The body and the shakuhachi

Blowing into a bamboo flute while reading a score can be surprisingly stressful to your body!

You can develop a good physical relationship with your flute that will enable you to produce open, full sound whilst remaining relatively stress-free. For a good postural relationship with your shakuhachi:

-Keep the torso upright, whether standing, sitting, or kneeling in seiza (zen meditation posture).

-Keep the neck and head vertical and in line with the torso it sits upon. Thus your airway will be at its most open and your sound will have greater projection

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-Pay attention to the drape of the shoulders. Allow the upper arms to hang naturally from your shoulders whilst your hands touch the flute. There can be a tendency to ‘bat-wing’ elbows outwards and away from the upper body. This immediately creates muscle tension in the shoulders and the middle of the back in order to support your arms against gravity. Any shoulder tension will travel to the hands.

-Most players will be reading a score while they play. Almost inevitably your head will roll forwards on your neck as you play. As soon as your head totters off the vertical axis it tumbles forward under gravity and has to be kept from falling by muscle tension in the lower neck and middle of the back. All of these tensions will be detrimental to the ease of playing shakuhachi. Be vigilant with your posture.

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-Your hands are at the very end of a complex muscle/tendon/ligament system and they inherit all and any tension present in that system. They also induce tension in that same system in the reverse direction if they become cramped or ‘white-knuckled’ during playing.

-The weight of a shakuhachi can be an important factor in organizing a healthy playing relationship with your body. Heavier flutes need more muscle tension to keep them suspended in space. How this affects you, the player, is entirely an individual thing. Some players are impacted by a heavy instrument, others are not. Heavy can be considered as 420g upwards. Lightweight flutes are in the range 250g-330g. There is no iherent technical quality advantage or disadvantage linked to the weight of a shakuhachi. In my experience, players who live with lightweight flutes enjoy the low physical impact of playing them.

-You can minimize tensions in the hands and wrists by holding the flute with the least force necessary. It is surprising how little tension is really needed to be a functional player. Your fingers can rest very softly on the flute and they can move around the finger holes with surprising agility, keeping just a light holding pressure.

-The drape of the fingers on the holes of the flute varies from player to player. In general the angle between the wrist and the fingers should be as near to a straight line as is comfortable. This will yield various drape angles of the fingers over the holes. Big players may find their fingers at almost 90 degrees to the flute. Smaller players may be able to straighten their wrists and hold the flute with their fingers pointed more downwards, closer to the axis of the flute. The important factor is to allow the tendons in the wrist and forearm to move freely and in as straight a line as is reasonably possible. Stretching is critical see Hand care for Musicians

-Avoid jamming the flute into your lips...this inhibits just about every aspect of sound-making and induces extra tension in your arms and hands.

These good postural choices can be permanently built into your shakuhachi practice with mindfulness. If you can do this all your shakuhachi life, you are supporting the intention of a lifetime of playing without injury.

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