Bells Ringingin the Empty Sky of Boulder:
World Shakuhachi Festival 1998

by Stuart Goodnick

When I first began to play Shakuhachi,it was a very personal experience. I had one friend who had introducedme to the instrument, but few others that could even pronounceits name. I was drawn to the instrument partly for its roots inthe Fuke Zen meditation tradition, and I envisioned myself sittingalone on a mountaintop playing soulful sounds to the wind. Asmy practice matured, I was fortunate to become involved in KogaSensei's Japanese Music Institute (JMI), and was delightedto be exposed to a larger number of fellow Shakuhachi enthusiasts,an expanded repertoire of music, and a masterful teacher. Eventhis left me little prepared for the power and impact of the WorldShakuhachi Festival 1998 held in Boulder, Colorado, the weekof July 5 - 11.

World Shakuhachi Festival 1998, emerged as the largest and most historic gatheringof world-renowned Shakuhachi players, professionals and amateurperformers, scholars, and enthusiasts ever held. In all therewere 336 participants ranging from a designated Japanese LivingNatural Treasure to very beginning students from all parts ofthe world. Five special guest Shakuhachi masters topped the billing:Reibo Aoki II, Kodo Araki V, Goro Yamaguchi, Hozan Yamamoto, andKatsuya Yokoyama. In addition there were over 50 invited artistsincluding my own Sensei, Masayuki Koga, and such names as JohnNeptune, Riley Lee, Akikazu Nakamura, John Singer, Marco Lienhard,Yoshio Kurahashi, Teruo Furuya, Larry Tyrrell, and Ichiro Seki.

The festival consisted of master classesgiven by the five special guests and a wide variety of workshopscovering various topics such as specific performance techniques,effective practice methods, improvisation, breathing, and fluteconstruction. The master classes focused on a number of advancedtraditional pieces and provided an opportunity for master levelstudents and even beginners to gain insight into playing techniqueand philosophy. Many of the workshops covered specific piecesfrom Honkyoku, Sankyoku, and modern traditions, and participantsat whatever level could focus on playing techniques and tone.When participants might want a break from the intensive practiceworkshops, they could attend any of a series of on-going concertsgiven by festival invited artists. There was also a parallel trackof scholarly seminars tracing the history and musicology of Shakuhachi.

The festival offered three main eveningconcerts in Boulder and Denver featuring many of the invited artistsand special guests. Shakuhachi Odyssey offered a varietyof traditional and modern pieces often accompanied by dance andTaiko. Koga Sensei performed an impressive improvisation as partof this concert. Shakuhachi at Chautauqua offered Jazzwith John Kaizen Neptune, contemporary works by the Tokyo ModernShakuhachi Ensemble, Katsuya Yokoyama and his Chikushin-kai group,and several others. This concert featured an unprecedented performanceof the honkyoku piece, Tamuke, by over two hundred Shakuhachifestival participants, as well as the Stravinsky inspired orchestrationof Pentagonia by Ichiro Seki featuring five Shakuhachisoloists and two hundred accompanists! The final concert in thisseries was Living Treasures of Japan, in which the fivespecial guests all performed their signature works in solo andensemble. The closing of this concert was both inspirational andpoignant as the five great masters shared the stage together toacknowledge that their lifetime dedication to Shakuhachi was alivein the hearts of the many festival attendees.

As a beginning player and festival participantI found myself more deeply immersed in the world of Shakuhachithan I could ever have imagined. The festival was held at theUniversity of Colorado campus (CU), and most participants stayedin the dormitories. In these close quarters we were constantlysurrounded by bamboo music. The first evening as I lay to go tosleep, a multitude of players were giving voice to the distantcry of deer. Each evening as we would return to the dorms afterone of the concerts, different groups of players would be gatheredaround the walkways and ponds in the warm summer evenings practicingand performing. During the days it seemed as though everyone onthe campus was carrying a Shakuhachi with them. We took our breakfasts,lunches, and dinners together, and we walked the same paths tothe various buildings in which the workshops were held, all movingin sync with the schedule of the festival organizers.

The task of accommodating the needsof such a wide variety of players was handled extraordinarilywell. Morning sessions each day featured a master class sessionin which one of the special guests would perform such pieces asShika no Tone (Distant Cry of Deer), Tsuru no Sugomori(Nesting Cranes), and Sanya. After the performance,participants could stay and go over the piece in detail or adjournto a special beginners class also given by another one of thespecial guests. This way both master level players and beginnerscould gain great benefit from a wide variety of masters. The festivalorganizers even adapted after the first day to create two beginnertracks in the morning session to address the needs of participantsthat were still organizing their sound and learning basic notationas well as the needs of advanced beginners. A couple of theseadvanced beginner classes were challenging enough with Reibo Aokireviewing Sanya Sukagaki and Goro Yamaguchi reviewing HiFu Mi. Katsuya Yokoyama and Hozan Yamamoto focused more onvery basic practice and tone production.

Even as a beginner, I found great inspirationin attending the master class given by Katsuya Yokoyama in whichhe reviewed the honkyoku piece, Sanya. Of all the specialguests, I felt that Yokoyama had the most expansive spirit. Heand his top students, members of his Kenshukan, struckme as among the happiest participants of the festival. This spiritcame through in his performing and his teaching. He first hadall the master class participants play Ro no Otsu for 10minutes as a warm up. He explained that to play Ro, thenote on the Shakuhachi in which all finger holes are closed, isto cause the entire flute to vibrate, and in this way, Rocontains all of the rest of the notes. He said that his teachertold him if one were to play Ro no Otsu for 10 minuteseach day one would become a great master (he also confessed humblythat he had not followed this advice but wanted to offer it toall of us for our benefit).

After his solo performance of Sanya,Yokoyama led the group through the piece phrase by phrase. Themost profound aspect of this experience for me came when he explainedthat this piece was to played in the spirit of a Buddhist chant.As he led us through the piece, he would chant the names of thenotes with his very accomplished singing voice and imbue themwith the depth and resonance of deeply devotional religious music.His chanting resonated with me and communicated an understandingabout this piece that would be impossible to receive in any otherway. He kept this same spirit alive when he led the two hundredfestival participants in the performance of Tamuke at theChautauqua concert later that week. His approach of singing Sanyato the class taught me more deeply about the expressive potentialof micro-tonal melodies than could any abstract discussion ofkeshi technique.

After the morning set of master andbeginner classes, festival participants could attend a group rehearsalfor the ensemble portion of Pentagonia. People were alsofree to explore the concession area where such master flute makersas Monty Levenson offered a wide variety of instruments for sampleand sale. After lunch there were a variety of workshops held eachday. The one complaint about the festival that I heard consistentlywas people's frustration that there were so many wonderful workshopsto choose from but that many of them were happening at the sametime.

Before the festival, I had asked Koga-Senseiwhat he was going to teach in his workshop. He said that manypeople were planning to teach music, but that he wanted to teachpeople how to breathe. Sensei's first workshop was simply entitled"Breathing." He began by introducing the class to hisunderstanding of the necessary breathing methods for strong andclear sound production. Many of these methods are detailed inhis book, Extract of the Master Techniques for Shakuhachi.He reviewed for us the proper posture of leaning forward slightlyto place one's weight on the front part of one's feet, such thatone can make one's spine more straight. He emphasized that oneof the keys to allowing the sound within one to emerge is to relaxthe abdominal muscles, and he explained how to internally "lowerone's heart" so that the diaphragm has less resistance tomovement. The most compelling aspect of this teaching was Sensei'sperspective that one's sound is not simply the product of an airstream resonating with a piece of bamboo, but that real soundarises from deep within oneself and that the physical manifestationis merely a reflection of a subtler activity of one's being. Withproper posture, we can remove some of the physical obstacles toallowing our true sound out. By relaxing our abdominal and neckmuscles we remove still more constraints on our true expression.By breathing into our center and out from our center, we allowour sound to follow naturally from our breath. And so we practicedbreathing in this workshop and worked on one or two notes.

The next afternoon, Sensei gave anotherworkshop on "Beginner Techniques." Here he elaboratedon the themes he laid forth in his breathing workshop. In addition,he focused on how to keep one's lips and face relaxed and notcramped up in the effort to make a note. Part of this involvesthe relaxing of the neck muscles and the exercises he teachesto aid in this process. Part of this involves his image of one'smouth cavity as holding a ping-pong ball. He instructed workshopattendees to imagine this ping-pong ball in their mouths and totry to move it as far back in one's mouth as one could (even outthe back of the head!). But in addition to proper posture andproper breathing, Sensei emphasized in this workshop proper attitude.What is one's mind doing while one is playing? Is one thinkingabout playing or is one simply playing. He discussed how our attentioncan be on our thoughts about our playing (the cause of effort),or our attention can be on the source and the destination of oursound.

When our attention is on the sourceof our sound, we are well centered and opening ourselves up sothat our spirit can emerge through the instrument of the Shakuhachi.When our attention is on the destination of our sound, we putattention on our audience. We are playing for someone as thoughwe are giving them a great gift. We are attempting in this practiceto give our audience everything we have. Everything. As part ofthis practice, Sensei would have students imaging a dear friendwhether dead or alive, and then he would instruct them to playfor this friend, to make this friend smile. He provided some dramaticdemonstrations of this technique by inviting volunteers to stepbefore the class to work on their sound. First a volunteer wouldplay a note, then Sensei would instruct the volunteer in how tostand, relax, and imagine their friend to whom they should play.With each attempt, the volunteer's tone became smoother and warmer.Everyone in the room could see the pathway to perfecting theirsound.

Throughout the week, I attended a numberof other workshops in which very accomplished players would workon particular pieces of music. After learning Kurokamiwith Sensei over the past year, for instance, I found it usefulto attend a Sankyoku class on this piece and to play with a Shamisenaccompanist. But the lessons from Koga's workshops stayed withme. I met people at the festival that were very technically proficient,but lacked a depth to their sound, and I met many people whosetone in even simple notes could stop me and hold my full attention.During the festival I found my mind greedy for technical knowledgeand technique, yet I could not shake the impression that whattruly separated the great players from the lesser players wasthe depth of their tone. In fact, the lessons of many of the othermasters echoed the same instructions that Koga Sensei gave inhis workshops and gives to members of JMI. One must build one'spractice on a firm foundation of sound and breathing.

Having been exposed to a wide rangeof teachers, schools, techniques, and music at the World ShakuhachiFestival 1998, I came away richer in my understanding of thehistory and repertoire of this instrument. I was especially impressedwith the quality of festival that the executive committee wereable to pull together and delighted with the spirit and energyof all of the participants. But I also came away with a senseof gratitude for the teaching I am fortunate to receive on anongoing basis from Koga. Of all the teachers and schools representedat the festival, I found Koga's teaching style and emphasis onessence over technique to capture most closely the Zen-like characterof the Shakuhachi to which I was originally attracted. Technique,just like the physical vibrations of the air stream through apiece of bamboo, follow from the emanation of a deeper tone withinour very beings. It is the cultivation of this tone that beginsour practice of Shakuhachi.

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