Monday, January 31, 2011

Beginner's Mind

At San Jose Taiko, we follow four guiding principles, and within each of those are a myriad of categories ranging from extension to projection to attendance. But the "big one", the category that takes special mention is "Beginner's Mind."

Simply put, no matter how many times you approach a drill or song, you want to feel that you can learn something from playing it again. Hell, after nearly two decades of playing oroshi, I still find ways to make it better.

But it's really easy to tell yourself "I can learn something new" when it comes to playing. Where it gets tricky is in listening.

When someone revisits a subject you're familiar with, such as a song you already know, or a way to do something you feel knowledgeable about, ask yourself, which mode do you go into?
  • "Let's see if I can find something new I hadn't considered before."
  • "Maybe I'll learn how to better teach this by listening to how it's taught this time."
  • "Again? I learned this already."
  • "I can't wait to tell people how *I* do it, once this person stops talking."
No one's perfect; there are times when I feel like the second option, but I'm much better at catching myself when I do. It's just an increasing pet peeve of mine when I watch the body language of someone who isn't listening at all and simply waiting until it's over - either because they're tired of hearing the same information or they want to say their two cents. I don't want any cents from someone like that!

Every three months at karate, we have a new batch of students. I've taught the same basic blocks and the same basic kicks a LOT of times by now. Each time, I learn something in the teaching. When I overhear another black belt teaching, I try to listen to how they explain things, in hopes to make my own understanding of it better. I could jump in with "oh and don't forget blah blah blah," but that undercuts their authority and unless it's something really crucial that wasn't mentioned, it's not worth taking that time.

I don't know neuroscience or much psychology, but I have a theory that when a person is thinking "I already know this", they're shut off to learning. And when it's "I want to add something once it's over", there's no room for input, only output. How many minutes do you want to stand around not learning something? And who would be at fault? In this case, you.

Beginner's Mind is just that. About the mind. It should be in effect when you play, when you listen, when you teach, when you watch, etc. We all have knowledge of some sort, but when you stop learning, you stop getting better. So unless you think you're the best there is, keep that mind open!

Thursday, January 27, 2011


How important is it for you to know the right name for the right equipment?

Some of you will read that and think, "well of course I need to know what things are called!" But I don't mean what you call them, I mean the "correct" name for it.

On and the North American Taiko Community page on Facebook, there are threads about what certain drums are called, according to whom, and/or when they were adopted. Before that, there were (and still are) webpages that list what a particular group calls their equipment.

But you know what's funny? I think it's really a large waste of time. :)

- Take something like the Japanese word josuke. We use that term for our lead drums, regardless of the maker, although we have three sub-categories if we need to specify which jozuke we want. But outside of SJT, the word is rarely heard, let alone used. There's still a lot of confusion even about where it came from, but we still use it. Outside of SJT, most people use chudaiko (middle drum), or nagado (long body) for their lead drum. So why do we still use josuke if no one else does? Beats me. And since we already have those sub-categories, we could never use the term josuke again and still figure out what drums we were talking about: "two smaller Pearls and the three matsuri."

- Some call the drumsticks bachi. Or is it batchi? I see it spelled both ways. Same with betta, the down-stand, spelled beta by some. Some people say "horsebeat", some say "don doko". Some say the quiet notes are "tsu", some say "su".

- What about odaiko? "Big drum", okay. But group A's odaiko might be group B's chudaiko, if group B has another drum that's enormous.

So we have terms that are group-specific, terms that are spelled differently, and terms that are subjective from one group to another. So who's going to be correct?

Terminology should be functional. Can I quickly understand what you're referring to? Then we're good. Will someone from another group understand you? Maybe not, but as long as it doesn't take more than a minute to straighten things out, you're good to go.

Are you the type that hears someone use a term differently from how you use it, and your first instinct is to correct them? How do you know you're right? Do you think it's going to change the entire group to say it the way you like it? Really? You need a better hobby, something like...playing taiko!

Seriously, just be aware there are a lot of different ways to say the same thing. If you can communicate amongst other people what you're talking about, that's what matters. If you're so worried about what's "right" and "wrong" in terminology, you're looking at a never-ending quest that will only really matter to you and maybe a few others (who could easily disagree with the terms you chose.)

Now I'm off to grab my beaters and play some "taiko drums"!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Movement and percussion

I realize that I've taken movement for granted over the last few years.

I watch dancers of all styles from hip hop to Lindy Hop, East Indian to West African. I appreciate and admire the skill in which people move like that, what with all the practice and talent and dedication required! However, what I'm getting at isn't the highly-skilled stuff, I'm talking about something more fundamental, more about coordination and internalizing rhythm in the body.

I feel like I move smoothly while dancing about with percussion, but I don't consider myself particularly "good" at it. Although it didn't always come naturally (and I still have a lot more to learn), I managed through observation and practice.

The important thing to realize is that moving with percussion combines two different skills. A lot of taiko groups give their newest members the percussion and say "just play along". It downgrades the percussion to a tertiary status, and often leads to a frustrated player. So which is more important, knowing how to play the percussion or knowing how to move with it?

Ultimately, I believe movement is the harder of the two skills, and therefore needs more attention. I can teach you how to play the cowbell in no time, but that won't transfer into how to play chappa, or shekere, or katsugi okedo. However, if I teach you how to move around, it's not all that different when you go from instrument to instrument. The fundamentals remain constant. Granted, there's something impressive about someone who can play one of those instruments really well without moving at all; it can take so much concentration that moving around only makes more difficult.

Those who do well on percussion are those who internalize the downbeat. There are so many ways to move and think about movement, but honestly that's not the important part. If you feel the music, if you know what the pulse of the song is, you don't have to think about what to play; you can let your hands figure that out.

Learning mobile percussion helps you learn how to move. That will translate directly into how well you move while playing taiko! Above all, it just takes practice. You have to take the time outside of practice to grab something and figure out "what can I do with this/these in my hands?"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

New Song Diary: Scaling back, dramatically.

I finally got around to notating a bunch of patterns I had come up with, and they sounded really cool in my head. However, seeing them written down and looking at how dull the progression looked, I was disappointed. It sort of took the wind out of my sails, since the song was supposed to be all about layering and complex patterns on top of the skill involved using the left hand.

So I told Yurika about the setback, and she suggested a possibility I had never considered. What about making it a solo piece? Or duet? That concept opened a brand new series of ideas for me.

With my original idea of five people, I was burdened with keeping everyone doing SOMEthing interesting. That's not a surprise; with only five people on stage, each person needs to be utilized constantly. The beauty of a solo piece is that there's nothing to sync up and patterns are strong in their singularity.

Writing a solo piece comes with a whole hell of a lot of unique challenges. As for the song itself, whomever plays it has to sell it. Confidence, technique, style - all of that has to be as strong as the song itself. The song has to be interesting and solid enough to keep everyone's attention focused in one place for so long. You can't look to see what the other people are doing, because they don't exist...

The other side of challenges is with SJT. Traditionally, SJT doesn't do solo pieces. There's no explicit rule of "thou shalt not write solo pieces" or anything like that, but there's a sense that we are a group of drummers and we write songs with more than one person in them. We've had one, maybe two solo pieces since I've been in the group. Our "smallest" songs have six people in them! Also, we don't want any parts in a song that only one person can play, so it can't be overly-complex or a improv-fest that only suits my sensibilities. In fact, I can see where I'll have to really fight to get this song on stage, but first I have to write it. Then I can worry about fighting for it to "be"!

Monday, January 17, 2011

18 Years.

I've been playing taiko for now 18 years. That's just about half my age, but it doesn't seem like it's been that long, really.

This post comes about thinking about all the people who have told me that they couldn't see themselves playing as fast or kicking as high or syncopating as comfortably etc. Bah to that! I want to show people that my formative years were just as full of doubts and mistakes and regrets as anyone out there. But I also want to show how they led to who I am now, and how shooting yourself down now does you absolutely no good!

- I failed the first try-out for SJT. It's a long story, so I won't recount it all here, but after the three month process back in 1993, I was told that I didn't make it in. Due to some luck and a lot of perseverance, I was able try out again the following year.
- I've fallen off a stage during a performance. This was at Haru Matsuri, somewhere around the late '90s. While supporting a soloist on the same drum during Matsuri Taiko (festival drums), my foot slipped over the edge of the stage and I went with it. I tore the banner on the way down, falling about three feet to the grass below. I couldn't bear to turn around and look at the audience, so instead I jumped back on stage to a round of applause. Oy.
- I've broken at least a dozen shime bachi. Not necessarily proud of this fact, but it is what it is. I like to think I have very good striking technique, since it's not from hitting too hard, but sometimes everything comes together and *pop*, you have a stub in your hand.
- I've walked out on stage at the wrong time during a school show. At the time, I could not remember the order we were supposed to come out to introduce instruments during a school show. I came out one early, much to the speaker's confusion, and had to walk right back out. There was no way to hide the mistake, so I just smiled and walked off like I planned it.
- I've gone on stage missing costume accessories. One anniversary concert had about thirteen bajillion costume changes in it. I remember running off-stage and changing quickly, unable to find my wristbands. I had to go on stage feeling like everyone was staring at my bare wrists.
- I couldn't play paradiddles worth a damn. Paradiddles are a sequence of RLRR LRLL. When it was first introduced to me, my hands were these big stumps of stupid. Right, left, right...right, left...wait, what? I was able to play them, but at a pretty slow rate of speed. Somewhere in the years to follow, I realized they came so much more easily, and nowadays I use them to push my training.
- I've run around backstage while other people on stage try to stretch transitions. Just before a transition last year, I realized I didn't have one of the beaters to play a hand-held instrument. I panicked, running around looking in the near-dark for a tiny piece of wood that no one could find. I grabbed a shime bachi instead and rushed out on stage, but a good twenty seconds late. We actually incorporated the pause into future performances, but at the time it was the worst feeling ever.
- I've written songs that were a chore to learn. Early songs of mine were "kitchen sink" songs. I wanted to put everything in! Ooh, big motions! Ooh, fancy syncopations! Ooh, multiple instruments! They were long, they were cumbersome, and they only lasted one show. Looking back at them, I see a lot of great ideas, mired in the weight of so many mashed together. Nowadays, I know to how focus my compositions, streamline them, and save what doesn't fit for the next one.

There are probably a dozen dozens more things like that I might come up with, sitting here reminiscing. Still...that's enough to get my point across, I think.

I've done things that I thought were clever that bombed. I've done embarrassing things that made me worry about going near them again. I've hit wrong notes and missed moves in more songs than I can count. I'm no better than anyone else out there; I've just been around for a while. So here's a couple of things to keep in mind:

- We remember the bad more than the good. For every "aw crap" solo I've had, there's been five others that I was proud of.
- Big things now become little things later. Oh no, you dropped your bachi during a song! Five years from now, you may not remember what gig you were at, let alone that you dropped it.
- Can't play something? Give it time. I never specifically worked on those paradiddles, but because of other drills, my hands were better overall and gave me the control needed to paradiddle faster. Like muscles, you often need to strengthen the surrounding "areas" before you get better at the one thing you want.
- Fail. Learn. Move on. Repeat! If you fear failure, you can either stop growing, or invite more failure. Both choices suck. If you learn from your mistakes, strive to do better, and laugh at the ones in your past, then you know you're growing.

When I started karate and taiko, I was proud to be able to do the simple things. A new kick, striking at a new angle, pivoting with balance, playing on upbeats... Now I'm proud of the abilities I've worked hard to develop. So what about in five, ten years from now? Well if I'm still kicking people and hitting drums, we'll have to see. More mistakes, more achievements, more fun!

Thursday, January 13, 2011


We all make excuses for why something goes wrong. It's pretty natural.

Back when I was newer to taiko, I had a check-in meeting with Staff members and one thing I was told flat-out was to stop making so many excuses. It might have been about why I messed up a solo, or why I said something a certain way, or even about what events I couldn't attend. The point was simple: accept your mistakes, own up to them, apologize, and move on.

It's not like they expected me to be perfect, but I eventually realized what was really annoying to them. It wasn't that I had excuses, it was that my first instinct was to bring them up. Excuses were my defense mechanism, and they kept me from growing as both an artist and as a person.

If someone told me, "you're using too much syncopation in that section, people are losing you," I would reply that it wasn't that difficult; other people need to listen more. If someone told me "you're hitting too hard," I would tell them that it was because I was trying to get the stance just right and wasn't thinking about the arms. If someone told me anything, I had a reason why it just wasn't my fault. And in doing so, I fell into a trap where instead of learning from my mistakes, I spent my energy on excuses.

I'm still prone to a defensive excuse every now and then; I'm only human. Most of us are going to do it when someone points out a flaw of ours. It's hard for me now when I see people relying on excuses the same way I used to. I want to call them out on it the same way it was done to me; not out of a sense of revenge, but because it was effective!

Frequent excuses and refusals to admit mistakes say way more about you than the mistakes themselves do. People lose respect for you and stop listening to what you have to say. So avoid the easy way out! Start listening to what people are telling you and see if you can't learn from a good dose of honest inner dialogue.

Monday, January 10, 2011


We expect our teachers to teach us. This is true whether the teacher is our parent, a professor, or a even a manager at work.

Being spoon-fed information isn't necessarily a bad thing, but without temperance, it can lead to dire consequences. It's one thing when a student doesn't know when to actively pursue progress, but it's another entirely when they don't care to grow without a teacher giving them new information.

Don't get me wrong, if the only way to learn something is directly through your teacher, or you've paid money to be instructed, that's different. Also, If you're new at something and learning the basics, of course your teacher should be bringing you up accordingly.

The expectation to be taught, unless kept in check, often turns into reliance. From reliance, I see two really horrible things happen, stagnation and arrogance.
  • Stagnation. I hate to admit I've seen way too many people just stop learning because they're not being given new information. They don't improve until someone literally tells them how to do something or gives them something to do. Over the years, this leads to some really stunted growth. It's like saying, "why make the effort, someone will tell me what to do sooner or later."
  • Arrogance. This isn't always the result of stagnation, but it pisses me off to see when people let it go this far. It's a feeling that since you're not being taught new things, you don't need to learn new things. That you're good enough because no one is correcting you. It's self-defeatist, it's disrespectful to the instructor(s), and it makes me want to slap people upside the head.
An instructor can't always devote resources that are needed. Many things are either missed or allowed to slide because of bigger issues someone else needs fixing. Also, sometimes a teacher (especially in taiko) is unable to address issues because they're relatively new to the art form themselves. Besides, to judge your skills just based on a few teachers' perspective is incredibly dangerous.

Teachers who spoon-feed intensely for a long period of time can push students to this mindset, so they have to play some part in making sure things don't get so bad. I can't say it's completely their fault when a student relies on them far past a reasonable level, but unless some communication on expectations are given, it's more likely to go south.

When I see people in karate that wait for us to teach them things, I'm able to give them a verbal kick in the ass because of the dojo environment. However, in taiko here in North America, I find that even people I know and train with get these "conditions" and I don't have the forum (and sometimes the inclination) to say my thoughts. People who are just starting are the most receptive, but in this case, they have a while before this becomes an issue.

Once you rely on others to learn, their weaknesses determine your training. That's a harsh way to think about it, but it's not a knock on them. To make sure you continue to grow, push yourself. Learn for yourself. Become your own teacher!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I am Yoshikazu Fujimoto.

Yoshikazu Fujimoto, for those who don't know him, is one of the most senior members of Kodo. If you don't know Kodo, you'll have to Google it. :)

As for being Yoshikazu... When I play odaiko I choose to embody him, to "be" him. In no way am I saying I'm on his level or have his skill, but he is my favorite taiko player and he inspires me.

Even when his back is to the audience, he beams spirit and intention. He doesn't become one with the drum, the drum becomes one with him. I know that's corny, but that's how I visualize his style of playing. He doesn't hold back; every ounce of energy he gives is genuine, without reservation.

When I'm on odaiko, I'm thinking about the song, my striking, my presence. However, I'm also thinking of how Yoshikazu looks to me when he plays odaiko. In my mind, I'm his avatar on the stage. When I get tired, I think, "Yoshikazu wouldn't get tired this early in a song!" When it's my solo, I think how Yoshikazu can pour himself into a 10-minute solo so I better nail my eight measures! You probably get the idea by now.

I think it's a fantastic idea to embody the artist you admire when you play. Maybe you don't know that person well, but how do they make you feel? It doesn't even have to be someone who does the same art, as long as they inspire you. Take that feeling with you and use it to push yourself to the next level.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Do you ever think of how balanced you are when you play?

Balance is a pretty uncommon topic from what I can tell. After all, it's not like people are falling down when they play taiko! Still some groups will talk about weight distribution, staying on the balls of the feet, etc.

Balance is one of those "advanced" topics that doesn't need to be talked about at depth when people are learning to play taiko, but at the same time, it's really important to your overall ability. For instance, if you're too close to the drums or too far away, you're sacrificing balance in order to strike cleanly.

It comes more into play when you're moving, with all the transfer of weight keeping in time with the music. Partially, balance in movement comes with muscle strength, but it's also about awareness. What are your feet really doing when you play? Are you on the balls of the feet or the heels? Are you planted once you stop moving or do you have "happy feet" (i.e., constantly adjusting your feet while you play)? Can you lean slightly to any direction without feeling like you're going to fall over? Are you using your feet as you play or are they just "there"? Are you solid enough without being rigid?

I've seen and been in a lot of workshops that dealt with movement, and although balance was rarely mentioned, a lot of the core concepts depended on having a good sense of it. In karate, where some of the stances are similar, sometimes a sensei will push or pull a student to see if the balance is solid. I never see that in taiko, but the next time you get into your stance, ask yourself how you think you'd fare if you had to resist a push or two.