Monday, July 27, 2009


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.'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...

Friday, July 3, 2009


At the (karate) dojo tonight, we had to give the news to three intermediate students that they didn't pass their belt test and would be held back. The main element they lacked was spirit/ki. I want to touch on that in a future post, but for this post, I want to talk about something I spoke about in a post here about self-observation.

One thing I told the group tonight to try was to start using videotape, so they could truly see themselves as we (the judges) did. It doesn't always sink in when someone tells you what to change; if you can't see for yourself what needs to change *and* remember to change it over time, it's not going to have an effect.

Over the years, in both taiko and karate, I see people watching themselves in the mirror. And why not; that's what it's there for! But what are they seeing? Too often, it's an illusion of what they want to see, not the truth of what is. I see advanced karateka punching towards the mirror watching their technique, but missing basic fundamentals that should be glaringly obvious. I see taiko players watching themselves solo but abandoning basic form.

Sure, the argument is usually "well I was focusing on this specific arm" or "I want to make sure I'm hiting certain angles" but usually it's easy to tell when that's true and when that's an excuse. And that's where honesty comes in.

It's sometimes very hard for someone to see through the illusion of "what I want to see" and "what is really there". I've mentioned the concept of "beginner's mind" in an earlier post, about trying to learn something new or make something better every time you practice, and without that, all watching does is serve as self-admiration.

Seeing oneself on tape is a humbling experience. I highly recommend it no matter what art you might practice. The only factor that can nullify that experience is honesty (or lack thereof)! If there are errors, missteps, or bad habits that you don't see, is that on purpose? It's easy to dismiss those as flukes or not important, but to really be honest, to really make progress is to confront those issues without assuming anything one way or the other.

Honesty is neutral. It is neither positive nor negative. As such, someone who constantly sees the bad in their technique should also step back and see the truth in things. It can lead to a boost in confidence and rise in overall progress!

Honesty in this way is about looking past the illusion, the "veneer of the convenient", chipping away at misplaced ego and unnecessary demons, to reveal the artist underneath. All that baggage weighs us down and keeps us from attaining our full potential!