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! 

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