Sunday, July 31, 2011


How do you deal with people that are disruptive at practice? It's a pretty common question that comes up. So let's take a different approach with it. Are YOU disruptive at practice?

You'll probably say "no," because you're a highly valuable, contributing member, right? Of course! Do you think the disruptive people would say "yes" to that question? Probably not. Since a disruptive person doesn't think they are disruptive, how do you know you're not one of them? Hmm...

Maybe you do (or don't do) something and think it's not a big deal. Maybe you think other people are okay with it because no one says anything to you - or they say something, but it doesn't sound like they really mean it.

Here's an abbreviated list of the things I've seen or have heard about from others. Are you guilty of them?
  • Constantly adding comments after other people speak.
  • Cracking jokes all the time.
  • Always being the first to laugh and the last to stop laughing.
  • Telling someone how to do something when they're trying to learn it from the person teaching it at the time.
  • Engaging in chat with people who are trying to focus on tasks at hand.
  • Not taking the initiative to help out what needs to be done before being asked.
I'd be surprised if most people hadn't done a few of these at one time or another. Hell, I've made comments, cracked jokes, etc. I'll even confess to being called out more than once on the last issue on the list.

In time I realized that not only was I setting a bad example, but what if everyone did what I did? Nothing would get done! Even only if half the group were like me then the other half would get tired of always having to tell us to get off our asses and be proactive.

If you do something like what's on the list often and no one calls you out or pulls you aside to say, "hey, please stop doing that," don't assume it's because people are ok with it. Other members may not be comfortable being so bold as to confront you, or don't want to appear like the "bad cop."

You need to be aware of what the vibe of the group is, both overall and situational. Are the leaders/directors trying to get something accomplished? Is someone teaching a new song? Then you might want to dial back on the social antics. Are there new members or guests at your practice? That's a great time to be a good example. Maybe you're in small groups or it's an informal rehearsal and it's ok to be joking and casual. The point is, think about what you do and how it may have an impact on the rest of the people around you.

If you're not sure what impact your words and actions are having within your group, then how can you be sure you're not the disruptive one?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Second Nature

Most of us strive to make a skill "second nature", to make it so familiar that no active thought is needed for it's execution.

...but then what?

I'll bet there's something you'd like to make second nature. Maybe you want your footwork to be fluid. Maybe you want to be able to play in 7/4. Maybe you want to show the joy that you feel when you play outwardly on your face. We all have something that applies.

So yay, you finally get there! Now you don't have to think about how to do that thing, you can just enjoy your hard work! Only wait...does that mean it's never going to get better? Of course not, but it just became second nature, and isn't that where you wanted it to be?

Second nature is a great thing. When you get something to that level, you should feel proud! Still, there needs to be a "third nature" or "fourth nature", where things get better after they become second nature.

It's up to you to figure out how long second nature is no longer "good enough". How are you doing the thing you're doing? How can it get better? Don't you dare say it's as good as it's going to get; I don't accept that and neither should you. It's possible that you can't figure out what would make it better, so give it time and approach it again later.

Here's where things get less fun. You'll go from second nature, to where now you have to think about things again. Crap! But you know what? You'll get back to second nature sooner or later and this time you'll be better than the last second nature (boy does that sound weird).

I experienced this a LOT with learning how to strike. The first week I learned how to play taiko, it was so easy! Arm up, arm down, don. A few weeks into it and I realized that I was missing a lot of technique. A few years after that and I started to feel pretty darned comfortable...until I learned of different kinds of grips I hadn't been aware of, oy. Some more months down the line and I could switch between grips at will, depending on my needs. Great! Only then I realized my bachi turn a lot in my hands when I play. Could I fix that? It took me a little bit of time to figure out that yes I can, but no I don't want to. And so on, and so on.

Mind you, that was just with striking! There were also things like syncopation and showmanship, as well as karate and very similar concepts there to re-evaluate as well.

Second nature is a pitstop on the road to improvement. Stop the car, take some pictures, eat a sandwich, but sooner or later you need to get driving again!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Random videos!

Sorry about the delay, folks.

Rushed for time here but I wanted to post some video links - some are videos I'm in, some are just interesting. Enjoy!

Adam Weiner and San Jose Taiko full of energy (actually, it's just Commotion!)
Street Drum Corps' BANG! x San Jose Taiko at SubZERO Festival (2009)
The Bangerz x San Jose Taiko "Robot Remains" Live at SubZERO Festival (2010)
San Jose Taiko part II (From a public TV short in 1993, the year I started - but I'm not in this clip)
Kodo 'Bravia' Promotion Video (short version)
藤本吉利(鼓童) 大太鼓ワークショップ
(Yoshikazu Fujimoto of Kodo playing and talking about odaiko/odaiko workshops.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Drill: Vocalizing your solo

If I had to come up with one solo drill to give to taiko players, this would be the one.

While clapping or stepping a constant beat, vocalize your solo. It could be a set solo or a improvised one, and the ji doesn't really matter because you're just doing the pulse with your body. You can use kuchishoga or scat or beat box, whatever works for you.

It will help you internalize the downbeat, which is probably one of the most important things a taiko player needs to do in order to have a successful solo. It's horrible when I see a potentially great solo (musically, visually) that's not connected to the tempo. It's like fingernails on a blackboard!

This is a great drill to do when you're walking, even if it's as short as going up the stairs somewhere. You can be pretty quiet with your voice, especially if you use kuchishoga and avoid risking people thinking you're insane. Hopefully! If you're walking a longer distance, this is great because you don't have to think about the tempo at all. Your natural gait is already engrained and you can just focus on your solo.

It's less natural to do it using your hands as the pulse, but it's very possible. Clapping, thumping the steering wheel, patting your hip, whatever works.

This may seem really rudimentary to some of you. Of course you can stay on tempo! Maybe you don't ever get off the ji, so what's the point? Well then this drill's not for you. :)

Another benefit to a drill like this is you get to listen to your solos. I know that sounds weird, since how can you not hear your solos when you're banging away on drums? Hearing is not the same as listening. When I mean listen, I mean how do your solos sound as music? Is it an onslaught of notes (is your mouth constantly making noise?) Are the notes grouped together with any sort of predictability for the audience to enjoy? Are there any dynamics or is it all loud, all the time? These are nuances that are easy to overlook but can make a solo stand out amongst the rest.

Sometimes it's great to take out the metronome and drum pads/tires/makeshift taiko and note the tempo while striking away. But it's also good to train your body to feel the downbeat, literally. This sort of drill can be done literally anywhere and adjusted to whatever difficulty level you like!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Now I get it!

There's a technique in karate called "ashi-barai." You quickly sweep the opponent's foot with your own, using your lead foot, in order to take them off-balance. It's something I knew about easily a decade ago, but never really used much.

It was this really cool technique that other people might use on me (even if it didn't always work) but I never really felt like it was part of *my* arsenal. I could literally do it, but it didn't come naturally so I rarely tried.

So then here comes last week. I get there early before class and am goofing around with different techniques. I come up with an interesting combination that has ashi-barai in it and it "feels" good. So I ask a friend to react to it and bam, it works beautifully! I try it again during actual sparring later in the week (on someone else) and bam again. And again. I start "getting" this technique, understanding how it works with my body, with my sensibilities. I see opportunities for it everywhere now!

Yesterday our karate club had a beach workout. Sensei had us practicing a swiveling maneuver designed to teach evasion. Some of the newer/middle-ranked belts were having trouble with their coordination, turning one way and punching the other. Even when they were physically able to do it, it wasn't a natural nor easy motion. It's probably not even something they'll use much in the near future since it's going to require a lot of study. But someday, maybe one of them will have that same "eureka" experience that I did, figuring out how it works with their own body and in their own time.

There are a lot of techniques and advice we're given as we learn an art. Some things go over our heads at the time or come out awkward even when we're doing it right. Forcing a technique to be in your body is not often the best way to learn it; sometimes it needs to happen when it's ready.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


This past weekend was San Jose Obon, a huge weekend-long celebration and our biggest festival set. We perform both days, with two different sets, and are literally surrounded by a huge audience. It's our rowdy home crowd and there's no feeling quite like it!

For days afterwards, videos and pictures get uploaded from different people at different angles. It's really cool to see some of the great hi-res stuff, but after the initial joy subsides, I start looking more closely.

I saw a picture with my raised arm up high just about to come down in a strike, and my fingers were in a nearly-perfect grip. No tension, great extension. It felt satisfying to see that! All the teaching I've done, all the talk about how to strike and grip and relaxing, all the practicing in the studio - and there's proof that it's happening, at least some of the time! I looked at other pictures to check my stance, my expressions, all of the things we look for at practice.

I've mentioned before the benefits of videotaping yourself at practice to see your form. However, no matter how much you practice, there's nothing as telling as seeing yourself in performance. When you're tired, when you don't have the luxury of thinking about the details, what do you REALLY look like?

If you can get someone to record you during a live performance, it's going to have two possible effects. One, you're going to be hyper-aware that you're being captured, and you're going to project more, push harder, etc. (Alternatively, you might freak out a bit, but that's another blog post.) Two, you're going to have evidence of your true persona on stage.

In our very first song during Saturday's set, I kept telling myself "people are taping you, smile!" As silly as that sounds, it paid off. Eventually you stop having to make yourself smile and you're just used to doing it. The same goes for a better stance, more interaction, pretty much everything your instructors have ever told you.

Granted, one picture or one video is not you in your entirety. But it shows more "truth" than something taken in a practice environment. Look closely enough and you'll see your habits, your strengths, your tendencies. A picture says 1000 words, but are you listening to any of them?

Monday, July 11, 2011

12 weeks, 12 songs: Epilogue

Alright, time to reflect! It was three months of constant composing and processing and pushing through, so I'd better be all enlightened by now, right? Hmm.

The goal: To force myself to produce music instead of just coming up with countless ideas that never see the light of day.

The rules: Songs had to have a beginning, middle, and end. I could not work on a song that I had already put thought into in the past. Sunday at midnight was the latest I could work on a piece.

Things I learned:

- One week to write a song is insane. Don't ever do this. If you do, don't repeat that mistake eleven more times! Yeesh. It did force me to produce something, which was my goal, but unless I had something already in mind (which I purposely tried not to do), it was pretty easy to lose inspiration halfway through.

It was extremely hard to write a piece with depth to it in such a short time and equally hard not to stop and try to make it "better" as I'm composing. In the past, I could normally take a few days to choose between patterns I liked, but with this process I had to just pick one and keep going. Imagine cooking something that way - basil or oregano? Fish or steak? Mustard or sriracha? Sometimes it might turn out tasty, but not always...

- Music first, movement third. I can come up with a rhythm, find complimentary patterns, tie them together, and in the process the instrumentation will come to mind. But make me have to think of a movement first, and it's like running through pudding. Thick pudding. Everything becomes so much more difficult and I lose my desire to continue.

It's one thing to add movement during the composition process; if it pops up and seems good I can incorporate it. As a launching pad for me though, it sucks!

- I don't like to name my songs. I guess I sort of knew this, but now there's no doubt. While I'm composing a song, giving it a name limits it. To some people, giving a song a name from the onset gives it a purpose and I totally get that...for them. All of these songs are "untitled" and probably will be until the liner note deadline.

- My tendencies.
  • I like syncopation. No surprise there! Actually, it was hard in some pieces to NOT put in a syncopated pattern.
  • I really try to avoid 4 things in a row for the most part. I don't want patterns to be too predictable, but then after a while, that itself becomes predictable.
  • Apparently, I'm not a fan of "regular" ji. Straight beat, dongo, horsebeat (don dogo), etc. It's not that I dislike those patterns, but I find them too simple for the songs I want to write. The two songs that have those kind of ji (songs 3 and 6) add accents or use alternating tones.
  • My songs tend to be moderate to fast in tempo. I toyed with the idea of a slow, mellow song, but didn't like it. While I did play with tempo in song 10, I generally stayed in a narrow range.
The future of the songs:

- Songs that have little future:
  • Song 4 was an experiment in picking a random song and "taiko-izing" it. This isn't a horrible piece, but I don't see me doing anything with it.
  • Song 5 was the martial-art-inspired piece. This was my least favorite piece of all 12 and serves more as a lesson than a song.
  • Song 7 was the non-taiko taiko piece. I hate to put it in this category, but realistically I don't think I'll come back to it. I like the idea and what I was trying to do, but it's a super-low priority.
  • Song 9 had the hocketed, improv ji. It's quirky but I don't have any real attachment to it. Going to a different meter for the solos was a mistake as well.
  • Song 11 was in 5. Too messy, nothing gripping. It's the "kitchen sink" of my 12 songs.
- Songs that have something:
  • Song 1 was inspired by East Indian patterns. It's different and there's potential, but it's also fragmented. I might want to make something of it down the road...maybe.
  • Song 6 is the katsugi okedo movement-oriented piece. As a song it sounds boring as hell because there's no visuals to go along with it. I might take some of the ideas for a future work even if I don't take the bulk of it.
  • Song 8 was videogame-inspired and incorporates moving around the drums. This is sort of my "average" song because I don't hate it, don't love it, it's got some nifty patterns and I could easily develop it but don't have a great desire to at this point. Another day, perhaps?
- Songs with definite potential:
  • Song 2 was inspired by Heavy Metal. This is probably the song I'm happiest with from this experiment and I have ideas for it already. Of all 12 pieces, this will probably be the first one I develop fully.
  • Song 3 was an attempt to make a "catchy" melody. I could see this song being taught directly as-is and played on stage with hardly any changes. I wish it was longer, but I still like it.
  • Song 10 was the "taikobilly" piece. Lots of fun in this one. Like song 3, I wish it was longer, but I like the structure and potential mood of the piece.
  • Song 12 would need the most work of these four, but figuring out what sort of vocals to add should be fun. The descending tones of the drums was a real bonus but came to be a signature part.
Now what?

Now? I let those last four songs simmer in the back of my brain for a while. Coming out of this with four potentially good works is pretty damned encouraging, but it was exhausting!

I want to develop the song I started chronicling under the "New Song Diary" tag. I feel like I went through so much forced processing during this experiment that it served as a creative detox for me. I feel that I'm much more free to really make this song into the song it should be. Mind you, I don't know what song that is, but I feel like it's ready to be written.

Thanks to those who came along on this process with me. It might have been as boring as watching paint dry for some of you, but this blog is as much for me as it is for you. :) Maybe there's a few people reading my blog who wish they could get their ideas out of their heads and made into real music? If so, I hope writing about this journey of mine helped. I'd be happy to talk in more detail to anyone if they're interested - I'm still no expert on composition, but I'm always willing to talk taiko!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

12 weeks, 12 songs: Month Three

It's finally over! Twelve songs in...14 weeks, not 12. Close enough!

I was crazy for doing this, but it was a unique experience. I'm planning on doing a retrospective on the ordeal in a future post.

I'm also not going to be as fancy with the links/downloads. You'll get an mp3 to download for each song at the end of this post, but aside from the summary, that's it. Let's begin, shall we?

Week five:

This began the month of movement-based songs, and also the worst piece I embarked on. The idea was to use martial-art-inspired movements as a base. I wanted the "hard" style of movements (sharp, linear, direct) on one side and "soft" (circular, softer, fluid) on the other. There would be contrast in patterns and visuals as well as a "sparring" section.

I found myself banging my metaphoric head against the table with this one. I was doing movement for movements sake. Nothing felt purposeful as patterns came out uninspired and I wound up forcing myself to push forward as the week went on. I rushed to end this piece and it left a sour taste in my mouth. Not a good start for movement month!

Week six:

I wanted to give movement another chance, but realized I needed to approach it differently from putting some drums down and making new motions next to them. So I looked at the slung okedo (katsugi okedo) and asked, "what can I do with these if used as props and not just drums?" Got some interesting ideas from that! Unfortunately there's nothing I can show you, and the music isn't all that interesting without the visuals, so...

The best I can do is summarize some of the movement ideas. I took the okedo atop one shoulder and flipped it forward, tumbling down and back up to the other shoulder. I had the idea of a row of players moving the okedo in large circles with both hands, in different directions but flat to the audience. I also wanted to play with heights of the okedo, low to the ground or held over the head. Playing them in this way isn't optimal, but that wasn't the point.

Not sure I can take this piece into a workable song, but the ji and some of the movements could easily fit into a different piece someday.

Week seven:

I gave up on movement-based songs at this point. In fact, I took a week off here because A) I was busier than normal and B) my brain needed a break from creating in ways I wasn't fond of (i.e., movement-oriented). I needed to start fresh, with something off-the-wall. I decided to write a taiko piece without taiko.

Well ok, specifically a taiko piece where no taiko head was struck. I wanted a row of players in front sitting or kneeling, using only bachi to make sounds, while two okedo behind them were played on the ropes or rims alone. I know the ropes aren't the best place to hit, but that's not the point. The clicking sounds you'll hear on the mp3 represent shime bachi or oak bachi, either struck together or hitting the floor. There are some cool acoustic effects I was able to come up with in angling and placing bachi in different angles and holding different grips, but I can't get those sounds out of my little notation program.

Week eight:

I wanted to go back to taking a musical idea or ideas and going wherever my mind wanted to take it. I got inspiration from listening to old videogame soundtracks (we're talking pre-Nintendo here) and the from the music came the visual/arrangement ideas.

I have two taiko on upstands at angles and one on a downstand in the middle. There are five players that rotate around, moving between drums, and whatever solos are played are always on that center drum. The song isn't particularly complex and the movements aren't even planned, but it has enough potential to "keep in mind".

Week nine:

I had a weird idea for this one which I'm still not sure if I like. I wanted four different types of taiko in the back, each person getting a single quarter note to improvise something short and simple. With four quarter notes per measure and four people on four drums, this would create a constantly changing ji, one improvised by gestalt.

I don't even know what I wanted the front row/rest of the song to look like; that was secondary. And the ability to have four people constantly improvising without losing the pulse or tempo is something yet to be tried.

I'm not sure what I think about this piece. It's a very unusual idea but does that mean that it's a good one? Or just a gimmick? Hmm.

Week ten:

I was listening to some Reverend Horton Heat, who play Rockabilly, and thought, "why not make a 'Taikobilly' song?" Rockabilly is full of swing and spunk, so what would a Taikobilly song be like?

The setup idea was to have four taiko on downstands, with one person behind and between each pair for a total of three players. The back row ji has a shime and sumo (or lower-tone shime) per pod, with two pods total. Again, I didn't focus (or care much) about the visuals even though some ideas came to mind. The song is more about conveying that infectious energy and having fun with the musical genre. The chappa are way too loud on this track, but I have them at the quietest dynamic on the score as it is.

I like this piece, it has some oomph to it, plays with a genre taiko doesn't normally have, and I like the speed-up section into the solo ji. Might do something with this one...

Week eleven:

So until now, all the songs were based in 4/4 time. There are some other meters within the songs, but never as a theme. I wanted to take an odd meter - in this case 5/4 - and make it uncharacteristically festive, or at least swung.

It wasn't a great result overall. It's in 5/4, it's swung, but there's nothing about the patterns that has any sort of pulse; nothing to latch on to. It's a bit chaotic overall. If I had more than a week to do something in an odd meter, I think I might have more luck.

Week twelve:

Home stretch! I promised myself that I would finish this project by doing a Yoshikazu Fujimoto-inspired piece. I did a post about him here. I wanted to make it a festive, catchy piece with kakegoe (shouts or calls) as well as kiai. The idea of having three distinct tones of taiko came about by accident, but there is a section with descending tones that I really like.

I didn't create any kakegoe or kiai in the piece but left parts quieter and/or simpler where I want them to go. I also realize that relying on tones in taiko is futile, because drums change pitch all too easily. As long as it's high/middle/low, I'm good. I might use katsugi okedo if I have a good idea for what I would do with them.

Summary of months 2 and 3:

Painful. Movement is so not my forte. I can come up with movements without too much trouble, but making them the focus of a piece is the quickest way to turn it rotten. Taking a musical idea or an unusual concept is what gets my creative juices flowing.

I was almost always scrambling by the end of the week to finish. That came from enjoying the first few days of concept and idea generation too much, not realizing (or wanting to realize) that it takes more time for me to get things down that I like. Often that meant just forcing the later parts of a song, especially endings. You'll notice a lot of songs have a really strong last two, four, or eight measures, and end on a big fat ONE of the next downbeat. That's because usually it was the last day and I hadn't time to be creative.

I'll talk about this process more and what fates await my 12 songs in an upcoming post, so I'll end the chatter here. Hooray for staying sane! I think...well, as sane as I ever am, anyways.


Full pack of 8 songs (zipped) Mirror pack of 8 songs (zipped)

05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12
05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12

Monday, July 4, 2011

Good enough?

When are you "good enough"? When do you step back and acknowledge what you've done or where you are? What do you do after you step back?

Most players I know of wouldn't dare to say, "Yeah, I'm good enough." There's a drive, a need to grow as artists no matter what direction that might take them. Better listener? More solid chops? Louder kiai? Any of those could apply.

It does seem a bit egotistical to ever think one is good enough in any area. I can't ever see myself thinking I know all I need to know in even my strongest of strengths. I don't ever want to know all there is to know! How boring would that be?

So why even bring up this question, if it's a ridiculous one to ask? Two reasons.

First, ok maybe you shouldn't ask yourself if you're "good enough", but it's really good to step back and look where you are at any given point. You're pulling the car off the road and looking at your surroundings, but you're not done with your journey. It grounds you, it makes you appreciate the progress you're making, and it also can let you know what still needs focus.

Second, I have met people who almost act like they are good enough, at least in one area. I've never heard someone say, "I think I'm good enough, you know?" But you can see it in their body language, in how they approach practices, in where they focus their attention. They've stopped to look back and for whatever the reason, they chose not to continue forward. It's sad.

So you've looked back, now what? Well now you can continue on your path but with a better perspective. You can reflect on what slowed you down in the past and take steps to either avoid it or tackle it more readily. Maybe you'll realize that you've neglected something in your training or decide that you want to pursue an area you've never stopped to consider before.

Perspective is important, but a false sense of achievement is dangerous. You should make goals and enjoy the satisfaction of "arriving" at them, sure. Just never treat any goal as your last!