Thursday, July 29, 2010

New Song Diary: History

Looking at my songwriting history, there are six pieces in my past. I think it's important to see where I've been to know where I'm going:

- The first song: Shinka

I co-wrote this piece with another member of the group, and it was okay for a first piece, but definitely needed polishing. We came up with the ji together, the pulse, but each threw our own ideas into the pot.

One issue we ran into was that two of the three main players in the piece were facing away from the audience. They were very static and hampered the energy that could have gone outwards. We did had a line of 3 shime off to the side that were the "horns" section, which I still think is a nifty idea.

- The second song: Mismatch

This was my "kitchen sink". I wanted to do so much and threw it all in there. There was portable okedo, odaiko, theme multiple themes, hocketed patterns, duets, trios...

There was some really good stuff in there, but it was muddled with all the other stuff. It also ran way too long for us, being that most songs in SJT run five minutes and mine was nearer to eight! Even though it came and went, it taught me what NOT to do when it comes to a composition, and I got to get out so much stuff that I had a clearer palette the next time.

- The first encore.

For encores, SJT tends to want everyone involved and a chance for each to bow (usually in rows or groups). It should be less work to learn than a regular song, as well.

I had two themes that I built this encore around: Soul Train and a music video from Daft Punk. lol. The latter was really minor and didn't turn out as I wanted, and the former had to be modified quite a bit, but there was a party feel and ultimately it was fun to play! That comes across to the audience, so it was a success overall.

- The third song: Rhythmus

Man, what a weird title. I'm rarely inspired on titles; it always feels weird to "define" a piece I've written by giving it one. Anyways, I had three main themes on this song: Visually, I wanted to convey the feeling of clockwork, and I arranged the drums to facilitate sharp movements between them. Musically, I had a pattern with a strong pulse.

This song almost worked. It had momentum but never quite came together, I think. If I had expanded on more of the visual elements, or somehow built the ending up to something more powerful, it could have been a keeper.

- The second encore.

I really had a plan with this one. I had a super-catchy ji and multiple circles of various groups of instruments, with each group getting a section to show off.

There were two big problems, however. The hand percussion section was neglected and that was my fault. I sort of left them to figure things out and it turned out to be mostly improv between the four of them and a half-ass ending that I wrote. The other problem was that I wrote a song and not an encore. It required more time than I had, and it was also my fault. If I had done it as a song, I think it would have worked much better.

- The fourth song: Commotion

This song wrote itself. Musically, most of the patterns had been in my head from music I listened to since my teenage years. It was a matter of just splicing and layering them on top of each other. The music also led to a more upbeat, energetic style of song, so that helped me design the movements. This time, I knew what I wanted and it was a matter of making it sound right. There's a video of it here.

It turned out to be too short at first, barely three minutes. I had to figure out how to extend it without simply doubling a section, so I expanded on the "commotion" theme and it also added a nice textural shift in the song without losing the soul of the piece. It also makes you sweat and smile when you play, which is a big plus in my book!


So what did I learn?
  • Workshopping ideas with other people is a big help. You don't waste everyone's time and you can identify and deal with potential problem areas early on.
  • You need to be more than one step ahead of what you teach. In other words, you need to know more of the structure to come than just what you're teaching that night. It'll help you deal with unexpected questions and keep you focused.
  • Even if you do have a structure in mind, know that unexpected potholes can and will appear. Stay flexible! Again, having a solid concept can really help here.
  • Keep the kitchen sink in the kitchen. Think of the songs that stand out to you - do you remember the ones that go all over the place thematically? Odds are, it's the ones that did something special for you, either melodically, visually, or emotionally that stick with you.
  • Finally, don't be afraid to fail. You might find yourself with a song that just doesn't work for you or your group. At worst, it's a learning experience. At best, you can regroup and take it in a different direction.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Drill: How to play taiko.

Step 1: Play taiko.

The end.


What? Still reading? I meant what I said!

You have to just do it. The more you practice it, the better you'll get at it. That goes for sparring, painting, dancing, everything. You can take workshops, you can ask the "experts", but it's all words. Action brings experience, and experience brings growth.

So, just do it. And keep doing it!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

New Song Diary: Prologue

I want to write a new taiko song.

But I'm going to do something different.

I have approximately 1,260 song ideas in my head at any given time. Some days it's as low as 1,145, but you know how it is. Yes, I'm kidding. :P

I have a folder full of scores for my notation software and a document for visual ideas. I even have a song idea that I've work-shopped with the group 2-3 times, but I don't want to work on something I already have ideas for.

I want to come up with a piece from scratch, without knowing anything about it before I start. That's why I'm starting this new thread series, "New Song Diary" for three main reasons:
  1. I meet people who tell me they have song ideas, but never know how to start making it happen. Maybe blogging my own process will help inspire or guide someone past their obstacles.
  2. It will somewhat hold me accountable to actually write the damned thing, instead of just adding to my folder/list of ideas.
  3. Could be fun!
I'll pop this topic up as things happen; next time I'll talk about how I'll choose what sort of song to create (festival vs. concert) and looking at what my strengths and weaknesses are.

I don't know how long this experiment will take, but I would love to hear feedback and field questions along the way should any of you be so inclined. :)

Monday, July 19, 2010

UK Tour, Day 6: Wrapping up...

Again, this happened yesterday, but who's keeping track, right?

We had a leisurely morning before heading off to perform two school shows about 45 minutes away. The first audience was a younger crowd, impeccably behaved almost to the point of eerie-ness. It wasn't a bad thing, just unusual for us! The second crowd, on the older side, was more like we're used to; noisy and a bit disruptive. Jonathan was apologetic but we assured him that it really was like the audiences we deal with back home. :)

From there, back to our host homes to freshen up before the tea party/BBQ/after-party. On the way, snacks were provided and it was sort of like a mobile picnic! I did a most of my packing when I got back, since who knew when we'd actually get home from the party. Granted, it was only a 5-minute walk away, but I had the time.

The party was a lot of fun. Performers, friends, and family were in attendance; about 60 people got to relax and enjoy the evening. There was plenty to drink, some great food (lots of meat for me), ping pong in the rain, and when the rain cleared up, a hilarious game of croquette. I say hilarious because we all sucked at it something terrible! Still, our lack of skill made it even more fun...

So here I am waiting for the coach to pick us up in 20 minutes; it's been a whirlwind of taiko and new friends and old since we landed 6 days ago. I hate to leave; we just scraped the surface of what's happening out here and there's so much more to share and learn from each other! I daresay this has been the best tour I've experienced in my 17 years of taiko.

From here, who knows what will happen. There's been talk of exchanging songs, having Kagemusha Taiko members visit SJT for our workshop weekends, getting them over for Taiko Conference, etc. It would be a shame for the North American taiko community to miss out on what's been going on here!

Thanks to everyone who made our trip so much fun, and a special thanks to Jonathan for making this all happen!

UK Tour, Day 5: Brilliant!

So technically, all of this happened yesterday, but I was up until 3am and I was only going to get six hours of sleep as it was, so writing this post had to wait!

The day started with a walk down to the river, to catch a little more taiko at the continuation of the 6th Annual UK Taiko Festival. We only got to catch two groups before we took off to the theater, unfortunately.

Once there, it was the usual load-and-tech-in, but we had about half the usual time and we were working with Kagemusha Taiko's equipment. The latter wasn't much of an issue, but getting everything done in time was. Around 4:00, we worked with the Kagemusha Taiko Group to do the encore with them on stage. We grabbed Oliver and Pippa Kirby (also in KTG) to get them up to speed on doing a bit of soloing with us in the beginning of that same encore. I'll give them both props for doing so well - playing with uchiwa daiko (fan drums) and bounding about the stage isn't easy to do with little preparation!

At 7:30, KTG performed a 30-minute set and we got to sit out in the audience to watch. It felt pretty special to see KTG really cut loose with their ensemble! They have their own definite style, energy, and sensibility when they play, and it really struck me to see what similarities to SJT came across without ever feeling like it being a "version" or "copy" of us. If anything, it felt more like we shared a common bond as performers.

When it was our turn, we steeled ourselves for a 70-minute show (a definite endurance-pusher) but immediately felt the crowd's excitement when we stepped on stage. There were the usual brain farts, but very little was noticeable to the audience. The energy from the crowd really helped push through being tired, but I was happy to not ever feel too drained; I was having too much fun! In Oedo Bayashi, our finale piece, I heard applause in the middle of my solo and I wish I could remember what I was doing...something about swinging one arm around and playing with the other, my back to the audience? Ah well, it was fun nonetheless.

The after-party was a real blast, held upstairs at a local pub. Aside from the great food, we got to talk to a lot of the KTG group (and extended "family" of same). Back home, we had a couple of the KTG players coming back to our host family and had another few hours to sit around and chat with everyone here; family, friends, performers, etc. It was worth staying up so late, although I know I'll be feeling the lack of sleep later on. :)

Today we'll be doing two school shows early in the afternoon and then off to tea at one of the other host families. I've heard there's a BBQ to be there as well; but I'm really looking forward to talking again with all the KTG people who can be there with us. I don't know when I'll be this way again, so I want to get in as much taiko-bonding as I can!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

UK Tour, Day 4: taikotaikotaikotaikotaikotaiko

So today, there was some taiko.

We got to the festival stage to watch a few groups play in a grassy area (stage #1), before heading down to a shopping district (stage #2). We performed two 15-minute sets starting at noon and had a blast doing so. On the way back up to stage #1, we stopped at a pasty (pah-stee) shop to try a pasty. They're like a Hot Pocket, but actually quite good. ;)

On a side note, we played Commotion during the 2nd set and I'm quite happy to have Commotion played in the UK. Yay!

We played again at 2:00 for 20 minutes on stage #1. Afterwards, few of us went down the street to grab gifts for people back home, before returning to see the last two groups perform.

After that, back home to change into nicer duds and attend the 6th Annual Youth Taiko Concert; 9 groups over a 90-minute span. The kids were really incredible, from new groups that were already strong to established groups that could easily stand out among professional ones. Quite an impressive display!

Tomorrow, Yu and I are trying to get down to have coffee with two of her friends down from Glasgow, then watch a group from London play before we scoot off to the theater and begin tech-ing in for our concert @ 7:30. I'm really excited to play a full 70-minute show - I want to leave people with nothing short of inspiration!

Friday, July 16, 2010

UK Tour, Day 3: Taiko Audience!

Today was less-insane than yesterday. This was good.

We had a school show for 150 kids today, on the younger side, which went very smoothly. That was followed by a walk into the city to have lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Middle Eastern restaurant. On the way, we got to peek at/inside a very old cathedral that survived bombing by the Nazis.

After that, onto and into the theater for our first of two concerts, this one for 150 taiko-playing fans. We had to make some last-minute changes in dealing with moving drums, but we got it done. One thing I'd forgotten to mention before is that Kagemusha Taiko was creating naname (slanted) stands for us to use. The first "drafts" were too steep of an angle for us, but they made a fix that we were able to use just before the show. Yay!

The show was two 45-minute halves with equal parts talking and playing, followed by a Q&A for 30 minutes at the end. The crowd loved it and we loved the energy they gave us. Can't wait for tomorrow, where we get to watch about a dozen taiko groups from the UK (and one from Germany?) play tomorrow morning and evening (mostly the latter). We have two short 15-minute sets in the morning, but that's pretty easy stuff considering what else we're doing on this tour.

Off to bed while I still have brain cells!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

UK Tour, day 2. Dancing!

Well, we're in Exeter! We made it in around 9:30, straight off to a school show at 11:00. Most of us didn't sleep much on the 6-hour flight, and even a short nap in the middle of the day didn't take care of the fatigue.

However, the really draining (and yet, incredibly fun) part of the day was at the Ceilidh (pronounced Kay-lee) which is akin to a barn dance with a band and traditional square-dance-like dances. We got to watch and enjoy a Morris Dance troupe, and I wish I could go into the details of it but I'm way too tired for this post. We all danced at times to the traditional dances, as well as playing three of our taiko songs as well. Kagemusha taiko performed three songs as well, which was a blast to see live and up close.

I'm on a borrowed computer at my host's abode, so I may not be able to upload any pictures, but when I get home, the many pictures and videos are going on Facebook, except for the really embarrassing ones. :)

Tomorrow is a school show, followed by lunch and then a tech in for the first concert of two on this tour. I go bed now, because brain stop working.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

UK Tour, day 1. Fail.

Long story short, thunderstorms in Newark, 4-hour departure delay in getting to Newark, and the connecting flight missed by an hour.

So we're in a hotel in Newark, planning to leave for Bristol tomorrow night exactly 24 hours later. from the original plan. This is an inconvenience to us, but the biggest disappointment is losing a day of activity in the UK. In this case, it's a school show and the reception.

We should make it in fine Thursday morning, but a day lost is a lot when there's only six to begin with!

Stupid weather.

Monday, July 12, 2010

UK Tour!

Tomorrow we leave for the UK! We'll be in Exeter for the 6th UK Taiko Festival. Look here!

We'll be hosted by Kagemusha taiko, home-staying with their members while we do workshops and school shows and two weekend concerts. We may have a little bit of time to sight-see, but I'm just stoked to be out there and see all that's going on!

I'm always curious to see what taiko's like outside of North America and Japan, and I can't wait to see what's happening in the UK. Jonathan Kirby, founder of Kagemusha taiko, has done so much to get taiko up and running out there with a focus on youth and after-school programs. Jonathan got a taste of taiko when he was out here and made it his life ever since. That takes guts, but succeeding takes heart and skill on top of that!

I'm curious to talk to taiko players out there, to see what questions they have, what concerns they have, and what concerns they DON'T have, as well! There's plenty of taiko politics in North America, but how much of it is due to Japanese and J-A culture? Maybe politics are the same across the pond, but I'll be curious to see where the differences are. That stuff is fascinating to me, even if it gets me in trouble for poking around in. :)

Annnnyways, we leave Tuesday morning EARLY and come back the following Tuesday. This past weekend was the San Jose Obon festival, which is HUGE and a blast and a lot of work (worth it!). From one whirlwind into another...

I'm not sure what my internet connection will be, but I will be taking a lot of pictures and hopefully sharing a lot of joy while I'm out there!


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Question Everything: Questions

As people who know me can attest, I want to know "why" all the time.

"Why do we call it a shekere sometimes and a hyotan other times?"
"Why are the shime bachi all the same length when we're all different sizes?"
"Why don't we want more input from the audience?"

This philosophy doesn't always endear me to people, and I've censored myself over the years somewhat because I realize some just get tired of it. I'm still inquisitive as ever, but I've found it better to either phrase things in a better way, or as part of a conversation instead of during practice.

So what's the big deal about questions? You ask or you don't, you get them answered or you don't. Not so fast...
  • Questions don't have to be said.
At those times when it's not appropriate to simply ask a question, you should observe as much as you can and do research later to find the answers. Don't wait for the answer in verbal form.
  • Teachers who *won't* tell vs. *can't* tell.
Sometimes you'll ask a question, and get met with a "what do you think?" or "that's not important"-style response. Be very careful in accepting that! When I know a teacher well enough, I can tell when they're trying to make me think for myself or are letting me know that there are other things to worry about.

The danger is when you have an instructor who doesn't know the answer and is hiding the fact that they don't know the answer. I'd rather have someone say, "I don't know; that's a good question" than pretend they know and turn the question around towards me. It may not be easy to know when a teacher won't versus can't, but sometimes that knowledge is more important than the answer to your question itself.
  • Question yourself first.
I mentioned the "what do you think?" question above, and that's a very powerful tool we should all use more often. The experience of a teacher is useful, but do you want to always wait for someone to tell you what to do?

As one who teaches workshops and groups, I want to know that the students are trying to figure out the answers, even if the answers they come up with are, well..."interesting." Being spoon-fed the information all the time leads to a stupid student, no matter how much they might "know".


It may be annoying to deal with over-inquisitiveness , but the opposite of that is someone that thinks they know it all. Someone who wants answers will keep learning; the one who doesn't has stopped growing.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Taiko don't care.

These are taiko.

Taiko don't care about your age, race, religion, creed, caste, nationality, culture, height, weight, sex, gender, orientation, or political affiliation.

Taiko don't care if you play because of your heritage, for empowerment, to further the art form, out of obligation, or because it's fun.

Taiko don't care where your bachi came from, who your sensei is, how big your practice space is, or how long you've been playing.

Taiko don't care if you play for concerts, festivals, corporate events, weddings, parades, restaurant openings, family and friends, or just for yourself.

Taiko don't care if your group is about testosterone, community-building, fancy patterns, superstars, Buddhist philosophy, social connections, joyous playing, or recreation.

All taiko want is for you to make a good sound on them. It's people that make issues out of all the other stuff.

Don't be one of those people.

Strive to make good sounds! :)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Creating solos, prologue

There are few things both terrifying and exhilarating as performing a taiko solo. It's your expression of personality and sensibility, of being in the moment.

Getting comfortable enough to solo is not an easy thing. There is an element of rhythm and timing, an element of movement, an element of performing, and that's just the beginning level! On a more advanced level, there's being able to pick up quickly after a mistake, being able to solo to any basic pattern, being able to solo as a duet, etc. etc.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here; let's get the foundation laid down first.
  • Prepare before you even get on a drum
- You need patterns in your head before you can get them out on the drums. I have to assume you listen to music, so what have you picked up over the years? What you've heard is what shapes what you play. The more music you listen to, the more you have to draw from. This is also true for movement in solos - the more movement you're exposed to, the more options you'll have in your pocket.
  • Practice soloing without drums
- You don't need any equipment to actually play on to develop a solo. You can get a drum pad (or your knees) and pop out rhythms. You can "air bachi" (using bachi but not hitting anything, just going through the motions). You can even beatbox in the shower (I do this a lot!)
  • Keep it simple, keep it slow.
- If you're working on a solo for more than one drum, focus on just one drum to start. The other drum(s) can add texture, but you want to get the rhythm solid first. Once you get a feel for what you want to play, then include more drums. As for speed, work up to it. Sometimes you just have to practice a fast solo at a fast tempo, but slow gives you more chances to act as well as react.
  • Consider the song
- There really aren't a lot of different ji in taiko songs. There are probably hundreds of songs that fall under a straight beat, for example. You wouldn't want to have the same solo for each of those songs just because the ji is the same, so consider the other elements. Is the song serious? Is it about African rhythms? Is it about personality? Knowing where the song comes from and the intent of the composer should influence what you play, even though it's your personality that truly shapes the solo.

Again, these are only the start of solo development. By no means is this list exhaustive on even the first level of soloing. Sometimes you just have to jump in there and do it!