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."


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.


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.