Monday, November 29, 2010

Soloing, part 3: Musicality

You hit a taiko, you make music. Hooray! So what kind of music do you want to make?

There is a time when one is new to taiko where just staying on tempo is hard enough! It's a learning period most have to go through. But let's assume you're past that - because even if you're not, you probably will be at some point!

If you think of your solo as a conversation with the listener, then I want to ask you, "what do you want to say?" There are a couple of things that are harder for me to listen to:
  • Striking the drum whenever the urge hits. It's like saying whatever comes to mind as soon as it comes up: "I like ice cream but my favorite band is oh look a watermelon! what time are we leaving for my shoes are gray."
  • No repetition. Without patterns, the listener has a harder time finding something to identify with. Even with some cool riffs, when nothing comes back to familiar ground, it soon becomes a giant blur of notes.
So when you're practicing your solos, try thinking of these:
  • Consider the song. You wouldn't want smooth jazz at a rap concert, right? Are you being fierce during a festival piece? Are you playing a lot of notes in every song you solo in? Realize the meaning behind each piece you play and understand the feel of it. Also, doing the same solo in every song limits your growth.
  • Saying a lot with a few notes. Playing only a few notes makes you be purposeful, deliberate, and the audience will want to know when you're going to strike next. It's especially effective when used with movements that "milk" and fill up the space between notes.
  • Repetition! It's worth saying that repetition can be a powerful tool for an audience. Most people like being able to recognize where you are in your solo, and by repeating a pattern or a sequence, those "a ha" moments happen.
  • Sing your solo in your head. This might cut down on "striking whenever." In fact, if you have the chance, sing it out loud while you practice - if you're worried about your fellow players thinking you're weird, tell them I told you to try it. :)
  • Tones. This doesn't only apply to more than one drum - think of the tones that you have available. Instead of thinking, "oh I have another surface to strike", think "what kinds of textures can I create with more than one tone?"
Finally, there are things you can do outside of practice to enhance your musical skills. Some you probably do already:
  • Listen to more music! Don't just listen to what you know you like. Take a chance in genres you don't normally venture into. Try typing things like "Heavy Metal Classical" or "Crazy Percussion" into YouTube. If you stay within what's comfortable to you, you'll miss out on a lot of things that can spark new ideas.
  • Analyze other soloists you like. Why do you like what they do? Is it their phrasing? How they syncopate? Is it the "message" they play? How can you incorporate those elements and make them your own?
  • Skill drills. Try some of these:
  1. Give yourself a limited number of notes - say, 4 per measure. Where will you place them?
  2. Play as many notes as you can - but how do you make it interesting and not lose tempo?
  3. Play with only one hand - lose the other bachi and see what new ideas come out.
Ultimately, what sounds good to other people is subjective, but you should consider what it is that you're giving to them. You can't please all ears, but by being aware of what you're playing, you become a better artist. Plus, it's a lot more fun! :)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wake up!

Time to rant...

I made a post here about a pep-talk I gave to people at my karate dojo. I'm torn between trying another one or working on a way to deliver the message into a super-compressed form (like a slap upside the head...)

My neck was really stiff the other night and so I didn't work out with the group; I watched instead. What stood out was watching the advanced belts and how they just went through the motions.

We do a 5-10 minute warm-up in class, so they're ready to go when we start working out, but somehow, somewhere, they've conditioned themselves to either pace their workout or just aren't able to envision what they're doing without a partner in front of them. Ironically, later on when there were drills with a partner barreling down at them, they were very much alive and awake. So it's really a mindset that needs to change; it's not about age or ability!

I want them all to ask themselves two questions - the first to be asked everytime they leave the dojo: "Did I push myself as hard as I could tonight?" I'd bet nine times out of ten, the answer is going to be no. Then the second question, "what is it I am here for?"

I expect more from them but I know I cannot *make* them get better. I can physically shape someone and make them look picture-perfect, but I cannot make them move faster, try harder, or make them want to improve. I'm not accusing them of not giving a damn, because I truly believe they aren't aware that they are self-sabotaging.

I think it's partially an unconscious decision to pace themselves in order to not get too tired. Pacing like that is one of the worst things you can do. If you ever need to defend yourself, you don't get to pace your opponents out. If you're going for a belt test, we don't let you pace yourself out. In an art like taiko, if you pace yourself out during a song, you'll be the "dead spot" on stage where the energy lacks. And the audience tends to notice that you're the distraction on stage. So there's never a good reason to hold back. Push hard from the get-go and when you get tired, you push some more. That's how you build endurance. That's how you get better. There are times to pace - when you're injured, when you're working on a specific comment, when you're learning a new sequence - but it should never be your default. Otherwise, why bother?

It's easy to get people revved up and watch them "bring it" for a practice. But the practice after that? And the week after that? And the month after that? It's like a light switch gets turned off and it takes someone else to turn it on for them.

Why wait for someone else to turn your switch on?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Soloing, part 2: Emoting

Do you smile when you solo? Why or why not? Do you kiai when you solo? Do you look ahead like a laser or scan the crowd to make eye contact?

One thing that can change an ordinary solo into a truly memorable one happens from the audience's perspective. When you emote, when you truly put meaning behind your solo, it shows.

I see people soloing and I can tell they're thinking - and the thinking often translates into a blank look. It's really hard to make someone doing this look happy when they're soloing for more than a few seconds - they'll usually smile out of embarrassment but then the smile fades and blank comes back.

It's not always easy to take a step backwards, but if you want to really sell that solo to your audience, practice by making it simpler and focusing on what it is you want to try. It might feel weird to think about smiling while you solo, but it gets easier pretty quickly. Or maybe you can try to punctuate your solos with kiai - so play simple patterns and think about when you can really project one.

There are more levels you can take this idea to, such as more complex emotions than "happy" - like "confident", "strong", "playful", etc. You can also make your kiai a musical part of your solo as well, filling in gaps or adding to syncopation. But don't worry about that until you're comfortable doing the basics!

When you solo, you're the focal point of the group, the song, for a short period of time. You want the audience to enjoy it as much as you are, and with something as simple as a smile or eye contact, you make that happen!

Thursday, November 18, 2010


It's easy enough to say that efficient breathing will help your endurance, but it's very common for people to hold their breath during strenuous activity - like martial arts or taiko - keeping in unneeded tension.

In both arts, simple motions are done in one breath. A lunging punch or a single drum hit is done on the exhale, which comes pretty easily. But what happens when you have to throw a combination of techniques, or play a series of rapid notes? Where do you breathe?

I'm not going to be able to give "the answer" to that because it really depends on what you're doing and who you are. The reason for this post is to bring awareness of your breathing and give you some things to think about.

If you get a chance, try these:
  • Do a long sequence of moves slowly (like a kata or a song) while holding your breaths.
  • Do the same sequence, but concentrate on even breathing that doesn't fluctuate. Deep breaths in and out.
Neither one is easy to do, but the latter is easier simply because you get to breathe. Ultimately, you want to become familiar with any given sequence to know when you can take a breath and how to ration your exhaling (short bursts, gradually, etc.) However, before you can get to that point, you have to be aware of what your tendencies are.

Finally, if you find your tendency is to hold your breath, kiai more. It's simple - you exhale in the process of kiai-ing, which forces you to take a breath afterwards!

Staying relaxed is one of the hardest things to do while exerting yourself, but also one of the signs of mastery. Most people don't work at it; it comes about with practice. But why wait for it to "come around" when you can work on it now?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reflections on Fall Tour 2010

The concert worked out just fine. They had up new lighting and it was as if nothing was wrong in the first place. Awesome crew!

The audience size was a little less than moderate and a bit on the quieter side, but appreciative. It's rare to have an audience that doesn't enjoy it, but it does happen!

The only bad thing was the lack of sleep the next morning, since we had to leave the hotel at 4:30 to catch the first of two flights back. The flights themselves were ok, but I had a middle seat on the second one and the man to my left apparently didn't understand armrest etiquette, grr. Still, he had a choice: let me have the spot nearest the seat or deal with a floating bony protrusion that moved unpredictably during turbulence. He wisely chose the former.

This second leg of tour, we had two totally different venues, both with their unique challenges, but I realized that it's really rare to find the "perfect" theaters for taiko. The wing space may be too small, or no wings at all, or few people attend, or the spikes are hard to see, etc. The people who come watch don't care what you're dealing with; they came to see you play! That's what you should give them no matter what obstacles the venue gives you. It's not always easy, but it'll feel better than giving into an excuse!

Friday, November 12, 2010

I knew it was too good to be true!

So the last few posts have been all about how easy this tour has been. I don't believe in "jinxing", but hoo boy...

We were focusing our lights Thursday afternoon when the crew started having some issues. Things spiraled down more and more as fixes were attempted, eventually leading to a literal melt-down somewhere. No one is sure if it was the lighting board, the wiring, or gremlins, but all of a sudden nothing was working - after several hours of prepping and planning.

Most of us left mid-afternoon; a few stayed to help but left in the early evening. However, we heard the theater crew was there until about 10pm. They were able to jury-rig up some lights to make the two school shows work this morning, and seemed in pretty good spirits despite the late night. Now the question is if they can get in replacement lights and equipment before the concert tomorrow night. We all feel pretty bad about what they're going through, since they've proven themselves a very competent and eager crew to work with and this was no one's fault. Fingers crossed!

As for the school shows, both crowds were heavily weighted on the junior high side of the spectrum, which can be the hardest demographic to perform for. Often that age range tends to have the most class clowns and "too cool to behave" kids. So when both groups showed themselves to pay attention, gave us respect throughout the whole show, and had eager volunteers, we found ourselves pleasantly surprised. We even had a small group in the first show give us a standing ovation, something that never happens at a school show!

And that leaves us with one more day of tour; we'll pick up our 8th member flying in on a red-eye in the morning, have some time before the show, then find out what the lighting situation will be. I probably won't blog again until Monday or Tuesday as we have a red-eye flying back to San Jose on Sunday morning. Wish us luck!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

This is not what I call a stressful tour...

Yesterday, we drove four hours to get to St. Petersburg.

Today we had two 90-minute in-school workshops, the first with about 25 kids and the second with about 35. The first workshop was composed of kids with emotional difficulties/trauma, but they were all much more genuine in trying the hands-on portion, with little reservations. The second workshop had several kids who were "too cool to care", but only a few stayed that way once they got a chance to play on the drums!

From there, we took a 50-minute drive North to New Port Richey, where we found ourselves with several hours of downtime. Again. We rested up before dinner, then a few of us went mini-golfing at the place next door (literally!). One of the features of this place are the live gators near the front, which you can pay $4 to feed off of a fishing line.

This may not be the easiest tour we've ever done, but it's got to be close to it!

Tomorrow, we'll be in the theater all day, tech-ing in and doing queue-to-queues for both the two school shows on Friday and the concert Saturday night. If I don't blog again tomorrow, I'll try to do it Friday night after the school shows are over!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Not much going on...

The most interesting thing the last couple of days has been not having to get up early. It's awesome, don't get me wrong, but horrible for blog fodder.

We had yesterday completely off and today was just a four-hour drive across Florida to St. Petersburg. Tomorrow is a half-day tech in at the theater, for a single school show Tuesday. Very very light schedule! As usual, I've been thinking of some good blog posts for when I get back, but in the meantime, for those taiko players that read my blog, won't you check out this post here I started on

Friday, November 5, 2010

I said, Florida can be warm!

Apparently, Florida read my last blog post and decided to be contrary. Hmmph.

We woke up today to a temperature of 60, which never got much warmer due to some pretty constant wind. Of all days to have three shows at an amphitheater!

We shivered through the set up and run through of the two school shows (about 2,200 kids total), which saw the sun peeking out but didn't take the bite out of the chill. Mind you, I tend to like colder weather, but the rest of the group, not so much. It was a different experience to fight being buffeted while simply standing there at the shimedaiko at the beginning of the set! Once, during a volunteer section, our large okedo took a strong draft and started to roll slowly off the stage. We managed to catch it quickly enough, but it kept us a bit worried for the rest of the show!

Not only did the wind tax us physically, it meant that we had to factor playing a little louder to ensure both us and the audience could hear the nuances of our music. We've dealt with weird acoustics, dead drums, and awkward staging, but this was the first time I've known that we had to battle wind...

The concert went pretty well despite the temperature and environmental factors. We had a lively crowd to play for, the cold kept me from sweating, and nothing went badly!

After the show, we got to hang with some of the members from Fushu Daiko, a group a little less than two hours away from here. We had a loud live-music bar, some Memphis-style ribs, and a lot of shouting as we got to get to know each other. It was a nice way to end a show and since tomorrow's a free day, we were able to just hang out and stay up late.

Sleeping in tomorrow, a rarity on tour! Sweet.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Florida can be warm.

Apparently Florida is warm and humid. Who knew?

The flights were uneventful and we got in without being too tired. A more sane 10:00am pick-up time helped, considering usually we're leaving for the airport 4 hours earlier.

We did a hands-on workshop with kids 2nd through 5th grade yesterday, and had two hour-long school shows today. Unfortunately, it's been raining off and on (sometimes pretty hard) and our venue tomorrow is an amphitheater. We'll be covered, but the audience... We're supposed to have two school shows and a concert, so all we can do is cross our fingers and hope the forecast for "overcast" is accurate.

So far we've had a pretty relaxed tour. People are in good health, minus two smacked fingers (not mine!) Our 8th member is flying in tonight for the show tomorrow so we've only been 7-strong. For school shows, that's fine, but for a concert, in order to keep us from going a little insane, eight is the minimum number.

I'll blog again on Saturday when I can, because tomorrow is going to be a wee bit busy. Let's just hope it's dry, too!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Last tour of the year

We'll be heading out Tuesday morning for Florida, where we'll be for 2 weeks. We have a concert in West Palm Beach and another in New Port Richey. Along the way are many school shows, but at least this time there's hardly any driving and even a day off! Woo.

I'll blog as best I can about the experiences on the road, but I can't promise any excitement. :) Stay tuned!