Monday, October 31, 2011

Soloing, part 5-2: Rhythms on multiple drums

xWith this post I want to continue the idea I started in my last thread: focusing on the rhythms we make when we solo. It's easy enough to break things down when there's just one drum, but what about when there's two or more?

Maybe you'll get to play a chudaiko next to a couple of shimedaiko, or have a Sukeroku-style setup. Playing more than one drum brings with it a lot more to deal with, and forgetting ki or kata for the moment, I want to talk about the three biggest hurdles that come up with this way of playing.
  • A weak rhythm on one is even weaker on two.
This is where I was leading into with the last post. A rhythm that's hard for a listener to follow on one drum is going to be even more difficult when it's spread out over multiple tones. Again, look at your solo as if it was being notated. Is it well-rounded? Well-constructed? That's the kind of rhythm you can spread out over different tones.
  • Don't freak out!
Especially when multiple drums are new, a really common thing to do is to play in a sort of "panic" mode, where you're hitting as many surfaces as you can as often as you can. Unless someone has told you to play that way, it's better to calm down and realize you just have more options, not more requirements. Play the other drums when you want to!
  • More tones ≠ more skill.
Riding shotgun with the comment above, just because you *can* play a lot of surfaces at once doesn't always mean you should. It may seem like you're adding a level of complexity to your solo, but it often just results in chaos.

Think about what tones you're facing. Is one of them significantly lower? Maybe less notes on that to make more of an impact. Something higher pitched? That's probably going to cut through, so you can maybe use it to play denser patterns or sparse notes for emphasis. Find a purpose for the tones you're presented with so that your solo is not only entertaining, but intelligent.


If you really think about it, one drum can present you with a lot of opportunities for different tones. The center of the drum head, the outer part of the drum head, the rim, the tacks, the body, pressing down on the head while playing, etc.

How you think about rhythm will determine the quality of what your solos sound like. Just ask yourself, are you playing the drums? Or are you playing rhythms on the drums?

picture via

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Soloing, part 5-1: Rhythms

You think about your solos, right? Do you think about how they sound as a rhythm?

I realize most taiko players don't read Western notation, but you can still think of your solos as patterns that you could graph out with simple marking. The important thing here is to be able to visualize your solo in terms of the musical notes, as if someone were closing their eyes and just listening.

Take a song that you solo in. What does your solo look like - musically - if someone were to notate it on paper somehow? Does it look like it's aware of the downbeat or does it sound "lost"? Is it repetitive? Are there a lot of the same patterns? Is it chaotic? Are there mostly new things one after the other? Is it clever? Is it too clever? Is is simple? Is it too simple? Are the patterns dense? When they are, is it the same kind of pattern making that density or is there variety?

I'll stop there, but those are the types of things you should notice in your own mental "notation". To me, rhythm becomes "noise" when there's no sense of repetition or recognizable patterns. There's a difference in someone attempting to play something identifiable as a rhythm but failing, and someone who's on beat but so all over the place that it's a mental chore to follow along. The former is like driving with someone who speeds up here, slows down there, and doesn't always use their signal, but you know they know where they're going. The latter is someone who obeys all the rules of the road, but it seems like they're lost the entire time.

I did write a post here about musicality in soloing, and this is definitely a similar post, but I'm mainly setting up things for the next part come Monday. Still, why not take some time until then and think about it?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Question Everything: The creative process

After our annual concerts, we get together the very next day to watch one of the videos for fun and then we review the process as a group in a discussion format.

The creative process in general was brought up and we spent some time talking about things like deadlines, comfort level and balance.

Before a performance, how much practice does your group need before you feel "comfortable" doing it? And if you're not comfortable, what happens if you still have to do it? Will you freak out or sell it as best you can? Does your group ensure that people are generally comfortable or is that left up to the individual?

Which is worse in your eyes: to be over-prepared to the point where creativity stagnates and safety becomes a crutch, or to be constantly creating and never having a solid performance and causing group anxiety? Extremes perhaps, but do you lean one way or the other?

I've been talking about the creative process on a macro level, a group level, but it can also apply to the individual. Think about a new song that you have to solo in. Will you spend a lot of time choreographing something that you polish over time, or do you practice enough to get a general feel of what the piece "feels" like and let yourself improvise creatively as you play it?

If you're the former, what if you have a lot of new songs and you simply don't have the time to set so many solos? Is the safety net you're used to having now a liability because you can't have it? If you're the latter and have many new solos, can you be solid in every solo with all the different set ups and moods? Will your improvisation just be a lot of the same movements and rhythms adjusted to fit the song in order to not falter?

I'm not giving much in the way of my opinion on this post because I really want people to ask themselves where they stand. There's no right or wrong as much as there should be awareness and understanding. Safety and chaos can be just as useful as they can be crippling!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Yak yak yak

Here's something to ponder. If you took all the time you spent at practice socializing and instead had spent it practicing on something, how much better do you think you'd be by now? How many hours would that total up to? Days?

I'm not going to say people shouldn't socialize or that it's a waste of time, because I know for some groups that's a BIG part of why people play taiko. What I'm getting at is when people default to doing it because that's what they always do.

Just ask yourself what you would rather do when you get to practice. Practice? Or talk? Which one will make you a better player? No, that's not a trick question, it's a question of priorities. To some people, to some groups, that socialization really makes the group stronger. And I have absolutely no problem with that, I really don't!

It's a shame when people who could (and often should) be practicing choose instead to chat with people that they see all the time. And then during practice. And then after practice. And repeat. Maybe I'm just more anti-social then I think (which is already a decent amount), but I don't get it.

Would I rather talk about sports or make my diddles stronger? Watch YouTube videos or figure out a new solo move? It's not that I'm "better" because I usually choose to practice rather than socialize - it's what I want to do and so I do it. Heck yeah I'm biased. :)

If you feel your taiko experience will be richer for having spent more time chatting, then you should choose that path. As usual, I'm just posing a question and asking people to reconsider what they take for granted. Don't wish you had more time to practice something when you spent it all being social...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wasted motion

When I watch black belts train alongside lower belts, the biggest difference isn't in power or speed or even confidence, although all of those do apply. It's that the black belts tend to be more efficient.

When using the body, a black belt generally knows how to use their body to get from point A to point B with as little superfluous motion as possible. Someone still learning will add all sorts of needless motions, even miniscule ones.

Now, I'm not neglecting that a black belt will also have developed muscle that allows them greater speed, or that repetition of an action helps to do it faster with familiarity. There's just no denying that the more needless motion you whittle off, the faster, the stronger, and the more effective your techniques will be.

For those who have played taiko for at least a year or so, remember when you first played doro tsuku and it was hard to get your arms to be in the right place to ensure proper dynamics? And then in time, you streamlined the movements somewhat? This is exactly what I'm talking about.

So where am I going with this? Two points:

- "Flourish" often just hides bad technique.

I see a lot of players who add body shifts and arm flaps and bachi spins and twirls when they play who have weak striking, a bad sense of body awareness, or both. I want to take those people and make them play "still". No more movement than is necessarily to play the pattern. I want to isolate how much their extra motion hides their weak spots.

Perhaps some people do this on purpose, because they know they don't have the technique they should? It's possible, but still a waste.

- Don't wait for someone to tell you that you're wasting motion.

Look at your own technique. Does your bachi point back towards you on a basic strike? That just means you have to use extra energy to throw it forward. Are you finding your feet leave the ground when you push off? Whenever you're in the air, you're at the mercy of gravity and momentum. Maybe keeping contact will save you energy and time, and still allow you all the benefits you need.

When you think "I'm pretty efficient when I...", that's when you have to look at whatever it is again. I'm sure the lower belts think they're doing pretty good before they have a black belt point things out to them. And the black belts think THEY'RE doing pretty good before their teachers point things out to them.


I love adding my own flair to my motions, especially during a solo. There's a BIG difference, however, in adding extra flavor to a good dish versus throwing a bunch of extra spices on it because the meat is rancid. Food for thought!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Extracting meaning.

Imagine going to a museum or exhibit and coming across a series of paintings.

Some of them are photo-realistic, looking as if they could have been enlarged photographs. Some of them are harder to get right away, but you recognize what the artist was trying to get at. Some of them you look at but you have no idea what's going on.

Now think of those paintings as taiko pieces. Some of them are easily "understood". A festival piece, or perhaps an odaiko piece. Then you have some that are supposed to invoke imagery, like the ocean or teamwork. Then you have some that are conceptual, that tell a story through positions or emotion.

Some people will prefer the first kind. Just clearly tell them what you want them to get, and they're happy. They may not like the song, but they don't want to spend time figuring it out. Other people appreciate clever ways to interpret things in ways that may surprise them. Then there are some who will enjoy spending energy analyzing what the heck they're watching, even if they don't arrive at an answer.

There's nothing wrong with disliking certain types of songs either, and that's the real point of my post here. Most people like the first two categories of taiko. It's rare that someone doesn't want some songs to be simple in meaning. It's also rare for someone to not enjoy a creative imagining of a theme. But if you find a song that you don't "get", how much time will you spend trying to figure it out?

Aside from a song that's so "out there" that it's almost trying to confuse you, when do you give up on trying to figure things out? How much tolerance do you have when the meaning of a piece isn't handed to you in a convenient package? What does that say about you?

Not every song will be something you appreciate, but what do you have to lose by extracting meaning from it? What was the composer trying to say? Did it work? Did it make you think? Why or why not?

It's one thing not to like something abstract, but going in with a "I don't have the patience for this" or "I don't get it, it's stupid" attitude really reflects more on you. Don't be that kind of person, expand your perspectives!

"Bert Drip Painting" by Tommervik

Monday, October 10, 2011

From the center.

Let's take a look at your hara, shall we?

Moving from your center, or hara, is at the core of nearly every martial art, and once it becomes second nature to tap into it, nearly every technique you execute becomes stronger and easier. It's also something I see a lot of players struggle with, either because their group doesn't talk about it or they haven't had the opportunity to really incorporate it into their playing.

Think about your body as a unit. If you just play with your arms and keep the rest of your body still, you're using a lot of energy to maintain tension when you could be using it to strike. Your legs should be used to keep you grounded but not rooted, so that your center has a base to move from. Every move you make should come from your hara, which should then flow out into your limbs. It's a difficult concept that only gets easier with time.

As we ramp up for our annual concert, I've been thinking about technique, especially odaiko technique. I've gotten a couple of comments about how I strike odaiko, that I use my wrists to do most of the work and how I don't use my hara (my center) enough. They're pretty tied together, actually.

I've gotten my striking technique to the point where I'm able to have my hands play pretty much any pattern I can think of, which is great! What I'm realizing though, is that I'm not utilizing my hara as much as I could because of it. Hmm.

It's interesting, because I've always said don't take things for granted and once something gets comfortable, you need to re-examine it and make it better. I knew I was re-examining my striking technique, but only from one angle. I wonder how many other areas I neglect my hara in while playing, simply because I get most of my technique through my wrists? Wrists make for great snap, but when it counts, it's all about the hara.

How much are you aware of your center? How much do you inhibit it? What happens when you don't?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

That's not nice...

In karate, we have a drill called gohan kumite. This translates to "five-step sparring."

Two rows of people partner up. On each count from sensei, row 1 steps forward attacking the assigned area on their partner with the assigned attack. Row 2 steps back, doing the assigned block. This happens for a total of five times, then the roles switch. The goal here is to understand timing and distancing better.

One of the biggest mistakes the attacker can make is to be "nice" to the defender. This happens a lot with newer students. They may pull their punch or punch just off to the side in order not to hit someone who's a little slow. The attacker that purposefully misses the defender in order to be "nice" is actually doing the defender a BIG disservice.

By backing off or aiming elsewhere, the defender gets a false sense of their skill and learns bad habits. Making the defender really work to not get hit is the whole point of the drill! Really being "nice" means giving them an incentive to move faster, block quicker, and focus on technique.

So how does this apply to taiko, where most of us aren't trying to hit each other? (I said most, I don't want to know what some of you collegiate kids do...)

I want you to think of the critique you give others and what you choose not to say. Are there things that you don't tell someone because you want to be "nice" to them? Does keeping that critique from them make them a better player in the end? Or like the defender above, are you helping to instill a false sense of skill?

In previous posts, I've talked a lot about making comments and giving feedback. It all still applies! Just think about the next time you avoid making a comment in order to be "nice" to someone. Are you really helping them?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Standards and comments

What standards do you set for yourself? Are they reflected in the comments you give to others?
  • If you tell someone not to get off tempo but then you're prone to it yourself, why should they take you seriously?
  • If you bring attention to a small detail of kata or formation when there are bigger issues at hand, don't you think it's fair if people question your judgement?
  • If you don't act on the comments other people give you, why should they listen to yours?
  • Do you listen only to the comments you get that fit nicely into your priorities? Or do you make a note (physical or mental) about all the things you've gotten comments about?
Hell, no one's perfect. We can't all be the best, shining example for everyone every time. But there are some things you can do.

When you give a comment to someone or to the group about an issue, best to ask yourself if you're guilty of it first! If you are, then you might want to admit to it as you give your comment. However, even if you're not guilty of it, don't be smug about it.

When you're watching something to make comments about it, first ask yourself, what details are really important here? If people are having issues with sequence and you're mentioning one person's bachi angle, who does that help? Are you burning to tell your comment because it's really going to help or because you just want to sound knowledgeable?

When you get comments, do you only pick the ones you like? Only the ones that are convenient? Or do you try to also implement the ones that are going to be harder and require work? If people see you trying to implement others' comments, you're showing that you take comments seriously.

It's not just what your comments are, it's also how you present your comments. And to top it off, it's then also about what you do with the comments you get, as well.

The standards that you expect other people to meet you should also impose on yourself.