Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What archetype are you?

There's an Arabian proverb that goes:

"He who knows not and knows not he knows not: he is a fool - shun him. He who knows not and knows he knows not: he is simple - teach him. He who knows and knows not he knows: he is asleep - wake him. He who knows and knows he knows: he is wise - follow him."

There's also a "conscious competence theory" developed by Dr. Abraham Maslow. There are four stages of learning involved, which go like this:
  1. Unconscious Incompetence (not knowing you don't know)
  2. Conscious Incompetence (knowing you don't know)
  3. Conscious Competence (you know, but it takes effort)
  4. Unconscious Competence (second nature)
No matter how much you may like to ignore the first stage, we all start out as "fools". We didn't know the history of taiko nor the people that have made taiko what it is today. We wanted to play taiko, for whatever reasons - it was exciting, empowering, mysterious, and awesome all at once!

It's not easy to make it to the second stage, because you wind up climbing the first peak in triumph only to realize that it's not a peak, it's a merely a boulder and the real mountain range looms ahead of you. The realization of how much there is to know can be staggering! How do you strike effectively? How do you project energy? How do you fit into the style of your group? Who taught your teacher(s)? How many other groups are out there?

Most of us make it to the third stage, but it's certainly never easy to tell when it happens. Some things are easier now, but to put them all together still takes effort. It's like having a tabletop full of oiled frogs - you have to balance your time between keeping the ones in place there and chasing down the ones that hop away.

And the last stage isn't really the last stage. Here are the teachers in the taiko world, whether just within their own group(s) or to the taiko community as well. They have at least one skill that comes second nature to them, and hopefully have put time into the "hows" and "whys" of that skill to actively teach it to others. In other words, the some of the frogs are predictable. ;)

The biggest mistake an artist can make is to think that this journey is a one-way, or even a linear trip. Even the "wise" ones are still "fools"! There are so many levels of different skills in one taiko player that any of us can easily be all four archetypes at once. The trick? No trick - simply never stop once you realize you've started!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Metronome love, pt. 1


In kumidaiko, group drumming, there is a concept that some call "group time". The ensemble determines the tempo, even if there's a position/instrument responsible for it. We don't have a conductor; we're not going to be steady/even through the song.

However, as individuals, we can work on our own sense of "exact time" through use of a metronome. The electronic ones are cheap, as low as $30 for the basics (on, off, tempo). All you really need is a few minutes a day/week and something to play on. I recommend using a pair of western drumsticks and a drum pad, since you're not working on "taiko" technique as much as musical technique.

There are a crapload of drills I can talk about using the metronome; I'll just introduce two here and then sprinkle more in future posts.

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Drill 1: Start at 100bpm (beats per minute) and hit once per "note" of the metronome for four notes, alternating hands. Switch to two hits per note for four notes (doubletime). Then switch to four hits per note for four notes (doubletime again). Repeat.

This is the most basic of drills, but if you find it too easy, increase the tempo in increments of 3bpm until you find your limit. Also, make sure you're not accenting any of the hits - everything should be even. Finally, try starting with your left hand; us right-handers neglect the left too often.

Drill 2: Start at 80bpm and do the same drill above, but with only one hand at a time. Switch back and forth between the hands when you repeat. The same comments above also apply here - increments of 3bpm, and keep your hits even!

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Without knowing your personal habits when it comes to tempo, you can often be the one dragging/pushing the group, and you don't want that! Taking a little time with the metronome improves your skills but also helps the group out significantly.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tweaking the dials...

Just changing the fonts and colors on the site to make it easier to read. Suggestions are welcome!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Being the worst with the best

I mentioned this post, about our senior student ("G") at the karate dojo leaving on sabbatical. I talked about having to step up as a teacher. One thing I didn't realize at the time was how my training would also be affected.

When I came back to the dojo after a 10-year hiatus, I trained until I had caught up with the requirements for my belt level, which at the time was the first of three brown belts. As I got to know G better, we talked a lot more before and during classes. We would also spar a LOT more before class started, mostly out of boredom. In the first year or so of that sparring, I got my ass handed to me on a regular basis. I was spun around as my kicks were deflected, I was steamrollered by barrages of punches, my shins and ribs and chest were bruised throughout the week, and I could hardly land anything of my own on him.

Then one day, about two years later, I realized something. I wasn't being spun around anymore, I was avoiding the pummeling, I was bruised much less often, and I was getting in shots of my own. How did that happen? There was skill-building in those years of training, to be sure, and I got to know G's moves better, naturally. Still, by training with someone much better than I initially, my skills were quickly increased.

Bruce Lee's first kung fu teacher, Yip Man, is rumored to not have practiced with anyone of less than his own ability because he thought it would dilute his skills. Is there truth to that? If you're the least-skilled among a group, are you forced to improve to maintain your affiliation to that group? What if you're the best in that group, does associating with a group of lower-skilled individuals sully your own abilities? What about teaching, doesn't teaching make you understand something better? Does being the senior student in a class benefit a person or hinder them?

I don't have the answers, just posing the questions...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Quote (Dec 09)

Better to fail attempting your passion than succeed in mediocrity.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Mu Daiko run out - day 4

Last day with Mu, and it was a great four days overall!

We had a discussion with both groups this morning about social justice, gender equality, and how the formation of both SJT and Mu Daiko tied in with those concepts. Unfortunately, just as things started to get going, we ran out of time.

Shortly after that, we did the last joint concert. After getting to know the members better, it was a lot more fun to watch their set from the sides and share the stage at the final number. Our show went just fine - brain farts aside, we gave a very strong performance and the audience reaction was very responsive.

The end of the day saw our two groups at a potluck at one of the Mu Daiko member's house. We got to relax, share stories, and eat! It was a great group-bonding experience, and did I mention the eating? :)

Tomorrow we leave the land of cold and icy for the land of cold and wet (it's raining in San Jose.) As usual, I have some great ideas for future blog posts after a trip out, so be sure to keep checking in for those awesome pearls of...um...pearly wisdom?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mu Daiko run out - day 3


I'm beat! About to crash after I finish this post...

Had a really fun workshop with a few of the Mu Daiko players and many Mu Daiko students, teaching them aspects of ki and hara, then teaching SJT's open-source piece Ei Ja Nai Ka. It was a big success, and many of the people that came got to see us perform tonight.

As for the gig, I think we're having more fun as we get more comfortable with the set-up and our hosts. :) A couple of minor hiccups didn't keep us from having a great show with one of our alumni in the audience (yay Mr. Mike - and clan!)

Tomorrow we go in for a joint-group discussion focused on social justice...either through taiko or the groups' experiences with social justice, I'm not sure. After that, a matinee performance to cap the weekend, and then we party! Or crash. Or both!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Mu Daiko run out - day 2


Nice and slow start to the day today, but productive! Got in the theater, accustomed ourselves to Mu Daiko's equipment, one queue-to-queue (where we only move drums and play transitions), then one runthrough. Just before the show, we worked out a joint encore with the Mu-ers, based around the venerable taiko song Matsuri (festival drums).

8 o'clock comes around, and the show starts! We're glad we were able to watch their show last night, because other wise it would have been hard to sneak peeks around the sides without letting the audience see us. The audience for these 3 joint concerts is officially sold out, and tonight's audience was really responsive, which is always great!

Our show went pretty well; all the issues we talked about during rehearsal were dealt with, and the audience was really really appreciative. There was one thing that happened though, and unfortunately it happened to me...

We have a song with four katsugi okedo, which are roped drums slung around the shoulder by a strap. It's pretty rare when one of the straps comes undone, but it does happen! And now I know how it feels! Still, I think I recovered really well. It slipped down low, but I had a grip on it like the song dictates, and I "one-handed" it until the solos started, where I used the first soloist's entrance to duck out the side wing right next to me. It was an emergency fix, but it was playable, no trauma, and I was able to finish the song without too much suspicion. You better believe that I'm triple-knotting the straps from now on!

After the show, a bite to eat with 2/3rds of Mu to get to know them better. Sometimes, like tonight, the after-party is the highlight of the evening!

Tomorrow we do a 2.5-hour workshop with Mu-ers, then another concert at night. Keep watching this blog for all the dirt! Cold, cold dirt...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Mu Daiko run out - day 1

We're all here! The flights were uneventful and none-too-crowded (enough for me to lay out on one row of seats on the first leg)! It's cold here in Minneapolis, but for our layover in Denver, it was 9. NINE. It's not as bad here; maybe in the 20s?

We were greeted and picked up by members of Mu Daiko, which is pretty gracious since they had a full concert a couple of hours later! What's more, they came back to the hotel to drop us off near the theater before dinner, and then drove us back to the hotel!

The theater is small and cozy, about 200 seats. It was the first time I'd seen Mu Daiko perform before, and it was a great show. There was a lot of variety in both themes and music throughout the show and great interaction between the performers. It should be a lot of fun working and playing with them in the next three days!

Tomorrow is a 9:30 load-in for us, but we only have a small number of drums instead of our usual 40,000 (kidding, I kid) and only one half of a show to play, so it should be much easier than we're used to (knock on wood etc. etc.)

Off for now; stay tuned!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Short tour coming up!

Thursday morning, eight of us will be heading out to Minneapolis, MN, for a joint concert with Mu Daiko. We'll be playing the second half of the show Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. I'm looking forward to meeting and working with Mu Daiko; I've had little to no contact with members of the group!

I also hear it's COLD. But I like cold weather, so we'll see! As usual, I'll try to blog each day I'm there so y'all can be thrilled by my antics. :)

Last time I was in Minneapolis, I found a pub that served the Jamaican jerked wings. The balance of heat and flavor was perfect (and slightly painful). I pray I get a chance to find it again!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Are you ready to teach?

I'm typing this from my laptop as my desktop is exposed and going through resuscitation work, so hopefully this won't suffer from a lack of quality (and just suffer from my normal writing style, heh).

I just found out from my sensei that next quarter, in the dojo, our senior student ("G" for now) won't be attending. There are multiple reasons, and I'm assuming he'll be back in one or two quarters, but who knows?

Still, it unofficially means I'll be teaching a lot more, and it's not the amount that makes me pause, it's that what I say/demonstrate will have more weight with G gone. I'm realizing that I took the weaknesses in my teaching for granted knowing that anything I missed would be covered by my sensei or G.

So let me ask you, my readers - if you suddenly were thrust into a teaching position - or used to teaching but having to cover an area you weren't comfortable with, how would you fare? Would you trust your instincts? Would you over-prepare? Would you ask others for help?

Even though teaching is a big step into learning the material better, sometimes it takes an unexpected event to thrust you into a learning situation. It's up to the individual to learn from how people teach, not just what they teach.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tsunami

This past Saturday, several of us went to see San Francisco Taiko Dojo's annual concert. They traditionally end their concerts with a piece called Tsunami. It's a essentially a simple song, but not necessarily *easy*. After an intro section, it's odaiko soloist after odaiko soloist, at least eight - but I've seen up to maybe twelve in the past. Traditionally, Tsunami ends their show and it's obvious why: it's about raw ki, exposing yourself to the drum and the audience with everything you've got and then some. It's not often "pretty", but it hits hard and it works!

When I first saw Tsunami played, I loved it. I didn't really know what was coming next, but it kept building and building while the supporting players kept throwing more and more ki outwards. The second time, I admit that I was less impressed. To me it seemed like I had "seen all that before." Maybe I expected more? There was definitely a period of time when it just didn't hold my interest.

But last Saturday, I found myself really enjoying it again. It wasn't different; there were no new additions that I could notice, but I felt myself responding to the soloists and the raw energy the ensemble was putting out.

I've heard (and said) many times that "when you play taiko, your true self comes out." That's true, to a point, but it really depends on the song(s) you play. I have to assume most people play in groups that fit their personality, but if the majority of songs fit a certain sensibility, do they also fit yours?

So here's an exercise for my fellow taiko players: take a drum or two and practice on your own. Find a couple of varied moods that fit your nature. Do a solo for each of them and see what happens. How do you move? How fast do you play? How much do you put yourself out/hold yourself back?

To make us more than just taiko "players", we have to explore the emotional side of our music. If songs limit you emotionally, then the experience is somewhat sanitized. Don't let your group limit you - explore your own depths!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ack!

Stage fright. Performance pressure. How do you deal with it?

Tonight, after karate, a student thanked one of the other black belts for helping him out during class. This particular student has a lot of trouble getting things right, whether it's sequencing, coordination, or what-have-you. When called upon to do a drill with people watching, nothing seems to go right, even if he's one of a group. Whether it's his limbs moving in the wrong order or turning the wrong direction, it all just goes out the window once he feels the pressure of being watched. I only overheard a little of the advice the other black belt gave the student, but it made me think about writing this post.

I know this is a condition not unique to any art. It's quite the same when speaking in public or in front of a crowd. Now, I'm no expert in this - there are books published on this and people who specialize in this sort of thing. It's been a long time since I've felt those butterflies in the stomach myself. Still, it's worth some thoughts on the subject!

The obvious thing to fix that problem is familiarity. Imagine people coming to watch you tie your shoes. Okay, I know that's asinine, but work with me here. I'm betting you can tie your shoes with your eyes closed, right? I also bet that it wouldn't faze you to have people watching you do it (well, you might wonder what's wrong with them, but hey...)

It's not much of a leap to realize how to use the concept of familiarity to help one overcome stage fright, right? Simply practice more! The more you feel "right" in what you're doing, the less you worry about other people watching it.

Another aspect that comes in handy is proficiency. Are your basics solid? If not, there's only so far that familiarity can take you. Brain farts happen to the best of us! Imagine making a mistake during a song/form/drill. How easily can you compensate and come to where you should have been? If you know your body and know the fundamental building blocks of your art, you should be able to jump right back in.

As easy as it sounds on paper, this is where I see most people having problems. If they drop a bachi, or someone distracts them, or they stumble while moving for example, it derails them and jumping back in proves very difficult. When that happens, it looks like they're trying to find the "right" time to get back into things, without trusting their body enough to just get in there and self-correct.

The last idea I'll bring up is perspective. Who cares if Grandmaster 10th-degree Legendary Hoo-Ha is in the audience/judging your test/staring at you? Too often I hear people talk themselves into a tizzy when there's no cause to do so.

Say you're doing something you're being tested at - like a belt test, or an audition. A mistake or two will rarely be your downfall. If you forget a sequence, that's one thing; to brain fart is human. As someone who judges belt tests and observes auditions, I know that I look for underlying skill and understanding of the material. A mistake or two - if anything - lets me know how well someone overcomes those mistakes and pushes through.

On the other side, if you're performing in some way on stage or in the dojo, focusing on the audience is rarely a good thing. Even when benign, as in, "I want to give these people the best show ever!" is setting yourself up for additional pressure. Making a mistake now has *weight* and looms over your head. More seriously, worrying about the audience seeing you "eventually mess up" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And for those perfectionist players who grasp onto being "perfect", well...perfection is an illusion and when they fall, they fall hard.

Ultimately, you need to be in a state where you can enjoy yourself. If people are watching you, they won't truly be able to enjoy you if you can't be you.

Oh, and keep practicing lots, that helps! :)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Question Everything: Kuchishoga


What is kuchishoga, exactly? It's the vocalizations taiko players use to represent taiko patterns. For example, "don don kara don" could be 4 quarter notes: loud hit, loud hit, two rim hits, loud hit. It can be "kuchishoka" or "kuchi shoga", but it's all the same thing.

Most of us learn songs via kuchishoga. It's very convenient and proven to work! Western notation, while really valuable in the long run, is a skill most taiko players don't have and most groups don't have time to spend learning. Also, taiko is a very visual art form, and the music is only a part of it. "Don don kara don" doesn't tell you which hands to hit with, how fast to play, what the drum setup is, how you stand at/with the drum, or how you move in relation to it.

I don't discount kuchishoga, but I want people to think outside the proverbial box here. With basic kuchishoga, there are four sounds. The loud hit (don), soft hit (tsu or su), rim hit (ka), and space/rest (su or tsu). Those four sounds empower us when we start, but I think limit us soon after. Let me explain (and you know I will!)

What if I want to play a "medium" hit? What if I want to "buzz" the drumstick against the head of the drum? What if I want to strike with the flat of the drumstick across the head of the drum? What about a hit near the edge of the drum, away from the center? All of these produce new tones and textures that go far beyond the basic verbalizations.

I don't think people are unable to make new sounds because there isn't a kuchishoga for them, but at the same time I do think people are less likely to explore new sounds as long as they keep thinking within the limits of what they were taught.

If you're curious as to a model to look to, I suggest scat. Scat is vocal improvisation that uses random sounds to create music. It's improvised and limited only by the performer's imagination. As for me personally, I tend to sing-solo in my spare time using a modified kuchishoga, but I invent new sounds as I see fit. If I stuck with "traditional" kuchishoga, I don't think I would feel as free with my solos when I actually got on the drums. Food for thought?

So here's an exercise for my taiko-playing readers: try "singing" a solo without using the four basic kuchishoga you learned. Maybe start easy; "don" into "dan", etc. Late on, modify them up and see what new soundscapes you can create!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The next level


I recently spent a gift certificate at my local percussion store. I already have an assortment of weird beaters and drumsticks, and the cool things (cajon, tabla, etc.) were more than the certifcate would cover. So I wound up buying ten drumming magazines and two books on funk/R&B/soul drumming.

There's a lot of information in these, and for the most part, the patterns are more for a trapset drummer. But even though I am a taiko player first and foremost, I am also a percussionist. Since there are WAY more people who play Western-style drums, there have got to be things I can learn - from injury prevention to relaxation techniques to some patterns that do translate to playing one drum at a time.

Personally, I don't feel I'm growing much more from what I learn in my group. This sort of realization can be either devastating or transformative, depending on how one looks at it. It also can come across as seeming arrogant to another. So let me explain.

When you join a group, you're subject to that group's strengths and weaknesses. The large majority of those who teach taiko in some fashion have never had any formal teaching training. This weakness can show up when someone has more to teach you, but it's not possible for them to get the rest across. For me, I can spend a lot of time on the little things that are "left", that is, I can achieve small amounts of progress through great effort. OR, I can take that same amount of effort and grow in new ways - as a composer, as a musician, as a teacher, etc.

I strongly believe in "beginner's mind", or the idea that no matter how many times you've played a song/done a drill, there's always something to improve on. But there's a difference between getting better at something you've been doing for years and learning new skills. It's the partnership of diminishing returns and limited resources. If have a choice between spending 100 hours taking a skill from 90% to 91%, is that as valuable as taking a skill from 0% to 50% in those same 100 hours?

Some might argue that I owe it to my group to focus on those little things and be a "better" taiko player. I see the argument in that, but it's a very narrow-minded one, and sounds more like the philosophy of "group first, player second." There's already a lot of that in taiko, for better or worse. Now, if I become a better composer, by composing, doesn't that also bode well for the group? If I become a better teacher/leader by example, that benefits the group as well.

I don't feel my group is responsible to push me further - whereas before it was a mutual system of teaching and learning, now it's my responsibility to become a better player. This is where someone can feel aimless, helpless, without direction. I was there for a short time, feeling uninspired and generally not doing much more than being a warm body for the group.

Right now, I'm looking at all these incredible drummers and realizing that there's really a whole world out there that taiko has barely scratched. And I can choose my path in that world, hopefully finding gems to bring back to my group, to my repertoire of skills. So I ask you, dear reader, what's your next level? And how will you get there?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Question Everything: Ego

How do you perform to your fullest if you suppress yourself?

I'm going to start off by discounting Buddhist groups or those who play "just to play". That's a different mindset that I'm not going to quarrel with. But as for the rest of us...

It's common in taiko groups to have improvisational solos in songs. And no one wants to play a solo meekly or reserved, do they? Yet it's also common in taiko groups to have the philosophy of "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down". So with one hand, the performer is pushed towards the temporary spotlight, and with the other hand, smacked on their metaphorical ass when the "threat" of ego rears it's head.

When I look up ego, I see a few terms like "inflated feeling of pride" but more terms like "a sense of self-respect and personal worth". So ego can be villain-ized or looked at as a performer's tool.

To me, a "good" soloist is one who knows their body, plays patterns cleanly, and understands the song/style to solo in. The soloist that stands out, however, is the one doing all that plus exploding with energy, exuding confidence, and not holding back. You can't do that without ego! If you can't make the audience feel like you own that solo, even own the stage during your solo, then at best it's just "fun" to watch, and at worst it looks like you don't belong up there.

I touched upon this concept in a post here. And I know to some people, what I preach is anathema. Those people are confusing humbleness with confidence. They are NOT mutually exclusive! I have a looonnnnnnng way to go in terms of skills, but I can be proud of where I am!

Almost all of my favorite taiko performers I've had the fortune to be able to talk to and get to know. None of them are jerks. And when they solo, they do "own the stage". I can't imagine that any of them think to themselves, "I better not show too much pride right now," or "I'm not really worth that much," while they're playing!

There's definitely a threat of over-confidence that needs to be avoided, and I'm also talking in terms of performing, not group dynamics. A player who feels they're invaluable just because they play well can be a liability. However, think to yourself - do you hold yourself back when you play because you worry about your pride? Do you want to inspire the audience and make them feel the same joy you do? Can't have it both ways.

We all play alongside our egos; it's up to us to make it work with us or hinder us.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Apparent Risk

I happened upon a blog post published in the local Metro paper, which I'm also linking here. The author is Seth Godin, and as I read his other posts, I become more of a fan.

The post here is about Apparent Risk versus Actual Risk. To sum up, Apparent Risk is imagined consequence, whereas Actual Risk is in fact, risky. It's like staying in your comfort zone at the cost of growth vs. trying new things and chancing some bad experiences.

One of his last paragraphs in that post really got my attention: "Apparent risk is avoiding the chance that people will laugh at you and instead backing yourself into the very real possibility that you're going to become obsolete or irrelevant."

I did a post back in March here about failure and how the fear of failure is usually far worse than actually failing. The concepts of Apparent and Actual risk fit in really nicely with that idea.

I see groups who practice "traditional" kumidaiko, or ensemble drumming. Thing is, there's really not a lot of "tradition" since the art's only been around as an ensemble for about 60 years. Some of those players/groups are so concerned with playing the "right" way without considering how little "tradition" there really is. The worry about doing it "wrong" imposes a pretty hefty limitation.

I see groups who are so worried about what others will think of them that they've dug themselves into stagnation. But who are these "others" that cause so much concern? And what happens should failure happen, would those "others" laugh at your situation or is it more likely that they'd hardly notice (or care)? It's not logic at work here, it's Apparent Risk.

On a smaller scale, I see a LOT of taiko players so afraid of thinking outside the box that when they're forced to, it's a truly frightening thing. I just have to ask people this: who are your "greats"? Think of a great artist that you admire. Odds are, they didn't stick to the established norms, did they? I'll bet they didn't color inside the lines much either!

Embody that artist. What have you got to lose?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Quote: Einstein

I know my constant desire to question established or "certain" things bugs some people. Complacency is dangerous. I happened upon this quote attributed to Albert Einstein:

"The important thing is to not stop questioning."

Amen.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Review: Yamato, the drummers of Japan


So yesterday the gf and I drove out to Modesto to see Yamato, a Japanese taiko group formed back in 1993. I'd heard of them for a while, but never had a chance to see them locally. It was their first stop on this US tour, and an early show at 2pm on a Sunday. So what did I think?

Their set was two hours with intermission, and a total of seven songs. When I saw the song list, I said, "these are going to be long songs." And they were, but that's neither good nor bad. The troupe is listed at 16 players, but only 10 were on stage, so I wonder if they take all 16 and rotate per show or list total members, including those left at home. They use the staging creatively, with several levels of risers in the back, silkscreens that the show video on (used sparingly and subtly).

The group is more focused on energy, interaction, chops, and visuals moreso than deep stances, or testosterone. There were no slant stands and only one very short section of a song was in dongo/swung triplet. It was a solid show with two encores, and the audience was very appreciative. Now for the breakdown:

The Pros:

- Non-stop ki. Granted, there were moments of calmness or ma, or space, but it was purposeful and just a pitstop on the way to another long bout of energy. And unlike some taiko groups, it wasn't just raw energy, it was very refined and focused. At times it was razor-sharp in execution of an exacting rhythm, bounding around playfully between mobile players, or as a group in close-quarter precision that only practiced familiarity can bring.

- Super-precise! Yamato plays a lot of very fast, very busy patterns, and I think I only heard two bachi clicks and one note that sounded *almost* in the wrong spot. Considering how fast many of their pieces are and how many notes they play in the show, that's pretty incredible. The precision is in both individual members and in the group, as when passing patterns down the line or switching off roles.

- Transitions. Transitions are a bane to many taiko groups. It's usually a secondary thought because the songs themselves have all the focus. Often it's a "just go to the microphone and play some flute" sort of vibe. Yamato takes as much care in their transitions, whether it's a play off the previous song, a build up to the next song, or something random just to fill the space in between. They were often on par with the songs themselves.

- Use of kiai. I've never heard a taiko group this strong use so few kiai. But when they did, it was often choreograped/set and added a very intentional emphasis when delivered. There were a few kiai done during improv sections to support a fellow player, but it was a huge difference from hearing most taiko groups, with many many many kiai, often quantity over quality. It was like having a sharpshooter vs. a militia.

- Equality. In almost all taiko groups I've seen, either a certain gender stands out as "stronger" or certain individuals stand out. In Yamato, the group was split 50% male and 50% female, but no one stood out. That may sound bad, but in this case, it worked for them. The women could hang with the men, and the men didn't look awkward next to the women. That went for movements, energy, or chops. That's pretty remarkable and a refreshing change.

- Humor. I have never seen a non-comedy show, taiko or otherwise, that had this much humor in it. I *have* seen many taiko groups use humor in their shows, some of which works and some of which doesn't. Yamato was able to get the whole audience to laugh - not just chuckle, but laugh multiple times during the show, and yes, on purpose. There were silly movements during transitions, anticipations that turned into something else, conjured imagery (soccer balls, ping pong, etc.), and "one-upsmanship" that played with competitive nature. Out of roughly about 15-20 funny sections, only one looked awkward, but to have so many in one show AND to nail 95% of them is pretty damned amazing for a taiko show.

The cons:

- Really, again? The first time they do the throwing/catching act, it's awesome. It's done dynamically and with great energy. The second time, it's more subdued, but still interesting. The third time, it seems like it's just there to fill space. The amusement is gone, and I'm finding myself wondering when it'll end. There's also a small bit of bachi twirling, which follows the same formula: First time it's complex and amazing, second time is more individual and ok to watch, and third time is "yeah, you did that before". It's not horrible, but it's enough to lessen the enjoyment of the movement. And finally, even though I liked the difference in kiai "philosophy", there was one exception. To end the last song of the first half, the members all kiai loud and long up to the heavens, leaning back slightly. It's unusual, but it works. Still, it's done again twice more to end songs in the second half, and I'm left wanting to hear more different endings.

- Which song had what again? With only seven songs, they made each one into a sequence of mini-songs. Sometimes they would bring a theme back, but sparingly. The changes came quick, quicker than I would have liked. I really want to enjoy the groove of a piece, to be able to feel the pulse and get into a song through at least a modicum of repetition - either in the patterns or ji (underlying beat). Without that, I feel less able to connect to the song, and become more of an outside observer. To some, this may not be a factor, but with all the tempo changes, meter shifts, drum mixing, and pattern switching, I felt like I was watching 70 songs instead of 7, and only the humor helped differentiate the songs.

Overall, I liked the show and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in taiko. The criticisms I have aren't enough to overcome the many good things about it! Go see them live!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Relax, dammit!

I like to compare karate and taiko a lot, because those are my two chosen disciplines. There are enough differences and similarities between the two to do a blog on nothing but! Still, after nearly 17 years of taiko and about 10 years of karate, there's one HUGE similarity, one that ties into every technique, every strike, every movement.

Relaxation!

More specifically, I mean tension and release, when to generate which, and how to do it without thinking. If you can do that, whether you're hitting someone or something, you've done an amazing feat. There are a lot of things that are directly affected by being/not being relaxed:
  • tempo
  • muscle stress
  • flexibility
  • fluidity
  • control
  • strength
  • endurance
  • need I go on?
Ultimately, we're trying to generate power of some sort, but holding tension in the wrong place and/or for too long limits that power. Try some of these on for size (don't hurt yourself!):
  1. Play a song/do a drill/do a form while over-tensing your lower body only (hips to feet). Then repeat without the tension.
  2. As above, but over-tense up your neck and shoulders only.
  3. As above, but over-tense up your arms and hands only.
  4. As above, but over-tense up everything!
Didn't it feel good on the second time through, when you didn't have that excess tension? Most people won't play with THAT much tension, but the idea is to recognize where you hold yours and how it feels when you do. Another thing you'll realize - and this is important - is that when you tensed one area of your body, everything else was affected. You hold tension in your shoulders? Your striking is affected. You hold tension in your wrists? Your mobility is affected.

Beginners in karate tend to punch with tension from the beginning, hold tension through the execution, hold it during the impact, and hold it after the punch has ended. Beginning taiko players tend to lift their arm up with tension, bring it down with tension, hit with tension, and maintain tension after the strike. This is both extremely inefficient and "dulls" the technique. You can't get a good sound or a good hit this way!

I think people use too much tension because they want to control everything as much as possible. That's not just a beginner's mistake, however. "Control" through excess tension is like writing "better" by pushing a pencil into the paper harder. By understanding your body, you'll know where things want to go without needing to correct every single impulse. Note the following two examples and realize that once initiated, the motion is automatic.

Think of a leather whip. It's supple and only dangerous at the tip. As it uncoils, there's little tension, but the kinetic energy generated by the wielder races down the length until the end flicks out with all that stored energy. What if we added excess tension to the whip? What if it was stiff, tight leather rather than loose? It would take a LOT more strength to generate a good snap at the end, and nearly impossible to match what a loose whip could do.

Think of a baseball pitcher, winding up, twisting at the hip, uncoiling the shoulder, elbow, then wrist, until the ball is nearly forced from the hand because of all that generated energy. What if we added excess tension to the pitch? The ball wouldn't have the same speed or force as the muscles worked against each other, not able to reach their maximum potential.

How do you avoid all that tension? Again, I turn to the tension drills - it's easy to feel exaggerated tension and how to drop it, right? It's deceptively easy to fix, for the most part. Breathe! Big, deep breaths of air will energize the body when you're feeling tense, and what's even more important is that it makes you aware of tension. If you're not aware of it, you can't get rid of it, period. I often tell people in workshops to "breathe!" because I can see the tension like a symptom.

Finally, we've identified that excess tension is bad, ok. So when is it good? Well, back to the whip - at the moment of POW (scientific term), that's when you need tension. Whether you're hitting taiko with the bachi or hitting a person with a jab, that split-second of tightening the muscles solidifies the limb to take the impact optimally and adds even more *oomph* (that's a scientific term, too). Without that tightening on impact, the bachi won't stay nestled in your grip or your hand will crumple hitting a target.

Master your tension so that it doesn't master you.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Going through the motions...

How often during a practice do you really give it your all? How come?

Last week at karate, our sensei had car troubles and couldn't make it. Because of campus policy, we're not allowed to run a class in a classroom without a faculty member. About 80% of the class went home, but I wound up running a workout on the track field for about 15 people who wanted to train. Even though they didn't have to stay, I was glad they were serious about learning. However, I still had to tell them what I'll be covering below because too many of them were just "going through the motions."

Too many people who practice a physical art for a while tend to straddle the effort line. For the martial artists I've seen, it becomes more about getting things "right". For taiko players, it's pretty much the same. And while to do this over a long period of time isn't disastrous, it's limiting.

In karate - and I can really only speak for my dojo - we hold tests 4 times a year. For the first 5-6 ranks, it's not a big deal. If you can make it through a workout, you can probably make it through the test, endurance-wise. Sooner or later, however, you'll hit a wall. The tests are designed to tire you out first then see how well you've taken your training. Without pushing yourself while working out, you're going to have a weak test and find yourself mentally unprepared for challenges.

With taiko, it can be either a festival or a concert - just running through the show in advance is great for muscle memory and a workout, but it doesn't quite equate to what happens in a performance. During a concert, just the simple factor of having an audience who's paid to see you can be daunting - or exhilarating when they're applauding or really enjoying the show. Adrenaline can betray you when you're not used to it! There's also the festival situation, outdoors, when it's really hot and/or muggy. Your strength fades pretty quickly and the song that you've done hundreds of times suddenly becomes really difficult to finish.

So, from time to time, treat a practice like the "real thing". Push yourself and make yourself tired so you're not surprised when it happens later, and by doing so, you increase your endurance. Aside from not wanting to sweat, why wouldn't you want to do that?

The more you just go through the motions, the more the motions limit you.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fall Tour 2009: Over!


Well, I'm home! And I have internets again! Woo!

So, let's recap since my last post - we drove about 12 hours to Austin Saturday, got in at around 11pm. Easy drive, but a long one.

Sunday was our last performance, at Dell Hall, Long Center for Performing Arts. We had about 1200 attend, and the energy was great. One of our members is from the area, and had a large family showing who were audibly happy to watch him play on stage! It was a relatively new theater, with the best green room I've ever seen (the chairs were sweeeeet)!

There was one song that gave us a bit of annoyance - one brain fart, an early light cue, and 2 roll-happy drums make for an interesting run, but we didn't let it stop us from kicking ass. :)

So that's it - 8 days and waaaay too much BBQ, but a good run nonetheless. Got a major project ahead of me for next year that I won't talk about for some time, but aside from that, I have two song ideas I'm working on which I hope to talk about as I create them. Play on!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Show #2: Jonesboro, AR


Exhibit 1: Franco Imperial, using technology before a show to rehearse his solos. Go, Franco, go!

Today was...normal! In the theater at 9:00am, unload the truck, unload all the boxes, spike the stage, focus the lights, run through the transitions and drum movements, play, pack up, go home! There's eating and some song run-throughs in there, but that's the standard run.

Tonight's show was a little more difficult because it was at ASU, in a concert hall, which is essentially a big shell with two useable doors way upstage for us to use. Without wings to store drums behind for easy access, we have to reconfigure how we move, where we move, and even the timing of it all. More work, but less lighting, so it all works out...sort of. :)

The crowd tonight was very reserved. For most of them, this was their first taiko experience, and the median age was probably somewhere in the 50s. Applause after a song, never during, no hoots or hollers. But I think they still enjoyed it nonetheless!

As for my performance, I have been semi-suffering from three insect bites on my right arm. Two mosquito, one "other". They've had their individual itchy flare-ups, but all three decided to wake up right after the first song and it was maddening. I go into the next piece completely distracted, grab a pair of shime bachi that are badly mismatched, and forget that I had to set the tempo for the song. It was a tad fast, but playable! A good reminder to always focus before each and every song, that's for sure.

Tomorrow, a 12-hour drive to Austin, up from the assumed 10-hour drive earlier. Woo!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Vegetarians, skip this entry!


We were on our own until 3:00, so we went downtown for lunch and wanderin'. There was an indoor market/food court that had Thai, Mediterranean, Japanese, Cajun, etc. Good, cheap, tasty lunches for all, plus some freshly-baked desserts for some.

After that, an easy 3-hour drive to Jonesboro, AR, where we found a BBQ place. Meat, meat, meat, meat, and...meat. Oh, and beans, and a roll. (Didn't touch the potato salad or cole slaw.) Six BBQ sauces to boot!

...you know it's an easy tour day when the highlights are lunch and dinner!

Tomorrow, back to work! All-day in the theater, from 9am to about 11pm. That's followed by a 10-hour drive Saturday and another all-day in the theater Sunday. It's gonna be a lot of work, but as always, a lot of fun!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Online at last!

Update: A concert review here!

Finally! A hotel with internet connection! Let's get summarizin'!

The flights in were uneventful, with a rather comedic flight attendant on the 2nd one. "Hello, my name is Sean Connery." "Hi, my name is Roshambo." "As always, it was a pleasure having me on board." Heh.

Monday was a pretty busy day, however. We visited three different middle schools, giving a 1.5-2 hour workshop to percussion students at each one. Only one of them was...challenging, where we had about four percussion students and about four times that in non-musicians of all ages. In that same session, we were in a very echo-y room, which is really bad for taiko and even worse for crowd-control of distracted kids. Ah well.

Tuesday was a normal all-day in the theater. We played at the Perot Theater in Texarkana, TX to a crowd of about 700-800. We had a couple of brain farts that probably only we noticed, but the energy from the crowd made the show a very strong one overall! I told myself before the show to "own the stage," - that attitude helped get me through a new choreographed solo in one song, and really nail improvizing in another powerhouse song. Woo!

And as for today, just light travel and a little Budget truck maintenance - and a pound of freaking SPICY shrimp for dinner. Oh, that red spice is cajun seasoning? Oh, the cocktail sauce is spicy? Why, let's eat a whole bunch of both before I figure that out...yeesh!

Tomorrow, more light traveling, but first several hours of downtime in downtown Little Rock. Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Burnout


Many artists - whether it be in music, movement, or visual arts - encounter what's known as burnout. It's the feelings of "it's just not worth it anymore", "I'd rather be doing something else", and/or "there's no fun left in this." Personally, I've known taiko players who found themselves past where it was fun to play and martial artists who felt they were just going through the motions.

I hate to blame the victim, but no one performer is likely to change a whole group nor is one practitioner going to change a whole dojo/style. It's up to the individual to recognize where the warning flags are as they happen. Maybe it's finding yourself unable to focus on a drill, maybe it's dreading an upcoming performance, maybe it's changing dynamics in the group? Ask yourself what it is that gives you strife, internally, about your art and address it!

You can't rely on your group/dojo to fix things for you. If they do, consider yourself lucky to have such a support system! But if you're responsible for your happiness, then be honest with yourself. Pretending something doesn't really bother you and letting it eat away inside over time is only going to make everyone unhappy.

Think about what *you* need. Is that selfish? No, it's not at the disregard of others, it's addressing your own needs. Too often I see those pursuing Asian arts put themselves last for "the good of the group". No, it's not only Asian arts, but I see it more there than I do in non-Asian ones. It's one thing to not be thrilled about something that comes up in practice or performance, that's life. But it's another thing entirely to constantly deny your own personal happiness or pretend that something doesn't piss you off.

Even if you're of a sort that believes, "the group comes first", you are PART of the group. If you're not happy, then a part of the group isn't happy. Again, it's not necessarily the group's responsibility to make you feel better, but denial does no one any good.

Sometimes people need to take breaks, to put things in perspective. Other times creative journeys need to be explored, such as looking into another style (even if just research) or composing a song. Just remember to do this before it's too late! Once you get bitter, the poison is in your veins and it's going to be very hard to purge it from your system!

Whether it's a cultural or communal belief that your needs come second to the group's, if you let yourself suffer without recourse, you're hurting the group. If you don't believe that, think of what happens when things get so bad that you leave the group in anger or frustration! That's like having a brick wall and ignoring the gradual chips that could have been fixed, until the bricks start crumbling and the whole wall is weakened.

It's not selfish to take care of yourself!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tour 'round the corner!

We'll be heading out on the road eaaaarrrrrly Sunday morning. Three shows this run:

  • Perot Theatre, Texarkana, TX (Tuesday 9/22, 8pm)
  • Riceland Hall, Fowler Center, Arkansas State University, Jonesboro, AR (Friday 9/25, 8pm)
  • Dell Hall, Long Center for the Performing Arts, Austin, TX (Sunday 9/27, 7pm)
As usual, I'll be trying my best to blog every day for all my readers (I think I'm up to three now, lol.)

It's interesting going from 2 months of prep for our Annual Concert to 2 nights of prep for the tour. I'm playing about 80% more, and sweating about 200% more for this show; it's nice! But I have to say, after running through the show tonight, it's good to get all the stupid out before we leave. :)

See y'alls in TX! (And AR!)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Perspectives on the eve of a concert

Been a while since my last post, I'll post more after the weekend.

Our annual concert weekend starts tonight @ 8pm, followed by two on Saturday @ 2pm and 8pm. This will be my...15th home concert weekend (I think), and one of over 100 concerts for me if I include touring. I find myself in a position where I'm a bit jaded after so many concerts, and I miss the butterflies; the nervous buzz just before I step on stage. I see it in our newer members and wish I had known to relish it myself when I was where they are now.

I find my own sources of amusements and challenges on stage; sliding across the stage on my knees with an okedo or playing as quiet as humanly possible while still maintaining presence. It's still fun or I wouldn't be doing this!

Someday I'll be sitting in the audience, my taiko career over, and wishing for just one more shot, one more solo, one more concert. Sad? Nah, just reality. Makes me realize that I need to savor the big moments as well as the small ones.

When you play taiko for an audience, a lot of those people are probably wishing they could be doing what you're doing. Share that joy with them and let them feel like they are playing with you in spirit!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Question Everything: Kiai


Yaaaaaa!

Sorry, had to kiai there. What's a kiai? I just did one, didn't you hear it?

The "ki" in kiai stands for spirit, or energy, and the best definition for "ai" in this case is a meeting, a bringing together. It's not a "spirit yell" as I used to hear it referred to. Nonetheless, a kiai is a sharp, loud, focused vocalization.

Regardless of what art or style one practices, the basic kiai involves tightening the diaphragm and forcing air out through the mouth, while using the throat as little as possible, unlike shouting. In karate, when teaching this to beginners, I tell them to imagine reaching up high for something, then picture someone coming by and slapping them in the stomach. The reflex is to tighten that area up; that's the basic reaction involved in generating kiai.

There are kiai in martial arts; this is where kiai are the most prevalent. In those arts, the kiai are said to:
  • make one "in the moment"
  • enable one to take a blow by tightening up the muscles
  • startle or demoralize the enemy
  • punctuating a form/indicating an important move
In taiko, I've heard the kiai used for:
  • exchanging energy with the performers and giving to the audience
  • expression
  • adding a vocal component to the music
There are other examples for both, but I feel what I've listed cover the large majority. For the most part, they don't really overlap, but there are similarities. Consider the taiko player that kiais in a song vs. the martial artist who's sparring. Sometimes they are acting by initiating a kiai/attack with kiai, because they feel it's a good point to do so. Sometimes they are reacting to a movement, such as another soloist's spin or an opponent's attack. In either case, it is a matter of intention.

This is where things get interesting. You can't kiai loudly without intention. Try it! ...wait, make sure you're not near people, or they'll think you've lost it. What I'm getting at here is no matter how relaxed or lethargic you make yourself, to kiai with any sort of technique, you have to engage your body, thereby producing a physical intention. When you tighten those muscles up, your body goes through stress. Pressures are generated and bloodflow increases. You can lie there like a rag doll, but once you kiai, you're exerting energy and for that time, you have intention - even if it's just intention to kiai!

So like in martial arts, to kiai brings the taiko player into the present - and when they are doing it in a focused direction and with all the energy of an ensemble, it becomes a dynamic, vital part of what taiko is all about.

Okay, that's a good overview of kiai, now for the juicy stuff.

Why do you say what you say when you kiai?


I'll bet, for 99% of people who kiai, it's because it's what they've heard before. Students have asked me "what do I kiai?" All I can say is "don't end with consonants."

In martial arts, the kiai tend towards things like "ei" and "oia". In (North American) taiko, they tend towards "yoh" and "sah". There's a new breed of taiko kiai emerging from the collegiate crowd, those like "su" and "say". So again, I ask, why?

I've heard stories about the "older" taiko groups from Japan, that they had to get used to what they were hearing from North American players. But where did the Japanese players get *their* kiai from? My guess is martial arts. Supporting that theory is that a lot of kiai from Japanese groups tend to sound like kiai I hear in karate.

I'm not one to judge what makes a kiai "right" or "wrong", but I can talk about what makes a kiai "good". I was going to get into the linguistics of different kiai, but it got way too long. Kiai need to be simple and the ending is what really gets projected. You can't kiai sounds like "yar" very loud, because the rrrrr is a limited-volume sound. Kiai like "yo" and "ho" have worked well because the y and h are "softer" and the o gets the bulk of projection. Kiai like "ei" and "oia" work because the mouth can be in any position at the time. The newer kiai, like "say" and "su" stike my ears as weird, though.

The "ss" sound tends to cut through when most people do that type of kiai, overshadowing the vowel sound, and I don't hear it as much of a kiai as a shout. Is that bad? No, but it's not what I would call a kiai. If we're going to define a kiai as I have several times in this post, then it's not a kiai, not really. And maybe that's why it sounds odd to me - people shouting at a taiko performance sounds weird, but people kiai-ing sounds normal.

Sometimes people are putting too much thought into what they're saying and not how they say it. A group full of screaming taiko players is powerful, to a degree, but a lone player kiai-ing with clarity and technique is even more amazing at times.

The effort one puts into a kiai is proportional to the effect. If you're focusing and using the right muscles, your body reacts and the listeners can hear your intention. If you're just shouting or holding back your energy, the difference is audible if not also visible.

There's a viewpoint that the quiet hits in taiko are just as vibrant as the loud ones; the only difference is the volume. Just like striking, kiai isn't about volume, it's about technique. If you understand what a kiai is and why you're doing it, you have options to choose what you say and when you say it. So-re!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Question Everything: Bachi


I'm going to try something out - I did a pretty long post on my "What is taiko?" topic where I posed several questions on the identity of taiko, the art, the drum, everything. In that same spirit, I'm going to start a series on my blog called "Question Everything".

I do this kind of questioning in my own group - which doesn't endear me to a lot of people, but I feel that taking things for granted leads to ignorance, less appreciation, and hampers growth. No one wants someone who's always playing Devil's Advocate, but it doesn't have to be that...ornery. Let me get into my first in this series and you'll see what I mean.

Bachi!

In taiko, we play with large drumsticks, called bachi. The average length is 17-18" inches, give or take. The average circumference is 1".

If you play taiko, take out your bachi. It's ok, I'll wait. Got them? Great. Now look at them and ask yourself, "why am I using these?" I'm serious, ask yourself that! No, not out loud, people will think you're losing it...oh no, too late! :)

Ok, kidding aside, I really want you to question why you use those bachi. Were they given to you? Did you buy them at Conference or somewhere else? Are they the right height? Weight? Density? What are they made of? ...are they the right bachi for you?

It's been a while since I first heard this idea, and no one can tell me who it came from, but the philosophy that made my taiko path sooooo much easier was this: your regular bachi should be the length of your elbow to your middle fingertip. I say "regular" to differentiate from say, Odaiko bachi. On me, that's actually too long, but I added an inch to what I was using and the results were remarkable. I could hit powerfully without using as much strength, and they looked right on me. I'm a tall guy; I was using short-people drumsticks!

Think about it - in a group of taiko players, someone six feet tall and someone five feet tall should not be using the same size bachi, right? I'd bet a majority of taiko players use the same size, however. That's insane!

I like that we can support the people who make bachi - all the ones I've seen are of good quality! But I'm a firm believer in making your own. Go to a lumber yard and look at the dowels/staves. Take a pair of bachi you like with you and see if they can match the wood for you. Have them cut it to pairs of different lengths. Sand them down yourself. Try them out! You may wind up with the same size and composition that you have now, but at least you'll know those are the right ones for you.

For me, I wound up with a pair of maple bachi, 19 inches long. I had been playing with bachi shorter than that for YEARS. The problem for me now are the bachi we use for shime and okedo; if we all have our own bachi for each drum, we'll need a backpack to wear while we play to carry them all! Still, at least I have my main pair that fit me. It's a good start.

Questioning the little things that you hardly think about can lead to some great insights! Answers may not always come easy or quickly, but the alternative is doing things simply because others do them or tell you to do them.

That's the first Question Everything post; I have a lot more in mind! If you have a subject you'd like me to tackle, let me know! I love this stuff.

Friday, August 21, 2009

McTaiko

So kumidaiko (group drumming) is pretty darned new as an art form. We're looking at about 60 years of history as of right now. And slowly but surely, taiko is creeping into the media and advertising.

*Omg no!!!!!!!!!!*

But wait, don't we want the art form to flourish, to be recognized as a serious musical form, to be enjoyed world-wide? How can we struggle so hard to gain more audience and at the same time, hide from them?

*Because we need to keep taiko true to its roots!*

We do? Really? Why? A tree has roots, but continues to grow - if it only grew close to its roots, it would be a shrub! Let's look at some art forms with similarities to taiko.

Jazz

I've heard taiko compared to jazz a few times, and I went to look up the history of jazz as an art form. While Wikipedia isn't the best source for things, here's a passage that echoes what I've heard in my own musical training:


"By the swing era, big bands were coming to rely more on arranged music: arrangements were either written or learned by ear and memorized – many early jazz performers could not read music. Individual soloists would improvise within these arrangements. Later, in bebop the focus shifted back towards small groups and minimal arrangements; the melody (known as the "head") would be stated briefly at the start and end of a piece but the core of the performance would be the series of improvisations in the middle."

Sounds a lot like taiko to me. Most taiko players can't read written notation, and many groups don't have the personnel for or purposefully choose to have a smaller group - or in larger groups, songs may only have a small number of players. Improvisations and solos are very common in taiko as well. The "swing era" is roughly around the mid-1930s, or about 80 years ago. That puts group taiko drumming roughly 20 years behind.

Flamenco

I don't want to just use one example though, and jazz is really more of a musical form more than a visual form, so what about a cultural art form that uses music and dance? I remember a chat I had a long time ago where someone compared taiko to flamenco dancing. So I looked up the history of flamenco and learned a lot.

Flamenco describes both the dance and the music (guitar, singing, clapping, etc.) The "Golden Age" of flamenco was roughly between 1780 and 1845...it's been around a while! However, between the end of that time and 1922, there was more and more focus on the dancing and less on the music and art as a whole. To many, it was in danger of becoming unbalanced and commercial, but it survived and now has a spot on the international stage.

Please excuse my brevity on the history of this art, but my point is that a cultural art form thrived for quite a while, got unfocused and unbalanced, and thanks to a few strong-willed practitioners, now has a well-deserved positive reputation.

Karate

I use karate because it too started as a Japanese art form, albeit it purely physical and not musical. I am so not going to go into the beginnings of karate, but I'll bring the important parts for this post around. In the 1930s, Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi adopted the belt ranking system that Judo founder Jigoro Kano created for his art. Funakoshi's way of making karate into an organizable, teachable system for schools made karate widely popular and accessible. This also led to its quick spread worldwide.

In the U.S., the popularity of the art led to countless numbers of schools started by those both with honest intentions and those with business intentions. Often a school was started by someone with questionable ability, but with good marketing skills, and whole chains of such schools could thrive while the original art was shaped and remade into something which only contained the thinnest veneer of its history. These schools are often referred to as "buy-a-belt" schools, where as long as you go through the minimum time and pay your fees, you'll eventually get a black belt.

With karate, you have lineages and organizations made to keep teachings uniform. It's almost ridiculous how many of them there are and how often they splinter, making it impossible to claim legitimacy. For years now, there has been a push made to make a similar style of taiko organization here in the U.S., with an officiating body that people can join and pay dues to. The amount of resistance to that push is unrelenting. And so, for better or worse (I say BETTER), we have around 300 varying groups in North America, from collegiate to community to faith-based to professional. Some form from out of nowhere, some are made of remnants (I mean that in a good way, trust me) from other groups. They all play for their own reasons and no one can tell them what or how to do things (unless that's what they're into!)

If you want a taiko performance where they scream constantly and sweat drips off their chiseled bodies, there's a group for that. If you want a taiko performance with both kids and grandparents, there's a group for that. If you want a taiko performance with electric guitar, there's a group for that. I say all that because as taiko evolves globally, there will be more and more groups that try and do more and more with taiko. Some may fail, some will thrive. Taiko is "out" of the collective bag, my friends!

*But they're using taiko in bad ways on TV!*

Yup. Sure, it depends on your definition of "bad" (see this post for my thoughts on "bad" taiko), but I admit I squirm when I see the Mitsubishi "Dragon Lady" commercial or the part on the movie Redbelt where masked taiko players walk around the ring playing portable okedo drums (really, why did that go in the script?). I think they're poorly thought-out ideas, but that's because people still don't know what taiko is all about.

Gotta tell this story...the worst thing I've seen with taiko to date was in a Billy Blanks movie which I will not name here. You remember Billy Blanks? He invented Tae Bo. Yes, now you hate him too. In this movie, before a "death match", there was a lone taiko player playing the "matsuri" base rhythm. For those who don't know matsuri, it's a festival piece - matsuri means festival in Japanese. It's a generally "happy" song, in whatever arrangement a group might put it in. Here, it was like hearing Disney's "It's a Small World" used before a Demolition Derby, without intentional irony. Ugh.

Ok, wrapping up.

- Taiko is not jazz, but it's got a lot of similarities. Jazz is commonplace and used *everywhere*. Some jazz musicians practice the classical forms and others invent new ones.

- Taiko is not flamenco, but like flamenco it is a cultural art that could possibly lose its perspective. However, in this day and age, that threat is more imagined than anything. Both taiko and flamenco are strong, passionate, vibrant arts, but flamenco has already gone through its growing pains and we can learn from that.

- Taiko is not karate, but both arts have countless numbers of variety and variations from one group to the next. Karate can be commercialized, watered-down, "pure", effective, and/or political, to name but a few. In many ways, taiko is already skipping down that same path, just without a ruling body to guide it, whether we like it or not.

There will always be taiko groups that are asked to do a commercial or movie or TV show. Sometimes they'll be asked to do ridiculous things, and some of them will accept - maybe for money, maybe for exposure. Many groups (mine included) tend to shy away from anything they don't feel does the group or the art of taiko justice. To me, I feel that the more we stay away from a potential audience because of fear, the more we go misunderstood and the cycle continues.

Taiko is an art form. It *will* be commercialized, poorly used, and misrepresented like others before and after it, but the more we fight to keep things under "control", the longer it will take to flourish. It's crazy to both want to expose new audiences to taiko and yet control which audiences they are. Roots support us but they should never choke us off.

Kenny Endo, one of the premier taiko players, has a great saying (which I will probably butcher because it's 2:30am), "When you play taiko, it may be the first time someone has ever seen taiko, and may be the last time someone will ever see taiko." It's up to us to make sure both of those experiences are the best they can be. I agree with that. I just think that instead of sticking more fingers in the dam of the inevitable, we need to get prepared for the onslaught and meet it on our terms.

Taiko is going to be truly out there, sooner or later, and I want to make sure that when it does, it's kicking some serious ass.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What do I do for drills? I'll show ya...


So I was reading the blog over here and there was a drill explaining how to feel and play a pattern in 2 over a pattern in 3. This is something I covered in my Rhythm workshop at conference, and have been a huge fan of ever since I was able to do it.

...so of course, I have to make it more difficult.

Let's get the basic drill out first for you taiko players:

There's a classic Christmas song called "Carol of the Bells". You can hear it here. At the 0:05 mark, the first line starts, "Hark how the bells" and the rhythmic theme continues. That's 2 over 3! On "Hark", you hit with both hands. On "how," hit with the right hand. On "the," hit with the left. On "bells,"hit with the right again. Repeat! So we have:

Hark how the bells
Both R...L...R

You're hitting 1 * 3 4 5 * (of a possible 6 notes.)

The pattern is in a meter of three, emphasized with the right hand. The left hand hits two times for every three of the right. Sounds complicated? Slow it down and try it out - it's really simple, all things considered.

Ok, now that you've mastered that, let's make it complicated!

Let's use two striking surfaces. On taiko, you have the head (don) and the rim (ka). With those colors indicating where to hit, try this:

Both R L R Both R L R (notice, on the 2nd "both" you're hitting don and ka simultaneously)

That's fun but once you get the flow, it's not all that hard. So today I made it hard. Why? I don't know, my brain likes to do that to me sometimes. And yes, it's hard for me to do, too! So let's add a THIRD surface!

Can't really do this with one drum, so I recommend 3 drums or three drum pads/pillows/whatever. This will not be an easy drill to do because you'll be having to dodge your own bachi - but it's still fun to try!

Both R L R Both R L R Both R L R

This is fun to do, but you HAVE to do it slowly and I recommend paying more attention to the left hand doing the 2. Try switching which hand plays 3, and try switching which direction you go in.

People ask me what *I* do for drills, and here's an insight into how my brain works to challenge me further. If you suffer any brain damage trying this, I take no responsibility. :)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Conference is over, now what?


So, the North American Taiko Conference is once again, over. Time to reflect!

This year's was the best run, in my opinion. Issues always pop up, but we as participants hardly saw the chaos that runs underneath. I likened it to ducks - graceful on the water, but the feet are paddling like mad underneath.

I had my two workshops, and enjoyed them greatly. I made the mistake of trying to do too much during the first one, about rhythms, instead of looking at my remaining time and taking out the superfluous material. Ah well, live and learn.

I'm already thinking ahead to 2011, with two new workshop ideas - one on body percussion, which I've taken workshops in, and the other on playing multiple drums. I'd like to continue the wrists series however, which will be in its sixth incarnation next time.

One thing I enjoy is seeing so many people really enjoying the taiko and the experiences at the Conference. After playing for so long (16 years!) I recognize my own bouts with being jaded or cynical about taiko, but it's seeing people overjoyed at all the many things to take in that recharge me. And that's odd for me, being someone that's not a social person overall. PJ likes to say, "don't play to impress, play to inspire."

My Highlights of the Conference:
  • Finally learning the names of some of the people I see all the time!
  • Watching Yuta and Shohei trying to interpret and act out how Oguchi-sensei used to act.
  • Bryan Yamami as MC of Taiko Jam, especially the Kris Bergstom impersonation.
  • Rev. Mas Kodani's speech about ego and taiko!
There are other things I'll remember and enjoy, but those stick out.

So it's back onto my usual postings and musings; I don't plan out posts so who knows what will show up on here. There are a ton of topics to cover! Just throwing a few out there...burnout, personality conflicts, composing, pushing oneself, things I wish I knew about taiko when I first started, race and taiko, etc. Where to start?

I know I don't get a lot of comments from my readers (or a lot of readers, lol.) But if people have questions or ideas for topics, I'll take a stab at them! ...er, the topics, not a stab at the readers. ;)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Preparations

In two days I'll be leaving for Los Angeles for the 7th Semi-Annual North American Taiko Conference!

This year, I'm teaching two workshops, one on wrist technique/chops and another on rhythms/syncopation. I've been preparing for them intensively for the past week, and feel like I'm going to be able to deliver a really strong presentation.

There was a time, whether in teaching a new song I was writing or a drill, I wouldn't prepare all that much. I would think about what material I had to get across, but didn't take the time to talk it out as if I was actually teaching it. It usually led to less-than-optimal satisfaction as I was forced to think one step ahead of where I was teaching at the time.

Two things changed how I approach teaching now. The first was college and the second was karate.

One of my favorite classes in college was Communication and Culture. The professor focused on how literature can teach others about a culture, from poetry to fiction to interviews. He was personally very involved with performance and required at least one monologue from *something* as part of his curriculum. I wound up really taking to that and in memorizing 10-to-15-minute monologues, I was forced to write up a script and verbalizing it out loud many, many times. Once, during my senior project/monologue, I had a brain fart, but because I had acted the part through so many times, my body knew what came next and the words caught on from there.

I also learned, from my Argumentation and Debate class, that interrupting someone's rhythm can be catastrophic. In practicing how and what I want to get across, there are few interruptions and I can pick up from where I left off or start over. In the performance of it, that luxury is often gone. People will ask questions and if you're not prepared to answer AND then continue with confidence, they will pick up on that. I've seen great debaters stumble over themselves after simply being asked for clarification on a point. I've seen teachers who have a great concept get really shaken up when asked to explain something they hadn't thought about first.

In karate, when I hit my first black belt, I started to run the belt tests. All that's required of the test leader is to facilitate a good test: know the material, call it out clearly. I had to know who did what and when and do it with confidence - forgetting the material or saying it meekly made for a less-than-optimal test for the students. Repetition out loud over and over and over was the only way to get it right.

Nowadays, I like over-preparing. It's extra work that pays off. The more I do it overall, the less time I need to prepare the next time. The more I go over things, the more I find to improve upon. The more I know what I'm trying to teach inside and out, the easier it is to answer questions and get back into stride.

I know not everyone reading this has the occasion to teach their art, but for those who do/will, take preparation into consideration. For those that perform/do forms of some sort, think about your own preparation...can you do your song/solo/form so well that you can mess up and still come back to where you should have been without extra pause? If not, why not?

The more you can teach a thing, the more you know a thing.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cross-training

This morning my gf and I were talking about taiko (surprise!) and she said she noticed that I think quickly when I play. I do feel able to pull up patterns that I want to try at will and make decisions on the "in the moment", true. We continued talking about what strengths she has and how our brains are wired.

We both have backgrounds in physical arts - hers in dance, mine in martial arts. For years I've been saying that doing karate on non-taiko nights keeps me "sane" and/or "balanced" so that I'm not only doing taiko and getting burnt-out or bored. However, I've never really looked into that with any sort of deep scrutiny or analysis.

From public workshops, attending national conferences, and bumping into players on tour, I would say that about two-thirds of the people that I've met who start playing taiko have some sort of physical or musical background. However, very few keep doing the "other" thing once they start taiko. That's a shame, but it's also understandable.

The background one brings into playing taiko is priceless. Martial artists and dancers tend to learn body and movement aspects quicker, musicians tend to get rhythm and musical aspects quickly. It will depend on the group and their focus, but with SJT, the former tend to see the benefits sooner, and the latter will see them later on.

The audience doesn't tend to know each member's background, but as I watch our group, I can see a person's background in their playing. The dancers prefer to move and know how to use their bodies to express themselves. They tend to use all the space in their available sphere and radiate energy outwards like a bomb. Martial artists tend to show purpose in their movements, generating ki with ease and able to project that ki with either motion or expression like a laser. Musicians bring their ear and hands into the mix, infusing a solo with their voice. Percussionists are able to strike with extra ease and precision, but musical non-percussionists tend to hear the ensemble on a level that many people struggle to do.

I can only speak with authority on my own cross-training, karate and taiko. There is a strong foundation of physical conditioning to lay my taiko training on - deep stances and muscle memory, intention in striking/hitting a target, and something I just realized today, sparring!

The "mental quickness" that got brought up this morning is something I've taken for granted, but it's directly helped by sparring. We don't go full-contact at my dojo, but I've taken a fair share of painful blows nonetheless. Still, the ability to be 100% present in the moment, to be thinking "where are they open? where am I open? do I want to strike now? do they want me to strike now? do I want them to strike now? where are they trying to position me?" one second and then to either simply *act* or *react* the next is what gives me that same presence of mind when I'm soloing in taiko.

But...here's where it changes from merely recognizing a strength I have to a puzzle: how can I teach that skill to non-martial artists who play taiko? Can it be taught? To what degree? How did non-martial artists who have that skill get it?

So this post is a two-parter; a questioning of what one can do in cross-training that directly benefits one's playing, and a question of how to teach those benefits to those who don't cross-train in that same manner. As I gear up for the 2009 North American Taiko Conference next week, I may be able to implement some ideas in one of my workshops, but I have a feeling that it'll be a long-term pondering to figure out these new questions. I welcome the challenge.

For those that do cross-train, what do you do and how does it help you?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

San Jose Obon


Well that was a kick-ass fun weekend!

I'm not the best to give background and history of Obon festivals, but for those who don't know, the Obon festival is both for celebration and remembrance of loved ones. It's usually full of food, wares/games, music, dancing, and (hopefully) taiko!

The friday night before, we had a big potluck with about 60 college taiko players (plus some non-collegiate). In talking to my L.A. counterparts, it hit me that San Jose Obon is probably the largest in North America, if not the entire American continent (dunno what they're doing down south!)

SoCal is saturated with taiko groups and smaller Obons, so there's not a singular large one to be held. Even up here in NorCal, they've spread the Obon out so people can visit a new one each weekend - but the size of San Jose's is still stunning. We had 1200 dancers for the odori dancing on Saturday, and 700 on Sunday. That's 1200 dancers, not to mention all the onlookers and fans. I'd say we were easily close to 1500 if you included everyone else...yow!

We've been inviting college taiko groups to play both Saturday and Sunday before our sets, and since many of them don't have a practice space or a lot of drums to play on, it's great to watch them "cut loose" on our home turf, with our drums.

There's also something about performing at SJ Obon - it's one of the few festivals that we play on street-level, instead of being on a stage. A stage is great for various reasons (hot asphalt, easier to see, etc.) but being in the middle of so many fans and playing with the full ensemble is something we only get to do once a year.

My newest song - Commotion - which debuted in May, was in monster-mode on Saturday! We took it from the regular size of 7 people to all 18 of us, which made it look but huge and awesome. I don't mean my song is awesome (although I'm biased and it is), but having so many people playing taiko at once is an awesome experience!

A lot of people only get to see us at a concert, on stage, with lighting and a much broader range of pieces. A lot of people only get to see us at a festival, with the "4th wall" gone, all the songs full of energy and a more casual atmosphere. I was asked what the difference to me is between a festival like Obon and a concert, and I had to admit that while neither one is "better", there's nothing quite as much fun as playing for an Obon crowd...