Thursday, December 29, 2011

300!

Wow. I didn't plan the last post of 2011 to be my 300th post, but there it is!

This format hasn't changed much since I started, and I'm okay with that. I know it's not the slickest blog out there; there's a lot I could add to make it more visually appealing or more up-to-date with technology, but neither is really a priority for me.

I rarely get responses from people on the blog itself, which is a shame, but having people come up to me and tell me they get a lot of out it is a huge reward for me. It wasn't the reason I started blogging, but knowing that people find it useful, interesting, and thought-provoking makes me enjoy pushing myself to come up with new topics.

The other thing that I've gained from doing this regularly is that my critical eyes and ears are much more honed. Whether I turn them inwards or out, I find that I look deeper, listen more closely. I find that I hold myself more accountable for both me and my readers because of it.

Here are some fun facts on the blog since its inception in February 2009:
  • The average time a person spends on the site is 2 minutes and 13 seconds.
  • Vistors from 108 countries have visited my blog, the "big three" being the US, Canadia, and the UK. (Yes, Canadia, it's where Canadians come from.)
  • The most popular post I've done was The tall whisperer. This post was read six times more than the next popular post, Question Everything: Kiai (part 1).
So what's in store for the next 300 posts? Probably more of the same, yay! However, if any of you have suggestions for what you'd like to see me talk about, features you'd like to have added, let me know! You can post on here (anonymously if you like), or email me directly. Even though this blog is for my amusement, I really enjoy being able to help people with specific questions or issues.

As I end the big three-double-ought, I want to list a few of my favorite posts. If you're new to the site or didn't scroll back through the archives, these posts either give a good sense of where I'm coming from or tackle some meaty topics in-depth. Thanks for continuing the journey with me!

- What the @%#&!* is taiko?

- Surprise?
- Failure *is* an option.

- Do simple things well.

- Taiko don't care. (my personal favorite)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Question Everything: Everything


Going to wind the year down with a blog about what I'm all about. I began the Question Everything line of posts to tackle specific subjects that were often taken for granted, but I wanted to get even more at the heart of my personality with this one.

As a black belt teaching groups of students unsupervised, I found I had to know the techniques I was teaching down to fine details. As a taiko player, I found in order to get past stagnation, I had to re-examine my motions. Some breakthroughs came about in the weirdest places, like watching reality TV shows that had nothing to do with either art. Other times, I would make some pretty interesting observations watching other people try things out.

So what I want to ask you in this post is, how do you do what it is you do?

Try looking at one of your songs, something you know how to play really well. How do you extend your arm before a strike? Is it ergonomic? Does it look straight (if it's supposed to be)? When you execute the strike, is your hara activated? Are you mostly using your arms and shoulders instead? Does the strike follow an efficient path? Before contact with the drum, is the bachi cocked back? Where on the drum did you hit?

And that's the easy stuff.

How much do your feet contribute to your strike? Are they simply holding you up or are they contributing to the generation of power? Are you breathing with the strike or holding it in? When you move your feet, where is your center? Are you moving your foot to the spot it needs to be or initiating the movement in your body first? Does the bachi in your hand have weight or is it simply an extension of your arm? If put into a pose once, how consistent can you replicate it? Where are the "smart points" of your muscle memory"?

There is a point where micro-analyzing your form will lead to confusion. "Analysis leads to paralysis," they say. As true at that may be, if you truly broke down all your fine movements and understood how you're doing them, then you'd be so much further along in your development than you were before.

How can you change for the better before you understand what you're doing now? Ask those questions of yourself and see where you grow from it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Deadlines.

If you were told you had to learn a song by a certain date, would you try harder to learn it than if there was no deadline?

In talking with the senior black belt at karate, he mentioned how in years past everyone would test at each belt test they were eligible for. Right now, people still wait until they're eligible, but then wait until they feel "ready". Sure, not everyone would pass, but it made everyone push a lot harder during that time because they knew there was a test they felt obligated to attend. Testing more often was also a sign of respect in showing sensei that they believed in his teaching style.

As I usually do, I tried to apply this logic to taiko. It may not be as easy to learn a song or a part of a song as learn the requirements for the next belt level, but what would happen if you set a date to learn something by, especially if you told your sensei/sempai/peers to make you accountable? Would that be an effective motivator? If so, why not do it?

Take something you've wanted to achieve. Pick an appropriate time, say 3-6 months. Tell people in the group that you trust to hold you accountable. See what happens! And let me know how it works out!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Aim higher.

I was watching an episode of "The Next Iron Chef" (not on purpose because the US version is painful to watch). One of the judges, while critiquing a dish, said this: "It's better to fail interestingly than to succeed moderately."

Would you rather write a piece with high aspirations that pushes you artistically but doesn't work out, or write a piece that gets played but doesn't bring anything new to the table?

Would you rather solo in relative safety, knowing you'll be solid and have no mistakes, if that lack of risk meant little growth? Or would you rather risk a few weaker sections and a mis-hit here and there if it meant you might find a spark?

It's easy to say we should always try the harder path, that risking big will lead to big rewards. Personally I tend to take a riskier path in my solos (not prescribing most of them, trying out weird things) and I've had a fair share of mishaps, but over the years I remember more of the times when something went right then when I messed up. I do remember some of the mistakes, but I can laugh at them now. Someone has to!

It's the successes that inspire me to keep trying, keep risking, and keep growing. My point here is don't always set your sights for what you know you can accomplish. Aim higher!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fall Tour 2011: Almost done!

We're in Memphis for four days, and these last two are pretty packed. We had a casual week in Nashville (Nash Vegas as some locals call it) but it's now from one extreme to the other.

We loaded into the theater at 8:00 am today, had a workshop in the afternoon and a full 2-hour concert at 6:00 pm. Tomorrow morning we have two 1-hour family/school shows, a workshop on stage, then a 6-hour drive to Athens, TN. The two days after are pretty much a repeat: all-day tech, concert at night, school shows the following morning. Crunch time!

It's been a great tour with an abundance of good food, cold weather, great theaters, plane delays, and it's nearing its end. I have some family coming to the last concert in Athens, and if schedule permits I'll try to meet up with them for breakfast the morning before we leave. I may post once more about tour on my return home, but then quickly resume my regular posting schedule.

I've got a big blog milestone coming up, so be on the lookout for that in a few weeks! Until then, wish us luck that we make it home without any delays!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Fall Tour 2011: Halfway through

We're out in Nashville now, having just started our residence at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC). We have four "family" shows and a couple of clinics/workshops in the span of four days, which is a really light schedule that allows us a lot of free time this week.

TPAC is really impressive, having multiple stages and shows going on at the same time. There's even a museum! The facilities are top-notch and it feels like we're being pampered. I haven't even mentioned the stage, which is huge and it's great being able to stretch out, so to speak.

Today we had our first of the four performances with just under 1100 kids with teachers and parents included in the mix. After the hour-long show, we had about 40 kids from one school up on stage for another hour, with a hands-on workshop. After dinner we watched the tape of the concert, which led to much amusement and anything we felt needed adjusting was very small indeed. A good show!

We have a lot of free time the next few days and we're already swimming in BBQ and meat and cheese, so finding new eats has become a priority. The fried Oreos, which I posted on Facebook, were a bit excessive, but what the heck!

We're left with a week to go and the last few days will be rather busy, but I'll try to post at least once more before I head back home. If you're finding this all rather boring, check back on the 19th when regular posts resume! Probably. :)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fall Tour 2011: First three days


The story so far...

Boo: A delayed flight in the morning led to a few of us getting to the hotel at 3:00 am the next day (instead of 8:30pm the night before.)

Yay: All the luggage came through just fine!

Boo: Really heavy rain on arrival and through the 3-hour drive to the hotel.

Yay: Awesome soul food with great service at a local restaurant that doubled as breakfast the next day!

And that was on the first day.

The first theater we went to was in Florence, South Carolina, and was barely two months old. It was a beautiful theater and we were honored to be a part of their inaugural season. The crowd was on the smaller side, which was understandable with a new theater, but we definitely left them with a lot of energy.

During the show, in one of the last songs, I noticed a little kid jumping about in the front row. I thought she was trying to play along during one of my solo, with her hands flapping about, but it was hard to see. Apparently the girl was trying to copy whoever was closer to her; it happened in at least one other song. After the show, I saw her clutching our DVD close to her chest and her dad was delighted with the show.

Today was our big driving day; 8 hours of a 10-hour trip after two back-to-back school shows in the morning. We're pretty tired but at least it's a bit of a breather right now.

Everyone's healthy and in good spirits; 14 days to go!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Fall Tour 2011: Prologue

It's been a while, but I'll be going out on tour for 18 days, starting Monday the 21st. Whereas I used to try and post every single day of a tour, I'm not going to do that anymore. I'll be updating when I can, which may be every other day, or even longer in between. You'll just have to check back often. :)

We're going to South Carolina and Tennessee (mostly the latter), which is great because I love BBQ everything and I have family in TN! I'll get to see them on the very last night of the tour, so I have that to look forward to.

The first five days of tour will be incredibly busy, the middle of tour has four 1-hour shows in four days, and like the beginning of tour, the last several days are crazy-busy. Still, I'm looking forward to it. It's been a long time since our last tour, and I'm playing a LOT of taiko in these 18 days. Since I had a smaller role in our home concert, this will be a good way to end the year.

So stay tuned for pictures, stories, anecdotes, and other frivolities!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Expectation vs. Inspiration

I'm doing a lot of "this vs. that" posts lately, it seems. Well why stop now?

When you perform, especially when you're doing something by yourself (improv or not, taiko or martial arts), are you doing it from a genuine place? Or are you doing it because you want to impress other people watching you?

Are you more likely to think, "this move is going to be awesome, people are going to love it!" or "I'm having so much fun, I hope people like it!" With the former, there's a sense of expectation, a feeling of you knowing what the audience will like. With the latter, there's a possibility to inspire by playing from the heart.

Mind you, simply playing from the heart doesn't magically inspire a viewer. You have to let it show on your body, your face, your presence. That in itself is a skill! Being a skill, you can get better at it. However, playing with expectations of affecting an audience will only set you up for a false sense of achievement at best, and disappointment at worst.

Showmanship is often a part of the performance, but there's forced humor/theatrics and there's playfulness/style. Knowing which sine of the line you're on isn't always easy, but knowing there's a line to begin with is a start!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Start vs. finish

What are you more focused on when you do a technique, the initiation or the destination?

My assumption lately is that most people are thinking about the end of a technique. For taiko players, this could be the actual strike on the head, or the end position of a movement. For martial artists, this could be where the punch or kick stops. This isn't necessarily an inherently bad thing, but as I've come to realize in teaching, people are much more aware of what they can see than what they can't.

In karate especially, I constantly tell people to remember what their feet and hips are doing, because it's the first thing to go. They can see their arms and hands all the time so it's easier to focus there, but below their field of vision, yikes! It does happen in taiko as well when people start with the lower body to provide a base, and that base goes away quickly once the drumming begins.

Lately in karate, I've been thinking less about the end of the technique or the execution, and more about the initiation of things. I know how where point B is, I even know how to get from point A to point B. So now I'm exploring that initial motion from point A, where everything begins.

It's led to a very different perspective, one I'm still digesting.

When I used to step through with a punch, I was more thinking of throwing my hips into the attack, lining up the body correctly for support upon impact, and maximizing power through speed. However, when I started thinking of the punch as something that might need to hit someone hard inches after starting it, I found that I threw the technique much faster, much harder. From there, it was simply a matter of continuing the momentum through the step and to the destination. It wasn't easier or harder, but a shifting of effort.

Turning that perspective to taiko, I'm just now starting to experiment with how that concept translates. Instead of thinking about the strike or the motion of the strike, how does the initiation of the motion affect everything else? Do I get more power with it? Is that power what I want?

On top of all that, there's the whole realm of moving I haven't thought about as much either. If I focus on the initiation of a movement, how does it affect pivoting, turning, shifting my weight, etc.? I've got a lot of homework to do...

It's good to analyze and experiment with your technique, but it doesn't always mean you'll find something that you can use. Even finding what doesn't work brings you one step closer to knowing what does!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Who plays better taiko?

The argument has been made that Japanese play taiko better than non-Japanese. I've heard it from people I like, I've heard it said in different ways, and I've heard it said by both Japanese and non-Japanese alike.

Allow me to completely destroy this argument.

Premise: Japanese play taiko better than non-Japanese.

Problem #1: The overarching problem here is the question of the word "Japanese". Who is Japanese? A person born in Japan? A person who is a citizen of Japan? A person born to Japanese parents? Since this argument in itself could derail the premise, I will say that for this post, a "Japanese" person is one born to Japanese parents who was raised in and lives in Japan.

Problem #2: Let's pick out one of the ~1.25 billion people in Japan and one of the ~7 trillion people from the rest of the world. Oh, looks like you grabbed a 19-year-old athlete from the Netherlands and a 85-year-old Japanese coma patient. Not a good comparison, right? Looks like we'll have to modify our premise.

Premise 2.0: Given generally good health and within a reasonable age range, Japanese play taiko better than non-Japanese.

Problem #3: Digging into the pool again, let's say you come up with a percussionist or dancer from one, and a couch potato from the other. Well that's not fair either, no matter which way you look at it, right? Not a fair comparison if one side has a great advantage before they even get to a taiko.

Premise 3.0: Given generally good health and within a reasonable age range, a Japanese taiko player plays taiko better than a non-Japanese taiko player.

Problem #4: You would never compare a beginning student to a master, would you? There might be a few exceptions, but most people doing taiko for a few months aren't going to have the abilities of someone who's been doing it for over ten years.

Problem #5: Let's say you play in a community taiko group that meets a couple of times a month. Would you compare yourself to someone in Kodo? Why the hell would you do that? You silly. Groups with radically different expectations and standards gives us the apples-to-oranges situation.

Premise 4.0: Given generally good health and within a reasonable age range, a Japanese taiko player plays taiko better than a non-Japanese taiko player of the same relative time playing, and group focus.

Problem #6: What about types of taiko? Would someone who has mastered naname-style playing but isn't all that good on other types be easily measured against someone who is equally moderate on everything from Odaiko to katsugi okedo?


Premise 5.0: Given generally good health and within a reasonable age range, a Japanese taiko player plays taiko better than a non-Japanese taiko player of the same relative time playing, group focus, and experience on instruments.

Problem #7: What exactly are you judging? A single strike on the taiko? Endurance? Ki? How they play an entire section of a song? How they solo? Are you going to take all of those into account?

Problem #8: Who said you're the judge? The premise indicates a "truth" that one is better than the other, but it's obviously a subjective statement. You may rate highly on ki and ease of striking, but the person next to you might value fluidity and fast chops more.

Problem #9: Intangibles about a "better" or "higher quality" sound by an ethnicity are so subjective and smack of elitism or even racism. I've yet to see a spectrogram or waveform of one taiko player shown to be "better" than another due to mathematical qualities. You can show me who's a technically better throat singer through a spectrograph because it's based on harmonics, but I may still like the person who's less technical because of their style. See #8, above.

Problem #10: Who said you can't enjoy both players? Think of a music genre you like. Are there more than one artist or group in that genre that you like? Even if you find one is "better" than the other in your eyes, you're still enjoying both, right? So then does it really matter who's "better"?

So here's what we're at:

Premise 6.0: Given generally good health and within a reasonable age range, a Japanese taiko player plays taiko better than a non-Japanese taiko player of the same relative time playing, group focus, and experience on instruments, assuming the people who are judging said players have the same sensibilities and preferences.

Wow. What a crappy premise. I suggest these instead:


Premise: Qualifying who plays better taiko than whom is about as productive as eating soup with a toothpick.

Premise: Taiko is fun. Yay!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review: 4th Annual International Body Music Festival

Last weekend, I attended my first International Body Music Festival in SF. It's a almost a week full of workshops and performances from artists around the world, and run by Keith Terry, musician and body percussionist extraordinaire.

Last year they held it in Brazil, but the year before it was during our annual retreat. I had to miss SFTD's International Taiko Festival to go this time, but it wasn't much of a contest for me. I see taiko all the time but body percussion is something I'm really curious to learn more about.

It was sort of like the NATC, but not as intense or compact. Although there were workshops and performances throughout the week, I only experienced one day - Saturday - from morning until late night. What follows is an accounting of my experiences, which might be boring to some of my readers, but this blog is also for me! :)

There were eight possible workshops: four time slots of 75 minutes each, and two possible worshops per slot. The first session had the workshop I was really jazzed about. The Stepping group Molodi started off getting us in a big circle for some call-and-repeat off of one of the members, then moved into learning some interlocking patterns. I found the material easy enough for me to get quickly and it was the most fun I had across all the workshops. The energy and personality of the group was infectious, keeping the workshop abuzz and a lot of fun.

Second workshop was from Korpu Kantu, a Greek group with an Italian leader. (Not sure if he was the leader, but he led the workshop.) For me, the learning curve for this workshop was like a 45-degree line that sometimes pointed straight up! We focused on an 11/8 rhythm, which is so not intuitive to my brain. The first pattern we did used clapping and stepping, which I was able to get ok, but the second pattern was all hands (clapping, snapping, chest hitting) and without my body to connect the movements, I kept losing the sequence. I would get it at times, but then they had us walk around and interact and I had to stop moving just to have a chance at the sequence. After that we took the first pattern and turned it from 11/8 to 12/8, which went ok...until they sped it up to a high speed where I lost it again. Although I found parts of the workshop frustrating, it was more because of the pacing than the instruction. I know if I work on the patterns, I'll understand them better. But still...11? 11 sucks. Heh.

Third workshop was by KeKeÇa, a Turkish group. The difficulty here was extremely low and the pace really slow, but their style and personalities made everything a lot of fun. Their style tends towards the slower side of rhythm which at first seems too simple but allows for a lot of character to emerge and a layers of complexity. We spent time on simple patterns in three, four, and five. We split into groups and were asked to pick a 3-syllable word/phrase to use in our pattern, and the KeKeÇa member in my group liked my "Got Taiko?" shirt and used that as our phrase. Ha! This was an interesting workshop that challenged my perception of rhythm - by taking things much slower - but also kept me highly entertained through the members themselves and the humor throughout.

The last workshop was run by Sandy Silva, who reminded me a lot of PJ in her style of teaching. She had us all sit down and tell our names, backgrounds, and what we wanted to get out of the workshop. I must have missed out on where the workshop descriptions were posted; I picked workshops based on the bios/videos of the teachers and the title of the workshop. This workshop was directed at educators and teachers, so I think I might have learned more in the other workshop, but I appreciated how Sandy taught her workshop. Although the patterns themselves were pretty simple (three patterns with singing on top), since I'm still really new to the world of body percussion, it was good to get a sense of different styles and options.

A long dinner break later, the concert was held. I got a seat center row 4, two leaps away from the stage. I'll summarize the acts as best as I can remember (not quite in order):

- Danny "Slapjazz" Barber did hambone as the opening act, and made me wish I could have taken his workshop as well! He showed some real mastery of the art and had such a great style that even just sitting in a chair, his presence filled the stage.
- Keith Terry did a solo performance as he usually does, and is always such an entertainer. I've seen him in action maybe a dozen times and although I recognize stylistic things he likes to do, I really like how he does them! To me he embodies what I really love about body percussion.
- There was a beatbox solo, which was the first time I've ever seen beatboxing live. It seems like something I could enjoy doing, but he was clearly damned good at it!
- Slamdance, Keith's current group, did a long multi-part performance full of shapes, rhythms, and a cappella vocals. Although interlocking polyrhythms were featured, I really appreciated the group movements and how they used the space of the stage while doing all the other stuff.
- Cambuyón is a group from the Canary Islands and had three of their members in this show, each member specializing in drumming, dancing, or singing. The vocal component was interesting, simulating musical instruments amongst the rest of the body percussion.
- There was a commission for this show, performed by three artists (and at times an accompanying musician/percussionist). It was to feature three different foot percussion/dance styles through several pieces, and did a good job but my critical eye (and ear) did catch a few mistakes! I found myself really liking the addition of the Québécois singer/percussionist, probably because it was completely new to me.
-
KeKeÇa performed a few pieces but I found myself wanting something faster at times. It was interesting, however, to recognize that feeling in myself and tell myself to take in the experience. In the end I found that I really did enjoy their performance and am glad they were able to get me to appreciate a very different style!
- The final group was Çudamani, doing Indonesian Kecak and quite a bit more. I expected it to be "just" Kecak and variations, but since I don't know much about it to begin with, I had no idea what they would do. They combined Kecak, body percussion, and choreography with a very genuine, playful energy that lit up the stage and the audience.

So what do I take away from all this? I want to explore what sorts of body percussion can be incorporated into taiko, even if it turns out not to be something the group can/would do. I also want to look more into Stepping for my own purposes. The festival goes to Istanbul next year so I'll have to wait until 2013, but I really want to go again!

If you can check out any of these artists or the festival sometime, I have nothing but the highest recommendations for them all. A taiko player could learn a lot from just watching this stuff, let alone taking workshops: how to feel rhythms, how to move your body, interlocking patterns, odd time signatures, interpreting rhythm through movement, etc.

So yeah, I liked it. :)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Teachers

Lately I've been thinking about teachers and teaching.

In karate, I have a sensei and usually one or two senior students (sempai) that can tell me what I'm doing wrong when they watch my technique during class. Instant feedback. I can also go to either one of them and ask, "what should I be doing when I do this?" They'll give me the "correct" answer, but also their take on why it's that way plus any nuances they've discovered. I feel like even though I put a lot of thought into my karate, they can fill in the blanks of the stuff I haven't figured out yet.

Then we come to taiko. I always considered Roy and PJ to be my sensei, although we don't use the term in the group. It's not that sort of vibe. But when I had something lacking in my technique or had a question about the whys and hows, they would be who would give me the "answers" as best they could. Although Roy and PJ are still around, they're not at our practices and it's taken me a while to realize...I don't really have a teacher anymore!

It's a weird feeling. Does it mean I'm the teacher now? Does it mean that I can't learn things from the current people in charge? Would it be different if Roy and PJ were still active in the group? Lots of questions abound in my head.

Of course I listen to the current leaders of the group, but I feel that instead of "instruction" I get "feedback". I think it's in part due to being a senior member that doesn't require a lot of attention, as well as me being in the group longer than they have. It's not bad by any means, but it's definitely a different feel. I've always been a huge proponent of learning on your own, but now I find that it's a necessity for me where it used to be optional or supplementary.

What about you? Who do you rely on currently to make you a better artist? What happens if they're no longer available? Are you developing the ability now to help you grow later on without them? It can be a scary thing to think of yourself teacher-less, but better to plan for it now then to deal with it unprepared...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Backgrounds

This past weekend we had our annual Open Auditions, where we invite those who are interested in joining the company to go through a comprehensive set of exercises. We look for a lot of things, but also we realize that people generally don't come with a lot of prior experience.

For years, I've given some thought about backgrounds and previous experience that people bring into taiko. I've seen dancers, percussionists, martial artists, actors, singers...

- Dancers seem to have an easier time initially, especially in groups that use any sort of body movement or choreography. Knowing how their body moves gives them a big advantage early on, if they're able to understand what's different and what to change. It also seems to me that dancers are already used to expressing themselves through movement, since that's part of most dancing arts. "Dance" is a big category and encompasses everything from ballet to modern to hip-hop, but I can easily tell when people in a group have a dance background within a few movements. In a good way!

- Percussionists often have a harder start in some taiko groups, which sounds weird at first. I mean, taiko is percussion in large part, right? What's hard is making a percussionist move their hands away from the drum, not lean over, etc. But once the initial learning curve is passed, I see some great things that percussionists bring to the table - stick control, speed, rhythms, etc. Those tend to be the harder things to teach to others, because unlike larger movements, what the hands do is harder to see, breakdown, and copy at times. A percussionist might even be able to pull off staying still at a drum and just pulling out some great stuff without needing a lot of movement, if they have that presence and ki instilled in them.

- Martial artists don't seem to be very common in the taiko world, which I think is interesting. On paper, the skills required to be a good martial artist seem to match that of being a good taiko player. Most martial arts have a strong foundation in a grounded stance of some sort and learning how to move from that stance translates easily into movement in taiko. Whether the art is something fluid or more direct, there's also an awareness of the body gained in most martial arts. And finally, projection of ki/qi is a major component of most arts, perfect for use in taiko depending on the mood of a piece.

- Singers may not get to utilize their skills that much, much like actors/actresses. There may be times when your group has a song or acting component, but there's still something to be said for stage presence and being comfortable being in front of an audience. Presence can be a huge element on stage, turning a simple part into something that draws people's eyes to you and in an enjoyable way.

Mind you, all of these things are generally positives but some habits are hard to break. When you have someone with things in their background that they've been doing for a while, it can hard for them to fight muscle memory!

I hear people say they don't have the skills that people who are just starting in taiko have. Sure, there are people who have a higher skill set when they start taiko than others but it's what they do with it that counts. When I started, I was stiff, I overhit, my hands weren't all that fast, and the only advantage I really had was that I could reach drums that were far apart, ha.

Look at the background you brought into your art. If you're not reaping the rewards from it now, why not? What do you think will do it? And if you feel you don't have anything that you brought with you, what are you learning NOW that you will be able to utilize later on?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Soloing, part 5-2: Rhythms on multiple drums

xWith this post I want to continue the idea I started in my last thread: focusing on the rhythms we make when we solo. It's easy enough to break things down when there's just one drum, but what about when there's two or more?

Maybe you'll get to play a chudaiko next to a couple of shimedaiko, or have a Sukeroku-style setup. Playing more than one drum brings with it a lot more to deal with, and forgetting ki or kata for the moment, I want to talk about the three biggest hurdles that come up with this way of playing.
  • A weak rhythm on one is even weaker on two.
This is where I was leading into with the last post. A rhythm that's hard for a listener to follow on one drum is going to be even more difficult when it's spread out over multiple tones. Again, look at your solo as if it was being notated. Is it well-rounded? Well-constructed? That's the kind of rhythm you can spread out over different tones.
  • Don't freak out!
Especially when multiple drums are new, a really common thing to do is to play in a sort of "panic" mode, where you're hitting as many surfaces as you can as often as you can. Unless someone has told you to play that way, it's better to calm down and realize you just have more options, not more requirements. Play the other drums when you want to!
  • More tones ≠ more skill.
Riding shotgun with the comment above, just because you *can* play a lot of surfaces at once doesn't always mean you should. It may seem like you're adding a level of complexity to your solo, but it often just results in chaos.

Think about what tones you're facing. Is one of them significantly lower? Maybe less notes on that to make more of an impact. Something higher pitched? That's probably going to cut through, so you can maybe use it to play denser patterns or sparse notes for emphasis. Find a purpose for the tones you're presented with so that your solo is not only entertaining, but intelligent.

---

If you really think about it, one drum can present you with a lot of opportunities for different tones. The center of the drum head, the outer part of the drum head, the rim, the tacks, the body, pressing down on the head while playing, etc.

How you think about rhythm will determine the quality of what your solos sound like. Just ask yourself, are you playing the drums? Or are you playing rhythms on the drums?

picture via terrybozzio.com

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Soloing, part 5-1: Rhythms

You think about your solos, right? Do you think about how they sound as a rhythm?

I realize most taiko players don't read Western notation, but you can still think of your solos as patterns that you could graph out with simple marking. The important thing here is to be able to visualize your solo in terms of the musical notes, as if someone were closing their eyes and just listening.

Take a song that you solo in. What does your solo look like - musically - if someone were to notate it on paper somehow? Does it look like it's aware of the downbeat or does it sound "lost"? Is it repetitive? Are there a lot of the same patterns? Is it chaotic? Are there mostly new things one after the other? Is it clever? Is it too clever? Is is simple? Is it too simple? Are the patterns dense? When they are, is it the same kind of pattern making that density or is there variety?

I'll stop there, but those are the types of things you should notice in your own mental "notation". To me, rhythm becomes "noise" when there's no sense of repetition or recognizable patterns. There's a difference in someone attempting to play something identifiable as a rhythm but failing, and someone who's on beat but so all over the place that it's a mental chore to follow along. The former is like driving with someone who speeds up here, slows down there, and doesn't always use their signal, but you know they know where they're going. The latter is someone who obeys all the rules of the road, but it seems like they're lost the entire time.

I did write a post here about musicality in soloing, and this is definitely a similar post, but I'm mainly setting up things for the next part come Monday. Still, why not take some time until then and think about it?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Question Everything: The creative process

After our annual concerts, we get together the very next day to watch one of the videos for fun and then we review the process as a group in a discussion format.

The creative process in general was brought up and we spent some time talking about things like deadlines, comfort level and balance.

Before a performance, how much practice does your group need before you feel "comfortable" doing it? And if you're not comfortable, what happens if you still have to do it? Will you freak out or sell it as best you can? Does your group ensure that people are generally comfortable or is that left up to the individual?

Which is worse in your eyes: to be over-prepared to the point where creativity stagnates and safety becomes a crutch, or to be constantly creating and never having a solid performance and causing group anxiety? Extremes perhaps, but do you lean one way or the other?

I've been talking about the creative process on a macro level, a group level, but it can also apply to the individual. Think about a new song that you have to solo in. Will you spend a lot of time choreographing something that you polish over time, or do you practice enough to get a general feel of what the piece "feels" like and let yourself improvise creatively as you play it?

If you're the former, what if you have a lot of new songs and you simply don't have the time to set so many solos? Is the safety net you're used to having now a liability because you can't have it? If you're the latter and have many new solos, can you be solid in every solo with all the different set ups and moods? Will your improvisation just be a lot of the same movements and rhythms adjusted to fit the song in order to not falter?

I'm not giving much in the way of my opinion on this post because I really want people to ask themselves where they stand. There's no right or wrong as much as there should be awareness and understanding. Safety and chaos can be just as useful as they can be crippling!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Yak yak yak

Here's something to ponder. If you took all the time you spent at practice socializing and instead had spent it practicing on something, how much better do you think you'd be by now? How many hours would that total up to? Days?

I'm not going to say people shouldn't socialize or that it's a waste of time, because I know for some groups that's a BIG part of why people play taiko. What I'm getting at is when people default to doing it because that's what they always do.

Just ask yourself what you would rather do when you get to practice. Practice? Or talk? Which one will make you a better player? No, that's not a trick question, it's a question of priorities. To some people, to some groups, that socialization really makes the group stronger. And I have absolutely no problem with that, I really don't!

It's a shame when people who could (and often should) be practicing choose instead to chat with people that they see all the time. And then during practice. And then after practice. And repeat. Maybe I'm just more anti-social then I think (which is already a decent amount), but I don't get it.

Would I rather talk about sports or make my diddles stronger? Watch YouTube videos or figure out a new solo move? It's not that I'm "better" because I usually choose to practice rather than socialize - it's what I want to do and so I do it. Heck yeah I'm biased. :)

If you feel your taiko experience will be richer for having spent more time chatting, then you should choose that path. As usual, I'm just posing a question and asking people to reconsider what they take for granted. Don't wish you had more time to practice something when you spent it all being social...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wasted motion

When I watch black belts train alongside lower belts, the biggest difference isn't in power or speed or even confidence, although all of those do apply. It's that the black belts tend to be more efficient.

When using the body, a black belt generally knows how to use their body to get from point A to point B with as little superfluous motion as possible. Someone still learning will add all sorts of needless motions, even miniscule ones.

Now, I'm not neglecting that a black belt will also have developed muscle that allows them greater speed, or that repetition of an action helps to do it faster with familiarity. There's just no denying that the more needless motion you whittle off, the faster, the stronger, and the more effective your techniques will be.

For those who have played taiko for at least a year or so, remember when you first played doro tsuku and it was hard to get your arms to be in the right place to ensure proper dynamics? And then in time, you streamlined the movements somewhat? This is exactly what I'm talking about.

So where am I going with this? Two points:

- "Flourish" often just hides bad technique.

I see a lot of players who add body shifts and arm flaps and bachi spins and twirls when they play who have weak striking, a bad sense of body awareness, or both. I want to take those people and make them play "still". No more movement than is necessarily to play the pattern. I want to isolate how much their extra motion hides their weak spots.

Perhaps some people do this on purpose, because they know they don't have the technique they should? It's possible, but still a waste.

- Don't wait for someone to tell you that you're wasting motion.

Look at your own technique. Does your bachi point back towards you on a basic strike? That just means you have to use extra energy to throw it forward. Are you finding your feet leave the ground when you push off? Whenever you're in the air, you're at the mercy of gravity and momentum. Maybe keeping contact will save you energy and time, and still allow you all the benefits you need.

When you think "I'm pretty efficient when I...", that's when you have to look at whatever it is again. I'm sure the lower belts think they're doing pretty good before they have a black belt point things out to them. And the black belts think THEY'RE doing pretty good before their teachers point things out to them.

---

I love adding my own flair to my motions, especially during a solo. There's a BIG difference, however, in adding extra flavor to a good dish versus throwing a bunch of extra spices on it because the meat is rancid. Food for thought!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Extracting meaning.

Imagine going to a museum or exhibit and coming across a series of paintings.

Some of them are photo-realistic, looking as if they could have been enlarged photographs. Some of them are harder to get right away, but you recognize what the artist was trying to get at. Some of them you look at but you have no idea what's going on.

Now think of those paintings as taiko pieces. Some of them are easily "understood". A festival piece, or perhaps an odaiko piece. Then you have some that are supposed to invoke imagery, like the ocean or teamwork. Then you have some that are conceptual, that tell a story through positions or emotion.

Some people will prefer the first kind. Just clearly tell them what you want them to get, and they're happy. They may not like the song, but they don't want to spend time figuring it out. Other people appreciate clever ways to interpret things in ways that may surprise them. Then there are some who will enjoy spending energy analyzing what the heck they're watching, even if they don't arrive at an answer.

There's nothing wrong with disliking certain types of songs either, and that's the real point of my post here. Most people like the first two categories of taiko. It's rare that someone doesn't want some songs to be simple in meaning. It's also rare for someone to not enjoy a creative imagining of a theme. But if you find a song that you don't "get", how much time will you spend trying to figure it out?

Aside from a song that's so "out there" that it's almost trying to confuse you, when do you give up on trying to figure things out? How much tolerance do you have when the meaning of a piece isn't handed to you in a convenient package? What does that say about you?

Not every song will be something you appreciate, but what do you have to lose by extracting meaning from it? What was the composer trying to say? Did it work? Did it make you think? Why or why not?

It's one thing not to like something abstract, but going in with a "I don't have the patience for this" or "I don't get it, it's stupid" attitude really reflects more on you. Don't be that kind of person, expand your perspectives!

"Bert Drip Painting" by Tommervik

Monday, October 10, 2011

From the center.

Let's take a look at your hara, shall we?

Moving from your center, or hara, is at the core of nearly every martial art, and once it becomes second nature to tap into it, nearly every technique you execute becomes stronger and easier. It's also something I see a lot of players struggle with, either because their group doesn't talk about it or they haven't had the opportunity to really incorporate it into their playing.

Think about your body as a unit. If you just play with your arms and keep the rest of your body still, you're using a lot of energy to maintain tension when you could be using it to strike. Your legs should be used to keep you grounded but not rooted, so that your center has a base to move from. Every move you make should come from your hara, which should then flow out into your limbs. It's a difficult concept that only gets easier with time.

As we ramp up for our annual concert, I've been thinking about technique, especially odaiko technique. I've gotten a couple of comments about how I strike odaiko, that I use my wrists to do most of the work and how I don't use my hara (my center) enough. They're pretty tied together, actually.

I've gotten my striking technique to the point where I'm able to have my hands play pretty much any pattern I can think of, which is great! What I'm realizing though, is that I'm not utilizing my hara as much as I could because of it. Hmm.

It's interesting, because I've always said don't take things for granted and once something gets comfortable, you need to re-examine it and make it better. I knew I was re-examining my striking technique, but only from one angle. I wonder how many other areas I neglect my hara in while playing, simply because I get most of my technique through my wrists? Wrists make for great snap, but when it counts, it's all about the hara.

How much are you aware of your center? How much do you inhibit it? What happens when you don't?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

That's not nice...

In karate, we have a drill called gohan kumite. This translates to "five-step sparring."

Two rows of people partner up. On each count from sensei, row 1 steps forward attacking the assigned area on their partner with the assigned attack. Row 2 steps back, doing the assigned block. This happens for a total of five times, then the roles switch. The goal here is to understand timing and distancing better.

One of the biggest mistakes the attacker can make is to be "nice" to the defender. This happens a lot with newer students. They may pull their punch or punch just off to the side in order not to hit someone who's a little slow. The attacker that purposefully misses the defender in order to be "nice" is actually doing the defender a BIG disservice.

By backing off or aiming elsewhere, the defender gets a false sense of their skill and learns bad habits. Making the defender really work to not get hit is the whole point of the drill! Really being "nice" means giving them an incentive to move faster, block quicker, and focus on technique.

So how does this apply to taiko, where most of us aren't trying to hit each other? (I said most, I don't want to know what some of you collegiate kids do...)

I want you to think of the critique you give others and what you choose not to say. Are there things that you don't tell someone because you want to be "nice" to them? Does keeping that critique from them make them a better player in the end? Or like the defender above, are you helping to instill a false sense of skill?

In previous posts, I've talked a lot about making comments and giving feedback. It all still applies! Just think about the next time you avoid making a comment in order to be "nice" to someone. Are you really helping them?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Standards and comments

What standards do you set for yourself? Are they reflected in the comments you give to others?
  • If you tell someone not to get off tempo but then you're prone to it yourself, why should they take you seriously?
  • If you bring attention to a small detail of kata or formation when there are bigger issues at hand, don't you think it's fair if people question your judgement?
  • If you don't act on the comments other people give you, why should they listen to yours?
  • Do you listen only to the comments you get that fit nicely into your priorities? Or do you make a note (physical or mental) about all the things you've gotten comments about?
Hell, no one's perfect. We can't all be the best, shining example for everyone every time. But there are some things you can do.

When you give a comment to someone or to the group about an issue, best to ask yourself if you're guilty of it first! If you are, then you might want to admit to it as you give your comment. However, even if you're not guilty of it, don't be smug about it.

When you're watching something to make comments about it, first ask yourself, what details are really important here? If people are having issues with sequence and you're mentioning one person's bachi angle, who does that help? Are you burning to tell your comment because it's really going to help or because you just want to sound knowledgeable?

When you get comments, do you only pick the ones you like? Only the ones that are convenient? Or do you try to also implement the ones that are going to be harder and require work? If people see you trying to implement others' comments, you're showing that you take comments seriously.

It's not just what your comments are, it's also how you present your comments. And to top it off, it's then also about what you do with the comments you get, as well.

The standards that you expect other people to meet you should also impose on yourself.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fix it before you break it.


I'm good at seeing problems. Well hooray for me! I want to make things better, and to do that I first have to identify what needs work.

PJ once gave me the comment that while it was great that I was able to bring up issues that needed attention, I wasn't offering any solutions. And she was right. It really changed my perspective on how I thought of "problems."

A "problem" in your group isn't just your group's problem, it's also your problem. If you complain about something, you should also be obligated to come up with a reasonable solution to it. How come? Because otherwise you're just the annoying person that complains all the time. People will quickly stop listening to your issues, no matter how valid they may be once you become that person.

Mind you, just having a solution doesn't mean it's going to be received well. That's up to a lot of variables like group dynamics, your presentation of the idea, etc. Not making the extra step to come up with a possible solution, however, is just being lazy. Having said that, sure there are times when you just don't have a solution, because you're in a lose-lose situation or don't have enough information to make a choice - but I bet for the majority of the time, you can come up with something.

Put more thought into how to fix something than into how much you have an issue with it, and you've essentially changed your frame of mind. Is it easy to do that? No. The path to bettering yourself rarely is.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mouthful of sprinkles

Basics are boring. No one goes to see you perform and gets dazzled by your basics. What impresses the audience is when you flip your bachi, or when you show off a fancy new trick.

Right?

Yeah...no. Totally wrong.

While it's true that people don't go to see you play to watch how even your beats are, people will enjoy what you play a LOT more if you have a solid foundation first.

Filling a solo with tricks does entertain the audience to a degree, sure. It also takes some skill to pull them off well. But when they're there as a substitute for solid playing, that's when I have issues.

If you want to throw your bachi in the air for the wow factor, great! But if you can't stay on tempo during the rest of your solo, then all you've done is shown me that your priorities are askew. It's like giving me a poorly-baked cupcake with some awesome-tasting sprinkles on it!

If you really want to "wow" an audience, be a solid player who can show a wide range of skills. Strike cleanly, place notes with purpose, shine your ki outwards, and play from a genuine place.

Also in this realm are songs written with a similar intent behind them, to impress through tricks. After a few rounds, those tricks get old fast. And if the song is just a vehicle to deliver sprinkles, why not just give me a mouthful of sprinkles? Saves us both time. :)

It's fun to show off or throw a party trick in there every now and then, but are you doing it because it's a highlight of your solo or because it's really all you have to offer?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Drill: Beyond tired

You can stretch and warm up before practicing, but to truly know your body, you have to know it when it's tired.

Past your perfect kata, past your piercing ki, past your second wind...that's where you find out what lessons you've really absorbed. That's when you start having to use your body - especially your hara - if you want to keep playing.

It's somewhat of a two-part experience. First you have to get to that point and then you'll find out how long you can last. I suggest getting there gradually, not within two minutes of playing but by however long it takes. Once you feel the urge to back off because it's getting "hard", that's when you want to keep pushing.

On occasion I'll go into the studio and spend an hour just to push my limits. 15 minutes on katsugi okedo, 15 minutes on assorted drums (trap-set style), 15 minutes on a Yodan Uchi-style set up, and 15 minutes on odaiko. Every time I'm finished, I'm beat. Really truly beat. But there's a satisfaction in that exhaustion, knowing I pushed harder than I did the last time and knowing that if I have to push that hard in a performance, I can still go strong.

Sometimes it's really best to do this alone, simply because it's going to reveal a very personal side of yourself. It's humbling and it can make you feel vulnerable, but it's also a chance to feel growth through physical exertion. Some people do this through running, but if you can do it through what you're already trying to get better at, why not go that route?

I realize not everyone has the chance to go into their studio by themselves, or even have a studio to go to. The alternative then is during practice, to not hold back, to not take it as a "practice" but to treat it like the last performance you'll ever have. You want to go out with a bang, right? You just might have a lot of bang down the line...

Pacing ourselves helps keep us playing for the long term. However, to know what you're truly capable of and to reveal the true performer underneath the surface, push yourself!

Monday, September 19, 2011

That damned loop of progression...

The better I get as a player, the more I notice how bad I am.

It may sound like a non sequitur, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

As my critical eye (and ear) get more honed, I find I become more aware of just what I need to work on. Where I used to hear a solid straight beat, I now hear tiny imperfections between hits or minute straying from the tempo. Where I used to myself playing complex syncopation in the pocket, I now hear when it dances *just* outside the beat it should have been on. It's frustrating!

But I know progress follows that "loop of progression" - like I posted about here. It's just easier to talk about than to actually be experiencing! The only thing to do is acknowledge what I'm hearing and make it better so that what I'm playing feels right again.

I often write about my theories and perspectives, but I think it's good to let people know that it's usually all from what I personally experience, struggle, and work through. Persevere!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

History and "truth"

There's a lot of talk about the history of taiko and taiko songs bubbling amongst the online taiko community right now. Who has permission to play song X? Where did song Y come from? Who represents group Z?

It got me thinking about how the history of karate and certain kata (forms) and how the two arts of taiko and karate share similar...issues, if you will.

In karate's past, there have been people who have claimed they were taught by a famous teacher, who know special techniques, or make themselves of a higher rank out of the blue. Taiko has the whole "what is traditional?" hoo-ha and karate has "what is practical?".

For Shotokan karate in particular, we have about 25 different kata created by 6-7 different people. Kata 10 can look and feel nothing like kata 11-14, which in turn look and feel nothing like kata 15, and so on. Each "composer" made kata with their own sensibilities in mind and then all of them were put under the Shotokan umbrella. Add to this that each style of karate (of which I'd guess there are about 12 "main" styles) can easily have their own version of half (or more) of those kata, modified by their founder and/or influential teachers...

For my dojo, we're required to interpret the moves contained in each kata at the higher levels. What does this stance teach? Where would you use this move or this sequence? What was the creator of this kata trying to teach us? These questions wouldn't be such a big deal except for a confession by a highly-respected master that came to teach a seminar.

He basically confessed that some of the kata moves were made "because they looked good." What?!?! So we're trying to interpret the "hidden meaning" behind moves that never had them to begin with? What a twisted joke...

So how do I parallel this with taiko? Simply that there are a lot of misconceptions and people choosing to believe what's convenient, rather than seeking the truth for themselves. Mind you, I'm not saying all of you don't know the truth, or saying I know more than the next person. What I want people to come away with here is that we can't ever just assume that what our group tells us is "the truth". Your group might think it's the truth, but you can't assume it. Where did that song you play come from? Who gave you and your group permission to play it? What context is appropriate for that song?

It may sound like weird advice, but next time someone tells you any sort of taiko history, do some homework and figure out whether or not it's true or not. Find out who's got the real information and who can deliver it without bias. Those are the people you want to listen to. But even then - don't get lazy!

Seek out the truth!

Monday, September 12, 2011

What do audiences want?

Some of you will probably know of the group Kodo. For those that don't, they're my favorite taiko group that I'm not in and I've been a HUGE fan since...ever. Yeah. :)

Recently, Kodo just took on a new Artistic Director, Tamasaburo Bando. Who he is isn't important for purposes of this post, but he's the first Artistic Director Kodo's had that came from outside the performing group. In his welcoming message, he says this:

"It is needless to say how difficult it is to create productions that not only satisfy audiences, but also challenge them. Therein lies the crux of my responsibilities as artistic director."


So that's the question for this post. What would you rather do as a performer, satisfy or challenge your audience? What would you want as an audience member? Are they different?

I've seen pieces where the players are being too clever, and the audience doesn't get to enjoy the performance - or worse, they can lose interest, feel cheated, etc. However, to satisfy an audience by only giving them the same things over and over guarantees your group can never truly grow and your audience can only respect you so much.

So yes, the easy answer to the question lies somewhere in the middle. But since the perfect middle is impossible to achieve, which side do you lean towards and why?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

(NA)TC?

North American Taiko Conference. I know it well!

Today I want to talk about the first half of NATC. No, not Thursday and Friday, but literally the first half of NATC, "North American".

I've heard people say they want more instructors from Japan to come out and teach workshops at NATC. It's also hard to get new groups to play at Taiko Jam from North America; we're re-cycling groups that have played once or twice before. Also, there is both more access to and more awareness of taiko outside of North America that isn't from Japan.

So how important is the NA to NATC?

First, looking at data from previous conferences, Japanese workshop leaders don't get any higher scores than anyone else. So would having more be a better thing? The data doesn't support it. Second, at previous Taiko Jams, when we invited Japanese artists, I overheard comments from people who really wished we would showcase North American groups since that was the purpose of NATC (hence the name?)

Now, even though I bring up those examples, I'm not quite decided where I stand. On one hand, if we drop the NA, we can have groups from all over the world play at Taiko Jam. It would be nice to keep NA-focused, but a little bit of "other" exposure is quite welcome! (I'm looking at you, Kagemusha Taiko!) Inviting more instructors from Japan is fine by me as long as it's worth the money to have them here and they provide quality instruction to those attending their workshops.

Maybe we just need to pick the right name. How about NATC+ or "North American Taiko Conference and then some"? It's more about finding the purpose of the conference and making sure it's serving the needs of the NA taiko community. It can't be all things to all people, but if we're all on the same page, it can only get better!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Soloing, part 4: Movement

Movement is scary. Let me qualify that. Improvised movement is scary. Right?

It's one thing to keep your hands near the drum and play whatever rhythms you want, that's "safe". Why is it safe? Beats me, but a see a lot of newer players doing it. If I had to guess, I would say that there's a vulnerability in moving away from the drum, in creating ma, or space/distance. I mean this is drumming, right? If you're not hitting the drum, then what are you doing?

Well first off, moving away from the drum opens up a world of possibilities. You can make shapes with your body, trace patterns, and create new angles simply by moving one foot. You can tell a story or create a character with movement, and make your solo distinct without need for complexity. Simply put, adding movement to your solos makes you a better soloist.

Now when I'm talking about movement, I'm not talking about raising your arm to strike the next note. That's more of a necessity. At the very least, I mean moving your arm off that striking path. Imagine watching 10 taiko solos in a row that didn't have some sort of distinct movement per person, all of them doing nothing more than striking the taiko with cool rhythms. Who's going to stick out? How many will you remember five minutes later?

So let's say I've convinced you to add more movement. Now what? Well...move! The hardest thing about moving in solos is making it part of the story you're trying to tell. It's fine when you're new to taiko to just stick your arms where you're told, but that's not your story. Most of you that solo probably already have some movement, but maybe it's hard to break out of what you're used to.

If you're looking for more abstract ideas about movement, think of angles, curves, planes, sharpness, softness, slow, fast, short, long. If you had to do movements based off any one of those words, what would they look like?

If you're looking for more concrete ideas about movement, think about the "dome" of space over your head. Are you using it much? What about the space directly behind you, have you stepped backwards lately? How about holding a pose for a second or three? Think about your arms, your posture, where your feet are.

One thing that's both fun and freeing is to solo like someone else. If you get enough people to do this as a drill, you can "steal" distinct moves from the soloist before you, and the next soloist will do the same to you. It forces you to move unlike how you normally would. Another thing to try is watch different styles of dance - does a certain kind of dance inspire anything? Spark any ideas?

Explore space. Explore distance. It's not scary at all once you get to know it. You might even like it there!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Superstars

You can't deny it, we have superstars in taiko!

Who doesn't get a little starstruck wandering around NATC, where you can (literally) bump into people who have founded groups that started it all, created styles of playing that people are still trying to emulate, and/or pioneers of taiko that inspire new generations?

If you play piano and you're really really good at it, you'll be joining a crowd of thousands - probably tens of thousands - of other piano players out there who are also really really good that are trying to get noticed. This is also the case with hip hop, karate, any sort of art form. However, if you're a really really good NA taiko player right now, you're going to get known pretty fast in the community. In itself, there's nothing wrong with that. Where things get tricky is the effect a superstar can have on the taiko community.

A taiko superstar may have more technical expertise than most of us, but opinions are still opinions. If you find yourself agreeing with someone's point of view, you should ask yourself what you're listening to: the opinion or the personality? Does your opinion change when theirs does? Would you agree with someone less "qualified" who had the same opinion? Charisma is a pretty powerful thing, and a superstar may not think of themselves in that way or realize they're putting that charisma out there, but when it's on, it's on.

I try to separate a person's artistic ability from their personality. Someone can have better hands, musical sense, fluidity, presence, et al, and I'll give them credit for that - but that doesn't make their viewpoints better than mine. My viewpoints aren't better than anyone else who may not have the skills I do, right? Works both ways.

As for the superstars themselves, they may not necessarily even want that title! A superstar can be any gender, new to taiko or seasoned, young in age or wise in years. They may be a pretty unassuming sort and still have quite the following. Some may seek it out; others wind up there. Still, there's just no denying the influence that they can have!

I think they have a responsibility to the taiko community to be aware of that sort of power. You can look at studies of the psychology of stardom or celebrity culture and see countless examples of influence on the fans of a superstar. When a superstar voices a strong opinion, they should be aware that they will sway more people to that opinion than if it were the average taiko player saying the same thing. They can use that "power" for good, or it can lead to some ugliness if not handled well. It's a responsibility that they now have, like it or not.

When it comes down to it, no one has all the right answers and everyone needs to find their own truth. It's important to listen to those who have done much and get their perspective on things, but at the end of the day you are responsible for your own words and actions.

Letting someone speak for you is one thing; letting someone THINK for you is inexcusable.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Loop of progression

What with NATC just behind us, I noticed/heard several comments from people along the lines of "oh there's so much I didn't know I had to learn" or "I didn't realize I was doing it wrong, it's going to take forever to get better."

All of us should have those moments of "I have a lot to learn" and as we keep trying to get better, those moments will keep coming back. Think of a circle, where the top represents simplicity and efficiency. As we learn more and attempt to change what we're used to, we struggle with the new information and it takes time to get back to the top of that circle.

However, notice the title of this post? It's not "Circle of progression", it's "Loop of progression." If all we ever did was get back to our original point, we'd never get better in the long run. And this is where a lot of people get frustrated; they look ahead and see it as a another climb back to where they used to be.

Instead of thinking of a circle where you might wind up back where you started, think of it as a laterally-moving loop. Another way to look at it is a coil that's viewed slightly from the side. You still have the progression that you followed in a circle, but when the next time you get to the top, you've made progress from the last time you were on the top.

Naturally, no one's progression makes any sort of repetitive, tidy pattern. But the concept of the loop of progression can give you a lot of perspective. When you started playing taiko - I'm talking the first week - you took a stick and you made a noise. Then I'm betting things got harder, right? Stance, grip, tempo, all those annoying other factors that got in the way...until you started getting better at them.

When new information gets frustrating, that's when you're at the bottom of the circle. But that bottom just means every step from that point takes you to the top of the next circle, where the cycle begins again. Recognize the patterns and you'll appreciate the journey!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Question Everything: Training in Japan

Yeah, this is a juicy one.

At NATC 2011 this past weekend, I substituted for Yurika on the panel of the Innovation and Tradition discussion session. Eventually the topic about training in Japan came up and we went on that path for a while. After further debate and reflection on this, I wanted to share my thoughts.

Personally, I don't think it's necessary to train in Japan. I'll just say it right at the beginning. Let me make it clear that I'm not talking about enjoying a week or two for workshops or a festival, but studying there for months to years. Yes, I think it can further a person's appreciation for taiko and improve on one's skills, but necessary? Far from it. Here are the reasons I've heard and why I don't like them:

- Learning taiko in Japan will make you a better player.

That's a really weak argument. If I used that in my debate class, I would have gotten torn apart. Is it magic? I just stay there long enough and *poof* I'm a better player? I know people don't mean that when they use this argument, but still...

- Learning taiko in Japan means learning it from the source.

That doesn't mean it's good instruction. Sure there are taiko masters in Japan, but will you be able to learn from them? Also, what about the language barrier? If you don't speak Japanese fluently, how much are you really going to get out of intense instruction with a Japanese instructor unless they speak your native tongue or have an interpreter?

- Learning taiko in Japan will help you understand/find/play that perfect/right/special sound/tone/quality.

Hmm, maybe. But does that mean that you can't find that/those things without going to Japan? Or that some of those who have been playing taiko in North America for over 30 years, who never trained in Japan, don't have a good quality of sound? Think about all the taiko players around the world that have never studied in Japan. Do none of them have an ability to find a "good sound"? Will it really take them longer to find it unless they go to Japan?

Also, and I touch on this later, but what is that "sound"? Is it Japanese? If so, ask yourself why that would be important to you as a NA (or non Japanese-taiko player). Is it universal? If so, then do we not have the ability or the instructors here to find it ourselves?

- Learning taiko in Japan will help you understand where the true roots of taiko come from, and you can't truly experience that unless you go there.

I can buy a little bit of that, but where would I go to train? Which style will give me the best understanding? For how long do I need to be there for? Do I need to go to multiple people? If you seek out a particular style, this is a much easier point, but to generalize it is another weak argument.

- Look at (insert taiko player here), they went to Japan and they're an awesome taiko player now!

What we'll never know is if they would have been as awesome had they continued training here/not gone to Japan. Were they "awesome" before they left but got better, or were they only "awesome" after they came back? Those awesome taiko players are really small handful of the taiko population, and like my first point above, just going to Japan doesn't make anything happen. There needs to be skills learned, the ability to ingrain them, and the right teacher to instill them.

Those are the main reasons I hear to go travel to Japan to learn taiko, but there are a bunch of other issues:

- About 99% of North American taiko players will never go to Japan to train not because of lack of interest, but how many people can afford to travel to and live in Japan for the time it takes to truly learn something? What about family, school, jobs, bills, etc.? How do I know it's 99%? It's an educated guess. How many taiko players from your group are spending months in Japan learning taiko?

- What if 99% of NA taiko players did go to Japan and spent years learning how to play Japanese-style taiko? What then happens to the sound and style of NA taiko? Would there be a risk of everyone sounding the same? What are the qualities of NA taiko that could be lost?

- What about what's available HERE? We have grandmasters and luminaries in taiko right HERE, available to most all of us. It might take a little bit of money and some planning, but you can fly out nearly any taiko player to teach you or go to them. It's much cheaper and way more feasible than going to Japan.

- Why just study taiko? Why not dance or martial arts or western drumming or a dozen other things that can add to your skill set? Cross-training is extremely valuable in sports, and in martial arts it's very common to find really high-ranking practitioners who know multiple styles. Why limit it to *just* taiko in *just* Japan?



I really wish I had thought of half of this stuff during the discussion session, but hey, that's what the blog is for!

Please don't get me wrong; I'm not upset at those who want to go to Japan to study. I'm also not upset when people say "go study in Japan," if they mean it as encouragement and not as a platitude. If you can do it, go for it! I just want us to think about what it really means to tell someone to go do it, as well as what else we can do if we don't get that opportunity.

Monday, August 22, 2011

North American Taiko Conference 2011 aftermath!

Another NATC behind us! Welcome to all of you who are new to the site (both of you, ha!)

And now, time to reflect. I'll just throw out some of my observations and highlights from the past four days:
  • The newer you are to taiko, the more eager you are to get up (on stage) and play. Nothing bad about that, just an observation. :)
  • For those who were new to conference, getting very little sleep meant you were doing it right!
  • The ones who make the conference run smoothly are the ones you see the least.
  • You can never really thank enough the ones who started it all.
  • Everyone who participates say they want more workshops, but by the end of the third one, people are pretty wiped.
  • Discussion sessions need to be tweaked. It should be less about the panelists, and have more interaction with the audience. Maybe fewer panelists per session?
  • I hope something I said in all my babbling on said panels turns out to help someone.
  • Although the lunches were pretty sad, the reception food always rocks!
  • I'm not a "classic" or a "luminary" but I really really value being able to talk with those who are. It means a lot to me to be able to joke around with them and feel like they respect me.
  • I remember 80% of the faces and 20% of the names. That should equal 100% but it never works like that!
  • Have to play with okedo bachi length and have some new chappa technique to work on.
  • New workshop idea: Karate and taiko (body mechanics, presence).
  • Old workshop idea that I really should look into: Teaching a workshop for taller players.
  • I have a big sack of blog post ideas from the last four days.
  • FUN!
I'm sure there's a few more things that might come up; this list is not comprehensive and I might add to it in the next couple of days.

Thanks to all of you who came out! See you in...72o-ish days! :)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

North American Taiko Conference 2011!

It's on!

This conference is the first in many that I'm not leading a workshop, but I am assisting one and I'm also...well, let's just say you'll all see me before I see most of you. :)

If you're at the conference and you like my blog, please come let me know! If you don't like my blog, no need to come tell me. Heh.

Let the fun begin!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Surprise?

Imagine watching a taiko player who is covered from head to toe in a unisex outfit and wearing a mask. You have no idea what gender, race, or age they are. You're impressed by how good they are. At the end of the performance, they take off the mask and you're surprised to see that they're really...





You fill in the blank. Why are you surprised? ;)


(I stole this from a recent Facebook thread in the North American Taiko Community. It was a reply I made so I stole it from myself!)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Question Everything: Kiai, part 2


Why do you kiai while playing taiko?

Certain songs will "invite" kiai, almost organically. They may not be prescribed by the composer, but a shared feeling of want to put a kiai in a spot will organically occur. Often it feels so "right" that in time it officially becomes part of the song. Also, some songs will have kiai prescribed in them. Simple enough.

What's left are the kiai you choose to make yourself, at will. So have you ever thought about when you're kiai-ing?

In almost all taiko performances I've seen, when the music reaches a high point (last solo, big build-up, etc.), there are increased kiai. It's still "at will" but it's more like the organic gestalt kind of kiai I described above. I'm really trying to get at what makes you kiai in spot A versus spot B?

Personally, I try to make my kiai purposeful and either add to the space of a motion or accentuate a rhythmic pattern. Someone moving to the other side of the drum is a great time to give an encouraging kiai, filling in that empty space. If someone is playing repetitive syncopation, it can really highlight their rhythm by kiai-ing on the downbeat (even if the ji is already on the downbeat).

It's a bit of a skill to place a kiai in those spots, and it may not come naturally. It also helps to know the style of the people you're kiai-ing for (if they're improvising). Reaction time and confidence are all part of putting those kiai where you want, when you want them, and to make them varied all at the same time. Worth the practice? Hell yes.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with kiai-ing if you feel you want to. It's a measure of personal expression, after all. But like everything else, thinking about why and when you're doing it may give a little bit of enlightenment to your performance and make you a better artist.