Thursday, May 31, 2012


Did you know that Kodo wrote the song "Miyake"?  Or that you can't use the slant stand (naname) without permission?  Or that Seiichi Tanaka is a redhead?

Ok, that last one was just to make sure you were paying attention.  The first two are wrong, though.

Every month there are new taiko players joining groups...collegiate, recreational, community, professional, etc.  And most groups are focused on growth, if not survival.  It may not be easy for a lot of groups to take the time to make sure their members are well-versed in the history of their own group, let alone the history taiko in North America (or their particular country), let alone the history of taiko overall!

And even if a group does teach its members some sort of history, there's the additional burden of maintaining that knowledge - who's responsible for keeping it up/handing it down?  The leaders of the group?  Certain members?  All the members?

Then there's the issue of what to teach.  If it's just the history of the group, it shouldn't be too hard.  But when it comes to the bigger picture, what's really important?  Maybe it's more important to know who taught your teacher, or where your style of drumming comes from.  Maybe you should know who the "firsts" were.  It's really going to depend on your interest and what's important to your group.

On that note, you should be careful to not get too bogged down with the details unless that's your thing.  Do you need to know the names of the original Oedo Sukeroku members?  Not bad information to have.  Do you need to know the names of every song in their repertoire?  Knock yourself out, but are there more useful things to know?

Finally, we come to the issue of the quality of information.  Where are you getting it from?  Who's a credible source?  There's a LOT of information available out there, but that doesn't mean it's all good stuff.  There are definitely students out there that are being told misleading or incorrect things by their teachers, although most of those groups are isolated from most of the taiko community.  Another complication is when two or more equally credible sources have differing takes on the same who's "right"?

I realize I've just spent half a page showing why it can be a pain in the ass to learn about taiko history, but let me end by saying it's something we should all be responsible for.  To what degree, to what detail, that's really up to the individual.  There's no "Taiko 101" class you can take, but there are incredible resources out there.  The North American Taiko Conference, regional taiko conferences, and the larger groups out there can be a great start.  There's the Taiko Community page on Facebook, for those so inclined.

Even a little bit of taiko history can give you knowledge and empowerment.  Can you play taiko without it?  Sure.  You can play taiko with only one bachi, too.  Learn something new, see what happens!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Question Everything: Being "good"

What does it mean to be "good"?

Say you're performing and your solo is off.  It's a little ahead of the beat, your rhythms don't quite make sense as a whole, and maybe even what you're playing doesn't mesh well with the ji of the song.  But you really sell it, with confidence and spirit, and the audience loves it.  Is that a good solo or not?  What if all your solos are like that - technically lacking but crowd-pleasers.  Does that make you a good taiko player or not?

Or maybe it's the other way around, and you have amazing hands and/or a highly-developed sense of rhythm.  You can pop out 32nd notes like no one's business, you can weave in and out of the downbeat in complex patterns, etc.  Only it's so dense and so hard to digest that the audience doesn't "get it".  Is that a good solo?  And if the audience never gets your solos but you're technically spot-on, are you a good taiko player?

What if you're technically proficient and "digestable" to the audience, but no one remembers you?  In other words, you blend into the whole because you don't have any outstanding skills that stand out.  Can you still be a good player?

And then there's the question of "does it matter?"  To whom, you?  Your teachers?  Your group?  The audience?

"Good" is pretty relative when it comes down to it.  Sometimes it's only your opinion that matters, but sometimes it's not.  Just like how you may arbitrarily view something as good or not, someone can view you in the same way.

If being "good" doesn't matter to you so much, then you're probably finding enough joy in just doing the art you love.  If it does matter, well then...keep practicing!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dial it back, turn it up

I love a good solo.  Assuming it's on beat, I love a person's expression through music and movement and energy.

There's so many possible patterns someone can play when it comes to a solo, so much syncopation possible, so many sounds one can get out of a single drum - let alone multiple ones!  But you know...sometimes it's the person that can not only play a simple straight beat but also really sell it that hits home for me.

I've always admired Kodo's musical sensibilities in soloing, especially when they pull out a simple, spot-on straight beat after a lot of syncopation.  It's more than just a change in feel, it's a statement.

To be able to play something as simple as a moderately fast right-left-right-left for several measures seems like child's play.  This "straight beat" is something most of us taiko players have drilled at more than once and it's something just about anyone can do without experience.  However, in the context of a song, it can be so very powerful.

- To be able to play a loud, even straight beat is not always easy.  It may not be particularly hard, but to really nail that straight beat, you need to be proficient in chops and basic technique.

- Knowing when to put in a straight beat comes with experience.  Putting it in the beginning "jumps the gun" so to speak.  Doing it more than once dilutes the effect.

- It takes a lot of confidence to pull it off during a solo!  Being able to play it well is one thing, but to make it a deliberate thing in your solo is actually somewhat daunting for a lot of people.

- Also, you have to have a certain presence in the midst of this simple pattern; you have to sell it!  It needs to look intentional and exciting, without being it overly-dramatic.

This isn't a post about how we should all play a straight beat in our solos, but instead a post about how something so simple can be used to great effect.  Maybe you're trying to make your solos more interesting by making them more complex?  Or maybe you're still trying to figure out how to solo and feel daunted by how many possibilities there are?

Don't neglect the tools at your disposal, not just the ones in the direction you happen to be looking in at the time, but all of those around you.

Monday, May 21, 2012


Where does a taiko practice end for you?

Does it end at the last hit of practice?  Is it when you put the drums back on the shelves/in the closet/in the car?  When you bow out of the studio or rehearsal space, is that the end?

For me, leaving the studio just means it's time to reflect and incubate.  Did I play anything new in my solos?  Why?  How did it sound/feel?  Did I see someone doing something that didn't look "right"?  Do I do that as well?

Still, it doesn't stop there.  The next day, maybe I'll think about why I'm sore in a spot and figure out whether it was because I was doing something wrong, or something right.  I'll find myself looking at the alignment of my wrist and figuring out if it's truly possible to strike in a "straight line".

There's all the tapping and thumping during the day as well, on my lap or the sink or the dashboard, which I try to do away from other people annoying, yes?  :)

Then driving to practice, I'm thinking about what we're going to do that night.  What are the habits I'm trying to break in the songs we're playing?  What are the things I want to try in the solos?

Next thing you know, you're playing taiko again.  And the cycle continues...

The only thing that stops taiko practice is you.  Keep on practicing!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Question Everything: Weight

Weight plays a larger role in taiko than most of us think of.  This holds true for any art that involves a lot of movement.

- Where is the weight in your feet when you play?  Is it in the heels?  In Shotokan karate, there's a lot of motion generated on the heel, so this doesn't mean being on the heel is a bad thing, but does tend to lead to being "dead-footed" if you're not aware of where your weight is.  Is the weight in the balls of your feet?  If so, are you transferring weight or just being "bouncy"?

- Do you allow your bachi to have weight?  Are you letting their natural weight add to the strike or are you keeping them stiff in your hands?  Are they too light or too heavy for you?  How much weight (choke) do you have in your grip and how does that affect your strike?

- Is there weight behind your strikes?  If you use strength to strike the drum, are you over-hitting?  How much do you allow or deny gravity to generate power for you?

- How do you shift your weight when you move your feet?  Can you identify where your weight is centered at any given time?  Does your weight move you or do you control where it goes?

- Does your ki have weight?  Are you projecting with intention that carries through the back of the audience?  Do your kiai have a physical presence to them, not just with volume but with genuine purpose?  Are you *acting* or *feeling* when you perform?

Thinking about weight in these terms can really make you re-evaluate a lot, but that doesn't mean you have to start from ground zero.  Just be aware of what you do now so that you can change if you want.  Awareness brings growth, if you let it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Good or bad?

Question time!

You have two options.  For the next year of development, you can only get two types of comments:
  1. Positive
  2. Critical
Let me explain the two.

If you choose "positive",  you will only hear about what you're good at, or what you're improving on.  Even if something is weak but you get better at it, that counts.  You will never hear the things you need to work on or things that are being neglected.

If you choose "critical", you will only hear about what needs work.  You'll get details about little things and big things.  You will never hear the things that you are doing well or getting better at.  Let's also say that it won't be negative feedback, it can be delivered in a helpful way. 

Ok, there's really no way you can have ONLY one or the other, but work with me here.  Imagine it's possible and you have to decide.  So which would you choose?

What you choose might have a lot to do with where you are in your development.  It can also say a lot about who you are, as well.  It's not like either one is "better" than the other or makes you a better person than someone who chooses the opposite, however.

Now, while it's easy to say what the problems are with either choice, just be mindful of why you made your choice.  If you chose "positive", was it because you really don't like getting critical feedback?  What does that say about you?  If you chose "critical", was that because you don't feel you're very good?  Again, what does that say about you?

The question is artificial, yet simple.  Looking at what you choose is easy.  Looking at why you choose it, however, might lead to even better questions.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Question Everything: Flexibility

Flexibility is a huge component in both San Jose Taiko and Shotokan karate.

If I'm not flexible, I can't open my thighs and knees to allow my feet to push off, drive my weight through my hara, turn my torso with said drive, and throw my arm into the strike.  Without flexibility, I can't drive my kick into a target without compromising balance and/or power.  Flexibility is huge in my arts.

Yet it's not something most taiko players think too much about - and do they need to?  Not necessarily, but like I do with everything else, I want my readers to at least think about it before making that decision.

If your group doesn't use a lot of movement, especially lower-body movement, you may not need all that much flexibility.  Lifting your arm up and striking down in time with sufficient power is a pretty potent tool all in itself.

Still, being able to stretch that arm up from your hips - from your legs - will make the resulting strike even faster, stronger, and more efficient.  You'll look bigger and you'll be able to play with less effort in the long run.

And for those who think about flexibility a lot, you have to do more than just will it to be.  It can come about through repetition of the range of motion you're trying to achieve, but you'll need to do more.  Stretch before, stretch after.  Make sure the supporting muscles for whatever area you're focusing on are strengthened as well.

Don't underestimate the power of being physically flexible, because that ability touches on a lot of different areas - the visuals, reducing the chance of injury, being more relaxed, making things easier, etc.  Even if you find you don't need to be more flexible, would it be so bad if you were?

P.S.: At the dojo, one of my nicknames is "gumby" partially because my shoulders are double-jointed.  This is not-so-useful in taiko, however.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

20 Years.

Exactly 20 years ago on this day, I struck a taiko for the first time.

Just one day before that, I had no idea what taiko was, let alone what San Jose Taiko was.  I didn't know about any taiko community, how many groups were out there, or how long taiko had been around.  I just knew that I had to play.

I signed up for a public workshop with SJT after seeing San Francisco Taiko Dojo play a festival set one month earlier.  I wonder how it felt to strike for the very first time?  Or how it felt to work through simple patterns I'd never heard before?  I can't remember those details.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I never tried taiko, or if I didn't make it into San Jose Taiko?  Hard to say, really.  All I know is what taiko has given me in two decades.  I've played taiko in several countries and most of the states in the U.S.  I've written songs, taught workshops, even started this blog.  Taiko led me to the woman I love.  The career I'm pursuing now came about because of my connection to taiko, specifically SJT.  And of course, taiko has given me a good share of bruises and several embarrassing moments, but also confidence and growth as well.

There are several people who have been playing taiko for longer than I have, but most of them are pioneers and/or group founders.  I'm just a performer.  When the Taiko Conference has people on stage who've played for more than 20 years, I won't feel comfortable up there with the likes of Seiichi Tanaka, Kenny Endo, Tiffany Tamaribuchi, or PJ and Roy.  I'll have to find my own place in the community, but I'm not dreading that.  It should prove...interesting.

It's weird to think that I've been playing taiko longer than most groups in North America have existed.  Crazy, really.  It's also uncommon to have so much experience with just one group as I do, as most people who play taiko for this long have trained with other groups, even if just briefly.

I don't know what the future will hold for me or if I'll have any lasting impact within our community.  I just hope I can keep developing as an artist, as a teacher, and as a performer.

To end this post, I want to mention a note written on the bottom of my questionnaire.  Apparently people used to take notes on those taking the workshops, and I had two words near the bottom of mine.  It's in Roy's handwriting: "shows potential".  Thanks Roy...even though I've not always been the easiest student to deal with, I'll keep trying to do you proud.

Here's to another 20 years!

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Last weekend my dojo held its annual tournament.  As I usually do, I competed in the forms division.  I wound up taking 3rd, which is the first time I've placed since I've been a black belt.  What was the difference this time?

Well, this time my warmup beforehand was less about making sure I could execute the form and more about just staying loose.  I went into the ring not caring about placing or ranking, I just wanted to show the judges the best kata I could.  I mean I already knew the form I chose and it's not like I was going to get better in 30 minutes of practice!  It did help that there were a few less competitors this time - I can't discount that - but I was less nervous (yes, I still get a little nervous!) and focused more on being in the moment than worrying about doing it "right".

This got me thinking about confidence, which is something people have asked me to talk about.  How do you get confidence?  I've posted about it here, but this is another take on the subject.

When you're about to perform, and those butterflies start ravaging your stomach, it's usually due to two things.  You either feel like you're not ready, or you're worried about messing up.  At this point, the only thing that's going to turn that around is faith.

It's having faith in that you've been practicing earnestly enough to do what you're about to do, faith that your teachers have done their best in getting you to this point, and faith that no matter what happens you'll be ok.  It's easier said than done, but it IS possible to get yourself in that mindset.

There's one thing you have to do in order to get there, and I'm going to tell you what that is.  Ready?  Don't have expectations.  That's it!  Don't expect to mess up.  Don't expect to rock the crowd.  Don't expect to fail.  Don't expect to stand out.  Don't expect anything!

The more expectations you set up, the more your mind will think of ways things can go wrong.  Why do that to yourself?  Enjoy the moment, enjoy the performance, and enjoy yourself!