Monday, May 30, 2011


I'm going to say something totally shocking. Are you ready for it? Some taiko people are jerks.

No, this isn't a post about someone in particular, or even for me to vent about people I've encountered personally. There's just been many a time when someone shares a sense of disbelief at how rude, insensitive, arrogant, or spiteful a fellow player can be.

In the NA taiko community (and pretty much the global taiko community) we all share a love for a very special art form. Because of that, we tend to feel a sense that we have each other's best interests at heart. Maybe that's even true on some level, but when you step back and look at the reality, that sense sort of falls apart.

People in school, people at work, heck even people in a family can be complete tools - so why would it be any different in taiko? In fact, because of the relatively close-knit taiko community, those kind of people are harder to cope with. Alienating the jerk may cause you to be alienated by their close comrades, whether it's in our own group or in the taiko community. That leads to most of us not confronting the jerk, who continues their jerk-ness.

I'm not saying there's a simple solution to dealing with a taiko jerk, nor am I saying I've never been surprised when someone who plays taiko does really rude things. I just want people to realize that a shared love does not a jerk unmake!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Question Everything: Song names

I hate naming my songs. I always wait until the last possible day - which is when someone on Staff says, "if you don't give it a name now, we'll name it ourselves." Maybe someday I should let them? Ha. Nah.

A little while back, Yurika pointed out that none of the songs I've written (3 regular pieces, 2 encores) had Japanese names. I hadn't even realized that myself; it wasn't a conscious decision to avoid Japanese names. Hell, I've even contemplated Gaelic names for songs in the past, but never Japanese. Why is that? Hmm.

I don't criticize those who do pick Japanese titles for songs, mind you. I just wonder how many people pick a Japanese title because it sounds cooler? "Zoosan Mitsukete" sounds really cool, but "Find the Elephant" does not. There are also times when a word or phrase has a secondary or slang meaning that the author didn't know about, which can be really unfortunate. That happens with group names, too!

I'm not here to call anyone out for what they name a song, only to make people think about why they name things what they do!

Monday, May 23, 2011

12 weeks, 12 songs: Month Two


Since month one was all based on musical patterns and rhythms, I thought I'd try basing the next month's songs on movement. Apparently, this is akin to grating cheese using a machete: painful, slow-going, and frustrating. And ultimately, I gave up going that route.

I'm not going to link the songs or the sheet music or the notes here; it was a lot of hassle and I'm not sure if anyone was all that interested. I'll save it for the end of the 12-week session. But let's get into the songs...

Week five:

My idea for this week was to use karate as a basis of movement, using the idea of a "hard" and "soft" style in conflict/opposition. I had one side of the stage with drums on slants, and the other with them down. The slant side would be the "hard", more angular, linear movements, while the down side would be the "soft", more rounded movements.

I wound up focusing so much on what movements could be done, that I lost the feel of martial arts and they became motion for motion's sake. I made up several sequences of movement to a downbeat, with little rhythm to make things interesting. And when I didn't have any rhythms to make things interesting for me, I found myself with no direction for the song. It became a burden to work on.

I finished the minimum requirements for the week, gave it some patterns and recorded the movements, but I accidentally over-wrote the notes I had, including the frustrations I was having. The only positive thing about this song is helping me realize I do not work well with movement as a foundation for creation.

Week six:

I still wanted to try movement (glutton for punishment), but took the route of using mobile okedo. It would be too easy for me to make this all about the rhythms, so I had to take a different approach.

I experimented with holding the okedo as a object instead of thinking of it as an instrument, and also planned out making formations of players. I wanted it to be more exacting than festive or energetic, and gave the ji a very simple straight beat of two tones. Now that I didn't have to worry about making musical patterns, I felt a lot less limited by the movement and free to try out ideas.

I wound up using the okedo as a prop, swinging it in circles, spinning with it, and finding ways to twirl and twist it in the hands and around the torso to make interesting visuals. Ultimately, I have only the skeleton of a piece, but it's got some potential. Still, it's another example that movement-based pieces don't foster inspiration in me.

Week seven:

I took this week off. Things were busy and I needed to give my brain a short vacation after pushing through two less-than-enjoyable pieces, and six in a row overall!

Week seven, part two:

Ok, refreshed and ready to try new stuff. How about a taiko song without any taiko? Yeah, let's see where that goes...

So I had the idea of using a line of 4-5 people, playing with bachi on the floor, thumping and tapping and clicking patterns out. I came up with some interesting ideas, both visual and musical, but it needed something more to make it less of a gimmick and more of a complete piece.

Instead of adding percussion, I kept with the idea of "taiko without taiko" and added two okedo in the back, but playing on the ropes instead of the drum heads. I could use something like slats instead of bachi to prevent wear on the ropes and still give an audible sound over the bachi in the front. There's potential in this piece, and it's interesting enough to flesh out maybe down the line.

Week eight:

Time for some "palate cleansing" and writing something musically-based to get back into the swing of things. I listened to a heap of old videogame music, the kind I used to hear in my formative years, and got a dose of inspiration.

This time, I actually got inspiration for movement, but it came from the music. I wanted people to move around drums on upstands, but I didn't worry about the details of what it would look like. I figured if I liked the general idea and could write a basic framework, details like what the limbs are doing could come later.

I made the ji on a pod of shime and sumo taiko, giving two distinct tones. It has a beat that's not quite either on the down nor the upbeat, but simple and catchy. There are two upstands and one downstand (in the middle), for 5 players total. There are several overlapping patterns throughout the song and solos, but even though this song was the highlight of these last four weeks, it's too similar in structure to Commotion, the last piece I composed for performance. I'll have to tweak this one in structure if I want to dI anything with it, but musically and thematically I like where it's going.

Summary of month two:

I suck at having movement as the main component of a song idea. I can live with that, but it was pretty revealing to go through the process. I really need a musical component or idea, even if I have a clever idea like with week seven.

Haven't really gotten better at doing things faster, possibly because I procrastinated more as I got frustrated this past month. It doesn't make me feel like I can't incorporate movement in my pieces, but I shouldn't focus on them as a priority or worry too much about the details if I want to enjoy the process.

What's in store for the last month? Stay tuned...

Thursday, May 19, 2011


If perception is reality, do you know how much your expectations shape your perceptions?

This past weekend, my dojo held its annual tournament. One thing we told the beginning and intermediate belts several times in preparation for this weekend was that doing tournament kata was like putting on a performance. The judges are evaluating you as soon as you stand up, before you even enter the ring, let alone as you come up to the beginning mark and begin your form.
  • How does the competitor acknowledge when their name is called?
  • Are the bows at the edge and mark done well or sloppily?
  • Is the competitor confident? Nervous?
  • Do they announce their form in a loud speaking voice or a shout?
  • Do they look the head judge in the eye when they announce their form, or do they avoid eye contact?
  • Do they pause after their last move or rush to be done?
The really interesting thing to all of the above is that none of those factors will cause you to earn or lose a point, but they can directly affect your score. How is that possible you ask? Judges are making assumptions about what kind of performance you're going to give them with every move you make (or don't make).

If you look like you're going to be nervous and awkward, they're going to expect a poor performance and look for reasons to justify that impression. You've given them a reason to look for the negative aspects of your performance. But if you look like you are more than ready to rock, they're at least going to be ready for an average run, and try to find what you're doing well.

So let's take this into taiko, shall we?

Imagine you're about to watch a new taiko group play that you've never seen before. Here they come on stage; there are ten middle-aged Caucasian men, and let's say they're in really tacky outfits that don't look alike. By the time you've finished that last sentence, you've already made an expectation about what they'll be like, haven't you? I'd bet good money on it. The interesting question now is will you be looking for reasons to justify your opinion? Or will you easily admit (even if just to yourself) if you were wrong in your initial presumptions?

Ok, so instead of those 10 White guys in garish outfits, you have 10 Asian women in identical happi coats. Where are your expectations now? Are they the same? Lower? Higher? I'd also bet money that a lot of people would have a higher expectation of this second group; I won't pretend I wouldn't!

The point of this post is two-fold. One, I want people to realize they impose expectations on every person they see, every group they see playing taiko. It's not going to go away, but if you can lessen the impact it has on your perception, you start taking control back over your reality! Two, it's worth taking a look at what the audience sees; thinking about things from their perspective. What would you think if you saw you performing?

Monday, May 16, 2011

How you like me now?

Do you have to really like everyone you play with, in order to play joyfully with them onstage?

Unless you're extremely lucky, there are people in your group you're not too friendly with. I would even bet there are people in your group that you don't like! *gasp* I believe the technical term for that is called "life".

In an ideal world, we would all be doing our arts with people we all really got along with. But it's not like that in school, it doesn't happen at work, and it rarely happens within family, so why should taiko be any different?

Sometimes you may just have someone who rubs you the wrong way. It can also be as bad as a fellow member who doesn't like you, and is antagonistic (whether it's obvious or behind your back). I could write an entire post about what you might do to handle that animosity, but how does it affect what goes on in a performance?

I don't have an answer, honestly. All I can do is tell you what I do and hope it helps. A few posts back I talked about acting, where sometimes you have to fake an emotion that you're supposed to be projecting. It's much the same here. It's not like I've played next to someone I utterly hate and have to keep down the bile, because that's a much more serious problem. However, when I have to support someone and they're not my favorite person, for the sake of the performance - for the sake of the art - I make sure that the audience never knows and never suspects.

I mean, think about being in the audience...wouldn't it be distracting to see someone who obviously didn't like being next to someone else? It could sour the song for you or even the entire performance!

Ultimately, the love of your art should surpass any *grumble grumble* feelings you might have when it comes to performing it. Do you have to like everyone in your group? Unless it comes really easily for you, then no. Consider it a reason to perfect your acting skills onstage instead!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

What would you rather be?

You have two choices. Would you rather be:
  1. A mediocre player that stands out as memorable?
  2. A talented player that blends in with the group?
I know that if I went up to the taiko people I know and asked them this question outright, just about all of them would answer the latter. Of course we want to be good for the group's sake, and who doesn't want to be talented? But I wonder...

I watch people play taiko (and doing martial arts) and I see those who would pick the first choice. They want to be in the spotlight at the expense of being a better player. They're ok with where they are skill-wise, and focus more on the outward appearance they project. It's not even that people who want the first choice are bad players, but they could be so much better if they focused less on "look at me" and more on self-improvement!

Ultimately, if being memorable is your goal, moon the audience during a solo. If you really want to get better, stop worrying about being noticed. Eventually you'll be noticed for the talents you've fostered and you can truly enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Compliments vs. Critiques

Would you rather be in a group that only gives you positive verbal feedback (compliments) or only gives you negative verbal feedback (critiques)? Neither one is optimal, but let's get into the reasons why.

In a group that only tells people what they're doing wrong, there's no positive reinforcement. Each comment only adds to the pressure weighing down a player. All those comments bounce around in your head, making you worry about if you're doing something the "right" way, and half the time you'll be trying to figure out what critiques take priority over others. It'll take you a lot longer to find your own voice, let alone become a stronger artist.

However, with groups that are all about focusing on the good, a player can get a false sense of their abilities. There's less incentive to improve, because what needs to be worked on is glossed over and made to seem less important. Also, when you know you made mistakes, do you want someone to lie to your face and say, "you did great!"? Often with a group like this, there is great short-term joy but little long-term satisfaction.

Now, I realize that most groups don't fall into either extreme, but I also know that there are teachers and instructors of groups who do fall into one of the two camps. So imagine you have one or two senior members who teach like that, who then attract/retain people with similar temperaments. It may not reflect the whole group's mindset, but it easily becomes the dominant way that comments are given.

Admittely, I know there are people who seek out one extreme or the other. There's nothing wrong with that, but a majority of the players I've met aren't like that.

So which group would you rather be in? Ultimately a mixture of both is best, but where you like your balance depends on your taste. So maybe a better question to ask is, which side of the spectrum are you on?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Teaching vs. Instructing

Telling someone how to do things comes in two flavors.

There are those who are good at giving instructions, detailed information in order to get you to do the material correctly. They'll cover all the bases and make sure that you have a solid foundation to move forward from. These are the instructors.

There are those who watch what your needs are, your strengths and weaknesses, and tailor their comments accordingly. They try to fill in the blanks and touch on the areas that you can practice for continued growth. These are the teachers.

Instructors can often get lost in going through the motions; telling people how to do things in the same way no matter what the group or individual might need, simply because that monologue is so familiar. It can be uncomfortable to disengage from those familiar paths and take a risk in focusing on a group or individual on more than just a surface level.

Teachers may at times be unable to see how to give you the best advice in the best way possible. What works for them or for others may not be what works for you, and that suggestion winds up being a distraction. Sometimes a teacher may not be strong in an area you need, and a problem gets overlooked. Also, a teacher can give you bad advice with good intentions, forcing you to re-learn something down the line.

Which is better? Ultimately I'd rather have a "teacher" than an "instructor", but the roles really should overlap somewhat. Still, I've known people who were clearly in one of the two camps.

I think of myself as a teacher, but I admit to still having a long way to go, both with taiko and karate. It means I'm going to fail at times when trying to help people, both in communication and action, but it also means I'll learn and get better at both teaching and the arts themselves.

I'm not here to blast those who choose to instruct, I'm just defining the two roles and stating a preference. Sometimes just recognizing how things are done or are different helps us make better decisions.

Monday, May 2, 2011

When are you ready?

When are you ready to first perform? Or play that spot for the first time? Or compete in a tournament?

The answer, of course, is never.

I'm just kidding! The answer is way more complicated than that.

What does it even mean to be "ready"? It's going to be different for each person - comfort level, confidence level, knowledge of the material, etc. It's going to be different for each group you're in - if they're performance-oriented, if they want to push your skills, positions available, etc.

There is a point when you truly aren't ready, but I see a lot of people doubting themselves to where that period is artificially extended. It's then not about skill, it's about confidence. A classic chicken-and-egg scenario: you're not ready to perform because you don't feel confident enough, but you're not confident because you haven't performed enough.

My dojo is holding a tournament in a couple of weeks and we're running through practice rounds of kata. There are a lot of people running through their kata who are visibly nervous and it affects their entire performance. After a few times, it starts to sink in that all the people watching them just don't matter, and their training takes over. That nervousness has to be burnt off through doing; there's no shortcut around it.

No one wants to get up in front of others and look weak or stupid or wrong. That fear can often prevent us from performing until we finally stop worrying about what the people think, and focus more on letting our training shine through.

I've been performing taiko for 17 years and have done tournaments and had testing dozens of times. I miss the butterflies in my stomach, the nervous energy that keeps you kind of buzzed, that feeling mild terror mixed with excitement. It may sound weird to say that, but it's true. Once it's gone, it hardly ever comes back.

The first time you perform, your brain will be all over the place. If you wait until the magical time when your brain is "ready" to play, you'll never perform. So take the plunge and enjoy the ride, because the journey leads to a stronger you!