Monday, June 28, 2010

Impress vs. Inspire

PJ Hirabayshi, one of the founding members of San Jose Taiko, is fond of saying, "Don't play to impress, play to inspire."

It's a pretty important quote that can fundamentally change someone's approach to any art.

On one level, it can refer to making sure you're playing from the heart and showing that joy. Another way to look at it is that to impress someone may be fun, but is nothing compared to touching someone enough to inspire them.

Sometimes I'll pull off a fancy pattern or fancy kick or what-have-you because I can, knowing that it's me showing off. But also know that it doesn't make people necessarily want to do it or even get better at what they already know. It's just eye/ear/brain candy. At the most, it'll get someone to remember me as "the guy who did that thing."

It's the stuff that people leave an event thinking about that will last. Whether it's something at a concert or a belt test or an exhibition, inspiration has impact and can stay with a person for several years. That's what we all want to feel; that's what we all want to impart on our audience.

So if your goal is to out-do the person before you, or to show how good you think you are, who are you doing it for? It's not the audience; it's more about your own ego. So step beyond mere ego and think about when you've felt those impacts of inspiration from others. Isn't that what you want to have resonate out from your art as well?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Inside vs. Outside

When learning an art, whether under an instructor or through other means, people usually follow along with the motions that they observe. This is how we learn as children and it's generally how we learn as adults, too.

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, there's a danger to focusing on the external look of the motions. If a person has the skill to move as the instruction dictates, simple mimicry will only let them assume the facade of the action, not develop an understanding of it.

An artist who can understand their body will have an advantage far beyond simply "learning stuff quicker". It also comes in things like knowing how to utilize the space around them and appearing to move effortlessly. Another huge benefit is in not having to learn every new movement/song/kata as a new "thing" and instead as a variation of something previously taught.

Those who learn from the "outside" are doing what they're told or shown. However, it's imitation without understanding what their body is doing aside from adopting a pose or a motion. When they move on to the next song/action/movement, they can't transfer what's similar from the last thing; they have to get shown exactly what to do in the new situation.

Picture getting in a new car, one you've not driven before. Assuming you know how to drive in the first place, you'll adjust the seat, the wheel, mirrors, etc. You'll not be super-comfortable for a little while until you get the feel for the car, but in a short while you'll be driving it just fine. Imagine though, if every time you got in a new car, someone had to tell you where the gas pedal was, what the steering wheel did, and how to stay inside the lane markers. Every time. That's what learning "from the outside" is like.

Ok, great, so I'm showing why it's better to learn your body from the "inside" than focusing merely on the "outside" look. How do you make it happen?

If you're fortunate enough to have the time and resources, cross-training is the best way to do this. Dance, martial arts, and sports are the easiest to find a way into. You may have heard of boxers learning ballet or football players learning Tae Kwon Do, and there's a reason for that!

Barring that, sometimes it just takes some real self-reflection in doing the movements you're already familiar with. For instance, you can close your eyes and go through the motions of a form or a song or what-have-you. Or, what happens when you slow everything down but never stop moving? How about holding each move for a few seconds and feel where the tension is and isn't?

The example I can give is in doing kata in karate. I know about 25 different kata and have been doing some of them for about 10 years now. So when I do them as a warm up, when I want more than just a sweat, I'll focus on something. Maybe one day I do them all smoothly, with little impact and no pauses, to see how my body makes transitions. Maybe another day I'll try to get as low as possible and see how I can and can't move. There are endless possibilities!

If you're only concerned about the visual "product", then all you have is an inflexible, hollow shell that will shatter with a little bit of stress. Once you have a foundation to build from, then the shell is just one part of your artist's repertoire and something that can adapt as you need it to!

Monday, June 21, 2010


Some of you who visit might start seeing my posts here touching on points made there. I don't want to monopolize a thread on TF, and a lot of times as I'm typing a reply over there, I'll think of a lot more I'd like to say, so I'll do it here. :)

So today I want to talk about teachers. Specifically, who says you need one? I've never known anyone to bat an eye when they hear of someone picking up the guitar or piano and teach themselves. Self-taught musicians aren't uncommon at all.

But when it comes to taiko, we players assume that we have to find a teacher to learn the art. I've seen more than a few people scoff and even not-so-discreetly mock those who don't have a teacher. It's almost a feeling of, "you don't have a teacher? What good can you be?" That may surprise some people to hear, or sound harsh to others, but I've seen and heard it from enough people at different times to know it's not an isolated thing.

I don't want to give the idea that it's a normal sentiment among taiko players who have teachers, but it does seem more common than in other musical styles. But why is it there at all? I put it down to two reasons: culture and "age" of the art.

Kumidaiko, or ensemble drumming, is a relatively new art form. There's not a lot of places to go to find qualified teachers, and it's not easy to find a lot of information about how to play if you don't have someone to learn from. Because of this, it's easy for one to feel lost without direct teaching. Learning another instrument or art form that's been around for over 100 years might come easier, with videos and books and documentation easily available at the local music/bookstore.

Taiko is also thought of as a "Japanese" art, and many many groups in North America and abroad (and obviously in Japan) approach the art with a mindset of other Japanese arts. You just don't learn chadou (the art of the tea ceremony) or karate without a teacher. To do it correctly, you must learn from someone who has mastered the art before you. Otherwise, you cannot be doing it correctly. Why? Because you don't have a teacher!

If you want to learn a specific, defined art like chadou or a style of karate (like mine, Shotokan), then yes, I feel you do need a teacher. There are just stylistic things you can't get from a book or a video that only a teacher can help you with. But here's where we get back to my original idea. You only need a teacher if you're interested in learning a certain style. If I want to learn how to play like "supergroup X", or learn to move like "X-sensei", then yes, I have to learn from them directly. If I just want to play taiko, then I don't need a teacher.

Sure, a teacher is going to help you, and it's no fun to be isolated without access to someone who can help you grow, but is it "required"? There are a lot of people out there who struggle even WITH a teacher, so if it's not quality of product that matters, then what does? Prestige? Really?

I'm not here to say that you shouldn't try to find someone who can help you on your journey, but I want to challenge the perception that it's mandatory. Sometimes it's the people who "don't know any better" who come up with some of the most inventive ideas.

Thursday, June 17, 2010!

Hey everyone! I wanted to take a post here and mention the newly-launched site,!

There's a small team of us from different taiko backgrounds who decided to get a forum up and running to bring together taiko players and taiko lovers alike from across the great digital frontier. It seems a shame that except for the NATC and regional/collegiate taiko gatherings, there's not a lot of opportunity for people to share and connect and pose questions, etc.

Right now we're focusing on the North America (yay Canada!) but soon hope to expand past that!

We're featuring:

- Forums (current moderator: Kris Bergstrom of On Ensemble.)
- Group Wiki (we want every taiko group to post something about themselves!)
- Group map (trying to list every group we can!)

We have more than just the above and want to make the site even more enriching and valuable, so come register (we won't spam you!), look around, and introduce yourself on the forums!

Hope to see you there!

Monday, June 14, 2010


All of us have goals in our chosen arts. We want to play that difficult song, to pull off that impressive series of moves, to use tools that take specialized training. So, we practice. We try.

But when is it just not worth it? When does striving for a goal actually limit your growth?

Each of us has our own set of strengths and weaknesses in our art. Perhaps one person has trouble with intricate patterns, perhaps another isn't light on their feet, etc. If my next goal is to play a very fast song but I don't have enough chops for it, then I'll be swimming upstream the entire time. I'll be fighting my own hands and trying to get better but also having to split my resources to learning the song. More likely (and this is what I see happen), I'll find a way to learn the song and then suffer through it because my chops were never up to speed.

Maybe I'll eventually reach my goal, that song, whatever, but I've spent all my resources (time, energy, focus) getting to that point. Now what? I can barely hang, and my skills have only grown a small bit. So what's the alternative?

Let's say you're the person I described above, who's not strong with chops, and your strength is in movement. What songs would suit you best? Look at skill sets as paths. The pathway of "movement" may lead you to four or five songs within reach, while the pathway of "chops" gives you that one song you're interested in. You can spend the same amount of time on the first path and learn those 4-5 songs, or on the second path and learn maybe the one.

Now, I'm not trying to say you should only do what you're good at and never try to better yourself, that's silly. What I am saying is to realize what you are good at and grow along those lines, while recognizing what it will take to focus on difficult areas.

So let's say you really do want to take on that difficult path, regardless of what it is. You can not expect to have it just happen because you want it. I've never seen a class or dojo change how it teaches someone just because that person wants goal x instead of goal y. You will have to make changes that will lead to reaching that goal.

If you want something, you need to take time out of your schedule because you're going to need more resources. And if you're going to ask someone to help you, you have to listen to what they say! You can tell this annoys me, because I see people getting one-on-one time from a mentor (who is donating their time) and only hearing what they want to hear.

This isn't about telling people to "know their place" or to "never try for what's difficult". Everyone who knows me knows that's completely opposite of what I believe in. Don't neglect what comes easy to you; you will still grow as an artist! But if you're going to take on a mountain, you better have the right gear. Leave the flip-flops at home. :)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Limitations aren't fixed

You can't. It's too hard.

Is that you? Then stop lying to yourself!

I'm not an uncaring sort; I realize that many things ARE hard, mentally, physically, or otherwise. Sometimes your body causes the limitation, sometimes you really don't want to do something in front of a bunch of people that you're not good at. But what I'm getting at here are the self-imposed limitations that a person puts on themselves.

Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too often I see and hear people shooting themselves in the foot like this. It could be a series of motions that are tricky, and they'll say "I can't do that" before even trying it. Or it could be something that they'll try to do, but they feel so awkward doing it that it translates as too difficult.

It feels more to me like a self-defense mechanism than a real assessment of their skill. Throwing up the "I can't do that" barrier instinctively protects a person from feeling embarrassed or unskilled when they try it, but let me ask you this - what skill did you ever try that you were instinctively good at? If it didn't come to you right away, then why did you continue doing it?

The very first time I ever sparred, a black belt punched me in the nose and it was my fault because I didn't know to keep my guard up. I've had to do things for photo shoots or collaborations that were awkward and made me feel very stupid. I've had to play songs in my percussion ensemble that I was so not ready for. Each of those situations was a sort of limitation, but they were all temporary. I learned to put my guard up, I learned to trust in the artist to make a good product, I learned to try harder and do my best.

And you know what happened? The things that used to be hard weren't as hard anymore. The limitations that I refused to accept went away - and now I was ready for the next level of difficulty. Instead of accepting or defining something as a limitation, I tried until I made progress. And once progress is made, that limitation is shown to be less permanent, less "fixed".

There's a musical pattern called a "paradiddle". It's a percussion technique played R L R R L R L L, alternating back and forth. When I first tried it, I had a lot of trouble playing it with any sort of speed. I couldn't force it to happen and my hands felt stupid. A couple of years later, I was doing them with decent speed for fun, and I suddenly remembered how much trouble I had the first time around. If I had told myself it was too hard, if I had accepted that my hands weren't going to get it, there's no way they would be so much easier to play now.

Still, this isn't about what *I* did, this is about trying to get people to stop telling themselves what they can't do. I'm really not into "positive thinking" as a philosophy, but that sort of "believed negativity" is just as bad as someone physically stopping you from getting better. How would you feel if there was a new skill to learn, and someone literally stood in the way between you and your gear, or the practice space? You'd be pissed! So why accept it when it's you who's in the way of your own development?

To impose a limitation on yourself is to install a fence that stops you from progressing. It's only a fixture because you allow it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

San Jose Taiko meets the Bangerz!

(sorry about the format of the pics, Blogger doesn't like multiple pics much...)

Last Friday night, San Jose Taiko collaborated with a local DJ crew, the FingerBangerz (or just Bangerz).

Through a lot of happenstance and degrees of separation, we got in contact with them and found we had a lot in common. They've been around for about 15 years, based in of San Jose, and largely known more outside of their home base than within. SJT's a lot like that, just with more years under our belts.

The idea came to do a collaboration at the downtown street festival SubZERO, described as "A do-it-yourself, artistically bent, high/low-techno mash up where street meets geek." (From the SubZERO website.) Last year, we did a collaborative march through the streets with members of another local group, and I got hit upside the head by the tail of a mobile stegosaurus...don't ask. Anyways, it takes place every year on the streets of downtown San Jose, where they close off several blocks for the festivities.

The Bangerz were on at 11pm and after their three acts, we were to join for the last four songs. It was more of a collaboration than a lot of things I've been involved with. A lot of collaborations go: group A plays, group B plays, then maybe a team-up for the last song. Here, we played with their music or they played with ours.

They used keyboards, turntables, laptops, and all assortment of electronic devices spread out on tables in the back of the small stage, with our equipment set up in front of them. The raised stage was pretty small, about 24' deep and 20' wide, but monitors (speakers) took up some of that width. They got the crowd very pumped up and from behind the stage we watched them work their gear and really get into their music.

When we got on stage to play, the crowd seemed to go on for blocks; a sea of pumped-up fans just as curious to see what was going to happen as we were. We started with one of our songs, "Pandala", which featured taiko, didgeridoo, and the Filipino kulintang. For most of the song, the Bangerz didn't add much and let us do our thing, but when they came in, the crowd came alive. Not that they were quiet earlier, but a switch flipped, to be sure! The only weirdness came from the didgeridoo being mic-ed so that the whole stage buzzed with the low drone during its solo section, but that was minor at worst.

On to song #2, "Robot Remains", the first of their three next songs. We put together a sequence of familiar moves (to us) taken from various songs and spliced a very cool-looking routine. The crowd really seemed to like the bigger motions we made; maybe they looked the most dance-like?

Song #3, "Stuck", was a trio of us (Miyadaiko/big drum up, shimedaiko, and a chudaiko) with them riffing on their own track. We played a short pattern together and then did a few turns/spins to add a little something, but it was 95% improvising for us. I have to admit, I didn't know when the piece ended; it was the one I was least familiar with, but you'd never know by watching!

Song #4, "Inferno", was the climax of the evening. We mostly played on top of the bass track to the song, repetitive patterns and sequences, with a few movements thrown in. Near the end came a portable okedo solo section, but the ending involved samba whistle and the Bangerz coming off their tables to play hand percussion amongst us. Awesome!

Now, we had our small share of oops, but it was a casual setting and the energy - from us, the Bangerz, and the audience - was surreal. There was a real sense of respect from the Bangerz and I/we felt honored to get to work so closely with such a talented group of artists. I never felt like they were anything but excited to work with us, and there wasn't one of them I couldn't talk and get a feeling of gratitude from. I really hope we get to work with them again, and not 5 years from now; soon!

I daresay that this performance will probably be a highlight of my taiko career. Who'da thunk it?


There's some video of this available now; more's coming out every day!

Here's the first of two long-range shots.
Here's the second.
This clip is pretty close up but with a lot of stuff in the way.
Our rehearsal the night before the show.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Review: Keith Terry and Kenny Endo: A Lifetime of Improvisation

Friday night I went up north to Berkeley to see a duo of amazing performers. I had seen them do a similar show about three or four years ago in a tiny club with a capacity of maybe 30 seats; the show didn't sell out then but I don't think anyone knew about it. I don't recall how I found out about that first show, but it turned out to be my favorite live performance of any I've ever attended.

Taiko fans should recognize one of the names - Kenny Endo. Kenny's one of the pioneers of NA taiko, based out of Hawaii, and known for his mastery of texture and sounds. The other name, Keith Terry, is well versed in many forms of percussion, more than I can list here, and a master of body percussion. I'm not doing either of them justice; you really should Google them both to get a sense of how amazing both of them are! Kenny is cool confidence and Keith is remarkable smoothness.

They played a two-hour show this past Friday, and the set was both very similar yet different from the previous one. In both performances, Kenny had a set up of taiko and Keith had his assorted toys, instruments, and a drumkit. At times just one would do a solo performance, but usually they were both going at the same time. Sometimes they would interact with lightness and humor, but it was really just about the "dialogue" between them.

The beauty of the performance is that it was almost impossible to tell what wasn't improvised. I caught one kiai by Kenny during an odaiko solo that signaled when he was going to end, but aside from that, it could have all been made up on the spot.

Now, I improvise a good deal with my group, but the ease of which they did it between each other was extraordinary. Either man would start something, some pattern on some instrument with some beater, and the other would work off of that. It was rarely one person playing a repetitive pattern for the other to solo off of; even when one person was the clear focus, the other would be improvising around the very base they were providing. Let me make it clear how incredibly difficult that is - it's DIFFICULT. :)

To have a person improving to a set pattern isn't too hard, but then to have that pattern change underneath you and still maintain your own voice is quite a task. And let's not forget the person changing and weaving in the first place, who's trying not to mess up the soloist but at the same time converse with them. Lots of things can go wrong there! Now consider that they did this pretty much for 90 minutes...yow!

I don't know if or when this show will come about again, but I will see it if at all possible. The skill of both men, the ease at which they do what they do so well, and the ideas they inspire make it my highest-recommended show. And this is from a Kodo fanatic, so that's saying something!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Taiko Intensive Weekend 2010

So the reason why this post is late is because I was busy the whole three-day weekend over at SJT's studio with their Taiko Intensive Weekend.

This was the 5th TWI: Original that we've run, with 12 people coming from all over the U.S. They get to learn SJT's style of technique, performing, philosophy, as well as get to visit San Jose Japantown and understand the history of our group. We have a TWI: Naname, which focuses on playing the drum at an angle, which we spend all 3 days focusing on. We're also thinking about doing other specialties, such as a shime-based/striking technique one in the future.

This year and the last, I've been in charge of two portions of TWI: Original, the Roy Drills and Small Drum Technique.

As for Roy Drills, I'm actually not going to describe them. Those who have been through them know what they're all about, and I don't want to ruin the surprise for anyone who might read this and come to TWI:O in the future! I can say one thing about this run, however. Two of our performing members, after watching me finish the Roy Drills, called me "mean", but I take it as a compliment. ;)

As for the Small Drum Technique, where I talk about efficient striking, I found myself running out of time but was able to get the important stuff across. Last year I had a second session, but without it this year, I felt like I was only able to scratch the surface of the basics. Several of the participants told me how a certain concept or drill really gave them a serious kick-start in a great direction, so I at least feel like I was able to give them a quality workshop.

We had a great Discussion Session last night, which turned out to revolve around the questions of "What makes a person a taiko player?" and "What is taiko?" A lot of different perspectives were shared and it could have easily gone on another hour, I think.

But one of the best parts is also one of the parts that we don't use as a selling point. It's just getting to know fellow taiko players during meals - sitting around, talking, sharing, understanding. Amongst the blisters and sore muscles, between the information overload and comfort levels pushed, we bond, teachers and students alike. I believe that sort of bonding really helps people want to get better; that feeling that the people teaching you care about your progress and that your peers are just as eager to watch you grow as they are to grow themselves.

And now, three days later, full of blog post ideas and barely able to keep my eyes from crossing, I'm going to crash. See you Thursday!