Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Drill: Acting!

It's almost Halloween, and San Jose Taiko is gearing up for its annual Halloween in Japantown. One of the things we do is a gig for the little 'uns where all the members are playing songs in costumes of their choosing.

To prepare for that, the last couple of years, we've practiced playing Matsuri Taiko (Festival drums), a well-known taiko song that a lot of taiko groups in NA play a version of. What makes this different is that we play with Japanese masks. There are demons, old men, shy women, foxes, monkeys, etc. The whole idea is to embody a different character and lose inhibition.

The drill this time is about emoting or assuming a role that you may not normally portray while playing. It doesn't matter what ji you play to; it's about acting the part. If you don't have someone/something to hold a ji for you, you can still try it.

First thing you have to do is not think "I look stupid." You have to give into the role, have fun with it. Second, don't worry about how immediately useful these roles are, because you're developing your acting "muscles". Think about your physical muscles; you get stronger working a group of muscles than focusing on any single one, right? Same concept for emoting.

Try these to start:
  • Joyful
  • Furious (don't kill the drum!)
  • Shy
Don't neglect the impact of your face when you take on these roles! That's easily 80% of the effect right there.

These are more difficult:
  • Very old/Very young
  • Super-confident
  • Overly dramatic
  • Mischievous
Think about how many notes you play as well as the volume. Think about the physical space you use - or don't use.

Finally, some really challenging ones:
  • Playing as a person you know (taiko idol, fellow performer)
  • Playing as an animal (how would an elephant play taiko?)
Think of who you really notice when you play taiko and think of their performance character. Think of their face and how they make you feel when you're watching them. Maybe they're not as confident as they look; but how then are they conveying that? How can you? Practice, that's how.

Ultimately, if you want to look confident, you have to act confident. It sounds a lot harder than it is, so go try it!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Soloing, part 1: Ji

I'd like to start another series of posts, this time on soloing and solo development. I'm submitting a workshop for Taiko Conference next year on solo development and have been thinking about it quite a bit.

I'll be talking about different aspects of soloing ("set" solos, improvisation, etc.) as well as the different instruments that are the most common to play on (shime, odaiko, etc.).

To start, let's tackle the soloist's best friend, the ji. The ji is the pulse, the beat, the base, usually played by the higher-pitched instruments like the shime or hand percussion. The most common patterns for ji are dongo (the swung triplet), straight beat, and horsebeat.

As soloists, most of us hardly consider the ji. It's just there. However, we have a responsibility to adhere to that ji in both tempo and mood. Once we depart from it, whether speeding up or something like playing really loud in a quiet song, we're no longer part of the ensemble.

As the ji, our responsibility is to not listen to the soloist. That's not easy! We're usually watching the soloist, supporting them with energy and/or kiai, but it's up to us to hold the ji steady so that they have a solid base to create on top of. When we waver, we made their job twice as hard.

Next time you solo, especially if it's in a song you've gotten used to soloing in, try to take note of the ji. Do you solo to the song or to the ji? Neither is necessarily "wrong", mind you. Here's also an example to consider. Say you have Happy Song A with a straight beat ji at a certain volume, at a certain tempo. Intense Song B has the exact same ji, and you get to solo for the same length in Song A as in Song B. Do you play the same solo? You probably can, but odds are the feeling of the songs are different. You need to honor the tempo from the ji but the mood of the song itself.

The ji can be your best friend, but if you neglect it, you'll be left alone and exposed. Don't just think of what you're going to play, try to take the time and really understand the ji. You might find yourself with some new options and ideas, and that is never a bad thing!

Thursday, October 21, 2010


So, the North American Taiko Community is a little weird. In this case it's not the "good" kind of weird, like considering blisters as a badge of honor, no.

It's the kind of weird that wants taiko to proliferate but at the same time, is very protective of sharing songs that could help that proliferation happen.

There's an unspoken rule (although sometimes loudly spoken) that unless given explicit permission, you shouldn't play songs from another group.

New groups, even not-so-new groups, are hungry for new songs. The answer of "write your own songs" is not that helpful. There are a few public domain songs available, but some of those require having someone teach it to them directly, which some groups can't afford/manage. Other such songs are beyond what a group might be able to play, or not in their style. So what's left? There are "instructional videos", but unless it's crystal clear that the people recording them have the permission to teach a song, that's sketchy at best.

So what's happening here is a community of artists who want their art to grow and gain more exposure, but want to control how the art expands. One of the participants of this past weekend's TWI said that seeing what happens when taiko is out of control can be very exciting. What happens when someone sees taiko and misinterprets what they see, taking it in another direction and making something amazing out of it? Sure, maybe it's something that many taiko players don't like, but there again is that control factor.

So what's the solution? Beats me. I know all of a sudden dozens of groups won't up and say, "hey, you can all play our songs, just go on YouTube and learn them that way!" So how do we as a community support the ever-expanding growth of taiko while keeping songs under such tight wraps? You tell me...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Taiko Intensive Weekend 2010: Naname

The last 3 days, San Jose Taiko welcomed 10 people into our studios for another TWI, this one focusing on playing the slanted drum, or naname.

It was the second year we've done this particular TWI, and the first one of this type that I've helped with. Apart from all the sweating and eating and more sweating, we had a discussion session that started with the topics of stand patents and playing another group's songs.

While writing down notes, I found my notes from the TWI back in May, which I totally forgot about! I'll be writing some blog posts in the future based on what I wrote down in both TWI discussion sessions.

And I have to say, if you're ever thinking about attending TWI, I highly recommend it. It's a butt-kicking experience that will challenge everything you know about playing taiko, and then some! Oh, and it's fun. :)

Friday, October 15, 2010


Funny, I never thought to do a post on this, and I've taught 5 workshops on the subject!

Wrist snap is a key component in both shotokan karate and taiko.

In the former, it's tied into the rotation of the arm both in punching as well as blocking. It adds a tremendous amount of torque at the end of a block, which when done correctly can fling an attacking limb away. It also gives extra penetration when punching into a target. Virtually every hand technique I do in karate has a sharp wrist snap of a twisting nature.

In the latter, effective striking technique is 95% wrist snap. People tend to focus on dropping the arm from a full extension, but regardless of where the strike is coming from, without an effective and clean wrist snap, it's pointless. It doesn't matter whether it's odaiko or katsugi okedo or shimedaiko, it translates across all.

I started the idea of teaching a wrist workshop when I saw far too many people in other groups (and even SJT) using way too much force to strike the drum and keeping the wrist stiff. I took a serious look at my own technique; what did I do and how could I teach what I did?

I calculated the average number of times I did a wrist-snap in taiko and karate combined and came out to at least 12,000 a week. That number really doesn't mean a whole lot, but when I look at my history, I'm looking at doing an intensive wrist-snap about 5 million times in the last 25 years or so!

In my wrist workshops, I teach basic concepts. This next workshop I'm going with: Grip, Relaxation, Speed, and Practice. GRaSP, I call it.
  • Grip is the most basic fundamental. How does the bachi fit into my hand? How does my hand and finger position affect the bachi? How does the bachi affect my hand?
  • Relaxation is all about recognizing tension in the body, which boosts fatigue and slows you down. Once you identify it, how can you get rid of it? How much relaxation can you get away with?
  • Speed isn't about how fast you can play, it's about generating velocity. How much space do you really need to generate speed and power? Where are the "quick twitch" muscles?
  • Practice is the easiest concept. If you at least think about these concepts while you practice a song or drill, that's a good way to figure things out. Even better, if possible, is to take a few minutes here and there just focusing on the GRaSP method without having to worry about song sequence, tempo, other people, etc.
I am a HUGE proponent of wrist strength and flexibility. They're such a small area of our bodies and often neglected. How often do you stretch them? Does your group include wrist stretches in the warmups? How are you going to play anything if you tweak/pull/strain something in your wrist?

Give those wrists some love and think about signing up for my workshops in the future! :)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hurry up and evolve!

There's a discussion on TaikoForum that I started called "Representing an Art Form". It was my usual $@!%-stirring, trying to get people to think and respond about why they and others play taiko as well as look at what a potential audience might think.

Just recently, that thread went down a new path and spawned this post.

There are those in the taiko scene that feel that taiko is stuck or slow to evolve. There are very few groups that use different instruments or collaborate outside of other taiko groups. Costumes are usually patterned off of the happi coat, tabi shoes, etc., so that many groups look alike there, too.

It's been roughly 60 years since kumidaiko (ensemble drumming) has been around, so why isn't it more mainstream by now? Well, it's your fault. My fault too. All of us! Who's not writing the avant-guard music and jaw-dropping choreography? Who's not working with the top-tier artists to give taiko greater exposure? Who's not pushing taiko to the next level? It's us.

Now here's the thing - most taiko players I've met don't WANT to do that. A lot of them like what they do, without pushing any boundaries. A lot of groups are just happy holding themselves together! If taiko's going to get to the next level, a lot of people are going to have to take it there. It won't be just a group like On Ensemble or San Jose Taiko or Kodo, it will have to be individuals on a larger scale to make it happen.

When will it happen? I don't know, when are you planning to make it happen? ;)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

New Song Diary: Changing directions

I've been banging my metaphorical head against the wall trying to build up ideas for my song idea. Nothing happened.

I decided to instead turn my energies to a novelty song idea I wanted to try, using shimedaiko resting on their sides/edges rather than on stands. I have some ideas from fiddling around, but again, no solid concepts. Frustrating.

So I'm going to do what I didn't want to originally, and that's continue working on a piece I already had in development when I started this series. It's got promise, it's unique, it's got a gimmick, and I might as well get it out of my system!

The idea of the piece is simple. Each player gets three drums in a row (left, center, right). The left hand plays a steady 1-2-1-2 beat on first the left then then center drum, alternating, over and over. And that's the gimmick. The left hand never stops, throughout the entirety of the song. The right hand gets to play all the patterns, downbeats, upbeats, syncopation, improvising, etc.

I've workshopped this concept with both the entire company as well as Artistic Staff, and have already found some things that work and things that don't. Time to work on the stuff that does! Stay tuned...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sweat-fest 2010!

Tour is allllmost over...

Yesterday we were in the "theater" all day here in Crescent City, CA. Actually, it was a high school auditorium! To fit the large okedo through the doors, we had to detach the middle pillar from two of them, but that wasn't a big deal.

The stage was small but workable, and the stage floor was beat-up but we could still see our spikes when we needed to. This show was all about the lighting. On one hand, we definitely pushed the envelope of what light focusing the crew was used to, without being overly-demanding. On the other, the lights were really close to the stage! In addition to that, the heating for the entire school is apparently regulated by the county, and it was hot to begin with! By the 4th song, we were starting to feel the sweat, and when we got into the more energetic songs, there was some serious fluid drain!

As for the venue, it was a 500-seat theater and we were told we had a larger crowd than anything they had last season, very cool!

This morning, we ended the tour with one school show for a group of 30 high schoolers, another for a group of about 150 high schoolers, then did a workshop for a Boy's Ranch in the midst of the California redwoods. They were very enthusiastic and a great end to our touring activities!

All that remains is an 8-hour drive back to San Jose tomorrow; normal blogging resumes Thursday!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Back in California, but not done yet!

Finally! About 16 hours later, we drove from Wyoming to the northern tip of California, in Crescent City.

In Wyoming we drove past a cattle drive with cowboys riding along side. Across Nevada we tried to avoid field mice and jackrabbits running across the road at night. In Oregon we tried not to fall off the gorgeous cliff-side scenery.

Normally I wouldn't blog after just a driving day, but tomorrow we're in the theater all day, concert at 7:30 pm, then we have to be at the first of three school shows at 7:30am. Doubt I'll be blogging much until late Monday, and by then, all that's left is an 8-hour drive back to San Jose.

Almost done with a very unusual tour; wish us luck!