Q3: How do the various models of Tai Hei Shakuhachi differ in quality? How can the Student and three grades of Professional Models (Advanced Student, Teacher and Master) be compared?
A: Grading of Tai Hei Shakuhachi takes into account the aesthetics of the bamboo as well as the quality of sound produced by the finished instrument. There has evolved over hundreds of years a traditional aesthetic for bamboo used in making shakuhachi which takes into account size, color, shape, density, nodal placement and root structure. All bamboo blanks I use are initially evaluated on the basis of their proximity to this aesthetic. The highest grades come closest to the traditional standard. The ideal applied to bamboo used for shakuhachi is particularly Japanese, in that its occurrence in nature is very difficult to find and, in a pure form, quite rare. Which is to say that the perfect piece of bamboo for shakuhachi is as ephemeral as the sound it produces. In Japan, this aspect of shakuhachi appears to be very important in ascribing value to an instrument.
More important to me, as a maker, is the overall tonal quality and acoustical aspects of the flute. While the cast bore method has revolutionized the process of fabricating and replicating precision bore shapes, it is impossible to mass-produce a quality shakuhachi. This point deserves to be emphasized. Unlike makers of woodwind instruments such as the recorder, Baroque flute or clarinet, the shakuhachi maker is limited by the natural form of bamboo. While the bore may be worked to perfection, only God or Gaia makes the outside of the flute. Variations from a high-quality gauge flute upon which the maker models his instruments will consequently vary to a significant degree with each new shakuhachi made. Even with the consistency provided by precision casting, every instrument must be "fine tuned" to approach the tonal qualities exhibited by the gauge flute. In this process minuscule amounts of physical alteration of the bore can have radical acoustical effects. Adjusting the bore of the shakuhachi is a meticulous, time consuming process aimed at balancing tone, resonance and sensitivity for all of the notes in both octaves of the instrument. It can be a frustrating process which as often ends in failure as success. Herein lies the secrets to creating superior instruments and might be considered the greatest challenge faced by the shakuhachi maker.
The Student, Advanced Student, Teacher and Master Models of Tai Hei Shakuhachi are graded with these considerations in mind and appear to have benefited greatly over time from extensive research into woodwind acoustics and innovations in the craft process. The Student Model is made from madaké or Torachiku bamboo cut above the root and fine tuned to a commensurate level. Torachiku (Tiger Bamboo) is a special variety of black bamboo I was very fortunate to obtain from horticulturists on Shikoku Island in Japan where it originates. This bamboo is distinguished by its mottled color and beautiful variegated markings. The three Professional Models are all made from root-end madakÈ bamboo whose bores are adjusted to a very exacting standard, the degree to which depends upon the grade of the instrument. Each level of Professional flute is subdivided into three grades. The highest-quality Master Models tend to be culled, as well, from the many flutes that are produced in the workshop.