Thursday, March 31, 2011

NATC 2011 recommendations!

If you hadn't heard, registration for the 2011 North American Taiko Conference has started over at For those who are new (or relatively new) to NATC , I'd like to offer some suggestions! Mind you, these are just my opinions. :)

  1. Make connections! If you're standing in line at registration, in a discussion session, a workshop, etc., find out who's next to you and introduce yourself. The friendships that come from conference can last a long time, and you never know who'll pass by your practices one day!
  2. Try not to stick with your own group so much. You get to see them all the time! It'll limit the people you get to meet and can come off as clique-ish to others.
  3. Don't forget to enjoy yourself! The schedule is packed pretty tight, but if you don't make time for yourself to breathe, you'll burn yourself out. You'll enjoy yourself more if you don't try to do everything.
  4. The schedule doesn't account for lot of stuff. There's traditionally been a gathering/party right after Taiko Jam, and there used to be parties held on the rooftop of the hotels in Little Tokyo or the clubs/bars each night. Who knows what you might find!
  1. If you haven't experienced some of the taiko "classics" (Tanaka-sensei, Roy & PJ Hirabayashi, etc.) make sure you sign up now while you can! Who can say when they'll stop teaching at NATC? Don't wait two years only to find out that they've retired...
  2. Even though there are instructors from Japan, don't assume that automatically means a better workshop. Base a workshop on what you want to learn and the expertise of a person, as well as what you can find out about their teaching style.
  3. I personally recommend:
  • Body Music Workshop (Keith Terry). Learning how to internalize rhythm in your body is something any taiko player can use. Plus, Keith is a great teacher. I've had several workshops with him outside of taiko circles and still use what he taught me.
  • Improvisation - Spontaneous Creativity (Russel Baba). Russel is one of those "classics" that has a style and manner you can't find anywhere else.
  • Anything by Kenny Endo. Kenny knows his stuff. Aside from the actual drills I learned, the perspective and ideas he can give are worth a workshop in themselves.
  • Anything by Roy and/or PJ. The amount of experience that both of these have is amazing, and they have a variety of topics that they can teach well.
  1. Take what you learned and apply it! Practice songs and drills, write down anything you remember before it's lost to time. Ten years from now, are you going to remember everything told to you over those three days?
  2. Keep in touch with the people you got to know. Whether it's Facebook or an email or something more personal, thank those who touched you and made your experience special.

Ultimately, conference is a blast, no matter what you do! These are just my ideas and suggestions based the last 6 NATCs that I've been at. I hope to see most of you there - look for the tall pale guy avoiding the sun!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Strengths and Weaknesses

I hear a lot of people tell me what they're bad at. Sure it's good to identify those things, to a point.

So what about the things you're good at?

Make a list of three things you're good at (related to your art), whether it's visual, musical, ki-related, etc. They don't have to be three things you're better at than other people, just things you feel are strengths of yours.

If you want, you can also make add three things you really want to get better at, to make it a more well-rounded experience. Just be careful not to think of them as "things I suck at", because that's already taking a bite out of your confidence.

Simply making the list is the point here. If you acknowledge those three strengths, you'll always have something that reflects your style. You may find that someone does those things better than you, but comparing yourself to other people like that is ultimately self-defeating. Again, I focus on the word style here. Also, if you acknowledge the other three "areas of interest", as I like to call it, then you have things you know will make you an improved artist if you work at it.

I admit, I'm a list-oriented person. Writing short lists down (or creating them mentally) helps me see things clearly and helps me focus on what matters. My hope here is to give people more of a balanced look at their skill set, instead of seeing only the "bad".

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Take a song, play along!

Hey, it's a video! Click on it after you read my post, or you can click on it now since I'm not there to stop you...

In the clip above, I'm playing along to "Skylight" by Overseer. The idea is that by playing along to a song I'm familiar with, I can improvise, riff, embellish, and/or play along with it. It's like having a metronome with a strong, groovy beat.

As I compose songs like crazy for these 12 weeks, I don't have time to get into the studio and pull out drums to experiment. What you see above is my own personal "drum studio", complete with four, yes FOUR drum pads resting on my bed! Extravagant, I know. Actually, I wanted to show a bit behind my creative process and also show that it doesn't take much to hone your own striking skills.

Most of us have played along to music we like - have you ever tapped on your lap or the steering wheel while in the car? All I'm doing here is swiveling my chair around and thumping away to whatever comes out of my hands. You don't even need a drum pad, you can use a phone book or get creative with towels, chairs, etc. I use a pair of western drumsticks because I like the feel, but I can flip them over and they double as shime bachi.

So that's my drill for you: Take a song, play along! Then repeat it about 1,000 times. :)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Question Everything: Movements

In karate, we learn forms as beginners and continue all the way through black belt. We practice them, analyze them, sometimes even modify them.

In Shotokan, there are forms with some ah...questionable movements that are more interesting than effective. In many cases the idea is to "understand the hidden meaning", but even with that some of them come off as being laughable.

It takes some time to realize what these movements are, and then even more time to become comfortable saying, "I think these movements are idealistic/unrealistic."

For example, in the kata Heian Godan, there is a leap into the air, landing with a block. Traditional sources say the move is to avoid someone swinging a staff at your feet and then you land with an attack. Riiiiight. It's probably more likely it's to condition the legs by incorporating athleticism into the form. Still, some teachers stick to the staff "defense" interpretation.

It makes me wonder, what sort of movements are there in taiko that are equally ridiculous? Movements that students are told make the strikes louder or something like "increasing one's ki", but really have no basis in fact? I can think of some things I've seen that are simply stylistic, but I also know people come up with some pretty fantastical concepts that they can feed an eager student.

Can you distinguish "style" from "nonsense?" "Hidden meanings" from "crazy in the head?" :)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

New Song Diary: Rain check!

Short post today. Since I've tackled this 12-week/12-song project, I have to postpone the song idea I was muddling through working on. It's for the best, because my project will wring the creativity from my head and force products.

Since we'll be working on songs soon for the Fall concert, it doesn't look like I'll be writing anything new for performing this year. Still, I'm looking more long-term and if I wind up with three or four solid ideas from this process, that will be an incredible result.

Back to the grind! Only a few days to go for song #1!

Monday, March 14, 2011

No workshops = sad face.

I submitted two workshops for NATC 2011 but neither were accepted this time.

Admittedly, I was really bummed to hear it because I'd been looking forward to teaching at least one workshop for the past year or so. I've gotten over the initial disappointment and focused on working with the Workshop Coordinator to make the workshop process better for future conferences.

Although nothing has been established, I may have a chunk of time (or more) at San Jose Taiko's Taiko Weekend Intensive in May when we focus on small-drum/shime work. Although it's shorter lengths of time to what I teach at my NATC workshops, I do get to present some similar material at TWI.

Today begins my first week of my 12 week, 12 songs project, so hopefully that'll keep my mind off workshops for a while!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

12 weeks, 12 songs: Prologue

Last Saturday, SJT held an internal Composition Retreat. The goal was less about coming up with a product and more about helping people know how they create, the tendencies of other people, and some creative exercises to get the juices flowing.

To that end, I found the day a success for the group; less so for me because I find I already know how I work best.

Still, I did get one crazy idea: I want to try writing a song a week for 12 weeks. Why 12 weeks? Because 52 weeks is insane! Seriously though, three months just sounded like a manageable chunk of time, and it'll be over just as the gigs start getting more and more plentiful.

I'm giving myself some rules.
  1. No working on a song until Monday. This includes thinking of a concept or idea that I want to develop.
  2. Sunday deadline. No matter what, Sunday is the last day I can work on a song started the previous Monday. If I'm out and have ideas that I can't put down until Monday or later, it's ok to do so.
  3. Beginning, middle, end. I may have more than this, but those three sections are the minimum requirements to make a "song."
I also want to have a little fun with the process. Every 4th week, I'm going to pick ideas out of a hat (or something) and that will determine what parameters I have to work with. I'm thinking of a "visual", "musical", and "wildcard" category to choose from. So for example, I might wind up with "straight beat", "mobile percussion", and "intense", and those would be what defines the song I have to then create.

I may come away from this with absolutely nothing, but I hope that even if none of the songs are actually workable, I'll be able to use some of the ideas for future pieces. It'll force me to dump a lot of product in a short amount of time and might help me build creative momentum.

As for documenting, I'll try to figure out a way to make an mp3 of each "song" and perhaps also put up the sheet music somewhere for people who are curious. I'll blog about it once a month to give a summary of what I've done.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Metronome love, pt. 4: Slooooooooow.

Get out your metronome and play any song you know at half the normal speed. Yes, half!

It may not even sound like the song you're used to hearing, which is part of the difficulty. Can you still feel the rhythms you're so used to? Can you slow down your movements to still keep proper timing? Are you able to hit on the beat smoothly or are you finding yourself striking too early/too late?

It may sound simple, but there's more to it than just the musical aspects. Take note of your body and how you strike. What are your tendencies? Are you aligned properly? Are you holding tension?

This may seem like a simple drill, but playing a pattern at such a slow tempo can really reveal a lot of things. It's up to you to find them!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Question Everything: Giving it your all.

I've talked about pushing yourself to do more, try harder, etc. So what does that really entail?

In karate, "pushing myself" means to throw every technique as fast and as strong as I can, without losing proper technique. There's no holding back or pacing myself. Depending on the workout, I can be sweating by the first 5 minutes just by doing basics.

Sometimes I'll catch myself doing a pace that's a little easy at times just because I'm used to it and it frustrates me. Why did I not give it my all? Why did I go through the motions (no matter how strong or fast those motions might be)?

In taiko, I can't give every strike my "all." To do that would be to over-hit, to risk playing notes too early, and to stand out visually even more from the group. much do I give?

I feel it's more important to honor the intention of the song and style of your group than to just blindly go all-out. You can put in a lot of energy by putting out a lot of energy, for one. Project your ki past where you can reach, past the drums. When you're playing a supporting role, this is especially true.

Because taiko is music and art and dance all mixed into one, you don't necessarily get to do things exactly how you want to. You're in effect limited by the composition, but that's really not a bad thing - it's the delivery mechanism for your expression!

As a taiko player, you have to find ways to push your endurance and spirit and endurance and passion, aside from just waiting for that really hard solo or long passage that makes you tired. For instance, how much energy can put out just by standing there, being still, yet projecting spirit?

It doesn't matter how athletic you are, because ultimately, "giving it your all" is more of a mindset. How much you can give depends on what you're doing, as well as you.