Mujuan Dojo ~ Texas Branch ~ Weekend Intensive

So where to begin?  I have just finished my weekend intensive with Kurahashi Sensei and what a weekend it was.  Hours of playing, learning and just enjoying the camaraderie of my fellow ‘shakupeeps’ (Stan’s term).

It began a few weeks ago with discussions with my teacher, Jon Johnston, about what pieces I should pick to play with Sensei.  We decided that maybe Daiwagaku and Banshiki would be good selections.  Knowing only seven pieces, one of which is a warm-up (Choshi) and the other is maybe not something so challenging (Kyorei), we are down to five.

Flash forward to Saturday morning and I arrived at Stan’s house quite early, but glad I did because it’s about a little over an hour drive and there was no way I was going to be late.  Entering Stan’s, I greet Sensei for the first time.  I was surprised at his laid back nature.  I’m not sure why, but I guess in my mind I had built him up to be something closer to a demigod.  Much of the same way I had felt when I first met Stan.  Listening to Stan’s albums to the point of wearing them out, my first meeting with him was nerve wracking, however, as with Kurahashi, I was instantly put at ease.

Private Lesson One:

Then came the lesson.  We went into the dojo, which was an extra room at Stan’s place completely outfitted for this purpose.  Tatami mats outlined with river rock, two zabuton with a small table in the middle, japanese lanterns, a tengai, komuso collection box, butsudan and wonderful Japanese art throughout and of course a rack full of shakuhachi.  Also, as I later came to find out, it was outfitted with a recording studio.  It was actually where Stan had recorded Moon on the Water album!  My lesson was to be an hour long however it ended up to be around 90 minutes.  In that time, we played Choshi, Daiwagaku, Banshiki and Kumoijishi.

After playing Choshi, Sensei proceeded to explain the beauty of the “beginner’s breath”.  Also, how I need to maintain this mindset as many shakuhachi players, after about a year, tend to gain the skills and begin to lose the ‘raw-ness’ found with the beginner’s breath.  This resonated with me deeply as in Zen, beginner’s mind is a key practice.  With Banshiki, Sensei brought out a different notation that was done on computer, his actually.  I was very nervous at this point.  I am an extensive note taker, on my notation.  I document slides, odd fingerings and such and on top of that, use Jin Nyodo’s notation which is already heavily documented.  Here I am now faced with a very clean sheet of notation.  It turned out later to be a blessing as it forced me to learn the techniques and not rely so heavily on Jin telling me how to play.  After we completed Banshiki, we progressed onward to Kumoijishi, also using Kurahashi’s notation.  Kumoijishi is a Kinko piece and therefore allows “standard fingering”.  This means you can shade (party cover) normally open holes to drop the pitch on the note.  Being my only Kinko piece thus far in my training, and apparently one of Kurahashi Sensei’s favourite pieces, we went through it at, what felt like, breakneck pace.  Only stopping to correct shading mishaps.  I was literally sweating afterwards, but very happy to have another piece that I was able to play with Sensei.

It was a great lesson for me in keeping beginner’s mind (shoshin).  Sensei felt he was teaching me on shakuhachi playing, but in reality I got so much more from it.  My personal challenge of dropping my ego turned out to be a bonus.  My trying to impress Sensei and make my teacher, Jon, proud was baggage I brought to the lesson, and Kurahashi successfully and literally, played that out of me.

Day 1: Group Ensemble Lesson:

After lunch, which Stan & Lyn so graciously bought for me, and even went so far as to get me a vegetarian option, other students began to arrive.  On this day, we would be practicing an ensemble piece with koto & shamisen.  All told, we ended up with 2 koto, 1 shamisen & 8 shakuhachi players.  It was a full house.  We decided that we would break the shakuhachi players up into two groups of four.  I was in the first group with Jon, Mark & Bill.  We played Waka Mizu (Young Water).  It was a very challenging piece for me.  Not only because we had to keep in time with the shamisen & kotos, but also because there are many, many notes played very quickly.  On the first run of the piece I simply tried to keep up with everyone and follow along, playing only the notes that were held for a beat or two.  On the second run, I was able to play a bit more, however it still only amounted to the first and last notes of each phrase.  It was a beautiful piece, but not having played/practiced it before, I was at a loss most of the time.

The second ensemble piece, Kuro Kami (Black Hair), was much easier for me.  The melody is very slow and so I was able to play along just fine.  I enjoyed this piece a bit more, simply because I was able to relax.  It also was a very beautiful piece and after a couple of times through, I felt I was doing ok with it.  After playing both pieces, it really amazed me how skilled Jon is.  He was the anchor for us during these two pieces and I can’t imagine how challenging it was to not only trying to keep in time with the koto & shamisen, but also with me playing beside him, out of tune and out of time.

Later that evening we enjoyed a delicious dinner prepared by our tenzo, Lyn. She worked tirelessly in the kitchen cooking and cleaning, supporting the dozen or more of people who invaded her house for the weekend.  Much gratitude for her support, she deserves a medal for her efforts. Was truly a great time of food and friends.

Day 2: Honkyoku Group Lesson

Sunday afternoon brought our second session.  Today we played two honkyoku pieces.  The first one, Mujushin Kyoku has a very beautiful title which is explained perfectly on Stan’s website as “Just when one has no place to dwell (muju), such a spirit (shin) is born”. Playing with 7 other shakuhachi it was a very powerful sound.  I enjoyed the piece and while, if playing alone, I’d have sounded horrible, the only part that I had a lot of difficulty with was the takane section and specifically the A-HA phrases.  I kept getting lost at that point.  But fortunately, as with the first ensemble piece, I was able to play through.

The second piece, Banji (Sun God from Tendai Buddhism), had a very interesting story tied to it.  Kurahashi explained how it had been attributed to an older piece from a Zen temple, however that is odd as the name references a Tendai Buddhist god.  Only recently he was able to find additional information of the original author of the piece.  Through much research and the luck of a book that he was able to purchase, he found the original composer’s name, Kuzan Takahashi.  The piece, previous dated in the 1800s, was discovered to be more around pre-1945 era.  I enjoyed this piece quite a bit as I was able to play through fairly well and it has a hauntingly beautiful tone.

Private Lesson Two

Monday afternoon I returned to Stan’s house for my last meeting with Sensei.  Realizing I only had 3 pieces left in my repertoire, Kyorei, Mukaiji & Sashi, I was a bit apprehensive on what we would do for the two hour allotment.  Little did I realize that we’d actually end up playing for about 2.5 hours and I’d learn two new pieces as well!  This lesson was much more relaxed and I felt very comfortable with Sensei.  He is a fantastic teacher.  Very patient and very direct.  He spent time explaining the pieces to me, the proper shading and Kinko techniques which were all new to me.  We played through Kyorei, Mukaiji, Murasaki Reiho & Sanya Sugagaki.  And, as an added bonus, we played a few lines of Sanya Sugagaki as a duet.  Very challenging for someone who has only been playing 6 months and completely lacks proper timing skills….so much to work on!  I was disappointed to have to say good bye to Sensei, but I am very hopeful to meet him again in Kyoto for the festival.

I gained so much from this past weekend.  I’ve discovered so much of the subtleties that I need to work on.  For posterity:

  • Finger shading
  • Kinko techniques
  • Controlled head movements
  • Playing meri softly
  • Ha-Ro loudly but only on one of the notes
  • Following your teacher and not playing ahead
  • Proper “ma” techniques
  • Timing practice
  • Not to mention the countless notes and nuances of each of the pieces.

In the end, over one weekend I was able to play through:

  • Choshi
  • Daiwagaku
  • Banshiki
  • Kumoijishi
  • Kuro Kami
  • Waka Mizu
  • Mujushin Kyoku
  • Banji
  • Kyorei
  • Mukaiji
  • Sanya Sugagaki
  • Murasaki Reiho

I’m deeply grateful for Stan & Lyn who once again opened their home to us.  To Kurahashi Sensei for making the trip and spending the hours with us. And of course my sensei, Jon Johnston for his wonderful teaching which is a perfect fit for my personality.

Although my journey with the shakuhachi is only beginning, I’m sure this will continue to be a lifelong passion.  Next exciting opportunity will be the World Shakuhachi Festival in Kyoto at the end o f May where we will get at least one and maybe two possibilities to perform as a group.

~ by shards72 on February 7, 2012.

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