Monday, November 30, 2009

Short tour coming up!

Thursday morning, eight of us will be heading out to Minneapolis, MN, for a joint concert with Mu Daiko. We'll be playing the second half of the show Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. I'm looking forward to meeting and working with Mu Daiko; I've had little to no contact with members of the group!

I also hear it's COLD. But I like cold weather, so we'll see! As usual, I'll try to blog each day I'm there so y'all can be thrilled by my antics. :)

Last time I was in Minneapolis, I found a pub that served the Jamaican jerked wings. The balance of heat and flavor was perfect (and slightly painful). I pray I get a chance to find it again!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Are you ready to teach?

I'm typing this from my laptop as my desktop is exposed and going through resuscitation work, so hopefully this won't suffer from a lack of quality (and just suffer from my normal writing style, heh).

I just found out from my sensei that next quarter, in the dojo, our senior student ("G" for now) won't be attending. There are multiple reasons, and I'm assuming he'll be back in one or two quarters, but who knows?

Still, it unofficially means I'll be teaching a lot more, and it's not the amount that makes me pause, it's that what I say/demonstrate will have more weight with G gone. I'm realizing that I took the weaknesses in my teaching for granted knowing that anything I missed would be covered by my sensei or G.

So let me ask you, my readers - if you suddenly were thrust into a teaching position - or used to teaching but having to cover an area you weren't comfortable with, how would you fare? Would you trust your instincts? Would you over-prepare? Would you ask others for help?

Even though teaching is a big step into learning the material better, sometimes it takes an unexpected event to thrust you into a learning situation. It's up to the individual to learn from how people teach, not just what they teach.

Monday, November 16, 2009


This past Saturday, several of us went to see San Francisco Taiko Dojo's annual concert. They traditionally end their concerts with a piece called Tsunami. It's a essentially a simple song, but not necessarily *easy*. After an intro section, it's odaiko soloist after odaiko soloist, at least eight - but I've seen up to maybe twelve in the past. Traditionally, Tsunami ends their show and it's obvious why: it's about raw ki, exposing yourself to the drum and the audience with everything you've got and then some. It's not often "pretty", but it hits hard and it works!

When I first saw Tsunami played, I loved it. I didn't really know what was coming next, but it kept building and building while the supporting players kept throwing more and more ki outwards. The second time, I admit that I was less impressed. To me it seemed like I had "seen all that before." Maybe I expected more? There was definitely a period of time when it just didn't hold my interest.

But last Saturday, I found myself really enjoying it again. It wasn't different; there were no new additions that I could notice, but I felt myself responding to the soloists and the raw energy the ensemble was putting out.

I've heard (and said) many times that "when you play taiko, your true self comes out." That's true, to a point, but it really depends on the song(s) you play. I have to assume most people play in groups that fit their personality, but if the majority of songs fit a certain sensibility, do they also fit yours?

So here's an exercise for my fellow taiko players: take a drum or two and practice on your own. Find a couple of varied moods that fit your nature. Do a solo for each of them and see what happens. How do you move? How fast do you play? How much do you put yourself out/hold yourself back?

To make us more than just taiko "players", we have to explore the emotional side of our music. If songs limit you emotionally, then the experience is somewhat sanitized. Don't let your group limit you - explore your own depths!

Monday, November 9, 2009


Stage fright. Performance pressure. How do you deal with it?

Tonight, after karate, a student thanked one of the other black belts for helping him out during class. This particular student has a lot of trouble getting things right, whether it's sequencing, coordination, or what-have-you. When called upon to do a drill with people watching, nothing seems to go right, even if he's one of a group. Whether it's his limbs moving in the wrong order or turning the wrong direction, it all just goes out the window once he feels the pressure of being watched. I only overheard a little of the advice the other black belt gave the student, but it made me think about writing this post.

I know this is a condition not unique to any art. It's quite the same when speaking in public or in front of a crowd. Now, I'm no expert in this - there are books published on this and people who specialize in this sort of thing. It's been a long time since I've felt those butterflies in the stomach myself. Still, it's worth some thoughts on the subject!

The obvious thing to fix that problem is familiarity. Imagine people coming to watch you tie your shoes. Okay, I know that's asinine, but work with me here. I'm betting you can tie your shoes with your eyes closed, right? I also bet that it wouldn't faze you to have people watching you do it (well, you might wonder what's wrong with them, but hey...)

It's not much of a leap to realize how to use the concept of familiarity to help one overcome stage fright, right? Simply practice more! The more you feel "right" in what you're doing, the less you worry about other people watching it.

Another aspect that comes in handy is proficiency. Are your basics solid? If not, there's only so far that familiarity can take you. Brain farts happen to the best of us! Imagine making a mistake during a song/form/drill. How easily can you compensate and come to where you should have been? If you know your body and know the fundamental building blocks of your art, you should be able to jump right back in.

As easy as it sounds on paper, this is where I see most people having problems. If they drop a bachi, or someone distracts them, or they stumble while moving for example, it derails them and jumping back in proves very difficult. When that happens, it looks like they're trying to find the "right" time to get back into things, without trusting their body enough to just get in there and self-correct.

The last idea I'll bring up is perspective. Who cares if Grandmaster 10th-degree Legendary Hoo-Ha is in the audience/judging your test/staring at you? Too often I hear people talk themselves into a tizzy when there's no cause to do so.

Say you're doing something you're being tested at - like a belt test, or an audition. A mistake or two will rarely be your downfall. If you forget a sequence, that's one thing; to brain fart is human. As someone who judges belt tests and observes auditions, I know that I look for underlying skill and understanding of the material. A mistake or two - if anything - lets me know how well someone overcomes those mistakes and pushes through.

On the other side, if you're performing in some way on stage or in the dojo, focusing on the audience is rarely a good thing. Even when benign, as in, "I want to give these people the best show ever!" is setting yourself up for additional pressure. Making a mistake now has *weight* and looms over your head. More seriously, worrying about the audience seeing you "eventually mess up" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And for those perfectionist players who grasp onto being "perfect", well...perfection is an illusion and when they fall, they fall hard.

Ultimately, you need to be in a state where you can enjoy yourself. If people are watching you, they won't truly be able to enjoy you if you can't be you.

Oh, and keep practicing lots, that helps! :)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Question Everything: Kuchishoga

What is kuchishoga, exactly? It's the vocalizations taiko players use to represent taiko patterns. For example, "don don kara don" could be 4 quarter notes: loud hit, loud hit, two rim hits, loud hit. It can be "kuchishoka" or "kuchi shoga", but it's all the same thing.

Most of us learn songs via kuchishoga. It's very convenient and proven to work! Western notation, while really valuable in the long run, is a skill most taiko players don't have and most groups don't have time to spend learning. Also, taiko is a very visual art form, and the music is only a part of it. "Don don kara don" doesn't tell you which hands to hit with, how fast to play, what the drum setup is, how you stand at/with the drum, or how you move in relation to it.

I don't discount kuchishoga, but I want people to think outside the proverbial box here. With basic kuchishoga, there are four sounds. The loud hit (don), soft hit (tsu or su), rim hit (ka), and space/rest (su or tsu). Those four sounds empower us when we start, but I think limit us soon after. Let me explain (and you know I will!)

What if I want to play a "medium" hit? What if I want to "buzz" the drumstick against the head of the drum? What if I want to strike with the flat of the drumstick across the head of the drum? What about a hit near the edge of the drum, away from the center? All of these produce new tones and textures that go far beyond the basic verbalizations.

I don't think people are unable to make new sounds because there isn't a kuchishoga for them, but at the same time I do think people are less likely to explore new sounds as long as they keep thinking within the limits of what they were taught.

If you're curious as to a model to look to, I suggest scat. Scat is vocal improvisation that uses random sounds to create music. It's improvised and limited only by the performer's imagination. As for me personally, I tend to sing-solo in my spare time using a modified kuchishoga, but I invent new sounds as I see fit. If I stuck with "traditional" kuchishoga, I don't think I would feel as free with my solos when I actually got on the drums. Food for thought?

So here's an exercise for my taiko-playing readers: try "singing" a solo without using the four basic kuchishoga you learned. Maybe start easy; "don" into "dan", etc. Late on, modify them up and see what new soundscapes you can create!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The next level

I recently spent a gift certificate at my local percussion store. I already have an assortment of weird beaters and drumsticks, and the cool things (cajon, tabla, etc.) were more than the certifcate would cover. So I wound up buying ten drumming magazines and two books on funk/R&B/soul drumming.

There's a lot of information in these, and for the most part, the patterns are more for a trapset drummer. But even though I am a taiko player first and foremost, I am also a percussionist. Since there are WAY more people who play Western-style drums, there have got to be things I can learn - from injury prevention to relaxation techniques to some patterns that do translate to playing one drum at a time.

Personally, I don't feel I'm growing much more from what I learn in my group. This sort of realization can be either devastating or transformative, depending on how one looks at it. It also can come across as seeming arrogant to another. So let me explain.

When you join a group, you're subject to that group's strengths and weaknesses. The large majority of those who teach taiko in some fashion have never had any formal teaching training. This weakness can show up when someone has more to teach you, but it's not possible for them to get the rest across. For me, I can spend a lot of time on the little things that are "left", that is, I can achieve small amounts of progress through great effort. OR, I can take that same amount of effort and grow in new ways - as a composer, as a musician, as a teacher, etc.

I strongly believe in "beginner's mind", or the idea that no matter how many times you've played a song/done a drill, there's always something to improve on. But there's a difference between getting better at something you've been doing for years and learning new skills. It's the partnership of diminishing returns and limited resources. If have a choice between spending 100 hours taking a skill from 90% to 91%, is that as valuable as taking a skill from 0% to 50% in those same 100 hours?

Some might argue that I owe it to my group to focus on those little things and be a "better" taiko player. I see the argument in that, but it's a very narrow-minded one, and sounds more like the philosophy of "group first, player second." There's already a lot of that in taiko, for better or worse. Now, if I become a better composer, by composing, doesn't that also bode well for the group? If I become a better teacher/leader by example, that benefits the group as well.

I don't feel my group is responsible to push me further - whereas before it was a mutual system of teaching and learning, now it's my responsibility to become a better player. This is where someone can feel aimless, helpless, without direction. I was there for a short time, feeling uninspired and generally not doing much more than being a warm body for the group.

Right now, I'm looking at all these incredible drummers and realizing that there's really a whole world out there that taiko has barely scratched. And I can choose my path in that world, hopefully finding gems to bring back to my group, to my repertoire of skills. So I ask you, dear reader, what's your next level? And how will you get there?