THE SOUND OF THE SOUL: Self-expression through shakuhachi

PLAYING FROM THE HEART — Masayuki Koga (at near and far left) teaches students how to play the shakuhachi (the traditional Japanese flute) by being both “very funky and very precise.” Koga says that players can channel their emotions to express themselves through the shakuhachi. Above, Koga’s students gather for a monthly intensive workshop. photo by Daisuke Tagawa

Masayuki Koga.  photo by Daisuke Tagawa

Six musicians gather in a semi-circle in a cavernous East Bay performance space. The room is quiet until they lift their shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute). With the first notes, their heads rock from side to side, cheeks puffing, eyebrows darting upward along with particularly dramatic notes. The sounds reverberate against the walls, long wavering notes against quicker, syncopated pops of sound. Masayuki Koga’s shakuhachi students have been gathering for these monthly intensive workshops, with roughly the same members, for approximately 10 years,

The song ends and their teacher, Koga, nods in approval. Then, with a contemplative look, he adds, “Listen to the echo but also other guys. Try to be kind.” His face dissolves into a smirk. “Think of the very emotional thing and very scientific. Very funky and very precise. You have to be seriously funky.”

The students laugh, then raise their flutes. It’s a familiar message. Koga teaches his students to focus on the entire body, to channel their energy and emotions in order to express themselves through their music.

“We can imagine anything we want,” Koga says of playing the shakuhachi. “We have to focus on our body, turning into the audible sound. We can change our energy into audible energy. … The heart moves so the physical being follows.”

Koga’s masterful ability to conjure emotions with puffs of air has been honed over decades, since he discovered the shakuhachi in his father’s closet at age 14. His father, an accomplished player himself, taught Koga the basics, then left him to “goof around” on his own. But his father thought the life of a musician would be a tough one and urged Koga to study law. Koga took his father’s advice, still practicing the shakuhachi on the side, and after graduating, took a job — only to quit after three months to pursue a career as a musician.

“Music is nature’s law,” Koga said. “If I have to choose human’s law or nature’s law, I choose nature’s.”

In 1973, he moved to America, in search of freedom in his playing, which he believed he would find with distance from Japan. “I like to experiment with many ways to play,” Koga said. “I don’t like to be chained to the concept of what scales should be like — it slightly tightens the freedom.”

After years of touring and teaching, he created the Japanese Music Institute of America in 1981 and has been working with Bay Area students ever since. He said he enjoys watching the students’ progress and the connection he feels to their efforts. “I see myself when I was a beginner. I can see how they are struggling,” he said. “It’s like looking at myself.”

PLAYING FROM THE HEART — Masayuki Koga (in the back) teaches students how to play the shakuhachi (the traditional Japanese flute) by being both “very funky and very precise.” Koga says that players can channel their emotions to express themselves through the shakuhachi. Above, Koga’s students gather for a monthly intensive workshop.

PLAYING FROM THE HEART — Masayuki Koga (in the back) teaches students how to play the shakuhachi (the traditional Japanese flute) by being both “very funky and very precise.” Koga says that players can channel their emotions to express themselves through the shakuhachi. Above, Koga’s students gather for a monthly intensive workshop.

And though he teaches a traditional Japanese instrument, Koga said he sees no barriers to its appreciation by Western students and audiences.

“Person to person, we need a common sense,” Koga said. “Music is a person connecting with nature. There’s no trouble, no complication.”

Jordan Simmons, who has been studying with Koga for more than 20 years, said he felt an instant connection to the shakuhachi the first time he heard it and knew one day he wanted to play. As a musician who plays other instruments, he said he appreciates the specific challenges and possibilities the shakuhachi offers.

“In this culture, a lot of times our music doesn’t investigate tone or pitch. Shakuhachi lends itself to that, and Koga-sensei’s teaching and playing is an example of the satisfaction of exploring that realm of sound,” Simmons said. “When you hear that sound from a good player, you know it’s different.”

One of the newer members of the circle is Anna Szostek, who started taking lessons with Koga about a year ago. A flute player with a master’s degree in Japanese literature, she nurtured a longtime interest in the instrument and has been thrilled with the impact her lessons have had on her life — improving everything from her posture to her overall mood.

“When he’s teaching you to play, he’s teaching you to breathe. It’s very meditative and very healing,” Szostek said.

Back in the semi-circle, the otherworldly hum of the shakuhachi starts again — but Koga cuts them off, singling out one student. “After 7, 8, 9, you went to science world. Stay in the little bit goofy world,” he says.

They start again but the sound is still not right. “You’re not moving your fingers from here,” he chides, pointing somewhere in the vicinity of his intestines. “You’re moving from your brain.”

And as Koga-sensei’s students know, playing from the brain is not a good thing.

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