Monday, April 30, 2012

Notating ideas

In my last post, a reader asked me how I notate/write down my song ideas.  I started responding to her but then realized it was getting to be quite long and maybe would be better as a separate post!

I picked up a minor in Music, and in that time I was able to read music at an adequate level.  Not enough to read an orchestral score, but enough to notate any taiko song I knew - which was all I really cared about, lol.

However, before I was at that point, I still had ideas that I wanted to write down, and I had two methods:
  • Hash Marks were my first system, and I still revert to it when I have a pattern I can't get down with notation quickly enough.  All I do is mark down 8 lines (effectively 8th notes) with differing lengths.  The line lengths just make it easier to see the pattern as a whole, because 8 equally-long lines make it look messier.  It goes something like:
        • Very long border mark, short mark, medium mark, short mark, long mark, short mark, medium mark, short mark.  Repeat if needed.
        • Circles or dots or X on or in-between lines to mark different types of sounds.
  • Graph Paper is the easiest method to use, but also takes longer than just throwing up some lines and you might not always have it handy.  A filled-in box is a note, an empty box is a space, an X is a different sound, etc.  Makes for a very organized notation, too.
In terms of technology, there's a few options:

  • Garageband (Mac) / Audacity (PC) are two recording programs that you can play into to record your ideas.  Doesn't matter if you play an instrument or just sing into the microphone, they can record separate tracks and play them back however you like.  They're not too hard to learn, but like graph paper, if you don't have it handy when you have an idea, you're out of luck.
  • Microphone is a less tech-savvy version than the above, but you can also call your own voice mail!  It's a good solution when you can't write anything down (like in the car or the bathroom, lol.)
  • Notation Software isn't cheap, but you can get it often for half-price if you're a student.  Finale and Sibelius (which I use) are the two bigger brands.  It's also ridiculously overpowered for what most of us would use it for.  It has a huge library of sounds, from taiko to gamelan to orchestral percussion.  To use this, you have to be able to write notation and be comfortable with a relatively difficult interface at first.

There are other programs out there, probably some apps as well.  To me, I feel that you don't need to know notation to compose a song, as long as you have a way to capture what's in your head and in a quick amount of time before it disappears.

If my readers have other suggestions that work for them, feel free to list them in the comments section!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

New Song Diary: Let's see where this goes...

A couple of nights ago I had an idea for a song.  Hooray!  One more to add to the pile of 850 other song ideas...

But this one was different.  Nearly all my song ideas come from musical ideas - and when I did my "12 Songs, 12 Weeks" project, I found that when I try to create a song based on movement, it results in painful failures.  So when this song idea started with visuals and then kept growing in my head, I was pleasantly surprised.

In the time between then and now (2 whole days), I've come up with some patterns, which then led me to a pattern I've wanted to put in a song for well over a decade.  It just seems to fit so nicely.

I'm excited to have something that seems to be coming together so fast, so easily.  I still have to actually WRITE something, but this is the kind of inspiration I've been waiting for.

Should this last over the next few weeks, I'll have worked on it a little more and can write more about it.  If not, well...851 song ideas in the closet!

Monday, April 23, 2012

On Creativity, part 2

Picking up where we left off last post, I want to talk about how to best get into the Open Mode (OM), that place of play and creativity.

  • Ideal conditions for Open Mode
1. Space
2. Time
3. Time (yes, twice)
4. Confidence
5. Humor

Space is finding a place where you can be undisturbed, simple as that.

Time (the first one) refers to the temporal.  Once you have a place, you need to give yourself time to play.  No less than 30 minutes, because the brain will need that much time to get "ready", and if you end there, you end frustrated.  No more than 90 minutes at a time, to avoid mental fatigue.  Another session of 90 minutes in a few days.

Time (the second one) addresses when to make a decision.  John Cleese, in the video, describes a colleague that he found much more creative than himself, but who would produce less creative sketches.  This member would take the first idea/solution that came to mind, which was often not at creative as one that might come later in the process.  Taking the first solution makes people often feel "better", but those who are the most creative are ok with that slight discomfort of an issue yet resolved.

Confidence is the antithesis of fear.  Fear of making a mistake will stop creativity faster than anything else.  To be open to whatever happens is the essence of play.  If you're worried that some direction you take might be "wrong", you cannot play; you're either free to play, or not.  In this mode, you risk being silly, illogical, and/or wrong, but there's no such thing as a mistake.  Who knows what might lead to a breakthrough?

Finally, Humor is what gets us from OM to Closed Mode (CM) quicker than anything else.  Being serious is one thing, but solemnity serves no purpose other than pompousity.  Humor is essential to being playful!

  • If you put in the time, you will be rewarded
If you've spent enough time pondering, your brain will come up with ideas out of the blue.

  • It's easier to be creative when there are other people to play with.
 Throwing out ideas with others produces more sparks.  However, if one of those people makes you feel defensive, you lose confidence and that creativity dies.  Never use words like "no" or "I don't like that," try, "go on" or "I don't understand that, can you explain it to me again?"

  •  Absurdity has its place.
You can exercise loosening up your assumptions by playing with deliberately crazy connections.  It's contrary to the idea of having to be right at every stage.  Even if an idea is absurd, it can be a stepping stone to something that is useful!


So that's how to be creative.  Go do it!  :D

Thursday, April 19, 2012

On Creativity, part 1

I happened across a video the other day, a lecture that John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) was giving on "how to be creative." I've watched through all 36 minutes of it twice now, and you can find the video here if you want.

His findings, taken from both scientific studies and personal experiences, really hit home for me. I wanted to summarize the video in a two-part post. In this part, I want to touch on the idea of "play", and the concept of open vs. closed mode (and how both are important).

  • Creativity is not a talent, it's a way of operating.
There is no link between IQ and talent, and creativity is often thought of (incorrectly) as something only some people are good at. Some of us are allowed more time or space to be creative, but all of us have the ability. The more creative among us are better at getting into the mood of play - playing with ideas - not for any immediate practical purpose but just to enjoy.
  • Open Mode vs. Closed Mode.

Creativity is not possible in the Closed Mode (CM). It's the mode most of us operate in at work, when things need to get done, we're active, slightly anxious (in a good way sometimes), probably a little impatient (with ourselves), a little tense, not very humorous, purposeful, easily stressed, and even manic.

By contrast, the Open Mode (OM) is relaxed, expansive, less purposeful, more contemplative, more inclined to humor, more playful, and allows curiosity for its own sake.

Alexander Fleming did a study where he set out dishes for cultures to grow on overnight. In the morning, he discovered all but one of the dishes had culture growth. In a Closed Mode, he would have only had use for dishes with culture growth and discarded the one dish with none. But because of his Open Mode of thinking at the time, he became curious at the dish without culture, which ultimately led to the discovery of Penicillin.

  • Closed Mode is not always a bad thing.

The OM is what we need to ponder a problem, but once we have a solution, we should switch to the CM. We don't want to be distracted by doubts as is possible in the OM when we are trying to implement something. It's akin to running towards a large chasm to get across in one leap, and having doubts just as you begin to jump...

To implement the best of both worlds, we should switch back and forth between modes. OM to ponder, then CM to implement. Then back to OM, to review whatever feedback you now have, then back again to CM, repeating the process as necessary.

Too often, we get stuck in CM, leading us to tunnel vision when we should really step back and take a wider view.

One criticism of politicians is that they are addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events on an hour-by-hour basis. They have lost the ability to ponder a problem in the OM. I would say this is not limited to politicians, but something that can affect just about anyone. It's easy to see that one would feel productive by staying in a reactive mode, but it comes at the expense of both one's creative muscle and the creativity of those around them (which I'll touch on more in part two).

In the next part, I'll talk about how he breaks down the ideal conditions for the Open Mode, working with others, and how absurdity can be a useful tool. Of course, if you have the time and inclination, you can skip my next post and just watch the video! I highly recommend it, but you should still read the blog, too. :)

Monday, April 16, 2012

New tags!

Do try to contain yourselves!

I've been thinking about adding some more tags to my blog, because lately everything is going under the tag of "perspective" and that doesn't really help people find a topic they might be interested in.

I'm not going to tag every post with something unique, but I thought about what my blogs are mostly about and what's important to me.

So here are the current tags that bear pointing out:

Controversial (anything I feel stirs up passionate discussions and/or feelings in people)
Fear (issues of fear and/or failure, in terms of affecting a person as an artist)
Growth (similar to "perspective", but touching on tools or how to improve as an artist)
Identity (asking the reader to look at what makes them the person they are)
Me (things that pertain to my experiences)
Performance (relating to a specific performance I was in)
Performing (talking about playing for an audience)
Random (can't find a category for it)
Special (anniversaries, special blog posts, etc.)

As usual, I'm open to making things better for my readers, so if you have a tag to suggest, feel free to do so!

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Don't skim ahead! I'm posing a question below that I want you to read through and answer in your head, so do your best to read through. Ready?

Here's the scenario...

Imagine you're called in to help a new taiko group. They play some of their songs for you, and you notice they need a lot of work on their form, they're not very together as an ensemble, their striking is on the weaker side, and their energy doesn't come forth very easily.

Here are the conditions:
  • You only have time to address one of their issues.
  • You have to address one of the four issues listed.
  • You have the ability to talk to any of the four issues and teach it well.
So what's your first inclination?

Go ahead, think about it...


...ok, done? Read on.

What did you choose? Did you decide to:

1.) Focus on movement, in order to help them use their body in a smoother, more efficient way?

2.) Focus on ensemble work, to help them sound stronger and tighter when they play together?

3.) Focus on striking, so that each person sounds cleaner and stronger?

4.) Focus on energy/ki, to help them look more engaging when they play?

Of course, there's a fifth option...did any of you think of this one before picking one of the four options?

5.) Ask them what they want to work on.

There's really nothing wrong with picking any one of the first four options, it just shows where your strengths and priorities are. But that fifth one is something to consider, hmm?

Sometimes it's good to give someone what they need, but sometimes it's also good to give someone what they want.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Like vs. Respect

For me, it's not always easy to see taiko through two lenses.

On one side, I love seeing people enjoying taiko no matter how long they've been playing, no matter what their group plays for. On the other, I have my tastes and preferences and although I'm open to new things, I also know what I like and what I don't.

When it comes to taiko I don't personally like, I can still appreciate something about it. Of course there are times when I just don't like it and don't get it, but I do try!

Sometimes people can't separate "like" and "respect". They feel that if they don't like it, there's nothing to like about it. It says a lot about a person who can admit to not liking something but at the same time, find what's good about it. It also says a lot about the person who, when they don't like something, put it down right away. It's a bit myopic!

There's also something similar to someone who proclaims to like all taiko, because it makes me wonder about their artistic eye. But at least they're positive, so hey!

Next time you don't like something - no matter if it's taiko, music, art, or whatever - ask yourself what about it can still be appreciated. Does it need to be something YOU like in order to be worthwhile?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Taiko Community (a rant)

The North American Taiko Community is an interesting one. We move forward by looking backwards. One could argue that we're not actually able to move forward because of this.

In the last couple of years there has been a big shift in interest towards the history and roots of taiko. More and more people seem to want to learn styles like Hachijo and Miyake, to learn from Japanese teachers, and get a feel for "traditional" rhythms/music/styles.

Even before that, there was a lot of energy spent into making sure the community knew how taiko started in North America, the pioneers, the groups, and all that was done to make it possible for us to do what we do now.

We've collectively turned our gaze back to the past and what's come before, and that action will shape the next generation of taiko groups and players. This in itself is neither a good nor bad thing in my opinion, I'm just stating my observations.

However, I feel that there is this feeling that people now have to "justify" their "authenticity", so as to combat those who question their right to play a certain song or style. This suspicion begets suspicion and then that sucks away the energy that could be spent encouraging and supporting the art within the community itself.

What if there was less focus on making sure every group that played Miyake learned it from an "approved" source? What if there was less worry where a group learned Yodan Uchi from? There will always be people who act as self-appointed Taiko Police, so do we as a community need to focus so much on it? I'll be there are some people are probably screaming "yes!" right now. Hmm.

It's never cool to play a song without proper credit - there's really no way around that. And there will always be groups who play songs that they didn't learn "properly", whatever that might mean. But how much energy do we want to spend on "fixing" it? The only way to do it effectively is to clamp down tight on what's out there now and spend a lot of effort keeping that up...but is that where our focus should go?

So we don't want people to copy styles without direct teaching and we come down on those who do. We have a very small amount of public domain songs available and those that are out there aren't always easy to play for some groups. We want taiko to grow as an art form but we tell people "you have to know what's come before" when so many people don't have access to resources or time to look backwards.

If you're an established group, you have luxuries many newer/smaller groups don't. I think that a lot of smaller groups, because they need the resources of the larger community, fall into line when it would be amazing to see them break away and be...subversive. Would people talk smack about them? Oh yes. But that happens in other arts ALL THE TIME. Why not taiko? The community offers support but it also limits us because of accepted norms and peer pressure. No one wants to be the black sheep!

I look at hip-hop and martial arts and there are similarities to taiko here. Both arts have history that students should learn about, like the importance of knowing key people or where where a style started out from. But in both arts, there are groups that break free from established organizations, regulations, and challenge what's established to find both creativity and new systems. They get flak, they face resistance, but sometime of they find ways to thrive and even take the art to another level.

This post started out as something else and turned into a bit of a rant, but I'm going to post it anyways. My goal isn't to stir up drama for the sake of drama, it's to make people think. To question. So there you go!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Active learning

Tonight I went to help judge another one of my dojo's quarterly belt testings. In between the two tests scheduled tonight I wound up talking to a fellow black belt about the test we had just watched.

The first test was not one of the better ones, and we talked about the habit of "passive learning."

Several of our students watch things happening right in front of them, but it's like they're zoning out in front of the TV - the information washes over them and they're not absorbing or questioning it. I can see them looking at other people but they're not trying to learn anything.

I wrote a post here about being spoon-fed information, but this is something different. When people wait to be spoon-fed, they are choosing not to learn until someone teaches them something. As bad as that is, at least they're being active in their choice...although choosing to be lazy isn't a good choice!

What we're seeing this time is people only learning when they're being talked to directly. Unfortunately, we're not able to teach people like that all the time. We often address the entire class, giving general advice about the most prevalent issues, and I like to think people are learning from it, but the passive learners don't seem to get it. Why?

Now I'm not going to accuse any of you of being passive learners, but when you're at a practice and something is being shown or taught - but not directly to you - are you still trying to learn from it?

Paying attention should be more than just looking in the direction of who's talking, right? After a practice, try some mental exercises to see if you really were paying attention. Did someone else in class get comments? What were they? Do those comments apply to you as well? Even if they don't, it's the process of listening in the first place that's the point here.

Why waste time staring when you could take a tiny bit of effort and turn it into learning? It's just about being aware of the habits we easily slip into so we can do better!