Shakuhachi - Free Evaluation

If you are considering purchasing a new or previously-owned shakuhachi through an auction site or from a private party on the Internet, careful scrutiny is recommended. Bear in mind that most any shakuhachi will play and produce a tone if blown softly, but not perform adequately when blowing is intensified. The questions are, how well does the instrument perform, and is its asking price in line with the quality of the flute? Without years of experience blowing shakuhachi, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make these determinations.

In Japan, students of the traditional music usually rely on their teachers to select and recommend an instrument for them. Because a shakuhachi is "vintage" or its bamboo aesthetic is appealing does not assure that it will perform well or even adequately. With so many flutes being offered via the online nowadays, it is difficult, if not impossible, for most folks to make an accurate appraisal and informed decision.

Over the many years I have been making shakuhachi, I've been asked to make such evaluations for beginning, intermediate, and even advanced students as well as for seasoned players to insure their instruments they are considering purchasing perform at an adequate level commensurate with the price. If you are considering a purchase and would like to know more about the flute, I would be glad to provide complete assessment of its acoustical and performance qualities as well as its proximity to the traditional aesthetic for shakuhachi. In this endeavor, every effort will be made to be as thorough and objective as possible. A signed, dated statement will accompany each evaluation.

There is no charge whatsoever for this service other than the cost of return shipping. These evaluations are offered freely as an appreciation for the long tradition of craftsmanship for which my life has been blessed and a service to members of the world shakuhachi community.

Scope of the Evaluation

In evaluating a shakuhachi the following criteria are considered: bamboo aesthetics and craftsmanship along with performance and acoustical issues. The latter considerations take into account intonation (tuning for pitch), timbre (tone color), and the resonance response of all the open-hole tones.

Intonation is a simple determination of whether the instrument is in tune or not with standard Western pitch at room temperature. If not, which notes are sharp or flat and what can be done to correct the problems. Generally, pitch is determined by the relative diameter, chimney height (depth), and position of the finger holes, but can be affected by resonance issues as well. It is important to remember that the temperature of a room in which an instrument is played is a significant factor in measuring intonation as the speed of sound in air is directly proportional to ambient temperature. The standard for most musical instruments tuned to Equal Temperament is A=440 or 442 hz. at 20° C / 60°F).

Timbre or tone color (neiro, in Japanese) is largely determined by the overall design of the bore and essentially a matter of personal taste. Timbre translates into harmonic configuration or the spectrum of frequencies that make up each individual tone. Not much can be done to alter this aspect of the a flute without completely redesigning and rebuilding the bore. Each traditional maker tends to have a recognizable quality of sound in this regard.

Resonance is clearly the most important issue involved in assessing acoustical and performance qualities of a shakuhachi. It is the domain in which most instruments are likely to exhibit problems, but also one that is most correctable. Resonance response governs how much air the flute will accept and how forcefully the sound can be pushed. Any shakuhachi, including the most primitive plastic plumbing pipe models, will perform adequately in this arena if the player blows softly. As more air is introduced into the bore and blowing is intensified, the higher partials or overtones of the sound waves are exercised giving the shakuhachi its distinctive ringing tone. If the bore profile of an instrument is not properly designed and rendered to a very precise shape, there are acoustical consequences. Unwanted vibrato, notes jumping into higher octaves, instability and weakness of tone and, in extreme case, the inability to produce a clear sound at all are just a few manifestations of resonance problems. This is an aspect in assessing and grading the quality of a shakuhachi that represents the greatest challenge to traditional makers.

Assessing the Value of a Shakuhachi

In assessing the value of a shakuhachi, I have long maintained the importance of distinguishing between intrinsic value and market value. In other words, is one evaluating how well the instrument performs as opposed to its vintage status, mode of construction, bamboo aesthetics, or reputation of the maker? Or, on the other hand, is one mainly concerned with the resale value of the flute, i.e., how much it will fetch on the open market? Both are legitimate concerns, but are based on very different criteria to arrive at an accurate assessment.

In considering intrinsic value embodied in the performance and acoustical qualities of a shakuhachi, the evaluations I make are concerned solely with the following criteria:

1. If the shakuhachi is a jiari, i.e. made with a precision bore, is it tuned precisely to standard Western pitch at A=440-442 hz. at 20°C / 60°F. Jiari shakuhachi must be accurately tuned to standard Western pitch as they are often played in ensemble with koto, shamisen, and other traditional or modern instruments. Jiari shakuhachi are distinguished from jinashikan which are designed to perform solo honkyoku, hence, tuned to the bamboo rather than Western pitch.
2. Are the frequencies of the open-hole tones of shakuhachi in balance with each other? If not, are they sharp or flat, and how much do they deviate?
3. Does the timbre (neiro) or tone color of the instrument appeal to the owner's aesthetic preference?
4. Last but not least, does the instrument play at full resonance for all of its notes?

Only if all of these questions are answered affirmatively, can a shakuhachi be considered to be performing at or near a professional level. The degree to which a shakuhachi conforms to these exacting acoustical and performance standards are the bases upon which I evaluate a flute—not its age, craftsmanship, history, or maker’s name (hanko). Certainly, the condition and stability of the bamboo—has it cracked and been repaired—is an important consideration, but less so than acoustical and performance criteria. In either case, having any given hanko on a shakuhachi, including my own, wouldn't make it play any better or worse than it does after I completed a restoration and performance upgrade. (I wish it were that easy!)

If one's interest is primarily to resell the shakuhachi, either privately or on an on-line auction site like eBay, an entirely different set of criteria come into play. Pricing shakuhachi for resale on the open market is subject to the whims of that market and governed by the motivations of the seller and buyer. Quite frankly, this is a matter I have long since given up speculating about as the criteria involved are based on very subjective standards. As a maker of new and restored vintage shakuhachi only, I have no interest or enthusiasm in brokering flutes that may have historic or aesthetic value but do not play very well. There are any number of venues on the Wiorldwide Web where such instruments are available. Mine in not one of them. All of the vintage instruments offered for sale on my website have been restored and had their performance enhanced, thus they are thoroughly vetted. My customers rely on me for this kind of assurance.

In short, when taking into account market considerations, it frequently comes down to how much value a potential buyer places on the reputation of the maker or makers whose hanko are stamped on a shakuhachi. For the very best shakuhachi players I know, the condition and aesthetics of the bamboo are far less important than acoustics and performance variables. For the majority of the resale market, however, this may not be the case.

For details in your flute for evaluation, contact [email protected] 


 

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Shakuhachi: The Sound of Nature
Origins & History of the Shakuhachi
Bamboo Used for Shakuhachi
Precision Cast Bore Technology

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Jinashi - Natural Bore Flutes
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Shakuhachi Headjoint for the Silver Flute
Traditional Styles
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