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All Conditions are Perfect

The Great Tōhoku Earthquake, 2011. I was just leaving my dormitory to go to a lesson when it started. As I locked the door, I glanced out the window. Power lines were whipping around, making an audible sound. I knew then that it was no ordinary earthquake. 


In the aftermath, nuclear reactors were shut down all across Japan. This meant that power use was restricted, and in the summer that soon followed, air conditioners everywhere were set to go no lower than 28c. This figure was apparently nominal, because every practice room I used was too hot. If I recall correctly, things remained that way for several years. 


At some point during all this, I'd moved into a tiny four-mat room in another dormitory, on the top floor, directly underneath a big, uninsulated slab of hot concrete roof. A friend who helped me move in there said it was 'worse than a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon', and he knew first-hand what such a place was like. My initial impression was that it looked like a prison, but later I came to see it more as a squat. You could hardly imagine that a place like this was allowed to exist in Japan, whether by law, or by community consent. Both rooms either side of mine were filled chest-high with junk; one of the rooms had been filled with left-behind objects from previous residents, and the other room had simply been abandoned by its occupant after the earthquake, his belongings remaining where they'd toppled. There was no air conditioning in the rooms, because the electricity was a shared expense, and the other residents in my block wanted to minimise the cost. I lost over 4kg in the first few weeks of living there because it was so hot. 


The situation became dire enough that I was compelled to build an air conditioner. I bought some copper pipe and bent it into a coil. From the hundred yen store, a styrofoam esky and some ice bricks. I broke open some of the bricks and poured the coolant into the esky, and cooled it with frozen bricks. The copper pipe was connected to hoses that fed into the esky. I cannibalised a pump from a broken washing machine in the laundry to circulate the coolant through the copper coil, which I zip-tied to a fan. Japan only has 100v mains power, not 240v like Australia, so I was far more likely to die from heat exhaustion than electrocution. This beer-less esky washing machine fan conditioner would take the edge off the heat for about an hour, but when the coolant had warmed up, the room was once again just a hot, concrete box.


Despite these things, the feeling I associate with that dorm is gratitude, because there were two major advantages to living there. One was cheap rent. The other was that there were practice rooms. 


I'd go into a practice room, take off my shirt, blast the fan, and yet still be dripping sweat within five minutes, and struggling to hold the shakuhachi. It wasn't nice, but at least I had a practice room. In a later abode, I practiced in a tiny laundry. After that, a shower cubicle. When I had money, a karaoke box was luxurious - comfy seats, bottomless coffee and soft drinks, and nothing else to do but practice, unless I wanted to sing pop. You can practice nearly anywhere, and take a lesson from that situation. The unique lesson for me in the dormitory practice rooms was tension.


Once, I figured I'd stick a bit of foam to the back of my instrument to help with grip. It seems to make sense - extra friction should mean that you can hold it with less tension. At my next lesson with Tokumaru sensei, he noticed it, and said, "What's that for? You're better off without it," which I interpreted simply as, "Take that off." So I did.


Not long after that, at another lesson on a particularly hot day, we were going through a gaikyoku piece. I can't remember which piece, but I do remember that it was twenty-three minutes long. By the time we were at a chirashi or tegoto instrumental in the latter half of the piece, I was sweating bullets. I knew that this instrumental was around the eighteen minute mark. 


My legs were absolutely screaming from sitting seiza; usually, there was a little seiza bench that made things bearable, but it was nowhere to be seen on that day. At one point, my left leg involuntarily popped out from underneath me. I left it hanging out there for a bit, then drew it back into place once I'd imagined that the danger of lasting nerve damage had passed. My back was rigid, posture locked. At times, I was producing no sound. Just holding the instrument, let alone moving my fingers to play the tegoto, was a total struggle. The sweat made everything harder, and I rued not having more skilfully hidden the foam on the back of my shakuhachi, futile though it would have been. Sensei knew I was struggling. Eighteen minutes though; five minutes remained. Five, minutes.


When we got to the end, Tokumaru sensei immediately went back to the start, and we played it again.


On the surface, this might appear to be unnecessarily cruel or masochistic, but I took two important things from that episode. Firstly, I was taken well beyond a physical threshold, and no lesson or performance since has ever been as difficult. Secondly, and somewhat counter-intuitively, I realised that sticking foam to the back of the shakuhachi enabled me to hold it with excess tension in a fixed position, which is counter-productive. This point was deeply imprinted in my mind and body over the course of forty-six hot and sweaty minutes.

I used to have a few supportive bits on my longer shakuhachi too. One day, one of them fell off, so I simply removed everything, and found that I was better off without them. By confining my fingers to the same position, such supports limited my choice of positions, freedom of movement, and flexibility to adapt and change. Maybe one day, such marginal gains as a support might offer will be beneficial, but I'm still a growing lad.


Physical conditions, such as age or injury, can teach you something too. Recently, I fell off my bike and hurt my hand, which ranks right up there for me as one of the worst possible injuries. The timing wasn't great - it happened two days before the first of the Katsuya Shugyōjō workshops. I remember sitting on the ground, looking at my index and middle fingers contorted upwards and backwards, dislocated. Numbed by the shock of the impact, and bolstered by adrenaline, I decided then and there to push them back into place. With a uniquely satisfying feeling, they slid and rolled straight back into where they usually live. But there I sat, looking at my hand, repeating, "This is bad. This is bad." All the way home, I was just hoping I hadn't broken anything. 


As it turned out, I'd fractured my fourth metacarpal at the knuckle, but the dislocated fingers were worst off. Thankfully, Kakizakai sensei filled in for me in the first of the Shugyōjō workshops, leaving me to facilitate and translate. 


I felt very angry at myself for the first week or so. Angry that I'd injured my hand, that it had happened prior to the workshop, and that I wouldn't be able to practice or type properly for a month or more. Or ride my bike.


I was anxious about the future too, which reinforced my anger: that I might need surgery to correct a slight twist in the fracture, and that the movement of the dislocated fingers would be permanently impacted by stiffness in the knuckles. 


However, there’s this thing about all conditions. Even if I am a little stiffer in those fingers, that doesn't necessarily mean anything, except that I'll have to release more tension from other areas in order to practice and play more efficiently. How is that a bad thing? Yokoyama said he wasn't very good at korokoro, so he had to practice it harder. His breathing was not as good as Watazumi's, so he came up with his own breathing exercises. He'd sustained an injury on his lip when he was young, which he claimed was an impediment, but his students think it contributed to his big sound. The very simple point here is that despite perceived limitations, there is a lot that you can overcome. My feelings of anxiety and anger about my hand subsided quickly.


So, broken hand? Not even a thing. What have I done in the weeks since I injured it... A heap of fine-grained audio analysis, worked on re-structuring my embouchure and improving my sound, further honed my tuning and intonation, refined renzokuon technique in my other hand, submitted a chapter proposal for a book, overhauled this website, been forced to practice in a way that has me releasing yet more of the abundantly excessive tension in my body, and dealt with a bunch of other non-musical personal stuff. And oh yeah, identified and quantified patterns in ma for my research. As a music practitioner with a broken hand, confined to my bedroom, during a pandemic, I can stand back and feel ok about it.


All conditions are perfect.


Below, you will find some items from the big ol' bag of excuses. Perhaps you can identify some of your own in there, and just get on with the job of practice. Or, expand your repertoire with these, and keep going. That's also perfect, in a perverse way.


- I haven't had enough time to practice because of school / work / family / exhaustion


- I haven't got a good practice space at the moment


- I just can't concentrate, or get into the right frame of mind


- My memory is not good


- I haven't studied music properly before


- I started shakuhachi too late


- But the pandemic


- My shakuhachi doesn't really suit me


- I need a better / longer / shorter / more expensive / more spiritual shakuhachi, with less ji / more ji, a different shaped utaguchi insert, a more suitable chin rest, and bigger / smaller holes that are more appropriate for Kinko / Tozan / Myōan / etc.


- My hand is broken

©2020 L. Dugan

Lindsay Dugan



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