Thursday, April 28, 2011

Selling vs. believing

You've probably heard of the term "selling it." Do you have a cold and have to perform on stage in an hour? Sell what you got! Are you new to a part and unsure of the sequence? Sell it!

The idea behind "selling it" is not to show the audience whatever the deficiency is. If it comes to the point where you have to "sell it", then it's too late to fix whatever caused the situation in the first place. If you let the problem show on your face while you're performing, the audience is going to not only notice you, but will most likely share in that feeling of uncomfortable-ness with you.

"Selling it" serves as a necessity but is never an optimal situation. It mimics confidence, which is something that can waver for even the seasoned player at times. Think about the people that you really enjoy watching on stage or command presence when they perform. It could be a dancer, a musician, a martial artist, etc. That presence you feel comes from them believing in themselves.

Or does it?

Find me a seasoned artist who hasn't had a bad day and still had to perform. The more experienced someone is, the more likely they've dealt with issues. In my own experiences, I've seen people perform taiko or test/compete in martial arts with 105-degree fevers, stomach flu, blisters, smashed knuckles/bleeding flingers, and the list goes on and on. Did the audience know? I bet 98% of the audience were unaware anything was off, because the people performing "sold it". Odds are, you've watched more than one performer who was "selling it" and you never knew anything was wrong. Heck, I've known people to drop a bachi and some people in the audience had no idea, simply because that person acted like nothing was wrong!

So the really great artists may truly believe in their skills, but if you can't tell when someone is at 100% or faking it, that should tell you something! "Selling it" is a skill we all have to practice, just like believing in our own abilities. If you wait for that magical day when all of a sudden you'll start believing in yourself, you're missing the point.

You don't need to wait for a big problem to arise before you "sell it"; you can start doing it the very next time you practice. Feel ok with a part? No, you feel great about a part! Sell that! You may just find that in short time, you're no longer faking that you feel great, you truly believe it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Two Lenses

I have two lenses I carry around with me.

The first are the critical eye lenses, the ones of an artist of a combined 30 years who watches for what's not quite right, what could be improved, if a strike is clean, if the motions are efficient, etc. They don't only see what's bad or negative; they also notice what really works, too. These are the lenses that get more and more focused every year. They're also impossible to completely remove. I can forget that I have them on, but only for so long.

The other pair I've had as far back as I remember. They're the lenses that let me enjoy even the most beginning of levels. They help me enjoy the other person's joy, whether it's in simply trying hard or having fun/satisfaction in doing what they practice.

With the first pair, it's not like I catch everything. I'm still learning and as I learn, I see more in myself and others. With the second pair, it's not like I always enjoy everything I see! I have my preferences and tastes, and even if something is done well, that doesn't mean I'm going to like it.

You might find yourself too heavily favoring one pair or the other, and it will limit you. Most people are pretty balanced, but there are people who seemingly favor one over the other. Those who heavily favor the latter almost seem unobservant in their "kindness". Really, you didn't mind that I totally forgot the sequence halfway through and messed up people around me? Really? It makes me suspicious, but that's me. Those who heavily favor the former are the ones I feel sorry for because where's the joy in their art? One can be critical and eagle-eyed, but if there's no passion in observing people doing what you do or you can't enjoy the product, then why are you still involved in it?

As always, balance is the key. Never stop striving to get better by being better, and never lose the joy in even the simplest of movements.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

How would you teach?

You take in information, sure. But can you relay that information to others and do it justice?

I'm officially a Teaching Assistant at my dojo/college now - it really doesn't change anything, but it'll look nice on my resume! On top of that, I'll be doing a session at taiko on karate and the basics of Shotokan, for us to experience what it's like moving in a way both similar and different to what we're used to. Even though I teach basics often enough, this time it's in a setting where I have a different role - instead of senior student, of senpai, I'm just another player.

So I've been thinking about how to teach basic fundamental techniques in a different way. How do I break down six weeks of basic material into 50 minutes? What to leave out? What has to stay in? How do I communicate the information without expecting compliance, like I get in the dojo?

Which brings me to my question to you, dear reader. You know an art, a skill, a trade. How would you teach it to a group of people who know nothing about it? What are the key points that you would make sure to cover? What would your demeanor be like?

Some of you may not care about this - maybe you feel you teach well enough or don't have to worry about teaching? In that case, instead of thinking about teaching to others, think about how it makes you approach the material in a different way, which in turn helps you understand the material better, which then can help you do it better.

And if you feel you don't need to understand it better, well then why are you reading my blog? You're obviously good enough to be a superstar. ;)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Question Everything: Tradition

Most of you have heard some form of the "kumidaiko, or ensemble drumming has only been around for the last 60 years or so" speech.

So here's some questions for you. First, what is tradition? And second, when does what we do start becoming traditional?

Definitions of "tradition" get results like:
  • "The handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction."
  • "The body of customs, thought, practices, etc., belonging to a particular country, people, family, or institution over a relatively long period."
The first example is how most taiko is taught and learned, not by text but through repetition, rote, and action. The word generation is something to look at, but I hear people talking about "the next generation of taiko player" often enough. That "next gen" is already performing!

In the second example, while the the entire NA taiko community is a little too diverse to be a "people" or "family", certain styles of taiko (community, collegiate, professional) could apply.

Most definitions touch on some sort of repetition over a period of time, but I was hard-pressed to find anything saying how long it takes to make a tradition. Think of the traditions you have that are annual, like a vacation spot or a thing you like to do on your birthday. Do you have to have done it for 60 years before it's a tradition? Probably not.

There are certain rhythms that come up often in NA taiko, both in composition and in soloing, like triplets. Is that a tradition? Most taiko gatherings I know tend to revolve around food, but is that a tradition?

A tradition definitely doesn't have to be something unique, either - do you bow before entering your dojo/studio? That's definitely a tradition. Do you warm up with your group counting in a cadence together? Do you bow to each other before you start practice? Traditions!

When does playing a song become a tradition? Is it more defined by when it's played or how often? Will someone decide when your songs are traditional, or will that only happen in hindsight? As usual, I don't try to answer all the questions I pose. My goal is to get you to come up with your own!


"tradition." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. April 16 2011

"tradition." 2011. Farlex. April 16 2011

Thursday, April 14, 2011

12 weeks, 12 songs: Month One

Oy. Whose bright idea was it to write a song a week?

For the first month, I went off of musical ideas. I figured in the second month I could do visual inspiration, and for the last month I might try thematic...ah, themes. That was the original plan, but it's changing somewhat as I look past week five.

For each song, I kept somewhat of a creative diary of my thoughts and the process, as well as a simple picture (done in MS Paint; I'm so tech savvy) for the songs where I had a formation in mind.

As for the mp3s, there's a lot of visuals that aren't going to come across, from movements to ki. Also, it's not easily clear when parts are split between two or more similar instruments, so it will just sound like one person is playing a given part. Finally, places where there would be a improvised solo will just sound like a pattern played over and over since I'm not actually writing the solos in there. If something sounds really repetitive, odds are that's where a soloist would be.

So let me review the last 4 weeks, each with a new song (or something approximating a song.)

Week one:

I wanted to explore Indian rhythms to start, inspired by our recent collaboration with Abhinaya Dance Company and a general interest in Konnakol and complex patterns for some time now. I wanted to keep it more of a "inspired by" rather than trying to take actual patterns, simply because I don't feel like I know enough about Indian music at this point.

I found some fun patterns that came together well, and as I laid out the framework, I tried out some basic movements. A few worked out, but some were a bit awkward. One idea I really liked was the idea of having the initial drum formation - a sort of swastika - move into a row downstage.

Unfortunately, I discovered that it was the end of the week and I had three unconnected sections. As my rules stated, whatever I had by Sunday at midnight was where I had to leave it. Crap. Lesson learned!

What you'll hear in "Song 01" is a few chunks where you have a couple of click tracks for four bars. Those are filler bars, just to indicate where the separation is. If I really like this song when I'm done with the three months, I'll have to figure out what to put in those gaps.

Week two:

This week, I took another genre I've always wanted to see taiko played to - Heavy Metal! I don't know a lot of taiko players that enjoy heavy metal, let alone tolerate it, but it's something I've enjoyed. But that's a topic for another post!

The first problem came in not making every pattern just a straight beat! The second issue was in trying to convey the sensibilities of Heavy Metal without mocking it (headbanging, big hair, etc.). I had to deconstruct and define what the genre sounds like and figure out a way for it to translate through a taiko song.

This was my favorite product of the first four weeks, because it feels like a complete song, is of decent length, and has some nifty elements to it. I like the potential raw energy that the music contains, as well. One thing I would change if I were to take this further is to change the formation from six players on one drum each to four players on two drums each. This would give me some tonality to play with, even though it makes for even more equipment on stage.

Week three:

The goal for this week was to create a "catchy melody" in terms of rhythm; something memorable to an audience member.

My first few attempts were just a nifty ji, a pattern that would repeat in the back row over and over...not really a melody, though. After some random note-throwing, I came up with something that I can still remember 2 weeks after last hearing it. So it's got promise in terms of accomplishing the intent!

I envision this song on mostly mobile drums and percussion, and a lot of it depends on a playful attitude that won't come out in just listening to the music. There's humor and facial expressions that will make this song come to life.

As I wrote the song, I found myself composing an ending pattern that felt perfect where it was. Normally that's a great thing, but I didn't even have three minute's worth of a song. I spent about a day trying to figure out where to add time, but everything felt artificial. Even though I still think the song needs work, it's a decent transitional piece as it is.

Note: there is no formation for Song Three because it's mostly okedo moving around.

Week four:

Me and my novel ideas. Since this was my last week of musically-inspired songs, I wanted to have some fun. I would put all my mp3s into a playlist on "random", click on "next" for a random amount of time, and I would have to make a taiko version of whatever song was playing when I stopped clicking.

This is the song I landed on: "So Whatcha Want" by the Beastie Boys. At first, I thought it was going to be fun, but then I realized I'm writing a song that has a LOT of soloing, which means it's going to sound really boring without those solos (which is what the mp3 sounds like). Plus, any song with that many solos risks being less of a song and more just a bunch of people improvising...but hey, that's not the point of why I did it! It's not a direct "translation", but it keeps a lot of the patterns intact. I chose my conditions and I had to see what I could come up with.

I couldn't decide on what percussion to use, as you can see in the formation. There's also a lot of people switching between the slant drums to the front row/pod, and I want that to have a very relaxed, groovy, "hey, you're up next bro" sort of feel to it.

Ultimately I'm not sure if I would actually do anything with this song, but there it is!

Summary of month one:

I need to work faster. I'm scrambling at the end of the week through the weekend almost every time. I definitely enjoy composing more around concrete musical ideas that are a pattern rather than a concept. I'm already feeling hampered working on visual themes in month two; it's not how I usually compose.


*Please note! There are 4 possible links for each song. All links require you to wait a few seconds to download for free, or limit you to one download every few minutes. If you can't download anything from one row, go to another.*

(Mirrored hosts offered so you don't have to wait to download on the same site again.)
01 02 03 04
01 02 03 04
01 02 03 04
01 02 03 04
01-04 in a zipped file (for those who can open a .zip file; 10MB; includes notes)

Formations: (Red "X" indicates a player. Rectangles with a line across are slant stands.)
01 02 04


Please let me know if you can't download/view the files; this is the first time I've tried anything like this!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Where are we?

With Taiko Conference just around the corner, I've been thinking about what shape taiko has taken in North America and where it might go.

There's one camp that wants NA taiko to push well beyond the "safe" barriers it has created for itself, to break out of the traditions that are taking shape, and to be a more recognized and modern art form.

There's another camp that is composed of people who know very little outside of their own groups. Some groups are unaware that there are other taiko groups around outside of Japan, believe it or not. Although that's a very small number, can you imagine? Other groups are aware, but prefer to be isolated, often because their "way" is the only "way" they feel matters.

Yet another camp just plays to play. Maybe they like connecting to their Japanese roots, or always grew up hearing the sound of the taiko, or *gasp* it's just fun!

No one will ever have a blanket answer for what taiko should be in NA. Even if you said, "but we all play because we love taiko," that's not always true. I've known a few people that have played out of a sense of duty, instead.

So where does that leave us? I have a feeling NA taiko will have a few groups/people that push the art form to new levels and new audiences, but for the most part people are just happy to be a part of whatever taiko means to them. Ultimately, as long as we respect each other's paths, it's all good.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

To be or not to be...

No, this post isn't about Shakespeare, it's about acting!

If you've read my blog for a while, you'll note that I often talk about intention. To me, there's very little difference between intention and ki, until you get into philosophical areas...which I will not!

As a performer, intention is what's behind projection, presence, and spirit. These are those intangibles which draw your eye to a performer, whether it's a martial artist, dancer, taiko player, etc. However, both ends of the spectrum catch our eye, whether it's the performer exuding confidence or the one without energy, creating a "dead spot" on stage. So how do you generate intention?

For martial artists, I've yet to see someone doing a kata while smiling, because the idea is that you are simulating stylized combat. Even if you're not all that experienced, you know that the mindset is more serious than joyful, and your energy should reflect it on your face and body language. Still, it's easy to spot those who are going through the motions and those who are "involved in combat" as I put it. The difference is in acting, although I don't hear people referring to it as such. I'm not punching the air, I'm knocking someone out. I'm not blocking for the sake of blocking, I'm breaking someone's arm. It's a mindset that I enter; a role that I put on. In other words, I'm acting! If I don't have that mindset, then my techniques will look weaker and most likely be weaker, as well.

For taiko players, you may have more than one mood of song that you play, so you have to be able to distinguish what kind of energy you want to project. How do you switch between "happy" in one song, to "stoic" in the next, to "mischievous" after that? The answer is simple, really: be happy, stoic, or mischievous! The hard part is doing it convincingly, to the audience as well as yourself. Some moods are harder than others, especially if it's one you're not familiar with (imagine a song that required you to be "ethereal"!) Part of doing this well is in wanting to be a better performer. We spend countless hours learning how to strike well, how to stay together as a group, even how to move the drums around on stage, but we rarely practice our visage. I would often get comments in SJT that I needed to show "more intention" in my face. Ok, but how? A furrowed brow just makes me look angry, and if I tilt my head just wrong, I look...well, angrier. So what do I do? Hell, I'm still working on that.

But what helps is really trying to get into that role, and not letting any feelings of awkwardness stop me. It's really easy to laugh when we feel uncomfortable; it's a defense mechanism. Try getting a few feet away from a mirror and holding faces for a long time without chuckling. Try to be "intense" for 2 minutes without flinching away from your reflection - can you? If not, how can you do it on stage while drumming and moving and listening get my point, right?

I'm no expert on intention or acting as a performer, but I feel comfortable doing it. When people ask me, "how do you get confidence on stage?", I answer, "fake it at first." It's not easy, no, but imagine what a confident person looks like when they play. How would you mimic that? In time, you may find that you're doing less mimicry and more of your own expression. Another thing I do, especially during solos, is own that spot. For those short moments, I want to express myself, do justice to the composer, and entertain the audience, all while keeping in tempo and mood. Again, if that sounds daunting, try faking it and see if you can't use that facade as a useful training tool!

I've seen people with moderate ability "sell it" extremely well, but I've also seen those with talent hide it unintentionally. Whether it's appearing to be confident, trying to convey an emotion, or just not being a dead spot on stage, you have to take on a role - to act - in order to not only make the audience "believe" what you're projecting, but also for you to believe it as well. It's a skill that most of us have to work on. Don't give up!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Question Everything: Training

A couple of weeks ago, my dojo held its quarterly belt testing. During the advanced test, the one person running through the test was having a serious issue with his endurance. He started strong, as to be expected, but petered out way too early. Even when normal breaks were given, he never was able to come back with a second wind.

He knows full-well that endurance has been his greatest deficit, and he's tried to fix it. He'll jump rope before classes start, and he tries to push hard in class. But in talking to the other black belts, we realized his way of training endurance is the wrong way. He's bursting, not pushing. He's training to sprint when he needs to do a marathon.

We're not planning to keep this realization from him; I know next time I see him I'll mention it. Still, as many things do, it got me to thinking. How many ways do we train or prepare for something inefficiently?

For example, if you have trouble remembering the sequence of a song or a form, how do you fix that? Maybe it's taking a really long time to go through it over and over, so you could ask someone to do it, videotape them from different angles, and review it at your leisure.

I won't list a bunch of different ways that this could apply, simply because it would make for too long of a post. My point is that when you look at what you need to work on, there may be better ways to approach it than what decide to try. Look at how other people tackle it, ask people you respect how they would do it, or at the very least think of alternatives. You may find that you are already doing it the best way that will work for you, but isn't it better to know?