Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pay it forward

Keeping it short and sweet today!

What have you been taught by someone during your taiko experience that you wish you could pass on to others?

I know I don't usually get responses to my blog, but it would be great to have others share this sort of thing, whether it's on here or on Facebook!

Monday, August 27, 2012

One-inch punch

The power of taiko is a wonderful thing.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say how it impacted them, how they felt it in their bones or their being.  All of you who’ve ever struck the taiko know that feeling first-hand; we feel it every single time we strike the drum.

In taiko, power can come from a lot of things.  The energy given off at a dynamic performance can be powerful.  A lone odaiko player playing non-stop for several minutes can be powerful in their raw intensity.  A sudden stop in a passage can be powerful for its precise unexpectedness.  A performer really “in the zone” and broadcasting that joy outwards can be powerful.  Even a single strike can be powerful.

In San Jose Taiko, we often talk about how to generate power through proper technique.  A lot of time is spent on our kata from the feet all the way through the bachi.  What’s important to remember, however – and a lot of taiko players can easily forget – is that power does not equal a good sound.

I can hit a taiko as hard as anyone I know.  I’ve got decades of experience in karate and taiko combined, my bachi are longer than most (extra weight there), and my arms are so long that they’ll have generated a ton of speed by the time I come down...but so what?  If I strike the taiko with all my available force, I’m going to create a sound that’s loud, abrasive, and I’m probably going to damage the head.

Decades of conventional training taught martial artists that a big technique meant big power.  So that’s how people would attack, because they wanted the most power out of a technique.  Bruce Lee came into the picture and would knock people flat with his fist positioned only an inch away.  Tiny details of technique aside, his big “secret” was that he used his body to generate all the power he needed and did not rely on size or momentum.  It was all about acceleration and efficiency.  Sounds like what a good taiko strike should be!

What’s really important, more than sheer power, is good technique.  A good sound takes the right combination of technique and power.  You can’t really have too much technique, but you can definitely have too much power.  To use PJ’s terms, it’s the difference between a “bwah” sound that comes back out of the drum vs. a “thud” that gets driven through the drum.  Once you go past a certain level of power, you lose the “bwah”.

Technique is one of those things that you can study and improve on forever.  It’s where you hold your bachi in your hand, where on the head you strike, what angle your strike attacks the head, how relaxed your grip is, and many other fine details.  Power can come from technique as well as strength, but really you don’t need a lot of it to make a strike sound good.

To avoid over-hitting, see if you can find power through technique and not through strength.  Strength fades in time, but technique can last you forever.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What do you do to become better?

Most of us belong to a group and attend practices, but aside from what you’re required to do, what steps do you personally take to improve?

A lot of people practice outside of rehearsals; that's pretty common.  Whether it's getting out a drum pad or thwacking on an old tire, we can all find ways to practice.  There’s the more physical route of working out more, whether it’s just doing pushups or running, to full-body development.  There’s also the more cerebral route of reviewing videos or trying to understand technique better.

Mind you, just doing pushups or watching videos will only carry you so far; you have to APPLY the results to your practices.   That’s a topic for another post, though!

The key here is in asking what you do, not what you do in your group or during rehearsals.  It’s easy to do what you’re told to do, but there’s a danger there.  I see it a LOT – not just in taiko – where people either become so reliant on needing feedback to improve or so lazy that they don’t bother to fix things until told to.

If you only improve what you’re told to improve, are you neglecting the rest?  Of course, you might be really good at the rest, but ALL of the rest?  Instructors that point out EVERYTHING you need to improve on have way too much free time on their hands.  Odds are, there’s high-priority stuff to address and once you fix that, they can go to what’s next.  Even better if you fix it before they address it, yeah?  Now, if you’re not improving things until you’re told to, well, that’s just a poor attitude.  I don’t mean not improving things you don’t realize you need to work on, I mean fixing things that you’re aware need improvement but waiting for someone else to tell you to do it.

Personally, I apply a lot of my karate training - mentally and physically - to taiko.  I compose and analyze rhythms mathematically.  I watch taiko on YouTube or DVDs and look at differences in form and technique.  I go to the studio early to work on solo or song ideas.  And I pull out the drum pads and jam with the metronome for a multitude of reasons.  These are just a few of the possibilities out there.

In the absence of a teacher, even in the short term, what steps you take to become a better taiko player will have an immense impact on how you develop.  In this way, it’s less about outcome and more about effort.

Be a good role model...for yourself!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Question Everything: What matters?

What matters to you most in a performance?

That's really a two-part question.  I should ask, "what matters to you most at a performance when you perform?", and then "what matters to you most at a performance when you're watching one?"  I suppose that brings up a third question, "are they the same thing?"

In a way, the third question is more interesting.  If they are the same thing, are you neglecting other things?  If they're different, why?

So many questions, I know.  I'm not going to go into all the possible combinations or how they might tell you something about yourself.  I just want you think about it, as the QE series of posts was created for!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The eyes have it, part 1: The "where"

I think it was Kenny Endo who said “where the eyes go, intention follows.”   (This was at a workshop with us a few months ago.)

When you play taiko (or another art form like dance, martial arts, etc.), where do you look?  The simple answer is “where you’re told to look.”   Sure, that works.  Don't just stop looking for answers there, though!

When learning a karate kata, I am taught what stance to do, what move goes with that stance, and where I should be looking.  My head position and gaze is just as much a part of the form as any punch or any blocking technique.  So that would be the “where I’m told to look” part.  But another part of my karate training involves self-defense and sparring, where there are no rules for where to look.  I’ve heard schools of thought saying “look your opponent in the eyes” or “watch the hips”.  Very skilled fighters can tell where you’re going to attack by watching where you’re looking.   If we’re sparring and you look down at my stomach all of a sudden, odds are you’re about to attack there.  Thanks for the warning!

So on a basic level, it’s fine when your group or style tells you to “look there while playing”.  But what about when you’re soloing or moving around and you can’t just look *there* anymore?  What are your options and what happens?

   - Looking at the drum.  This is the #1 choice for most taiko players I see.

Pros:  With the right kind of ki, you can direct all your intention at your drum and it makes for a very dynamic effect.  And in a way, it’s comforting - you get to watch what you’re striking, where you’re striking, and you don’t have to deal with distractions around you.
Cons: Tunnel vision, often to the point where you *are* the distraction by being off visually and/or musically without a clue where you are in the ensemble.  For drums that are down in front of you (betta style, shime, etc.) the head may have to crank down at steep degrees which makes you look awkward.  This option also can make you look insular as you’re only focusing on what’s right in front of you and not looking outside of your own “bubble”.

   - Looking at the audience.

Pros: Connecting with the audience is always something the audience notices.  Whether you make eye contact or not, the appearance to other people is that your energy is going out into the crowd.  It also looks great in photographs, I have to say.
Cons: Really easy to get distracted.  Someone’s taking a picture!  A friend is waving at you!  Someone’s drunk and dancing badly in front of you!  …oops, now you just missed the next pattern or your solo went to hell.

   - Looking at other members.

Pros: This is a great way to connect to the rest of the group on stage.  Not only can the person see you looking, but other members see you looking and that helps the entire group spirit.  The audience also gets to see that connection and how you are working as part of the ensemble.  You can also react easier to whomever you’re looking at, whether it’s giving them kiai or even just making a facial reaction for the purposes of performance.
Cons: As I’ll get into in part 2, just looking at a person doesn’t account for much; you have to *mean* it.  To effectively look at someone with intention, you can’t *just* use your eyes lest you look suspicious of them or leering at them.  Also, you can only look at someone else for so long before it seems like they owe you money or something.

   - Looking wherever.

Pros: Er…none, really.  I guess sometimes it doesn’t look bad?
Cons: Intention goes all over the place.  It often leads to a visual disconnect from the audience, unless you can really sell that you’re looking nowhere in particular…on purpose.

   - Looking at a specific spot (back of the house, edge of the stage, etc.

Pros: A uniform look across the group.
Cons: What if there is no stage or back of the house?  Even if people are looking at the same spot, if they don’t have the same head orientation, things look weird.

   - Looking just over the edge of the drum.

Pros: Similar to much of the above: uniformity in look.
Cons: Also similar to much of the above: differences in individuals especially with different heights of people/drums.  Also easy to “zone out” and sort of stare at nothing.


There’s a big part I’ve not touched on, and that’s the intention behind the gaze.  Now that we’ve covered the “where”, next we’ll cover the “how”.  Stay tuned! 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Question Everything: Roots

There's a strong feeling among many that North American taiko needs to keep the connection to the Japanese-American experience, and take steps to help new groups and new players understand that history.

In 30 or 50 years from now, I wonder if that connection will still be as strong, or as important.  Will groups still feel connected to the J-A experience?  If more and more non J-A people are playing taiko in NA, will that connection still be relevant?  If younger groups pop up with generations far-removed from even fourth-generation J-A, should the connection be forced if it's not there?

If the connection isn't there down the road, does that mean that NA taiko will be "worse"?  Or worse off?  What would that even mean?  Would it just be "different"?  Will people be able to tell?  How?

I was also thinking that the art form of kumidaiko, ensemble drumming, comprises almost all NA taiko.  Is the root of kumidaiko Japanese?  We credit Daihachi Oguchi - who was Japanese - with its creation, but he was also a jazz drummer, where he arguably got the idea of arranging the drums in a group.  Does nationality determine the root of an art form?  Does artistic background determine the root?  If it's the former, then you could call kumidaiko a Japanese art.  If it's the latter, then kumidaiko is African-American.  But is it either?

So if we're not clear on the roots of kumidaiko (in terms of where it "came" from), and kumidaiko is most of what is done in NA taiko, then where is the root of NA taiko?  Can NA taiko be rooted in the J-A experience while the style of taiko (ensemble) remains separate?

Finally, I wonder if the drive to keep J-A or Japanese connections alive in taiko stunts the development of the art form.  I know that's controversial, but that doesn't mean it's not a valid question.  If people are constantly trying to inform and bring other groups into the "fold", does that information create obligation in those groups and people?

Imagine you discover a cool new instrument.  You don't know what it's called but you create all these really cool patterns on it.  You have all these ideas for it, including how to incorporate dance moves into it, how to merge it with hip hop music, etc.  Then someone tells you what that instrument is, how it's traditionally used, and how you have to do X and never do Y and research Z before you can play it.

That's a pretty extreme example, but it gets my point across.  We wouldn't want someone to just take a taiko and incorporate it into some other art form without respecting the tradition, right?  But what if that "misuse" led to some great innovation?

...something like taking a solo instrument and making it into an ensemble, perhaps?  *cough*kumidaiko*cough*

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Say cheese!

I don’t know about you, but when I’m performing and I see someone with a big fancy-ass camera taking photos, I become very aware of everything.  I’ve seen too many pictures – of myself and others – where kata was mediocre, where presence was lapsing, when all it would have taken was a tiny bit more *something* to have made that picture look good.

For a while, when watching videos or seeing pictures, I would come across something with me in it that I would cringe at.  Why wasn’t I smiling?  Why were my legs in that position?  What the hell am I doing?

By the time I saw someone with a camera, who knew how many pictures had been taken?  What’s more, there’s hardly ever a performance when there’s not a dozen people holding up smartphones or cameras nowadays, which goes up tenfold for some of the largest gigs!  After a number of years, I got tired of looking through pictures of gigs and having regrets, so I decided to take a much more active approach. 

Now, I have to assume there’s people taking pictures and video of our performances.  They may or may not be taking them of me, and I may not ever see them, but I have to assume that they are and I will.  In doing that, I make myself much more aware of what product I’m putting out there

It’s a combination of ego, performance, and worry that makes me try to “look better” when the camera is out (even if it’s not):
  • Ego makes me want to show the lens how good I can be.  "I will show it how good I am, from my perfect extension to my dazzling presence."  Something like that, anyways.
  • Performance is the art of putting on a good show.  I need to make sure I am embodying my style correctly and putting out as much energy as possible.
  • Worry is about having myself captured doing something that looks crappy.  A stupid expression or a dead face is something I loathe seeing.  Being in a different pose from others around me might not look like much in real time, but in a picture it looks like I’m sloppy.
Mind you, when I perform, I am really not playing to the camera.  That’s a path that leads to being disingenuous, where it’s all about style instead of substance.  No, I’m simply taking what I’ve been taught and trying to exemplify it.  But in order to do that, I have to be aware of what the right way is (my style) and then how to make my execution of it better.

Some people might freak out if they start thinking about doing well during a song and THEN having to think about making it look great every given moment possible just in case someone captures part of it.  Much like gaining confidence, this is something that takes time.  I do sometimes have to actively think, “better not let that arm droop” or “does your body look too relaxed right now?”, but it’s not a constant stream of inner dialogue.  It’s more like a few reminders here and there to check myself.  And then it becomes part of your playing, just like kiai or smiling (if you smile, that is…)

This is a mindset that ultimately makes you a better performer regardless of who's watching or taping or taking pictures.  If you are aware and pushing and doing better, no matter of the why, then it's for the better.  If you're doing it to show off, or because you are LOOKING for a camera to perform to, then you're coming from a shallow place.

To put it simply?  Imagine your family is in the audience with cameras at the ready, happy to show all their friends what you look like.  That's my blog post in a nutshell, ha!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Asalato Journey, part 1 (with video!)

This is a series I should have started a few years ago, but better late than never.

I'm always talking about pushing through struggles and learning on your own, but maybe it's easy for me to say that now, already being in taiko for 20 years, already being a black belt.  If I tell someone who's just starting to "keep trying, you'll get it", do they feel like it's condescending or dismissive?

About three years ago I stumbled across a neat little toy.  It's called the Asalato, Kosika, Kashaka, Patica...lots of different names for what's essentially a children's toy from Africa.

You can see what it looks like in the video - two hard balls/gourds filled with something that shakes or rattles, connected by a string or cord.  They can be natural or plastic, large or small, low-tech or high-tech.  To see what you can do when you've mastered them, look HERE.

I was obsessed with the bloody things and got myself about six from online vendors.  I had no idea what was a good length or good size, so I got a variety.  I then went on YouTube to figure out how to learn to play them.  I got the basics ok, catching after the "clack", flipping over the thumb for the other "clack", shaking all the while during the catching and flipping.  It was the equivalent of learning how to strike the taiko with a good solid don.

The problem was, that's all I could do.  For months.  And it was frustrating.  Here was this thing I really wanted to do and I couldn't get anything past step three!  I would try and try and try but my hands were too big, the asalato was too small, the ball would fly out of trajectory, etc.  I wanted to learn from a person, someone who could tell me what I was doing wrong, but there wasn't anyone I knew of, no asalato school around.  I tried different ones with the same result.  I went fast.  Fail.  I went slow.  Fail.  Eventually I sort of gave up.  I would pick one up here and there, but right away I would hit that wall of fail and stop trying.

Mind you, I didn't expect to get great overnight; I expected a learning curve.  But instead of a curve I got a straight vertical line that I ran into like a wall.  Hell, when I got my first didgeridoo, I didn't expect to play it well but I was able to make notes within a few minutes of playing and it felt like the more I worked on it, the better I got.  Things I'm interested in generally come easy for me.  But not this time.  And I hated that.

In late June, backstage at the Ethnic Dance Festival, I found that one of the Artistic Directors was toying with an asalato.  I talked to him about it and was hoping to learn something, but it was mostly just light talk.  Still, something sparked in me and I was determined to get back on the horse.

Since then, I've been bringing one with me almost everywhere I go.  I've pushed and tried and failed and overcome a LOT of the things I had trouble with.  I found which ones work best for me through trial and error, even though I still don't feel like I have the best size yet.

The video shows where I am now.  Even with the mistakes and some sloppiness, it's so far from where I started!

I'll try to post more about my progress on this wonderful toy, but I really hope posts like this help re-energize and inspire people who feel like they've hit a wall and can't get better.  You may not have a teacher, you may not have the right equipment, but sometimes it just takes some time and perspective and a lot of practice before you see some serious progress.  Keep trying!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Show vs. Skill

Would you rather put on a show or put out your skill?

This question came to me at the after-party at Shastayama this past weekend.  One of the tech crew (the guy making it all happen) shook my hand and said "there's a fine line between showmanship and taiko."  He was giving me a compliment on my solo in the last piece (where everyone was on stage), but it got me a-thinking.

My solo was definitely on the "show" side of taiko.  I went for big repetitive motions and ki, really "selling it".  Hell, I even dropped my bachi by accident and turned the recovering catch into part of the solo!  The SJT member who followed me did more the "skill" side of taiko, playing more melodic patterns and staying solid throughout.

Don't get me wrong, there was "skill" in my "show" and there was "show" in her "skill" for sure.  And it's quite possible to have both in a solo, regardless of the song you're playing.  On the flip side, too much show without skill is empty, while too much skill without show is boring.

So back to my original question, are you more inclined to put on a show or put out your skill?  Both are certainly valid options - I've seen people play the simplest patterns and sell them masterfully, as well as super complex/extremely fast patterns that drew you in without trying.

The problem is when you're stuck only being able to do one of the two.  For some, it could very well be a lack of experience, but for others it can be a challenge that they either can't or won't overcome.

If you're more comfortable being a spectacle (in a good way), what happens when you dial it back a bit and have to show technique instead of flash?  Can you deliver?  If you make your ki more about intention and focus, will your solo suffer?  Does it mean you're just not comfortable doing that sort of solo, or are you lacking in those basic skills?

If you're more about clean technique and being solid, what happens when you push your ki outwards past your own personal sphere?  What happens when you take risk, putting yourself out there and taking the audience with you for the ride?  What happens when you push past your comfort zone?  Can you?

What you do is often just as important as what you don't do.  It's not easy to face deficiencies and weak spots, but working on them can help you grow a lot faster than focusing on your strengths.