In the 1970s, Australian Andrew MacGregor heard the unique sounds of the shakuhachi flute on a rock and roll recording by Leon Russell – and he loved it.
Andrew followed that sound to its source and became a student of Japanese master Tadashi Tajima, and then a teacher and an internationally renowned performer.
The shakuhachi flute gets its name from its length, being originally one foot (isshaku) and eight units (hassun). Traditional shakuhachi flutes are crafted from bamboo, but modern flutes are often made from wood or plastic and, according to Andrew, can be of an excellent standard.
“The quality of the sound of a shakuhachi is really a function only of the internal dimensions. Some people say that the bamboo gives it a special character but, according to acoustic theory, it doesnt really matter and our students use plastic flutes and they sound wonderful.”
A well-made plastic flute is perfect for a beginner and about one tenth of the price of a bamboo flute.
Playing the shakuhachi requires extreme concentration. Players focus on each note its shape, sound and quality and this focus can induce a meditative state. “If you think too much about the meaning of the music and get caught up in the emotion of the sounds, the point is kind of lost,” Andrew explains.
A shakuhachi only has five holes but you can play almost any pitch by covering half of the holes or using different fingering.
“With a shakuhachi you make a sound by blowing across this blowing edge which is made by just cutting the bamboo on an angle, and its called the utaguchi, the singing mouth of the flute. Its a little bit like a recorder. The recorder has a voice box which directs the air exactly over the edge, but we have to do that ourselves so sometimes its very difficult to get started, but if we direct the air exactly onto that edge we can get a sound.
“And once we get more confident with that we have the added advantage that we can change the sound by changing the way we blow and you cant do that with something like a recorder.
“So we can make a nice round sound. Or by changing the way we blow changing our embouchure we can make that sound a little bit harder; we can make it breathy, like the wind blowing through the bamboo leaves in a forest. Or we can make it violent.”
It is a difficult instrument for beginners, as even a note is hard to achieve at first, but the rewards of learning to play outweigh the difficulty. Playing a shakuhachi is relaxing and uplifting. The extended out-breath needed to form the note relaxes both the muscles and the mind. Playing the instrument requires both discipline and creativity.
The instrument itself is extremely expressive and many people play for self-expression. There are so many different sounds you can get.
“As a performer, you have to be a little bit careful because as one of my teachers says, Andrew, only monks play for themselves.”
As a performer you have to remember you have an audience!
Often the music of the shakuhachi, particularly traditional Zen Buddhist compositions, tells a story or describes an image, and the player focuses on this to inspire their performance.
“Were taught these pieces in great detail and we have to follow exactly the way our teacher plays it. But once we learn it, we internalise it, and we create our own image and we mix that with out own life biography, and the piece can change quite dramatically from teacher to student. And especially when you are performing, its very important, I think, to rise above your personal issues and the mundanity of everyday life and try and have an image that is universal and comes from something greater than ourselves at least.”
You always have your own image, whether you are communicating to the universe or to an audience. This is what makes the playing individual.