Blowing Zen

The Life Work of Peter Ross

by Zaralaya Heartwood

The natural sound of wind and water, of the earth that nourished the bamboo, of the spark that enlivens them - this is the spirit in the note of the shakuhachi (Japanese flute). This spirit flows though Peter Ross, shakuhachi maker, player, and teacher. it's what the Zen priests who practice it call "blowing zen."

How did Peter Ross, a '60s teen from New York, become one in only a handful of shakuhachi teachers in the United States? Peter Ross had a non-traditional musical background. He started his musical life as a jazz saxophonist, always interested in music but particularly in its improvisational aspects.

"I grew up listening to jazz: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker. I was living in Berkeley in 1965, '66, '67. I had been playing saxophone, and used to play conga drums with the players in the park. I wasn't highly trained, more like an improviser. I played what I felt - a lot of feeling but not much training."

Berkeley was a highly charged environment in 1967. Like many of us are today, Peter was looking for something, an outlet for his creativity, a way to make contact with his deeper self.

"One afternoon I was walking down Telegraph Avenue when I heard a sound that I couldn't identify. I was on a crowded street across from the University. There were hundreds of people walking there, lots of noises. It was a shakuhachi playing from a record in a music store, but I didn't know that at the time. I didn't have any word for it."

"I have thought about it often since then. It's a moment where you're not thinking. You're not saying, 'Oh, there's a lovely this or that' and the thought gets in the way of the experience. It totally reached through to me. Actually it was a profound experience. I was deeply affected by it. The sound just reached out to me, and I was completely stopped by this sound and drawn into the music store. I walked in and bought that record, A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky, and another record they had, both by the same artist, Yamaguchi Goro."

Peter didn't know it at the time, but Yamaguchi Goro is one of the great shakuhachi players and teachers. In Japan he is considered a national treasure.

Listening to the music, Peter knew he had found his instrument. A single sound can still affect him profoundly. "One note can go right through me," Peter says as he stabs his chest with an index finger. "One sound can bring me to tears."

Could a person with no musical background connect with shakuhachi in a meaningful way? "Most of my students aren't musicians," Peter says. "They are engineers, nurses, construction workers, computer programmers, artists. What they have in common with each other or with me is that we are all seeking something, and that something may come to them through the sound or practice of shakuhachi."

Shakuhachi is a 5-hole Japanese flute, which has been played for at least three hundred years by Zen priests. They practice the 36 traditional Hon-kyoku pieces as meditation. Ancient origins can be traced to a similar instrument in Egypt called the sabi. In Japan, the shakuhachi originated as a solo instrument. About 150 years ago the shakuhachi began to be heard outside the temples with other instruments in what is called Sankyoku classical music. Soon after, it became incorporated into folk music.

"In Asia, bamboo is the symbol of strength. Bamboo grows tall, 30 feet or so. In the winter, under the weight of the snow, the bamboo bends so the tops of the leaves touch the ground. In the spring when the snow melts, the bamboo springs back upright unharmed. So the idea of strength includes flexibility."

Traditionally the bamboo used in shakuhachi is a long-lived strain grown in Asia. The bamboo is thick-walled, heavy. The shakuhachi is straight with a slight flare and curve at the end. This is where the natural bamboo grows up from underground, from its roots. If you look closely at an old bamboo shakuhachi you can see where the roots of the bamboo make many tiny whorls along the bell edge of the flute.

Shortly after he had heard the music of Yamaguchi Goro, Peter took a few lessons from a local man. "He was primarily a jazz musician, playing sax in a San Francisco band. He also played the shakuhachi." There was a place in Japan town where shakuhachis were sold and Peter bought his first one there.

The wanderlust of the late '60s grabbed Peter by his sense of adventure. First he went to Alaska and made some cash fighting fires. Then off to see the world. "For three years I was outside the country. I took my shakuhachi with me - a flute that I didn't really know how to play. But I started to teach myself. I met musicians in Pakistan, India, and Malaysia. Because I had a flute with me, and a very unusual one, I was welcomed by musicians everywhere. My flute was my passport."

He made his first flute while staying in New Zealand. "I bought a bamboo rake, cut off the handle, and used that. I didn't know where the holes should go. I just held the bamboo as though it was a shakuhachi and put the holes where my fingers naturally fell. It didn't sound right at first because it was too long. I kept cutting pieces off the end of the flute, an inch at a time. All of a sudden I had this beautiful sound."

Peter doesn't make flutes that way anymore. He has formulas and measurements that turn the making of a shakuhachi into a more predictable process. "I have to be very precise. But there is also an intuition. When I tried a new style or scale or size, it's like I have an intuitive feel for it and it will come out right."

In Hawaii, Peter found a home, a teacher, and a career. "I had heard of a shakuhachi teacher, Mr. F. K. Nagao. He was in his seventies at the time, now in his nineties. I studied three or four years with him in Hawaii."

While living in Hawaii, Peter became serious about shakuhachi making. He was care taking a ranch in Hawaii. "I had built this little house. My workshop didn't even have windows; it was underneath the house. I sent my brochure to East West journal and they did an article about me. As soon as the article came out I started getting orders in the mail for shakuhachi. All of a sudden I was in the flute business."

He marks his flutes with the Japanese character shin sui, which means deep water. "Shakuhachi makers in Japan traditionally burn their mark by the thumbhole of the flute. A shakuhachi player in Japan had the shin sui chop made for me. I've been burning that on my flutes ever since."

After several years studying with Mr Nagao in Hawaii and making shakuhachis, Peter made connections with Masayuki Koga who lived in San Francisco. It was during his studies with Masayuki Koga that Peter got an idea. Usually shakuhachis are made out of madake bamboo and they are expensive: $1,500 to $4,000. Beginning students are reluctant to pay that much for an instrument. Peter wanted them to have good quality flutes at a reasonable price.

"I was making flutes out of bamboo imported from China, Japan, Taiwan. Root bamboo is hard to get; very expensive just for the material. I got this idea to make shakuhachis out of wood on a lathe. The Japanese do make shakuhachis out of wood but they are cheaply made in factories. I decided to make good quality wood ones out of rosewood. maple, and cocobolo." Peter's students and customers were happy with the quality of the new flutes and with the price.

When Masayuki Koga moved from San Francisco to the Zen center in Minneapolis, Peter went with him. He made about one hundred rosewood flutes for Koga's students and for mail-order and local customers. Peter began teaching students how to play the shakuhachi in Hawaii, at Hilo Community College, over 20 years ago. Since then, he has taught privately in Santa Cruz, Minneapolis, and since 1992, Seattle.

In addition to teaching, he now makes shakuhachis from rosewood, bamboo, and a variety of exotic hardwoods for beginning to advanced students. He also makes transverse flutes tuned to different scales: Western, Arabian, Indian, Balinese, etc. "I make a large variety of flutes - including bamboo transverse flutes with exotic hardwood lip plates which, besides being attractive, give the flute a beautiful tone color. Most of my flutes are from $100 to $200." He also makes custom shakuhachis that cost up to $ 1,000 for recording artists and others who need an instrument that has an elite look and sound.

Musicians who need repairs to their flutes or want a unique new flute, come to Peter.

One musician with a very old flute that had cracked sent it in for repairs. Instead of payment, Peter asked the customer to bring him back a flute from his trip to Egypt. "I just received a postcard. He's bringing back my new flute."

"When I am making a flute I have so much energy. I get excited about it and try different things. I'm always experimenting with tunings and scales. It's then that I stumble upon something like this 6-hole shakuhachi that can be played either in the Japanese or Arabian scale."

"After 20 years or so you start to get a feel for it. I don't sit down and meditate and wait for the design to come to me. I do have designs and measurements that I work with for each flute I make. It helps me when I go to make a flute that is similar."

People can buy or make their own shakuhachis with Peter Ross in his workshop. In workshop groups of one to three people, it's a five to six hour process from raw bamboo to your own instrument. "They really do it themselves," says Peter. "It renews my own excitement as I help them drilling their first hole, sanding and finishing. I often have couples, parent and child, or two friends. It's a day of wonder and accomplishment. We all enjoy the work and the results. The look on their faces when their new instrument makes a sound is indescribable."

Even visiting the workshop to buy a flute is a total experience: watching the flutes being made, smelling the sandalwood scented oil used to condition the bamboo, listening to Peter play. "It's a nice experience to spend an hour with someone, sharing my lifework with them. I enjoy when people come to the workshop.

If they decide to buy a flute and come back for lessons. I really look forward to that. What could be better? Two people totally into something they both enjoy. I try to give students a strong background in traditional shakuhachi playing techniques. Then we might play some simple duets or even improvise together. I don't assume they will practice a lot, and there is no guilt if they don't. I encourage them to come to lessons anyway, they can learn a lot during the lesson, even if they haven't practiced."

If there was any doubt that Peter Ross had found his calling, that was laid to 'rest when he visited Japan. He had purchased an old shakuhachi at the Diamond Head Crater swap meet on Oahu. It needed special repair so he sent it to a friend who was in Japan studying with Yamaguchi Goro, the master whose music had inspired him that day in Berkeley. The friend showed the shakuhachi to his teacher. Yamaguchi studied the instrument, examined the maker's chop, then exclaimed - the shakuhachi was made by Yamaguchi's father, one of Japan's most famous shakuhachi makers.

"It would have been enough for me just to know that my flute was made by Yamaguchi's father. But when I visited Japan a few months later, I was honored when Yamaguchi invited me to his home to watch him teach and afterward his mother served us tea. I have to say, the visit was a high point in my life."

There is a way for each of us. For some, the shakuhachi is a meditation, a relaxation, an escape from the world, an entrance to the inner self. For Peter Ross, it is a way of life. It is simply "blowing Zen."

Peter Ross, flute maker, teacher, and player, invites scheduled visits to his studio in north Seattle. He performs in a variety of settings. He may be reached at (206)587-7262.

Zoralaya Heartwood writes for several alternative publications, does psychic readings and intuitive energy work. She lives in Buena Vista, Colorado.

Reprinted with the permission of The New Times. The original story appeared in April 1995, Vol 10, @.1o. 11. Photos by Phillip Brautigam.

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