Friday, May 29, 2009

Karate and taiko, pt. 1

Tonight near the end of karate practice, someone had asked if a sequence of movements should either be done with "technique" or "speed" in mind. Focusing on technique can mean sacrificing flow, but focusing on speed can mean dropping fundamentals. The discussion involved a few of the brown and black belts. After class, walking to the parking lot with one of the brown belts, we were talking about it some more and I found myself explaining that it has a lot to do with intention.

At a certain level, the kata/forms we learn need to be more than just pretty motions. What are we training our body to do by doing this motion, or that one? What's the idea behind moving the arms this way? Why does that form make us move the legs in that fashion?

At the higher levels, we're expected to start thinking more and more behind the reasons and not just take what we're taught at face value. Some people don't really choose to go into depth, which is a shame - it shows in their forms. They become carbon-copies of what they were taught, with only a flimsy veneer of understanding.

To those who have started to put thought into the "why" of moves, it doesn't always guarantee that they're doing something that might actually work, but it's the first step. They can put intention into the motions because they have the visuals in their head. At this level, there may be some questionable definitions, but there's a huge improvement from the last example.

Finally, there's the place some people reach when they've not only taken the time to think about the purpose of the movements, but also both how they work (or don't work) with their own bodies and have actually tried them out to make sure they're effective in practice. They still have to move within the rules of the style, but the style is now more a guidebook than a rigid cast.

So, my faithful taiko player-readers, where are you in these examples? Are you discovering that you take what you're told at face value, just hoping to look competent because there's just SO much information to process? Maybe you're at the point where simple mimicry doesn't suit you anymore and you need to find out what makes your technique feel good? Or are you realizing that your group is but one path on the way to discover how to utilize your body as a performer?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Watching or feeling?

I'm lucky to have an entire wall covered in mirrors at both taiko and karate. But is that a really a good thing?

I wonder how often people watch themselves instead of *put* themselves into their technique. If you can't watch yourself in a mirror, you have to go on feel. And in watching yourself, it's easy to hold back somewhat in order to to see everything going on. I've visited other taiko groups that don't have mirrors, and that's unfortunate too. To rely on mirrors is bad, but so is not having the option to use them!

When we're near a concert, we turn ourselves to face the other way so that we can't rely on using the mirrors. It makes me wonder, what if we prepped for an entire show without using them? What if all we had was our own body awareness and feedback from others? I'm sure it would be frustrating, but only because we've used mirrors for so long.

In karate, I see people looking at themselves doing techniques, to the point of turning their head sideways when they should be focusing in the direction they're going. It's a bad habit. I also have a strong hunch that some people move slower than they could/should because they're "studying" their technique.

I also wonder if truly letting yourself go is disturbing to watch sometimes. To fully put yourself out there, to exert, to possibly not move "pretty", to see flaws, to see the "truth" in the mirror before you - is that easy to face? Or do some people subconsciously hold back in order to avoid seeing that?

There's something in knowing how a technique looks and when you're not doing it right, but does it come at the cost of knowing how it should feel?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Do simple things well.

My friend Jonathan Kirby from Kagemusha Taiko in Exeter (UK) said he really believes in "doing simple things well." I've really come to believe that myselfl.

Mind you, I love going off on a highly syncopated, extremely rapid improvised riff here and there, but where I really feel "doing simple things well"has the most impact is in learning and teaching.

I see this in both taiko and karate - students want to do more, learn more, try more. That's not really a bad thing unless the foundations are missing. In karate, a lot of students want to spar well before they have the tools to effectively do so. They don't realize that we're teaching them the basic skills of distancing, timing, positioning, and reaction in partner drills, and they often don't see the connection. When they actually get to spar, they forget half of what we've taught them; they run away from the attack, they flail at the attack in an awkward attempt to parry it, and they throw attacks without any thought to targeting or distance. It's not simple and it's far from well! We almost have to wind up re-teaching them how to apply their previous lessons.

With taiko, sometimes I see players who want the newest and most "fun" thing. I can't say that's inherently bad - many taiko players are just in it for the fun of playing, after all. But for a lot of players, I don't think they realize that without those solid fundamentals of striking, control, movement, etc., the fancy stuff looks and It's not "sexy" to work on basics, but with rare exception, the most talented musicians/artists have mastered their basics first.

I also know teachers sometimes want to impart too much to their students, whether in a taiko group, workshop, or dojo. Without making sure a student knows what they're doing or can do it well, adding more material in a relatively short time benefits no one. I know sometimes in teaching a group, one has to move forward even if a few people are left behind or overwhelmed. But if the philosophy of the teacher is to throw too much information at the class/student, only those who are lucky enough to absorb it AND implement it benefit.

In karate, there's something very satisfying in a lower belt doing a beginning form well. Just recently, in practicing for an upcoming tournament, we had everyone compete in forms to get used to the procedure. All ranks under black belt were in the same division. Some of the advanced belts got worse scores than some of the beginners, because the simple things were missing from the advanced forms: intention, clarity of movement, etc. Those beginners who have a solid foundation now have the best chance to keep it down the road.

In taiko, it's amazing how a simple pattern done well can stand out. Yes, a well-excuted fancy-ass solo is amazing to watch, but they're pretty rare, to be honest. Having the technique and the presence to play something as simple as a straight beat (right left right left) in a solo and do it well really shines. Something so simple requires clarity of striking, which to me is the basic of basics of taiko. I've seen it in fancy songs as well as in Odaiko solos.

It's hard to convince people to learn slowly, but that's why children do it so well - they're not in a hurry to learn things, and they take lessons one at a time without complaint. Adults are impatient and want to learn the "fun" things. As teachers and as students, adults want it new and want it now. If every taiko player or martial artist took one basic skill and polished it, there would be such dyamic change across the board. Maybe not in EVERYONE, but since the basics are the foundation for everything following, only good can come from it.

Do simple things well.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Pre-show rituals and ego

Traditionally, in SJT, we'll circle up and center before a concert show. It usually involves PJ talking about gathering energy from within and without for a while, then each of us will give a word(words) or a phrase to inspire the others.

Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect of getting me ready for a show. I know for some people, a calm state of mind in motion - zanshin - is what helps them, however. One big downside in doing this is that we'll circle up 15 minutes before showtime, then have a good 10 minutes until the actual start of the show. If you're trying to keep that sense of calmness or focus, it's going to be hard during that span, as other members engage you in conversations or other distractions.

For me, I want to be pumped. I want to be going into battle, jazzed and charged up. Some members will listen to music for this effect, but I usually just pick a song and sing it out in my head. The departure I have from most other taiko players I know is the level I like to go to before a show. I challenge my doubts and fears, my chances for error, and potential failure. I trash-talk them in my head, daring them to take me on. It's almost hyper-masculine and not something I'd want to do in or with a group, but when I set foot on stage, I want to be crackling with energy, not a calm pillar of it.

And here's where I may get myself misunderstood. We're constantly reminded to be humble and watch our egos as taiko players. I think this comes from the Japanese and Japanese-American environment that we learn taiko in. To me, this goes against the mindset of being a performer. When I'm on stage, I want the audience to be inspired, entertained, and enthralled. I don't feel I can give them that if I'm holding back on stage. Am I wrong on this?

When I solo on stage, I solo with the belief that I'm the best soloist there is. At that time. When it's my turn, I use that confidence to project my energy out to the audience (and to the rest of the group). Without that, I don't feel like I'm giving my all or my best. Once someone else solos, then they're the best soloist there is and it's my job to make them feel that way through support.

I do think it's good to have humility in one's abilities, but that taking that mindset on stage with you is crippling! I don't want to go to a show and watch people hold back! Think of your favorite performers and what it would be like if they thought, "I need to hold my ego in check."

In karate, which has many of the same cultural values, to do kata or to spar thinking less than 100% of yourself shows up like heat on infrared. As an assistant instructor, when I'm watching someone with lack of confidence and self-doubt, I see it in every single movement. It poisons the technique! Even those with less ability than others who truly believe in the intention behind their movements stand out shine. That's no less true for karate than it is for taiko.

I don't expect my methods to work for everyone, nor do I think my opinions on ego and performing will settle with many people. But it's an interesting contrast and counterpoint to what I've seen out there and I'd be really curious to hear what works for other people...not that y'all comment much. ;)