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Interval Training for shakuhachi

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This guide will help you to understand interval training, and how to use it for shakuhachi practice. I use interval training to improve specific skills and to provide structure to my practice sessions. In this article, I'll introduce two timing strategies, and provide an example of a set of intervals.

In its simplest form, you could structure your practice by setting aside some time and just doing your piece (you could be doing what is known as 'blocked practice'). If you're completely happy with that method, then fantastic, read no further!

If you would like to find ways to isolate specific skills, improve the effectiveness of your practice, and increase retention, then interval training can help.

Irrespective of the genre you are practicing, you can use interval training to develop better sound, posture, breathing, awareness of movement and responsiveness, finger movement, and finger speed. All of these things will help make it easier to play shakuhachi.


Timing methods

Timing your practice sessions gives it structure, and provides an easy benchmark for progress. I use two timing methods: the Pomodoro Technique, and 2-3 minute intervals for specific practice tasks.

The Pomodoro Technique consists of 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of rest, with four of these blocks making up a 2 hour session. This forms an over-arching macro structure to a practice session, with short breaks scheduled to help with concentration. I first heard of this method through various 'Shut Up and Write' groups, which were helpful when I was writing my PhD thesis.

Intervals of 2-3 minutes helps to maintain full concentration throughout each practice task. Timed intervals form a micro structure of interleaved practice exercises. You can read about how and why interleaved practice works here, and why it's better for retention than blocked practice.

For timing, I like to use simple, dedicated timers. For pomodoro timing, I use a digital flip timer. By turning it onto one side, I get a 25 minute countdown timer, and when the alarm goes off, I flip it around to another side to get a 5 minute countdown.

 

For micro intervals, I use two digital kitchen timers from a 100-hundred-yen shop, set to count down from 2 or 3 minutes. I also use a very basic old metronome.


 


Interval content

Decide what specific skill you want to work on. Body awareness, finger speed, breath control, tension, dynamics, sound stability, tuning, register, and kari or meri notes? Fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, torso, jaw, embouchure, neck, diaphragm?

Make a list. Pen and paper will do here. I make sure that my list includes polarisation (otsu/kan, slow/fast, soft/strong, etc.), variation (to practice a range of skills), and interleaved practice. I know there are apps for making intervals lists, but I find that it's easy to spend hours searching for a good app, then more hours setting up your intervals, and yet more hours refining it. You may as well just write it down and get on with practice.

Below is an example of a basic set of intervals. Twelve 2-minute intervals, plus a minute or so for pressing the button on your timer and switching to the next task, forms one 25-minute segment.

1. slow renzokuon, otsu
2. long tones, otsu
3. slow renzokuon, kan
4. long tones, kan
5. slow and fast renzokuon, otsu
6. long tones and dynamics (loud to soft), otsu
7. slow and fast renzokuon, kan
8. long tones and dynamics (loud to soft), kan
9. fast renzokuon, otsu
10. long tones, otsu then kan
11. fast renzokuon, kan,
12. long tones, kan then otsu

This simple set packs a lot of work into just 25 minutes. I use it to work on precision and speed of re-articulated notes, finger movement (angle, pressure, height and so on), developing awareness of unnecessary tension, breath control, stability and consistency within and between the otsu and kan registers, tuning, and dynamics, among other things.

Of course, I'm not consciously working on all of those things at once, every single time. It's more effective to concentrate on just one thing. For example, being aware of tension developing during renzokuon tasks, or focusing on maintaining pitch stability in long tone tasks.


General suggestions

 

Do not stop if you make a mistake.
Stopping usually just disrupts the flow, and if you stop every time you make a mistake, you'll just practice a poor habit! If you are using my centring exercise (aka 'the wooden man' exercise), you will get another opportunity to correctly perform the task again anyway: because each line is iterative and overlapping, you will have practiced every note several times, in both octaves, and from multiple directions.

Isolate specific problems and create specific solutions
After a while, you might notice that you are making some recurring mistakes with a particular note or physical movement. I reckon that if you're able to identify specific problems, you will also have a pretty good idea of how to work on it.

Always make your best sound
Play everything actively, with a good sound. If 'good sound' is difficult to define, then just go for a big, full sound (notwithstanding dynamics practice exercises). Get out of your safety zone. Also, choosing where you breathe for any given exercise is important for playing with a good sound all the time. Don't let your breathing disrupt the rhythm within or between tasks.

Use simple tools
For me, it's helpful to stick with simple tools that require minimal fuss and do not create distraction. I try to avoid using practice apps on my phone, despite their versatility and convenience. Nonetheless, I've provided a bunch of links for apps and tools below so you can get started immediately (and maybe you don't get distracted as easily as I do!).

Use a metronome for all basic exercises
A metronome will help you perform with precision and responsiveness in so many ways (even for honkyoku, where timing is as critical as in any other genre of music). What tempo is slow enough that you make absolutely no mistakes for a given phrase or exercise? At what tempo is it so fast that it feels like you're running down a hill too fast for your legs to keep up?

Practice in front of a mirror
You'll see various things about your posture and movement that you might not otherwise notice.

Use a tuner judiciously
Tuners are a useful tool, but only when used correctly. There is too much for me to go into about the use of tuners in this short article, but if I had to say just one thing, it'd be to use a tuner to refine your ear for the intervals between the notes ro, re, and chi.

Experiment with your own practice content
For example, select specific phrases and just work on them for two minutes at a time. Or do one 25 minute set of intervals, followed by a 25 minute segment of practicing whatever piece you want to work on.

 


Links (not affiliated):


Pomodoro Timer

Interval timer online


Metronome (iOS)

Total Energy Tuner

 

Lindsay Dugan

Shakuhachi

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