Kan Playing Tips

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Need help playing kan (upper octave)

I began playing shakuhachi about a month ago, and I have been fairly successful in playing all of the notes in the lower octave clearly. I have recently been trying to play some notes in the upper octave (kan) but have been unsuccessful. I have been studying my embouchure closely in a mirror, I have read several suggestions in books, and I have sought the help from 2 different teachers, but to no avail. Every once in a while, I will suddenly start playing in the upper octave, but I can't figure out what I am doing differently. I have watched my teacher's lips very carefully when he shifts from one octave to the next, and I can see no perceptible difference!

I have tried every conceivable change in my lip tension, the angle I hold the flute, the pressure of the flute end against my lower lip, the position of the flute on my lip, etc. etc. As advised, I try to make a thinner stream of air, but this just makes a lot of dissonant whistling noises on the utaguchi.

Here are my questions:
1) Should I stop trying so hard? Is this something that will come only after months or years of practice?
2) Is there some technique I can try? Does anyone have any hints or suggestions?

Here's a tip I got from Kurahashi sensei when just starting out that worked wonders: play (in otsu) ro, tsu, re, chi, ri, then close the 3rd and 4th holes to jump to kan no ro. Doing this is much easier than just playing kan no ro straight out for a beginner.

It's not really in the lips, either, so I wouldn't concentrate too much on lip shape. Think about everything from your throat to mouth to lips working to refine the air stream. It's not something you can create by thinking about the proper shape your body parts have to be in, though, at least in my experience.

Be forewarned, though, that after you get kan down, you are likely to start having trouble on otsu! Then, finally, you'll get them both down. That's the way it seems to happen with many people (including me).

A month isn't that long- keep trying and it will come. I can throw out a couple of suggestions:

Increase breath support. Make the air stream more compact (I know you tried this, but keep trying). Direct the air stream so that less air goes down into the flute and more air goes out over the blowing edge. Slide your jaw forward (push your chin out) (this is a way to accomplish the above- some western classical flutists use this technique). Relax your lower lip so that more of it fills up the end of the shakuhachi (this likewise is a way to redirect the air stream). Try combinations of the above. Keep trying.

Good luck! I've spent countless hours on this stuff and still have many, many more to go. It's a matter of trial and error (especially the latter?)

Once you can get a note in Kan, any note, start working with that one note in long tone practice. As time goes by, and that note begins to be something you can find reliably (maybe not hold reliably, but find and hit for a moment) then you can work one note up and one note down. It takes a while, a long while.

And unlike Otsu, where you can just open your mouth a little and blow, Kan requires a more focused embouchure. One way to cheat a bit is to close down the inside of your mouth a bit when going up to Kan. Not an effective strategy for the long term - you'll find you can't move your mouth around fast enough for playing rapidly between octaves - it will help you develop the lip strategy for proper playing.

For me, this is the real Zen work of the shakuhachi. I want a professional sounding sound. I have something less. Patience and persistence have taught me that I will never attain my goal. But I can learn to accept and enjoy what I have.

Difficulties along the way are opportunities
in disguise; they reflect your expectations.
Facing them with surrender helps you follow
a more peaceful and perceptive life.
- Carl Abbott

One trick used by flautists to improve their top register is to practice whistle tones. These are produced by blowing very softly over the embouchure. With a bit of practice, it is possible to move between the various overtones. They can be played easily on a shakuhachi. Play the kan note after hitting the overtone of the kan note you require. It should come out with more ease and accuracy.

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