Among the numerous certificates on music Professor Jon McCollum’s wall, four stand out. Framed in bamboo, they’re written in flowing Japanese, the only English words on them his name. Their presence puts him in rare company as one of the few people who’ve advanced to the level of Jun Shihan, associate master teacher’s license, in playing the traditional Japanese instrument called shakuhachi.
“From a performer’s and teacher’s perspective, it’s a big deal to get these,” McCollum says. “When you receive the Jun Shihan you should be at a high level in terms of playing and teaching … you should be able to ‘speak’ shakuhachi.” But he’s also quick to point out what else they signify. “It’s the intangible meanings behind the licenses, the responsibility they bestow on me, to my teacher, to my teacher’s teacher, and down the line. There’s a strong lineage. They’re not given out lightly, and continuing the tradition is a big responsibility.”
So how does a nice boy originally from South Carolina end up master of a form dating to the 1300s and a sect of Buddhist monks, whose path to enlightenment depended upon playing an instrument made of the root and trunk of the bamboo plant? It began growing up with a best friend who was from Japan and beginning to learn Japanese in high school. As an undergraduate in Florida State University’s College of Music, McCollum majored in trombone and music history but was drawn to world music as a way to expand his musicality. He began to study shakuhachi in 1995 as part of his honor’s thesis.
The rigor of the study tweaked his competitive nature, he says. Of all of the instruments he plays, shakuhachi is the most demanding, with each performance exam juried by shakuhachi masters. One cannot study alone; although a simple, handwritten outline of the music is notated in Japanese, the techniques, styles, and interpretations can only be learned from a teacher. McCollum has been studying under Michael Chikuzen Gould, a Dai Shihan (grand master) of the Kinko Ryu (Kinko school) of shakuhachi.
McCollum earned his Jun Shihan last fall and was given the performance name, or natori, “Shinzen (心禅),” which means, “having an open spirit/heart for continued growth without preconceptions.” In December, he was invited to attend the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C.’s annual dinner, where he performed for, among others, H.E. Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s ambassador to the United States.
Shakuhachi’s strong spiritual component resonates with McCollum’s belief that any true practice, music or otherwise, has less to do with the end result than the process of learning. As with his other instruments, McCollum approaches his study as “physical and athletic. How far can one push the sound? What are your limitations?” Studying shakuhachi, he says, “has made me a better musician in general. The instrument teaches you a lot. It’s really made me think outside the box of musical interpretation.”
As a professor, McCollum uses music to help his students reflect on different cultures. He also plays the Japanese koto. “I want to remind my students of the value of a lifetime commitment for continuous learning. I want them to be curious in life. Learning about diverse cultures is important. In learning sakuhachi, I wanted to do it right. I didn’t want to just say, ‘Oh, this is Japanese shakuhachi and I can sort of play it.’ I wanted to both experience and respect the process.”