My Zen Recital

I wanted to take a moment to share some things about my recital which I performed in November.  It was titled Zen and the Art of Flute Playing: find your Center, find your Voice, find your Journey.

That’s what the poster said anyway.  The real point of my recital was to show that traditional world cultures can inspire even the most classical “western” styles.  The Shakuhachi is a bamboo flute usually associated with Japanese Buddhism and was originally used as a method of meditation.  “Blowing Zen” as it is called was a method of self-realization in which the practitioner is encouraged to “follow the breath” while playing the flute.

All of this was inspired by my travels in Japan last summer which were chronicled in a series of posts earlier this fall (check out the “Travel” category for more).

The program was as follows:

J.S. Bach – Sonata in E Minor

Shirish Korde – Tenderness of Cranes

Nielsen – Concerto for Flute and Orchestra

Each piece was accompanied by a projection which emphasized the part of Japanese culture (as I experienced it) which inspired that performance.

To set the mood, I mixed together an ambient track of “temple” sounds to play in the recital hall with lights set to low as people filtered in.  I then snuck into the hall through a side door and played some of the Shakuhachi piece, Kyorei, as an introduction to the concert.  I began playing from just inside the door, out of sight of the audience and then walked slowly through the hall while playing.  There was no applause but everyone immediately became quiet and attentive just as I hoped would happen.

It may seem cheesy but I think it drew the listener in to my message.  In fact, I had no idea how it would go over.  The dress rehearsal with my professor was the day before and I was ready to cut all the production and just play the program if needed.  But my teacher encouraged me to do it so I kept it in.  I think it was a risk (in my mind) that paid off.

Changing the lights to a spotlight (to allow the projection to be seen) I re-entered the hall with my metal flute to play the Bach.


My performance of the Bach was inspired by Japanese rock gardens.  Although they consist of mainly boulders and raked gravel, the gardens are said to have no center because, as a monk in Japan told me, “the center is within you.”  To look at a Zen rock garden is to look at one’s own “center” which is the source of balance and energy for a Zen practitioner.

Bach’s music is notorious for being tricky technically as well as challenging from an endurance perspective.  He wrote for a wooden flute which used much less air than our modern-day metal sound-canons so phrasing can be difficult especially under stress.

Due to this, one must remain incredibly centered to pull off the proper aesthetic despite the glare of the stage lights and critical stares of the audience.

Tenderness of Cranes is a more obvious connection to Zen because it is based on a piece written for the Shakuhachi.  The Shakuhachi is the ideal lens for showing that Zen culture can influence western flute playing.  In particular I showed that the notation of the Shakuhachi is extremely open to interpretation and thus inspires creativity and self-expression from its performers.


In short, playing music inspired by the Shakuhachi inspires the musician to find his or her own voice – their own means of musical expression and creativity.

The Nielsen concerto is often interpreted programmatically as the journey of the flutist to find their place in the orchestra.  The flute gets into fights with some sections while making friends with others before finally finding a role to lock into.

My interpretation was that it was portraying the journey of the musician to find their place in the Universe.  Zen culture would call this the “Zen Journey.”

The journey of the Nielsen is not an easy one – there is pain, strife, anger, and frustration.  But there is also, in some moments, love, happiness, and in the end, triumph.

Zen and the art of flute playing is about finding your center, finding your voice, and then finding your journey in the universe.  This performance was part of my own personal journey and it was an amazing experience.  I was able to find a level of comfort and confidence during the performance that I was previously unable to find and I think that was because of the theme of the concert.  By the time I got to the Nielsen, I felt like I was centered like I was preaching to be during the Bach, and like I was speaking with my own voice like I was preaching to do during Tenderness.

It was a truly transcendental and emotional experience and I hope I can recreate that feeling in my future performances.


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