Thursday, February 25, 2010

Happy Birthday!

I started this blog exactly one year ago today! I'm pretty happy with it. :)

At the start, I didn't really know what I was going to talk about aside from touring logs - and I keep seeming to come up with ideas, which amuses me.

I'm getting about 100 unique hits a month, meaning different people who come here from various means - some of you come directly via bookmarking, others through a search engine, and some of you stumble here by accident (hope it's not too painful!)

There's a couple of you from Canada, and the occasional view from Europe and Asia, but most are from the U.S. (Don't freak out, I can't actually *see* any of you, it's all data from Google Analytics and just shows what country people are from. :)

I plan to continue with what I'm doing here - trying to post every Monday and Thursday - about being on tour, artistic ideas, drills, concert reviews, and who knows what else. But one thing I would love is for more input from y'all!

If any of you reading this blog want me to talk about an issue or hear my opinion about something I haven't gotten to yet, please let me know! Right now the only planned post I have in the near-future is for my 100th post, which will be about me, my experiences getting to where I am and how I approach practices after 17 years.

So there you have it, an open invitation - you can reply to this post anonymously, email me, whatever works. It's been a fun year and I'm just getting started! Thanks for joining me!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

When culture gets in the way...

Most taiko in North America is Japanese-American taiko. That boils down to following Japanese-American cultural values merged with the group's philosophy.

One thing I've seen quite a bit in both Japanese and J-A values is suppressing the nail. I'm sure most of you have heard that phrase, that "the nail that sticks out gets the hammer." I'm not going to judge that value; but I am going to look at it in relation to playing taiko.

For most taiko players, it's not easy to exude confidence in a performance. At first, all you're worried about is not screwing up! Down the road it's the little things like staying together as a group. But somewhere, after enough play time, you'll start getting comfortable, start developing your own style/voice within your group. Here's where the trouble starts...

Let me make some assumptions about you, dear reader.
  • You're probably trying to get better at soloing.
  • You watch other people from other groups play and wish you could be as confident.
  • You don't feel like you have enough ability to really "sell" a confident image.
Most groups I see don't really push their members to excel in these areas. I'm not saying "they want you to be mediocre", but it's more likely that they will support your development but at the same time make sure you're not feeling too confident. How counter-productive is that?

Sometimes your group, your greatest source of resources, can also hold you back. It may not be a conscious decision on their part, but often due to cultural values, it happens. You can shoose to fight back, but making waves like that will often lead to a lose-lose situation.

They may not recognize the incongruity, but when it's there, it's up to you to take your progress in your own hands, even if it might risk a little "flak" in return. I'm not saying you should strive to be a "superstar" and alienate fellow members along the way - I'm saying you need to find inspiration and support from *outside* your group at times.

It's a hard line to straddle, that of being confident and strong and dynamic on stage, yet humble off of it. Just remember that they're not mutually exclusive; you can be both!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

STOMP drill

Way back when, a few of us went to the auditions for STOMP when they were planning to make a San Francisco chapter. They wound up with over 600 people auditioning; the line almost doubled back on itself. They would take 20 people per batch, assign you numbers, give you 30 minutes, and if they wanted you to make the second round, your number would be called before the next group came in. In, out, repeat. Pretty efficient, I thought.

The format was interesting:
  • First 10 minutes: Teaching a movement drill, followed by solos.
  • Second 10 minutes: Drum/barrel solos.
  • Third 10 minutes: Return to the movement drill; more soloing.
I want to talk about the 2nd part - this was a great drill, easy to explain, easy to do, and applicable when you have at least two people available. Here's how to do it:
  1. Have the soloist start a short, repeating pattern (one bar).
  2. Repeat the pattern 8 times, without fills or deviation from the pattern.
  3. The non-soloist(s) come in on the 5th bar, adding light accompaniment.
  4. On the 9th bar, the soloist now solos on top of the accompaniment.
This drill does a number of things. The soloist gets to exercise creativity by creating a pattern; the accompaniment gets to do the same. There's soloing as well. The interesting thing is that the original pattern goes away as the soloist solos, but they can choose to solo to that pattern (in their heads) or to the accompaniment, or both. It's a bit of a mind trick and rather neat when you experience it.

With more people, you can add percussion to the accompaniment. You can also shorten or extend the length of a section. You can also change what kind of drums the soloist plays on (more than one, slant stand, odaiko, etc.The idea is to experience creativity in different ways, through a drill like this. Try it!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Look behind the obvious.

I love those moments when I'm at one dojo and I find something that mirrors an aspect in the other.

The other night at taiko, we were in working on small-drum techniques/chops/rudiments. This particular session was mostly focused on diddles, hitting multiple notes with the same hand quickly. Right right right right left left left left, etc. I wasn't having trouble with the drills, so I started watching others and analyzing my own technique.

I realized long ago that it's nearly impossible to keep the notes even if you lift your bachi up with the hand that's not striking (raising the left while striking with the right). When you strike with that hand, the first note will be louder due to the increased height you've given it, compared to the following notes. This particular night, I started thinking about the levels of my own bachi and hands. I noticed that the height that the tips of my bachi return to hardly fluctuates at all, but that my hands - specifically my wrists - would come up higher than the tip on the hand preparing to diddle. I let the weight of the bachi keep it down, and the velocity of my wrist snap would generate a solid hit - without needing height.

That led me to think that the key to even striking isn't what you're looking at (the bachi), but what's behind the motion (what your wrists are doing). I teach workshops on that sort of thing, but here was when the "aha!" moment hit me.

In Shotokan karate, we have the term hikite, or the "pull-back hand". When a technique is thrown with one hand, the other hand goes back to the hip, palm up. At first, this is counter-intuitive, and there are reasons cited for why we train this way in the beginning, but it's not important here. One day, a black belt was talking about not thinking about hikite as a pull-back, but as a pull-into. Instead of just pulling the hand back as a reflex, he said to think about grasping an opponent and pulling them into the attack from the other hand. He then demonstrated by hitting people thusly...which hurt. :)

Ever since then, that concept has stuck with me. It helps me feel I'm delivering a technique into someone instead of just striking at the air. And that night, when I made the realization about noticing wrists instead of bachi, remembering that concept of hikite came out of nowhere and the "aha" came forth.

Mind you, this post really isn't about the "aha". It's about seeing past what's right in front of you and finding the truths that lie beneath. So take something that you do without having to think about it...and think about it!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

One more test

Well this is interesting. I've been a 2nd-degree black belt at my dojo for over two years now, and while I've considered testing for 3rd-degree, it hasn't been even a minor priority.

So much for that.

With us, you're pretty much told when you're ready to test, which doesn't mean you'll pass, just that you're ready to try. One of our brown belts is trying to coordinate dates with us to test for his black belt, and I somehow got included in the conversation since (apparently) I'm eligible for testing myself. News to me!

Physically, I'm pretty much ready. I'll probably do some endurance-building things a month out, like running (I loathe running). Mentally, I'm prepared - spirit and intention are not a problem for me anymore; I look forward to pushing myself more than I've ever had to. It's all the intellectual things that will take the most work. For example, it's the definitions of every single move in Japanese, and all the esoteric movements explained and adapted to self-defense situations that will take most of the work.

So, aside from just explaining my situation, why post this?

One thing we get at the end of our advanced testing is a round of questions from the panel of black belts. They can ask you anything from "why did you choose that form to specialize in," to "do you think A is as important as B?" Ordinarily, those are questions that are relatively simple, but mind you this is being asked after a good hour of nearly non-stop intense cardio, drills to throw you off-balance, focused spirit, and lots of impacts. Your brain is long-gone. Babbling is not uncommon! Been there, done that.

One question - asked to someone else, years ago - that I marveled at was, "how would you teach a beginner a rising block?" On the surface, it seemed pretty easy...but there was not only what the arms had to do, but the basic stance and body alignment, not to mention moving into the next block. It made me think of how *I* would teach a group of beginners the same thing. Up until that point, it really never crossed my mind!

So what about you? Think of the art you practice and ask how you would teach someone those basics. Can you put what you do into terms a group of people could follow? I guarantee that when you get to that point, then you understand not only your art better, but yourself.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Review: Tao, The Martial Art of Drumming

A few of us drove up to Marin to see Tao, whose only previous visit to the U.S. was back in 2007. They apparently tour quite extensively in Europe and Australia, but are very new to North America.

After seeing Yamato back in October (review here), it's hard not to compare the two groups. They're both primarily made of younger players, are very physically fit and "active" on stage, stretch themselves creatively quite a bit, and use staging quite extensively.

I noticed right off the bat that many of the song names weren't Japanese, songs like "Queen" and "Horizon". But I didn't like the absence of any sort of song/liner notes. In the second half, I had trouble telling where one song ended and another began. This didn't detract from the overall show, but I personally like knowing that sort of thing.

Staging was similar to Yamato's in that there were risers in the back as well as the use of a silk screen in front of said risers at one time to give a different visual texture to those behind the screen. There was a grid on the floor that extended up and onto the risers for them to place equipment, which gave the stage a bit of a visually distracting style - a red grid on a black surface. Entrances into songs seemed a bit casual as well, with players walking onto stage comfortably, but somewhat too relaxed for my taste. The grid and the casual entrances often disconnected my immersion into the show.

Onto the breakdown!

The Pros:

- Talent. Tao is musically dynamic and tight, with a lot of thought given to energy and staging that only enhances the overall show. They want to give the audience an experience that's different from the usual taiko concert.

- Unexpected surprises. In seeing countless taiko shows, there are certain staples/cliches that come up. "Crossovers", or where the left hand rapidly plays alternating right-then-left head on a horizontal drum are one of the most common, as well as "pass-offs", where a line of players will play a rapid sequence of notes, one person after the other, down the line. In this show, it either happened in different configurations (crossovers) or with more intricate choreography (pass-offs). Other things, like playing odaiko en masse but without a drum - singing the notes - made things very unpredictable.

- Creativity. It's not easy to come up with nearly two hours of interesting taiko. Tao added costuming, a splash of light showy-ness, instrumentation (percussion, koto, flute), and just enough differences in each song that helped establish the group's style from other groups out there.

- Vision. The group is a young group in terms of performer age, and this comes across in the overall show. The men are often bare-chested, there's a sense of testosterone and playful bravado but without arrogance. They are showy without being garish, and push "traditions" without trying too hard to be "extreme".

- Potential. I can see this group getting better the next time I see them. I don't mean that to say they were anything short of damned good, but I'm actually curious to see what they'll do next tour. Other groups I go to see because I enjoyed what I saw last time, but with Tao I have a feeling they'll be pulling out some new surprises. I could be wrong, but it's the feeling they left me with.

The Cons:

- Oh look, they have women in the group. One of the biggest differences between Yamato and Tao is that Yamato's female performers hold their own. In Tao, the men are clearly featured, and the women get other roles, like playing flute and getting more frou-frou costumes. They were on the odaiko standing on the risers, but as accompanying beats and not as soloists. Some people might not really mind this gender difference, but since their style is less about strength and low stances, I don't see why women aren't doing what the men are.

- Stop stopping! Sometimes, I'm okay with a song having a false ending - a long pause in sound or motion before starting up again. But I *hate* it when there's more than one in a song, and/or it happens in more than one song within a set. Is it there to elicit applause? If so, it backfires, because when they really do end a song, I don't want to give it anymore in case I'm fooled again.

- 13 songs listed, 39 songs played. This happened with Yamato's set as well, and I wonder if it's just a style that's getting more common? When a song has three or more different moods, it's hard for me to enjoy it, and even harder to remember it! For example, I can remember bits and pieces about some of the songs I liked, but I have a lot of trouble remembering what song did what where. And because of the many many different moods throughout the show, I can only remember the layout of the drums but hardly any of the patterns, and I'm musically-oriented; I tend to keep patterns in my head long after a show.

- Alllllmost sharp. Musically, Tao nailed it. The theme of each song also comes out very strongly. But when it came to the small visual things, I just wanted a little more togetherness. For example, when a group would raise their arms or lean in one direction in unison, one or two people would be at a different angle or be moving out of sync with the others. I would bet that it's not their priority rather than them just being sloppy, but because they're SO tight musically, being *almost* together visually is frustrating when I would think it could be easily fixed.


I liked Tao and would highly recommend them. The issues I had were mostly minor and I don't think it would detract from most people's enjoyment. They announced that they had 36 more shows after ours, so they're definitely playing their asses off this trip and I hope they get a good fan base so they can come back again!

Friday, February 5, 2010

The camera never lies.

The camera may add ten pounds, but the videocamera is your best friend!

Every year, we put on our annual concert for a total of three shows. We videotape each one, and the day after the shows are over, we gather to eat, relax, and watch one of the three. Year after year, the same phenomenon results: We all laugh and enjoy, but when it's time for someone's solo, that person gets real quiet as they watch themselves...

I've talked about using mirrors before and how it's too easy to see what you want to see, rather than what you're being shown. The playback from a recording is much the same thing, but offers you a chance to really see what you've done. What's better, most digital cameras nowadays offer some sort of video recording function, so you don't need to buy fancy equipment.

There are two ways to make best use of this: at solo practice and at a performance.

At practice, you can look at your individual form. Are your hands really even? Where do you look stiff? Is your sound consistent among your strikes? How's your posture? There's no end to the elements you can look at in as short as 20 seconds of footage.

At performance, you can look at group dynamics and how individuals fit into the group. Are people sticking out because their form isn't the same? Are some people "off" (as opposed to "on"), energy-wise? Do dynamics sound like they should? Do the songs look cramped or too similar to each other in the flow of things?

The first time you see yourself on videotape can be a bit of a shock, but even if you go into a review with an intent to improve, don't neglect to notice all the good stuff, too!

Monday, February 1, 2010

What would you tell yourself?

I always wonder what experienced artists would say if they could go back in time and talk to their younger selves. What advice would have helped them through the rough spots, the dry spells, the frustrations?

I may do a post where I share what I might tell my younger self, but here I wanted to post what would help a large majority of starting artists:
  • Don't be in a hurry! If you're going to spend years doing an art, you'll have the time to learn things down the road. Being "hungry" is good, but being a glutton is off-putting and leaves you with a stomachache.
  • Figure out how *you* learn. There are three basic methodologies of learning; watching, listening, and doing. As you are taught material, recognize both how the teacher prefers to teach and how you can best learn. You may need to find a teacher that works for your methodology or risk getting frustrated.
  • Question everything, but don't always ask. Don't take things for granted lest you overlook something important. However, constantly asking people questions can make you reliant on other people for answers when doing your homework might serve you better. Then again, sometimes you just gotta ask!
  • Keep an open mind. People are going to teach you concepts that you may not find useful or that seem silly. Until you've done something long enough to know better, see if you can pluck out a few jewels from the chaff in the meantime. And even when you have done things for a long time, you can stop learning when you're dead.
  • Look around. Inspiration often comes from perspective. Too often, people train in an art and forget to look at other arts or art forms. Who knows what creative juices might stir when you listen to a new artist? What might you learn about your drumming when you watch a martial artist perform? Even finding out that another art form is radically different from yours grants you perspective
  • Practice! The more you practice in the beginning, the more results will show. Plus, it gets you into the right mindset for when you have something difficult to work on later down the road.
  • Have fun! It's weird to me to see people doing their art form out of duty, boredom, guilt, or any other number of non-positive reasons. Find that joy!
There's another dozen or so I could add on, but think what you would tell yourself back when you first started your art - and is it too late to learn from that wisdom?