Monday, March 29, 2010

Don't worry, be angry

Grrr, angry! My group/sensei/art isn't doing what I want it to do!

I see people in my arts who get angry, and instead of using that fire to make things better, it goes nowhere and things get worse. Instead of trying to fix things, they either expect it to fix itself or let the anger turn to indifference and disappointment.

Unless you're one of the rare few saints, you'll probably get angry at some point(s) while involved in your art. Nothing wrong with that. Being angry means you care, which means you have passion. But can you channel that passion into something useful?

I see what happens when people don't. In one case, a black belt I know just gave up. To him, the lower belts weren't good enough, weren't doing what he was doing at their rank, etc. It's not that he felt they should all be like him, but he wanted more than they were giving. It's very obvious how disappointed he is when he's observing a class from his body language alone. It affects the students (they can see him react) as well as his own mood. And it helps no one.

In taiko, I see people wanting change but unwilling to do much about it. Sometimes it's an issue that has no easy answer or is a delicate situation, but often it's not that complicated. It's easy to complain to others about what *should* be, but maybe it's the Japanese/Japanese-American culture that prevents people from actively confronting the issue bothering them. But without addressing, communicating, dealing with the issue that's making you mad, it's going to fester. That's the path to burnout and bitterness, and I personally believe it affects how you interact/play with the rest of the group.

So what do you do with that anger? There's never going to be one "right" answer. For my first example, in the dojo, I've purposefully made sure I never do what he did. When I see groups slacking off, I choose to try and talk to them, to let them know I know they can do better and they should expect more from themselves. I'm not a "pep talk" kind of guy but everytime a few of them "get it", it helps the others.

At any given time, there's something I'm ranting about. So for my second example, I learned that people were less likely to listen if I was just complaining than if I had an alternative solution. So now I spend a lot of that energy figuring out a better way - a better plan, a better drill, etc.

Even if you are trying to make things better utilizing that passion, it will only make it worse if it's not working and you get more and more frustrated. So when those doesn't work or it's not something you have the power to fix, try turning to composition and self-improvement, making something work for you.

Most of us recognize when we're angry, but too often it's labeled as a "bad" feeling and suppressed. It's like taking a hot potato out of the oven and holding on to it. Might as well eat it - and while you're at it, prepare it to your liking!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hand Independence

One thing a good percussionist should be able to do is have a modicum of independence in their hands. Most taiko players can belt something out on two or more different drums, but hand independence goes further than that. So try these simple drills:
  1. Trace a triangle in the air with one finger while tracing a square in the air with the other. Try switching hands and even switching which directions you're tracing in.
  2. Touch your fingertips together. One circles away and down from you, the other circles towards and down from you at the same time. The tips should pass by each other at the halfway point. When you feel like you have it, switch direction every 2 circles.
  3. Your right hand taps/plays R R R R RRRRRRRR while your left plays LLLLLLLL L L L L. Basically, one hand is playing 4 notes while the other plays 8, then switch.
Those were for the fun ones!
  1. Play the ji of a song (the base pattern) on one hand while you play melodies with the other. Start slow and find simple patterns at first!
  2. Have one hand stay on a not-too-fast straight beat (R R R R etc.) Improv with the other.
The last one is actually the basis for a new song I'm working on, so drills like these can not only be good for building skill, but applicable! Good luck!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Question Everything: Audience

Who do you peform for? And how does it change your output?

Most performers don't consider their audience very much, they just perform for whatever group of people is watching at an event. There's nothing really wrong with that, but what about looking deeper?

It's easy enough to modify your performance for your audience - a quiet room of corporate employees usually won't outwardly *seem* to enjoy your performance, so maybe you don't put yourself out there as much. Related to that, a closed-off audience like that is hard to bounce ki off of, so you often don't feel like you're getting any energy back from them.

What if you just put it all out there and maybe affect a few of them who can't openly enjoy your efforts? Give them something to think about for the rest of the day, maybe make them fans from that one performance? Holding back can easily mean you touch less people, and what's the point of that?

There's a mental trick to putting more out at a performance, and that's pretending you have loved ones in the audience (of course, actually having them there works, too.) There's something about wanting to make them extra-proud that usually has an affect on you. It usually surpasses any sort of nervousness that may accompany their presence, too.

Along those lines, there's an interesting observation at seeing guests (known or not) at a practice. When people know they're being watched, they usually feel they have to represent themselves/the group better. Even if it's just one person watching a rehearsal, I see people chatting less and pushing a little harder. So what would happen if you ran all your rehearsals with someone watching (or pretending that someone was)?

And lastly, you are always your own audience. Figuratively, you always have your mind's eye watching you, thinking about how you look, how you appear. You are also usually your own worst critic. Literally, you can watch yourself if you tape your practice/performance and critique yourself later! The camera becomes your surrogate audience.

Whether it should or not, who your audience is can affect your output. How often have you relaxed because you didn't have someone watching? How often have you held back because of the type of people watching? What'll happen if you always pretend your parents/children/spouse/etc. are watching?

Psychology is full of examples how who's watching you shapes who you are. So shape yourself and see how you shape your audience in return.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ok is not ok.

In the karate dojo the other night, we ran a pre-test a week before the actual test a week later. I watched the class and made mental notes. And even though I could have spent 20 minutes telling each belt group what they should work on, I narrowed it down to this:

"The good news is that your technique is ok. The bad news is that your technique is ok."

Most people got it right away. The implication is that "ok" just isn't good enough. It's a C+ or a B-, a passing grade but hardly by much. And I see "ok" both in karate and taiko much too often for my tastes.

Most people won't push themselves every time they practice. However, falling into a pattern of "going through the motions" is dangerously easy to do. Watching yourself in the mirror during practice can lead to this, so can pacing yourself so that you're not sucking wind by the end of practice. Both of those examples are easy to justify, either as a way to fine-tune movements or to keep someone from having to sit out early. It's too bad they also limit you from growth, by limiting expression and endurance.

Relying on someone else to push you will get your technique to "ok". You need to push yourself - by yourself - to make it to "good" and above. Coasting never gets anyone anywhere, you have to navigate yourself to your goal!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Injuries and regrets

Sometimes I wonder how long I'll be able to do what I do.

Karate 2-3 nights a week, taiko 2-3 nights a week, weekend rehearsals, gigs, tours, run-outs, tournaments - sooner or later I'll have to stop it all because my body won't let me continue. Stupid body. But that's the truth of the human condition, right? We can't do the fun stuff forever.

I've been lucky given my moderately-high risk activities! Bruises, sprains, tweaks and pulls have been the worst, which is fine considering all the fists, feet, and drumsticks I've been hit with over the years. :)

Still, I see other people in both karate and taiko get injured and they're not able to do as much as they used to. Since I tend to be...rather "animated" whether I'm playing or sparring, I really don't relish the thought of not being able to jump about, swing my arms however I want, push my limits, etc.

So I tell you, dear readers, make the most of it NOW. You never know when you'll be forced to stop your art for physical reasons! I'm not saying to go overboard and risk the very injury that might stop you (of course not). But don't wind up down the road regretting that you could have done more, that you should have tried "that one thing" when you can do it NOW.

Keep filling your future with fond memories and you'll have much less room for regret.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Who sculpts you?

Your artistic progress depends a lot on your choices.

A lot of people don't realize they have as many choices as they do and they let their artistic development become "shaped" by others. I wouldn't say this is inherently bad if you have the right shapers, but odds are there are better alternatives for you. Basically, who decides what you will become? Who sculpts you?

Some of the choices below are clear what the "right" answer is, but some are less black-and-white:
  • Do you want to have everything explained to you or learn things through trial and error?
  • Are you open to exploring concepts outside of the box or does safety keep you steady?
  • Could you take honest but possibly negative critique of your work if it meant the opportunity for growth?
  • Would you want your group to be filled with people of your sensibilities? (Comfort vs. different ways to process/create)
  • What will improve your skill more at this point, teaching, creating, or doing?
  • If you need inspiration, will you wait for it or force it to happen?
  • Which of these would you rather give to someone looking to you for guidance - a helpful but unflattering comment (without being mean), or a meaningless yet feel-good comment?
  • Would you rather be a distraction or an inspiration?
  • Do you respect a teacher or mentor more by trying to be exactly like them or doing your own thing?
  • Do you wait for masters of your craft to come to teach you or attempt to learn from them before ever meeting them?
  • Is your first reaction to a suggestion to consider it or shoot it down?
  • Think about the one thing you would want people to remember about you in your craft. What steps are you taking to ensure that it happens?
  • What are you more likely to do when you enter your studio: socialize or drill?
  • What's the one habit you'd like to change? When will you change it?
There are several other questions I could probably come up with, but I just want you to start questioning things you may never have (don't I always?) Some of the questions need context, of course, but I'm sure you could apply most of them to your current development right now and see how the choices you make shape you.

Sculpt yourself, or someone will do it for you!

Monday, March 8, 2010


Why do you do your art with your group?

There are as many reasons to do an art as there are people who practice it - priorities in the reasoning behind why you might keep going. There are rarely any "bad" priorities, but there are situations when priorities can cause a lot of trouble.
  • Priority of the organization. If you're looking for a recreational activity but your group is more focused on performances/tournaments, you risk having to fight to do "your thing" throughout your entire time there.
  • Priority of your teachers. Even within clearly-defined group priorities, each teacher will have their own agenda to some degree. You may find it even harder to fight against this than against the group, because often a teacher is much more active in their philosophies than the organization.
  • Priority of the majority of the people. This one is a subtle one, but if there are cliques in your group or a majority of people who have the same priorities, it can result in peer pressure to varying degrees, both passively and actively.
For me, I practice taiko because I love the art form and want to get better. For karate, I feel like there's a lot more to work on and can push myself physically there. In both arts, when I arrive early, I start practicing something, and when class is over, I leave. There are exceptions, but it's what I do 90% of the time.

It still bothers me somewhat when people come to a practice early and immediately socialize - but this is my problem, not theirs. My priority is to improve, but theirs may be something else. Personally, I feel I get enough social interaction at non-practice events, such as travel time on the road or at potlucks and the like. I also recognize that I'm not by nature a social creature and that definitely shapes my priorities.

When you feel like you're having trouble fitting in, or feeling like going to practice isn't as satisfying as it used to be, ask yourself if your priorities are the reason why. The group isn't going to change all that easily, neither will the attitudes of the majority.

Sometimes you have to realize that you're in the wrong group and leave. Other times, you can define yourself by your priorities and find your own place in the group you're in. The latter won't be an easy journey; it wasn't for me but that struggle reminds me of how far I've come and what matters to me.

Better to answer these questions for yourself now and know where you stand than to let your group define you by default.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tao, a follow up.

Less than a month ago, I reviewed a concert by Tao here. As I left, I bought one of their CDs and have listened to it enough to warrant reviewing it, as well.

This will be a short blog post; I'm not going to go into every track and describe the highs and lows. What I want to say is that after watching the show, the CD is actually a very good product.

Even though I enjoyed a majority of the songs at the concert, there was so much going on - in terms of musical texture - that I didn't realize how much I was missing until I got to really hear it on the CD. Granted, that's going to be the case with any live-versus-recording scenario, but this time it made me appreciate Tao even more.

I would recommend this CD mostly to those who have seen Tao live or on tape. If you haven't seen them, the CD is still good, but may not really stand out against those of other groups.

Monday, March 1, 2010


If you play taiko, you play percussion. However, most taiko players I know don't consider themselves percussionists. Any struck instrument is a percussion instrument - so technically, a piano is "percussion", but good luck getting people to change that classification!

I split taiko players into three categories:
  • Taiko players: Well, this is as obvious as it gets. If you take multiple classes or lessons, hold bachi in your hands and strike a taiko, you're a taiko player. This is the base level that everyone can be at, regardless of how long they've been playing.
  • Percussionists: Even though taiko players are technically percussionists, I define this category as a taiko player that is comfortable with the auxiliary instruments, like chappa, kane, etc. It's having a transferable skill that you take to whatever instrument you're put on. It's not enough to just play those instruments, it's a level of comfort and technique that makes this category separate.
  • Musicians: Taiko is music, but as above, there is a difference between merely making music and being a musician. To me, a musician crafts their solos in terms of rhythm and dynamics. They play with tones and the space between notes.
A person can be one, two, or all three of these categories. Someone may not have great taiko technique but really understand the musical side of things, while another may have incredible chops on percussion and yet be very limited in what patterns they can create.

It's also important to note that I don't list them in order of importance or priority. They are all connected yet have independence. Think about it, as a performer, you want to have skill in all three - and as an audience member, you want to see all three on stage!

I see a lot of Taiko Players, because every group is full of them! It's sort of a given. :) There are not too many Percussionists in the taiko world, and that's a shame. It takes a little more time to learn about new instruments, and some groups just don't have them to practice on. But realize that even tapping on your lap or thigh is body percussion, and the skill of striking something that's not taiko can be developed in alternative ways. Finally, there are far too few Musicians in taiko, aside from those who play another instrument, whether it be flute or piano. Those who start playing taiko rarely pick up something else. But it shouldn't be about learning a new instrument as much as thinking of taiko as music.

So on that last part, here's some things to think about when you're on a taiko - or any percussion, for that matter. What tones can you get from it? There's much more than the basic three of "Don", "tsu", and "ka". What if you press the bachi down when you strike instead of letting it bounce off? What about striking that pressed bachi with the other bachi? What if you hit near the rim instead of the center?

Taking the time to think of what else is available - what's not going to be taught to you directly - will help you become a percussionist, a musician. It won't happen unless you make it happen.