Monday, December 31, 2012

Cheese sketch

I've been a Monty Python fan ever since I was a kid.  Even before I got half of the jokes, I loved the randomness and creativity from the troupe.

One of my favorite sketches is the Cheese Shop sketch, which I love.  I'm not going to ruin it for those of you who haven't seen it, but I understand those who don't find it as amusing as I do.  Here's the link:

So why am I posting about this?  Because of this:

For those who don't feel like watching the video, it's an interview with John Cleese explaining how the sketch came about.

Ok, so what's my point of this post?

To summarize, *spoilers* the sketch is about a man going to a cheese shop and finding out that they have no cheese at all.  And the idea for the sketch came about in a very roundabout way.  After John Cleese got really seasick after a sketch, he was hungry and asked if they could get some cheese.  While looking for cheese, between the three Monty Python members in the car at the time, they got the idea that they could write a sketch about a man looking for cheese at a chemist's shop (pharmacy).  It's silly and random, sure.  No chemist would have cheese, after all.

But that wasn't the sketch, obviously.  They asked themselves, "why would a person be at a chemist's to buy cheese?  Because the cheese shop was out of cheese."  And that became the sketch.  A cheese shop out of cheese, made funny because the owner wouldn't admit to it.  Bam!

I didn't write this post to make you all watch a Monty Python sketch (although you should).  I wrote this post to show you that creativity doesn't really work in a linear format.  A does not lead to B then to CA can lead to "fish" then to "Oklahoma".  If from A you expect B and wait for only B or B-related things, you very well might wind up with nothing - except frustration.  If you allow things like risk and open-mindedness into the mix, it will pay off.

What's more, the more you practice and get familiar with that sort of thinking, the better you'll get at it.  At first, perhaps it's a little scary.  You might feel stupid or vulnerable.  Months, years later?  Not only is the fear gone, but the quality of the outcomes are much higher.  It's a skill, like anything else!  So stretch your mental fibers and warm up the cranial membranes...then start creating!

In the meantime, I'm going to go get some cheese and compose stuff.  No, seriously, I have some edam in the fridge.  :)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Looking back at 2012...

Last Second-to-last post of 2012, hmm.

I'm looking back at my first post of the year where I tried to guess how things were going to go...

Well, it was definitely not a normal or calm year.  Our annual concert was well out-of-the-ordinary and a bit of a handful, but my job was just to play what I was told, lol.  2013 is SJT's 40th anniversary and it's going to be a pretty big to-do, so I'm not worried about not being engaged!

There did turn out to be some light touring; I really enjoy getting to play in different places - especially for audiences who've never seen taiko before.  Next year we have a week in Alaska, which is one state SJT's not been to before (and neither have I!)

Didn't manage to write any new pieces, but I've gone from having one idea to having five.  Mixed blessing!  The pieces right now are:
  • The same idea I've had involving a never-stopping, simple ji played with one hand while the other hand plays patterns.
  • A piece focusing on a very distinct striking style we practice at SJT; my first attempt at a movement-oriented kind of piece.
  • The idea of a Heavy Metal-inspired piece, but the only thing I know right know is that I want it to be in 6/8.
  • I have an idea to write a mobile piece based on rhythms in 5 and 7 for a small ensemble.  Heck, everyone expects me to write something like this anyways!
  • Finally got around to exploring some melodic work using multiple kane, small metal gongs.  I've had the idea for years but only recently started pitching them and figuring out what goes with what.
I don't feel I grew much last year; it was a year of coasting and waiting.  I realized recently that by waiting for someone to give me purpose, I'm basically prescribing disappointment.  Next year is when I start being more aggressive with my own progress.  It's been 20 years and I don't want to look back after the next 20 with regrets!

Thank you, dear readers, for following my journey with its questions and opinions and rants and what-have-you.  As always, I love hearing feedback and hearing when people enjoy a post I've written.  Even though this blog is still primarily for me to brain-dump, I sincerely enjoy knowing that people find it useful and inspiring.

See you in 2013!

Monday, December 24, 2012

How I compose.

Composition can be a daunting thing.  When you get ideas, it's not always easy to get them out of your head into something you can utilize.

People have asked me how I compose, enough that it warranted a post.  My process is chaotic, mostly "whatever works" but backed by a lot of experience mixed with some actual training.

I'm going to use an example pattern I made in February 2012, called "Hooo."  Don't ask why it's called that, I have NO idea...  I'll show how each example applies to how I would capture the pattern:

  • I started with hash marks, vertical lines of differing sizes with dots to symbolize where the notes would fall.  This is something I still use when I have a tricky passage I can't figure out with western notation.  I didn't even know I was effectively making 16th notes with the hash marks; they were just a way to keep a count.
  •  When I got into music theory, I learned Western notation, a very effective way to write out rhythms.  It also helped to be able to "see" the patterns in a musical way instead of just dots in a linear progression.
  • Recording audio through a micro recorder, smart phone, or even calling your own voicemail works when I have a pattern where I can't write anything down.  If it's really complex or I'm on the freeway, it's easier singing the patterns out.
(This isn't a live recording, but the audio from my notation software.  Check out the link HERE.)
  • Recording video is also an option, but usually only if I have something really specific I want to capture, like a pattern with specific sticking.  It's pretty rare where I'll do that instead of one of the first three.
  • Finally, I keep an archive of all the patterns I create.  There's over 300 in a folder on my computer, everything from finished compositions to four-second snippets.  Sometimes I'll come across one that sounds really interesting but that I have no recollection of!  This is good for getting new ideas (that are actually old ones).

It's not hard to learn just enough Western notation to get basic concepts, especially for most patterns.  8th notes, triplets, horsebeat, 90% of all the taiko "staples" won't take a lot of time to figure out.  The most important thing is to figure out what works for you.  Maybe the hash mark system is something you can use and adapt, or you can use something like graph paper in a similar manner.  Just get those patterns down!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Difficult students.

Last Friday my dojo had its quarterly belt testing.  I wasn’t able to be there, but I asked sensei about the results.  Everyone but one person passed, and that person that didn’t was one of our blue belts.

This student had only been training with us for three months and came to one of the classes where I would frequently be handed the intermediates (anyone not a beginner).  He had trained somewhere else before and it wasn’t too difficult to get him up to speed on our requirements.

When sensei told me it was this particular student that failed (let’s call him “Zippy”), I immediately knew why before even hearing the details.  Zippy always had an excuse when I would tell him to fix something.  Sometimes it was “well when I learned it…” or “yeah, but…”  Very rarely did he just take a comment and fix it without making a face that read “I disagree.”  There were even times when I would say “stop doing X” and he would make a very annoying face as if he was really in disagreement…to which I would respond, “just stop doing X.”  But he would do it again, as if it were up for debate.  “Really, STOP doing X.”  Zippy had many ideas and was more interested in letting me know those ideaa than he was in learning how to get better.

Some of the black belts in the dojo would have just made him or the whole class do pushups.  I’m not quite that harsh, but I was getting tired of his need to state his opinion on most of my comments.  I didn’t get the feeling that he was so much lazy as he was full of himself.  Not a bad kid, just young and feeling like he knew a lot of things…but at a blue belt level, he’s had maybe a year’s worth of training.

Why all of this context?  So, after I heard he failed, my first instinct admittedly was “ha, he deserved it.”   But then I wondered, did I fail him as a teacher?  Could I have done more to prevent him failing his test?  Ultimately, I realized that no, HE failed his test.  He resisted being taught enough that it hampered his progress.  I heard he took the failure hard – who knows if he’ll return?  If he does, will he try harder, knowing his performance wasn’t cutting it?  We’ll find out in a month.

So the question for this post is, where do the responsibilities of the teacher end and the student’s begin?  This will depend a lot on the two people involved.  Some teachers will take a student’s failure as a failure of their own.  Some students will blame a teacher for their own failure – or give the teacher the credit when they succeed. 
I don't talk about the role of the teacher in this post because I've addressed that multiple times on my blog.  Of course it should be a mutual exchange, but isolating one side often yields insights.  

I’d like all of you to think about how you are as a student.  Do you make it easy to be taught?  Do you come with preconceived ideas about how things should be and ignore what’s contradictory, even if only in your head?  Do you actually listen when taught or are you just looking in the direction of who’s teaching?  Do you try to implement new information even when it’s not sinking in right away?  Are you there to learn or to show off?

If you make if difficult for someone to teach, it may eventually come back to bite you in the ass.  It can come in the form of karma as you get a difficult student down the line yourself, or more negatively as you fail a test or get passed over for a part you wanted to play.

Don't be like Zippy!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Too much of a good thing.

That signature pose you do is really awesome...until you do it four times in one solo.  And that spinning move?  It's really cool the first time, not so much the fifth...  And those triplets you sneak in at the end of a phrase?  Gets really predictable around the sixth time...

Most of us strive to find our own style of playing, even within the context of a strong group style.  This is especially true if you solo - we all want to express ourselves and possibly even stand out!

You have to look at what you do from the eyes of the audience.  A move that wows an audience is just less "wow-y" done over and over again.  I mean think about it, if someone did a beautiful back flip over the drum during their solo without losing a beat, you'd probably be totally impressed.  Now imagine seeing it again, then again, then again.  For most of us, it's just not as interesting by this point.  It also tends to bring up the question, "is that all they have?"

This reaction isn't limited taiko, either.  Anything visual that's done repeated times like that quickly often goes from "wow" to "meh", such as skateboard tricks, brick breaking, flying kicks, movie stunts, etc.  It's a little different with music where repetition is actually a good thing, but if we're talking in terms of a solo, it's quite the same.

For our audiences, subtle changes may not be enough to differentiate between moves.  For instance, if you do fancy signature move to the left, it may look exactly the same doing it to the right.  What you think is "different enough" may look "pretty much the same".  That's a hard call at times, but it's worth thinking about.

I don't mean to make this sound like finger wagging or scolding.  I just want people to think about what they do from the outside eye, and also comparing how they themselves view such things when they're watching people play.  This can be used as an opportunity for growth, if one is willing to work out what else they can do, how else they can stand out, what isn't being explored and go from there.

Be more than a gimmick.  Take what's easy and comfortable and use it as a launching point instead of a destination!

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Would you rather barely pass?  Or barely fail?

Earlier this week I was leaving my karate class and one of our newer students asked, “didn’t you test for black belt recently?”  I told him I did and what happened (read here if you haven’t already.)  I also told him that from what I heard, I was somewhat borderline...although the line might have been on the thicker side, lol.

To barely fail means you almost made it.  There was enough from you that the judges considered passing you.  Maybe you lacked a basic fundamental or had  too many inconsistencies, but you may very well have given them enough “good” that it merited a discussion.

To barely pass means you almost didn’t make it.  You did enough to make the requirements, but there were red flags or serious issues that worried the judges.  Maybe you were only able to improve marginally on the comments you got, or maybe you weren’t able to improve on those but made progress elsewhere.

There are a lot of situations where you’re going to want to pass, regardless of how slim a margin it was.  Anything that’s competitive, like interviewing for a job or where there’s a medal for 1st place – of course you’ll be happy barely passing!  Also, you’d definitely want to pass (even barely) anything that cost a lot of money or where there’s financial risk.

The situations where it’s not so clear are more the artistic and/or developmental ones.  Think about testing for a belt.  Do you want to wow the judges?  Or “meh” them?  Is it worth waiting a little longer to make sure you can do more than “meh?”  Think about putting on a show.  Do you want the audience to be blown away by the performance or forget about it in a day?  Is it worth putting in more effort (and time, if possible) to make sure you can really deliver something powerful?

I see a lot of people that are perfectly happy with barely passing.  It also keeps them from things like breakthroughs and triumphs, rewards that I couldn’t think about living without.  When you get used to barely passing things, you coast.  You do the minimum amount required.  You set your sights no higher than mediocre, and you get comfortable doing it.

Barely passing may be a relief, but it’s a trap that doesn’t encourage growth.  Barely failing can still suck, don’t get me wrong.   But it often means you tried and it gives you a reason to keep trying!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Bug-zapper moment

At one time or another all of us have a moment of insight: a "light bulb moment".

"A-ha!"  We say.  "I can save time showering by driving through a car wash with the windows down!"  Ok maybe we don't say that...  Point is, we have a moment of insight and then we're able to make progress on a problem, find a more efficient path, discover a new idea, etc.  It's part of the learning process.

But what happens when that insight leads to pain?  When the discovery leads you on a path that's uncomfortable?

I wrote back in this post about my belt test.  My dojo has been breaking down our fundamentals lately based on the priorities of our head organization.  We're looking at how each technique, each kata works according to the principles that should be emphasized.  They're not "new" principles, but we never made them a priority as much as they now.

Doing this kind of intense, detailed breakdown brings with it many "a-ha!" moments, but it doesn't make it easy to unlearn muscle memory that's not necessarily even "wrong", just not what we're trying to do.  While I have faith that in time the subtle changes will set in, being subtle makes them harder to stick.  And it feels painful to not have them integrate into my fundamentals better.

So my "a-ha" is then tinged with an "ouch".  Instead of a light bulb, I now have a bug zapper.  Provides light but is also painful to touch!

There's also the more negative kinds of discoveries.  These are things like realizing you're in the wrong group for you or finding out you're holding others back.  Those are big "bug zapper" moments.

Focusing on the more positive moments, maybe you find yourself understanding a concept better all of a sudden or having an idea that makes things better in the long run, but is hard to implement.  Sometimes that difficult journey - the one with a bit of pain - helps you appreciate the ones that come more easily.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Active "ma"

There are many examples of ma, or space, in Japanese art.  A painting with a lot of negative space is an example of ma.  A dance with a pause to emphasize a pose is also an example.  So is a kata in karate that contains a slow movement amongst the faster ones.  In taiko, ma can be both audial and visual.

One thing a lot of people have trouble with, whether it be in composition or soloing, is including ma.  A long flurry of notes without rests and breaks eventually just becomes a bumpy drone,.  A lot of motion without a pause or pose can get dull or perhaps even lost to the audience.

Newer players – and even some experienced ones – “hide” behind constant movement/playing.  To them it feels like they’re doing something when they move, and if there’s a lack of confidence or a lack of a personal repertoire to pull from, there’s more security in not stopping.

Time and time again I hear people telling others to “include more ma”.  And this is usually really good advice.  But it’s also often incomplete advice, albeit it no one’s “fault”.

To most people, ma translates to something like “stop playing”, “stop moving” or “make a big motion."   Sure, it can be.  Still, it would be like saying “taiko” is “a big drum”.  Again, it can be, but…

I’m sure every single one of you has listened to a song where a melody stops and tension builds with the bass or drums still going, then BAM the melody comes back in and it sounds awesome.  That’s definitely ma!  Or how about watching a break-dancer do a flurry of moves then POW hold a pose that "seals the deal"?  That’s ma too!  Ma doesn’t have to be about only about slow or quiet, it can be chock-full of tension, excitement, joy, etc.

I’ve started solos where I’ve playfully walked away from the drums…then came running back.  While that may not fly in YOUR group, think about what you could do that’s outside the box and fun at the same time!  For example, you could play a lot of notes and then pull away from the drum?  Even then, ma without intention is...empty.

"Space" is empty, yes, but we're not talking physics, we're talking performance.  What sort of mood do you want to portray?  Will you make a strained face that makes it look like you’re barely able to hold back?  Or a joyful face that exaggerates how much fun you’re having?  Maybe something more intense is your style?  You can hit and stop with a very focused gaze, but your body has to scream intention lest it look like you’re just resting.  Or you can treat your solo like a warrior’s dance – not to kill the drum, but to be strong and vibrant and confident.  You can move away sharply then come back twice as fast, or stand back and act “macho” for lack of a better word.

This sort of active ma requires a bit of acting ability.  You have to sell it, you have to exaggerate it!  Going overboard and making a spectacle of yourself isn't good, but it's still worth experimenting with.  Ma, like movement or rhythm, is something that shouldn't be narrowly defined.  Why not discover where it leads you?

Monday, December 3, 2012

20 Precepts, part 5 (Dojo training)

The founder of Shotokan karate, Gichin Funakoshi, created the “20 precepts of karate-do.”  This is a list of 20 different philosophies, some specific and others general.  For this series, I will be looking at the ones that can apply to taiko and taiko training. 

Today’s precept: Do not think that karate training is only in the dojo.

I’ve spoken to this in the past.  If you only think about taiko when you get to your studio/dojo/parking garage/whatever, you’re confining yourself to a stunted development.  I think it's rare for anyone who plays taiko to think this way, but I do see it in degrees.

To only think that you have to be at practice to practice is almost as bad.  There are so many opportunities to train for taiko OUTSIDE of taiko that most people aren’t aware of.  I’m going to list the ones I do:

-        Noting similarities and differences of kata to taiko during karate
-        Playing with my timing and my opponent’s timing during sparring (syncopation!)
-        Maintaining an intensity of ki that I can add to my repertoire on the stage.

-        Listening to non-taiko songs and imagining them redone as taiko pieces.
-        Always having paper and pen on hand to scribble down a rhythm or concept.
-        Scatting patterns to the cadence of my footsteps while walking.

-        Tapping along to a song in the car/at home.
o   To keep up with a fast tempo.
o   To understand a complex syncopation or odd meter.
o   To improve around a familiar rhythm/ji.
-        Pulling out the drum pads.
o   Improvising over a song.
o   Improvising over a metronome.
o   Drilling patterns over a metronome.

-        Watching videos (YouTube, DVDs) of other taiko groups
o   How do the groups that impress me strike/move/project/compose?
o   What are groups doing that I don't like and how can I learn from it?
-        Listening to other taiko pieces and “playing along” to learn different musical sensibilities.

There’s no set time when I might decide to do something, either.  If I have free time, I might pull out the pads.  If I’m brushing my teeth, I might start tapping out patterns with the free hand.  In the car, the steering wheel becomes a trap set.

Practice outside of practice is sometimes more valuable than what you do at practice.  It rewires your brain to be on the lookout for opportunities to improve and it makes you proactive about your growth instead of relying on anyone – or anywhere.  On top of all that, it’s fun!

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Sparring tonight, I found myself going "light" on lower belts, by giving them slower techniques, or those that lacked intention.  I got called out for it, but found that when I tried to get more intense, it was really easy to slip back into "light".  Rather frustrating.

At my level I'm supposed to dominate my opponent.  Ok, fine, that's a different mindset than I'm used to, but it's something to work for.  And in being such a "threat" to my opponent, I should be giving them a reason to react in a similar way, regardless of their rank compared to mine.

It's a form of teaching, albeit it an aggressive one.  I need to make them step up their game in order to defend themselves - in effect, make them "hungry" to learn (how to defend themselves as I come in with a flurry, mind you).

In making them hungry, they are forced to respond in kind and make me hungry in return to defend myself.  It's a feedback loop of sorts.  Granted, being too aggressive to someone who's of significantly less skill will make them wilt, and some people don't respond well to direct aggressiveness (but we're talking about sparring in a karate class).

Relating this to taiko, how do you convey ideas and concepts?  How does your delivery affect other people's receptiveness?  No one's going to get excited by your song if you're not excited by it!  No one's going to look forward to trying out your ideas if you're not "selling" them wel..

Do you get excited about things that excite you?  Do you try to instill that sense of fun and joy in your dealings with other people?  Being genuinely enthusiastic (without being childish or condescending) while teaching something can really draw people in to what you're trying to get across.  That's a feedback loop that should be less uncommon than it probably is.

Remember that how you give information has a direct impact on how it's taken.  If you want people to be nonchalant, teach nonchalantly.  But if you want passion, you have to be passionate!

Monday, November 26, 2012

On talent and teaching

It's not always easy to teach what you know.

Someone may be an amazing composer, or have a revolutionary approach to a skill, or even have delved deep into a particular style...but it doesn't speak one whit to their ability to teach those things.  Just as it takes skill to play taiko or do a kata, it takes skill to get in front of a group of people and teach them how to do those things.

From a student's standpoint, it's really really really hard to try to learn from someone who doesn't know what they're talking about.  I don't think many people would argue that.  But it's also incredibly dissatisfying to have someone trying to teach me something they DO know about, but lack the ability to teach it.

From a teacher's standpoint, I find it's my responsibility to know what the hell I'm talking about.  I've had to teach things I didn't understand all that well and felt stupid when questions came and my answers were weak.      I'm also responsible to make sure that I'm actually teaching, and not just "speaking" or "doing."

It's not enough to just be good at what you do if you want to teach it to others.  After all the workshops and seminars I've been to, there are four things that I wish all teachers could keep in mind.

-A good teacher knows their material.  A teacher that's not put a lot of thought into what they're teaching is simply parroting what they've themselves been taught, and it will show.
-A good teacher is someone who understands what they're doing enough to modify the plan when needed.  If you're inflexible with your lesson plan (square peg, round hole), then students are going to feel like they're secondary to your ego.
-A good teacher is checking the pulse of the class.  It's not enough to just ask, "get it?"  A little bit of empathy goes a long way here.  
-A good teacher instills the joy in what they do into their students.  Being distant or removed from your students is the best way to make sure they hate what you're teaching them.  Enthusiasm and being genuine is the ultimate delivery method.

There will always be students that wanted more of *this* and less of *that*, or who wish you'd done more/done less.  However, if they feel like you are working hard to actually teach and not just be there to show them how superawesome you are, then what you've taught might actually just sink in and be there years down the line.

Everyone should try to teach something to others in their groups at least once, to understand that it takes both forethought and skill to do well!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Future mistakes

At karate we occasionally do a “line” drill.  This is where a column of people (attackers) face a single person (defender).  The closest attacker attacks, gets blocked/evaded, gets counter-attacked, then goes to the back of the column.  This rotation goes on for a while.

When we had the head of our organization visiting us a month ago, he said that the defender should have a particular mindset during this drill.  Instead of dealing with the attack then resetting for the next attacker, the defender should deal with the attack and be ready – hungry, actually – for the next attacker.  It’s sort of a “come on, who's next?” sort of mentality.  It changes the role of the defender from passive to active.

Odds are you’re going to get hit sooner or later.  His idea was not so much to make us into unfeeling warriors but to not let the result of the exchange linger and to be more than ready for the next attacker.

In taiko, mistakes can be minimized through practice, but they will happen.  If there’s a section in a song that trips you up, instead of dreading the next time, try looking forward to it.  Wait, why would you do that?

Take any potentially tricky part as an opportunity to get it right.  The alternative – and default for most people – is to think of it as something to dread.  And if you dread it, odds are you’ll continue to make a mistake there, creating a negative feedback loop.

In effect, the passages of a song are the “attacker” and you are the “defender”.  Here and then you make a mistake and get “hit”, but you have to snap back into position and be ready – be hungry – for the next opportunity.  You may get “hit” again and again by the same tricky passage, but you make it a self-fulfilling prophecy if you always expect it to happen.

Granted, if you get hit 28 times in a row, you might need to step back and figure out what to work on – sequence, chops, timing, movement, etc.  Making mistakes in a passage that you know is very different from not knowing it!

Maybe the idea of “combating” your mistakes is a bit too aggressive for some of you, but try to at least have the mindset that it’s not fearing your future mistakes, it’s succeeding at future opportunities!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

20 Precepts, part 4 (Release mind)

The founder of Shotokan karate, Gichin Funakoshi, created the “20 precepts of karate-do.”  This is a list of 20 different philosophies, some specific and others general.  For this series, I will be looking at the ones that can apply to taiko and taiko training.
Today’s precept: “Always be ready to release your mind.”

This one is pretty easy to talk about, especially since it mirrors a concept that SJT brings up often in workshops and school programs.  “Beginner’s Mind” is the philosophy that no matter how long you’ve been doing something – playing a song, practicing a drill, etc. – you can still learn something from it.  It could be 4 days or 40 years, the odds are there’s still more to learn.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played Renshu or done oroshi/straight beat as a drill.  I admit there were times early on when I thought, “why are we doing this again?  I already know how to do it!”  But that was my failing.  During the “simpler” stuff is the best time to work on the body mechanics: feet, knees, hips, posture, engagement, etc.  If you can’t do a simple drill well, the more complex stuff is just going to highlight the things you have trouble with.

It shouldn’t be about “what am I making mistakes on?” but rather “what can I do better?”  A mindset to improve will serve you better than the one to critique here.

There may be a few individuals out there that have mastered a particular drill to the point where they really may not have anything to learn from it.  But damn that’s rare!  Still, assuming that it is possible, it’s still ONE drill out of a countless amount.  Perfected don doko?  How about don tsuku?  Perfected a kata in its entirety?  What about the next one?

It’s not that you should always have your mind “empty”, because sometimes you want to come into a situation knowing things – like at a performance, or rehearsing for a performance, or teaching students, etc.  But being aware of how easy you are able to “release your mind” and have the beginner’s mindset will tell you a lot about how far you’ll go as an artist.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Relying on an audience

There are more and more themed running events, some more amusing (like adding "zombies") and some more extreme (running through brambled forests).

Some of these runs are brutal, with cold weather, damp conditions, and a near-guarantee to draw blood.  They're not very popular (go figure) but draw a very small group of sadists people who want to test themselves.  There's not a lot of glory involved, since they draw a smaller crowd, and from what I've heard, many don't finish some of these more extreme courses.

Where am I going with this?  Well, when you perform, are you performing for the audience?  Or for yourself?  Can you put out the same level of energy and skill when there's no one watching?  It's easy to say "yes" to that, but you might be surprised.

It's great to feed off the energy of an audience and return it in kind, but never rely on it to make your performance vibrant.  To that end, you have to make sure you do in practice what you want in performance - hold back in the former and I guarantee you it won't come out naturally in the latter!

Thursday, November 8, 2012


What do you do that others can follow?  In other words, what behaviors do you model well and what attributes do you embody that people might be compelled to strive for?

It might be something like clean striking or a never-say-die attitude.  Perhaps it’s a level of fitness you maintain above and beyond what’s required.  Or it could even be something not as readily apparent, such as supporting new members with positive encouragement.  It doesn’t have to be something you can necessarily teach, as long as it’s something positive.

Be careful when thinking “people love the way I xyz,” because "xyz" might be seen as something you’re actually not good at – make sure your ego isn’t getting in the way.

I know a lot of taiko players that think they don’t have attributes other people might aspire to, but that’s self-defeatist talk.  Just having passion about what you do can be something that inspires others!

This can be something that drives you to get better or helps you define what you want to be.  Do you want to be known for your teaching ability?  Do you want to be remembered for having great control over your dynamics?  Do you want to be known for taking comments to heart?   These make for great goals.

You shouldn’t only do good things in order to be known for them, but if you’re already doing them, there’s nothing wrong with making sure you’re doing them well!

Monday, November 5, 2012

20 Precepts, part 3 (No limit)

The founder of Shotokan karate, Gichin Funakoshi, created the “20 precepts of karate-do.”  This is a list of 20 different philosophies, some specific and others general.  For this series, I will be looking at the ones that can apply to taiko and taiko training.

Today’s precept: “It will take your entire life to learn karate.  There is no limit.”

This one is kind of a no-brainer, but still worth talking about.   I’ve talked in the past about people who stop trying to learn and sort of settle on “good enough.”  It’s not fair to judge everyone who thinks this way, because some people might feel there are higher priorities (life, family, work, etc.) or have some other limitations (money, physical, etc.)  But for the most part, if someone has the ability and decides to “settle”, I just have to ask, “why”?

Ultimately, I think there are two answers: fear and/or laziness.  It’s scary trying to learn new things and putting yourself in a position where you don’t have the answers.  It’s also so much easier to just take on small details but never push yourself in a significant manner.

There have definitely been times in my training that I’ve just wanted to take it easy for a while.  And there are definitely times when it’s scary having someone teach me that knows way more than I do, who can point all my errors out.  But damn it’s awesome to get past my own ego and get better at things.  It’s encouraging and empowering.

Don’t ever think you know all you need to know.  Don’t ever think that you “know enough”.  You don’t.  Don't be a cautionary tale to people around you, be an inspiration!

Thursday, November 1, 2012


The word “tradition” is the most controversial word in all of North American taiko.  Some people are afraid of the word or even vilify it,  while others flock to it or hold it tight to their breast.  What is it about this one word that evokes such a reaction?

My first response to that question is, “I dunno man, people have issues.”  But my more rational mind says, “the word is misunderstood.”

“Tradition” is just something that you or your group has done for a time.  Do you bow into the dojo or as a group before practice?  That’s a tradition.  Do you warm up as a group?  That’s a tradition, too.  Do you have an annual concert or always play at a certain festival?  Tradition.  Now that may not make what you play “traditional taiko”, but you can still have traditions.

For purposes of this post, I’m going to refer to “traditional taiko” as any taiko done as a customary pattern of action.  It could be something several groups do, something one group does repeatedly, or both.

The problem with someone asking what “traditional taiko” is that it comes with an assumed definition on the part of the person asking.  If the listener has their own (and different) definition, then you might have a complete misunderstanding.  So what kinds of “traditional taiko” are there?
  • Japanese festival drumming
  • Japanese court drumming
  • Japanese group drumming
  • North American festival drumming
  • North American group drumming
  • South American group drumming
  • European group drumming
  • And several other categories I'm missing or not even aware of... 
If you say you don’t play traditional taiko, you are probably just as right as you are wrong.  You may not play one of these traditions, but I’ll bet your group has its own traditions and/or fits into one of the above listed traditions.  See what I mean about misunderstandings?

Personally, I think the word “tradition” is as bothersome as the word “taiko” in a lot of regards.  What is taiko?  What is tradition?  It makes for a fun debate but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really change anything – and often people come away more confused!  While an audience member might ask, “do you play traditional taiko?” and it might be beneficial to explain what your group does, it’s a complete waste of energy to get upset about being thought of as traditional or make a fuss when someone calls their group traditional and you disagree.  It’s fine to want to inform people better, but you can’t get to everyone and this is one of those things that is annoying but has very little actual impact.

Now, the longer your group has been around, the more traditions it will have.  So that adds another level of complexity to the problem.  If someone asks about “traditional taiko”, are they asking about traditional NA group drumming or your group’s traditional group drumming?  Again, the best you can do is try to inform someone who asks, but in the grand scheme of things, is it really a big deal?  I don’t think so.

The more we get caught up in politics and policing and proper-ness, the less energy we have for playing and performing and enjoying the art that we love to do!

Monday, October 29, 2012


Critique is necessary for growth.  There are so many kinds of critique, so many ways to present it, so many ways to receive it, and so many possible effects from it.  Critique is not inherently a bad thing, it’s just information.  It takes on a “bad” or “good” aspect in its substance, delivery, effectiveness, and many other factors.

In prior posts I’ve talked about how to deliver critique and how it’s bad to deliver it without taking it.  But there’s a lot more to cover…

I measure critique in six parts: Source, Honesty, Intensity, Frequency, Intention, and Effect:

SOURCE: Who does the critique comes from?
HONESTY: How is the critique is presented?
INTENSITY: What's the delivery style?
FREQUENCY: How often is the critique given?
INTENTION: What's the purpose of the critique?
EFFECT: How effective is the critique?  How does the critique define the critique-r?

SOURCE is a pretty simple concept, but can have a big impact.  Most of us get the majority of our critique from ourselves!  Valuable critique from someone you don't respect is often taken less to heart.  We're only human.  I find that the best way to deal with this situation is to remember the critique and think about it later when the person isn't around, to look at it more objectively.

HONESTY can be a real tricky thing when it comes to critique.  Someone may not be very comfortable just saying what they mean, and so you might get a somewhat confusing or obfuscated comment.  If you’re taking the trouble to give someone a comment, unless it’s someone who’s really sensitive, most people will probably respect you just being upfront about it.  If you’re on the other side of the critique and you don’t quite get what a person is getting at, then take the initiative and ask.

INTENSITY will often determine if someone listens to the critique.  If you come off as angry or frustrated during your critique (especially if you ARE angry or frustrated), it’s really easy for people to discount what you say.  On the other extreme, coming off too mellow or apologetic in your delivery totally undercuts what you’re trying to get across.

FREQUENCY is another simple concept.  Too much critique from any combination of sources is going to be information overload.  If one person is giving too many comments - unless it's the head instructor - it's eventually going to get ignored.  If a group of people are giving too many comments, to any one person, eventually that person stops being receptive and becomes defensive.  Be aware of the environment!  If you or other people are making a lot of critiques, prioritize what you say to only be the most important things - or maybe say nothing at all!

INTENTION is one of those things that can take some time to have an effect, but it really hard to fix once perception is set.  When you give critique, is it truly for the purpose of helping someone get better?  Some people come off as loving the sound of their own voice or using critique as a way to make them feel better about their own abilities.  Once people put you in a category like those, even the good stuff you say will be tremendously dampened.  And even though we should try to remember what I said above (in source), it doesn't mean it's always easy.

EFFECT is a mixed bag.  It looks at what sort of critiques you tend to give and how effective they are.  It looks at how you give critique compared to how you take it.  It looks at how you critique yourself to grow.

Does the critique work in the short-term?  In the long-term?  Are you adjusting what you say to someone/people over time to make it more effective?  If not, why not?

Say there are a dozen things you could critique after watching someone.  Are you picking something superficial, or something that irks you but is really minor compared to the other issues?  Like intention above, people tend to notice that sort of thing and stop expecting you to give any insightful feedback.  If the things you bring up are mostly minor issues, ask yourself if it’s really important to bring them up.

If you’re good at giving critique but don’t take it well, how do you expect people to listen to you?  If your critiques tend to focus on a specific area but you yourself have issues in that same area, why should people take you seriously?  For example, it could be talking about finer details in kata when you have trouble fixing your own, or talking about how people should be more energetic when you're not putting it out there yourself.


Finally, there’s one last aspect to all this.  How you conduct yourself outside of practice will have a big impact on how your critique is received during practice.  If you’re critical about things in general, it gets hard for people to separate actual critique from just your personality.

I realize I could be accused of being critical outside of practice - I mean I have a blog that's often critical about a lot of things!  But it's not how I act outside of, or even during practice.  If you’re negative about things in general, people will filter out a lot of your critique during practice.  On the flip side, if you’re always positive about things and are making a lot of complimentary critiques, they may not have a lot of weight.  Consider the impact that YOU have on your critique.

Critique does not take place in a vacuum.  Everything from the mood of the person to the issue being critiqued to the choice of words used gets factored in.  Sometimes even the best said, best intentioned critique can be the worst possible thing to say.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

20 Precepts, part 2 (Spirit first)

The founder of Shotokan karate, Gichin Funakoshi, created the “20 precepts of karate-do.”  This is a list of 20 different philosophies, some specific and others general.  For this series, I will be looking at the ones that can apply to taiko and taiko training.

Today’s precept: “Spirit first, technique second.” 

Without spirit, technique is empty.  The best strike and the best stance without spirit is meaningless.  It does no good to hit someone with a punch that’s technically perfect without any sort of intention behind it.  It does no good to play a song that’s spot on but with weak spirit throughout.  But there’s a couple of distinctions that I’d like to make.

First, "spirit" isn’t just one kind of energy.  Just like not all techniques in karate are full-on, full-out, neither do they have to be in taiko.  I think that intention is the heart of the word “spirit” here.  Proper intention of what you’re doing – what you’re trying to do – in the technique is more important than the technique itself.  If you disagree with me, keep reading.

Second, I take this precept to mean “in execution,” rather than “in learning.”  When you perform a technique, or kata, or song, etc., you should be focusing more on spirit than technique.  Why?  Because if you’ve been practicing in earnest, then you don’t need to focus so much on the technique when it’s time to perform it.

And that brings me to my third point, which is that the precept merely states a priority.  It doesn't say to do one OR the other.  So when you’re performing something, while you should be aware of the technique, give more focus to the intention behind it.

When you’re learning something, it might be okay if spirit is lacking.  That’s the time when technique and fundamentals matter the most.  Just be careful you don’t bring a lack of spirit from the time spent learning into time spent performing.

Monday, October 22, 2012

20 Precepts, part 1 (Know yourself)

The founder of Shotokan karate, Gichin Funakoshi, created the “20 precepts of karate-do.”  This is a list of 20 different philosophies, some specific and others general.  For this series, I will be looking at the ones that can apply to taiko and taiko training. 

Today’s precept: “First know yourself before attempting to know others.”

This one is pretty easy to understand, but some people definitely have trouble with it.

I have spent countless hours in both karate and taiko trying to figure out how I move and how to move better.  It's my responsibility as a student and as a teacher.  It’s not always easy to be in a position of teaching others, because I realize their development can be affected by what I do and say with them.  If I’m confusing or unclear, I’m making them take longer to get better.  I don’t want someone to teach me like that, and so I don’t want to be teaching like that.

Sometimes understanding the underlying concept and having good communication skills can be all that’s required of an instructor.  You don’t need to be an expert in something to be able to teach it.  In fact, teaching becomes an important part of the learning process because it forces you to think in new ways and look at things from different angles.

I often see people who love to tell other people how to do things.  Nothing wrong with that!  I mean I love being able to teach someone how to do something, and some people are genuinely good at instruction.  It becomes an issue when a person becomes eager to teach but not as eager to improve.

If you can spot a deficiency in someone's technique, first ask if you have it yourself.  You'd better ask yourself that question honestly, because I'll bet the people you're talking to will notice if you do.  It doesn't mean you can't bring things up that need to be said, but maybe you could be spending more time fixing that issue - instead of looking for it in others - so that people will take your critique of it more seriously.

The main lesson of this precept is that we should spend more time on ourselves before we try to help or critique others.  Whether I’m just observing or experiencing it, it’s really hard to learn from someone who’s all about giving suggestions and critique when they’re not turning that critical eye inwards.  It’s honestly hard to listen to someone giving a lot of comments knowing they have a whole host of issues they aren’t working as hard to fix.  When someone who's teaching me is also continuing to improve themselves, that's a teacher I can respect.

None of us are perfect and we should all be capable of giving and receiving feedback.  But when the feedback comes from ego or is soured with a lack of self-awareness, the information is tainted.