Three Years to Shake Your Head

When I was around 12 years old I borrowed a book from the local library about the many uses of bamboo. The book listed all sorts of use cases, from making paper to building entire living structures with bamboo and bamboo alone. However, as I was paging through the book, one particular section, related to musical instruments made from bamboo, caught my eye. There are several flutes commonly made from bamboo, one of them being a Japanese flute known as the shakuhachi (尺八). I can't really say exactly why, but as I read more about the flute I became convinced I wanted to learn to play the shakuhachi.

The shakuhachi is held vertically, something like a recorder, and produces sound by blowing air at a particular angle over an edge at the top of the flute known as the utaguchi (歌口); literally composed of the characters for "song" and "mouth". Its sound is distinctive and unmistakable. Even if you've not heard of the flute, you've very likely heard it, perhaps in a film score. It often has a dramatic and ethereal quality, adding a unique texture to the soundscape. You might know it from old samurai movies, with the likes of Kurosawa, Kobayashi, and Imamura referencing its influence in feudal Japanese society.1

Looking back on this, it's surprising I could find any support for this whatsoever, much less from a highly qualified teacher who had himself spent several years studying under a notable shakuhachi master in Japan. I say this, because I grew up in neither a small nor a large city in Eastern Washington. For various reasons, it was an unlikely place to find a skillful practitioner of a relatively obscure musical instrument. However, through sheer happenstance I did and I would spend several years learning to play the shakuhachi from him. I would not only learn a bit about the instrument and the challenges in developing musical skill with it, but also in the process adopt a philosophy towards the broader pursuit of learning a craft.

One of the most fascinating things about the shakuhachi is the way proficiency is pursued through a mastery of a set of discrete techniques. For instance, one of the first techniques taught is known as meri (メリ) and kari (カリ), which are pitch bending techniques that involve tilting the head such that the pitch goes down and up respectively. Deep pitch bending and vibrato are a fundamental piece of the unique sound of shakuhachi music. It's these techniques that allow the instrument to be incredibly dynamic. But because of the relative simplicity of the construction of the flute itself, the quality of this technique is almost entirely dependent on the player's skill.

Traditionally pupils will study under the tutelage of a shakuhachi master. They will spend years and indeed decades learning these techniques from their teacher. Like any instrument, developing proficiency requires a tremendous dedication to practice. However, much of this practice is relatively Spartan; you may spend hours articulating the same note over and over because much of what must be practiced is not so much the coordination of the notes of a piece of music as the command of microscopic kinetic intentions that at first can be entirely foreign and even seemingly contradictory.

My teacher had spent years in Japan, learning in this slow, methodical way and as such would leverage this pedagogy in our lessons. There's an old saying about this process, it goes something like, "It takes three years to learn to shake your head".2 This is in reference what appears to be a simple technique, that only requires something we all already know how to do: shake the head. But its apparent simplicity is a deception. To do it well is difficult. To master it, well, it will take most of us years. But this is also a broader statement about the didactic philosophy at play here. It should take us years of practice, because part of the mastery is the process of getting there.

With practice, the goal is not to achieve general mastery. Instead it's to focus on a small piece of a technique and to do it so many times it becomes second nature. Eventually what seemed novel, bizarre, impossible, is an instinct. As time goes on and enough of these instincts are built a prototype for what might become mastery begins to emerge. You have, perhaps, learned to shake your head. An important observation here is the fact that this process is primarily about incremental improvement, often so small that day-by-day it may be essentially imperceptible.

The secret to getting good at the shakuhachi is daily incremental progress and the compounding effect is has. This goes for any instrument in fact. And more broadly for any craft you might develop.

If you want to be an expert programmer, be a great leader, or develop some kind of mastery, whatever it may be, what I've learned is the most important thing you can be doing is to spend time with it every single day, getting just a bit better.3 Make small progress, each day, your objective.

My teacher offered this ingenious tactic:

"Don't tell yourself you'll practice thirty minutes everyday.

This will fail.

Instead, pick the shakuhachi up and just hold it."

Of course, if you've already picked it up, you may as well play a bit, right?


  1. For instance, komusō (虚無僧/こむそう) monks, adorned with reed hoods, may be the most iconic example.

  2. The original phrase being, 首振り三年ころ八年 (くびふりさんねんころはちねん). Translated as, "Three years to shake the head, eight years [to learn] koro technique".

  3. For me, the hardest part is that often the progression of better is so small it can't be seen directly. The only way I've managed to work around this is by trusting that my immediate view is less complete that the comprehensive view I'll have in retrospect.

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