Thursday, May 27, 2010

Brain fry!

There's a lot going on this and the next week:
  • We're collaborating with a very talented group of DJs and have a gig next Friday night.
  • Later this year we're collaborating with an established Indian dance troupe and have just started working hands-on with them.
  • This Memorial Day weekend is SJT's Taiko Intensive Weekend, a 3-day session full of sweat, drills, techniques, and fun!
  • I'm in the preparation for my 3rd-degree black belt test in about a month.
So with the above I'm teaching sections, creating new ideas, refining my skills, and/or performing. I'm sure they'll all lead to some really hearty blog posts! Unfortunately, due to my current state of brain fry (unrelated to the whirlwind of artistic things), this post is coming to an abrupt end.

Since TWI doesn't wrap up until Monday afternoon, I might not get the next post up until then, but please do check back later if there's nothing in the morning!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Less is more

I know, it's a huge cliche, right? Doesn't mean it doesn't bear thinking about.

When it comes to taiko, everyone has their own preference. Some people love to see a large ensemble, some like really loud songs, some like really busy solos, some like when people are kiai-ing at the top of their lungs, etc. And to that, I have to say "to each their own." Still, there's a post to be written!
  • More drums! There are some great "army" versions of songs; drums added to make the song bigger. It can be fun! But when the core song relies on having a lot of drums to make it interesting, that shows a fundamental weakness. You'll never hear someone say, "man, I would have liked that song but it didn't have enough drums."
  • More people! See above but replace "drums" with "people". :)
  • More volume! It's kind of hard to do a lot of taiko quiet, but without a sense of dynamics, a song (or a solo) that's only LOUD is very boring. IF I TYPE IN ALL CAPS AND NO PUNCTUATION THEN AFTER A WHILE YOU'LL GET TIRED READING WHAT I'M SAYING.
  • More notes! Iwasgoingtotypelikethis but no one will want to read it! Playing a lot of notes without a sense of dynamics is, like above, very one-dimensional. Most master musicians are known better for their sense of when to place notes more than how many notes they can play.
  • More fancy! It's not like people are bored with what's out there now. And there are some players with the talent to pull off some amazing things. But when it's not to inspire but to impress, it tends to have the opposite effect on me.
  • More length! Having a song that lasts ten minutes is a lot, but if you get there by just doubling everything to play it twice, that's cheating!
  • More ideas! This is the companion to "More length!" If a song has everything and the kitchen sink, with concept after concept and little tying them together, it seems like it's more fun for the composer than the audience. We might enjoy it, but we're unlikely to remember much about it.
  • More kiai! There's a big difference between a genuine show of expression that accentuates the song and screaming because you think it makes the song more powerful. Placing a kiai strategically, as part of the music or punctuating a feeling/mood makes a that single kiai way more powerful than many people doing it because they feel they have to.
Sometimes the most incredible music comes from the simplest things. Think about the first time you saw one person play an odaiko solo - the starkness of one person facing one drum. Think about when a soloist has a conversation with the audience, playing notes with purpose and dynamics that make both player and listener feel "in the zone".

What can you do when space, time, and *less* is the focus? Will it reduce your choices or expand them?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Teaching the way you learn

Ever have someone teaching you something and you feel like you're just not getting it? Is that their fault or yours?

I like to think that I learn things quickly. Really quickly. And so it's easy for me to dismiss someone's teaching ability when I don't get what they're trying to tell me. That's not fair, however, and I have to think about how they're teaching rather than what they're teaching. And that goes for when I'm teaching and people aren't getting my points or ideas; is it the material or my approach?

There have been countless articles and studies written on this sort of thing, so I'm not going to pretend I'm an expert or quote them, but I'll run down the basics. There are three main styles of learning: Visual, Audial, and Tactile.
  • Visual - The visual learner will want you to show them what you want. Consider demonstrating the technique from different angles or at different speeds.
  • Audial - For musical things, the audial learner will do best if you play what you want first. Many audial learners will do well if you explain what you want, but that doesn't always work.
  • Tactile - A tactile learner needs to feel something to make that mental association. It could be writing down a new pattern, going through movement by movement of a new technique, or literally being moved into position.
Ok, so those are the basic three, but often people are combinations of two or more and it can change depending on what's being learned. But it also goes to follow that people teach with a preference for how they learn. The larger the group taught to, the harder it will be to reach so many combinations of learning types. That's where a teacher has to decide, do I teach my way as best I can or try to appease the masses? Never an easy answer there. You may just have to realize that your way is not everyone else's way and be flexible in stepping outside your comfort areas to help others.

As a student, sometimes you just aren't going to get taught to the way you learn best. You have to be flexible. You may just have to ask for clarification and hope the answer helps, but at times you'll have to work things out on your own.

The better you are at other styles of learning and teaching, the better you are as an artist!

Monday, May 17, 2010

The nail that sticks out...

Most people play taiko because they enjoy it. That's a given! And I think it's safe to say that a lot of taiko players get to perform in front of audiences. However, I think it's the audience that gets overlooked a lot, but not how you think I mean.

Almost every taiko group I know espouses an Eastern philosophy of being humble, of not thinking too highly of oneself. That's admirable, right? But at what cost?

At heart, most of us are performers, and we perform for our audience. Perhaps the audience will be made up of friends and family, or festival-goers, or a concert crowd, but it doesn't matter. What does matter is their enjoyment of the performance, because who wants to play for a crowd that doesn't like what they're seeing? It's not about catering to their wants, but it is about entertaining them.

So back to being humble. If you practice to be humble, if you play humbly, that's how you'll perform. Now mom/dad/sis/bro/kids are pretty stoked to watch you perform, but they're biased, right? (I hope they're biased...) Now think of yourself as an audience member. Do you want to watch a performer who's not comfortable putting themselves out there? Someone who holds back in spirit and joy and talent because they've been taught not to think of themselves as a "superstar"?

No one wants a group of prima donnas, but who wants to watch a group of meek players who are afraid to give you all they have? It shouldn't be either extreme, but I feel people are more afraid to be labeled as the former and it makes them hold back.

You can be humble in your training, but never let anyone restrain your passion.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

When it's easy, you're doing it wrong.

But isn't that counter-intuitive? Well, yes. That's why I'm blogging about it!

Just this past Monday, I helped out at a kids taiko class then went to karate. In both classes, I saw at least one student who could have been doing more but was content to do "just enough".

In the first case, it was playing a straight beat (RLRLRL...), and although I knew this one kid was a Western drummer, he hit the taiko only *just* enough to make a sound on it. I and the rest of his row was playing at a pretty decent volume, but it seemed to bore him. (I'm not going to pick on him since he's a kid, just using him as an example.)

In the second case, we have a student at the dojo who also does kickboxing and is either incapable of adjusting or (more likely) just uninterested in doing so. I know he has the flexibility to get into a lower stance during drills, but he chooses not to. I called him and another advanced belt out for having the energy to spar during a water break once, because it meant they didn't push themselves hard enough (and had misplaced pride about not being tired like the rest of us).

In both cases, these two are doing the right "moves", but without applying themselves. It's a weird catch-22 situation in which it seems so easy to them that they wonder "why even bother?" but don't realize that getting deeper/bigger/louder means things get a lot harder. What they also don't realize is that holding back like that makes it really hard should they ever have/want to change later on.

I want people to understand that there's a difference between "easier" and "easy." We all want techniques to get easier, right? No one wants to have something remain difficult long-term. But when it eventually gets to the point where you don't think about it anymore, when it takes hardly any effort or energy to do well, that's time to ask yourself, can you do it better?

Yes you can!

Monday, May 10, 2010

It's not a mistake if you play it twice!

I was told that I'm good at making a musical mistake into a purposeful pattern. I guess that's true, even if it's not 100% foolproof!

Unless you plan out every solo section in advance and execute it perfectly, you're eventually going to play something you didn't mean to. Sometimes, this works out! Then again, sometimes it doesn't, and it becomes a "mistake."

Most of the time, listeners will notice a mistake because it feels...wrong. Maybe it's off-tempo or has the wrong sensibilities. It can also be a visual cue, like the reaction from the player being sort of unsure about what just came out of their hands.

The solution? Listening and good reaction time. First, you need to be listening to what you're playing (which is important overall!) Second, you need to have the presence of mind to play the "mistake" again, as if you planned to play it the first time. It might not be the most beautiful pattern, but the audience is going to perceive it as something you did on purpose, and that's sort of the point!

When you make a mistake, you can react poorly to it, you can ignore it, or you can turn it into a creative outlet and fear future ones less and less each time.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Drill: Left!

This will be a brief post as I'm just coming off a moderate fever and the Nyquil is kicking in, woo!

Simply put, start your patterns with the left hand. That's it! When you start drilling a ji or repetitive pattern (as allowed), start with the left hand instead of the right. Just that little change can help the psychological side of hand balance, if not the physiological.

And when you have time, see how many songs you can play "left-handed". In karate, we routinely do our lower kata in reverse form, and once you get the "trick" of it, it's a matter of knowing what comes next rather than worrying about which limb has to go where.

Of course, if you're a left-handed taiko player, you suffer enough as it is. :)

Monday, May 3, 2010


This was a long tour, and it's nice to be home. Touring in general has become something I don't think much about doing, since I've been on...close to 30 of them so far? I figured today's post would be a good time to talk a little bit about tour, what goes into getting us to a venue and what we do aside from just play on stage.


We air freight our equipment, so several days before we fly ourselves out, we load up all the equipment in road cases (about 24 now) and have it picked up. If we're lucky, we can go FedEx, but that's pretty uncommon. When we get to look at the boxes upon arrival, we usually find at least one "battle wound" from a forklift or halberd or whatever the hell they do to our boxes.


We usually leave around 6am to fly out (I know, jealous yet?) but get in to the hotel early-to-mid afternoon and rest. Things like the number of transfers or layovers varies. Once we've flown in, we rent a Budget truck for the gear and two vehicles for the crew. Because the longer tours are harder for people to do the entire length, we'll switch out 1-3 people who can't stay the entire trip.

Between venues, we drive. A lot. It can take anywhere from two hours to two days to get to the next stop, and we rotate the driving/shotgun/resting duties.


There's a lot of variables here. We could be in a budget hotel that's a 30-minute drive from the theater, a luxury hotel that's a 5-minute walk from the theater, or any sort of combination. Sometimes we get lucky and are in a great part of town for eating/shopping/sights, but other times we're in a business district and everything closes at 6pm.

I've also noticed that the nicer the hotel, the less they give you. Free internet, refrigerators and microwaves are much more likely at the cheaper places, go figure!


The theaters are truly a hit-or-miss deal. We could be in a high school auditorium or a 2500-seat brand new venue. We might have a crew of well-seasoned union workers or confused high school students. Seasoned doesn't necessarily equal professional, mind you. Still, we always try to make the crew's job easier by being self-sufficient as much as possible and cleaning up after ourselves.

School Shows

We play usually no more than two school shows for each concert, but sometimes we'll have none at all. Obviously it's best for us if the school show precedes the concert, but we don't have control over that.

It's an hour-long interactive show with audience participation. We'll bring two groups of kids up on stage, which can be daunting for the younger kids. We've had kids turn around to face the audience and freeze, cry, and even leave! Poor kids. To end, we take some Q&A time with the audience, and this is where things get interesting. 90% of the time, the questions are familiar, "what are those things on your head?" or "how long have you been playing?" But some questions are outliers, either very unusual or very insightful. Here are some:

"Who is this theater named for?" (We have NO idea.)
"Are you all related?" (Yes.)
"I have a dog!" (Uh...ok?)

You get the idea. Generally we just have to go with the flow!


People say that they gain weight on tour, because we're eating out regularly and we're usually hungry when we do so (like after a long drive, after a show, etc.) There's always a ton of snacks both brought and purchased along the way by just about everyone. My metabolism just burns it all like a freaking furnace, but I have to eat a lot more overall!

You'd think all the shows would keep us "in shape", but most people will try to get in some time at the fitness centers. Lots of driving and eating and waiting around take far more time than performing, and all of us get antsy when we're not doing something for long periods of time.

Apparently, I'm not as tall as I look on stage, it's that all the others are short. (Based on an actual comment after the show!)

We scurry around in the wings during the show like a duck's feet underwater. You only get to see the duck. :)


So that's a tour in a nutshell, more or less. Every stage is different, every audience unpredictable. It's a lot of fun to do or we wouldn't do it, but it does take a LOT of energy to do it over several weeks. The next tour for the group is in Hawaii come June, but my next tour will be a trip to the UK in July. I can't wait!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The good, the bad, and the good again

And we're finished! Our last show is done, the boxes are ready for freight pick up on Monday, and we head home tomorrow. Ahhh...

The Good: The catering at the theater was awesome! They had a menu - a menu! - of all things, showing us what was to be for dinner. We were definitely spoiled in terms of meals today!

The Bad: 99 times out of 100, the crew at a theater is at best, on-the-ball and at worst, slackers. Today was the special 1% that will be remembered, and not for good reasons. I'm not going to get into details, but let's just say it was an unprofessional atmosphere and leave it at that, shall we?

The Good Again: Friends! I got to meet a couple of friends out in the lobby, some I'd known for a while, some pretty recently. Yurika got to meet a small group of her old JET gang as well. The audience overall seemed really appreciative and I gave out more signatures and handshakes than any of the other venues this tour. Highly enjoyable. :)

Yes, I am beat. I put it all out there and even though I had some spots I could have done better in, I felt pretty good about the show. I'll try to come back to blogging Monday with some highlights and random tidbits about life on the road for the past three weeks, then it's back to the usual M/Th updates!

Thanks for following my adventures, this is mostly for my amusement but I really enjoy knowing people get a kick out of reading this stuff. :)