Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fix it before you break it.

I'm good at seeing problems. Well hooray for me! I want to make things better, and to do that I first have to identify what needs work.

PJ once gave me the comment that while it was great that I was able to bring up issues that needed attention, I wasn't offering any solutions. And she was right. It really changed my perspective on how I thought of "problems."

A "problem" in your group isn't just your group's problem, it's also your problem. If you complain about something, you should also be obligated to come up with a reasonable solution to it. How come? Because otherwise you're just the annoying person that complains all the time. People will quickly stop listening to your issues, no matter how valid they may be once you become that person.

Mind you, just having a solution doesn't mean it's going to be received well. That's up to a lot of variables like group dynamics, your presentation of the idea, etc. Not making the extra step to come up with a possible solution, however, is just being lazy. Having said that, sure there are times when you just don't have a solution, because you're in a lose-lose situation or don't have enough information to make a choice - but I bet for the majority of the time, you can come up with something.

Put more thought into how to fix something than into how much you have an issue with it, and you've essentially changed your frame of mind. Is it easy to do that? No. The path to bettering yourself rarely is.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mouthful of sprinkles

Basics are boring. No one goes to see you perform and gets dazzled by your basics. What impresses the audience is when you flip your bachi, or when you show off a fancy new trick.

Right? Totally wrong.

While it's true that people don't go to see you play to watch how even your beats are, people will enjoy what you play a LOT more if you have a solid foundation first.

Filling a solo with tricks does entertain the audience to a degree, sure. It also takes some skill to pull them off well. But when they're there as a substitute for solid playing, that's when I have issues.

If you want to throw your bachi in the air for the wow factor, great! But if you can't stay on tempo during the rest of your solo, then all you've done is shown me that your priorities are askew. It's like giving me a poorly-baked cupcake with some awesome-tasting sprinkles on it!

If you really want to "wow" an audience, be a solid player who can show a wide range of skills. Strike cleanly, place notes with purpose, shine your ki outwards, and play from a genuine place.

Also in this realm are songs written with a similar intent behind them, to impress through tricks. After a few rounds, those tricks get old fast. And if the song is just a vehicle to deliver sprinkles, why not just give me a mouthful of sprinkles? Saves us both time. :)

It's fun to show off or throw a party trick in there every now and then, but are you doing it because it's a highlight of your solo or because it's really all you have to offer?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Drill: Beyond tired

You can stretch and warm up before practicing, but to truly know your body, you have to know it when it's tired.

Past your perfect kata, past your piercing ki, past your second wind...that's where you find out what lessons you've really absorbed. That's when you start having to use your body - especially your hara - if you want to keep playing.

It's somewhat of a two-part experience. First you have to get to that point and then you'll find out how long you can last. I suggest getting there gradually, not within two minutes of playing but by however long it takes. Once you feel the urge to back off because it's getting "hard", that's when you want to keep pushing.

On occasion I'll go into the studio and spend an hour just to push my limits. 15 minutes on katsugi okedo, 15 minutes on assorted drums (trap-set style), 15 minutes on a Yodan Uchi-style set up, and 15 minutes on odaiko. Every time I'm finished, I'm beat. Really truly beat. But there's a satisfaction in that exhaustion, knowing I pushed harder than I did the last time and knowing that if I have to push that hard in a performance, I can still go strong.

Sometimes it's really best to do this alone, simply because it's going to reveal a very personal side of yourself. It's humbling and it can make you feel vulnerable, but it's also a chance to feel growth through physical exertion. Some people do this through running, but if you can do it through what you're already trying to get better at, why not go that route?

I realize not everyone has the chance to go into their studio by themselves, or even have a studio to go to. The alternative then is during practice, to not hold back, to not take it as a "practice" but to treat it like the last performance you'll ever have. You want to go out with a bang, right? You just might have a lot of bang down the line...

Pacing ourselves helps keep us playing for the long term. However, to know what you're truly capable of and to reveal the true performer underneath the surface, push yourself!

Monday, September 19, 2011

That damned loop of progression...

The better I get as a player, the more I notice how bad I am.

It may sound like a non sequitur, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

As my critical eye (and ear) get more honed, I find I become more aware of just what I need to work on. Where I used to hear a solid straight beat, I now hear tiny imperfections between hits or minute straying from the tempo. Where I used to myself playing complex syncopation in the pocket, I now hear when it dances *just* outside the beat it should have been on. It's frustrating!

But I know progress follows that "loop of progression" - like I posted about here. It's just easier to talk about than to actually be experiencing! The only thing to do is acknowledge what I'm hearing and make it better so that what I'm playing feels right again.

I often write about my theories and perspectives, but I think it's good to let people know that it's usually all from what I personally experience, struggle, and work through. Persevere!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

History and "truth"

There's a lot of talk about the history of taiko and taiko songs bubbling amongst the online taiko community right now. Who has permission to play song X? Where did song Y come from? Who represents group Z?

It got me thinking about how the history of karate and certain kata (forms) and how the two arts of taiko and karate share similar...issues, if you will.

In karate's past, there have been people who have claimed they were taught by a famous teacher, who know special techniques, or make themselves of a higher rank out of the blue. Taiko has the whole "what is traditional?" hoo-ha and karate has "what is practical?".

For Shotokan karate in particular, we have about 25 different kata created by 6-7 different people. Kata 10 can look and feel nothing like kata 11-14, which in turn look and feel nothing like kata 15, and so on. Each "composer" made kata with their own sensibilities in mind and then all of them were put under the Shotokan umbrella. Add to this that each style of karate (of which I'd guess there are about 12 "main" styles) can easily have their own version of half (or more) of those kata, modified by their founder and/or influential teachers...

For my dojo, we're required to interpret the moves contained in each kata at the higher levels. What does this stance teach? Where would you use this move or this sequence? What was the creator of this kata trying to teach us? These questions wouldn't be such a big deal except for a confession by a highly-respected master that came to teach a seminar.

He basically confessed that some of the kata moves were made "because they looked good." What?!?! So we're trying to interpret the "hidden meaning" behind moves that never had them to begin with? What a twisted joke...

So how do I parallel this with taiko? Simply that there are a lot of misconceptions and people choosing to believe what's convenient, rather than seeking the truth for themselves. Mind you, I'm not saying all of you don't know the truth, or saying I know more than the next person. What I want people to come away with here is that we can't ever just assume that what our group tells us is "the truth". Your group might think it's the truth, but you can't assume it. Where did that song you play come from? Who gave you and your group permission to play it? What context is appropriate for that song?

It may sound like weird advice, but next time someone tells you any sort of taiko history, do some homework and figure out whether or not it's true or not. Find out who's got the real information and who can deliver it without bias. Those are the people you want to listen to. But even then - don't get lazy!

Seek out the truth!

Monday, September 12, 2011

What do audiences want?

Some of you will probably know of the group Kodo. For those that don't, they're my favorite taiko group that I'm not in and I've been a HUGE fan since...ever. Yeah. :)

Recently, Kodo just took on a new Artistic Director, Tamasaburo Bando. Who he is isn't important for purposes of this post, but he's the first Artistic Director Kodo's had that came from outside the performing group. In his welcoming message, he says this:

"It is needless to say how difficult it is to create productions that not only satisfy audiences, but also challenge them. Therein lies the crux of my responsibilities as artistic director."

So that's the question for this post. What would you rather do as a performer, satisfy or challenge your audience? What would you want as an audience member? Are they different?

I've seen pieces where the players are being too clever, and the audience doesn't get to enjoy the performance - or worse, they can lose interest, feel cheated, etc. However, to satisfy an audience by only giving them the same things over and over guarantees your group can never truly grow and your audience can only respect you so much.

So yes, the easy answer to the question lies somewhere in the middle. But since the perfect middle is impossible to achieve, which side do you lean towards and why?

Thursday, September 8, 2011


North American Taiko Conference. I know it well!

Today I want to talk about the first half of NATC. No, not Thursday and Friday, but literally the first half of NATC, "North American".

I've heard people say they want more instructors from Japan to come out and teach workshops at NATC. It's also hard to get new groups to play at Taiko Jam from North America; we're re-cycling groups that have played once or twice before. Also, there is both more access to and more awareness of taiko outside of North America that isn't from Japan.

So how important is the NA to NATC?

First, looking at data from previous conferences, Japanese workshop leaders don't get any higher scores than anyone else. So would having more be a better thing? The data doesn't support it. Second, at previous Taiko Jams, when we invited Japanese artists, I overheard comments from people who really wished we would showcase North American groups since that was the purpose of NATC (hence the name?)

Now, even though I bring up those examples, I'm not quite decided where I stand. On one hand, if we drop the NA, we can have groups from all over the world play at Taiko Jam. It would be nice to keep NA-focused, but a little bit of "other" exposure is quite welcome! (I'm looking at you, Kagemusha Taiko!) Inviting more instructors from Japan is fine by me as long as it's worth the money to have them here and they provide quality instruction to those attending their workshops.

Maybe we just need to pick the right name. How about NATC+ or "North American Taiko Conference and then some"? It's more about finding the purpose of the conference and making sure it's serving the needs of the NA taiko community. It can't be all things to all people, but if we're all on the same page, it can only get better!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Soloing, part 4: Movement

Movement is scary. Let me qualify that. Improvised movement is scary. Right?

It's one thing to keep your hands near the drum and play whatever rhythms you want, that's "safe". Why is it safe? Beats me, but a see a lot of newer players doing it. If I had to guess, I would say that there's a vulnerability in moving away from the drum, in creating ma, or space/distance. I mean this is drumming, right? If you're not hitting the drum, then what are you doing?

Well first off, moving away from the drum opens up a world of possibilities. You can make shapes with your body, trace patterns, and create new angles simply by moving one foot. You can tell a story or create a character with movement, and make your solo distinct without need for complexity. Simply put, adding movement to your solos makes you a better soloist.

Now when I'm talking about movement, I'm not talking about raising your arm to strike the next note. That's more of a necessity. At the very least, I mean moving your arm off that striking path. Imagine watching 10 taiko solos in a row that didn't have some sort of distinct movement per person, all of them doing nothing more than striking the taiko with cool rhythms. Who's going to stick out? How many will you remember five minutes later?

So let's say I've convinced you to add more movement. Now what? Well...move! The hardest thing about moving in solos is making it part of the story you're trying to tell. It's fine when you're new to taiko to just stick your arms where you're told, but that's not your story. Most of you that solo probably already have some movement, but maybe it's hard to break out of what you're used to.

If you're looking for more abstract ideas about movement, think of angles, curves, planes, sharpness, softness, slow, fast, short, long. If you had to do movements based off any one of those words, what would they look like?

If you're looking for more concrete ideas about movement, think about the "dome" of space over your head. Are you using it much? What about the space directly behind you, have you stepped backwards lately? How about holding a pose for a second or three? Think about your arms, your posture, where your feet are.

One thing that's both fun and freeing is to solo like someone else. If you get enough people to do this as a drill, you can "steal" distinct moves from the soloist before you, and the next soloist will do the same to you. It forces you to move unlike how you normally would. Another thing to try is watch different styles of dance - does a certain kind of dance inspire anything? Spark any ideas?

Explore space. Explore distance. It's not scary at all once you get to know it. You might even like it there!

Thursday, September 1, 2011


You can't deny it, we have superstars in taiko!

Who doesn't get a little starstruck wandering around NATC, where you can (literally) bump into people who have founded groups that started it all, created styles of playing that people are still trying to emulate, and/or pioneers of taiko that inspire new generations?

If you play piano and you're really really good at it, you'll be joining a crowd of thousands - probably tens of thousands - of other piano players out there who are also really really good that are trying to get noticed. This is also the case with hip hop, karate, any sort of art form. However, if you're a really really good NA taiko player right now, you're going to get known pretty fast in the community. In itself, there's nothing wrong with that. Where things get tricky is the effect a superstar can have on the taiko community.

A taiko superstar may have more technical expertise than most of us, but opinions are still opinions. If you find yourself agreeing with someone's point of view, you should ask yourself what you're listening to: the opinion or the personality? Does your opinion change when theirs does? Would you agree with someone less "qualified" who had the same opinion? Charisma is a pretty powerful thing, and a superstar may not think of themselves in that way or realize they're putting that charisma out there, but when it's on, it's on.

I try to separate a person's artistic ability from their personality. Someone can have better hands, musical sense, fluidity, presence, et al, and I'll give them credit for that - but that doesn't make their viewpoints better than mine. My viewpoints aren't better than anyone else who may not have the skills I do, right? Works both ways.

As for the superstars themselves, they may not necessarily even want that title! A superstar can be any gender, new to taiko or seasoned, young in age or wise in years. They may be a pretty unassuming sort and still have quite the following. Some may seek it out; others wind up there. Still, there's just no denying the influence that they can have!

I think they have a responsibility to the taiko community to be aware of that sort of power. You can look at studies of the psychology of stardom or celebrity culture and see countless examples of influence on the fans of a superstar. When a superstar voices a strong opinion, they should be aware that they will sway more people to that opinion than if it were the average taiko player saying the same thing. They can use that "power" for good, or it can lead to some ugliness if not handled well. It's a responsibility that they now have, like it or not.

When it comes down to it, no one has all the right answers and everyone needs to find their own truth. It's important to listen to those who have done much and get their perspective on things, but at the end of the day you are responsible for your own words and actions.

Letting someone speak for you is one thing; letting someone THINK for you is inexcusable.