Yokoyama-sensei's Lecture at Mejiro

(posted Jul 10 2001 to the Shakuhachi mailing list by Al Takegawa)

The tail end of monsoon season in Kanto has been blessed with rainless,
albeit very hot days, but with low humidity. The creeping vines on a wall
like veins screaming for hydration. Signs of a drought this summer. Last
Saturday I attended Yokoyama-sensei's lecture at the new Mejiro location in
Shinjukju, Tokyo. It was quite a wonderful experience. I arrived at Mejiro
a few hours early to browse around the new store and to catch up with
Saori-san. Mejiro now has three floors; the bottom for shakuhachi and other
Japanese musical goods and the second and third floors for lectures and
workshops. It's conveniently located on the main street 3 minutes from
Meijiro station on the Yamanote Line.

Yokoyama-sensei's recordings and written materials were on display. I was
surprised to see that he already wrote his autobiography and published it in
1994. In it were pictures of him from when he was a baby all the way through
past his prime. I was used to seeing his figure as kind of Buddha-like,
round and full. So seeing his earlier photos of when he was a young man,
slim and tall, was interesting and touching.

Around 5:00 a white car pulled up in front of the store and Shacho-san, the
owner of Meijiro's step out around the car. He opened the passenger door and
helped Yokoyama-sensei out. Yokoyama-sensei appeared to be in good spirits,
but I was very surprised to see how much weight he lost since I last saw
him. The grey suit he wore seemed to be too big for him. Reminded me of that
over-sized suit David Byrne wore in one of the earlier Talking Head videos.
Kakizakai-sensei said it was due to all the medications he's been taking for
his stroke. Although he was obviously aged and weakened, he looked strangely
youthful, like the pictures in his biography. He walked gingerly with a
cane as Shacho-san guided him up the stairs to the lecture hall.

Kakizakai-sensei, Furuya, and Matama-san arrived soon after and we all went
up to take our seats. I met Peter Hill there, who recently came to Japan
from the States to study shakuhachi with Kakizakai-sensei. Also an Irish
fellow by the name of Philip Horan who came all the way from Hiroshima to
see the lecture. He's a Tozan player and also studying how to make

At 5:30 Shacho-san opened the event and introduced Yokoyama-sensei who
slowly walked up on the small stage and sat down behind the table. The
atmosphere in the room was one of solemn respect and courtesy for this
living legend of shakuhachi. He thanked everyone for coming and then made a
joke about something that immediately lightened up the room and set everyone
at ease. He then proceeded to lecture for the next 2 hours, ad-libbing all
the way through. I will give you a brief summary of the main themes touched
upon in Yokoyama-sensei's lecture.

He first explained his history with shakuhachi starting with with his
father, Yokoyama Rampo then with Watazumi-do and Fukuda Rando. From
Watazumi-do he learned honkyoku and playing with power and sensitivity. He
said that Watazumi-do was such a strict teacher. Even though Yokoyama had
little money at the time, Watazumi-do demanded much money from him for
lessons. It took much pleading from the young Yokoyama to get Watazumi-do to
teach him San-an, and even then it took him three and a half years to learn
it! Fukuda Rando was much more kind and generous and he learned to express
romanticism with shakuhachi from him.

Meri is one of the key sonic features of shakuhachi music which can only be
played with a five-holed shakuhachi. 7-holed shakuhachi is just like playing
a western flute and takes the charm of meri away when it is played. Furuya
sensei was the first one to take the stage with Yokoyama sensei. He
demonstrated good meri technique sliding all the way up the scale without

Otsu no RO is the most important note. By developing a good RO through daily
practice, you can acquire many good techniques. He said if you practice RO
buki properly 10 minutes a day, you can become a great shakuhachi master.
(Then he pointed to his three students and said, "Even though they're
professionals, they can't do a proper RO!") He had everyone take out their
flutes and do RO-buki together then had everyone play otsu no RO
individually. Then he suddenly asked Kakizakai-sensei to come up on stage
and play "San-an". With no preparation, he played it beautifully, moving
everyone in the room.

Singing is important in training your ear for playing shakuhachi. If you can
sing a honkyoku you can play it. It also helps in memorizing the piece.

To develop improvisation technique, he suggests playing along with music on
the radio.

Express yourself in one note. If God asks you, "Let me listen to one note,"
how would you play it?

As a finale performance, Furuya, Kakizakai, and Matama-san played the Fukuda
Rando piece, "Seki no Akikaze". Magnificent, to say the least!

Towards the end of his lecture, Yokoyama-sensei told us about his stroke. In
Germany, two years ago he was performing November Steps when suddenly it hit
him from nowhere and he stopped playing. He apologized to the German
audience for he couldn't continue to play. He was rushed to the hospital
where he was immediately put in traction. He could barely move the right
side of his body and couldn't speak properly. Through several rigorous
months of physical and medicinal therapy, he has regained the ability to
speak and walk again. Unfortunately, he will never play shakuhachi like he
once used to. But I was deeply moved that despite his withered physical
condition, he still retained an irrepressible, open spirit full of humor and
love of life and people which shone bright in his eyes, voice, and gesture.
After the lecture I asked him to sign one of his CDs for me and gave him a
big hug of gratitude for giving me such joy and great inspiration on my
shakuhachi path. I pray for his well being and happiness always.

(the following update was posted the next day)

I must apologize for not clarifying some of the terms in my report of
Yokoyama-sensei's lecture. A few people asked me what "RO-buki" means——
As we all know RO is the first note on a shakuhachi, with all finger holes
closed. "Buki" is the Japanese verb stem from "fuku", which means "to blow".
Therefore "RO-buki" means "to blow RO", without meri (flat) or kari (sharp).

In Yokoyama-sensei's style, the practice of RO-buki, specifically in the
otsu-no-RO position, as the starting point of shakuhachi playing is very
important. It prepares the embrochure for the demands of the music about to
be undertaken. There are various forms of RO-buki that one can practice to
develop blowing technique and dynamics. The following are some that I've
learned through the years, and (can also be practiced with all the basic
tones of the shakuhachi). If anyone knows anymore, please let us know!

1. "Bamboo leaf"—which is starting out as quietly as possible, then
gradually getting louder and louder and gradually trailing off to nothing

2. "Tsuzumi" (Noh drum, which is the shape of two triangles connected at
their tips—here start out with a blast of air (e.g. muraiki) and quiet down
to almost nothing and then ending on another muraiki.

3. "Sankaku" (triangle) or "kusabi (wedge) buki" —just one side of the
tsuzumi where I start out as quiet as possible and increase volume to
muraiki. And

4. "Snakebite" (another kind of kusabi-buki) —one side of the tsuzumi where
you start with muraiki and trail off to nothing.

5. Also play as quietly as possible till the end of your air.

6. Another excercise I picked up from Minoru Sumimoto in Vancouver is
practicing long tones while facing in the wind. It helps in developing
control of your embrochure. More esoterically, I also do long tones with the
wind while sending good thoughts to people. In winter practicing long tones
waist deep in the cold ocean water is a good shugyo (spiritual practice) for
me. (100 long tones is all my body can take!)

To get a nice, powerful, big sound, pretend there is a ping-pong ball in the
back of your mouth while you blow. Blowing at the proper direction is
important to get proper pitch. Many people develop the habit of blowing
downwards so they are too flat most of the time and limit range of motion
for hitting meri.

Note: Using kubi-furi (vibrato with neck) or any kind of vibrato, while
doing RO-buki excercise is discouraged by Yokoyama-sensei.

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