Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Fine Tuning the Shakuhachi

Here are a few thoughts about fine tuning the bore of the shakuhachi. You can download more information about shakuhachi making here. You'll need acrobat reader to access the file.

Fine tuning the bore is the main challenge in constructing a quality shakuhachi. It is a combination of mathematics, luck, educated guess, intuition, patience and perseverance.

This process is, essentially, adding and/or preferably removing space along various areas of the bore until all the tones play well. The actual space along the bore that will need to be removed or added will most likely be minute, but nonetheless, critical to the potential sound quality of the instrument.

Each note has corresponding 'critical points' along the bore which can be adjusted to affect the tone. For the low octave notes, these points are found at the 1/2 point between the blowing edge and the open hole of the note being played (1/4 & 3/4 points for second octave), as well as directly under the open hole. If a particular note is not playing well, it can be corrected by adding or removing space at one or more of these areas. To check if space needs to be added, fold up a small piece of wet newspaper (approximately 1 1/2" by 1/2") and apply it to the 1/2 point in the bore. Play the flute to check for tone improvement. (A long split bamboo stick with foam rubber tied to the end works well to slide the newspaper to the desired spots.) If it improves the tone, the newspaper can be removed and the area can be built up with a dab of glue and sawdust, ji paste, or paste resin. If there is no tone improvement, try adding newspaper to the other critical points. Then try adding in different combinations, then at every centimeter along the bore. You can also experiment with smaller or larger pieces. If there is no improvement after exhausting all the possibilities, you will need to remove space at one or more of the critical points. Various tools will work to remove space. You can wrap a thin strip of coarse sandpaper around the end of a dowel or weld a 1/2" section of a bastard file to a metal rod. A dremel sanding drum bit on the end of a long rod also works well. If the tone improves after grinding one or more critical areas, stop and move on to the next note that needs improvement. If there is still no improvement or the tone sounds worse, the areas will need to be refilled. It is also possible that a combination of adding and removing will be needed. This is where experience helps. A good rule of thumb is to exhaust every possible simple solution before attempting the complicated combinations. Altering the critical points for one tone can also affect the other notes as well so it is important to work slowly to get a feel of what is happening to the flute on a whole.

It takes patience and experience to develop a mental map of the shakuhachi bore using this fine tuning method. It may be helpful to work a little every day or two to slowly get to know the peculiarities of each flute. Each is unique, requiring an approach which is beyond pure mechanics. The shakuhachi is much more than physics. Listen to the bamboo.