Thursday, June 28, 2012

Great minds

"Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people."

The above quote is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, and it's the topic of my post today.

I don't know anyone who hasn't discussed all three of those, because it's what conversations are made of, but we all have our tendencies.  What do you tend to default to?  What makes you the most excited to talk about?  What would your friends say you talk about the most?

It's one thing to have to talk about people all the time if it's your job or hobby, but aside from that this is definitely a way to think about what you talk about...and why!

Monday, June 25, 2012


We all have our strengths and weaknesses, which often create habits.

In karate, getting into a habit can often lead to getting hurt.  I don't mean injury, which is serious, I mean getting hit more often and/or harder than you'd like to be.  For instance, if I notice my opponent always lifts his arms before kicking, I can choose to beat him to the attack or easily evade and set myself up for a counter attack.  If I know a person always moves to the left when I kick, I can fake the kick, get them to move, and then launch my real attack.  Sometimes people will tell you the habits they're able to read on you, but it's not guaranteed.  You tend to either learn to get better or you get used to getting hit.

In taiko, habits don't usually lead to getting hit (I hope not, anyways) but they can limit you and make you get "stuck".  Some habits are beneficial (such as having a pattern you can always return to if you get off in a solo) or even fall under personal "style" (doing a move no one else does), but even these can limit you.

I've done a lot of drills with SJT where I make people solo in a certain way, which usually makes it impossible to do their habits.  Without fail, there are certain drills that make people's brain hurt, not because of the complexity but because they keep wanting to play the way they're stuck in.

One example is having people solo with only one bachi/one hand.  Can't play those riffs you're used to now!  Another fun one is only allowing a certain amount of notes - say 4 to 8 - for the entire solo.  Makes you be very thoughtful what you play!

When you solo, whether it's in a song or on your own, what are your habits?  What's hard for you to stop doing?  Sometimes people try to be too clever, playing complicated patterns for the sake of playing complicated patterns.  This makes it hard for them to build a foundation to then make those patterns groove later on.  Other people get stuck playing loud, without any sense of dynamics, so playing with texture becomes very difficult for them.  Another person may do something as minor as rock their foot up or move their lips while they solo, and it takes brainpower to stop themselves from doing it.

In terms of the good habits, there's a line you can cross when they start to limit you.  I have a reputation of being rather "out there" in my syncopation when I let loose, but I have made myself aware of the fact that I do it and am able to rein it in.  In the process I've learned to appreciate the downbeat and appreciate simplicity.  Someone who can't stop playing syncopation, or a lot of notes - or both - becomes a sort of broken record and limits their own range of abilities.

The first step is awareness.  What are your habits?
The second step is to identify which ones define you, and which limit you.
The third is to fix the ones that limit you.  Why let them?

Habits are comfortable, but so is a straightjacket after you've worn it long enough...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

White belts

The people that know the least are often the ones you have to watch out for.

At my dojo, once the white belts (beginners) learn enough, we mix them into the main class for some of the partner drills, usually either a you-punch-and-I-block set or self defense drills.

White belts tend to be the most dangerous in these situations.  They don't necessarily punch the fastest or hit the hardest, but they're unpredictable.  They don't often even know what they're going to do!  They may punch too soon or an odd angle.  They may flail in response or jerk about awkwardly.  We try to set up rules of engagement for safety, but until they understand those rules, injuries can occur.  While it's not common, it's also not unexpected.

As an instructor, I should have enough skill to not get smacked upside the head by an unexpected motion like this, and if safety is really an issue, then I can stop them to make a change.  It would be easy to scold them by telling them how wrong their technique is, but they don't know any better and making them feel like crap isn't going to benefit anyone.  It may be harder for me, but it's better overall to fix their technique in ways that don't leave them feeling down.

Most taiko groups don't have ranks per se, but most have new members. Instead of dangerous techniques, new taiko members are the most likely to ask "dangerous" questions.  They may not know the protocols of your group or that something isn't important at the time, and the questions might be just as awkward as dealing with a punch that's thrown at the wrong time or a flailing limb.

For you who are handling such questions, whether you're a "teacher" or just happening to respond, it's your responsibility to answer them in a way that doesn't make them feel stupid for asking.  The simplest reason is the obvious one: would you want someone to make you feel stupid for asking a question?  Of course not.  On top of that, it speaks to your ability to teach and the person you are to take an "inappropriate" or ill-timed question and answer or resolve it in a way that makes the other person feel like they learned something.  Also, people are going to notice you treating someone poorly, especially someone new.  Why give yourself that reputation?

It's more forgivable if you don't have the right answers to a question than it is to make someone feel bad for asking questions.  Even if you believe there are such things as stupid questions, give back knowledge, not scorn.

Monday, June 18, 2012


Context is a wonderful thing.  Conversely, the lack of it can be really dangerous.

Even though we're able to pop on YouTube and check out a video of a group or a style or a song, how much context comes with it?

What if you see a taiko group of eight people perform that's all of Caucasians?  It's easy to judge the group for "wanting to be Japanese" or "they don't play real taiko" or any other sorts of garbage like that.  Maybe the Asian players in the group just aren't in that performance?  We've had performances that were all guys, but does it mean our group is devoid of women?  No... 

You might also see a group perform that doesn't have much "skill" on stage.  Do you know why they play, however?  Maybe they play for fun or for their community or for empowerment, and "skill" isn't a priority for them.

What if you observe a top-notch group being lazy off stage?  Does it mean they're not any good?  Of course that's not the case.  You saw an aspect of what they're like but it doesn't define them.  You know the context in that case and so you can make an informed decision.

It's easy to say what you like and what you don't, but when you say a group is "good" or "bad" based off of limited exposure, ultimately it says more about you than the group you're judging..  On top of that, if you make those kind of snap judgements, it's only fair when other people make the same about you and/or your group.  And who wants that?

You don't have to pretend to like something you don't, but just acknowledge when you don't know enough to know who a person or a group or a style is.  Rush to judgement enough times and people will label you - context or not!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Stage presence

When you take to the stage, everything you do is part of the performance.  When I say "stage", I mean anywhere you might be performing, be it an actual stage or not.

When you place a drum, that's part of the performance.  When you walk across stage, that's part of the performance.  When you stop mid-walk and look for your spot and then bend over with your butt towards the audience to pick up your bachi...well that's part of the performance, too.

The next time you watch a taiko group perform, take note of what happens between songs - often the moving around is masked by a transition of some sort.  However, if you look past the transition, what do you see?  I think it's easy for us to forget the audience can clearly see everything we do on stage.

Stage presence is something that is often not a priority.  When you're worried about the songs themselves, remembering what comes next, playing together, etc., it's enough work on top of that to just have basic presence as a performer.  In that context, most of the focus is on projecting ki while playing, but once the song stops, then what?

How's your posture when you kneel down to move something?  If you use spikes, how discreet are you in spotting them?  Are you aware of when you're facing away from the audience in case you have to bend over?  Are your motions reserved?  Smooth?  Scattered?  Casual?

Sometimes the answers to those questions are determined by your group.  You may be the most smooth, composed, intentional person on stage...but if everyone else is casual, then the one who looks wrong is you!  There needs to be an understanding of what your group allows/wants and what you personally do/want to do.

I'm not trying to add more stress to your plate.  I don't want you ending a song to then think, "oh crap everyone's looking at me!"  Just realize that from the time your group starts through the last bow, you are performing!  In time, it'll become something you hardly have to think about and will be able to pull off naturally.

Monday, June 11, 2012

If it ain't broke...

...look again.

I think most of us are familiar with the original cliche, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."  I have a problem subscribing to that philosophy.

I'm analytic and always looking for what can be improved; it's just how my mind works.  When something isn't obviously wrong with a process or system, I look to find ways to improve on it instead.

This doesn't necessarily endear me to some people, who see me as a shit-stirrer, devil's advocate, or just annoying.  I can accept that.  I just don't like not looking at something because it works.  Sure, you can weld together 20 spoons and use it as a hammer, but is that the best way to use spoons?  Or hammer in a nail?

I'm writing this post for those who understand my mentality, as well as for those on the receiving end of people like me.  I have to realize that some people just don't want to tackle things that aren't in dire need of fixing, but I hope that the other side realizes I just want to help make things better.

So which side do you lean more on?  Deal with the big issues and what's not causing issues gets set aside?  Or taking a look at everything to see if there's a way to make things easier in the long run?  Both are valid, but I'm definitely voting for the latter.  :)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Making it better

Here's a scenario for you.

Imagine you're given a new pattern to play in your group.  Or a new sequence.  Or a new instrument.  It doesn't come to you easily at first.  You can do it slowly, so it's not beyond your skill level, but you feel clumsy or awkward executing it with any sort of speed.

This scenario is different than trying hard to reach a goal.  Here, you don't feel good as you struggle with something (in front of others).  A very natural reaction is to find an "out", or something to dampen that uncomfortable feeling - and the easiest way to do that is socially, in either making light of the situation (a joke) or finding common ground (shared experience).

It's human nature to use humor when we feel out of our element.  It's our natural defensive mechanism.  And when we're in a group of people who may be in the same situation we are, there's comfort in connection with others in the same boat.  Is there anything wrong with either response?  Not really, no.

Still, those are short-term responses, not actually solutions.  Don't give into the temptation of making yourself feel better when you can practice and make it better.  Those minutes spent talking aren't going to make you - or anyone else - improve, all they do is provide a sense of relief.  You know what else brings relief?  Getting better at something!

I'm not saying to be a robot, but I am hoping to help people aware of their own habits and recognize when those habits hinder their progress.  Sometimes it's the little changes you can make that lead to the biggest gains.  Gain on!

Monday, June 4, 2012


How easily distracted are you at practice?

In karate, I see people looking around after finishing a motion or even worse, during.  While waiting for the next count, when sensei says something to the class, they often take that opportunity to relax.  These lapses in concentration are more insidious than they know.

You're more likely to get hit by something that you don't see, so why make it more likely to happen by looking away?  All they have to do is continue to look forward.  And when they relax a bit while someone is talking, it's like they've convinced themselves they need that break, when really they don't.  So it becomes a crutch of sorts.

The above examples don't apply so much to taiko, but the idea itself does.

Focusing on the task at hand, such as a song or a drill, is easy enough.  Maintaining that focus is less easy.  It's having a constant dialogue with yourself and being forced to address the flaws in your technique.  Granted, you'll also notice the good stuff, but that's not hard to deal with.  It also requires energy to keep a constant focus, but like learning how to stay in a basic stance, practice makes it easier and easier.

If that's not enough, imagine being on the instructing side and having people you're trying to teach looking away.  Are they bored?  Do they think the drill is too easy for them?  Why aren't they trying to find something to improve on?  Maybe they don't care?  Don't give us those questions by losing your focus so easily.

There's also the social aspect to this, where someone cracks a joke or makes a side comment.  Sure, most of us do it, but are you aware of how much you do it?  Is it because you can't keep your focus steady?  How do you think it it impacts on the concentration of others?

Actually, that's a really good point I want to emphasize.  Maybe you don't think your lapses in concentration are a big deal, but how much do they affect others around you?  Are you setting a good example?  Are you distracting other people?  Would others say you have good focus or bad?

We're not robots; we have to choose to be "in the moment" to concentrate on a task.  Like any skill, it takes practice.  Can you keep that focus throughout an entire practice?  If not, why?