Monday, February 27, 2012

I spy...

When you watch a performance, where does your gaze go?

Maybe you tend to focus on the people that really project ki, or the shortest people, or whomever has the craziest solos. There's nothing wrong with any of that; we all have preferences for who and what we tend to look at.

How often do you look at what you normally wouldn't? When someone is having a great solo, even if it's a lot of fun to watch, it can be REALLY telling to look at the other players in the group. Are they supporting the soloist? Can you see it in their body language, faces, projection?

The "dead spot" is really easy to see and it's often distracting to the audience. When you have everyone onstage giving all their energy except for one person, that's what people will notice. Even if they don't continue to look at that person, their attention has been divided and it somewhat takes the joy out of a performance. Think about it this way - you can have 99 people in togas all doing jumping jacks and 1 person in that crowd in a toga standing still. Who are you going to look at? Exactly. On top of that, instead of thinking why 99 people are doing jumping jacks in togas (which is pretty rare, let me tell you), you'll be thinking, "why isn't that one doing jumping jacks?"

So let's flip the lens around. If you're doing the performing, do you try to be the one being looked at? Why? Does that add to your group or distract from it? There is a definite difference between expressing yourself through the art form and just trying to get attention.

Conversely, maybe you're not comfortable with the attention or feel that you're not "good enough" to deserve it, so you withhold your presence on the stage to let others shine. Well that's almost laudable...except doing this turns you into the dead spot! You can't hold back when you perform - it pulls attention away from the performance and it does your group a disservice. Hell, it does YOU a disservice!

This shows you that by trying to be something not seen, you effectively make yourself very visible. Ironic, no?

When you watch a performance, especially if it's a recording, do yourself a favor and look at what you usually don't. What do you see? And when you're on stage, sometimes you have to take a second to "scan" what you're putting out there. You might just be doing the very thing you're trying not to do!

Awareness is a skill that comes in multiple flavors and situations. We usually see what we want to see but being able to view things from the audience's point of view can open up a completely different perspective.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

3 years!

I know, another milestone, sorry!

Three years ago I started this blog with a drive to write about all my ideas, all the questions I wanted to ask the taiko community, and whatever rants I might feel like posting. Looking back at all I've written, I'm satisfied so far...and a bit amused.

It's not easy to think of new topics twice a week, every week. I'm still very much interested in hearing from you, my readers as to what topics are on your minds and what you'd like to have me talk about!

Want drills on how to make your left hand more competent? Have trouble staying on tempo during solos? Nervous when you perform? Have desire to compose but don't know where to start? Feel your group doesn't respect you? Wonder why there are no underwater taiko groups? ...nevermind that last one.

This blog is for me to spout off what's on my mind, but I get a lot of satisfaction by helping people in the taiko community. It means a lot to me when people come up to me and thank me for a post that really helped them, and I hope I'm able to continue doing that!

I look forward to many more years of this! I hope you all come along for the ride...

Monday, February 20, 2012

Shu ha ri

Shu ha ri, also known as jo ha kyu, is a long-term philosophy of learning. It's seen in Japanese arts like the tea ceremony, theater, and martial arts. It easily applies to any art, Asian or not.

Shu ha ri consists of three parts, each representing a time of your study:
  • Shu represents your initial teaching, when you are learning the basics of an art. You absorb what you are taught and follow tradition. This tradition doesn't have to be ancient or long-standing, just the fundamentals of your teacher and/or group.
  • Ha is where we break with tradition and introduce innovation. In a martial system, this would be reaching the black belt level, where the core style is mastered and it is time for the student to explore alternative paths, look to other arts, etc.
  • Ri is after paths have been explored and the art is simply a way of expression. It's not an end to learning, but effectively your style is you. Your actions are natural and come from years of both experience and effective teaching.

In taiko, think of it this way. In shu, you try to kiai properly. In ha, you might realize the similarity to kiai in karate and start learning how to incorporate those techniques into taiko. In ri, there is no "taiko" or "karate" kiai, it is just the way you kiai naturally and powerfully.

Even if you never reach the ri stage, that's no reason to stop trying. I feel like I'm definitely in the ha stage with karate, but don't think I'm involved enough or invested enough to take it to ri. With taiko, we'll have to see. I can see the possibility of reaching ri, but who knows if it'll happen? I can only keep going where I'm going and find out.

Also within shu ha ri can lie areas of progress as part of the whole. Maybe your projection on stage is at the ri level, but your chops aren't. It's more than just identifying your strengths, you should also know what level they are at.

Thinking of each art you study in this fashion can help to put things in perspective. Should you be understanding the fundamentals or departing from tradition? Sometimes there's no one to tell you these things; you'll just have to experiment for yourself. Just remember there's rarely a "right" way to get there, and each person might have a different approach.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rungs of the ladder

Would you rather be in a group where you were the best player or worst? No, it's not a trick question, but let me put it in a better context.

Let's say there are two groups you could join. For argument's sake, let's say that both groups are filled with the kind of people you like, play the kind of taiko you like, etc. The only difference is in the talent level of the players in the groups.

In group 1, you would be the most talented player, with no chance of anyone surpassing your skills. You would have the lion's share of parts, you would possibly be asked to create and/or lead drills, and you would have a lot of input into creative decisions during practice. In group 2, you would be the least talented player, with no chance of ever surpassing anyone's skills. You would get a fair share of parts but never featured, you would only be a participant in drills, and you would only have a small share into creative decisions during practice.

Neither situation is ideal, I realize. In the first, you'd never be challenged to grow and could easily develop an inflated sense of self. In the latter, no matter what you did you'd never feel like you were "coming into your own" and could easily feel worthless.

In a way this is a question about ego. I know the easy answer is to be in group 2, where you can say there's people to constantly learn from and you would have to continue to push yourself to remain relevant. But let's not villainize those who pick group 1! It's really easy to say that people who want that position in a group are ego-driven. The "best" player in a group would have to work pretty hard in order to better themselves without someone else in the group to follow. They'd also have to put a lot of thought into how their actions rippled through the rest of the group.

It's easy to say that the person in group 1 would tend to be lazy, but that argument could be applied to the person in group 2. Either role can be lazy, but it can also be for someone hungry to learn and get better, as well.

Being at "the top" is a goal for some, but shouldn't be looked at as inherently a bad thing as long as ego is matched by intention and responsibility. Conversely, being on "the bottom" isn't just a place for slackers, because there's a lot of opportunity to learn from people more skilled than they.

Where you are in a group is often not so much up to you, but knowing why you want to be in a certain role can prove pretty insightful.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Hanayui collaboration!


Two days ago, SJT put on a collaborative concert with Hanayui and Yoshikazu Fujimoto of Kodo. Before I go further, I want to explain briefly who Hanayui is (I've covered Yoshikazu in several of my past posts.)

You can look at the link here to read a bit more about the three members, Yoko, Chieko, and Mitsue. SJT has had a link to Hanayui since just before I joined if I recall, and I personally got to experience them with workshops on Sado Island when I visited Japan back in 2001.

Yoko is an incredible singer with a warm, resonating voice that has a quality I've not heard anywhere else. Mitsue and Chieko are both dancers with different specialties - Mitsue has a more "folk" style while Chieko is more about grace. They are both amazing artists that I can't do justice with so few words.

We spent the entire week with them in preparation for the show - even though Staff did the bulk of the work, I was glad to be able to spend most of Tuesday to lend a hand (or bachi) and experience how things were developing. Group practices at night were hectic and a little nerve-wracking, but with only a week to work with, we just wanted to make sure it would be a top-notch performance. A little pressure can lead to a lot of motivation!

The performance was pretty much sold-out and was a fantastic production. Each artist got to showcase their talent as a soloist as well as by performing with SJT. The only downside was that due to a lack of time, we weren't able to have any workshop time with them, but that wasn't anyone's fault. We were lucky to get them in on their way to Minneapolis for their next show!

Personally, my highlights were all Yoshikazu-related. What can I say, I'm a fanboy when it comes to him. I was able to study him soloing on the odaiko several times in practice, then was about 20 feet away from him when he performed his solo in the concert. Learning Wachi from him (for the 3rd time) was just plain fun. And at the potluck the day after, I spent a good long time talking to Yoshikazu about his thoughts on odaiko (through language difficulties, mind you). Priceless stuff!

I'm definitely inspired by Hanayui's talent and Yoshikazu's presence, so we'll see what seeds were planted. I'll be posting a bunch of photos on FB in a day or so, and if you're ever able to see a Hanayui performance sometime in the future, you owe it to yourself to see an amazing trio!

Stay tuned...

Just finished a collaborative concert with Hanayui and Yoshikazu Fujimoto. Will write about it ASAP!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Learn to learn

We all learn songs in the course of playing taiko. Maybe you get taught a song by slow gradual repetition or maybe it's explained to you in great detail. Maybe your whole group gets taught at once or maybe you get more one-on-one time. For pretty much all of us, we have one thing in common when it comes to learning new pieces - we get told what to do.

In other words, someone says, "play this, like this," and you do your best to do just that. But what would happen if someone taught you without any words? If someone just played a song and expected you to learn from just watching, how much would that freak you out? Why?

Ok, so maybe that's not likely, because even if someone didn't speak your language they could still infer things with gestures and vocal cues. Still, the initial scenario begs the question, how much do you rely on people to tell you what to do? How much do you expect to be handed the answers?

This really goes deeper than just learning a song. What else do you need to be told to you before you can figure it out? How much then do you stop looking for the answers and instead become expectant of others to teach you?

Don't expect to only be taught in the ways that work best for you. Find the opportunities to learn when you're not being explicitly taught, or you'll wind up plateauing early!

Monday, February 6, 2012


When you watch someone practice or perform, how do you measure their talent? This seems like a simple question at first, but let's take a look...

At first glance, we tend to view someone's talent through OUR lens. We notice what's important to us - what we notice in ourselves. That's only natural. The downfall here is judging whether someone is talented or not based on those limited parameters.

It's not always easy to look at what someone is good at if we're not good at it to begin with. Still, we should endeavor to try and develop that sort of critical eye, in order to get better at it ourselves. Another way to look at it is, imagine someone else viewing you and making talent assessments. You'd want someone watching you to take in the whole picture, right?

There's also the non-performing stuff, the things a person brings to a group that aren't on the stage. It's not something the audience is going to see, but it definitely is an element to be considered. Personality, drum-making, songwriting, experience...those are just a few on the list.

Finally, a lot depends on the group a person is in. If a group doesn't focus on presence and ki, then the players might not look to be talented in that area. It doesn't mean it's not a valid observation, but may simply give a reason for why you don't see it in a performance.

The point of my blog here is two-fold. One, I want you to consider different kinds of "talent" when it comes to watching a performer, and what you may or may not be seeing. Two, I want you to realize that if you ever start getting down on yourself about how "good" you are, think about all the other talents that you bring to your group.

Talent should never be narrowly-defined, whether you're the player or the audience. Keeping your eyes, ears, and mind open is the best way to hone your observation skills - which is something good to be talented in!

Thursday, February 2, 2012


When do you stop merely imitating and start thinking for yourself?

In karate, there's a concept called bunkai. Bunkai is the process of kata analysis in which the kata that one has been studying are disassembled and one tries to figure out what the meaning behind the moves are. Mind you, the meanings are lost to time - assuming there were any meanings to begin with. But that's a topic I'm not going into here because I value my sanity (not really, but I don't want to get off on a tangent!)

The idea is that you are taught a kata and learn how to do each move correctly in turn. After you are comfortable with the sequence, bunkai takes you from knowing the how to knowing the why. My bunkai may be different from yours, but both can be correct. It's a combination of logical process and personal preferences.

When you start taiko, you do what you're told (unless you're a jerk, ha!) You get told what's expected and you try to match what your instructor shows you. Sooner or later, however, there needs to be a time when you start looking for more than what you're being told. Unless your instructor is only teaching you, there's only so much they're going to be able to help you with. Also, your instructor may intentionally hold things back from you because they want you to figure things out for yourself.

When that time comes, what you look at and what you figure out is really up to you. And like with bunkai, what you figure out might be different from what someone else figures out. The real question isn't what should you look at, but when?

Bunkai is an easy concept to have someone begin, even if the actual process is difficult. Depending on your dojo, you will have set guidelines for when bunkai is expected/required. Whenever you hit that rank, you should be thinking about it. Simple enough. But that's karate, where ranks are clearly established. In taiko, those sort of systems don't really exist, so when do you go from just doing to thinking?

I can't tell you that, it's something you'll have to figure out for yourself. There are few (if any) taiko teachers that are going to tell you, "now it's time for you to figure things out." As I say in my posts again and again, your development is really up to you!