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.


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


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.


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.


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'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.


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. 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!, the topics, not a stab at the readers. ;)

Monday, August 3, 2009


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.