Monday, January 30, 2012


No one will ever ask you, "are you guys going to bring the small drum?" You'll also probably never overhear two taiko players comparing how large their katsugi okedo are, either. No, the crown jewel of taiko is the odaiko.

Not every group has one, not every group needs one, but there's still such a "wow" factor for a lot of people - players and audiences alike - when the odaiko is brought on stage.

PJ Hirabayashi said that the odaiko is like a mirror - when you play it, you face it straight on and it reflects who you are to the audience. If your technique is poor, it will show. If your energy is strong, it will show. If you play to impress, to inspire, or whatever the case might be, it will show. It's a very revealing experience.

I learned everything I know about playing odaiko from PJ and Yoshikazu Fujimoto of Kodo. A lot of it I had to figure out on my own, and still am. Even though I've had teaching in every style of taiko I play, odaiko is the one that I still feel needs the most development, but is also the most satisfying.

When I play, I don't have to think about my face or what I look like. Sure, there's still some basic form to consider, but instead I think about how to make a good sound, if I'm holding anything back, and "what would Yoshikazu do?" It's tiring, it's sweaty, and it's unlike any other style of taiko than I play.

Odaiko can be empowering as well as daunting. You can't approach it meekly and there's nothing to look at but the drum itself. Is that taiko in its most "pure" form? Perhaps...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Drill: Sshhh.

A lot of people, when they first see taiko, think that there's a lot of strength involved. Although strength is important when it comes to using the body, strength in striking is rarely a good thing. Overhitting often kills the sound, damages the drum, and can damage the player as well. "Wham wham wham" is a bad principle to follow...

Also, it's pretty darned easy to hit as hard as you can. Whether you do use muscle or know how to use gravity and hara and wrist snap and all those goodies, where's the skill involved? If progress involves getting incrementally better at something, where would that lead? Hitting so hard you break the skin with one hit? *shudder*. No, none of us wants that.

So here are the drills for today. Actually they're less drills and more of a challenge. How quietly can you play?
  • Drill ONE: Place your bachi close to the head of your drum and see how much you can maintain the quietest patterns you choose to play. Once you think it's quiet, make it quieter! It'll only get harder the longer you do it. This is a simple drill...on paper.
  • Drill TWO: Raise your hand far away from the drum, as if you were about to strike it normally. Begin your strike and snap the bachi down while making the quietest hit possible. Don't slow the strike! The only thing that's different should be the volume of the hit. This drill is not easy, especially if you're alternating arms and trying to be consistent.

When people think of "control" in taiko, they often think of how fast a person can play or what kinds of dense patterns someone can pull off. Having a command of your dynamics is a level of control a lot of players have trouble with.

Dynamics drills aren't "sexy", they're sometimes frustrating, and they don't have the same feeling of payoff as some of the other technical drills. But imagine playing dynamics at will, being able to shoot from loud to truly quiet with confidence, knowing that you've tackled a skill that many taiko players overlook.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Teacher's Responsibility

As a teacher, I have always thought about trying to get better by learning how to teach better. As a student, I have always thought about trying to get better at technique (musical, visual, physical, etc.) That makes sense, right? However, recently I started thinking about how important it also is to improve one's technical skill - as a teacher.

Now I just said as a student, it's important to get better technically, but why would that be different as a teacher? As a teacher, your students come to you for guidance and inspiration. Some of them may even look up to you as a leader or role model. If you don't seek to improve yourself, then why should they?

In taiko, a teacher may be harder to define if the group isn't hierarchical, but in karate the assumption is black belt = teacher. Personally, it's really annoying when someone achieves any sort of rank and then feels they've arrived at some magical point where "I teach, you do". Pfft.

It would be easy enough to just say "teachers are students too", and leave it there, but that would make for a boring blog. I believe that taking on a teaching role comes with it not just the responsibility to do right by your students, but also show them that you take learning and growth seriously.

Ultimately, growth is something I believe we should all strive for, in teaching, in learning, in skill, in understanding. It really shouldn't come from what others think about you, but if it pushes you to be a better (fill-in-the-blank), then maybe that's not a bad thing?

Thursday, January 19, 2012


In my experience, one of the biggest non-technical skills people ask for in taiko is confidence:
  • "How do I get more confidence performing?"
  • "I feel like I suck when I play taiko."
  • "I get so nervous when I'm playing in front of people!"

This is one area that I really wish I could help people with more directly. I can tell you how I came by my confidence, but that won't necessarily translate to your style, situation, or personality.

I definitely credit martial arts for being my start in performance. I learned how to focus and how to concentrate, ignoring the inner voice of self-doubt. I was judged often by black belts scrutinizing the tiniest details and expecting immediate adjustments. Taiko seemed like the easier of the two!

So how *do* you learn confidence? In previous posts I've talked about this, but it's a subject good to return to, to re-examine. For some, continual positive reinforcement works. For others, it doesn't have much of an effect. I don't feel qualified to write a post on "how to believe in yourself", but instead I want to talk about four different types of confidence:

Confidence of skill.

It's easy to feel you're not "good enough" or compare yourself to other people, either in your group or otherwise. But why do that to yourself? Better to look at the progress you've made, or the goals you're getting closer to than to dwell on the negative. If you're asking, "how do I get more confident?" while simultaneously telling yourself "I suck," then you negate any progress. Don't fall into that trap!

Confidence of performance.

Stage fright, anyone? Personally, I miss the days when I used to get nervous before a concert. I think I digested those butterflies. This nervous feeling goes away with time, but just when that is will differ for each of us. Just remember that unless you want to try the old "think of your audience in their underwear", it's just going to take actual performances for this type of confidence to build up. Keep at it!

Confidence of song(s).

This one is probably the easiest one to deal with. When you're learning something new, it's not often that you're going to be comfortable doing it until you've done it several times. There's not secret here; put time into what you're learning and you'll have it down soon enough.

Confidence of (personal) style.

This is a subtle, yet powerful area. When are you able to define your own personality and playing style within the framework of your group? Very few taiko players are able to be individual artists or play however they want to. Most of us learn from one (or more) groups that have a style/feel to conform to, and when starting out it's often useful to model yourself after someone in your group. After a point, however, it's really useful to break away from who you've been "following" and figure out what works for you.

There's only so much you can be someone else, no matter how much you might admire them. Do you really want to be a copy of someone? You can honor someone you really admire by following their teachings even when you start developing your own "voice". It may not come easily, and it won't necessarily happen when you want it to, but there are few things as satisfying as being comfortable in your own "skin".


So when does that confidence come? When will you no longer feel those doubts, fears, inadequacies? Worrying about when just puts more pressure on you. Instead, think of goals and steps to get to those goals.

You have to have confidence in yourself to have it mean anything. While others can believe in you, confidence from the outside is nothing compared to from within. You might have to fight for it, you may stumble back a few times, but you'll never regret getting there!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Forgotten Promises

Last week, I had an interesting opportunity.

Wednesday afternoon, I was forwarded an email asking for 100 volunteers to show up for a music video shoot and do some basic body percussion. Sami Yusuf, a London-based pop star and UN Celebrity Partner, was making a video to bring awareness of the drought-stricken people of the Horn of Africa. His song is called Forgotten Promises.

The person in charge of the volunteers for this project was Keith Terry, who I mentioned in my last post. An interesting spot of coincidence there... Anyways, since I had the time and interest in body percussion, I drove there the next day.

We wound up with about 42 people, well-short of 100 but considering how hard it was to coordinate what we had, 100 would have been insane.

First we all learned the pattern, played with our hands on our thighs. It turned out to be very close to a pattern we play in a song in SJT, so I picked it up right away. Keith added a trill every couple of bars and asked those who were comfortable with that addition to be in the front rows. I started off on the side, because being a tall sort I didn't want to block people behind me, but I was told to stand dead-center in the second row. Sorry people behind me!

Once we were in formation of rows and columns, we started playing along to the music, which proved the hardest thing to do. The pattern was relatively simple, but doing it it in time to the music was not! Even if each one of us were drummers, it would have been hard - and I don't think most people had a percussion background, so it took a very long time to get us all in sync. Eventually, after about a dozen practice runs, we did another dozen or so real shots from different angles.

I'm not sure when the video will be coming out, but it's supposed to air on MTV and the BBC when it does. Our section is about 15 seconds - pretty short - but it was a very unique experience and a chance to help a noble cause. If you're interesting in learning more about Sami and his project, you can go here. When the video is up, I'll link it here!


Edit: Here's the video! I'm only in a couple of snippets near the very end, but the whole video bears watching.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Influences: People

I wanted to give mention to a few people who've shaped me into the artist I am now. It might be in direct ways or otherwise, but it does me good to remember who I owe gratitude to.

- Roy and PJ Hirabayashi

If you don't know who Roy and PJ are, you probably don't play taiko should! I'm serious. Their contribution to North American taiko - and taiko in general - have a lot to do with where taiko is today, and even if you've never met them, without their influence, it's possible you might not even be playing taiko. Even though I learned most of my taiko directly from PJ, I can't discount how much Roy influenced my growth. It's a bit simplistic to think of it this way, but I give credit to PJ for shaping how I play and to Roy for what I play. PJ literally poked and prodded at me for many many years in order to get my lanky frame to "get it", whereas Roy challenged my sensibilities and assumptions both musically and outside of practice. Along the way I have had my share of head-butting with them both, which I know endeared me ever-so-much with them, but I hope I do them both justice.

- Yoshikazu Fujimoto

Yeah, this is a little fan service, but after falling in love with Kodo, I soon found myself admiring Yoshikazu more and more every time I got to see him. At first he was "the guy on Odaiko" that blew me away, but in time I got to know him as a very genuine person that really gave all of himself when he performed. He didn't have need to have the fastest hands or the fanciest moves but he put out the kind of energy that I strive to achieve every time I perform.

- Keith Terry

I've mentioned Keith in previous posts, but for now I'll just say he's a body musician extraordinaire. I met him through SJT when his group collaborated at our 20th anniversary, and have taken workshops from him as well as seen him perform live several times. I can't do what he does, not even close, but he made me think about how the body can be used as an instrument and not just a delivery vehicle. Being able to feel music *in* my body instead of just making it *with* my body was a radical mind-shift for me and it's still an integral part of how I perform.


There are other people who continue to push and inspire me, like Yurika who continues to challenge how I think about things, my sensei who keeps finding ways of making familiar things fresh, and my mom who supports me even when I doubt myself.

No matter how good I might get, the people that help me get there will always deserve a large part of that credit. Why not take a minute and think of the people in your life that helped you get where you are now?

Monday, January 9, 2012


What is "Japanese" in your group and when does it matter?

- Costuming

What you wear gives sends your audience a message, but what they see may not be what you intend. What does your costume/outfit say about your group? Do you wear happi, obi, tabi, hachimaki? If you wear even more traditional Japanese garb, is it because you're trying to present a very Japanese visage and style? If you only wear a few of these pieces, is it out of convenience, or budget restrictions, or...? Does what you wear support or go against the message of your group?

- Song titles

I mentioned this before, but of the songs I've composed by myself, I've never given one a Japanese title. It's not that I'm against doing so, but I prefer to name a song whatever feels best. Often, a Japanese word doesn't capture what I'm trying to get at. What about your songs? Is a Japanese name the first thing you think of? Why? Do you feel you need to give it a Japanese name because your group prefers it?

- Other instruments

Even though the difference between kane and atarigane may be slight, the difference between hyotan and shekere is not. Just as we would hope other people using taiko would at least know what they are playing, we should understand and respect the other instruments we appropriate into our music.

- Media

I remember at the first "Non-Japanese players in taiko" Discussion Session at NATC, a Caucasian woman said people would request Asian players at gigs (or be confused when non-Asians showed up). This is ignorance on the requester's part, but it made me wonder what the group's website and press info portrayed. If you have a lot of Asian faces on the website but present several non-Asians at a performance, can you really be surprised when there's confusion? What do your pictures, videos, and general web presence say about your group from the outside?

- Japanophiles

There are people who really identify with Japanese sensibilities. But not ALL sensibilities. Each and every one of us choose what we follow and what we don't. Perspective is important to realize this especially when people take a superior attitude on being "more" of something than others. Does being into anime and J-pop make someone "more" Japanese than someone who's into karate and taiko? Does being born in Japan bring more authority to anything? How would you quantify any of that? Being "more Japanese" is not only irrelevant to credibility, it's impossible to measure!


Some of these topics are more sensitive than others, but if we shy away from them, we only invite ignorance. The more we understand, the better choices we can make!

Football (2006 FIFA World Cup Germany) by Hisashi Tenmyouya

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Too late.

One thing that I hear from taiko players a good deal is how they wish they started earlier.

Look at the crop of players coming out of collegiate groups these days - there were maybe three or four college groups when I first started playing taiko! What's more, there are a good number of kids going into those collegiate groups with a lot of experience to begin with.

It's easy to look at the next generation of players and get discouraged. So much youth! So much talent! So much potential! Why even bother playing when they're so much better than you?

Ehhh...not so fast there. That's pretty harsh stuff, but I've heard people vocalize these sorts of worries.

First of all, why would you let someone else's ability affect your own? There are a lot of people that are more talented than me in many areas that I put effort into. Should I stop trying because they're better? Of course not. So why should you?

Second, why would someone's age matter? If someone younger than you with more talent makes you not want to play, what does someone older than you with more talent do to you?  How is that somehow better? I could psychoanalyze that one but it just gets weird.

And third, sure there are a lot of talented kids coming out of the newer generations of taiko players. Do you feel all of them are better than you? Or are you focusing on the ones that catch your attention? There are college taiko players that have their own issues with confidence, ability, etc., similar to other taiko players out there.

What if someone came up to you and said, "sorry, you should have started playing taiko earlier but now you'll have to stop because some of these younger kids are just going to be better than you." How many seconds would you wait until you laughed in their face? It's ridiculous coming from someone else, and it should be ridiculous coming from your inner voice, as well.

Why spend time worrying about the possible potential of other taiko players, most of whom you may never meet? What good does it do you? Go practice!

Monday, January 2, 2012 now what?

What's in store for 2012? Well the Mayans say it's the end of the world, but I'm just talking about taiko in my life so I'm not going there...

It should be a relatively normal/calm year. A collaboration coming up in February, an annual concert in the Fall, no tours that I can think of, and of course all the festival stuff sprinkled around once the weather gets warm.

I *am* going to write a song, dammit. I need to set myself a deadline and get going on it. I'm probably going back to the idea I had before the 12 Weeks challenge, because it's a strong concept and definitely not something done before (in taiko, perhaps in percussion in general?) We shall see.

I still want to develop myself as an artist, and I might look more into Stepping or Body Percussion in general. And if I get my act together (and if we get people out here), I might FINALLY test for my 3rd black belt.

So what about you, dear reader? Any art-related plans for 2012?