Thursday, March 29, 2012

Drill: Vocal coordination

It's really easy to get "stuck" into kiai-ing in the same spot in songs you're familiar with because we tend to do what comes naturally. Some songs have patterns that are hard enough to play correctly, let alone put in vocalizations!

Since there's already attention given to how to kiai and what to kiai, it's only natural to start thinking about when to kiai!

To stretch your "vocal dexterity", try this drill:
  1. Pick a simple pattern or ji to play over and over.
  2. Try kiai and/or kakegoe on top of the pattern.
  3. Try improvising/soloing vocally - find what fits into the pattern you're playing
  4. Improvise or experiment, find the spots that feel natural where it's difficult to vocalize.
  5. Repeat with more complex patterns.
While most of us will never have a full-on vocal solo in a performance, being aware of your tendencies and habits can open up a whole new realm to explore.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Make it better

In karate, I've noticed a trend in my training. One of the black belts notices a bad habit of mine, I spend months fixing it, then a little while later, the cycle repeats with a different habit.

I've sort of gotten used to it, but it made me think of this post.

Take one thing you want to work on. It can be anything, from something you get told to "fix" to something you want to improve on. Focus on it for a month. Repeat.

You'll probably still get comments from others and things will come up that you'll have to deal with in the meantime. But take that one thing and focus on it. Work on it. Study it, examine it, re-examine it. When the month is over, pick something else!

A month is nothing in the total scope of your training, but this is definitely a long-term plan. After several months of this sort of training, you can get some serious results on top of a newer, deeper understanding of how other things work (since nothing is truly isolated).

This sort of targeted training lets you not only decide what to tackle next, but can help get a list of "issues" get resolved one by one with definitive results!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Role Model

What examples do you set at practice?

It's easy as human beings to think other people aren't doing things the "right" way. But ask yourself, would you want a group with people who do what you do? Behave how you behave?

Think about how you act in your group during practice. Are you easily distracted or looking for reasons to be distracted? Are you always trying to tell jokes or make conversation? Are you so focused on your technique that you're not aware of what's going on around you? Do you approach drills like they're a chore?

Over the years I've had to address a lot of my bad habits at practice, both at karate and taiko. Sometimes I got called out for them, other times I was able to step back and see them for myself. Are there still some that I need to address? Yep. Am I trying? Yep. Is it easy? Nope.

A good test for whether a trait is detrimental to a practice or not is to ask yourself, "what if everyone did this?" If that's too unrealistic for you, then ask, "would new members to the group get in trouble if they did this?" Aside from what hierarchical or seniority protocols a group might have, it should be pretty easy to answer those questions.

Monday, March 19, 2012


I realized something recently that I always knew.

If you're saying to yourself, "wait, what?" then congrats, you're awake!

In both SJT and karate there's a lot of focus on the hara, the seat of movement. I'm using hara on everything from the flashiest spinning kick to the smallest tap on the drum. While I've made comparisons between the arts on the use of hara, I just now started thinking about the comparison within each art individually.

There's two things I want to get to in my post:
  • The more things you can keep the same, the easier everything is.

In SJT, we play betta (down), naname (slant), tateuchi (upstand) odaiko, shime, katsugi okedo, and a host of other percussion. If you have to learn a completely different stance and grip and way of moving your body for each of those, it would take a dozen years to just get "good" at them all. And that's assuming you're able to keep up and not let anything slip along the way. That's a crazy amount of information and too much pressure.

If you find the common links between them all, you never have to start from scratch whenever you approach something new. Things like wrist snap, relaxation, and generating power from the hara translate across the board.

Granted, it's not always easy to make those translations. Take for instance the odaiko, which utilizes everything that playing betta does, but not in the same fashion. I can teach you how to stand and how to strike and how to relax when playing odaiko but until you figure out how it's supposed to feel within your own body, it may feel nothing like betta.

  • Moving from the center tends to make things stronger, faster, and easier.

I can punch you as hard as I possibly can using just my arm and it will hurt. That sort of punch comes from both the shoulder and arm muscles and can be pretty damned fast. However, if I generate the initial power from my hara - my center - the acceleration goes beyond anything my upper body alone can muster and adds my body's mass to the potential power. The result? More damage, more speed, and less effort because I'm spreading out the responsibility throughout my body.

It doesn't matter if it's a punch or striking with bachi, the exact same principles come into play. What's misleading is that using the hara so much at first feels like anything but efficient. The body wiggles, bounces, shifts, all these extra motions that take more energy to control. Once hara becomes an ally rather than a stranger, almost everything can get stronger, faster, and easier.

You can only hit a taiko so hard before you're doing damage - not just to the drum, but to yourself! Efficiency should take precedent over power here. For those on the other side, who have trouble generating power in their strike, the hara is where a lot of that missing power can come from, once you tap into it.


I don't consider the hara to be some sort of "mystical well" of energy - simply put, it's your deeper core muscles. By understanding your hara, you can achieve some amazing things. You won't get as tired when you play, you won't need to rely on arm strength, you can pick up a different way of playing much quicker, you'll generate more power with less effort, etc.

Once you understand moving from the center, youll spend less time figuring out what's different on new things and instead understanding what's mutual. Instead of looking outside-in, you'll be moving from inside-out.

Discovering hara-based movement isn't always easy and even when you're able to feel it, it may not be easy to utilize it or remember it. However, there are few things that will benefit you more to study.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


When it comes to taiko, are you:

A performer? A player? An artist? A professional? An enthusiast? A composer? A student? A teacher? A practitioner? A fan? An amateur?

Does it matter to you which of these labels you'd use to define yourself? Or does it matter more what other people see you as? Why?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Soloing, part 6-2: How to create a solo

Last post, I talked about crafting vs. improvisation. That's all well and good, but if you're new to soloing or just need a new approach, where do you take it?

There are countless ways to think about building a solo. I've had workshops with several different people who approach it from several different ways and I think it's good to listen to many perspectives. You never know when someone will say something you've never considered, or phrase something that never sunk in before and you get a moment of true inspiration.

Keeping things simple, let's look at two different approaches to solo development - the Forest and the Trees. Most of you are probably familiar with the phrase "can't see the forest for the trees", which usually has a negative connotation about a person's inability to see the big picture because they're too focused on the small details. Here, there is no "right" or "wrong" side, and the two demonstrate different ways to approach a solo.

The Forest looks at a solo in a larger scheme:
  • What's the mood of the piece? How would you solo in a fun, festive piece differently than a driving, intense one? What feeling does the ji impart to the solo?
  • What are your other solos like? Would you be interested in connecting them together by a common theme or perhaps try to be distinct?
  • How can you play off the soloist before you, or give something to the soloist following you?
The Trees looks at a solo by the tools you can bring into play:
  • Adding elements such as humor or drama by intentionally inserting it.
  • Moments of deliberate action, such as adding a jump, drop, or a... ...dramatic pause.
  • Moments of deliberate sound, such as a sharp "splat" or a buzzed note, or even a short passage of ka when there are none elsewhere in your solo.
  • Moments of ma (space/distance), either visually (by not moving) or musically (by not striking).
There are other ways to think of solos that don't follow either Forest or Trees, such as:
  • Thinking in abstract terms. What does the color green sound like? How would you play a sunset?
  • Thinking of the solo as a story you're telling the audience. What are you trying to say?
  • What did the composer of the song have in mind when they wrote it? How can you do it justice in your solo?
It really doesn't matter if you plan your solo out or let the inspiration hit you in the moment. Improvisation can use all of these elements just as much as crafting can. I find that most people like having new ways to think about soloing, because it's so easy to stay in our "box", whether we want to get outside of it or not.

The interesting thing about all these elements is that they can be applied to composing as well. What would an "orange" song sound like? How about a song that goes from fun to driving halfway through? What if everyone stops moving at once? It goes to show you that so much of what we do in one area can be easily linked to another, so you should never stop trying to grow in as many different ways as possible!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Soloing, part 6-1: Creating a solo

When it comes to soloing, you have a choice between how much you want to improvise and how much you want to craft something ahead of time. They're not mutually exclusive and each one comes with its particular advantages and disadvantages.

Crafting or pre-choreographing a solo is often a safer route to take, especially for those newer to soloing. You get to carefully plan what you're going to do under your terms, and have the structure of the song as well as the length of your solo set in advance. This process can lead to a rock-solid solo that you can deliver again and again.

One of the dangers here is being stuck in that solo, being unable or unwilling to change what's worked so well. Another danger is when something unexpected happens (dropped bachi, mental distraction, etc.) and you're thrown "off the rails" so to speak. It might be very difficult to get back where you were, especially if the solo is metered and now there's even more pressure on you to get back before it's supposed to end. Finally, there's the real danger of artistic stagnation as you're not thinking of new things to try and you lose out on the ability to get better at improvisation.

On the other side there's playing things on the fly, improvisation. Although this is a more difficult skill to master, being able to improvise in one song usually helps you improvise in other songs, and the skill grows the more you use it. This path also makes it easier to adapt to situations that go awry, and lets you express yourself in different situations.

That being said, there's no guarantee an improvised solo will go well and sometimes things won't go the way you wanted. This can be anything from an awkward phrase to one of those dropped bachi I mentioned earlier. There's a bit of a catch-22 situation here: it takes skill to develop the ability to play through those errors, but it takes time spent improvising to gain that skill. So there's an inherent risk factor the more you improvise and often no guarantee of having a solid solo.

Like most things, the best solution is subjective. Neither extreme is ideal for most of us, but finding your own balance is part of the process. For me personally, I lean heavily on the improvised side of soloing. I have one crafted solo for a song in our repertoire, and there are a few bars in other songs I tend to insert, but for the most part I enjoy that creative freedom and the reward of taking those risks. Does it always work? Hell no! But it's the way I like to express myself.

Crafting and improvising can go hand-in-hand. Even though I think improvisation is the more valuable skill of the two, there might be times when you have to craft a solo and doing it well isn't always easy.

In my next post I'll talk about how to create solos, both crafted and improvised. If you find yourself with questions on soloing, please refer to any of my previous "Soloing" posts or leave a comment and ask me what you'd like to hear about!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Growing pains

If you've read my blog for even a little while, you know I talk a lot about growth and awareness; they go hand-in-hand. My last post was pretty personal and I touched on the idea that as you get more skilled, it's easy to lose perspective on how far you've come.

This past weekend, all the way through the next, SJT is holding three of its Taiko Intensive Workshops, two to three days each. The participants go from one drill to another, never really able to stay in their comfort zone of skill. It's not that they're uncomfortable, but there's always a SJT member to help them improve by pushing them further.

Watching the TWI participants, and being fresh off my last post, I started thinking about the link between awareness and skill. It's when you realize you could be doing something in a better way that growth can happen.

Let's say you're practicing a simple pattern on the drum when you realize that your left hand is turned differently from your right. That awareness gives you the ability to adjust your left hand, which in turn makes your technique better. Now that your hands are striking the same way, you're able to figure out that your left side isn't as loud as your left, so you spend time figuring out the cause...and the cycle repeats.

So if you ever look at your plate and think there's something too hard to do or too many things to overcome, think of it this way instead... Being aware that you need to work on something means not only are you now able to get better at it, you're halfway there!

Thursday, March 1, 2012


I suck.

When I play odaiko, I feel like I can't get my body to push my hara into the drum enough; I'm moving side to side too much. My hits aren't equal in strength because of my left hand not being as strong as the right.

When I play naname style, I feel like this big lumbering thing that dwarfs the drum. When I solo on the slant drum, I can't seem to stop my motions and wind up just flailing around all the time.

Even when I'm playing a fast straight beat, just a simple R L R L, I can feel the unevenness and see how my bachi are sloppy, not staying in the same part of the drum.

I see groups like Kodo and Tao with members better than me, who do the things I wish I could do so effortlessly.

In other words, I suck.

Did I shock you? With the exception of the very first and very last line, everything I just said above are things I've felt. These are some of the things I struggle with. But here's the reason why I'm posting all this.


When I just look at where a skill is now, it's easy to think of how inadequate it is. After that I can easily compare myself so someone who's "better" than me. From there, all the doubts and negative thoughts can come rushing in. In this way, I'm no different than the rest of us. So if I suck, then we all suck. Do we all suck? No way!

However, when I look how far I've gone, that's when things get better. I used to be unable to figure out how to use my hara on the odaiko in any effective way, let alone even last more than 3-4 minutes on it. I used to stand way too close in naname and use bachi that were way too short for me, often overhitting to compensate. I used to be stiff and my motions came from awkward, disjointed places. I used to have trouble playing any pattern at great speed, even one as "simple" as a straight beat.

See a pattern here? "Used to." Things I do well now weren't necessarily things I was good at before. It's really easy to find reasons to tell yourself that you're not very good. But why? Why do that to yourself? Why not instead focus on the things you've gotten better at and what potential you have left to achieve?

Some of you may think I'm talented when it comes to taiko. I'm honored if you do - humble enough to dissuade it, but honest enough to admit it's flattering. But I never passed through a magic portal that suddenly made my doubts and concerns go away! Sure, some things that were hard for me are now easy, but for wherever level I'm at now, I have a new set of difficulties to deal with. Also, I'm looking at my skills through a much more demanding critical eye. My straight beat might sound near-perfect to the audience, but *I* still feel every tiny mis-hit or the tiny inequalities in tone.

It's called growth! Struggle, overcome, move forward, repeat. It's rarely that easy, but that's still the process. Even those you think are really good probably have similar issues that you do - maybe not about the same things, but I bet it's closer than you might think.

Dwelling on your deficiencies only anchors you to where you are now. Step back, look at where you've gone and never discount your own potential! Then get back to practicing. :)