Thursday, May 23, 2013

Soft but powerful playing 入木

Recently I wrote a comment about the preference of selecting loud guqins mounted with metal-nylons because they may have the propensity to sound sweet and 'just right' without the 'jarring metallic edge.'

Well, as an addendum, I would like to clarify something else: power.

A pre-eminent Japanese Shakuhachi flute Master Teacher, 勇道 Yuudo Sensei, once enlightened me when I asked him if 'powerful playing' meant that the sound emanating from a good player or musical instrument must be loud to be considered 'powerful.' He replied that a soft sound can also be very powerful. The player must be able to play softly and effortlessly but the sound must still be powerful. Sounds contradictory or paradoxical? haha

I tried that last night when I played on my guqin. It did not sound loud at all amongst the cacophony of noises outside my open windows; the MRT subway rumbling along the tracks, my kids playing in the living room, the TV blarring, the fan blades churning, paddling through the sticky tropical Singapore humidity. However, all the distractions were outside my consciousness. The humdrum of my conscious lifeworld -- my Umwelt -- had fallen away. Feeling the pain but choosing to ignore the tiny ropeburn sensations on my left hand ring finger, I volitionally applied little 'vibratos' on almost every note in every simple tune. Perhaps this was what Yuudo Sensei had meant -- soft, almost inaudible, but immense in power nonetheless. Perhaps this was also what my teacher, John Thompson had meant by 'Ru Mu' 入木 -- playing 'into the wood.'

Yuudo Sensei also told me that one must play with 'hopelessness,' not 'hopefulness.' If one plays a musical instrument without any hopes of advancing one's career or impressing others, the playing would become powerfully authentic; the Ego may become more transparent (because one's Ego can never be eradicated or achieve Nothingness, only become slightly more transparent and experience more Openness / Nothingness). Further he told me that over the years, he had observed that students of musical instruments who had quit learning had probably hope to gain 'something,' and when they could not achieve that, they might be more likely to quit. Students who enjoyed learning simply for its own sake might be less likely to quit.

So, what's the point of me writing this? Well, even if your silk strings guqin does not sound loud, it can still sound very powerful. Play with hopelessness. Ru Mu. 入木 Stop the incessant chatter in your head. Focus on every note. Live in the moment, let go of the note that you have already played. Do not anticipate the next note that you have not played yet. There is no past and no future (time is after all only a man-made concept); only savor the present moment of your lived experience.

Happy playing your guqin! *smile*

Disclosure: I am not a Buddhist. I am a church goer but I am open to ideas that great Masters share with me. haha


  1. Replies
    1. I think Yuudo Sensei is a Zen master, although he may deny it. Haha. Happy long weekend to you. Happy Vesak Day

  2. Yea. Happy Vesak day :-)