Long tone practice sessions
When you spend a lot of time and attention with a single note on your flute, you open your self to the possibility of making a breakthrough with your sound-making. This breakthrough can be: length of sustain, timbral quality, control of modulation in a long expulsion, development of elegance in beginning and ending of a sound, pitch accuracy, listening awareness, embouchure shaping. This practice is absolutely necessary, particularly as a beginner player, but also as a seasoned player too. It’s all too easy to fall into making a default (OK) sound for a long period of time. Your sound-making needs to be fluid and always under investigation.
All long tone practice can be considered investigatory in nature. You give yourself permission to make and break existing patterns of note-playing in order to find new aspects of your shakuhachi relationship. This yields playing wisdom that you can carry with you from flute to flute. Long tone practice is the real workbench of shakuhachi playing and demands an acute focus and mindfulness.
Some would say this is shakuhachi discipline. It may end up being a discipline, but above all it needs to be enjoyable, so get really personal in how you approach your own long tone practice. The ‘focus’ aspect can be created by designating a block of time during which you get friendly and intimate with your flute. (Even a 15 minute single tone session can be hugely beneficial).You can craft a beautiful quiet environment that supports the second factor in long tone practice, which is ‘mindfulness’. Focus means you gather together all aspects of your being, all the threads of you, at the same moment, and make all of you available for mindfulness. Mindfulness means you pay careful attention to the micro-arena of your embouchure, your posture, your breathing, and you listen intently to your sound. Long tones demand that you use all of your breath expulsion through the bore of the flute and keep blowing even if the tone drops out from time to time or disappears completely. Simply blowing long, sustained breath thorough the flute with proper embouchure is good practice, even if the tone is only half there or only occasionally there.
Eventually, it will be there If you focus primarily on making sure you wring the very last drop of air from your lungs on the out-breath, then your tone will eventually be able to follow your breath and manifest in sweet, soft and long diminuendos. As you make the long expulsions, you are intuiting changes to your embouchure and mouth cavity, to craft the nature and core of the tone.
Long tone practice can take many shapes, from simple, long, even tones to tones modulated with meri/kari movements, to tones ending in muraiki breath. Long tones are also the opportunity to investigate timbre: what can you do to vary the timbral qualities of a single long tone? This, after all, is one of the great technical attributes of shakuhachi, and timbral modulation is used all through all types of shakuhachi music. Play with any variety of tone-making that keeps your interest, but stay disciplined in the complete intake and complete expulsion of the breath on each note.