Monday, July 30, 2012

Shastayama 2012!

This past weekend, SJT played at Shastayama, an annual festival held in Shastice Park, at the base of Mount Shasta in Northern California.  This was the 8th year that Shasta Taiko has presented the festival, and the 2nd time SJT was invited to play.  I didn't go when the group played in 2005, but I'm really glad I was there this year!

This year, aside from SJT and Shasta Taiko, was Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe, and Kris Bergstrom who played both with Shasta as well as with Masato Baba (who also played with Shasta).  The festival gets about 1,000+ people each year (I heard about 1,300 last year) and was broadcast via Livestream this year for those who couldn't make it.

It was a bit of drive up (six hours) and we had to tech in that night, but the following morning was free.  There's a lot to see/do around the area but with the drive and late night, most of us decided to rest up instead.  The show started at 6:00pm and we got back home about 1:30am following the load-out and after-party.

There were some highlights and takeaways for me:

  • Watching PJ and Roy play onstage with Shasta Taiko, soloing in two different songs.  It's been a while since I've seen them be able to cut loose like that, but a lot of our members haven't ever gotten to see that!  Watching the members watch Roy and PJ was fun, too.
  • Watching Jeanne Mercer and Russel Baba perform on their home turf, with their group and their songs.  I can't really do justice in describing their energy or movements; it's just something you have to experience.
  • Getting to solo in the group finale piece at the end before another SJT member, then Roy, then PJ.
  • Bonding with Kris Bergstrom over musical drills, toys, and visiting Japan.  We gave each other "homework," so to speak.
  • Inspiration to write music.  Enough said! 
It was a great weekend and great to hang with some of the people that shaped what North American Taiko has become.   I hope to ride the bump of creativity for a while and see what comes from it.

If you're ever up for watching a lot of great taiko in a beautiful setting, I highly recommend attending Shastayama in the future.  Great stuff!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Composer’s block

Man, I gotta write a new song.

I haven’t felt challenged musically in a couple of years now, and it’s not SJT’s fault.  I’ve been asked to play things at a ridiculously quiet volume, and I did that.  I was asked to play the Kulintang and I learned how to play that (ok, I'm still learning it, but it's a set part).  What I get put on, I deliver.  So the only way that I’m going to get pushed is if I actually write a bloody piece (that was for my British friends) and teach it to the group.

I’ve lamented about this before, the whole deal of writing new pieces.  Why can’t I get out something that I can take to completion?  If someone asks me, “do you have any new song ideas?” I would have three or four at any given time, some with melodies and movements and sequences.  I just can’t settle on one idea, one path to take.

Do I go with the body percussion-oriented piece?  I feel *I* need more instruction in the art before I start incorporating it.  Do I do with the karate-oriented piece?  None of our pieces should rely on any one person, so who would take my part if I wasn’t in it?  There’s the Heavy Metal piece that I’m still fond of doing something with, but how do I make it into a SJT piece?  Oh, and I can’t forget the left-hand-isolation piece that is a great concept ...but I can’t figure out how to evolve it.

And it continues this way, on and on.  I miss the days when writing a new piece was simply daunting – where to begin?  Now the beginning is never the problem, it’s the impetus I lack.  There’s also the issue of committing to a piece – I have eleventeen hundred ideas (no, that’s not a real number), so which one do I spend my time making happen?

So back to my original point, about not being challenged.  I struggle with knowing that the only real way I will grow as a taiko player at this point is to write new music, and yet writing new music is something I’m not able to do lately.  Hmph.

Stay tuned?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Influences: Video game music

I grew up with video games.  I remember playing the original Pong and saving up to buy an Atari 2600 (look it up, kids).  I bought an Commodore Amiga 500 with a student discount as a high school junior and played games voraciously.  I walked to the local Golfland every weekend to play video games.

Along the way, I found myself very attuned to the music in a lot of those games.  I would let a game run without playing it, just to have the music in the background.  Once micro recorders came out, I would record the music from my speakers to have it available whenever I wanted.  I would try to find video game soundtracks but they were expensive imports from Japan.  More and more, as the web developed, there were more resources to find video game music and my collection grew.

Now there are entire concerts just with video game music.  There are composers who only do video game music.  It's an entire industry, just as lucrative as making music for TV or movies or animation.  I find, however, that the music I really like is...uncommon, or at least not what the bigger titles are releasing.  Still, I love that the genre is flourishing and continuing on.

I can't really explain what I like about the video game music I listen to.  It can be dynamic, it can be subtle.  It can be world music, it can be electronic.  It can be simple, it can be orchestrated.  I listen to video game music probably more than any other type of music probably due to this sheer variety.

A lot of video game music is repetitive, sometimes literally being the same song from one half to the other.  A song that's catchy the first few times you hear it can get really annoying if you play the game a lot!  Still I often find myself hunting for a specific song or singing it out loud, adding to my collection.

As with my last Influence posts, I'll list a few songs that have been put up on YouTube.

I don't expect my love of this stuff to necessarily make other people love it as well, but in evaluating and exploring what gave me the "musical vocabulary" I have today, I hope other people are able to do the same with what inspires them!

Bynn the Breaker (Bastion)
Mr. Orange's Flower Dance (Okami)
Intro (The Chaos Engine)
Aarbron's Revenge (Shadow of the Beast)
Battle in the Forgotten City (Advent Children)
Tetris: Type A (Super Smash Bros.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Helpful mistakes

On Wednesday nights in the dojo, we have been holding a kumite (sparring) class after the regular class.  Being that it's a 30-minute session right after a 100-minute workout, it's an ass-kicker at times.

Tonight, while driving home, I took stock of the many matches I had during the kumite class and how I pretty much dominated my opponents (without being a jerk about it).  But then it it me...what did I learn from all of that?  Did I get any better?  Something was missing.

Sure, I was able to practice timing, targeting, distancing, strategy, etc., but I didn't feel like anything pushed me to get better.  My sense of "victory" felt hollow.  And then something else hit me...when I'm sparring someone better than me, I'm forced to get better!  Being decidedly better than everyone I faced in the class didn't do me any favors.  I don't like to get hit repeatedly or have my attacks be ineffective, and having my weaknesses exposed - to myself moreso than my opponent - is humbling.
Even though it's nice to come home without bruises, they make for a great reminder about what I need to improve.

My senpai (senior student) used to win our engagements 9 out of 10 times when I first started sparring.  Now it's more like 7 out of 10.  And that's because I learned from my mistakes, somewhat painfully.  I was tired of getting spun around and hit in the kidneys, so I made sure I didn't give him the option to do it.  I was tired of this, so I stopped doing that.  I got frustrated by that, so I started incorporating this.

In taiko, we rarely experience pain when we make a mistake, save for smacking yourself with a bachi.  It may not be easy to hear critique from someone who's seeing your mistakes, but if you're not being watched by someone who can see those mistakes, how are you getting better?  How can you tell?

The theme of a lot of my posts is to be aware of what you're doing so that you can fix it.  It's not always comfortable to find out what you might need to work on, but working on it both makes you a better player and it says something about your character as well!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Drill: Peer Observation

This weekend was San Jose Obon, a big deal for not only San Jose Taiko but also for San Jose  Japantown.  SJT invited four collegiate taiko groups to perform, but we had representatives from at least twice that.  During a formal discussion session Sunday morning, we had break-out sessions with different groups to address specific questions.

One of the things we talked about was how to be more efficient during practice, as well as how to improve skills/fundamentals.  Although mirrors are incredibly useful, they can also be deceptively limiting, as I described in my post here.  Another powerful tool is to record yourself (or having others record you).  The suggestion that I brought up in the discussion was to have other members of your group watch you during a song, song section, or drill.

Having two to four members of your own group watching you makes you much more aware of your form, musicality, and ki.  Just one isn't enough, and more than four leads to too many comments.  It doesn’t matter if the members are new or not – if they’re new, you should be showing them good examples of what things should look like.  If they’re experienced, you’ll be trying to show them that you don’t have a lot that needs to be fixed  Either way, if you know people are trying to notice what’s wrong, you’re more likely to fix it before it happens.  The initial goal is to take the comments and work on them, but the main goal is to fix things like that without a peer group watching.  It takes awareness of body, of sound, of the group, of everything – and it also takes diligence to impart that as a habit.  Easy?  No.  Worth it?  Tremendously.

When you’re on the other side, as the observer, you have two jobs. 

·    -     First, your role, as indicated by the title, is to observe.  Maybe you see things that need work, maybe you see things that are done well.  Those things are what you point out.  Your job is not to “beat down” the other person.   If you’re thinking you need to tell them how and why they suck, that’s a negative attitude that can come out in your words and how you present them.

·    -     Second, once you’ve noticed something, ask yourself if you do that thing or not.  Is that bad habit you just noticed a habit of yours as well?  Is that good thing something you should be doing?  The observing is giving you a lot of data, so why not use it proactively and make those mental checks at the time?

Yes, doing this takes some practice time, but it helps everyone involved become sharper regardless of whether they’re playing or observing.  I do it with SJT, I do it with karate, and I always find something to both comment on as well as to learn.

Is it daunting to be observed?  Hell yes, sometimes.  But what a way to be accountable, what a way to gain awareness!

Thursday, July 12, 2012


A lot of newer taiko groups are really hungry for teachers.  There are also individuals out there who are looking for a teacher or mentor to take their taiko to the next level - whether it's people who don’t play with an established group, people like me who are a bit “off the radar” of the group they’re in, or just those who follow a path that doesn’t fit with what nearby groups can provide.

In thinking about what makes a teacher and who is a teacher, I started thinking more liberally about the definition of the word “teacher”.  If you learn something from someone, they have taught you, and therefore are a teacher, to some extent.

With this definition, you soon find you have a LOT of teachers.  I’ve learned a lot from members of other groups I’ve never been in or even taken a workshop with, just by being around them and listening/observing how they conduct themselves.  I’ve learned tips on better ways to approach difficult students, I’ve learned drills for this and that, and I’ve learned a lot about how NOT to conduct myself.

Think of new players/students entering your group.  On the surface, they're learning new songs and new moves, learning the social landscape of how the group operates, and what's expected behavior.  But they're also watching what people are like when they let their guard down.  Do some people act nicer to a select few?  Do some people pick on others?  Do some people always step in to help out?  Do some people never seem to?  Are some people really chatty?  Is it ok to ask a lot of questions?  Who learns by watching?  Who teaches by talking?

All of those things are taught by the members of a group to those watching.  So in effect, everyone is a teacher.  You may not consider yourself a teacher, but once there are people in your group newer than you, congratulations!  You're a teacher.  It's probably even more true for the members who are still new but no longer the newest, because the newest members are probably watching them the most.

Thinking of being a teacher in this way helps give perspective to those looking for instruction.  While you can learn techniques and moves from someone, you can also learn traits and behaviors.  Maybe someone you look up to always finds the right way to help someone learn, or maybe someone who's been around for a while acts poorly to those who ask for assistance - either way, you learn how or how not to behave based on their actions.

So what are you teaching others with yours?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Question Everything: Bachi, pt. 2

What are bachi?  Bachi are drumsticks.  Depending on your point of view, that could either be the best or the worst answer to give.

- I’ve heard different ways to think about what the bachi are:
  • Pieces of wood.
  • Instruments (like the taiko).
  • A connection between player and the drum.
  • A connection between the heavens, the player, and the drum.
  • A way to interact/communicate with the drum.
- I’ve seen taiko players do things with bachi like:
  • Put them on the floor.
  • Put them in their shoes. 
  • Toss them to another player. 
  • Flip them in the air. 
  • Twirl them in their hands/fingers. 
  • Drop them on the ground (by accident). 
  • Cradle them in their arms before bowing (to the drum). 
  • Poke other players for play. 
  • Poke other players to adjust kata. 
  • Hit their own sore muscles. 
  • Use them to assist stretching.
  • Decorate them (shiny tape, etc.) 
  • Put grip tape on them. 
  • Have people sign them.
- I’ve seen people treat them as:
  • Tools, as a means to strike the taiko. 
  • Extensions of the body, as a means to express sound and motion. 
  • Weapons, by over-hitting the taiko. 
  • Props, by not playing taiko with them but instead performing with them in other ways.
What’s the right way to use bachi?  What’s inappropriate to you?  What if someone you respect does something with bachi that you think is inappropriate?  What status do you impart to your bachi?  Are there things you do with them in your group that you wouldn't do in mixed company?  Why?  Can you tell how a performer views their bachi when they're playing?

The next time you're at practice, take notice of what your habits are with your bachi, but also try to observe what other people around you do.  You probably won't come away with any epiphanies, but more awareness means more knowledge!

Thursday, July 5, 2012


This past weekend, San Jose Taiko performed again at the SF Ethnic Dance Festival.  It was actually a five-day, six-performance run (counting rehearsals as well as live shows), but felt like a month's worth of effort.

The piece we played, "Synergy", was created 3 years ago and we've played it with Abhinaya Dance Company for one of their shows and then the last two EDF concerts.  My part in the piece has been the same over all three years, so I've had an easy time since learning it, but I still really enjoy my role. I can say my ability to play in 5 is more honed, and I can say I've learned how to work with other artists better.  But what I came away with the most this weekend is appreciation.

I've gotten to see a lot of different taiko groups in my life, and admittedly it's all-too-easy to take that for granted.  Seeing so many different top-notch ethnic dance groups last week was such an amazing experience for me, something that broke apart the artistic stagnation I've had building up for a while.

To see group choreography I wouldn't have dreamed up in several lifetimes, to watch footwork with such flair and precision, to take in the joy and power from around the world on one stage - it made me appreciate all the groups I saw as well as the groups I didn't get to see.

For anyone who's tired of seeing the same stuff in taiko, for anyone who's struggling with writing new works, or for anyone who just needs to get away from the issues in their own group, go see what else is out there!  What's similar?  What's different?  What can you appreciate?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Drill: 23468

Subdivision of the beat is something a lot of percussionists use, as well as musicians in general.  Most taiko players can do this at least in the simplest of ways, but it's taking that skill to the next level (and next, and next) that can be challenging.

Simply put, subdividing the beat means for each downbeat, you divide the time into equal segments.  The easiest - and most common - divisions are 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8.  ...which is the name of this drill!  5 and 7 are often unintuitive and definitely advanced, but great for practice down the road.

Using the "23468" idea, I have 5 different videos with drills that you can practice.  Ready?

Drill One is the starting drill, playing each number four times.  2222, 3333, 4444, 6666, 8888.  I hit the larger pad on the beginning of each number for clarity, but you can keep all the notes in the same place if you only have one surface or it's easier:

Drill Two is a variation on Drill One.  If you double-time drill One, it would go something like 4 4 4 4, 6 6 6 6, 8 8 8 8, 12 12 12 12, 16 16 16 16.  Drill Two is simply playing Drill One then going immediately double-time afterwards.:

Drill Three is just 22334466, but started at the double time speed above.  This just shows that you can modify where you start and where you end as you raise or lower the tempo:

Drill Four is good for hand balance.  Playing 2346, you'll switch the downbeat hand from right to left each runthrough.  Start slow at first until you get used to where the downbeat switches to.  I'm playing the downbeat on the second pad to give you an idea of what I mean:

And finally, Drill Five shows you how to mix up the patterns to keep your brain alert.  Here I'm playing 6 6 2 2 8 8 3 3 3 3 4 4, which I chose at random:

So there you have it, a drill that you can use however you want to work on subdivision.  You can use multiple drums/surfaces, you can go for speed, you can add other numbers if you feel comfortable.  As with all my drills, if you want to take this back to your group, all I ask is for acknowledgment.  Aside from that, I hope it helps!