Monday, August 29, 2011

Loop of progression

What with NATC just behind us, I noticed/heard several comments from people along the lines of "oh there's so much I didn't know I had to learn" or "I didn't realize I was doing it wrong, it's going to take forever to get better."

All of us should have those moments of "I have a lot to learn" and as we keep trying to get better, those moments will keep coming back. Think of a circle, where the top represents simplicity and efficiency. As we learn more and attempt to change what we're used to, we struggle with the new information and it takes time to get back to the top of that circle.

However, notice the title of this post? It's not "Circle of progression", it's "Loop of progression." If all we ever did was get back to our original point, we'd never get better in the long run. And this is where a lot of people get frustrated; they look ahead and see it as a another climb back to where they used to be.

Instead of thinking of a circle where you might wind up back where you started, think of it as a laterally-moving loop. Another way to look at it is a coil that's viewed slightly from the side. You still have the progression that you followed in a circle, but when the next time you get to the top, you've made progress from the last time you were on the top.

Naturally, no one's progression makes any sort of repetitive, tidy pattern. But the concept of the loop of progression can give you a lot of perspective. When you started playing taiko - I'm talking the first week - you took a stick and you made a noise. Then I'm betting things got harder, right? Stance, grip, tempo, all those annoying other factors that got in the way...until you started getting better at them.

When new information gets frustrating, that's when you're at the bottom of the circle. But that bottom just means every step from that point takes you to the top of the next circle, where the cycle begins again. Recognize the patterns and you'll appreciate the journey!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Question Everything: Training in Japan

Yeah, this is a juicy one.

At NATC 2011 this past weekend, I substituted for Yurika on the panel of the Innovation and Tradition discussion session. Eventually the topic about training in Japan came up and we went on that path for a while. After further debate and reflection on this, I wanted to share my thoughts.

Personally, I don't think it's necessary to train in Japan. I'll just say it right at the beginning. Let me make it clear that I'm not talking about enjoying a week or two for workshops or a festival, but studying there for months to years. Yes, I think it can further a person's appreciation for taiko and improve on one's skills, but necessary? Far from it. Here are the reasons I've heard and why I don't like them:

- Learning taiko in Japan will make you a better player.

That's a really weak argument. If I used that in my debate class, I would have gotten torn apart. Is it magic? I just stay there long enough and *poof* I'm a better player? I know people don't mean that when they use this argument, but still...

- Learning taiko in Japan means learning it from the source.

That doesn't mean it's good instruction. Sure there are taiko masters in Japan, but will you be able to learn from them? Also, what about the language barrier? If you don't speak Japanese fluently, how much are you really going to get out of intense instruction with a Japanese instructor unless they speak your native tongue or have an interpreter?

- Learning taiko in Japan will help you understand/find/play that perfect/right/special sound/tone/quality.

Hmm, maybe. But does that mean that you can't find that/those things without going to Japan? Or that some of those who have been playing taiko in North America for over 30 years, who never trained in Japan, don't have a good quality of sound? Think about all the taiko players around the world that have never studied in Japan. Do none of them have an ability to find a "good sound"? Will it really take them longer to find it unless they go to Japan?

Also, and I touch on this later, but what is that "sound"? Is it Japanese? If so, ask yourself why that would be important to you as a NA (or non Japanese-taiko player). Is it universal? If so, then do we not have the ability or the instructors here to find it ourselves?

- Learning taiko in Japan will help you understand where the true roots of taiko come from, and you can't truly experience that unless you go there.

I can buy a little bit of that, but where would I go to train? Which style will give me the best understanding? For how long do I need to be there for? Do I need to go to multiple people? If you seek out a particular style, this is a much easier point, but to generalize it is another weak argument.

- Look at (insert taiko player here), they went to Japan and they're an awesome taiko player now!

What we'll never know is if they would have been as awesome had they continued training here/not gone to Japan. Were they "awesome" before they left but got better, or were they only "awesome" after they came back? Those awesome taiko players are really small handful of the taiko population, and like my first point above, just going to Japan doesn't make anything happen. There needs to be skills learned, the ability to ingrain them, and the right teacher to instill them.

Those are the main reasons I hear to go travel to Japan to learn taiko, but there are a bunch of other issues:

- About 99% of North American taiko players will never go to Japan to train not because of lack of interest, but how many people can afford to travel to and live in Japan for the time it takes to truly learn something? What about family, school, jobs, bills, etc.? How do I know it's 99%? It's an educated guess. How many taiko players from your group are spending months in Japan learning taiko?

- What if 99% of NA taiko players did go to Japan and spent years learning how to play Japanese-style taiko? What then happens to the sound and style of NA taiko? Would there be a risk of everyone sounding the same? What are the qualities of NA taiko that could be lost?

- What about what's available HERE? We have grandmasters and luminaries in taiko right HERE, available to most all of us. It might take a little bit of money and some planning, but you can fly out nearly any taiko player to teach you or go to them. It's much cheaper and way more feasible than going to Japan.

- Why just study taiko? Why not dance or martial arts or western drumming or a dozen other things that can add to your skill set? Cross-training is extremely valuable in sports, and in martial arts it's very common to find really high-ranking practitioners who know multiple styles. Why limit it to *just* taiko in *just* Japan?

I really wish I had thought of half of this stuff during the discussion session, but hey, that's what the blog is for!

Please don't get me wrong; I'm not upset at those who want to go to Japan to study. I'm also not upset when people say "go study in Japan," if they mean it as encouragement and not as a platitude. If you can do it, go for it! I just want us to think about what it really means to tell someone to go do it, as well as what else we can do if we don't get that opportunity.

Monday, August 22, 2011

North American Taiko Conference 2011 aftermath!

Another NATC behind us! Welcome to all of you who are new to the site (both of you, ha!)

And now, time to reflect. I'll just throw out some of my observations and highlights from the past four days:
  • The newer you are to taiko, the more eager you are to get up (on stage) and play. Nothing bad about that, just an observation. :)
  • For those who were new to conference, getting very little sleep meant you were doing it right!
  • The ones who make the conference run smoothly are the ones you see the least.
  • You can never really thank enough the ones who started it all.
  • Everyone who participates say they want more workshops, but by the end of the third one, people are pretty wiped.
  • Discussion sessions need to be tweaked. It should be less about the panelists, and have more interaction with the audience. Maybe fewer panelists per session?
  • I hope something I said in all my babbling on said panels turns out to help someone.
  • Although the lunches were pretty sad, the reception food always rocks!
  • I'm not a "classic" or a "luminary" but I really really value being able to talk with those who are. It means a lot to me to be able to joke around with them and feel like they respect me.
  • I remember 80% of the faces and 20% of the names. That should equal 100% but it never works like that!
  • Have to play with okedo bachi length and have some new chappa technique to work on.
  • New workshop idea: Karate and taiko (body mechanics, presence).
  • Old workshop idea that I really should look into: Teaching a workshop for taller players.
  • I have a big sack of blog post ideas from the last four days.
  • FUN!
I'm sure there's a few more things that might come up; this list is not comprehensive and I might add to it in the next couple of days.

Thanks to all of you who came out! See you in...72o-ish days! :)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

North American Taiko Conference 2011!

It's on!

This conference is the first in many that I'm not leading a workshop, but I am assisting one and I'm also...well, let's just say you'll all see me before I see most of you. :)

If you're at the conference and you like my blog, please come let me know! If you don't like my blog, no need to come tell me. Heh.

Let the fun begin!

Monday, August 15, 2011


Imagine watching a taiko player who is covered from head to toe in a unisex outfit and wearing a mask. You have no idea what gender, race, or age they are. You're impressed by how good they are. At the end of the performance, they take off the mask and you're surprised to see that they're really...

You fill in the blank. Why are you surprised? ;)

(I stole this from a recent Facebook thread in the North American Taiko Community. It was a reply I made so I stole it from myself!)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Question Everything: Kiai, part 2

Why do you kiai while playing taiko?

Certain songs will "invite" kiai, almost organically. They may not be prescribed by the composer, but a shared feeling of want to put a kiai in a spot will organically occur. Often it feels so "right" that in time it officially becomes part of the song. Also, some songs will have kiai prescribed in them. Simple enough.

What's left are the kiai you choose to make yourself, at will. So have you ever thought about when you're kiai-ing?

In almost all taiko performances I've seen, when the music reaches a high point (last solo, big build-up, etc.), there are increased kiai. It's still "at will" but it's more like the organic gestalt kind of kiai I described above. I'm really trying to get at what makes you kiai in spot A versus spot B?

Personally, I try to make my kiai purposeful and either add to the space of a motion or accentuate a rhythmic pattern. Someone moving to the other side of the drum is a great time to give an encouraging kiai, filling in that empty space. If someone is playing repetitive syncopation, it can really highlight their rhythm by kiai-ing on the downbeat (even if the ji is already on the downbeat).

It's a bit of a skill to place a kiai in those spots, and it may not come naturally. It also helps to know the style of the people you're kiai-ing for (if they're improvising). Reaction time and confidence are all part of putting those kiai where you want, when you want them, and to make them varied all at the same time. Worth the practice? Hell yes.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with kiai-ing if you feel you want to. It's a measure of personal expression, after all. But like everything else, thinking about why and when you're doing it may give a little bit of enlightenment to your performance and make you a better artist.

Monday, August 8, 2011

My sponge is wet.

The other night, Yurika asked me what my most memorable workshop was. Whether it was the most enjoyable or where I learned the most, what was at the top of my list?

You know, I'm still trying to think of the answer. I've had so many workshops over the years that I can't even begin to count. Odaiko, katsugi okedo, voice, classical dance, movement, percussion, basics, rhythms, body percussion, striking, Indian dance, Korean drumming, polyrhythms, and probably 15 more I'll think of when I finish typing this.

When I was new to taiko, when I realized how much there was to learn, I was so...absorbent. I was a dry sponge trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible.

After 18 years, I realize that I'm saturated with knowledge. It's not that I know all there is to know by any means, but I don't have that same visceral reaction to taking workshops and learning new things. It's still fun, but my brain tends to be a lot more picky about what sticks with me.

Bruce Lee is quoted for the famous quote about "emptying your cup" when it gets full so that you may make room for more knowledge. I find the sponge analogy more fitting, because I'm constantly keeping the sponge wet via practicing but there's only so much water it can hold before it's leaking onto the floor. Do I need a bigger sponge? Should I ring it out? What would those metaphors even mean?

How's your sponge?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Parameter drills

I find that the more a person solos in a given song, the more likely they are to play the same kind of solos. It can be useful to "set" a solo, where you play the same solo every time you play that song, but it can also be self-limiting because it's often hard to play something different once it becomes set.

We're all used to playing patterns and doing movements that are comfortable for us (obviously, right?) So how do you break out of what you're used to? It's not just as easy as "making it happen", because we tend to revert to form before we realize it.

A couple of years ago I came up with Parameter Drills to combat that sort of problem. If I place limitations (parameters) to what you can do, they effectively force you to play in a matter you aren't used to. And from that un-comfort can come brilliance. Well at the very least, it's a hell of a lot of fun. :)

For rhythm-oriented solos, I might have people play with only their non-dominant hand, or have them crescendo gradually throughout. For solos utilizing multiple drums, I may have people strike with both hands for each note, or only play one drum at a time. For movement-based solos, I have a bag full of themes like "slow motion" or "down" which flavor how you'll move.

It's not all that hard to come up with your own parameters that are tailored to whatever solo you're trying to do more with. Odaiko, okedo, percussion, even vocal solos can have creative parameters applied to them as well. Sometimes it's fun to have other people create and/or choose what parameters you should try, and when several people try the same parameter it's really cool to see how people interpret the possibilities.

So there you have it, get parametering!