Thursday, June 30, 2011

Influences: Metal

You'd think that a community of drummers that likes to bang out loud rhythms on big drums would like Heavy Metal more! Alas, not the case.

Mind you, I'm no "metalhead"; I don't even have a good knowledge of the genre. I can count the number of groups I listen to on both hands and even then, there's only a few groups that I really enjoy.

What is it about Heavy Metal that draws me? Descriptive words like "thick, massive sound" and "emphatic beats" sum it up pretty well. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) Granted, a fue isn't going to command the kind of audial presence that an electric guitar does, but I could use those same words to describe taiko.

A lot of taiko is repetitive with a simple ji or pattern played out on either shime or cannon/kane. Metal is often pretty similar, with a fast, repetitive pulse driving the song forward.

Metal and taiko both create a visceral reaction in the listener. You can feel the energy from them being performed; it's a pulse that goes through your bones into your core. I've also seen both art forms make people plug their ears and walk away, too...

Finally, the intangible aspect of Metal for me is the feeling it imparts - more than just the physical "oomph" I talked about above, but more of an energetic, pumped-up, "yeeeeaaaahhhh!!!!" feeling. It could be from the melody of a guitar or the raw energy of the vocalist or the sheer intensity of the drummer; the end result is the same.

I've been wanting to write a Metal-inspired piece for some time now, and I have one nearly written from my 12-songs/12-weeks project, so that's promising! I'm eager to look at what I wrote nearly two months ago and expand on it. The hard part will be selling that "oomph" feeling without making it a parody of what people think of when they see the words Heavy Metal.

I'm ending this post with a few of my favorite videos/songs of the Metal genre. I'm not expecting you to like them as much as I do, but maybe you will! If you don't like them, at least you don't have to plug your ears; you can close the browser...

(I'll start with easier-to-digest stuff on the top and let it get "heavier" as it goes down.)

William Tell Overture Part 2 and Part 3 by Rossini

Path by Apocalyptica
Throw me Away by Korn (featuring Zendeko!)
Angels Thanatos by Akira Yamaoka
Iron Man by Black Sabbath (played by Metallica)
The Gears by Dethklok

Monday, June 27, 2011

Drill: Soloing to your own downbeat

One of the harder things I've made people do in terms of drills or song ideas is making one hand play a constant downbeat while the other hand is free to improvise. On paper, this sounds hard. In's still hard!

The idea of doing this is to develop hand independence, which is invaluable for taiko players. A secondary benefit is helping you to feel the pulse of the ji by making you have to play it!

There are a lot of ways to tinker with the difficulty level of this drill:
  • Play more or less downbeats. In the above video, I'm playing quarter-notes, but you can play half-notes or eighth-notes to suit your comfort level.
  • Switch hands so that your non-dominant hand gets some solo time.
  • Add musicality by having the downbeat hand playing on a distinct tone.
  • Change the number of surfaces to solo on (more surfaces = more complexity).
As with most drills, start moderate until you know what's a comfortable level. If you start at a level that's too difficult, frustration can take away any benefits. Since you can really customize this drill, you'll be able to keep adjusting things to provide you with both satisfaction and a challenge!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lessons learned from TWI 2011: Shime

At the end of last weekend's TWI (focused on shime and hand-held percussion), I offered up to the participants some comments that I want to repeat here:
  • Outside eyes. Even if you're lucky enough to have a mirror to watch while you practice, most of us miss out on a lot. We get used to seeing what we want to see or even focusing so much on details that we forget the total picture. If you can, try videotaping and watching yourself from different angles. Consider taping the whole picture, or focusing on the hands, or face, etc. Even easier? Have other people watch you.
  • Breathe! Obviously, we breathe when we practice. Hell, I even bet you're breathing now! A person with good technique will breathe in a complimentary manner to their motions (i.e., exhaling on exertion, anticipating when to inhale). What I mean by breathing here is to take a deep, non-metered breath for the purpose of centering yourself and taking mental stock of what you're doing. Especially after given things to work on, people often get SO focused that other areas suffer (like posture, relaxation, etc.) So fill those lungs and re-evaluate every now and then.
  • Use your body as a metronome. When your body understands a rhythm, then you don't have to think about it. You don't want to bounce about when you're playing (unless the song calls for it) but I recommend exaggerating a little bounce when you're practicing on your own. Eventually you whittle away at the amount of excess movement you're adding until it becomes an internal thing. This little skill translates to a HUGE benefit and can help you in maintaining tempo against people who speed up, holding a pattern that interlocks with others, and even acts as a back-up for those times when you zone out and are having so much fun that you forgot what you were playing.
Amongst dozens of drills designed to help people listen, follow, lead, maintain form, and relax, these were the things I felt most important to impart. They apply across the board, regardless of where you are in the ensemble or how long you've been playing. As always, I hope some of this stuff helps!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Taiko Weekend Intensive 2011: Shime/percussion

For the last three days, San Jose Taiko offered another Taiko Intensive Weekend, this one with a focus on shimedaiko, hyotan/shekere, and chappa. How'd it go?

Pretty darned well!

Since this was our first TWI focused on shime and hand-held percussion, there was some feeling-out of agenda and scheduling, but after hearing all the feedback from participants, it felt like we did a really good job! Aside from our two auditioning members, we had 10 people attending; all but one of them had been to at least one other TWI in the past.

From Roy drills on shime to basic technique on shekere to how to clean chappa, we threw out a LOT of information. There were about six SJT performing members who taught or assisted sections, and a lot of one-on-one interaction and feedback in order to give people the most personal instruction.

For me, the most satisfying parts came in the little moments: watching someone implement a suggestion or figure out a new way to approach something familiar. Also, it's always fun to just chat around meals or breaks, hearing what people have been up to or asking and answering questions.

We really enjoy presenting this sort of focused, hands-on, intense material to those who want to take their training to the next level, but you know what? It's also a hell of a lot of fun. I hope to see some of you at future TWI!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review: Ethnic Dance Festival 2011 (opening weekend)

This past weekend, San Jose Taiko performed at our first Ethnic Dance Festival ever. Everything about it was a blast!

This was the 33rd Annual EDF, spanning five weeks 750 performers, and 24 countries across six continents. I don't think anyone at SJT really knew how amazing the production was until we were involved in one ourselves.

To start, we did a 30-minute collaboration called "Synergy" with Abhinaya Dance Company last summer as part of one of their annual concerts. We took the best parts from that piece and made a 10-minute version for the EDF. We were to open the entire event, the first of 8 groups on opening weekend. We were to play a one-minute "song", followed by one minute of Abhinaya, then go into the collaboration.

The staff/crew of EDF knew what they were doing. Imagine herding and monitoring 200 performers from 9 different groups one weekend, then having to do it again with entirely different groups the next few weeks! They kept things well-oiled.

We played twice that weekend, not including the Dress rehearsal. There was a monitor in the green room where performers could watch the other performances, since we weren't allowed to go into the house and watch them during the shows. Whenever a group came off the stage and into the green room, they were always met with applause from whomever was watching the show on the monitor.

Our collaboration went really well both days. The audience *really* reacted to the piece, which I thought was excellent. The precision of classical East Indian dancing, the expertise of the orchestra (for the dancers), and the energy and power of the taiko all fit together in a really incredible experience for both us and the audience. It wasn't just some Indian dancing and some taiko drumming, it was two groups finding common ground but staying true to our values. It wasn't a fusion, it was a true collaboration.

The groups that followed were all amazing:

Shabnam Dance Company followed us, a troupe of Middle Eastern/bellydancing women who I didn't get to see a lot of because I was coming off-stage and recovering from our set. The muscle control for all their abdominal and body rolls was amazing; they would isolate sections of their torsos and *pop* them out at will. Also, incredible was the lead dancer Shabnam who stood on two overturned glass goblets and while still atop them, slid out into SPLITS. Holy crap.

Next up was African Heritage Ensemble, who was high energy from start to finish. I echoed comments from other people watching about the endurance of this group! I love the energy of African dance from what little I've seen, not to mention the expression of joy and complexity of the drumming. The men of SJT shared a dressing room with their men and we got to talk a little bit but I'd love to hear and learn more.

Ending the first half was Parangal Dance Company, a Filipino ensemble who used a few simple props to really accentuate their movements and music. One ingenious prop was a metal slab on a swing (sinalimba?) that one or two people would get on and sway back and forth, which was mesmerizing and almost impossible not to sway while watching it! There was a simple, powerful pulse to the whole piece and they arranged performers in very effective ways.

Starting the second half was Gadung Kasturi, a Balinese group who took the flow of the show in a different direction. Even with the gamelan ensemble punching up the dynamics or tempo, the dancing was serene yet purposeful and graceful.

I haven't been mentioning any of the transitions between groups, but theirs into the next was absolutely gorgeous. One dancer from their group remained on stage with a small folding fan and was joined by a female flamenco dancer. The Balinese dancer handed her fan to the Flamenco dancer before departing. Both dancers used their hands and fingers in similar ways, outstretched and expressive, and it was one of the most memorable parts of the entire show.

The flamenco group, Theatrico Flamenco of San Francisco, was the smallest group performing that night, but that didn't diminish their performance. Whereas I expected percussive stomping and fierce poses, we instead got two women dancing in a very distinct flamenco style, but with a slow, deliberate sensuality involving occasional interaction. The instrumentation was unique as well; piano, guitar, and violin aren't what I would attribute with Spanish music but it sounded authentic and beautiful. There was a last-minute male flamenco dancer added to it that I didn't get to see, but heard he was very powerful.

A great contrast to the Flamenco group was Ballet Folklorico Mexico Danza. Whereas the Flamenco were in all black against a black stage, the Folkloricos (if that's even a word) were in all white against the same stage. The Flamenco were mostly about slow smooth movements while the Folkloricos were all about beaming pleasure outwards with percussive dance. I have to admit at first I thought I wasn't going to be all that interested in this group because "oh I've seen them before." I must not have been paying attention before, because I found myself impressed and entertained quite a bit by the fast footwork, the surprisingly intricate patterns, and the fun they were having on stage.

One last group to end the show, and it was Hui Tama Nui, a Tahitian dance group that brought 80 dancers and a handful of musicians on top of that. Sure they had the big headdresses and feathered skirts at times, but they definitely had creativity and told a story while exploring both traditional and modern forms of the art. The music was pulsing, driving, rolling, and continued into the bow sequence...

We bowed in reverse order, first group on/last group to bow. So SJT and Abhinaya came out last with about 150 dancers behind us and a huge audience in front of us. It was impossible not to feel that energy going through and around us! SJT ran off through the house to the lobby, where we had positioned some taiko during intermission, and played to help lure the audience out...and the dancers! The lobby was packed with feathers and ruffles and gowns and smiles and noise and sweat, which eventually spilled out into the plaza for both shows.

I will have to say that our choreographed bow sequence sort of fell apart the first night, but with so much going on on stage by then, it was hard to tell! Still, we fixed it up and nailed it on Sunday.

It was daunting being amongst so many talented dancers, but if there's one thing we learned it's that we shouldn't sell ourselves short. We may be "drummers" but we don't stay still - choreography is movement is dance. This world of dance is unfamiliar to us but inspiring and might help push us to new heights if we keep our options open!

What will stick with me the most will be the bonding that SJT and Abhinaya went through, even with new members to the collaboration on both sides. Whether Bharatanatyam or taiko, we were all excited to be there and respected both art forms quite a bit. All of the groups at EDF were supportive and respectful and never once did I feel like we didn't belong or weren't welcomed. The term "love-fest" came up a few times. Ha!

Overall, the groups are top-notch and there's a lot of hard work to make everything flow so well. If you ever get a chance to see a performance of the EDF, I highly recommend it!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Influences: Introduction

Yay, another series of posts! Hey, it keeps me amused...

I've been thinking a lot about tendencies, those things we resort to and define our own personal style. When I lead drills about solo work, I want people to identify their own tendencies and be able to modify them at will. Even though I can recognize my own tendencies, it made me wonder where they all came from. And lo this series was born.

I'm going to look into the patterns that shape me, the movements that define me, the moods that drive me. Is there music I grew up listening to that influences me now? Does one art reflect on another? As I do this exercise in self-reflection I hope to not only understand those influences better but also hope to inspire others to look at what's shaped them more closely as well.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mainstream taiko

There are people in the taiko community who wish taiko was more "mainstream". It could be that they want taiko to be more well-known, or more popular, or even perhaps more lucrative as a profession.

In the few threads and conversations I've witnessed about this topic, the resistance I see to this push is mostly passive. The large majority of taiko players don't personally want to do things to make taiko more mainstream, even if they wouldn't mind the increased exposure for taiko overall. I don't think that's a bad mindset to have, but it's something to be aware of.

Let's take a look at some of the possibilities of mainstreaming taiko:
  • More demand of taiko performances, which means more paying gigs for taiko groups.
  • More opportunities to collaborate with mainstream artists, which can push taiko into new forms and outlets.
  • More drum makers and equipment, possibly more affordable as well.
  • Professional taiko players and groups more viable.
  • Larger community for support and resources.
But with that, there's also the possibilities of:
  • A flood of cookie-cutter taiko groups.
  • Harder for audiences to distinguish "quality" taiko.
  • Less opportunities for you/your group to play because there are so many other groups out there.
  • Foundations that rank your group at the bottom due to politics or bias.
None of these are going to happen overnight, and probably not even in the short-term. There are people trying to get taiko more and more "out there" but it seems taiko is taking its own sweet time. Where it's headed, who knows?

So here's my question for you. Would you rather see more exposure, more acceptance, and more taiko, if it meant less quality and less opportunities for you?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Bah humbug

In the psychometric type-testing of the Myers-Briggs test, traits are judged on four dichotomies. The pairs are Extrovert/Introvert, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling, and Judgement/Perception. The system uses a series of questions to determine where on each scale a person falls.

For this post, I want to talk about the last scale, Judgement/Perception. Those who have a preference to Judge can be said to need answers. They want a solutions to the world around them. Those who have a preference to Perceive can be said to want to keep their options open. They want to allow for further data and/or deliberation.

We all perceive and we all judge. Naturally, doing one too much is a bad idea. Although neither one is "better" than the other, I'm going to completely slam one of them in a certain context. Bear with me.

Which of these is more like you when you watch something (let's keep it to taiko) that you don't like:
  • You question what it is exactly you don't like about it.
  • Assuming it was done correctly, you try to figure out what the composer's/artist's intentions are.
  • You realize that it's just against your personal sense of aesthetics.
  • You make sure everyone around you knows how much you don't like it.
  • You seek a group of people who feel the same and continue to be negative.
  • You feel like you're better than the people you just saw.
  • You can't find anything good about the group/song.
I'm guilty of some not-so-kind judging but there's one thing that really helps me stop and seek perspective. I ask myself, "what if our roles were reversed?" I wouldn't want to have people leave a show that I was in talking smack about me or my group; I would hope that they would be fair in assessing what they saw and leaving at least feeling there was something of merit.

Mind you, I enjoy when someone can say that they don't like something but articulate why. This shows thought and...wait for it...perception! I may not agree with you, but it helps me respect your opinion - hell, it may make me question my own!

For those who tend towards the negative side of things, I would like to put a call out there to use your inside voice so that the rest of us don't have to hear how much you didn't like *this* or why you can't stand seeing *that*. Some of us might actually have LIKED something you didn't, and not arguing with you doesn't mean we agree with you.

Also, this attitude tends to make people around you tend to not want to hear your opinion. It doesn't matter which side of the extreme you are, always mentioning the positive or always mentioning the negative, but it shows other people that your critical eye is lopsided. Why would I want to hear your opinion when all your other opinions have been the same?

We all judge. We all perceive. Next time you judge, maybe ask yourself what your initial impressions say about you, then go from there. It might be enlightening!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Pulling back the curtain: What's touring like?

What's it like to tour? While I rarely get asked that question directly, I ones like these:
  • "How do you get your equipment around?"
  • "You must really like each other to be together as a group for so long!"
  • "Do you have any roadies?"
I'd like to talk a bit about touring, with the caveats that (1) no tour is ever the same, (2) other members may have widely-differing perspectives, and (3) other groups may or may not have anything resembling our tours.

Getting ready

There are usually a couple of all-day weekend rehearsals before we send a team out, to make sure that the shows are ready. There are always logistics to be worked out no matter how well-thought through the set is. Also, it's easy for the veteran members to forget how overwhelming things are for a rookie, with terminology and spike marks and what's coming next oh my god where are my bachi and I'm on the wrong side holy crap!

We have our equipment in touring cases flown to a shipping facility, then fly out ourselves to pick it up. We'll rent a large Budget truck and one or two vehicles to drive from city to city.

Before a concert

This is where we do the bulk of the work, more so than the concert itself! When we get into a theater, we all start working. There's drums to un-box and un-bag, stands to build, spikes to lay out, lights to focus, drums to tighten, songs to run for sound checks, and running through the whole set skipping songs (cue-to-cue). Some of us are assigned specific tasks (like lighting or spikes) while the rest of us get to work on the equipment. It's a pretty well-oiled machine, where even if you're brand new to the process, the rest of us will mentor and explain how to do things and put you to work. Most of us also prefer to get in some individual practice if time allows.

However, you never know when complications arise. Ideally, we load into a theater the day or night before and play the following day, but quite often we have to load in that morning which cuts down on any luxury of time we might have. Lighting issues pop up more than we'd like, which can mean we're literally doing things last-minute to get SOMEthing working. There's also times where the crew is student-run or inexperienced, which means more effort on our part, which takes more time and energy.

After the show

We usually process out to the lobby at the end of a show to greet the guests, where there's a balance of hanging out and getting back to clear out. We change and strike the set as soon as possible, both for our sake and for the crew's. We're usually riding the charge from playing the show as we strike our equipment, and although it may look frantic, we have it down to a science. Plus, we're probably hungry and that's a motivation right there! Still, it's not uncommon to get back to the hotel by 1:00am some nights.

One philosophy of SJT is to leave a theater in better condition than when we arrived, so we make sure to clean up and then some. Part of that is also to appreciate the crew, who work with us throughout the entire time we've been there.

In between

While concerts are somewhat of the "focus" of a tour, we usually have more school outreach programs than concerts. They're 30-60 minutes shows at a theater or school that we practice along with the full concerts before we leave on tour. While they're not as physically demanding as a concert (even two of them in a row), they still take effort. We also quite frequently go to schools for a workshop, which combines playing songs and having hands-on volunteer sections.

Being in the theater takes up a lot of time, but most of our tour happens in between shows. Driving is a huge part of that! It can be 2 to 2o hours to get to the next venue, and we may have 1 to 3 days to get there. And then we do it again. And again. We'll switch out who's driving and who's in what car, but driving can really sap our strength, more so than performing.

Sometimes we'll stay in the heart of a major city, other times we're well out of the way. Hotels vary tremendously, but they're usually on the nicer side. If we're lucky, there are things to do during downtime, like visiting downtown, mini golf, a movie, etc.

Some members (usually Staff) contact upcoming venues, make sure things are on schedule, cut spikes for the next show, and other preparatory tasks to keep the flow...flowing.


Even though we have an itinerary for the whole trip, changes are common. There can be workshops or dinners with local taiko groups that pop up, workshops with students, interviews for local papers, extra prep for a really difficult stage, etc. People may get sick and since we're together so much, we have to take precautions to keep it from spreading. Vehicles don't always behave. Weather can be brutal for outdoor gigs. Flights might get cancelled. Whee!


I hope I haven't de-mystified the experience of seeing us on stage when we tour? I think it adds a great perspective to know what goes on to make a performance. Touring is never a trudging from one stage to the next, nor is it a non-stop carnival of amusement. It's a job, it's an adventure, it's work, it's play!