Thursday, December 30, 2010

Looking forward to 2011...

Only a few more days until the new year, and there's going to be a slow build to a very busy schedule. Here's what I know of:

- There's two Taiko Weekend Intensives, one one which might be focused on small-drum technique. If that's the case, I just may be more involved in teaching/assisting than usual.
- I have my vaunted song that I hope to have performed by Fall concert, but to do that it has to be ready to play well-before that. We'll see about that...
- There's the Fall Concert itself, although for me it's more just a busy weekend and extra practices and less about learning or getting comfortable with new parts.
- The festivals and assorted gigs are throughout the year and always fun to do!
- I may be going on Fall tour, but in a way I hope I'm working and won't be able to, so we'll see.
- And the big deal will be NATC 2011, smack-dab in our backyard @ Stanford. Not only will the group itself have a lot of work to do, but I've submitted two workshops and hope to be teaching at least one of each!

It doesn't *seem* to be as busy as 2010, but having San Jose Obon followed by NATC followed by Fall Concert will be one hell of a busy taiko trifecta. I just hope most of the people in the group make it through with their sanity intact!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Looking back at 2010...

Last week of 2010 and I wanted to look back on all the taiko I was able to do this year!

- We spent three weeks on Spring Tour, where we played in IA, OH, WI, NJ, VT, and NY.
- There was the collaboration with the Bangers, the local DJ crew, which culminated in a mind-blowing late-night gig on the streets of San Jose!
- Did as many local festivals as I could from April through October, plus most of the Public Workshops that SJT runs.
- San Jose Obon is always a big deal, but even more so this year because I co-planned the set for both days.
- Being in Exeter for the 6th UK Taiko Festival was super fun; too bad it only lasted a week!
- We had two Taiko Weekend Intensives: the first I helped teach and the second I helped out where I was needed.
- Our annual Fall Concert was probably the least exciting of what I did this year, not because it was boring, but because of all the other fun things I got to do!
- Almost 20 years after the first one, the second collaboration with Abhinaya Dance Company was the most challenging thing I did all year. I definitely feel like it pushed my skills further.
- Nearly forgot about learning the kulintang and playing it both on tour and in the Fall Concert. Being a brand-new instrument with a lot of history behind it, it was a lot more than just learning a new part in a song we already play.
- Finally, the two sections of Fall Tour took us to MO, WY, CO, CA, and FL for some rather varied and interesting places and stories.

That's a hell of a lot of taiko, and I know people who did even more than I did! Still, next year looks like it'll be pretty insane...but that's for the next post. Hope you all had a great 2010 full of whatever it is you love doing!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The tall whisperer

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Ever since my post here on being a rather tall taiko player, I've had more people ask me for advice on dealing with height in taiko. Sometimes it's from the players themselves, and other times it comes from people trying to teach a taller player.

I toyed with the idea of offering a workshop on the subject at Taiko Conference, but you know, it's really going to be easier and quicker to talk about it here.

1. Start stretching! If you want to match your shorter compatriots, you'll have to get a lot lower to compensate for your height. That can only come from a deeper stance! To get that flexibility, you'll have to not only stretch out outside of practice, but when you're practicing, take a wider stance. I'd bet it wasn't easy to take a wide stance when you first started playing taiko, but you managed, right? This is just the next step you have to take. You don't want to just bend your knees and get lower, you need to stretch the legs and get wider to get lower.

2. Extend those arms! It's odd, but the taller you are, the more you have to show it. If your arms don't get to extend fully every chance they get, you'll look a lot smaller. Maybe it's just because even the little things (like a bend in the elbow) look bigger on us? A shorter person at full extension looks bigger next a taller person who's technically bigger who isn't extending. So feel the energy go past your hands, past your fingers, past the bachi. Don't let the energy stop just because there's a physical "end" to your line.

3. Effort! I've seen a lot of taller players strike with little of the dynamic force available to them. It may come from a fear of over-hitting, whether a personal concern or comments coming from instructors. It may also come from just not enough exertion. Longer arms cover more ground, and to keep time with the music, taller players will have to push a bit extra to keep up. To make sure that the strike into the drum has proper follow-through, that just means giving more effort on top of keeping the arms in sync.

4. Use that height! You have longer legs, so when you step, go for distance! But don't lumber about, do it with speed and purpose. Think of sinking down, rising up, creating big circles and lines with your arms; you can reach spaces other players can't, so do it! Also, one performing trick I'm still trying to get down is to make things look hard. If you don't have trouble playing more than one drum because you can reach them easily, you should at least pretend it's hard, because it'll look like you're trying. If you don't "fake it", you risk looking like you're holding back.

5. Equipment! I do whatever I can to see that people use proper-sized bachi, as I first mentioned here. A taller player using bachi too short for them will make everything harder - distance from the drums, compensation for good technique, projection, etc. The same applies to a shorter person with larger bachi, but I have no idea what it's like to be short, since I never was. :) The point is, try bachi that are longer than you're used to, even if it's by 1/4-1/2 of an inch. Give it a week or two to decide if you like it or not.

Well, I hope that helps somewhat. I might wind up the poster boy for tall taiko players at this rate! There's really no secret to playing well while being tall, it just takes work!

Monday, December 20, 2010

New Song Diary: Poking through the stagnation

While most of the group has been out in Japan traveling about, I took the available downtime and went into the studio to force something out.

I brought my camera along to record anything that I wanted to remember, set up a single pod of three drums, and let my hands go. I only had one small idea to try out when I started, but to really get the true feeling, I need all five players for hocketing and polyrhythms.

I wound up with about three new ideas/patterns that I got on tape, but I'm going to need more than just a bunch of patterns to make the song work.

As far as getting anything written down, I spent a good hour last night composing a possible opening (about 20 bars or so). The opening comes from a British techno song I used to listen to a lot as a teen, modified to fit a "one-handed" taiko player. Now I'm letting my brain figure out where it wants to go from there. Unlike my last song, Commotion, this one is definitely not writing itself!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The bachi bus

From what I can figure, there are two ways to learn how to strike the taiko.
  1. Start with your arm extended upwards, let gravity do the work as your arm collapses.
  2. Start closer to the drum and focus on wrist snap.
I haven't met anyone that's started with Option 2, myself included. It seems people get handed a bachi, shown how to hold it (somewhat), then they're striking with dropping arms.

Here's my analogy. Learning to strike taiko is like learning how to drive. Option 2 is like getting behind the wheel of a car. You have to deal with the steering wheel, the accelerator, the brakes, the rear and side windows, and on top of that, all the rules of the road. Challenging! However, Option 1 is like getting behind the wheel of a bus. Not only do you have to deal with all of the above, but also the massive length of the bus (the increased distance between where you begin the strike in relation to the drum), as well as the massive weight of the bus (dealing with the force of your arm dropping from a height). The analogy isn't perfect, but the basic point remains intact!

Ultimately, what makes a good sound is a good strike. A good strike is determined by what happens just before the impact. Where the arm goes above that small area is window dressing; it makes taiko look pretty. At best, it adds volume. Whether your arm is up, out, to the side, at an angle, it's really irrelevant if you understand how to strike when the bachi is near the head of the drum. Granted, no one would really want to watch taiko if it wasn't for all that window dressing, let alone play it! I'm no different in that regard.

Maybe we all want to "drive buses", but if the bus is the basic way of raising and dropping the arm to hit a downward-sitting taiko, what about when it's at a slant? Or how about an odaiko? Or one of a dozen other different types of taiko? It's better to learn the foundations that apply no matter what you play than to focus on one particular "angle of attack" and find that it may translate poorly as you move from drum to drum.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Spirit = technique?

With the quarterly tests at the dojo just behind me and my own coming up in a few months, I was thinking about how much spirit has to do with one's success on a test.

Poor spirit will fail you on a test, even if your physical technique is spot-on. Without the intention behind a technique, the movements are empty, and therefore the technique is weak.

I have never seen anyone really put themselves into their techniques with fervor but with weak kiai and response to commands. Conversely, I've never seen anyone kiai and respond with intention yet do movements with lackluster effort. In this way, spirit and technique mirror each other.

Can spirit actually make your moves stronger or faster? I would argue that it can! Spirit as intention can help you realize what your technique should be. Maybe you're just kicking at the air, but imagining an opponent who doesn't want to get hit will give you a reason to kick faster, kick harder. Maybe you're just playing shime at a practice, but imagining an audience who paid to see you will give you a reason to be "on" instead of going through the motions.

It's frustrating to see people fail a test or be dead on stage simply due to a lack of spirit. As someone who teaches both taiko and karate, it's one of the last things I ever want. I can show someone how to align their body, how to strike, how to stand, but I can't make someone have spirit.

Having said all this, I will admit I'm not usually a fan of all-out kiai that I see in some arts, both martial and musical. Screaming one's head off as a show of strong spirit reads to me as a lack of understanding of what spirit is and is annoying aesthetically. But that's me.

So what do you think? How does your spirit shape your technique? How good can your technique be without intention behind it? And what forms can that intention take?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Gender and taiko

In looking at San Jose Taiko over the years, we've had at least a slight female majority, nearing 50/50 these days. Next year however, taking attrition and the Audition Process (five men and one woman) into account, the balance may shift to a large male majority, the first since I've been with the group.

There's no way to know how many people will make it through the year-long Audition Process and make it into Apprenticeship, and I can only guess at who will and won't stay in the current group but can't know for sure.

Assuming it goes the way I predict, I can't help but wonder what sort of changes will come about. No, I'm not worried that there will be a lot more burping and grunting, I'm talking more subtle that that! ;)

A little over a year ago we had a festival gig with only the men performing. It started out as a coincidence and turned out to be amusing, with the female members in the audience cheering us on. We called it "dude-tsuri", a take on matsuri, or festival. The feeling on stage was a bit different, I must admit.

For one, there did seem to be a "heaviness" in the playing. Maybe it was a physical thing, from the larger size of the men? Maybe it was the feeling like we were "representing" men and subconsciously over-hit? The kiai too, were lower in pitch overall, adding to the effect. Also, we have a tendency in the group for the men to focus more on musical technique instead of kata, so solos were more about rhythms than movement, which also flavored the gig somewhat.

Mind you, that's just one gig, and a fluke to boot! The real question is what happens to the group in time with so many men in it. Will the group change? Is the infrastructure such that it really doesn't matter what the gender balance is, or can it not help but change? Will having more men in the group attract more men to try out for the group?

Early NA taiko had been dominated by female performers. It was empowering and the feeling you got doing it had nothing do to with gender or race or background. It could be powerful, it could incorporate dance, it could help you connect with who you were. Over the years, more men got involved and the ratio balanced out. There are women-only groups in NA, but I can't say I know of any men-only (or groups that just happen to have only male players at the moment). With taiko in Japan, it was heavily male-dominated, but there's a lot more balance nowadays. Still, male-only groups in Japan are not uncommon.

This post isn't to stereotype or say one gender plays differently than another. In my festival example, it was a one-time thing that had some unique attributes. Here, I'm just indulging in a bit of active pondering. How does a shift in gender ratio change a group? How do men approach taiko compared to women? How do male audiences see taiko different from female audiences?

I'm no scholar on this subject, but maybe I'll develop more insights now that my initial thoughts are down. What are your thoughts?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Audience

What do you think the audience notices when they watch you?

I've had a lot of performances where an audience member has commented on something none of us gave much thought to. It could about a section in a song that gets little attention from us, or the tone of a bell we play offstage during a transition, or just about anything, really. The point is that none of us know what a audience member is going to notice/like/dislike.

The term "dead spot" is for when someone is on stage and putting out relatively little energy compared to others. Often that person thinks they're "on" but aren't showing it in their face, their body. And because the rest of the ensemble is able to project it, that person looks even more of an anomaly.

It's easy for us to watch our own group and give comments on a player or a section of the song, but if you really want to get an audience's perspective, you have to become an audience member. You have to go to other shows - not just taiko, but other dance and music shows - and observe. What do you notice? Are people standing out for good reasons or bad? Why? What commands your attention? What's distracting? If there's something that just doesn't work for you, what do you think they were trying to do?

The best way to respect your audience is to know what it's like to be the audience. When someone makes decisions based on what they think an audience likes, it bothers me when it's really what they want, but use "the audience" as an excuse. Is something really funny, or is it a inside joke that the audience may not get? Is a song really too long for the audience to sit through or are people just tired of playing it? Making decisions based on an audience full of you is a dangerous idea.

Never discount your audience! They notice things you may never have and they experience your art in ways you may never know.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

One more test, revisited.

In my post here I talked about an upcoming test for a 3rd-degree black belt in Shotokan karate. It got delayed and postponed and I sort of forgot about it until tonight.

During class, sensei and I had this conversation:

"What's your availability for December 15th?"
"What day is that?"
"Two weeks from tonight."
"Yeah, I think so, why?"
"Because you're testing then. If you want."

A month ago I would have been really glad to hear that! But in that time I've found a couple of forms I've been doing wrong and really need to work on before I test on them. Plus, there's a written essay about a subject left up to sensei, and if I know him he'll be tricky. But since he might read this, he's the best sensei ever! Heh.

I'm less worried about the physical aspects and know I need to brush up on the more esoteric terms that rarely come into play. I know I have a couple of other areas of history-oriented weakness, but again just in case sensei sees this, I'm not giving him any help...

So I think I'll postpone it for a quarter; really look at what needs work and push myself during classes a little harder just to prepare my body for the intensity of the test.

Not a lot of taiko talk here; but some people might be interested to know what I do outside of thumping cowhide with dowels. :)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Soloing, part 3: Musicality

You hit a taiko, you make music. Hooray! So what kind of music do you want to make?

There is a time when one is new to taiko where just staying on tempo is hard enough! It's a learning period most have to go through. But let's assume you're past that - because even if you're not, you probably will be at some point!

If you think of your solo as a conversation with the listener, then I want to ask you, "what do you want to say?" There are a couple of things that are harder for me to listen to:
  • Striking the drum whenever the urge hits. It's like saying whatever comes to mind as soon as it comes up: "I like ice cream but my favorite band is oh look a watermelon! what time are we leaving for my shoes are gray."
  • No repetition. Without patterns, the listener has a harder time finding something to identify with. Even with some cool riffs, when nothing comes back to familiar ground, it soon becomes a giant blur of notes.
So when you're practicing your solos, try thinking of these:
  • Consider the song. You wouldn't want smooth jazz at a rap concert, right? Are you being fierce during a festival piece? Are you playing a lot of notes in every song you solo in? Realize the meaning behind each piece you play and understand the feel of it. Also, doing the same solo in every song limits your growth.
  • Saying a lot with a few notes. Playing only a few notes makes you be purposeful, deliberate, and the audience will want to know when you're going to strike next. It's especially effective when used with movements that "milk" and fill up the space between notes.
  • Repetition! It's worth saying that repetition can be a powerful tool for an audience. Most people like being able to recognize where you are in your solo, and by repeating a pattern or a sequence, those "a ha" moments happen.
  • Sing your solo in your head. This might cut down on "striking whenever." In fact, if you have the chance, sing it out loud while you practice - if you're worried about your fellow players thinking you're weird, tell them I told you to try it. :)
  • Tones. This doesn't only apply to more than one drum - think of the tones that you have available. Instead of thinking, "oh I have another surface to strike", think "what kinds of textures can I create with more than one tone?"
Finally, there are things you can do outside of practice to enhance your musical skills. Some you probably do already:
  • Listen to more music! Don't just listen to what you know you like. Take a chance in genres you don't normally venture into. Try typing things like "Heavy Metal Classical" or "Crazy Percussion" into YouTube. If you stay within what's comfortable to you, you'll miss out on a lot of things that can spark new ideas.
  • Analyze other soloists you like. Why do you like what they do? Is it their phrasing? How they syncopate? Is it the "message" they play? How can you incorporate those elements and make them your own?
  • Skill drills. Try some of these:
  1. Give yourself a limited number of notes - say, 4 per measure. Where will you place them?
  2. Play as many notes as you can - but how do you make it interesting and not lose tempo?
  3. Play with only one hand - lose the other bachi and see what new ideas come out.
Ultimately, what sounds good to other people is subjective, but you should consider what it is that you're giving to them. You can't please all ears, but by being aware of what you're playing, you become a better artist. Plus, it's a lot more fun! :)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wake up!


Time to rant...

I made a post here about a pep-talk I gave to people at my karate dojo. I'm torn between trying another one or working on a way to deliver the message into a super-compressed form (like a slap upside the head...)

My neck was really stiff the other night and so I didn't work out with the group; I watched instead. What stood out was watching the advanced belts and how they just went through the motions.

We do a 5-10 minute warm-up in class, so they're ready to go when we start working out, but somehow, somewhere, they've conditioned themselves to either pace their workout or just aren't able to envision what they're doing without a partner in front of them. Ironically, later on when there were drills with a partner barreling down at them, they were very much alive and awake. So it's really a mindset that needs to change; it's not about age or ability!

I want them all to ask themselves two questions - the first to be asked everytime they leave the dojo: "Did I push myself as hard as I could tonight?" I'd bet nine times out of ten, the answer is going to be no. Then the second question, "what is it I am here for?"

I expect more from them but I know I cannot *make* them get better. I can physically shape someone and make them look picture-perfect, but I cannot make them move faster, try harder, or make them want to improve. I'm not accusing them of not giving a damn, because I truly believe they aren't aware that they are self-sabotaging.

I think it's partially an unconscious decision to pace themselves in order to not get too tired. Pacing like that is one of the worst things you can do. If you ever need to defend yourself, you don't get to pace your opponents out. If you're going for a belt test, we don't let you pace yourself out. In an art like taiko, if you pace yourself out during a song, you'll be the "dead spot" on stage where the energy lacks. And the audience tends to notice that you're the distraction on stage. So there's never a good reason to hold back. Push hard from the get-go and when you get tired, you push some more. That's how you build endurance. That's how you get better. There are times to pace - when you're injured, when you're working on a specific comment, when you're learning a new sequence - but it should never be your default. Otherwise, why bother?

It's easy to get people revved up and watch them "bring it" for a practice. But the practice after that? And the week after that? And the month after that? It's like a light switch gets turned off and it takes someone else to turn it on for them.

Why wait for someone else to turn your switch on?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Soloing, part 2: Emoting

Do you smile when you solo? Why or why not? Do you kiai when you solo? Do you look ahead like a laser or scan the crowd to make eye contact?

One thing that can change an ordinary solo into a truly memorable one happens from the audience's perspective. When you emote, when you truly put meaning behind your solo, it shows.

I see people soloing and I can tell they're thinking - and the thinking often translates into a blank look. It's really hard to make someone doing this look happy when they're soloing for more than a few seconds - they'll usually smile out of embarrassment but then the smile fades and blank comes back.

It's not always easy to take a step backwards, but if you want to really sell that solo to your audience, practice by making it simpler and focusing on what it is you want to try. It might feel weird to think about smiling while you solo, but it gets easier pretty quickly. Or maybe you can try to punctuate your solos with kiai - so play simple patterns and think about when you can really project one.

There are more levels you can take this idea to, such as more complex emotions than "happy" - like "confident", "strong", "playful", etc. You can also make your kiai a musical part of your solo as well, filling in gaps or adding to syncopation. But don't worry about that until you're comfortable doing the basics!

When you solo, you're the focal point of the group, the song, for a short period of time. You want the audience to enjoy it as much as you are, and with something as simple as a smile or eye contact, you make that happen!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Breathing

It's easy enough to say that efficient breathing will help your endurance, but it's very common for people to hold their breath during strenuous activity - like martial arts or taiko - keeping in unneeded tension.

In both arts, simple motions are done in one breath. A lunging punch or a single drum hit is done on the exhale, which comes pretty easily. But what happens when you have to throw a combination of techniques, or play a series of rapid notes? Where do you breathe?

I'm not going to be able to give "the answer" to that because it really depends on what you're doing and who you are. The reason for this post is to bring awareness of your breathing and give you some things to think about.

If you get a chance, try these:
  • Do a long sequence of moves slowly (like a kata or a song) while holding your breaths.
  • Do the same sequence, but concentrate on even breathing that doesn't fluctuate. Deep breaths in and out.
Neither one is easy to do, but the latter is easier simply because you get to breathe. Ultimately, you want to become familiar with any given sequence to know when you can take a breath and how to ration your exhaling (short bursts, gradually, etc.) However, before you can get to that point, you have to be aware of what your tendencies are.

Finally, if you find your tendency is to hold your breath, kiai more. It's simple - you exhale in the process of kiai-ing, which forces you to take a breath afterwards!

Staying relaxed is one of the hardest things to do while exerting yourself, but also one of the signs of mastery. Most people don't work at it; it comes about with practice. But why wait for it to "come around" when you can work on it now?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reflections on Fall Tour 2010

The concert worked out just fine. They had up new lighting and it was as if nothing was wrong in the first place. Awesome crew!

The audience size was a little less than moderate and a bit on the quieter side, but appreciative. It's rare to have an audience that doesn't enjoy it, but it does happen!

The only bad thing was the lack of sleep the next morning, since we had to leave the hotel at 4:30 to catch the first of two flights back. The flights themselves were ok, but I had a middle seat on the second one and the man to my left apparently didn't understand armrest etiquette, grr. Still, he had a choice: let me have the spot nearest the seat or deal with a floating bony protrusion that moved unpredictably during turbulence. He wisely chose the former.

This second leg of tour, we had two totally different venues, both with their unique challenges, but I realized that it's really rare to find the "perfect" theaters for taiko. The wing space may be too small, or no wings at all, or few people attend, or the spikes are hard to see, etc. The people who come watch don't care what you're dealing with; they came to see you play! That's what you should give them no matter what obstacles the venue gives you. It's not always easy, but it'll feel better than giving into an excuse!

Friday, November 12, 2010

I knew it was too good to be true!


So the last few posts have been all about how easy this tour has been. I don't believe in "jinxing", but hoo boy...

We were focusing our lights Thursday afternoon when the crew started having some issues. Things spiraled down more and more as fixes were attempted, eventually leading to a literal melt-down somewhere. No one is sure if it was the lighting board, the wiring, or gremlins, but all of a sudden nothing was working - after several hours of prepping and planning.

Most of us left mid-afternoon; a few stayed to help but left in the early evening. However, we heard the theater crew was there until about 10pm. They were able to jury-rig up some lights to make the two school shows work this morning, and seemed in pretty good spirits despite the late night. Now the question is if they can get in replacement lights and equipment before the concert tomorrow night. We all feel pretty bad about what they're going through, since they've proven themselves a very competent and eager crew to work with and this was no one's fault. Fingers crossed!

As for the school shows, both crowds were heavily weighted on the junior high side of the spectrum, which can be the hardest demographic to perform for. Often that age range tends to have the most class clowns and "too cool to behave" kids. So when both groups showed themselves to pay attention, gave us respect throughout the whole show, and had eager volunteers, we found ourselves pleasantly surprised. We even had a small group in the first show give us a standing ovation, something that never happens at a school show!

And that leaves us with one more day of tour; we'll pick up our 8th member flying in on a red-eye in the morning, have some time before the show, then find out what the lighting situation will be. I probably won't blog again until Monday or Tuesday as we have a red-eye flying back to San Jose on Sunday morning. Wish us luck!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

This is not what I call a stressful tour...


Yesterday, we drove four hours to get to St. Petersburg.

Today we had two 90-minute in-school workshops, the first with about 25 kids and the second with about 35. The first workshop was composed of kids with emotional difficulties/trauma, but they were all much more genuine in trying the hands-on portion, with little reservations. The second workshop had several kids who were "too cool to care", but only a few stayed that way once they got a chance to play on the drums!

From there, we took a 50-minute drive North to New Port Richey, where we found ourselves with several hours of downtime. Again. We rested up before dinner, then a few of us went mini-golfing at the place next door (literally!). One of the features of this place are the live gators near the front, which you can pay $4 to feed off of a fishing line.

This may not be the easiest tour we've ever done, but it's got to be close to it!

Tomorrow, we'll be in the theater all day, tech-ing in and doing queue-to-queues for both the two school shows on Friday and the concert Saturday night. If I don't blog again tomorrow, I'll try to do it Friday night after the school shows are over!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Not much going on...

The most interesting thing the last couple of days has been not having to get up early. It's awesome, don't get me wrong, but horrible for blog fodder.

We had yesterday completely off and today was just a four-hour drive across Florida to St. Petersburg. Tomorrow is a half-day tech in at the theater, for a single school show Tuesday. Very very light schedule! As usual, I've been thinking of some good blog posts for when I get back, but in the meantime, for those taiko players that read my blog, won't you check out this post here I started on TaikoForum.com?

Friday, November 5, 2010

I said, Florida can be warm!


Apparently, Florida read my last blog post and decided to be contrary. Hmmph.

We woke up today to a temperature of 60, which never got much warmer due to some pretty constant wind. Of all days to have three shows at an amphitheater!

We shivered through the set up and run through of the two school shows (about 2,200 kids total), which saw the sun peeking out but didn't take the bite out of the chill. Mind you, I tend to like colder weather, but the rest of the group, not so much. It was a different experience to fight being buffeted while simply standing there at the shimedaiko at the beginning of the set! Once, during a volunteer section, our large okedo took a strong draft and started to roll slowly off the stage. We managed to catch it quickly enough, but it kept us a bit worried for the rest of the show!

Not only did the wind tax us physically, it meant that we had to factor playing a little louder to ensure both us and the audience could hear the nuances of our music. We've dealt with weird acoustics, dead drums, and awkward staging, but this was the first time I've known that we had to battle wind...

The concert went pretty well despite the temperature and environmental factors. We had a lively crowd to play for, the cold kept me from sweating, and nothing went badly!

After the show, we got to hang with some of the members from Fushu Daiko, a group a little less than two hours away from here. We had a loud live-music bar, some Memphis-style ribs, and a lot of shouting as we got to get to know each other. It was a nice way to end a show and since tomorrow's a free day, we were able to just hang out and stay up late.

Sleeping in tomorrow, a rarity on tour! Sweet.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Florida can be warm.

Apparently Florida is warm and humid. Who knew?

The flights were uneventful and we got in without being too tired. A more sane 10:00am pick-up time helped, considering usually we're leaving for the airport 4 hours earlier.

We did a hands-on workshop with kids 2nd through 5th grade yesterday, and had two hour-long school shows today. Unfortunately, it's been raining off and on (sometimes pretty hard) and our venue tomorrow is an amphitheater. We'll be covered, but the audience... We're supposed to have two school shows and a concert, so all we can do is cross our fingers and hope the forecast for "overcast" is accurate.

So far we've had a pretty relaxed tour. People are in good health, minus two smacked fingers (not mine!) Our 8th member is flying in tonight for the show tomorrow so we've only been 7-strong. For school shows, that's fine, but for a concert, in order to keep us from going a little insane, eight is the minimum number.

I'll blog again on Saturday when I can, because tomorrow is going to be a wee bit busy. Let's just hope it's dry, too!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Last tour of the year

We'll be heading out Tuesday morning for Florida, where we'll be for 2 weeks. We have a concert in West Palm Beach and another in New Port Richey. Along the way are many school shows, but at least this time there's hardly any driving and even a day off! Woo.

I'll blog as best I can about the experiences on the road, but I can't promise any excitement. :) Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Drill: Acting!

It's almost Halloween, and San Jose Taiko is gearing up for its annual Halloween in Japantown. One of the things we do is a gig for the little 'uns where all the members are playing songs in costumes of their choosing.

To prepare for that, the last couple of years, we've practiced playing Matsuri Taiko (Festival drums), a well-known taiko song that a lot of taiko groups in NA play a version of. What makes this different is that we play with Japanese masks. There are demons, old men, shy women, foxes, monkeys, etc. The whole idea is to embody a different character and lose inhibition.

The drill this time is about emoting or assuming a role that you may not normally portray while playing. It doesn't matter what ji you play to; it's about acting the part. If you don't have someone/something to hold a ji for you, you can still try it.

First thing you have to do is not think "I look stupid." You have to give into the role, have fun with it. Second, don't worry about how immediately useful these roles are, because you're developing your acting "muscles". Think about your physical muscles; you get stronger working a group of muscles than focusing on any single one, right? Same concept for emoting.

Try these to start:
  • Joyful
  • Furious (don't kill the drum!)
  • Shy
Don't neglect the impact of your face when you take on these roles! That's easily 80% of the effect right there.

These are more difficult:
  • Very old/Very young
  • Super-confident
  • Overly dramatic
  • Mischievous
Think about how many notes you play as well as the volume. Think about the physical space you use - or don't use.

Finally, some really challenging ones:
  • Playing as a person you know (taiko idol, fellow performer)
  • Playing as an animal (how would an elephant play taiko?)
Think of who you really notice when you play taiko and think of their performance character. Think of their face and how they make you feel when you're watching them. Maybe they're not as confident as they look; but how then are they conveying that? How can you? Practice, that's how.

Ultimately, if you want to look confident, you have to act confident. It sounds a lot harder than it is, so go try it!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Soloing, part 1: Ji

I'd like to start another series of posts, this time on soloing and solo development. I'm submitting a workshop for Taiko Conference next year on solo development and have been thinking about it quite a bit.

I'll be talking about different aspects of soloing ("set" solos, improvisation, etc.) as well as the different instruments that are the most common to play on (shime, odaiko, etc.).

To start, let's tackle the soloist's best friend, the ji. The ji is the pulse, the beat, the base, usually played by the higher-pitched instruments like the shime or hand percussion. The most common patterns for ji are dongo (the swung triplet), straight beat, and horsebeat.

As soloists, most of us hardly consider the ji. It's just there. However, we have a responsibility to adhere to that ji in both tempo and mood. Once we depart from it, whether speeding up or something like playing really loud in a quiet song, we're no longer part of the ensemble.

As the ji, our responsibility is to not listen to the soloist. That's not easy! We're usually watching the soloist, supporting them with energy and/or kiai, but it's up to us to hold the ji steady so that they have a solid base to create on top of. When we waver, we made their job twice as hard.

Next time you solo, especially if it's in a song you've gotten used to soloing in, try to take note of the ji. Do you solo to the song or to the ji? Neither is necessarily "wrong", mind you. Here's also an example to consider. Say you have Happy Song A with a straight beat ji at a certain volume, at a certain tempo. Intense Song B has the exact same ji, and you get to solo for the same length in Song A as in Song B. Do you play the same solo? You probably can, but odds are the feeling of the songs are different. You need to honor the tempo from the ji but the mood of the song itself.

The ji can be your best friend, but if you neglect it, you'll be left alone and exposed. Don't just think of what you're going to play, try to take the time and really understand the ji. You might find yourself with some new options and ideas, and that is never a bad thing!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Self-sabotage?


So, the North American Taiko Community is a little weird. In this case it's not the "good" kind of weird, like considering blisters as a badge of honor, no.

It's the kind of weird that wants taiko to proliferate but at the same time, is very protective of sharing songs that could help that proliferation happen.

There's an unspoken rule (although sometimes loudly spoken) that unless given explicit permission, you shouldn't play songs from another group.

New groups, even not-so-new groups, are hungry for new songs. The answer of "write your own songs" is not that helpful. There are a few public domain songs available, but some of those require having someone teach it to them directly, which some groups can't afford/manage. Other such songs are beyond what a group might be able to play, or not in their style. So what's left? There are "instructional videos", but unless it's crystal clear that the people recording them have the permission to teach a song, that's sketchy at best.

So what's happening here is a community of artists who want their art to grow and gain more exposure, but want to control how the art expands. One of the participants of this past weekend's TWI said that seeing what happens when taiko is out of control can be very exciting. What happens when someone sees taiko and misinterprets what they see, taking it in another direction and making something amazing out of it? Sure, maybe it's something that many taiko players don't like, but there again is that control factor.

So what's the solution? Beats me. I know all of a sudden dozens of groups won't up and say, "hey, you can all play our songs, just go on YouTube and learn them that way!" So how do we as a community support the ever-expanding growth of taiko while keeping songs under such tight wraps? You tell me...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Taiko Intensive Weekend 2010: Naname

The last 3 days, San Jose Taiko welcomed 10 people into our studios for another TWI, this one focusing on playing the slanted drum, or naname.

It was the second year we've done this particular TWI, and the first one of this type that I've helped with. Apart from all the sweating and eating and more sweating, we had a discussion session that started with the topics of stand patents and playing another group's songs.

While writing down notes, I found my notes from the TWI back in May, which I totally forgot about! I'll be writing some blog posts in the future based on what I wrote down in both TWI discussion sessions.

And I have to say, if you're ever thinking about attending TWI, I highly recommend it. It's a butt-kicking experience that will challenge everything you know about playing taiko, and then some! Oh, and it's fun. :)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Wrists!


Funny, I never thought to do a post on this, and I've taught 5 workshops on the subject!

Wrist snap is a key component in both shotokan karate and taiko.

In the former, it's tied into the rotation of the arm both in punching as well as blocking. It adds a tremendous amount of torque at the end of a block, which when done correctly can fling an attacking limb away. It also gives extra penetration when punching into a target. Virtually every hand technique I do in karate has a sharp wrist snap of a twisting nature.

In the latter, effective striking technique is 95% wrist snap. People tend to focus on dropping the arm from a full extension, but regardless of where the strike is coming from, without an effective and clean wrist snap, it's pointless. It doesn't matter whether it's odaiko or katsugi okedo or shimedaiko, it translates across all.

I started the idea of teaching a wrist workshop when I saw far too many people in other groups (and even SJT) using way too much force to strike the drum and keeping the wrist stiff. I took a serious look at my own technique; what did I do and how could I teach what I did?

I calculated the average number of times I did a wrist-snap in taiko and karate combined and came out to at least 12,000 a week. That number really doesn't mean a whole lot, but when I look at my history, I'm looking at doing an intensive wrist-snap about 5 million times in the last 25 years or so!

In my wrist workshops, I teach basic concepts. This next workshop I'm going with: Grip, Relaxation, Speed, and Practice. GRaSP, I call it.
  • Grip is the most basic fundamental. How does the bachi fit into my hand? How does my hand and finger position affect the bachi? How does the bachi affect my hand?
  • Relaxation is all about recognizing tension in the body, which boosts fatigue and slows you down. Once you identify it, how can you get rid of it? How much relaxation can you get away with?
  • Speed isn't about how fast you can play, it's about generating velocity. How much space do you really need to generate speed and power? Where are the "quick twitch" muscles?
  • Practice is the easiest concept. If you at least think about these concepts while you practice a song or drill, that's a good way to figure things out. Even better, if possible, is to take a few minutes here and there just focusing on the GRaSP method without having to worry about song sequence, tempo, other people, etc.
I am a HUGE proponent of wrist strength and flexibility. They're such a small area of our bodies and often neglected. How often do you stretch them? Does your group include wrist stretches in the warmups? How are you going to play anything if you tweak/pull/strain something in your wrist?

Give those wrists some love and think about signing up for my workshops in the future! :)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hurry up and evolve!

There's a discussion on TaikoForum that I started called "Representing an Art Form". It was my usual $@!%-stirring, trying to get people to think and respond about why they and others play taiko as well as look at what a potential audience might think.

Just recently, that thread went down a new path and spawned this post.

There are those in the taiko scene that feel that taiko is stuck or slow to evolve. There are very few groups that use different instruments or collaborate outside of other taiko groups. Costumes are usually patterned off of the happi coat, tabi shoes, etc., so that many groups look alike there, too.

It's been roughly 60 years since kumidaiko (ensemble drumming) has been around, so why isn't it more mainstream by now? Well, it's your fault. My fault too. All of us! Who's not writing the avant-guard music and jaw-dropping choreography? Who's not working with the top-tier artists to give taiko greater exposure? Who's not pushing taiko to the next level? It's us.

Now here's the thing - most taiko players I've met don't WANT to do that. A lot of them like what they do, without pushing any boundaries. A lot of groups are just happy holding themselves together! If taiko's going to get to the next level, a lot of people are going to have to take it there. It won't be just a group like On Ensemble or San Jose Taiko or Kodo, it will have to be individuals on a larger scale to make it happen.

When will it happen? I don't know, when are you planning to make it happen? ;)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

New Song Diary: Changing directions

I've been banging my metaphorical head against the wall trying to build up ideas for my song idea. Nothing happened.

I decided to instead turn my energies to a novelty song idea I wanted to try, using shimedaiko resting on their sides/edges rather than on stands. I have some ideas from fiddling around, but again, no solid concepts. Frustrating.

So I'm going to do what I didn't want to originally, and that's continue working on a piece I already had in development when I started this series. It's got promise, it's unique, it's got a gimmick, and I might as well get it out of my system!

The idea of the piece is simple. Each player gets three drums in a row (left, center, right). The left hand plays a steady 1-2-1-2 beat on first the left then then center drum, alternating, over and over. And that's the gimmick. The left hand never stops, throughout the entirety of the song. The right hand gets to play all the patterns, downbeats, upbeats, syncopation, improvising, etc.

I've workshopped this concept with both the entire company as well as Artistic Staff, and have already found some things that work and things that don't. Time to work on the stuff that does! Stay tuned...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sweat-fest 2010!

Tour is allllmost over...

Yesterday we were in the "theater" all day here in Crescent City, CA. Actually, it was a high school auditorium! To fit the large okedo through the doors, we had to detach the middle pillar from two of them, but that wasn't a big deal.

The stage was small but workable, and the stage floor was beat-up but we could still see our spikes when we needed to. This show was all about the lighting. On one hand, we definitely pushed the envelope of what light focusing the crew was used to, without being overly-demanding. On the other, the lights were really close to the stage! In addition to that, the heating for the entire school is apparently regulated by the county, and it was hot to begin with! By the 4th song, we were starting to feel the sweat, and when we got into the more energetic songs, there was some serious fluid drain!

As for the venue, it was a 500-seat theater and we were told we had a larger crowd than anything they had last season, very cool!

This morning, we ended the tour with one school show for a group of 30 high schoolers, another for a group of about 150 high schoolers, then did a workshop for a Boy's Ranch in the midst of the California redwoods. They were very enthusiastic and a great end to our touring activities!

All that remains is an 8-hour drive back to San Jose tomorrow; normal blogging resumes Thursday!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Back in California, but not done yet!

Finally! About 16 hours later, we drove from Wyoming to the northern tip of California, in Crescent City.

In Wyoming we drove past a cattle drive with cowboys riding along side. Across Nevada we tried to avoid field mice and jackrabbits running across the road at night. In Oregon we tried not to fall off the gorgeous cliff-side scenery.

Normally I wouldn't blog after just a driving day, but tomorrow we're in the theater all day, concert at 7:30 pm, then we have to be at the first of three school shows at 7:30am. Doubt I'll be blogging much until late Monday, and by then, all that's left is an 8-hour drive back to San Jose.

Almost done with a very unusual tour; wish us luck!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

*wheeze*

Well, we did it! A two-hour concert at relatively high-altitude with no fatalities! Woo!

The school show around 1:30 wasn't too bad, but very similar in feel to the ones in Colorado. We were definitely more winded after even "easy" songs. The kids were middle schoolers and a bit rowdy before we came on stage, but we have a built-in "silencer" at the beginning of our school shows and by the end, we totally won them over. Always satisfying!

We ran some concert songs later to test both sound and endurance, and the actual concert was no picnic, but we pulled it off really well. I think we were so concerned about the effect of the altitude that we were over-prepared and able to fight through most of the fatigue. Knowing it "was going to hurt" gave most of us a "bring it on" attitude.

So we're off tomorrow, about 10 hours with a stop to drop off a member at Salt Lake City airport, and drive halfway to Crescent City, CA where we perform Sunday night. Almost done!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Oxygen tanks!

Today was an all-day tech day at the Pinedale, WY, auditorium that we'll be playing at tomorrow - one school show, one concert.

We found out that ticket sales are going very well for the 500+ seat venue, and that they don't have performers there unless there's an outreach component (school show, etc.)

We're about 1000 miles lower than we were in Colorado, but being at 6,000+ feet (not miles, heh) up is still something to consider! There are oxygen tanks available for us, but will we need to use them? Will we use them just to try them out? Stay tuned...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Swanky hotel, but sleep would be nice too...


So I didn't blog about the 2nd driving day, but really...it's nothing to blog about!

The cold is almost gone, which is good, especially considering the higher altitude.

Yesterday we had the shortest tech-in day ever, 3 hours and out of there by noon! We only had school shows to prep for and some of the lighting was adjustable via remote control, which saved a bunch of time! Awesome.

This morning we had two school shows which ran pretty well. At the end of the second one, we came down into the seats to answer questions the kids had. I got asked how tall I was, lol.

As for where we're staying, The Charter, there's a lot of high points and one big low point. The hotel is pure swank, fancy everything without being too froo-froo. The local plaza next door has an outdoor ice-skating rink, really good restaurants, and a gorgeous view no matter where you are. The low point? A gas detector going off in our room at 3:37, ear-piercingly loud, for 27 minutes. It said there was "explosive gas" and to "call 911". It was so loud that it was physically too painful to try to figure out how to turn it off. We called the front desk twice and they told us maintenance was on its way...but never showed up. Apparently, after some web research, we found that the model goes off often with no threats about. Swell.

Anyways, we're off for about 9 hours of driving tomorrow, dropping off one performer and picking up a new one. We'll end up in Pinedale, WY and perform on Thursday! Stay tuned for more!

Friday, September 24, 2010

A thrust stage, a sold out house, a cold, and 10 hours of driving!

Going to make this a bit brief, as the cold I caught yesterday is not happy with me...

We had a great audience up in Whitefish, MT; it was about a 350-seat, sold-out crowd on a thrust stage, which means we were surrounded on three sides (and pretty darn close-up, too!) All the work we did changing up the transitions paid off, but we had a couple of song hiccups. As usual, these are the hiccups that really only we know about; the audience wouldn't know something was up unless they knew the song really well.

Left this morning at 9am, drove until 10:30pm. Looks like another 8 hours tomorrow until we get to Colorado...oy!

Might not be much to write tomorrow, but maybe something exciting will happen on the way, like the signs for the "Testique Festival" we saw today. Maybe.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The more things change, the less sleep we get!


Tech-in day, which usually goes pretty well, unless we have unexpected things to deal with. Like today, for instance!

It's not that big of a deal that we have a thrust stage, where the audience sits around the front and sides, so we're more exposed. And we prepped before we left for not having wings to hide our equipment behind during songs, so that's not a big deal. But we decided to change the program to have speeches between several of the songs, and that takes a person out of a transition, causing a whole lot of changes, more than I think I've ever seen for a gig. So...I'm not worried about the show but I'm also not not worried, if that makes any sense?

To make up for a stressful day, after we left the theater, we drove an hour away to have dinner with two long-time staunch supporters of San Jose Taiko, Norma and Ralph DeLang. They used to live in San Jose way back and know Roy and PJ from before I even knew of SJT. They took us in and fed us a great dinner, as well as kept us entertained with stories and general humor. We look forward to seeing them tomorrow night!

Tomorrow is a late school show and the concert, and I might not get to blog until Friday night when we're half-way to Colorado. I'm sure I'll have things to say then!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A mellow start...


Day one of Fall 2010 tour, and it was probably the most relaxed first days I've been on.

We had two flights to get to Whitefish, MT, with no fuss, no muss. Grabbed lunch at a local restaurant around noon and picked up the Budget truck right after. The picture above is of our colorful glove crew who all discovered they have the same brand of gloves, lol.

Back at the hotel (which is more like a ski resort), we had time to chill before heading out to the local farmer's market. The market was very nice, I scarfed down a good deal of food truck chow and would happily go back there tomorrow!

We're in the theater all day tomorrow for tech, but it's a smaller venue and won't be too lighting-intensive, so I don't foresee us needing too much time. Definitely enjoying the light schedule before the long amounts of driving coming up!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Another tour!

We're leaving for a 15-day tour starting tomorrow, Sept. the 21st!

It'll be MT, CO, WY, then back in CA, with quite a bit of driving in between, unfortunately. Between MT and CO is a 17 hour drive over 2 days! That's always grueling.

We'll have one 1-hour concert and two 2-hour concerts, plus 8 school shows. Not a lot for 15 days, but that driving will make us all a little loopy if we don't rest up as best we can. :)

As usual, daily updates as best I can, to show y'all the thrills of life on the road (or lack thereof)!

Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Slow down!


Over the years, I've watched people practice karate and taiko countless times. And it occurred to me that too often, I see people rushing through whatever exercises they're doing. Why the hurry?

I hear kids have a much easier time going slow when instructed, whereas the rest of us often want to go faster to get to the next thing. That can't be a good thing...

Ending solos tend to be the fast ones, and fast kata are more dazzling. Fast gets our attention, looks more fun, looks more challenging. But practicing something fast is actually pretty limiting. It's quite often harder to do something slower.

Movement-wise, it forces you to really pay attention to individual parts that make up the whole. Where you used to rely on propulsion, now you have to figure out where the power is really generated from. When it comes to extending your arms, you'll find out how much you relied on centrifugal force versus actually making the effort to maintain good form.

Rhythm-wise, speed often hides good technique. The tendency is to make sure the notes are placed right rather than struck well. When speed is the focus and technique is lacking, accents tend to blend into the other notes, and more subtly, often the feel/groove of the rhythm gets lost. It's like the master musicians who know exactly when to play notes and why it sounds so damned good when they do.

Practicing something slow is hard both mentally and physically, and yes sometimes you just have to practice something fast. Just don't get stuck there, realize that there's a lot to be gained by slowing everything down quite a bit and making sure that all the components are understood if not solid.

Savor!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rhythm Spirit 2010

Sleep and food make for a nice recovery from a concert weekend!

We just finished our annual concert series, 3 shows in 2 days. I think we had almost 500 people per show, which was a great turnout! Thank you to all who were able to attend!

There were a lot of familiar faces in the lobby after we finished the shows; the longer I play, the more people I seem to know! Funny that. :)

This year, the Concert Director took me and the other 2 senior players aside well before we began prep. He wanted us to know his direction for this year was to really push forward the newer members, which meant not as much development for us. Knowing well ahead of time that this was the plan, it was much easier to deal with and not feel "left out". Each of us was given one new part in at least one song, as well as other parts throughout the concert.

I think everyone who was pushed forward rose to meet the occasion. As for me, I didn't feel that much growth as an artist, but I made sure to take the time between shows to work out some creative stuff. I took a shimedaiko off one of the stands and did some creative work with it while seated (more about that in a later post).

I know that next year, I need to compose a piece to make sure I feel more engaged with the concert, but I don't have any hard feelings for the shift in priorities this year. I just miss the nervous butterflies and the feeling of something truly new!

Tour practice starts up this week and I leave in a week for 2 weeks of touring, to Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, and California. Who needs rest? :)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Workshops!

So North American Taiko Conference 2011 is just around the corner...well sort of, if 11 months is a corner.

The deadline to submit workshop ideas is October 31st, which is really soon! I'm wondering if people who normally teach will miss the deadline...

I'm planning to do another workshop on striking, focusing on wrist snap. It'll be the 6th workshop of that type, and I keep refining and refocusing what material I cover. This time the focus will be less material, more depth. Last NATC I put in everything I wanted to, but felt like I was talking a mile a minute to get it all across!

However, I also want to teach a second workshop but am undecided on what topic to choose. I could do another rhythm-based workshop, perhaps on polyrhythms? I've thought of doing a body percussion workshop, helping people feel rhythms using their body.

Other options I've considered are:
  • Body percussion, learning how to feel rhythms by using the body.
  • A workshop for taller/larger people, focusing on flexibility and isolating weak points.
  • Exercises for creating movement- and rhythm-based solos.
  • Playing on multiple drums.
I know I don't get a lot of comments on my blog posts, but I'd like to hear from other people what they'd be interested in? Even if it's something I haven't listed above but you think I'd be good teaching, please let me know!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Talking shop

In karate, my friends and I talk about karate. We talk about concepts and techniques and fallacies and stories. When we meet up again, we talk about karate again. If we go out to dinner after a practice or a test or for a birthday, we talk about karate yet again. Granted, there are other topics that pop in, like someone's fishing weekend or rough work schedule, but it's really focused on "shop talk".

I can't even begin to account for how much I've learned by listening to and participating in these conversations. I've had my mind blown, I've had assumptions shattered, I've learned tips and tricks along the way.

As for taiko, I cannot speak for anyone else's experience but my own here, please understand that. In my group, I long for shop talk. And I can't find it. It doesn't happen before or after practice, during lunches on weekend rehearsals or workdays, nor pretty much any time a group of us gets together. Sometimes it'll happen on long car trips (tours) because you wind up talking about everything sooner or later just to not get bored.

When I overhear what people are talking about, it tends to be about sports or pets or technology instead of taiko or music or art. Don't get me wrong, it's not that people shouldn't talk about that stuff, and of course (as above) there have to be other subjects to discuss. However it's definitely the reason I feel a lot less connected to the group these days. It's also not about me being "above" such talk; I have conversations about non-taiko things here and there to be sure!

This isn't an overnight feeling, it's been growing for years now. It's why I immediately start warming up when I come to practice, and leave as soon as we bow out. On the flip side, it's why at functions like Taiko Conference, I barely get any sleep because I find people - a lot of people - to talk shop with!

Someone once described me as having two speeds: "off and high". When you see me on "high", now you know why!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Goals


Been thinking about goals lately. Why do I still play taiko? Why do I still practice karate? What do I want out of each?

After karate the other night, a few of us were talking about testing and belt ranks. The advanced belts involved were eager to test for different levels of brown belt, while the black belts were talking about how things change once you hit black. Shodan, 1st-degree black, is considered the real "beginning" of your training. You've proven that you understand the basics of the art and are now ready to learn the art in earnest. Nidan, 2nd-degree black, is a bit fuzzy in definition, but it can be considered where you've learned how best to adapt your body to the art. Sandan, 3rd-degree, is the first "teaching" grade. Ideally, you should be able to teach the art at this point. Further grades really show how effective you are as a teacher and how influential your teaching gets.

I'll be testing for sandan later this year if the timing is right, but I don't know if I'll ever test again. There's really no opportunities to teach more than I already do at the dojo, plus there's not going to be any difference in what I can learn at 3rd- vs. 4th-degree black belt.

Looking over to taiko, where I'm approaching 18 years of playing, there's no belt system, no grade level in taiko (at least none I've ever heard of). The equivalent might be what songs you learn in your group - more parts learned over time and/or talent-based.

I'd guess we have an active repertoire of...20-25 songs at SJT, and of those I can play 95% of the parts. I'd say 3% of the remaining 5% are parts I will never learn due to circumstances like a song written for women to play, and the last 2% are positions in brand-new songs I haven't learned yet or something like a flute position (can't play flute!)

So here I am, in both respective arts, nearing the end of what either dojo can teach me. As far as material, the goals are going to be gone soon. New forms? Only in other styles. New songs? Only ones that haven't been written yet.

It's important here to say one thing - to my readers and to myself. I'm not saying that I need a break, or wonder if I'll continue on. I'm definitely not saying I can't learn any more in my arts, either. For taiko specifically, I know I'm going to keep playing, so...the question isn't "will I continue?", it's "why will I continue?"

Monday, August 30, 2010

L.A. soundtrack adventure!


There's a friend of Yurika's who's wanted a taiko for a while now - he works in Hollywood doing music for TV and movies. He has a project for the upcoming adaptation of "Avalon High" (being shot for the Disney Channel) and wanted to use taiko in the opening sequence. Since I had the time and the interest, I was hired to pick up a taiko and drive it down to L.A. later in the week.

During the talk about how this would all work out, the offer to actually play tracks for the movie came up. I was very interested, less for the prestige (if any) and more for the experience itself!

So last Monday I drove up to Concord to Mr. Kato's residence/workshop. You can visit his site here. He makes some seriously beautiful taiko that sound wonderful as well!

I took a Budget truck down to L.A. on Wednesday with the drum tightly packed and he was thrilled to get it! However, because he's inhumanly busy right now, there was only a little time for him to enjoy the new arrival... Also, there wasn't any time to record that day, so I would have to come back in the morning.

When I came the next morning, he showed me what he had so far - a real simple framework against the video for the opening scene of the movie. The scene starts with two groups of knights on horseback, galloping towards each other along the coastline. The black knight and the white knight take the lead, getting closer and closer, until the white knight's horse is riderless and the implication is he's been knocked off or slain.

Within about 30 minutes, he had fleshed out the framework, playing and editing notes with impressive quickness, changing entire sections before I had realized what he'd done! The main part of the song is in a meter of 5, with a couple of single "oomph" hits in the beginning and quicker notes to build up to the ending.

When it was my turn to record for him, I listened to a click track over headphones and watched the monitor that showed graphical representations of the notes to play (when to hit, basically). There was also a monitor showing the film itself, but that wasn't important to me.

I played on top of the patterns he created, with my own flavor, about three times for the left channel and three for the right. The fun part was when he wanted me to add some flourishes on top of the previous recordings I did. Essentially, I got to listen to me playing in the right ear, another me playing a slightly different version in the left ear, and improvise on top of that!

So although the movie doesn't look like anything to write home about, I finally found someone who can hang with my solos: me! Seriously though, it was a fun little trip that I would love to expand on somehow, but ultimately the experience itself was the reward. I'll let people know when the movie comes out and maybe be able to find something to post!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ma.

Ma is the Japanese word meaning "space" or "pause". In karate, we use the term maai, which means "distance".

In both cases, these tend to be advanced concepts; both of them subtle but with remarkable results when used well.

In karate, distance is often the key to effectiveness. Too far away and you miss completely; too close and it's more a factor of luck who hits whom first. The practitioner who masters maai will know when to attack and how to defend by simply moving to a disadvantageous spot for their opponent.

In taiko, ma is severely overlooked. Newer players tend to play as many notes as possible when jamming or improvising. Even people who have been playing for a while tend to do it.This isn't inherently bad, it's just...noisy! I know some people have the hands to make it happen, but it eliminates any texture to the music and makes it very one-dimensional.

I've mentioned this in prior posts, but what often distinguishes the masters from the beginners is effective use of ma. Whether it's musically or visually, purposeful space can have such a huge impact!

I believe that most players are afraid of ma. Afraid? Yep. Not as in "running away from", but in vulnerability. If you're pausing from playing, you're going to be more closely watched and/or listened to. Insecurities are much more likely to abound in your head at that time. It's a test of self-confidence and experience, and that's why effective ma is the true sign of a master player.

You don't have to wait to become a master, just try not doing so much and see what it feels like. Then keep er...not doing that. :)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Find your own truth


When you study a style, whether it's art or movement or sound, you're studying another artist's beliefs.

Most of us find an art or artist that appeals to us and learn what we can from them, often through their disciples. We train to do better and better in the art overall, with the stylistic differences emphasized by the founder of that particular art.

For instance, I train in Shotokan karate. My sensei teaches me what he learned from his sensei, who learned from his, etc. I try to generate power through the hips, move the body efficiently as a unit, and push my endurance by doing large movements quickly. Ok, that's fine.

I'm trying to "master" a style of martial art developed by someone of a totally different body type, using motions that aren't necessarily natural for me. Perhaps they never will be, even though I'm used to them at this point.

Same goes for taiko, right? You've been learning how someone else plays, moving your body as best you can to their sensibilities and their priorities. Nothing necessarily "wrong" with that.

It only becomes an issue when you, the student, perceive your teachings as *the* truth. I believe that you should always be open to better ways that you haven't discovered yet. If you don't leave that possibility open, you become shackled to your style, to your teacher.

Until you invent your own style of doing something, that suits your body, your strengths, and your sensibilities, you are effectively pushing a square peg through a round hole. Sure, the hole might be somewhat rounded and less difficult to shove through, and eventually you might get the bulk of your peg through, but it's pretty doubtful that it was a smooth process.

I'm not saying you shouldn't study an art and try to get better at it! Just realize when your study is more confining than enriching. Find your own truth!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

New Song Diary: Inspiration!

I wasn't even planning to write another NSD post so soon, but when inspiration strikes, it strikes!

On the way to practice last night, I had my mp3 player on shuffle and a an Aerosmith song came on. The song was one of the 20-or-so specific songs I've been looking at for ideas, and I started getting tangible ideas as it played. Driving home, to karate, back home...I think I listened to it a good 20 times over the last 24 hours!

At first, the main pulse (lower beat, higher beat) gave me the kick of inspiration. Simple! Catchy! Soon after that, I got the idea to do the patterns on portable drums like okedo. There are horns in the song which had me thinking of using something high-pitched, like shime or hand percussion like chappa. I also hear a pattern that inspires the use of shekere. Musically, a lot of ideas are swimming about!

I also remembered a music video from Daft Punk that I've loved for years featuring repetitive group movement, and got more ideas from that! It's nothing fancy, but the motions are distinct and in sync and represent each of the different musical patterns in a visual form. I may not take it that far, but the basic idea really appeals.

Finally, before practice tonight I played a "music video" that I've saved to my desktop from late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson, who does hilarious no-production-value lip-sync music videos to open some of his shows. The start of this particular video has him "false starting" the music twice before the "big" opening. I can use that idea to start the song, even if I don't use the fake mustache he does. :)

So, what I have so far:
  1. A song featuring portable instruments, both taiko and hand percussion.
  2. Movement in groups, formations of groups.
  3. "False starting" the song for a bit of fun.
Ordinarily, I'll get ideas like this and toy with them for weeks, maybe months, and then a new one will take its place. But because this ongoing series is to help motivate me to write a new piece, I'm going to run with this. Maybe it'll get written, or maybe I'll give up if it goes nowhere, but I'm going to give this my focus and see what happens!

Here are links to the videos/songs I mentioned above:

"Rag Doll", by Aerosmith
"Around the World" by Daft Punk
"White Lines" by Duran Duran as performed by Craig Ferguson

Monday, August 16, 2010

Metronome love, pt. 3


So this past weekend ended our second collaboration with Abhinaya Dance Company, the first done back in 1993 when I was still auditioning with SJT.

For one section that I was in, I had sections in a meter of 5. Wasn't particularly fast, but it was on portable okedo, while moving around and interacting with one of their dancers.

Even though I wound up just playing a simple 1 - 3 4 - beat to compliment the orchestra, I had permission for simple soloing in 5. I didn't have a lot of practice time in the studio, and 5 is not quite yet comfortable for me to feel naturally. So I got my metronome out...

While I made food, I had it going. While I brushed my teeth, I had it going. While I tied okedo at the studio, I had it going (with headphones). No, it didn't magically impart "the meter of 5" in my brain, but I was improvising with my voice along to it, and that stuff started sinking in.

You can do this with any meter that your metronome can do. The fancier metronomes can play in a swung beat, triplets, sub-divide, etc. And whether you're just having trouble keeping where the "1" is or trying to solo in odd meters, singing improv along to a metronome trains your brain and you don't even have to focus on it. In fact, when you get used to that little beeping, you'll likely find yourself able to solo verbally without having to pay much attention to what's coming out of your mouth.

Little things like this make you a stronger player. It's not difficult and with this sort of drill, you can go at your own pace. Down the road, in terms of months and years, this really pays off!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Percussion


Taiko is percussion. Technically, so is a piano, since hammers inside hit the strings when you depress a key. What I'm going to get at here is the hand percussion, the stuff that's not drums. You might have heard of narimono, the Japanese word for these other percussion instruments.

Some taiko groups give their newest members the percussion and say "just play along". There's a few problems with that!
  1. It downgrades the percussion to a tertiary status. (Front row, back row, percussion.)
  2. It often leads to a frustrated player.
  3. The song sounds sloppy.
I'm not going to talk about how to play different kinds of percussion, because it would take pages and I'm no expert at any one of them. All I can do is hopefully change some people's minds about what percussion's role can be.

First, don't put percussion "in the corner". Percussion is metal and wood and plastic, noises that often cut through the boom and the thwack of the drums. If you have untrained hands playing it, you're at risk of both awkwardly-played notes as well as awkward note placement. That never helps a song!

Second, think of the players themselves. If you spend time on the percussion, you'll have more confident players. So what if you don't have a lot of time? You should be able to agree on a simple pattern to play over and over, but at the very least the percussion can play downbeats or upbeats.

Third, if you get a chance, watch the experts! Afro-Cuban and Latin music have a lot of amazing artists doing things in their percussion, and YouTube is always available. :) Heck, there's probably even online tutorials in basic technique. Even if you're not playing one of those specific instruments, learning the musical basics of one instrument will carry into many others!

--

Percussion as an afterthought rarely leads to a good outcome. It can be as easy as change of perspective to make percussion work for you and your group! Plus, nothing quite sucks as much as being given a weird thing you don't know how to play and told to play it. Yikes!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Gratitude

Saturday during concert rehearsal, I was playing odaiko-style on our miya-daiko (another big drum) and thought, "damn, we're fortunate."

I know I'm lucky enough to be in a group like SJT that's been around for 37 years - and with that has come accumulated instruments and equipment. But it makes me remember that a LOT of other groups do with SO much less, some of the newer groups not even having drums to play on!

Could I join a group to learn an art I don't know, without the instruments? Am I *that* dedicated? Can't rightly say. Sure, I can take a garbage can and play on that, but it's nothing like feeling the drum reverberate after a strike. At least with karate, I don't need a uniform or gear or anything but an instructor. There, the physical stuff can help but it's really superfluous.

Another thing that hit me this weekend was that we spent 13 hours this weekend rehearsing for our upcoming concert. This isn't uncommon; we often have weekend rehearsal for concerts and tours. However, amongst the "I'm tired and wish I was home relaxing" thoughts came one of "I bet there are people who would LOVE to practice taiko all weekend." That didn't make me less tired, but it made me stop and think about again, how fortunate I am to be able to do this.

So why this post? I want you to stop and think about what you take for granted, even if it's just artistically. It's sort of like admiring the forgotten trees you see every day or having running water. Sometimes little things bring you closer to the beauty of what you already have.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Musicality

In San Jose Taiko, one of our four guiding principles is Musical Technique. This principle covers how we learn what we play, the balance between the two hands, speed and tempo, listening and fitting into the ensemble, etc.

In taiko we tend to focus on good technique, good striking, fast hands, etc. This is the "technique". But I'm often left wanting more "musical".

Naturally, the drums are about rhythm. You hit the drum twice, you make a rhythm! But to make taiko "musical", we need to start considering what else we can do:
  • Ma is often overlooked or minimized. It's the distance, the space between notes. Sure, by simply playing less notes, you effectively generate ma, but it's an art to actively use ma to accentuate passages of music. It's the difference between taking a breath in order to talk more and pausing for dramatic effect.
  • Simply playing notes in tempo can still sound disorganized and random, especially in solos. I don't think it's going out on a limb to say most listeners like something to follow along with. You can have a solo that sounds like someone tipping a big bucket of golf balls on the drums, but...well, why not just use the bucket if it's going to sound that way when you play?
  • Tones can add a huge element of texture to taiko, even if it's as simple as higher drums playing one pattern while lower drums play another. More sophisticated compositions can play with that idea, like having the low tones play the ji of the song while the higher tones carry the melody.
  • Simple works! Sure, it's awesome to see and hear someone blast all-out and play intricate, fast patterns, but until you can do that yourself, don't feel you have to "settle" for boring and slow. I see audiences getting really excited for some of the simplest stuff that's done well.
  • For less hectic, driving pieces, exploring the range of sounds a taiko can make can be a lot of fun. Changing the beater you hit with (smaller, bigger, lighter, mallets, etc.) opens up a new world of possibilities. Adding non-Japanese instruments (whether percussion or not) also is still pretty uncommon in NA taiko, but I hope to see that changing over time.
When it comes down to it, a lot of taiko that I hear is musically interesting. But it's not something that just happens - thought, planning, and/or skill are needed to make that work. We don't often think of the "output" of what we play outside of good strike vs.bad strike.

Put yourself in the audience and ask what you'd like to hear. I'd bet you'd appreciate textures, contours, and variety even if it's "only drums", no? :)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Question Everything: Clapping


So how do you clap your hands? It's a simple question, right?
  • Which hand is on top, or which thumb is on the bottom? (Righties tend to have right on top/left bottom, and lefties the opposite.)
  • Do you clap fingers-to-palm or palm-to-palm?
  • Do you cup your "top" hand to make a more rounded noise or keep it flat for a sharper one?
  • Do you keep your elbows in or let space underneath?
  • Do you clap quickly or loudly?
  • If keeping time with something, do you "bounce" off or keep them together for a moment?
I never thought about how I clapped until I took a body percussion workshop one day. It didn't change how I clapped, but helped me understand my body better. I was able to know the sounds I made and know how to modify them when I wanted.

Sometimes it only takes awareness of a small thing to have a big impact. Look at something you do without thinking - how you grip a steering wheel, how you use chopsticks, how you strike a drum, etc., and ask yourself, how am I doing this?