned a plastic shakuhachi – for there’s no point in owning a bamboo one, worth thousands, until I can play something worth a damn on a PVC, injection-moulded copy – for a couple of years now, only the most basic tones and articulations are within my reach.
For someone who is driven by results and feeling competent at something (all evidence to the contrary with my ongoing writing projects, I suppose) this is immensely frustrating. I hear people play with ease – my friends Nick and Felicity, and of course my sometime teachers Riley and Kevin – and I wonder why I can’t do that too.
Most obviously, it comes down to practice. Mea culpa. I don’t practice enough. Practice of music – I mean proper practice, not just farting about and doing stuff you like, or which is easy – is something I’ve only really come to value in the past few years. Doing the work. As far as shakuhachi is concerned, I haven’t done the work. I need to be better at carving out a space for myself to better my playing, to learn notation, to work on my breath control. Bit by bit, brick by brick. It will happen, but not for a long time. I am going to pursue more intensive teaching – but only when I have enough raw technique to benefit from the paring away of crap habits that comes with it.
(Having said that, a couple of lessons with Kevin Man saw me going from being unable to get a noise at all to making a constant noise, albeit a kinda burbly one. But it was a start, and it wouldn’t have happened without his sessions.)
The long game is really why I’m learning. I’ve learned drums – notably taiko – in order to play them in public. I started playing and figured I could play just as well as others in the student group and, with work, this turned out to be true. With others, world competitions were won, concerts performed, recitals delivered. And though I did come to value just playing on a private level – much more so than public performance – I was wanting to learn those big drums for someone other than me, no matter what enjoyment it brought me. I wanted to have people see me play, enjoy my playing, and – though this was down the list of priorities – perhaps say that I’d done OK.
This isn’t really the case with shakuhachi. I picked one up while I was learning taiko, because it seemed the thing to do, but the more I look into it, the more it is a solo journey. Yes, there is the importance of lineage – without teacher/pupil relationships, the strains of music will die out – but for me, it’s about a journey I take alone. I would like to reach the point where I can perform tolerably in public, but it’s not a deal-breaker, or even one of the larger goals I hold. It’s something which would be nice. I’d much rather have private approval from a teacher that I had reached a level in my playing that was decent – that way it ensures I’m not using bad technique along the way – than applause.
(I’m in the middle there. I started the piece. No pressure.)
That sounds very grandiose and a bit smug, but it’s not. Shakuhachi is difficult. There’s an unkeyed, temperamental flute involved, mouth contortions which won’t seem natural until you break through the wall and they do, pieces that are more meandering and complex (and to my mind, more difficult to remember) than most music I’m familiar with, as well as a form of musical notation which requires interpretation I still can’t manage. And so with all of this in mind, I’m moving forward. It’s as if there’s a big chunk of marble and I have a small chisel, and inside the marble is a successful rendition of honkyoku. And I have to carve it out.
I think this is partially the influence of Riley Lee, who I’ve studied with briefly. Riley once told a group of us that we should set impossible goals. Because what point is the attainable? There’ll always be something more to do once you attain them, so joy would be transitory. This links in with what I’ve learned through my personal development of the past few years; that it’s the work that’s important. Results are secondary, because if you focus on them, the work suffers. And work is what there is. Not nine-to-five work, and not even unenjoyable work. Just effort towards sculpting things the way you want them to be.
If I’m honest, has always been in front of me. One of my favourite Tom Waits songs features the lines
Most vagabonds I knowed don’t ever want to find the culprit
That remains the object of their long relentless quest
The obsession’s in the chasing and not the apprehending
The pursuit, you see, and never the arrest
This is shakuhachi. This is me. Will I ever carve out that one tolerable rendition?
I would like to hope so, because it would lead to others, and to even more pieces. There’s a raft of them out there. But if I don’t, it’s ok, as long as I keep working, tortoiselike, towards the sun.
This was written as part of my daily 750words practice, so it may differ in quality from my usual ramblings.