Q8: I want to learn to play the shakuhachi. Is a teacher essential? Can I learn on my own by using one of the playing guides?
A: This question is clearly a case of personal preference. Given the propensity to "reinvent the wheel," my own choice was to avoid formal instruction when I first began to play shakuhachi. Very intent on finding my own center with the instrument as well as the craft, I consciously avoided studying with a teacher and had little to do with the shakuhachi establishment in Japan. Playing guides in English on the subject were non-existent in 1970. I pursued this form of self-instruction, simply blowing shakuhachi for over ten years, after which time I chanced to meet a teacher recently returned from Japan and embarked upon a three-year study of the Koten and Kinko honkyoku. I have never regretted this chosen path, although progress in learning was extremely slow as I stumbled along the minefield of my own compounded mistakes. There are aspects to my blowing as well as my approach to the craft, however, which never could have developed had I embarked on a formal study or apprenticeship.
Most people clearly benefit from some form of instruction, whether through playing guides, one-to-one instruction or listening to recordings of the traditional music. Over the last twenty years, lessons in traditional shakuhachi have become more readily available outside of Japan. Most of the teachers here in America are located on either coast, with a few scattered in between. People who order shakuhachi from me usually opt for one or several of the playing guides. In a few instances, some of these folks have mastered the essentials of reading Japanese cursive notation for shakuhachi and have gone on to become very capable musicians. I am always quite impressed when this occurs, as learning traditional honkyoku without a teacher requires a dedication and focus that is exceptional. I generally advise people to follow their instincts on this issue, hastening to add that - teacher or not - the bottom line boils down to blowing shakuhachi and plugging into the internal process that ensues.