Lessons in performing from the Komuso tradition (Japan Trip Log: Day 3)

On my first full day in Kyoto I had the pleasure of meeting with two Shakuhachi players. One man was a Buddhist monk who plays Shakuhachi as part of his ceremonies. His wife had graciously agreed to translate for me because I do not speak Japanese.

The monk had arranged for me to also meet a Komuso during my visit with him. A Komuso is a Shakuhachi player who travels the countryside playing in public for donations in order to survive.

Photo Jul 12, 1 23 51 AM

Traditionally, the Komuso were a kind of monk but in modern times, Shakuhachi players do not typically train in the art of the spiritual ceremonies.  Today they are jokingly called “Fake Monks”.  But the idea of a Komuso interests me a great deal. Think about it: in order to train themselves to be performers, they place themselves into a perform-or-die scenario. Literally. If they don’t play well or are scared to perform, they will starve. I would bet I would practice more effectively if I had to play for my life. Maybe I am playing for my life already…

There is something to be said here about safety nets. For me, if I lose an audition or don’t recruit enough students, I will still have my parents to bail me out of my monthly rent payments. If I miss a note during my recital, I will still get a B and pass my class. On the flip side, there are stories of monks who have to commit ritual suicide if they fail their spiritual tasks (although this is not commonly practiced today). But that is a huge difference! And it leads me to one of my favorite graphics (I got this version from Michael Warden’s blog http://michaelwarden.com/life-beyond-the-comfort-zone/):


People who practice in the comfort zone are not necessarily making any lasting changes. If, on the other hand, I told you that you had to play Chant de Linos at tempo with one week of preparation or else commit ritual suicide, you would probably run away from the flute and never look back. So we have to walk the delicate line of pushing ourselves but not so much that we topple over the edge. I think it is safe to say that Komuso live in the risk zone because they rely on their playing to live.

Komuso also perform every day for many years and often multiple times in a day. In fact, whenever they practice, it is a performance because they practice outdoors. There are no practice rooms or private studios for a Komuso. As the saying goes, it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something. Well Komuso are probably getting pretty close to performing for 10,000 hours by the time their wandering is over.

Let’s do some math. Typical music students practice an average of 3 hours per day. That’s 1095 hours per year if you don’t take any time off for Christmas or Thanksgiving. So in a little over 9 years you will be really good at playing by yourself in a sound-proof room (if your School of Music practice rooms are nice).  If your schools are like the one I attended, most of the rooms even have a piece of paper taped over the window to preclude all exposure to the outside world.  Some more math: typical University ensembles play 5-6 concerts in a year for about an hour and half each. I’m not even going to tell you how many years it will take you to get to 10,000 hours of ensemble performing experience that way (hint: its longer than most people live).  And they expect students to be able to jump right in to professional orchestra gigs and not freak out?!  It gets worse: most University students play 2 recitals a year if they are super ambitious. So at the end of your 4-year bachelors degree, 2-year masters, and 3 years of coursework for a DMA, you will have only performed as a soloist for 18 hours if you’re lucky. As a professional, that number might get a little higher per year but unless you’re Joshua Bell or James Galway, I would say it is a safe bet that most professionals won’t reach 10,000 hours of solo playing in their whole career. And we wonder why we get nervous on stage. Most of us are basically 6th graders still trying to read music when it comes to performing.

Now imagine performing for more than 3 hours every single day for more than 3 years. What if we had to perform every single day as part of our training as classical musicians?  How would we feel on stage after that?

More on my experience talking with the Shakuhachi players will be coming at the beginning of next week!  Thanks for reading!


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