Our special guest this month is:
Riley Lee, Shakuhachi Flute Grand Master
Born in Texas in 1951, and now based in Sydney with his Australian wife, Riley Lee was the first non-Japanese Grand Master of the Shakuhachi flute. He has studied his craft in Japan, Hawaii and Sydney. In 1996, he helped form the Australian Shakuhachi Society. And in the year 2000, he stood atop the sails of the Sydney Opera House with five other musicians, ushering in the new millennium to the sound of the shakuhachi.
1. The shakuhachi flute is an unusual instrument. Many Australians have never heard of it. How did you discover the shakuhachi?
I first heard it on a recording. See the following link for a description of getting my first real shakuhachi: http://www.rileylee.net/biography.html#first
2. You were the first Grand Master outside Japan. How did this distinction come about?
It varies from lineage to lineage and even from teacher to teacher. With some teachers you just buy the rank, which I don’t think is the right way to do it. In the lineage that I received my rank, first I had to learn all the pieces. Then I had to take a big, all day examination. It was really a series of tests, a bit like the HSC. It had five parts, playing solo and with someone else, singing a piece (we sometimes have to do that when we teach), doing a written exam, and composing my own piece, using the traditional shakuhachi notation. Passing that exam gave me my ‘Master’ license. To become a Grand Master, I had to wait at least five years after that, and then if the ‘powers that be’ (the board of regents) thought that I deserved it, they could give it to me. In other words, in my lineage, that ranking couldn’t be bought for any amount of money. You couldn’t ask for it. You just had to be patient, do the best you can, and hope for the best.
3. Do you have a favourite flute, and if so, where was it made?
That’s like asking a parent if he or she has a favourite child. Some days, I like one flute better than another because it seems to behave better. But I love them all. Almost all of my flutes were made in Japan
4. Do you play any other instruments?
I play taiko (Japanese festival drums), shinobue (a horizontal or side-blown bamboo flute, played more like western fltues), nohkan (another horizontal flute from Japan). I used to play recorder, and in school I played electric bass guitar in a rock band, and French horn in the school band.
5. Do you have a favourite time of day or place to play? I read on your web site you have played beneath a waterfall and in the snow where icicles formed on the end of the flute.
The best time to practice is in the morning when the mind is fresh, but often the best time to play is late at night when the mind is relaxed. Under waterfalls and in the snow were exceptional places, more to do with ‘mind over matter’ than with musicianship.
6. How difficult is the shakuhachi flute to learn? Would it help to be able to play the flute or recorder?
Nothing is difficult if you enjoy doing it, even if it takes a long time to do. That’s like playing or having a good time. What’s difficult is doing things you don’t want to do. That’s like doing chores. It takes a very long time, many thousands of hours, to become really good at playing the shakuhachi. But that certainly wasn’t difficult for me to do, because I love playing the shakuhachi.
7. I recall reading shakuhachi music has its own notations, a number of them. How is this different to Western musical notation?
The main difference is that staff notation tells you what pitch to play; it doesn’t tell you how to get that pitch. Shakuhachi notation tells you what fingering to use, not what pitch to play. Here’s a link to examples of shakuhachi notation: http://www.rileylee.net/shaku_notation.html
8. Do you have any advice for a young person interested in learning to play the shakuhachi?
The best advice would be first to learn to play any instrument, whatever’s around. Learn to read staff notation; even though it’s different, it will still help. The best way to find a teacher in Australia would be to ask me. I think I know just about all of them.