Monday, August 30, 2010

L.A. soundtrack adventure!

There's a friend of Yurika's who's wanted a taiko for a while now - he works in Hollywood doing music for TV and movies. He has a project for the upcoming adaptation of "Avalon High" (being shot for the Disney Channel) and wanted to use taiko in the opening sequence. Since I had the time and the interest, I was hired to pick up a taiko and drive it down to L.A. later in the week.

During the talk about how this would all work out, the offer to actually play tracks for the movie came up. I was very interested, less for the prestige (if any) and more for the experience itself!

So last Monday I drove up to Concord to Mr. Kato's residence/workshop. You can visit his site here. He makes some seriously beautiful taiko that sound wonderful as well!

I took a Budget truck down to L.A. on Wednesday with the drum tightly packed and he was thrilled to get it! However, because he's inhumanly busy right now, there was only a little time for him to enjoy the new arrival... Also, there wasn't any time to record that day, so I would have to come back in the morning.

When I came the next morning, he showed me what he had so far - a real simple framework against the video for the opening scene of the movie. The scene starts with two groups of knights on horseback, galloping towards each other along the coastline. The black knight and the white knight take the lead, getting closer and closer, until the white knight's horse is riderless and the implication is he's been knocked off or slain.

Within about 30 minutes, he had fleshed out the framework, playing and editing notes with impressive quickness, changing entire sections before I had realized what he'd done! The main part of the song is in a meter of 5, with a couple of single "oomph" hits in the beginning and quicker notes to build up to the ending.

When it was my turn to record for him, I listened to a click track over headphones and watched the monitor that showed graphical representations of the notes to play (when to hit, basically). There was also a monitor showing the film itself, but that wasn't important to me.

I played on top of the patterns he created, with my own flavor, about three times for the left channel and three for the right. The fun part was when he wanted me to add some flourishes on top of the previous recordings I did. Essentially, I got to listen to me playing in the right ear, another me playing a slightly different version in the left ear, and improvise on top of that!

So although the movie doesn't look like anything to write home about, I finally found someone who can hang with my solos: me! Seriously though, it was a fun little trip that I would love to expand on somehow, but ultimately the experience itself was the reward. I'll let people know when the movie comes out and maybe be able to find something to post!

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Ma is the Japanese word meaning "space" or "pause". In karate, we use the term maai, which means "distance".

In both cases, these tend to be advanced concepts; both of them subtle but with remarkable results when used well.

In karate, distance is often the key to effectiveness. Too far away and you miss completely; too close and it's more a factor of luck who hits whom first. The practitioner who masters maai will know when to attack and how to defend by simply moving to a disadvantageous spot for their opponent.

In taiko, ma is severely overlooked. Newer players tend to play as many notes as possible when jamming or improvising. Even people who have been playing for a while tend to do it.This isn't inherently bad, it's just...noisy! I know some people have the hands to make it happen, but it eliminates any texture to the music and makes it very one-dimensional.

I've mentioned this in prior posts, but what often distinguishes the masters from the beginners is effective use of ma. Whether it's musically or visually, purposeful space can have such a huge impact!

I believe that most players are afraid of ma. Afraid? Yep. Not as in "running away from", but in vulnerability. If you're pausing from playing, you're going to be more closely watched and/or listened to. Insecurities are much more likely to abound in your head at that time. It's a test of self-confidence and experience, and that's why effective ma is the true sign of a master player.

You don't have to wait to become a master, just try not doing so much and see what it feels like. Then keep er...not doing that. :)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Find your own truth

When you study a style, whether it's art or movement or sound, you're studying another artist's beliefs.

Most of us find an art or artist that appeals to us and learn what we can from them, often through their disciples. We train to do better and better in the art overall, with the stylistic differences emphasized by the founder of that particular art.

For instance, I train in Shotokan karate. My sensei teaches me what he learned from his sensei, who learned from his, etc. I try to generate power through the hips, move the body efficiently as a unit, and push my endurance by doing large movements quickly. Ok, that's fine.

I'm trying to "master" a style of martial art developed by someone of a totally different body type, using motions that aren't necessarily natural for me. Perhaps they never will be, even though I'm used to them at this point.

Same goes for taiko, right? You've been learning how someone else plays, moving your body as best you can to their sensibilities and their priorities. Nothing necessarily "wrong" with that.

It only becomes an issue when you, the student, perceive your teachings as *the* truth. I believe that you should always be open to better ways that you haven't discovered yet. If you don't leave that possibility open, you become shackled to your style, to your teacher.

Until you invent your own style of doing something, that suits your body, your strengths, and your sensibilities, you are effectively pushing a square peg through a round hole. Sure, the hole might be somewhat rounded and less difficult to shove through, and eventually you might get the bulk of your peg through, but it's pretty doubtful that it was a smooth process.

I'm not saying you shouldn't study an art and try to get better at it! Just realize when your study is more confining than enriching. Find your own truth!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

New Song Diary: Inspiration!

I wasn't even planning to write another NSD post so soon, but when inspiration strikes, it strikes!

On the way to practice last night, I had my mp3 player on shuffle and a an Aerosmith song came on. The song was one of the 20-or-so specific songs I've been looking at for ideas, and I started getting tangible ideas as it played. Driving home, to karate, back home...I think I listened to it a good 20 times over the last 24 hours!

At first, the main pulse (lower beat, higher beat) gave me the kick of inspiration. Simple! Catchy! Soon after that, I got the idea to do the patterns on portable drums like okedo. There are horns in the song which had me thinking of using something high-pitched, like shime or hand percussion like chappa. I also hear a pattern that inspires the use of shekere. Musically, a lot of ideas are swimming about!

I also remembered a music video from Daft Punk that I've loved for years featuring repetitive group movement, and got more ideas from that! It's nothing fancy, but the motions are distinct and in sync and represent each of the different musical patterns in a visual form. I may not take it that far, but the basic idea really appeals.

Finally, before practice tonight I played a "music video" that I've saved to my desktop from late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson, who does hilarious no-production-value lip-sync music videos to open some of his shows. The start of this particular video has him "false starting" the music twice before the "big" opening. I can use that idea to start the song, even if I don't use the fake mustache he does. :)

So, what I have so far:
  1. A song featuring portable instruments, both taiko and hand percussion.
  2. Movement in groups, formations of groups.
  3. "False starting" the song for a bit of fun.
Ordinarily, I'll get ideas like this and toy with them for weeks, maybe months, and then a new one will take its place. But because this ongoing series is to help motivate me to write a new piece, I'm going to run with this. Maybe it'll get written, or maybe I'll give up if it goes nowhere, but I'm going to give this my focus and see what happens!

Here are links to the videos/songs I mentioned above:

"Rag Doll", by Aerosmith
"Around the World" by Daft Punk
"White Lines" by Duran Duran as performed by Craig Ferguson

Monday, August 16, 2010

Metronome love, pt. 3

So this past weekend ended our second collaboration with Abhinaya Dance Company, the first done back in 1993 when I was still auditioning with SJT.

For one section that I was in, I had sections in a meter of 5. Wasn't particularly fast, but it was on portable okedo, while moving around and interacting with one of their dancers.

Even though I wound up just playing a simple 1 - 3 4 - beat to compliment the orchestra, I had permission for simple soloing in 5. I didn't have a lot of practice time in the studio, and 5 is not quite yet comfortable for me to feel naturally. So I got my metronome out...

While I made food, I had it going. While I brushed my teeth, I had it going. While I tied okedo at the studio, I had it going (with headphones). No, it didn't magically impart "the meter of 5" in my brain, but I was improvising with my voice along to it, and that stuff started sinking in.

You can do this with any meter that your metronome can do. The fancier metronomes can play in a swung beat, triplets, sub-divide, etc. And whether you're just having trouble keeping where the "1" is or trying to solo in odd meters, singing improv along to a metronome trains your brain and you don't even have to focus on it. In fact, when you get used to that little beeping, you'll likely find yourself able to solo verbally without having to pay much attention to what's coming out of your mouth.

Little things like this make you a stronger player. It's not difficult and with this sort of drill, you can go at your own pace. Down the road, in terms of months and years, this really pays off!

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Taiko is percussion. Technically, so is a piano, since hammers inside hit the strings when you depress a key. What I'm going to get at here is the hand percussion, the stuff that's not drums. You might have heard of narimono, the Japanese word for these other percussion instruments.

Some taiko groups give their newest members the percussion and say "just play along". There's a few problems with that!
  1. It downgrades the percussion to a tertiary status. (Front row, back row, percussion.)
  2. It often leads to a frustrated player.
  3. The song sounds sloppy.
I'm not going to talk about how to play different kinds of percussion, because it would take pages and I'm no expert at any one of them. All I can do is hopefully change some people's minds about what percussion's role can be.

First, don't put percussion "in the corner". Percussion is metal and wood and plastic, noises that often cut through the boom and the thwack of the drums. If you have untrained hands playing it, you're at risk of both awkwardly-played notes as well as awkward note placement. That never helps a song!

Second, think of the players themselves. If you spend time on the percussion, you'll have more confident players. So what if you don't have a lot of time? You should be able to agree on a simple pattern to play over and over, but at the very least the percussion can play downbeats or upbeats.

Third, if you get a chance, watch the experts! Afro-Cuban and Latin music have a lot of amazing artists doing things in their percussion, and YouTube is always available. :) Heck, there's probably even online tutorials in basic technique. Even if you're not playing one of those specific instruments, learning the musical basics of one instrument will carry into many others!


Percussion as an afterthought rarely leads to a good outcome. It can be as easy as change of perspective to make percussion work for you and your group! Plus, nothing quite sucks as much as being given a weird thing you don't know how to play and told to play it. Yikes!

Monday, August 9, 2010


Saturday during concert rehearsal, I was playing odaiko-style on our miya-daiko (another big drum) and thought, "damn, we're fortunate."

I know I'm lucky enough to be in a group like SJT that's been around for 37 years - and with that has come accumulated instruments and equipment. But it makes me remember that a LOT of other groups do with SO much less, some of the newer groups not even having drums to play on!

Could I join a group to learn an art I don't know, without the instruments? Am I *that* dedicated? Can't rightly say. Sure, I can take a garbage can and play on that, but it's nothing like feeling the drum reverberate after a strike. At least with karate, I don't need a uniform or gear or anything but an instructor. There, the physical stuff can help but it's really superfluous.

Another thing that hit me this weekend was that we spent 13 hours this weekend rehearsing for our upcoming concert. This isn't uncommon; we often have weekend rehearsal for concerts and tours. However, amongst the "I'm tired and wish I was home relaxing" thoughts came one of "I bet there are people who would LOVE to practice taiko all weekend." That didn't make me less tired, but it made me stop and think about again, how fortunate I am to be able to do this.

So why this post? I want you to stop and think about what you take for granted, even if it's just artistically. It's sort of like admiring the forgotten trees you see every day or having running water. Sometimes little things bring you closer to the beauty of what you already have.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


In San Jose Taiko, one of our four guiding principles is Musical Technique. This principle covers how we learn what we play, the balance between the two hands, speed and tempo, listening and fitting into the ensemble, etc.

In taiko we tend to focus on good technique, good striking, fast hands, etc. This is the "technique". But I'm often left wanting more "musical".

Naturally, the drums are about rhythm. You hit the drum twice, you make a rhythm! But to make taiko "musical", we need to start considering what else we can do:
  • Ma is often overlooked or minimized. It's the distance, the space between notes. Sure, by simply playing less notes, you effectively generate ma, but it's an art to actively use ma to accentuate passages of music. It's the difference between taking a breath in order to talk more and pausing for dramatic effect.
  • Simply playing notes in tempo can still sound disorganized and random, especially in solos. I don't think it's going out on a limb to say most listeners like something to follow along with. You can have a solo that sounds like someone tipping a big bucket of golf balls on the drums, but...well, why not just use the bucket if it's going to sound that way when you play?
  • Tones can add a huge element of texture to taiko, even if it's as simple as higher drums playing one pattern while lower drums play another. More sophisticated compositions can play with that idea, like having the low tones play the ji of the song while the higher tones carry the melody.
  • Simple works! Sure, it's awesome to see and hear someone blast all-out and play intricate, fast patterns, but until you can do that yourself, don't feel you have to "settle" for boring and slow. I see audiences getting really excited for some of the simplest stuff that's done well.
  • For less hectic, driving pieces, exploring the range of sounds a taiko can make can be a lot of fun. Changing the beater you hit with (smaller, bigger, lighter, mallets, etc.) opens up a new world of possibilities. Adding non-Japanese instruments (whether percussion or not) also is still pretty uncommon in NA taiko, but I hope to see that changing over time.
When it comes down to it, a lot of taiko that I hear is musically interesting. But it's not something that just happens - thought, planning, and/or skill are needed to make that work. We don't often think of the "output" of what we play outside of good strike vs.bad strike.

Put yourself in the audience and ask what you'd like to hear. I'd bet you'd appreciate textures, contours, and variety even if it's "only drums", no? :)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Question Everything: Clapping

So how do you clap your hands? It's a simple question, right?
  • Which hand is on top, or which thumb is on the bottom? (Righties tend to have right on top/left bottom, and lefties the opposite.)
  • Do you clap fingers-to-palm or palm-to-palm?
  • Do you cup your "top" hand to make a more rounded noise or keep it flat for a sharper one?
  • Do you keep your elbows in or let space underneath?
  • Do you clap quickly or loudly?
  • If keeping time with something, do you "bounce" off or keep them together for a moment?
I never thought about how I clapped until I took a body percussion workshop one day. It didn't change how I clapped, but helped me understand my body better. I was able to know the sounds I made and know how to modify them when I wanted.

Sometimes it only takes awareness of a small thing to have a big impact. Look at something you do without thinking - how you grip a steering wheel, how you use chopsticks, how you strike a drum, etc., and ask yourself, how am I doing this?