Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fall Tour 2011: First three days

The story so far...

Boo: A delayed flight in the morning led to a few of us getting to the hotel at 3:00 am the next day (instead of 8:30pm the night before.)

Yay: All the luggage came through just fine!

Boo: Really heavy rain on arrival and through the 3-hour drive to the hotel.

Yay: Awesome soul food with great service at a local restaurant that doubled as breakfast the next day!

And that was on the first day.

The first theater we went to was in Florence, South Carolina, and was barely two months old. It was a beautiful theater and we were honored to be a part of their inaugural season. The crowd was on the smaller side, which was understandable with a new theater, but we definitely left them with a lot of energy.

During the show, in one of the last songs, I noticed a little kid jumping about in the front row. I thought she was trying to play along during one of my solo, with her hands flapping about, but it was hard to see. Apparently the girl was trying to copy whoever was closer to her; it happened in at least one other song. After the show, I saw her clutching our DVD close to her chest and her dad was delighted with the show.

Today was our big driving day; 8 hours of a 10-hour trip after two back-to-back school shows in the morning. We're pretty tired but at least it's a bit of a breather right now.

Everyone's healthy and in good spirits; 14 days to go!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Fall Tour 2011: Prologue

It's been a while, but I'll be going out on tour for 18 days, starting Monday the 21st. Whereas I used to try and post every single day of a tour, I'm not going to do that anymore. I'll be updating when I can, which may be every other day, or even longer in between. You'll just have to check back often. :)

We're going to South Carolina and Tennessee (mostly the latter), which is great because I love BBQ everything and I have family in TN! I'll get to see them on the very last night of the tour, so I have that to look forward to.

The first five days of tour will be incredibly busy, the middle of tour has four 1-hour shows in four days, and like the beginning of tour, the last several days are crazy-busy. Still, I'm looking forward to it. It's been a long time since our last tour, and I'm playing a LOT of taiko in these 18 days. Since I had a smaller role in our home concert, this will be a good way to end the year.

So stay tuned for pictures, stories, anecdotes, and other frivolities!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Expectation vs. Inspiration

I'm doing a lot of "this vs. that" posts lately, it seems. Well why stop now?

When you perform, especially when you're doing something by yourself (improv or not, taiko or martial arts), are you doing it from a genuine place? Or are you doing it because you want to impress other people watching you?

Are you more likely to think, "this move is going to be awesome, people are going to love it!" or "I'm having so much fun, I hope people like it!" With the former, there's a sense of expectation, a feeling of you knowing what the audience will like. With the latter, there's a possibility to inspire by playing from the heart.

Mind you, simply playing from the heart doesn't magically inspire a viewer. You have to let it show on your body, your face, your presence. That in itself is a skill! Being a skill, you can get better at it. However, playing with expectations of affecting an audience will only set you up for a false sense of achievement at best, and disappointment at worst.

Showmanship is often a part of the performance, but there's forced humor/theatrics and there's playfulness/style. Knowing which sine of the line you're on isn't always easy, but knowing there's a line to begin with is a start!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Start vs. finish

What are you more focused on when you do a technique, the initiation or the destination?

My assumption lately is that most people are thinking about the end of a technique. For taiko players, this could be the actual strike on the head, or the end position of a movement. For martial artists, this could be where the punch or kick stops. This isn't necessarily an inherently bad thing, but as I've come to realize in teaching, people are much more aware of what they can see than what they can't.

In karate especially, I constantly tell people to remember what their feet and hips are doing, because it's the first thing to go. They can see their arms and hands all the time so it's easier to focus there, but below their field of vision, yikes! It does happen in taiko as well when people start with the lower body to provide a base, and that base goes away quickly once the drumming begins.

Lately in karate, I've been thinking less about the end of the technique or the execution, and more about the initiation of things. I know how where point B is, I even know how to get from point A to point B. So now I'm exploring that initial motion from point A, where everything begins.

It's led to a very different perspective, one I'm still digesting.

When I used to step through with a punch, I was more thinking of throwing my hips into the attack, lining up the body correctly for support upon impact, and maximizing power through speed. However, when I started thinking of the punch as something that might need to hit someone hard inches after starting it, I found that I threw the technique much faster, much harder. From there, it was simply a matter of continuing the momentum through the step and to the destination. It wasn't easier or harder, but a shifting of effort.

Turning that perspective to taiko, I'm just now starting to experiment with how that concept translates. Instead of thinking about the strike or the motion of the strike, how does the initiation of the motion affect everything else? Do I get more power with it? Is that power what I want?

On top of all that, there's the whole realm of moving I haven't thought about as much either. If I focus on the initiation of a movement, how does it affect pivoting, turning, shifting my weight, etc.? I've got a lot of homework to do...

It's good to analyze and experiment with your technique, but it doesn't always mean you'll find something that you can use. Even finding what doesn't work brings you one step closer to knowing what does!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Who plays better taiko?

The argument has been made that Japanese play taiko better than non-Japanese. I've heard it from people I like, I've heard it said in different ways, and I've heard it said by both Japanese and non-Japanese alike.

Allow me to completely destroy this argument.

Premise: Japanese play taiko better than non-Japanese.

Problem #1: The overarching problem here is the question of the word "Japanese". Who is Japanese? A person born in Japan? A person who is a citizen of Japan? A person born to Japanese parents? Since this argument in itself could derail the premise, I will say that for this post, a "Japanese" person is one born to Japanese parents who was raised in and lives in Japan.

Problem #2: Let's pick out one of the ~1.25 billion people in Japan and one of the ~7 trillion people from the rest of the world. Oh, looks like you grabbed a 19-year-old athlete from the Netherlands and a 85-year-old Japanese coma patient. Not a good comparison, right? Looks like we'll have to modify our premise.

Premise 2.0: Given generally good health and within a reasonable age range, Japanese play taiko better than non-Japanese.

Problem #3: Digging into the pool again, let's say you come up with a percussionist or dancer from one, and a couch potato from the other. Well that's not fair either, no matter which way you look at it, right? Not a fair comparison if one side has a great advantage before they even get to a taiko.

Premise 3.0: Given generally good health and within a reasonable age range, a Japanese taiko player plays taiko better than a non-Japanese taiko player.

Problem #4: You would never compare a beginning student to a master, would you? There might be a few exceptions, but most people doing taiko for a few months aren't going to have the abilities of someone who's been doing it for over ten years.

Problem #5: Let's say you play in a community taiko group that meets a couple of times a month. Would you compare yourself to someone in Kodo? Why the hell would you do that? You silly. Groups with radically different expectations and standards gives us the apples-to-oranges situation.

Premise 4.0: Given generally good health and within a reasonable age range, a Japanese taiko player plays taiko better than a non-Japanese taiko player of the same relative time playing, and group focus.

Problem #6: What about types of taiko? Would someone who has mastered naname-style playing but isn't all that good on other types be easily measured against someone who is equally moderate on everything from Odaiko to katsugi okedo?

Premise 5.0: Given generally good health and within a reasonable age range, a Japanese taiko player plays taiko better than a non-Japanese taiko player of the same relative time playing, group focus, and experience on instruments.

Problem #7: What exactly are you judging? A single strike on the taiko? Endurance? Ki? How they play an entire section of a song? How they solo? Are you going to take all of those into account?

Problem #8: Who said you're the judge? The premise indicates a "truth" that one is better than the other, but it's obviously a subjective statement. You may rate highly on ki and ease of striking, but the person next to you might value fluidity and fast chops more.

Problem #9: Intangibles about a "better" or "higher quality" sound by an ethnicity are so subjective and smack of elitism or even racism. I've yet to see a spectrogram or waveform of one taiko player shown to be "better" than another due to mathematical qualities. You can show me who's a technically better throat singer through a spectrograph because it's based on harmonics, but I may still like the person who's less technical because of their style. See #8, above.

Problem #10: Who said you can't enjoy both players? Think of a music genre you like. Are there more than one artist or group in that genre that you like? Even if you find one is "better" than the other in your eyes, you're still enjoying both, right? So then does it really matter who's "better"?

So here's what we're at:

Premise 6.0: Given generally good health and within a reasonable age range, a Japanese taiko player plays taiko better than a non-Japanese taiko player of the same relative time playing, group focus, and experience on instruments, assuming the people who are judging said players have the same sensibilities and preferences.

Wow. What a crappy premise. I suggest these instead:

Premise: Qualifying who plays better taiko than whom is about as productive as eating soup with a toothpick.

Premise: Taiko is fun. Yay!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review: 4th Annual International Body Music Festival

Last weekend, I attended my first International Body Music Festival in SF. It's a almost a week full of workshops and performances from artists around the world, and run by Keith Terry, musician and body percussionist extraordinaire.

Last year they held it in Brazil, but the year before it was during our annual retreat. I had to miss SFTD's International Taiko Festival to go this time, but it wasn't much of a contest for me. I see taiko all the time but body percussion is something I'm really curious to learn more about.

It was sort of like the NATC, but not as intense or compact. Although there were workshops and performances throughout the week, I only experienced one day - Saturday - from morning until late night. What follows is an accounting of my experiences, which might be boring to some of my readers, but this blog is also for me! :)

There were eight possible workshops: four time slots of 75 minutes each, and two possible worshops per slot. The first session had the workshop I was really jazzed about. The Stepping group Molodi started off getting us in a big circle for some call-and-repeat off of one of the members, then moved into learning some interlocking patterns. I found the material easy enough for me to get quickly and it was the most fun I had across all the workshops. The energy and personality of the group was infectious, keeping the workshop abuzz and a lot of fun.

Second workshop was from Korpu Kantu, a Greek group with an Italian leader. (Not sure if he was the leader, but he led the workshop.) For me, the learning curve for this workshop was like a 45-degree line that sometimes pointed straight up! We focused on an 11/8 rhythm, which is so not intuitive to my brain. The first pattern we did used clapping and stepping, which I was able to get ok, but the second pattern was all hands (clapping, snapping, chest hitting) and without my body to connect the movements, I kept losing the sequence. I would get it at times, but then they had us walk around and interact and I had to stop moving just to have a chance at the sequence. After that we took the first pattern and turned it from 11/8 to 12/8, which went ok...until they sped it up to a high speed where I lost it again. Although I found parts of the workshop frustrating, it was more because of the pacing than the instruction. I know if I work on the patterns, I'll understand them better. But still...11? 11 sucks. Heh.

Third workshop was by KeKeÇa, a Turkish group. The difficulty here was extremely low and the pace really slow, but their style and personalities made everything a lot of fun. Their style tends towards the slower side of rhythm which at first seems too simple but allows for a lot of character to emerge and a layers of complexity. We spent time on simple patterns in three, four, and five. We split into groups and were asked to pick a 3-syllable word/phrase to use in our pattern, and the KeKeÇa member in my group liked my "Got Taiko?" shirt and used that as our phrase. Ha! This was an interesting workshop that challenged my perception of rhythm - by taking things much slower - but also kept me highly entertained through the members themselves and the humor throughout.

The last workshop was run by Sandy Silva, who reminded me a lot of PJ in her style of teaching. She had us all sit down and tell our names, backgrounds, and what we wanted to get out of the workshop. I must have missed out on where the workshop descriptions were posted; I picked workshops based on the bios/videos of the teachers and the title of the workshop. This workshop was directed at educators and teachers, so I think I might have learned more in the other workshop, but I appreciated how Sandy taught her workshop. Although the patterns themselves were pretty simple (three patterns with singing on top), since I'm still really new to the world of body percussion, it was good to get a sense of different styles and options.

A long dinner break later, the concert was held. I got a seat center row 4, two leaps away from the stage. I'll summarize the acts as best as I can remember (not quite in order):

- Danny "Slapjazz" Barber did hambone as the opening act, and made me wish I could have taken his workshop as well! He showed some real mastery of the art and had such a great style that even just sitting in a chair, his presence filled the stage.
- Keith Terry did a solo performance as he usually does, and is always such an entertainer. I've seen him in action maybe a dozen times and although I recognize stylistic things he likes to do, I really like how he does them! To me he embodies what I really love about body percussion.
- There was a beatbox solo, which was the first time I've ever seen beatboxing live. It seems like something I could enjoy doing, but he was clearly damned good at it!
- Slamdance, Keith's current group, did a long multi-part performance full of shapes, rhythms, and a cappella vocals. Although interlocking polyrhythms were featured, I really appreciated the group movements and how they used the space of the stage while doing all the other stuff.
- Cambuyón is a group from the Canary Islands and had three of their members in this show, each member specializing in drumming, dancing, or singing. The vocal component was interesting, simulating musical instruments amongst the rest of the body percussion.
- There was a commission for this show, performed by three artists (and at times an accompanying musician/percussionist). It was to feature three different foot percussion/dance styles through several pieces, and did a good job but my critical eye (and ear) did catch a few mistakes! I found myself really liking the addition of the Québécois singer/percussionist, probably because it was completely new to me.
KeKeÇa performed a few pieces but I found myself wanting something faster at times. It was interesting, however, to recognize that feeling in myself and tell myself to take in the experience. In the end I found that I really did enjoy their performance and am glad they were able to get me to appreciate a very different style!
- The final group was Çudamani, doing Indonesian Kecak and quite a bit more. I expected it to be "just" Kecak and variations, but since I don't know much about it to begin with, I had no idea what they would do. They combined Kecak, body percussion, and choreography with a very genuine, playful energy that lit up the stage and the audience.

So what do I take away from all this? I want to explore what sorts of body percussion can be incorporated into taiko, even if it turns out not to be something the group can/would do. I also want to look more into Stepping for my own purposes. The festival goes to Istanbul next year so I'll have to wait until 2013, but I really want to go again!

If you can check out any of these artists or the festival sometime, I have nothing but the highest recommendations for them all. A taiko player could learn a lot from just watching this stuff, let alone taking workshops: how to feel rhythms, how to move your body, interlocking patterns, odd time signatures, interpreting rhythm through movement, etc.

So yeah, I liked it. :)

Monday, November 7, 2011


Lately I've been thinking about teachers and teaching.

In karate, I have a sensei and usually one or two senior students (sempai) that can tell me what I'm doing wrong when they watch my technique during class. Instant feedback. I can also go to either one of them and ask, "what should I be doing when I do this?" They'll give me the "correct" answer, but also their take on why it's that way plus any nuances they've discovered. I feel like even though I put a lot of thought into my karate, they can fill in the blanks of the stuff I haven't figured out yet.

Then we come to taiko. I always considered Roy and PJ to be my sensei, although we don't use the term in the group. It's not that sort of vibe. But when I had something lacking in my technique or had a question about the whys and hows, they would be who would give me the "answers" as best they could. Although Roy and PJ are still around, they're not at our practices and it's taken me a while to realize...I don't really have a teacher anymore!

It's a weird feeling. Does it mean I'm the teacher now? Does it mean that I can't learn things from the current people in charge? Would it be different if Roy and PJ were still active in the group? Lots of questions abound in my head.

Of course I listen to the current leaders of the group, but I feel that instead of "instruction" I get "feedback". I think it's in part due to being a senior member that doesn't require a lot of attention, as well as me being in the group longer than they have. It's not bad by any means, but it's definitely a different feel. I've always been a huge proponent of learning on your own, but now I find that it's a necessity for me where it used to be optional or supplementary.

What about you? Who do you rely on currently to make you a better artist? What happens if they're no longer available? Are you developing the ability now to help you grow later on without them? It can be a scary thing to think of yourself teacher-less, but better to plan for it now then to deal with it unprepared...

Thursday, November 3, 2011


This past weekend we had our annual Open Auditions, where we invite those who are interested in joining the company to go through a comprehensive set of exercises. We look for a lot of things, but also we realize that people generally don't come with a lot of prior experience.

For years, I've given some thought about backgrounds and previous experience that people bring into taiko. I've seen dancers, percussionists, martial artists, actors, singers...

- Dancers seem to have an easier time initially, especially in groups that use any sort of body movement or choreography. Knowing how their body moves gives them a big advantage early on, if they're able to understand what's different and what to change. It also seems to me that dancers are already used to expressing themselves through movement, since that's part of most dancing arts. "Dance" is a big category and encompasses everything from ballet to modern to hip-hop, but I can easily tell when people in a group have a dance background within a few movements. In a good way!

- Percussionists often have a harder start in some taiko groups, which sounds weird at first. I mean, taiko is percussion in large part, right? What's hard is making a percussionist move their hands away from the drum, not lean over, etc. But once the initial learning curve is passed, I see some great things that percussionists bring to the table - stick control, speed, rhythms, etc. Those tend to be the harder things to teach to others, because unlike larger movements, what the hands do is harder to see, breakdown, and copy at times. A percussionist might even be able to pull off staying still at a drum and just pulling out some great stuff without needing a lot of movement, if they have that presence and ki instilled in them.

- Martial artists don't seem to be very common in the taiko world, which I think is interesting. On paper, the skills required to be a good martial artist seem to match that of being a good taiko player. Most martial arts have a strong foundation in a grounded stance of some sort and learning how to move from that stance translates easily into movement in taiko. Whether the art is something fluid or more direct, there's also an awareness of the body gained in most martial arts. And finally, projection of ki/qi is a major component of most arts, perfect for use in taiko depending on the mood of a piece.

- Singers may not get to utilize their skills that much, much like actors/actresses. There may be times when your group has a song or acting component, but there's still something to be said for stage presence and being comfortable being in front of an audience. Presence can be a huge element on stage, turning a simple part into something that draws people's eyes to you and in an enjoyable way.

Mind you, all of these things are generally positives but some habits are hard to break. When you have someone with things in their background that they've been doing for a while, it can hard for them to fight muscle memory!

I hear people say they don't have the skills that people who are just starting in taiko have. Sure, there are people who have a higher skill set when they start taiko than others but it's what they do with it that counts. When I started, I was stiff, I overhit, my hands weren't all that fast, and the only advantage I really had was that I could reach drums that were far apart, ha.

Look at the background you brought into your art. If you're not reaping the rewards from it now, why not? What do you think will do it? And if you feel you don't have anything that you brought with you, what are you learning NOW that you will be able to utilize later on?