Thursday, January 28, 2010


A few months ago at the studio, all of us had to go right up to the mirror and practice making a face. One of the songs we open concerts most often with requires a certain look, a face that conveys to the audience a sense of unrealized delight; a surprise that we know is coming but you haven't seen yet. It's not easy to make that face, let alone keep it during the song!

However, the face and the song are not important here. The exercise is. The large majority of the group couldn't keep from laughing either to hide feeling awkward or because it provided a break from looking at themselves. I'm no robot; there were times where I had to smile because of someone's reaction - but I didn't feel weird staring at myself as we went from "happy" to "flat" and subtle shades in between. I can't say all of you should go up to a mirror and practice making faces, but it might prove interesting. It's not as weird to do solo; there's less social awkwardness.

For me, my expression is key in both my chosen arts. In taiko, I have to portray emotion and exude presence. In karate, I can't let an opponent know where I'm about to attack, unless I want to use that against them. The right game face can also give an advantage if an opponent's spirit is weak.

We really only think about our expression when another person comments on it; but relying on another person to shape what our face is doing is like playing "Marco Polo" in the pool. Open your eyes and get to your goal!

Monday, January 25, 2010


What a pain. To practice playing taiko, you have to get to the studio, get out at least one drum if not more, put in at least a good 30 minutes, probably get sweaty (ugh), put all the equipment away, then get back home. That's about 90 minutes wasted!

...please tell me none of you agreed with that? Any of it? Ok, suppose some of you agreed with some of it. It's ok, you're not a bad person, I promise.

There are a lot of problems with that first paragraph...
  • Perception: If playing taiko doesn't give you joy, or at least satisfaction, why are you doing it? Think of all the things you've yet to discover, if you're open to it. You can play whatever you want, take as long as you want to do it, and at your own pace. Also, you should never think of time practicing as time wasted!
  • Location: Taiko doesn't solely exist at the studio. I'm sure most of you know about the tire-wrapped-in-tape substitute, or the upside-down garbage can. There's also conventional drum pads. But think beyond that and realize that even practicing moves in the air or on your lap (or the counter, dashboard, desk, etc.) is still training!
  • Time: Five minutes a day. Can you give yourself that much on the days you don't have taiko practice? For most people, that would be 15-25 minutes of practice a week, about 12-13 hours a year. Imagine if you spent 12 hours tapping on your lap? Aside from sore hands (ha) , you could greatly improve endurance, speed, and control. And that's with only five minutes a day...
  • Situation: In my early taiko days, I listened to taiko CDs and tapes to the point of ridiculousness. That was training! When I was playing along with the soloists of San Jose Taiko, SF Taiko Dojo, Ondekoza, and Kodo, I was effectively learning how to solo like the members of those groups! Also, taiko isn't just taiko - try making non-taiko songs you listen to into taiko. Hear/sing the percussion as kuchishoga, or whatever you want to use. Hear taiko everywhere, not just on the taiko themselves!
I practice taiko several hours each day without even touching a single drum. A lot of that isn't even on purpose but what I've gotten used to doing. My hands tap, my legs twitch, music plays in my head, I translate sounds into taiko - and there's no reason why you can't do all that and more.

Don't wait until you get to the dojo, make your training a part of your life!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Metronome love, pt. 2

Continuing the series, I want to take a look at working on triplets!

Triplets are very under-utilized in taiko. As a drilling device, they make you work on how to differentiate between loud and soft, how to keep an even tempo, and balance between the right and left hand. Even the commonly-practiced doro suku (loud loud soft soft) drill favors one hand over the other, depending on which hand starts.
  1. Get your metronome at 70bpm and play three evenly-spaced notes per click.
  2. Play each note at the same volume (comfortably; no need to be loud here).
  3. Feel the groove of the phrasing; get the feel of the three
  4. Accent the hit that falls on the click
That's the basic triplet - but there are more things you can do:
  • Increase the tempo slowly, in small increments to challenge yourself
  • Accent louder while making the other notes quieter
Personally, I feel mastering the triplet is mandatory to developing good chops. To be able to do it well on any drum at speeds both fast AND slow is a skill any serious taiko player should be pursuing!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Unspoken bias

As readers of my blog know, I love to bring up controversial issues dealing with taiko, analyze the factors, and illuminate how ridiculous the controversy actually is. This time, I want to address an issue about taiko groups founded in North America by non-Japanese and non-JA (Japanese-Americans).

Over the many years, I have observed several biased attitudes directed towards these groups. It manifests as suspicion of their motives, doubt of their sincerity or ability, and patronizing them during interactions. I hate to say it, but that's racism!

Taiko, as an art form in the U.S. was somewhat "chosen" by JA as a way for them to both express their voice and feel a connection to their Japanese roots. I think that's at the heart of the issue here. The people who hold a bias do so because either A), they've "claimed" this art that "other" people are daring to intrude on, or B) they feel the "other" people can't possibly represent the art (as well). Even if that's not based on racism, it's dangerously close.

It's too easy to just identify the behavior and label it. Why is it there in the first place? Consider that, when a non-Japanese/JA person opens a karate dojo, no one blinks an eye. The first karate dojo in the US opened in 1945, followed by the first taiko dojo 23 years later in 1968. Look also at the names of who were opening the first karate dojo - names like Trias, Parker, Arel, Nagel. Caucasian names teaching a Japanese art.

It's hard enough for North American taiko to flourish, but to have this unspoken bias only makes us have to fight yet another front. We battle ignorance from those who don't know what taiko is, we compete with other arts for funding and audience, we struggle to balance individual needs with what a struggling group needs, and then we have this internal cancer to deal with as well?

Hey, we all have our prejudices, but even a few individual people with this particular bias can do serious harm to the entire taiko community. The rest of them - of us - can't just say "well, I don't feel that way, I'm not doing harm." You have to be proactive and vocal about supporting new groups and new ideas. Don't be a bystander; you can't just do your art, you need to support it as well!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Question Everything: Ki

Ki, or energy, is something many Japanese arts profess to utilize. Whether it's generated as an explosion of energy, a laser-like intensity, or near-perfect stillness, ki is a very powerful force.

Or is it?

To me, ki is intention behind whatever you're doing. It can be presence of mind and/or purpose behind a technique. I'm not going to argue that ki doesn't exist; but I do plan to challenge your perceptions of what ki really is.

If a performer is screaming at the top of their lungs, sweating profusely, it sure as heck seems like they're exploding with ki. But is it possible to do so and yet still be "going through the motions"? If you're told to be louder or look more intense, you can do so without really projecting energy past your own nose. By focusing on what you think you should look like, you can miss what you should feel like.

I see this in both taiko and karate. Without really understanding that projecting raw energy is more than volume and flash, some people copy the facade of people around them. Sweat is a poor indicator of skill, and screaming is the untrained person's kiai. (To kiai well is to use the diaphragm, not the throat.)

Also, how much of ki is in the perception from another person? If you're doing a move or a pose and doing your damnedest to project a "supernova of ki", what if I'm looking right at you and I can't see it? Does that mean you're not generating it? Now, I realize asking that question makes me susceptible to criticism in my first point - maybe I'm wrong and people are generating ki that I can't see? Let me just say it's possible, but the point there is to make you question what you take for granted.

At the dojo in the beginning of each quarter, the intermediates are told not to kiai while sensei is teaching the beginners. It distracts the beginners until the second week, where they are taught how to kiai. About a year ago, I was getting frustrated at the lack of ki coming from the intermediates because of the imposed lack of kiai. It was almost as if without being able to kiai loudly on every 4th or 5th move, they couldn't generate ki! Ridiculous. After talking to the group and explaining that kiai should be on every move, audible or not, we resumed training. As I stood in front of the class, giving commands, I could feel the difference in energy (that above mentioned laser-like intensity) coming from the group.

So, let's assume I'm right about ki being intention. Try making faces to a partner and have them guess what expressions you're doing. If they get it wrong, who's really "wrong"? Is it the intention or the perception? I've seen way too many performances/tests where a person is really giving it their all, but the face is dead. It makes their ki feel at best muted, at worst really confusing. Also, consider performances where people are wearing masks, but you can still really feel the ki eminating from them - there's no way they could generate that kind of energy if their faces were dead behind those masks.

When it comes down to it, you can do almost anything with ki. You can brush your teeth with ki, you can even fill your gas tank with ki! But it's also easy to fool yourself into believing you're projecting ki when you're not, or to rely on making ki "loud" to make it effective. Experiment on your own if you truly want to figure out how to make ki work for you.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Kime and zanshin

In karate, there are two concepts that come into play, kime (key-meh) and zanshin (zahn-sheen). There are whole chapters dedicated to each in various books, so I'll just squish the descriptions down for brevity's sake.

The first, kime, is the focus of all your intention on one point in time and space. A good example of this would be in breaking wooden boards or concrete slabs. Without the willpower to hit through the object, doubt gets in the way and manifests itself as failure - which, in this case, would result in serious injury as the force rebounds onto the striking limb instead of penetrating through!

The second, zanshin, is having awareness of your surroundings, but in a passive manner. It's almost the lack of focus on anything fixed. You could almost compare it to the idea of a "sixth sense" in where someone might react physically without consciously thinking about doing so.

So how, if at all, do either of those concepts apply to taiko? How do you utilize two concepts which seem mutually exclusive?

A computer, even though it may seem otherwise, can't do two things at the same time. It rapidly shifts between tasks extremely quickly. In a way, we do the same when we play taiko. There are some actions that immediately take us out of either kime or zanshin, but we may snap right back in without realizing it.

For example, to kiai is to use kime. The "ki" in those words is not the same kanji, and does not have the same meaning. Nevertheless, to kiai is to focus energy from the hara, the center of being, through the mouth. Even if you try to do it lackadaisically, you still have to focus your muscles to do it with any sort of technique.

On the other hand, when someone says, "I was in the zone," this is a great example of zanshin. Being "in the zone" usually means you feel exactly where you and the ensemble are musically, and if you happen to be improvising, your solo is almost playing itself. Once you start to actually realize and think to yourself, "hey, I'm in the zone," you stop being in the zone. Why? Because you're starting to use focus in a state of passive awareness. It's like being aware you're dreaming just before you start to fall asleep, which wakes you up.

I can think of several other examples, but I want you to think of your own. When do you feel kime and zanshin? If not, why not? Can an entire group have either concept? Have you ever felt "bad" kime or "weak" zanshin?