Shakuhachi Diary #4 - Wabi-Sabi

In the first week of January, I went to my shakuhachi teacher's new year party.

The atmosphere as I entered the studio (a large room with tatami flooring overlooking a pretty Japanese garden) was tense. All the students were "warming up" so the air was filled with a melancholy, breathy wailing.

There were about fifteen people, aged from their mid-thirties to mid-seventies, mostly studying shakuhachi, and also some koto students taught by my teacher's wife.

Eventually things got started, and after a few speeches the students took turns to go on stage and play a piece which they'd rehearsed. The stage itself was small, about a foot high and covered with bright red carpet.

All the students were, regardless of level, motivated, serious and focused.

When it came to my turn I was rather nervous. I've performed countless times in many different situations, but almost always on my own terms. This was quite different. My teacher was watching and listening (and, I presume, appraising), as were a whole group of people I'd never met. All listening. Very different from the cosy drunken rabble I was used to.

However, what performance experience I had came to my aid, and I managed to distil the tension in my body into a sort of controlled meditation. (Before taking up the shakuhachi, I'd never experienced an instrument where there were so many body parts involved - diaphragm, lungs, throat, tongue, jaw, lips, cheeks, head, neck, arms, hands, and fingers all have to be finely adjusted just to produce any tone at all!)

I'm still a beginner, and I have a lot to learn, but I played the piece - "Honshirabe" - to the best of my ability. Actually I think the pressure of performing for a knowledgeable audience really pushed me to another level. In quantifiable terms, I played the notes correctly, with good rhythm and intonation. In less measurable terms, I felt like I was appreciating and connecting with the music as I was playing it, giving each phrase a space in which to "mean something".

Furthermore, though I realise the following will seem excessive when considering the basic level of my playing, I felt as if my body and the flute were existing only to shape the flow of air and sound. I felt that this was a phenomenon which only made sense in that moment. When I'd finished, I felt like I'd experienced something profound.

The show eventually finished with a wonderful performance from the senseis, after which large bento boxes, beer, sake and sho-chu were laid on low tables. Pretty soon people started chatting and relaxing, and I was reminded once again of how little Japanese I've picked up in the growing number of years that I've been here.

One nice lady, a koto player, approached me and told me, in English, that I was a good player. I was of course flattered and tried to deflect the compliment in a British sort of way. She said "no, I think you have Japanese Spirit. Wabi-sabi."

At the time, I felt that though it was a kind, encouraging compliment, it didn't really mean very much beyond that. I'd heard the phrase "wabi-sabi" before, and knew it vaguely meant something indefinably Japanese. However, it being the first time the words had been applied directly to me, I resolved to consult the Internet on my return home.

A quick search and I found this article on wabi-sabi on (of course) Wikipedia. The article describes the Japanese aesthetic of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete". I must have read about it before, heard about it, when I was younger, before I came here, maybe when I was an art student, before it seemed to be relevant to me - the concept is so familiar - but discovering, or rediscovering it, crystallised so many vague thoughts and opinions I have about music that the experience was quite overwhelming.

From the same page:

"if an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi."


  1. Joe! You bet you got wabi-sabi, in spades xxx reading this made fill up and get all weepy, so even on the digital page, at thousands of miles distance, your wabi-sabi is working! xxx

    1. Georgie - thank you! You make it sound like a sort of mojo (which is no bad thing). I'm really glad you enjoyed reading it - I nearly didn't post but something inside me wanted to share I suppose x

  2. Hi Joe

    First - well written and acute. Second, you stray into the spirit of writing in that you manage to conjure up the wistful, transient spirit of the instrument and its effect on - and requirement of - your body. Lovely!


Post a Comment