Thoughts On Being A Shihan

My "shihan" license

Today, my shakuhachi teacher presented me with a "shihan" license. Shihan can be translated as "teacher", "instructor" or "master".

Every shakuhachi school or teacher is different. Some major schools offer qualifications which are clearly benchmarked (Tozan, Kinko etc.), some do not offer any certification at all. Others, like my teacher, bestow a "shihan" level when they feel the student has attained a certain degree of proficiency.

To achieve this, I have practised over 20 "honkyoku" (lit. "original piece", classical solo shakuhachi music linked to Zen Buddhism). The honkyoku in this repertoire were taught to my teacher - Mende Ryuzan - by Yokoyama Katsuya, and many of them come from his teacher Watazumi-do. They include a few pieces from the Kinko school, and two from the Nezasa school.

The pieces are studied partly through notation and partly through demonstration. When I feel "mostly" familiar with a given piece, he moves me on to the next one. At first I was a little nonplussed by this method, as I never felt that I had mastered any of the honkyoku, but as time passed I became more comfortable with it; as the pieces he has given me have increased in difficulty, the earlier pieces have become easier and gradually have begun to make more sense.

Perhaps most importantly, the idea of "mastering" any of the honkyoku - even the most superficially simple of them - now seems irrelevant. There is no end point. The aim is simply to play to one's best ability, and gradually improve. There is always a great deal of room for improvement.

In my previous experience of playing instruments (such as the piano or the banjo), I didn't really understand the importance of a single tone. To get a better tone, I would invest in a better instrument, or other paraphernalia. With the shakuhachi, a very large part of the quality of the sound comes from the player. The more time I've spent practising the shakuhachi, the more I've had to focus on the tone (my tone) within my practice. Even in today's lesson, in which he gave me the certificate, he spent the first ten minutes getting me to play the same long tones I have played in every lesson since he began to teach me two years ago, and umm-ing and ahh-ing over my posture, my embouchure, etc.

When (a few weeks ago) he first intimated that he would give me a masters' certificate, my first reaction was "I'm not a master! There must be some mistake!" However, having thought about it a lot over the intervening time, I feel much happier about accepting. (I would have accepted however I'd felt of course, not to do so would have been unforgivably rude!) Within the shakuhachi tradition, there is a huge emphasis on the "transmission" of pieces. It's rather like a more formalised version of a folk tradition, with pieces passed from teacher to pupil, certain elements of the pieces evolving or mutating as they are transmitted. In my opinion, the rank of "shihan" means that my teacher feels I have learned enough of the rules and aesthetics of his branch of shakuhachi playing to begin the process of passing the knowledge on to others. It emphatically does NOT mean that I have finished learning!

Finally, along with the rank, my teacher has given me a performing name (a chikumei, or "bamboo name"). This is common in many of the Japanese arts, and is not intended to replace my given name! My new name is "妙心" (Myoushin). The individual characters can mean "unusual/artistic/strange" and "spirit/mind/heart".

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