Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Dao of Taiko, by Bruce Lee

"An artist's expression is his soul made apparent, his schooling, as well as his "cool" being exhibited. Behind every motion, the music of his soul is made visible. Otherwise, his motion is empty and empty motion is like an empty word - no meaning."

"Knowledge is fixed in time, whereas, knowing is continual. Knowledge comes from a source, for an accumulation, from a conclusion, while knowing is a movement."

"Effort within the mind further limits the mind, because effort implies struggle towards a goal and when you have a goal, a purpose, an end in view, you have placed a limity on the mind."

Types of speed:
  1. Perceptual speed. Quickness of eye [...]
  2. Mental speed. Quickness of mind to select the right move [...]
  3. Initiation speed. Economical starting from the right posture and with the correct mental attitude.
  4. Performance speed. Quickness of movement in carrying the chosen move into effect. Involves actual muscle speed.
  5. Alteration speed. The ability to change direction midstream. Involves control of balance and inertia.
"Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick was just a kick. After I'd studied the arts, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick was no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch, a kick is just a kick."

(All quotes) Lee, Bruce. (1975). The Dao of Jeet Kune Do. Santa Clarita, CA: Ohara Publications Ltd.


Bruce Lee did not write a book on taiko, but some of his observations apply to art and/or athletics just as much as martial arts.

The only quote here that relates specifically to martial arts is the last quote, but it's my favorite. As beginners to taiko, we focus mostly on making a good sound, a simple yet strong *hit*. As we train, we start worrying about how we look in accordance with fellow players, maintaining good form while tired, moving about and keeping sharp lines, etc. etc. The once-simple hit is now chock-full of a whole host of considerations. But then, for many of us, there's a breakthrough and the *hit* becomes just that, an automatic reflex that makes a good sound regardless of the other factors.

Good sounds!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Taiko master

It just hit martial arts, we issue belts that indicate a student's level of proficiency. Reaching black belt is supposed to symbolize one's mastery of the basics in a given style, and that the student is now ready to learn the *real* techniques.

In taiko, there are no belts to symbolize one's level of proficiency. A player who's played 20 years with a community group may be less skilled than one who's played two years with a professional group. One player who's not as good with technical skills/chops as you may far surpass you in fludity of motion or ki generation. It's very relative.

Some taiko groups adopt the term sensei and/or the sempai-kohei (senior-junior) relationship, but there are few taiko players that people call "master" or "grandmaster". For the most part, that makes sense - how many of us can say we've mastered taiko?

I get frustrated by two things in this regard, however:
  • Leaders of a group who feel that position = skill, and while they may not say it, act as if they have a mastery of taiko because of it.
  • Those who feel they have little left to learn because they are skilled in one or more areas of taiko.
With the former, it often spreads to the students and sometimes I feel like I'm talking to a cultist when I encounter them. When a sensei becomes the Truth when it comes to taiko, you're in a cult. No one martial art is The Way, no one musical tradition is The Sound, and no one taiko style is The Art. To even want one correct "Truth" is scary! To not question one's teaching is to effectively lobotomize one's development.

With the latter, it's sad to see those in martial arts who've gotten their black belt and sort of...stop. It's a cliche to say "the black belt is only the beginning", but it's also common to have people reach that level and then stop pushing themselves. And in taiko, it happens without a black belt, but I see it time to time. It's not like every taiko player should push themselves all the time, and in some community groups, it's a lower priority. But even in those community groups, I meet countless numbers of players who want to learn more, see more, do more! There are endless ways to grow as a taiko player - musically, physically, emotionally, as a teacher, as a leader, etc.

Personally, I can't imagine ever wanting to "get there", whether it's taiko or karate. The path is more important to me at this point than the destination! To me, to stop learning is anathema. I crave new experiences in order to grow.

I may not be the easiest student to deal with, but that's my issue. :)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Living in the present

In SJT, we play a song called "Gendai ni Ikiru", or "Living in the Present". This is not a post about that song. lol.

Tonight during karate practice, I corrected a beginning student who had missed a block during a drill. The drill is simple; the attacker steps forward on count to attack a pre-determined target. The defender is usually told which block to use. This particular student had "missed" blocking the punch and was "re-doing" the block to set it up correctly. That was pretty futile - I told him to not worry about messing up just then and make the next one better.

Taiko, being a musical form, doesn't have "takebacks". You can't go back and fix something once the song is going without stopping the entire song and restarting from an earlier point - just like you can't kick at someone's head, miss, and tell them "hey, let me try that again". :)

In taiko, like most music, we have to play in the moment. Especially during improvisation, we have to create on the spot while thinking ahead about where we want our feet to be, our arms, what patterns come next, etc. And this is where that darned fear creeps in, as in my last post. It can inhibit us.

I don't want to get hit during a drill, even though I know that when I do it's pretty safe and I'm at most going to get a little bit of ouch. But that ouch is a great incentive to do it right the next time! If I mess up a improv solo, well I better recover quick and at least end strong! Next time, I'll be sure not to mess up - either I won't do what messed me up or I'll figure it out before the next time I play it.

Over the years, I've heard from multiple players about how a certain solo didn't work or how they lost the downbeat or they couldn't execute their new move, etc. (happens to me too!) Unfortunately, some dwell on this, and the reality is that it's over by then. All that hindsight should be used for is to make the next time better.

To dwell on failure is to invite fear. Look back only with intention of learning and *make* the next time better!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Failure *is* an option.

Sometimes, failure is a good thing. Why?

Not all taiko players perform for an audience, but we all still perform. We practice, we sweat, we learn, we try - but like many other artists, we don't always succeed every time. No one likes to get up there and play taiko and mess up, especially with people watching. So in turn, we practice to make sure that doesn't happen (or at least to minimize it happening).

Failing something sucks. It means you've tried something and it didn't work out. It can often make the next time even harder, because you remember the pain of the first failure. And when that happens, it gets worse and worse, heaping more and more negative stimulus on top of whatever the activity was you failed at to begin with. It could be learning a new move, improvising during a solo, or teaching a song to new people, among other things.

I'm not known for my optimism, but I believe in turning the negative around and making it work for me. If I flub a solo, I have the choice to beat myself up for it, or I can learn from it and make it better the next time. I hate messing up during a solo, but it will happen here and there unless I perform the same prescribed sequence over and over - but even then, mistakes will happen!

My philosophy when coming up against failure is very martial. It's like, "oh hell no!" goes off in my head and I'm too stubborn to give up. I may not always break through, or it may not happen quickly, but the satisfaction from achieving growth is the ultimate payoff.

I'd like to talk about different types of failure:

  • Playing "to failure"
There's something rewarding about playing taiko until one is exhausted. Making the music that drives you to play more music possesses a euphoric quality. And none of us would say that we're in "enough" shape to play the taiko we do - more is better! So whether it's playing the last song of a two-hour concert with every remaining ounce of energy or just holding long and strong through a painful drill, there's serious satisfaction in making it through.

Sometimes the best way to know yourself is when you're at your weakest. What will you do when you're playing in an ensemble and your body fails you? Will your spirit go with it? How long can you push your ki, your spirit, before you reach your limit? And without pushing yourself that way, how can you ever build that "muscle" up?

In my dojo, it's frustrating to see a lot of advanced belts just "go through the motions". They work out but they don't have the emotional intensity in their techniques. When a belt test comes around, once they get tired, their techniques suffer greatly because they haven't had to really suck it up and PUSH. This is directly comparable to taiko practice vs. a taiko performance in my opinion.

If I'm in a performance and feel fatigue or feel like I'm getting tired, I imagine myself at the dojo, at a test. I refuse to show the audience a "sign of weakness" - I can die *after* the show! Better to fail while trying than to avoid trying in fear of possibly failing.

  • Failing during a solo
Learning how to do an improvised solo during a song is no small feat. For San Jose Taiko, I'd say 95% of our songs have them. Being able to keep with the song's tempo during a solo is a skill, just like adding movement or keeping the mood of the song in your patterns. Whether it's someone new to taiko learning to solo in a song or someone experienced trying new patterns, failure happens.

What I hate to see happen is people so afraid to fail that they don't come out of their comfort box. There's no one method to teach people how to create a new solo, but a lot of people limit themselves in what they try to do. Where there's comfort, there's rarely growth.

Granted, in a performance, you don't necessarily want to be experimenting! That's a bit irresponsible to the group. But I've seen a lot of practices (and I'm not just talking about with SJT) where people almost feel pressured to play every solo at 100%. And it's hard to try something without worrying at all; that's human nature. But to just say to yourself, "I'm not going to play what I normally do" is a huge leap for most of us.

I'm not saying I'm always able to play brand-new content every time I solo! There are patterns that I like to start with, insert, and/or end with that keep things stable for both me and the rest of the ensemble. And there are practices when I just want to make sure I can pull off an error-free solo.

Forcing myself to play a different opening, move around more (or less), play with dynamics more, etc., almost invites failure. Not necessarily total failure, but hiccups and a little uncertainty perhaps. The first times are going to be the hardest, but it's a creative muscle that must be exercised in order to make it stronger!

  • Failure in trying new things
Many of us come to taiko with a background in something else. Music, martial arts, dance, moose wrestling, whatever. Even if that's not the case, we all started taiko being, well...pretty awful. :) Taiko has the physical, the musical, the energy, movement, ensemble work, and often improvisation. How many of us were able to juggle all of that naturally? Not me or anyone I know...I'm still thinking; I'll let you know if I figure someone out!

There are groups out there that think of themselves as more..."purist". And this part doesn't apply to them as much. But for the rest of us, I see a lot of reluctance to incorporate other arts or musical styles into their personal repertoire. There's a feeling of "looking stupid" that isn't always said outright, but I can see it in the body language. Again, I'm not just talking about SJT; I've seen this in people both new to taiko and those who've been doing it for a while. Funny thing is, those who have been doing it the longest are the least concerned about how they look!

Maybe it's because ensemble taiko is a newer art form and the other arts/musics are more established that people feel less inclined to try incorporating them? There are fewer people who make taiko look easy than those who do ballet or jazz, right? Nonsense. I'd bet if you talked to a dancer or non-taiko musician, they'd say the same thing about taiko. And many other artists *are* using taiko in their works, for better or worse.

I first heard this quote about Obon dancing from Rev. Masao Kodani with Kinnara Taiko : "You're a fool if you dance; you're a fool if you don't dance. So if you're going to be a fool anyways, why not dance?" Why not indeed? Why not try that bellydancing workshop? Maybe you'll find a new understanding of your center (hara) and understand your posture better. Why not listen to music you've never heard before? Maybe you'll pick up a new solo pattern or get inspired to write a new piece? Why not try?

Don't focus on the outcome so much - that leads to worrying about failure. Why not just try sometimes and reflect afterwards? When failure happens, then you can reflect on it, learn from it. Would you rather be the one afraid to try because of "what if" or the one who grows despite the scrapes and falls? Show me a world-class artist who didn't struggle through failure to get where they are now!

Failure isn't inherently bad. Fear of failure is.

Monday, March 9, 2009


This is why you don't leave me alone with crayons at a restaurant...

Click on it for the full-sized experience!

Snow wonder we're tired!

Yes, I know, bad pun. Pfft. :P But we did wake up to a beautiful snowfall.

First off, everyone was able to be up and about this morning. Yay!

There were two scheduled school shows, each an hour long, each estimated at 500 kids. When showtime came for the first show, we had...four kids in the audience. So we went back in the green room and ate bagels while working out options. We did get one busload of kids in, 15 minutes later, but it looked like most schools weren't sending their students out in the heavy snow + bad traffic.

Once again, proving how flexible we can be under pressure, we changed the set from 50 minutes to 30 minutes (plus a Q&A). The second show we started on time, even with light attendance. We wound up with about 60 kids first show, about 80 the second. Too bad, but the kids got a more personal touch I think. If we didn't get any buses in, we would have worked with those first four kids and done something with them to make their trip over here worthwhile!

The stage crew was nice enough to work through their scheduled lunch hour, so we got to pack up right away. We were tired - especially the two recovering members - but there's a lot of good food around Dartmouth, and good food is what keeps a taiko player going!

There was a wonderful chocolatier here who went to the show and was a big fan. I think almost all of us went to her shop and bought something. She offered free samples of everything and free hot chocolate - which makes it a shame that I don't really like chocolate all that much. But that's my problem. :)

Tomorrow we fly back to San Jose and end the first round of Winter tour '09. I'll probably not be able to blog right away when I get back, and I don't plan to blog anywhere near this consistent when I'm not on tour. However, I do have some ideas about taiko and creativity and art and what-not that I'll post from time to time. I'd love comments as people read posts, and I'll be adding more to the site once I'm on my desktop. Thanks for following along!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

I had to say "easy tour"...

Last night around 1am, I realized, "hey wow, it's really 2am" because of Daylight Savings Time. I figured I needed to get some sleep since I wanted to get some eats before the theater call. Just as I was about to get the lights off and get to bed, my roomie sat up (had been in bed for about over an hour), exclaimed they were feeling really bad, and ran off into the bathroom to "hug the toilet" as it's been phrased. I decided to go pick up some supplies from the local pharmacy, so I walked a couple of blocks in the rain to grab some Pepto and Gatorade.

In the morning, I went out for breakfast and got a call - another member caught a stomach bug and is in much worse shape. So bad, in fact, that they can't perform the 2:00 show. And it's now 11:00. Oy! So we all met up and re-work the set. A 7-person show can be done, but there's hardly any time to practice; we couldn't do any playing until 1:30. Yipes!

Well, we pulled it off! My roomie was a trooper and played through the entire set, then we sent them back to rest up. No food + strained system + concert = wiped. I had to play a lot more than normal, but the parts I were covering were parts I've played quite often in the past. Others had a lot more cardio on their plate. But we did it, last minute, and delivered a strong performance to a sold-out show. Hoo-rah!

After the concert, I got to see my cousin's wife (whom I'm now referring to as my cousin, lol). I was answering questions from other fans but got to spend some time chatting with her in the house after everyone had left. She underestimated the time it took to get to Hanover and only caught the 2nd half, but really enjoyed it. She bought our DVD and will spread the joy to those who couldn't make it. Thanks Bridge!

An hour after the show, we had a workshop for 20 people - students and fans alike. We crammed in Renshu (the basic taiko song that most groups learn a version of) for them after some fundamentals training. That was pretty darned tiring, but it was still fun. By the time we finished with that and got out to eat, the 6 of us were drained and fading. We did bump into/sit next to a couple who went to the workshop, though; they were pleasantly surprised!

So tomorrow is a duo of school shows with kids bussing into the theater. We've got an 8am call there, but that marks the end of tour. After that is packing everything up, returning the Budget truck, and...there's a place called King Aurthur Flour Bakery nearby-ish that people want to visit. I hear they have yummy things. But no wings. :P

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Last stop - but a good one!

We had a short drive today from Keene, NH to Hanover, NH. We're playing at the on Dartmouth campus at the Moore Theater, Hopkins Center, a 500-seat hall. It's a nice hall, plenty of space as performers and intimate enough for the audience. We've heard it's just about sold out, as well! Another bonus: the hotel is a 3-minute walk from the theater!

I'm hoping to meet one of my relatives tomorrow night. She's the wife of a cousin who can't make it out here, and she's never seen taiko before! I'll be happy to give her an awesome performance to remember! We were trying to coordinate a bite to eat before or after the show, but she'd have to be here at 10:30 and wait around for the 2:00 show, then leave at 4:00, not to mention the 2-hour drive one-way. Darn!

We had a late tech in, leaving the theater at 10pm. And with Daylight Savings Time, we lose an hour - but we're still able to get some decent sleep and have time for good eats before the noon call time. Although, some members are getting up early to go eat at a place called Lou's - but getting up extra early after already losing an hour for good breakfast fare?

Last concert until the Chico trip early April! I want to finish strong and so far it's been a good few gigs for me. Not playing a lot of my normal parts in this tour; that makes it easier to do some different things instead of always being on automatic or playing the same, "safe" stuff. I'll write more about playing "safe" later when I get back home.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Busy day!

Today we had 3 events: A school show for about 300 kids, a workshop with said kids right after, and a concert.

We weren't sure what to expect with the school show - we heard it was ages Kindergarten through Middle Schoolers, with some Home Schoolers thrown in. Turns out many of the kids were music students and were good at focusing, which made our show a lot of fun (we got to focus on sharing the love for taiko instead of crowd control.)

The workshop after consisted of 24 kids on stage with the remaining 150-ish watching/following along in their seats. You can see the volunteer bachi (drumsticks) waiting for us to hand them out to the participants. It was a 45-minute workshop and went pretty fast.

The concert was a lot of fun - both in being able to play a full show after so long, and from the energy of the audience! I felt comfortable in my performance personally, and the group made a pretty strong showing as well. Before the show, Franco and I gave each other something to add to our final song's (Oedo Bayashi) solos. I told him he had to face away from the audience/other side of the "pod", and he told me I had to kiai once big and loud. We both pulled our "additions" well. I think it could lead to a creative drill and help all of us push our solos somewhat; not just the tour team, either!

Several members of Odaiko New England came about 2 hours to watch our show, and then hung out with us for dinner at a local brewery. Meg got to see some of her former clan; but I don't think she misses the cold!

We're off to Dartmouth tomorrow - short drive but in potentially in the theater until 10pm. I should go to sleep but I'm going to be tired if I sleep now or in an hour, and I'm wide far!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Oh no, snow?

Today was an all-day theater load-in/tech-in. We got the drums out of the truck and into the theater, got the lights set up, did the queue-to-queue (moving drums throughout the set) for both concert and school show.

As we were getting ready to leave for the night, we heard from the theater crew that there might be a storm coming in during the night that could lead to a "snow day" tomorrow. That would cancel the school show and the workshop afterwards! Sad if it happens. Fingers crossed!

Half the crew went to a salad place for lunch, the other for burritos. The burrito place claims to have armadillo on Fridays...I may just have to go back and see! Also, I hear the candy/snack store just outside the theater has weird flavors - shrimp cocktail chips? I have to see this...

Oh, the pic? Back from Indiana in the hotel. I figure I might as well get either husband in trouble. :)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Keene Buffalo Wings

We're now in Keene, NH. The temp is a nice 21 degrees and supposed to get warmer.

No epiphanies or thought-provoking questions today; was just an easy day with a really nice meal at a local pub. Lots of local beers - but since I don't drink, it wasn't all that interesting to me. The buffalo wings were rather nice, though! For those who don't know, I am a buffalo wing connoisseur - not quite a snob, and I do like them with heat. But more on that another time - probably many other times?

Tonight after dinner I caught an episode of Man vs. Food on the Travel channel. They were doing it from San Jose! It's a good thing I was full when I saw it; but I know where I'm going when I get back home!

Tomorrow we're in the theater all day. Back to taiko, sort of/mostly! No performances until Friday...

Oh btw, the those are onion rings in the other basket. Niiiice.

Albino in Albany

Couldn't post last night; the connection was intermittent.

We drove 7.5 hours yesterday to get to Albany, NY. Lots of ice and snow along the roads but the weather was clear the entire way. It's about...17 or 18 degrees here; not too bad.

The first room we checked into had no heat! The first room we had on this tour leaked; now the last one had no heat...I'm guessing the next room will be on fire or something.

It hit me last night why this tour feels "weird" to me. I've hardly played any taiko! I've been on several tours where the day after arriving we're loading in, playing a concert, followed by school shows in the morning - then drive to a new place, load in, and a concert the next afternoon. This one is very much more subdued, but that's ok; it keeps things varied.

We have a noon check out today (yay!) and finish the drive to Keene, NH tonight.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Lazy day in Cleveland...

So today the second team drove up here to meet my half. My team had the day off, but there's really not that much to do here and a bit too cold to go out and about. I pretty much haven't left my room; been surfin' and emailin' and video gamin' and movie watchin'.

Been doing a lot of composing in my head; the Annual Concert is in the Fall and I was originally planning to write a new composition for it. I had an slung-okedo piece with percussion originally, then also thought of a complicated, burning-chops piece with 3-4 people, but nothing got me really inspired. So my thoughts turned to re-arranging existing songs of ours.

How do you take a song that a regular audience is familiar with, and make it different without losing what makes that song special? That's the question. It makes you look at a song from the audience's point of view, which is a viewpoint I think many taiko people forget to look from or underestimate quite a bit.

I've been thinking about one or two songs in particular, which I'll talk more about in upcoming posts. Re-arranging a song makes me think about all the possibilities:
  • Instrumentation - how does the song work if all the slant drums are down, or on upstands, or on slung okedo (portable drums)? What if you only used half the drums to make a mini-version of it?
  • Personnel - what if you only had half the number of players? Can people play one pattern layered over another?
  • Music - what if you made a straight song swung? Or if the tempo were drastically faster/slower? Add an Odaiko? Add metal percussion? Voice/kakegoe?
  • Theme - what if you made a upbeat song into a driving one? Or turned a serious song into a playful one? And then how would you do that?
This sort of thought process not only makes you get to know a song better, it opens you up to composing something new alltogether. I highly recommend dissecting songs this way even if just as an intellectual exercise on long car trips. :)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Snakes and snow

Today was a more relaxed day but not a light one. The group split into two teams; my team drove 4.5 hours to Cleveland OH. We did a 3-hour workshop with both Icho Daiko and Oberlin College Taiko groups. We gave them a crash course in Ei Ja Nai Ka, teaching the taiko pattern, the dance, and the kakegoe (vocal accompaniment). It was a ton of information for them to absorb in a short time, but no one died. :)

We watched each of their groups play a song, then we played Gendai ni Ikiru for them. Because it was on a smooth tile floor and I had sneakers on, my solo was trickier than normal. I didn't mess up, but since one section I do involves a lot of jumping/turning, I couldn't risk it and wound up doing a new move that I really liked! I'm going to keep it. Funny how new ideas work out from something that started out as a limitation...

We wound up having a potluck-style dinner with members of both taiko groups. I don't usually get to interact so much with other taiko players on tour; partially because I don't strike up conversations well and mostly because on tour we don't get a lot of time to hang with other groups. I admit I really enjoy answering questions from newer taiko people - whether it's about SJT's repetoire or how to approach drills in new ways, I feel like I have the ability to inspire people with the information I wish I had back then! I don't feel like I have all the answers; I ask more questions of myself now than I ever did, but if I can help one person to "get it" on a topic or think of something in a new way, then I've accomplished something.

We're spending the next two nights at Icho Daiko's leader Nozomi Ikuta's (and her husband's) house. They have a pooch and a ball python - it liked PJ, as you can see in the picture. :)

Day off tomorrow but it's cold and snowing now! Eep!