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What is a Shakuhachi?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 August 2014
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The shakuhachi is a Japanese end-blown flute, held like a recorder or Native American flute, rather than like the transverse concert flute that is most familiar to many Westerners. As a member of the flute family, it is also related to the whistle, organ pipes, panpipes, piccolos, and jugs. As an end-blown flute or rim-flute, the shakuhachi is related to various flutes of Africa and Central and South America, as well as the Chinese xiao, developed in the Han dynasty and linked with the teachings of Confucius.

The shakuhachi is usually made of bamboo, but sometimes constructed of wood, or even plastic. It has four finger holes and a thumbhole. It is referred to as a notched flute because it has a notch, either curved like a U or pointed like a V, cut in the rim, for pitch production.

The tones of the 21.5 inch (54.5 cm) instrument are approximately equivalent to D, F, G, A, and C in a Western scale, resembling the scale that is often called minor pentatonic. Intermediate pitches and octave change are achieved by fingering techniques and embouchure adjustment. Half-holing and quarter-holing, as well as cross-fingering, are also used. As with other wind instruments, longer instruments have lower tuning.

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The shakuhachi is used in meditation by a Zen Buddhist sect, in healing music, and in shakuhachi orchestras. It has joined the rank of the orchestral instruments in pieces such as Concerto for Shakuhachi and Orchestra by Yamamoto Hozan, though shakuhachi and koto is a more traditional ensemble combination.

Noted shakuhachi players have included Masakazu Yoshizawa, whose playing was featured in the Memoirs of a Geisha soundtrack and Bill Shozan Schultz, who played in Snow Falling on Cedars. Other highly regarded shakuhachi players include Yokoyama Katsuya, Watazumido Doso Roshi, Kozan Tanifuji, Kuniyoshi Sugawara, Anne Norman, John Kaizan Neptune, Akikazu Nakamura, Kifu Mitsuhashi, and Riley Lee.

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