Monday, February 28, 2011


When you're at practice, how are you evaluating yourself?

Maybe you're lucky enough to have mirrors, but are you truly utilizing them or are you just used to looking at your reflection? I wrote a post on mirrors here, and I still see people looking at them while practicing, but without really being able to make adjustments.

Are you looking at other people (mirrors or no) that you deem to be good examples and trying to copy them? It's the same thing with mirrors; if you're looking out of habit but not trying to implement what you're seeing, why bother looking?

I see a lot of people who look at the drum while they play. While there are a few things you can adjust by watching what you're striking, it's not really a great place to look.

There's also an option of closing your eyes and listening to what you (and others) sound like, but it should be done when beneficial, not just because you want to enjoy the music! Is your left hand equal in volume with your right? Are you playing right on the beat or not?

Finally, when you get to watch and not play, what are you looking at? Nothing wrong with just enjoying it, but assuming you're looking at technique, how are you doing it? Are you seeing what people are doing incorrectly and making sure you don't do it yourself?

My point, really, is all about using your time efficiently and effectively. Think about what you're looking at, why you're looking at it, and what benefits you should be getting from it. Don't just practice to go through the motions!

Thursday, February 24, 2011


There are a lot of things that are important to have in playing taiko. And there are a lot of things that are important to work on, too. If I had to choose what my main focus is, it would be wrist snap.

I've posted previously about how important wrist snap is in a post here.

One attribute that a truly good taiko player will have is fluidity. Their arms are like whips in slow motion, thrown and snapped at will. Slower motions come from the hara, at the hips, propelling energy that the arms ride on. Faster motions are focused on the fulcrums of the wrists. A lot of people think the motion is generated from the shoulders or arm, but ironically that's the last place it should come from. Using the shoulders or arms only slows you down and makes you look awkward.

When you don't have wrist snap, you can only rely on three things. Gravity, size, and strength. To some degree, those are useful, but...what happens when the notes get smaller and/or faster? Gravity is great for large motions; let the arm collapse towards the drum and hardly use any energy. But when your bachi aren't even a foot away from the drum, how are you going to utilize it? Size can only useful if you have it to begin with, but even if you do, when everyone's bachi are only a few inches away from the drum, any size advantage is gone. Strength sometimes can be useful, but to use strength you have to use tension, which is going to nullify the relaxation you need for "snappage."

Once you have wrist snap down, you can play any volume you want from any distance you want. You're not bound by the height you strike from; you can make large motions and play the quietest notes. It makes you feel like you're in control of your music instead of the other way around. Common patterns like don tsuku or doro tsuku take a third less effort, simply from utilizing good wrist snap.

If I could, I'd give everyone who was interested a workshop on striking efficiency - as it is I only have my blog and workshops at NATC. It would be awesome to go visit groups on my own someday and share this stuff with a lot of people! Maybe someday...

Monday, February 21, 2011


What communities are you a part of?

I would like people to think about what they mean when they invoke that word, "community". I hear a lot of talk about the taiko community, the North American taiko community, the Japanese-American community, etc. People often refer to themselves as a part of a community, but when are you truly a part of something?

If I buy a taiko online and practice on my own, how is that part of any community? Does the love of playing taiko automatically enroll me? If someone plays taiko, when are they a part of the taiko community? Or do they need to somehow get involved and/or contribute to that community to be a part of it?

If someone is born into an ethnic group, does that make them part of that community? What if they identify with another culture altogether? Which community (or communities) do they belong to? Or is it simply a matter of them saying "I choose this one, therefore I belong here"?

The other aspect to community is identifying which communities you could be involved in. As taiko players, we tend to focus too much on the above three communities: "taiko", "NA taiko", and "J-A". There's nothing wrong with those, but what about local arts communities? Local music communities? Non-profit communities? Others? It's not that we have to be active in every community possible, but more about realizing that there might be a larger overlap than we're immediately aware of.

Ultimately, community is what you make of it. Just give the concept some thought before you throw it out there too casually!

Thursday, February 17, 2011


PJ likes to talk about the ripple effect; how the actions of one person ripple outwards and affect the lives of others, who in turn affect others, and so on. I've been thinking lately about how ripples effect the taiko community.

Can you think of someone you met in your taiko experiences that really affected you? Was it something they said or the way they said it? Was it what you saw them doing? Was it something you didn't see but were told about? Was it a positive or negative thing? Did it have a positive or negative impact on you?

I can remember hearing quotes and stories attributed to people that made me really interested to seek them out, in terms of teaching and approach to art. It was a welcoming ripple that got my attention. I also remember hearing quotes and stories attributed to people that made me want to avoid them. It was a harsh ripple, one that often left me in disbelief that people would say or do such things.

It's hard sometimes to step back and see leaders in the community as just people. We place them in high regard and their words have weight. We want our teachers to say profound things because that means we feel like we've made a good choice to study under them.

The longer that one is in an art form, the more information and perspective they can provide. Unfortunately, age and experience don't necessarily lend themselves to good communication skills. It's much like being a job with a supervisor that lacks social skills, except that for most of us, we can choose to approach/avoid whom we want in the taiko community.

Granted, there are some possible positives from negative ripples. I've seen people get angry and give their advice in ways that turned people off...but from that you can learn how not to be.

It's not just what you say but how you say it. It's not just your intentions but the tone of your words. So what ripples do you create?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Choosing a group

One of the requests I got for topics was that on choosing a group and evaluating over time if that group is still right for you.

During a discussion session at the Taiko Conference held in Sacramento, one woman said how she didn't like the "cliquey-ness" of her group; how if you didn't know Japanese you couldn't really get into the "inner circle". One of the panelists responded, putting it best: maybe that wasn't the group for her, then.

It's not always easy to find the right group for you. It's easier with martial arts, since they're a lot more wide-spread and it's easier to find something you like. Although there are exceptions, you can generally find more than one style/dojo to choose from in a given area.

With taiko, well, it's a different story. There's reportedly over 300 taiko groups in North America, but does that mean there's a handful right by you? Take into account that many of those groups are church- or college-based, where you have to be a member. Or perhaps the group is for the wrong age range that you're in.

Most people, including myself, fall in love with taiko and know little to nothing of the art when they start. We scramble to find the nearest group and assuming they'll take us, we want to join! It's not ideal, but it's common. It would be better to find all the groups in the area, observe a practice, find out about their core values and goals, then choose which one to join. But who really has a choice? Groups are spread out pretty thin, like I said, and the options are pretty limited. If I didn't join SJT, my closest option would have been a good hour away. And I'm in a place with "moderate" taiko density!

Most of us will put up with a lot to be in a taiko group, but it's always important to think about how and where you fit in. Are the members people you want to hang around with? Are the commitments you have to make to the group balanced out by what they offer? Is simply "playing the taiko" enough for you or will you want more? Do they provide opportunities for "more"? It's a lot to ask, but if you don't know the answers, you might find yourself invested in a group years down the line, that you're ill-fit for. Also, don't think this is a question that you'd only ask once - you need to ask this of yourself even after you're in a group! Groups change over time, so re-evaluate where you are every now and then; don't let things move around you without being aware of how they affect you.

I'd bet money that the high majority of people who read this are already in a taiko group of some sort, so it's a bit late to ask "should I join this group?" But you should never stop asking yourself if the group is right for you. Accepting your place without question is ok for some people, but I see it as the lazy path!

Thursday, February 10, 2011


The number of beats in any given measure of music determines the meter. That's a simplified way to put it, but it works. Most music you listen to is in 4, though there probably are exceptions and many songs have changing meter within them.

When I started taiko, 4 was easy. 1 2 3 4, how hard is that? Okay, there were some patterns that wove around those four beats, but still, I could feel where the 1 would fall pretty easily. 2 and 8 are closely related to 4, so closely that it's often hard to tell which is which. It's still pretty easy to feel a 2 or an 8 because Western music conditions us to feel things in 4 even if its halved or doubled.

3 and 6 are not as common or as easy to feel, but still very accessible. 6 is the backbone of African percussion and 3 is a common meter in traditional Korean music. 6 is very often felt in 2, with a ONE-2-3-FOUR-5-6 pulse. 3, being an odd number, can be sometimes trickier, because it's "off balance".

Then we get the oddballs.

For the longest time, 7 was this not-quite-8 pattern to me. Ok, so you just drop off one note at the end and you get 7, meh. Why make something awkward in that that meter? But as the years went by, more and more of the random patterns I would create while walking around turned out in 7. I didn't plan them that way, either! 7 became more and more interesting to me; it had an energy that 8 was lacking.

Now I turn to 5, that little freak. Whereas 7 felt to me like "almost-8", 5 doesn't have that same relation to 6. It feels more like "4 with a tail". When I used to play in 5 for fun, I was flailing about, blindingly groping for the downbeat on the 1. It's taken some time and some tricks to understand 5 better, but I find that I'm creating patterns out of the blue in 5 like I used to do in 7.

When we did our collaboration with Abhinaya Dance Company last year, I had to play a pattern on the taiko in 5 by myself while everyone moved about. The Indian musicians were playing underneath me but I couldn't hear them until much later in the song. A few years ago, that would have worried the snot out of me, but I'm glad I put some time into making 5 familiar instead of scary.

There's no real message or moral to the story here. I guess if you want, you can see it as a progression over time, one which anyone can have if they choose to put in the effort. It is empowering! For me, I'm just glad I'm not afraid of anything under 8. 9, well that's another matter. :)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Ask me!

Because this is a blog where I rant talk and not a forum or message board, there's a lot of one-way dialogue. I talk, you read. Sometimes people comment, although rarely.

However, I'd really love to hear from you, from what you'd like me to write about, comment on, etc. Is there a controversial issue you'd like me to address? A personal question about technique that you want input on? More explanation about a prior post?

In person, I've been asked a lot of questions; everything from motivations to techniques to opinions. Sure, there's a lot of material I don't know, but I'm happy to admit when I don't know something.

I realize there might be a lot of you that don't have questions. You might visit because you're interested in what I'm saying, or because I know you personally and have guilt-ed you into coming. I'm okay with that! :)

You can comment anonymously, so please feel free to post! I look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Kodo fanatic

Kodo is in town this week! We had a wonderful potluck with them last night, and will go up to see them perform in concert tomorrow night.

For those who don't know Kodo or taiko much at all, Kodo was the first taiko group to really become world famous. For about 25 years now, the group has been perfecting and pushing the art of taiko in a near-monastic lifestyle. They maintain a community on Sado Island in Japan and their popularity is the reason why so many other Japanese taiko groups have come to flourish.

Kodo really shaped who I am in terms of a taiko player, in terms of musicality and sensibilities. When I was first introduced to them by Toni Yagami, I had no clue who this group really was. When I saw them perform, it hit me like nothing else! I remember watching Yoshikazu Fujimoto's 10-minute odaiko solo while sitting on the edge of my seat, completely captivated. I got my hands on as much of Kodo as I could after that.

I listened to the CDs so many times that I could tap along to the entire published Kodo repertoire, ha! I would watch the videos (VHS back then), pick a drummer, play their part on drum pads, go back, pick another drummer, repeat. I was even proud of being a fanatic; it gave me a sense of identity.

When Kodo came out to play, I would go to two, three of their shows in a row. I would get backstage whenever I could, mindful to stay out of the way, but happy to chat with whomever wanted to. Even with my limited Japanese (very limited), I had some great exchanges with Kodo members. When I went to Japan in 2001 on the Rhythmix trip, the highlight for me was visiting Sado and Kodo Village. I considered applying for their training program, dreaming of making it into the group but figuring it was more likely to study for a year and return. Unfortunately for a while, I made Roy and PJ a little uneasy about my obvious love of Kodo: where did my loyalties lie?

I realize that many of my listening preferences in taiko come from listening to so much Kodo. A lot of the patterns I create come from there as well. I also realize that the Kodo I know is the older generation, and the current generation is full of members I have no history with. I don't feel the same connection to Kodo that I used to have, but that's ok! Kodo has grown and evolved as they must, and so have I. The connections I still have are all the more important.

What shaped you as an artist that no longer has the same sway over you? Do you regret not enjoying it longer or are you glad you moved on when you did?