Thursday, December 30, 2010

Looking forward to 2011...

Only a few more days until the new year, and there's going to be a slow build to a very busy schedule. Here's what I know of:

- There's two Taiko Weekend Intensives, one one which might be focused on small-drum technique. If that's the case, I just may be more involved in teaching/assisting than usual.
- I have my vaunted song that I hope to have performed by Fall concert, but to do that it has to be ready to play well-before that. We'll see about that...
- There's the Fall Concert itself, although for me it's more just a busy weekend and extra practices and less about learning or getting comfortable with new parts.
- The festivals and assorted gigs are throughout the year and always fun to do!
- I may be going on Fall tour, but in a way I hope I'm working and won't be able to, so we'll see.
- And the big deal will be NATC 2011, smack-dab in our backyard @ Stanford. Not only will the group itself have a lot of work to do, but I've submitted two workshops and hope to be teaching at least one of each!

It doesn't *seem* to be as busy as 2010, but having San Jose Obon followed by NATC followed by Fall Concert will be one hell of a busy taiko trifecta. I just hope most of the people in the group make it through with their sanity intact!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Looking back at 2010...

Last week of 2010 and I wanted to look back on all the taiko I was able to do this year!

- We spent three weeks on Spring Tour, where we played in IA, OH, WI, NJ, VT, and NY.
- There was the collaboration with the Bangers, the local DJ crew, which culminated in a mind-blowing late-night gig on the streets of San Jose!
- Did as many local festivals as I could from April through October, plus most of the Public Workshops that SJT runs.
- San Jose Obon is always a big deal, but even more so this year because I co-planned the set for both days.
- Being in Exeter for the 6th UK Taiko Festival was super fun; too bad it only lasted a week!
- We had two Taiko Weekend Intensives: the first I helped teach and the second I helped out where I was needed.
- Our annual Fall Concert was probably the least exciting of what I did this year, not because it was boring, but because of all the other fun things I got to do!
- Almost 20 years after the first one, the second collaboration with Abhinaya Dance Company was the most challenging thing I did all year. I definitely feel like it pushed my skills further.
- Nearly forgot about learning the kulintang and playing it both on tour and in the Fall Concert. Being a brand-new instrument with a lot of history behind it, it was a lot more than just learning a new part in a song we already play.
- Finally, the two sections of Fall Tour took us to MO, WY, CO, CA, and FL for some rather varied and interesting places and stories.

That's a hell of a lot of taiko, and I know people who did even more than I did! Still, next year looks like it'll be pretty insane...but that's for the next post. Hope you all had a great 2010 full of whatever it is you love doing!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The tall whisperer

Ever since my post here on being a rather tall taiko player, I've had more people ask me for advice on dealing with height in taiko. Sometimes it's from the players themselves, and other times it comes from people trying to teach a taller player.

I toyed with the idea of offering a workshop on the subject at Taiko Conference, but you know, it's really going to be easier and quicker to talk about it here.

1. Start stretching! If you want to match your shorter compatriots, you'll have to get a lot lower to compensate for your height. That can only come from a deeper stance! To get that flexibility, you'll have to not only stretch out outside of practice, but when you're practicing, take a wider stance. I'd bet it wasn't easy to take a wide stance when you first started playing taiko, but you managed, right? This is just the next step you have to take. You don't want to just bend your knees and get lower, you need to stretch the legs and get wider to get lower.

2. Extend those arms! It's odd, but the taller you are, the more you have to show it. If your arms don't get to extend fully every chance they get, you'll look a lot smaller. Maybe it's just because even the little things (like a bend in the elbow) look bigger on us? A shorter person at full extension looks bigger next a taller person who's technically bigger who isn't extending. So feel the energy go past your hands, past your fingers, past the bachi. Don't let the energy stop just because there's a physical "end" to your line.

3. Effort! I've seen a lot of taller players strike with little of the dynamic force available to them. It may come from a fear of over-hitting, whether a personal concern or comments coming from instructors. It may also come from just not enough exertion. Longer arms cover more ground, and to keep time with the music, taller players will have to push a bit extra to keep up. To make sure that the strike into the drum has proper follow-through, that just means giving more effort on top of keeping the arms in sync.

4. Use that height! You have longer legs, so when you step, go for distance! But don't lumber about, do it with speed and purpose. Think of sinking down, rising up, creating big circles and lines with your arms; you can reach spaces other players can't, so do it! Also, one performing trick I'm still trying to get down is to make things look hard. If you don't have trouble playing more than one drum because you can reach them easily, you should at least pretend it's hard, because it'll look like you're trying. If you don't "fake it", you risk looking like you're holding back.

5. Equipment! I do whatever I can to see that people use proper-sized bachi, as I first mentioned here. A taller player using bachi too short for them will make everything harder - distance from the drums, compensation for good technique, projection, etc. The same applies to a shorter person with larger bachi, but I have no idea what it's like to be short, since I never was. :) The point is, try bachi that are longer than you're used to, even if it's by 1/4-1/2 of an inch. Give it a week or two to decide if you like it or not.

Well, I hope that helps somewhat. I might wind up the poster boy for tall taiko players at this rate! There's really no secret to playing well while being tall, it just takes work!

Monday, December 20, 2010

New Song Diary: Poking through the stagnation

While most of the group has been out in Japan traveling about, I took the available downtime and went into the studio to force something out.

I brought my camera along to record anything that I wanted to remember, set up a single pod of three drums, and let my hands go. I only had one small idea to try out when I started, but to really get the true feeling, I need all five players for hocketing and polyrhythms.

I wound up with about three new ideas/patterns that I got on tape, but I'm going to need more than just a bunch of patterns to make the song work.

As far as getting anything written down, I spent a good hour last night composing a possible opening (about 20 bars or so). The opening comes from a British techno song I used to listen to a lot as a teen, modified to fit a "one-handed" taiko player. Now I'm letting my brain figure out where it wants to go from there. Unlike my last song, Commotion, this one is definitely not writing itself!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The bachi bus

From what I can figure, there are two ways to learn how to strike the taiko.
  1. Start with your arm extended upwards, let gravity do the work as your arm collapses.
  2. Start closer to the drum and focus on wrist snap.
I haven't met anyone that's started with Option 2, myself included. It seems people get handed a bachi, shown how to hold it (somewhat), then they're striking with dropping arms.

Here's my analogy. Learning to strike taiko is like learning how to drive. Option 2 is like getting behind the wheel of a car. You have to deal with the steering wheel, the accelerator, the brakes, the rear and side windows, and on top of that, all the rules of the road. Challenging! However, Option 1 is like getting behind the wheel of a bus. Not only do you have to deal with all of the above, but also the massive length of the bus (the increased distance between where you begin the strike in relation to the drum), as well as the massive weight of the bus (dealing with the force of your arm dropping from a height). The analogy isn't perfect, but the basic point remains intact!

Ultimately, what makes a good sound is a good strike. A good strike is determined by what happens just before the impact. Where the arm goes above that small area is window dressing; it makes taiko look pretty. At best, it adds volume. Whether your arm is up, out, to the side, at an angle, it's really irrelevant if you understand how to strike when the bachi is near the head of the drum. Granted, no one would really want to watch taiko if it wasn't for all that window dressing, let alone play it! I'm no different in that regard.

Maybe we all want to "drive buses", but if the bus is the basic way of raising and dropping the arm to hit a downward-sitting taiko, what about when it's at a slant? Or how about an odaiko? Or one of a dozen other different types of taiko? It's better to learn the foundations that apply no matter what you play than to focus on one particular "angle of attack" and find that it may translate poorly as you move from drum to drum.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Spirit = technique?

With the quarterly tests at the dojo just behind me and my own coming up in a few months, I was thinking about how much spirit has to do with one's success on a test.

Poor spirit will fail you on a test, even if your physical technique is spot-on. Without the intention behind a technique, the movements are empty, and therefore the technique is weak.

I have never seen anyone really put themselves into their techniques with fervor but with weak kiai and response to commands. Conversely, I've never seen anyone kiai and respond with intention yet do movements with lackluster effort. In this way, spirit and technique mirror each other.

Can spirit actually make your moves stronger or faster? I would argue that it can! Spirit as intention can help you realize what your technique should be. Maybe you're just kicking at the air, but imagining an opponent who doesn't want to get hit will give you a reason to kick faster, kick harder. Maybe you're just playing shime at a practice, but imagining an audience who paid to see you will give you a reason to be "on" instead of going through the motions.

It's frustrating to see people fail a test or be dead on stage simply due to a lack of spirit. As someone who teaches both taiko and karate, it's one of the last things I ever want. I can show someone how to align their body, how to strike, how to stand, but I can't make someone have spirit.

Having said all this, I will admit I'm not usually a fan of all-out kiai that I see in some arts, both martial and musical. Screaming one's head off as a show of strong spirit reads to me as a lack of understanding of what spirit is and is annoying aesthetically. But that's me.

So what do you think? How does your spirit shape your technique? How good can your technique be without intention behind it? And what forms can that intention take?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Gender and taiko

In looking at San Jose Taiko over the years, we've had at least a slight female majority, nearing 50/50 these days. Next year however, taking attrition and the Audition Process (five men and one woman) into account, the balance may shift to a large male majority, the first since I've been with the group.

There's no way to know how many people will make it through the year-long Audition Process and make it into Apprenticeship, and I can only guess at who will and won't stay in the current group but can't know for sure.

Assuming it goes the way I predict, I can't help but wonder what sort of changes will come about. No, I'm not worried that there will be a lot more burping and grunting, I'm talking more subtle that that! ;)

A little over a year ago we had a festival gig with only the men performing. It started out as a coincidence and turned out to be amusing, with the female members in the audience cheering us on. We called it "dude-tsuri", a take on matsuri, or festival. The feeling on stage was a bit different, I must admit.

For one, there did seem to be a "heaviness" in the playing. Maybe it was a physical thing, from the larger size of the men? Maybe it was the feeling like we were "representing" men and subconsciously over-hit? The kiai too, were lower in pitch overall, adding to the effect. Also, we have a tendency in the group for the men to focus more on musical technique instead of kata, so solos were more about rhythms than movement, which also flavored the gig somewhat.

Mind you, that's just one gig, and a fluke to boot! The real question is what happens to the group in time with so many men in it. Will the group change? Is the infrastructure such that it really doesn't matter what the gender balance is, or can it not help but change? Will having more men in the group attract more men to try out for the group?

Early NA taiko had been dominated by female performers. It was empowering and the feeling you got doing it had nothing do to with gender or race or background. It could be powerful, it could incorporate dance, it could help you connect with who you were. Over the years, more men got involved and the ratio balanced out. There are women-only groups in NA, but I can't say I know of any men-only (or groups that just happen to have only male players at the moment). With taiko in Japan, it was heavily male-dominated, but there's a lot more balance nowadays. Still, male-only groups in Japan are not uncommon.

This post isn't to stereotype or say one gender plays differently than another. In my festival example, it was a one-time thing that had some unique attributes. Here, I'm just indulging in a bit of active pondering. How does a shift in gender ratio change a group? How do men approach taiko compared to women? How do male audiences see taiko different from female audiences?

I'm no scholar on this subject, but maybe I'll develop more insights now that my initial thoughts are down. What are your thoughts?

Monday, December 6, 2010


What do you think the audience notices when they watch you?

I've had a lot of performances where an audience member has commented on something none of us gave much thought to. It could about a section in a song that gets little attention from us, or the tone of a bell we play offstage during a transition, or just about anything, really. The point is that none of us know what a audience member is going to notice/like/dislike.

The term "dead spot" is for when someone is on stage and putting out relatively little energy compared to others. Often that person thinks they're "on" but aren't showing it in their face, their body. And because the rest of the ensemble is able to project it, that person looks even more of an anomaly.

It's easy for us to watch our own group and give comments on a player or a section of the song, but if you really want to get an audience's perspective, you have to become an audience member. You have to go to other shows - not just taiko, but other dance and music shows - and observe. What do you notice? Are people standing out for good reasons or bad? Why? What commands your attention? What's distracting? If there's something that just doesn't work for you, what do you think they were trying to do?

The best way to respect your audience is to know what it's like to be the audience. When someone makes decisions based on what they think an audience likes, it bothers me when it's really what they want, but use "the audience" as an excuse. Is something really funny, or is it a inside joke that the audience may not get? Is a song really too long for the audience to sit through or are people just tired of playing it? Making decisions based on an audience full of you is a dangerous idea.

Never discount your audience! They notice things you may never have and they experience your art in ways you may never know.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

One more test, revisited.

In my post here I talked about an upcoming test for a 3rd-degree black belt in Shotokan karate. It got delayed and postponed and I sort of forgot about it until tonight.

During class, sensei and I had this conversation:

"What's your availability for December 15th?"
"What day is that?"
"Two weeks from tonight."
"Yeah, I think so, why?"
"Because you're testing then. If you want."

A month ago I would have been really glad to hear that! But in that time I've found a couple of forms I've been doing wrong and really need to work on before I test on them. Plus, there's a written essay about a subject left up to sensei, and if I know him he'll be tricky. But since he might read this, he's the best sensei ever! Heh.

I'm less worried about the physical aspects and know I need to brush up on the more esoteric terms that rarely come into play. I know I have a couple of other areas of history-oriented weakness, but again just in case sensei sees this, I'm not giving him any help...

So I think I'll postpone it for a quarter; really look at what needs work and push myself during classes a little harder just to prepare my body for the intensity of the test.

Not a lot of taiko talk here; but some people might be interested to know what I do outside of thumping cowhide with dowels. :)