Thursday, September 27, 2012


Back about...15 or so years ago, I was tinkering around with different martial art styles.  I had spent a good seven-ish years learning Shotokan karate, a year studying Capoeira, a year in Tae Kwon Do, and a class here and there in other arts.

I wanted to learn a breadth of techniques, hoping to gain a wide repertoire of ideas and possibilities.  I didn't think it would make me an awesome martial artist, but I thought it would be a good way to get better overall.  But it's been the 14 years in karate that has given me the foundation to do the crazy stuff I wanted to do when I was younger!

Now this brings me to taiko (of course). 

The flashier stuff can be a lot of fun to practice.  These are things like playing as fast as possible, as many notes as you can cram in, bachi twirls and flips, or even crossovers on the slung okedo.  But I find that I can hear and see the difference between the person who practices the fancy stuff more vs. the person who practices their basics more.

The person who focuses on the basics may not be able to pull off something fancy at first, but if they have the foundations of techniques, it will be a lot easier for them to figure things out.  The person that practices with the fancy stuff might be good at one of those things, but they'll have to practice each one separately and one won't necessarily help another.

It's not that you can't or shouldn't practice some of the fancy things, in order to push your skills.  Just take note of what you do when presented with free practice time.  Do you play a simple pattern or work on a ji?  Do you go all-out like your hands are full of angry bees?  Do you feel like you have to impress people around you?

I like playing something like don tsuku for a long time on okedo or even a straight beat on odaiko.  There's something satisfying with feeling the notes fit in the pocket, the striking even and true.  And from there if I want to do crossovers or have angry-bee hands, I use the same feeling that I had when working on the basics.  In other words, it carries over like a template of sorts.

It's not just even fancy stuff that a solid foundation will help with.  Good foundations make learning a new way of playing so much easier and you wind up working on the details instead.  It doesn't matter if it's odaiko or percussion, the more grounded you are in the basics, the more things relate.

Okay, enough lecture; my point has been made.  Tricks are junk food, foundations are vegetables.  Eat your veggies!  :D

Monday, September 24, 2012

Unique solos.

In the movie The Incredibles, the jealous arch-villain wants to make superpowers available to everyone so that, “when everyone is special, no one will be.”

Not everyone who plays taiko gets to solo or wants to solo.  Some of those that do solo don’t really care about standing out.  There's nothing wrong with any of that, but this post is directed at those that do solo and want to stand out.
The longer you spend with a group, the more you will start to move and sound like them.  This is almost inevitable.  After all, spending time with a group means learning more about their style and priorities, and since everyone is trying to get better within the group, all of you are learning the same things.

Within individual groups, you will often find people playing the same things in a solo.  Musically, it may come out where every other measure ends the same way.  Visually, each soloist may spin to the same side in the same way.  Examples of things that carry across multiple groups are when a lot of collegiate taiko players like to play triplets and/or kiai the same way.

Another example of something across a lot of groups is the flashy solo.  Yes, I know your awesome syncopated spinning double-bachi hitting was cool, but when the audience sees a fancy cartwheeling triplet-y solo before that and a flipped bachi behind-the-back into a double-time polyrhythm solo from the next person, well…  Several of those from different people across the course of a set makes it hard to start telling them apart.  If the priority is self-expression, then there’s really no problem – but the audience usually appreciates the moments when a soloist stands out.

Here’s where we get to the hard part.  How do you stand out?  I admittedly have an innate ability to do this because I’m 6’3” and pale, amidst a group of shorter, mostly Asian people.  But I don’t want to rely on appearance to stand out; that’s being lazy.  Also, assuming your group plays more than one song with solos in it, just saying “you should do X in your solos” doesn’t really help.  So I can’t give you specific things to try.  But I can offer ideas:

  • Do what no one else does.  Easy, right?  Yes and no.  If no one else in your group hits themselves repeatedly on the head with their bachi, does that mean you should?  Of course not!  Observe both the smaller and larger things.  Does everyone move around a lot?  Maybe you can stand out by staying in one place.  Do people play a lot of syncopation?  Then something very downbeat-heavy might be memorable.
  • Do what other people do...but differently.  So you notice that everyone spins to the right in their solo.  Maybe you can spin to the right, but twice in a row!  Or maybe a lot of people like to make a big movement in the middle of their solo.  How about doing nothing but movement for several beats?  Thinking of what's common then putting your spin on it can stand out.
  • Be original.  Trying to be cool or fancy often means you blend in with those who are trying to do the same thing.  Trying to find your style and what actually makes you different is something most people have trouble doing.  Some spend more time working on the next "cool move" rather than thinking about the bigger picture of what it all adds up to.
  • Have fun!  The more you worry about trying to pull off something "new" and "fancy", the more likely you'll be focusing/stressing out about the move during your solo.  I've seen people who threw their bachi up high in the air during their solo...and that was the only thing about the solo that was interesting.  You could tell they were just trying to set it up, then *if* they caught it, that was it.  They spent so much time getting it to work that they forgot about developing the rest of their solo.
The first thing you have to do, if you want to truly stand out without being obnoxious about it, is to be aware.  Watch the other members.  Watch people not even from your group!

Observe objectively, think critically, then create fearlessly!

Thursday, September 20, 2012


How do you deal with a performance mistake?   I mean the kind where you play the wrong pattern, move the wrong way, etc.

Do you laugh it off?  It’s generally a sign of a healthy mindset if you don’t let it get to you, but it’s not always the best response.  If you mess up and don’t beat yourself up too much for it, you’re less likely to freak out about doing it again  This in turn might mean when the situation comes up again, you won’t have a panic moment.  However, are you not taking it seriously enough?  Too much “laughing it off” and you’ll find that you’re not learning from your mistakes and not practicing hard enough.

Do you get upset?  This is a default for most people – not just taiko players!  You don’t want to make mistakes, obviously, and you’re making a mental note to yourself of what happened and hoping it doesn’t happen again.  The problem here is when you show that upset on your face, with a wince, or head shake, or even the opposite like a big grin or laugh.  What’s ironic about reacting to a mistake in those ways is that anyone who didn’t realize you made a mistake at first now knows you did!

Do you ignore it?  Don’t ignore mistakes.  If it’s a fluke and never happened before, then acknowledge it as such, but at least realize why it happened.  If you don’t like dwelling on mistakes because it feels negative, think of them instead as chunks of clay you need to chip away at to reveal the sculpture underneath.  If you don’t know you made a mistake, then you need to work on your awareness!

This post isn’t about how to learn from mistakes, it’s about what you do when they happen.  Bottom line is we all make mistakes and we will continue to make them.  How you deal with them shows a lot about what kind of artist you are.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


What are you afraid of?  Wait, let me narrow that down.  When you do your art, what are you afraid of?

Fear that you're not very good?  Fear that you might fail?  Fear that other people in the group are surpassing you?  Fear that you won't remember the song?  Fear that you will solo longer than you're supposed to?

So what do you do to fight those fears?  Do you just deal with the fear or do you punch fear in the gonads?

You can do three things when it comes to that fear:

  1. Confront it.  That means more practicing, more work, more effort.
  2. Accept it.  Not the best choice, but you might be able to think/push through the fear when it hits and "cope".
  3. Suffer.  This is what you don't want.  This is when the fear keeps you from growing, from enjoying, from expressing.  You begin to fear the fear.
 So I ask again, what do you do to fight those fears?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Listen up!

Kumidaiko (ensemble drumming) is an incredible experience to participate in.  The problem is, your group drumming may be keeping you from hearing what your technique actually sounds like!

Think about it.  If you're playing the same pattern with three or four other people, how can you hear what your individual notes sound like?  It may very well sound good because the amalgam sounds good, but how do YOU sound?  It’s surprising, humbling, and sometimes embarrassing to find out that your sound only sounds good with the strength of a group around it.

Listening while playing during a solo can be misleading, because there are usually still other people playing around you, even if they’re on different instruments.  The only way to truly know what you sound like is to play by yourself.  So let’s say you drill a simple straight beat on a single drum by yourself.  What do you work on and listen for?  Glad you asked…

  • Balance (volume) – Most people are right-handed, and therefore will have a louder right strike.  Often the response to this is to strike louder with the other hand, but also consider striking quieter with the dominant hand instead.  Listen for evenness at different tempos.
  • Balance (angle) – Our dominant hand also tends to strike “better”, that is, with proper technique, while the other can get flat/slappy.  The difference in sound here (even without the slap) can be tremendous.  Make sure you are striking at identical angles.
  • Orientation – Your bachi should be mirroring each other in terms of where they’re striking.  If one bachi is three inches out from center but the other is four inches out and two inches down, you’re probably going to have two different tones.  Unless of course the next point applies… 
  • Tone (head) – The surface of a taiko might seem flat, but there are density and textural variances throughout.  If you mapped out a grid in inches over the head of the average taiko, you’d probably hear differences in a strike from one section to another.  The tighter the head, the smaller that grid would be (half-inches on shime, for example).  When your notes are the same volume but sound different, you should try shifting the striking points around a little bit until you match up.  You might find that the only way to get an even tone is to have the bachi striking the exact same spot, so be careful.
  • Tone (bachi) – A pair of bachi may be weighted differently and/or have a different “rounding” on the tips.  You can easily feel when one bachi is heavier than the other and compensate somewhat, but you really can’t compensate when one bachi is half a sphere at the end while the other is barely rounded off. 
  • Technique – If you seem to have *more* than two tones going on over the course of a pattern, it probably means you’re not able to strike the same point consistently and/or unable to control the bachi from wiggling about in your hands (micro-adjustments are fine, however).  If you can’t duplicate your striking technique in both hands, it could be hand balance, or also that you need to work on better technique to understand what’s going on.
Frankly, there’s a LOT of stuff to listen for.  And like I mentioned in my post here, I’ve gotten to a point where I sometimes listen too well.  If I have the time before a song, I’ll find the best combination of bachi to use in the shime pouch.  But if I just grab a pair at random and they’re off just a little bit, it’ll bug me during the entire song.  The audience probably doesn’t hear half of what I hear, but *I* hear it!

You don't want to have false sense of skill, right?  It's hard dealing with someone who can't hear themselves playing inconsistently, but I do respect someone who knows they're off and wants help fixing things.  Listening is a skill that will make you a better musician, and there is something empowering about being able to hear yourself amidst the group and being able to adjust your technique.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Perception of Quality

At karate tournaments, I’ve heard judges say they can tell how well someone will do a form just by how they enter the ring.  How confident are they?  How precise?  Are they rushed?  Are they relaxed?  Too relaxed?  To some degree, a judge really can get a good feel for what sort of score a person will get before they even start the form.

Now, when you go watch a performance – taiko or otherwise – how long does it take for you to start judging the quality of the show?

Let me give you some examples of things I’ve seen and I want you to think about what sort of judgments you would make:

  • Members with messy hair 
  • Members with sloppy costuming (not the costumes themselves, but how they wear them) 
  • Drums on stage not set in their cradles/lopsided 
  • Members before a show in view of the audience, cracking jokes and having fun 
  • Members practicing a song in view of the audience 
  • A really nervous MC (from the group) 
  • Members eating between songs

Odds are, most of you would expect less from the performance after seeing some of these.  Mind you, there are definitely times when it’s not a big deal.  If I’m at an outdoor festival and it’s a collegiate group and there’s 30 minutes before they go on, a lot of those on the list above wouldn’t be a big deal.  But in other situations, they give me at least a little pause…

Professionalism is often about appearances, but not just surface-deep.  If a member takes care to make sure their hachimaki is even or their obi is pristine, then they’re more likely to take the performance seriously and have probably been more likely to take practices seriously as well.

You have to be careful about expectations though, because if you equate a scruffy beard and an old T-shirt with a lack of talent, Jerry Garcia and Kurt Cobain might have something to say about that.  Yes I know they’re deceased.  It was a joke.  Moving on…

It’s definitely possible for a group with awkwardly-worn clothing and an MC who doesn’t look comfortable to give a performance that is really enjoyable.  It’s just that I’m less likely to expect that to happen.  It’s certainly more likely that a group that looks and acts impeccable will give a lackluster performance, actually.

So what does this mean for you?  Well, how do you present yourself to the audience?  They are making assumptions based on how you act even before the performance has started.  You might think that practicing a song off on the side is a good way to be prepared, but the audience might think it means you’re nervous and not ready to play it.  Again, it doesn’t mean you won’t blow them away once you actually perform, but perception still affects one’s enjoyment.

Think of a performance as a meal in a restaurant: You might be presented with an amazing plate of food, but if you’ve been staring at dirty silverware before it arrived, it will be harder for you to enjoy the meal…

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Taiko

I recently watched the movie "Jiro Dreams of Sushi", about an 85-year-old Japanese sushi chef who is obsessed with making perfect sushi and is as near perfection in his craft as anyone will come.
His philosophy of how to get better at things applies to any skill or craft, and I of course thought about applying them to taiko.  He mentions the three points in bold below; I’ve expounded on the ideas further.

1.) Hard Work

A given, right?  When you want to improve on your skills, you have to work on them: repetition of correct motions, a little sweat, a lot of sweat, learning to adjust to what your teachers tell you, etcetera etcetera etcetera.  If you’re doing taiko, then you’re doing this.

2.) Talent

No matter how much you practice something, the only way to take things to the next level is to have a least a modicum of talent at it.  Let’s say I have no talent in ballet (I know, hard to imagine.)  I can study the movements and I will get better to a point.  After a while however, without some sort of talent, I will only be able to achieve small increments of progress instead of breakthroughs.

3. Hard Work

Having talent is not enough, because talent only takes you so far.  You then have to go back and work hard with that talent to take you to the next level.

- - -

This philosophy is easy to understand, but I want to address a few points.

I know that some of you that are reading this are thinking “I don’t have talent, so what's the point of working so hard to get better?”  I *know* some of you are because I’ve heard it directly (and tried to shake some sense into you, too.)  Stop it!

Even if you feel you may not have talent in something, it doesn’t mean you can't enjoy it and get better at it!  You working hard may result in a stronger artist that those with talent who do not.  Not having "talent" doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy your art or feel satisfaction from it, nor does it mean others won’t receive pleasure from your efforts.

“Talent” can come from many different things and it’s not always directly in the art form one practices.  Looking at ballet again, one might have talent in ballet, or in movement, or in body mechanics, or in martial arts, etc.  They all relate to “talent” and all apply here.

For those who work hard, find their talent, and work hard still, I don’t think this philosophy ends there.  I think it continues until you stop trying to reach that pinnacle of perfection.  If you find your talent and work hard on it, there might be another level of talent that comes into play in finer details or related activities.  Then you should work on on those.  And then if you find you have talent in things that come from there, then work hard yet again, and so on.  That cycle may never end, if you follow it intently enough.

The most important thing here is not whether you have talent or not, or whether you feel you have talent or not.  It's how hard you want work at what you have and being the best artist you can be.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Respect yourself

Respect is something inherently built in to most of our taiko experience.  Even groups that aren't steeped in the Japanese or Japanese-American tradition seem to have different aspects of respect as part of their core philosophy.

There's a lot of ways to show respect.  The most common is by respecting the people that are teaching you, as well as those who have come before you/paved the way to make what you do possible.  There's respecting your equipment, respecting the art form, respecting your group...but the one often overlooked is respecting yourself.

One might argue that respecting yourself is the most important kind of respect, because if you can't do that then how can you have respect for anything else?  It's like a house built without a foundation then trying to add more floors.

There's a very practical reason to respect yourself, if speaking in metaphors doesn't do much for you.  If you don't respect yourself, your art cannot come from a good place.

That means that anything you produce is going to be missing something, something vital.  Whether it's a composition, a form, a solo, a movement, etc., how can that work have a foundation when the person that created it doesn't respect themselves?

It's not like this is a black-or-white situation.  Having a lack of respect in yourself can come in many forms.  To a degree, most of us are somewhat self-deprecating, but when it becomes negative inner dialogue, that's when you aren't respecting yourself.  Good examples of this are telling yourself "I'll never get it," or "I'm not any good."  With that sort of mindset, how can you be genuine and put joy into what you do?

Just having people telling you the opposite doesn't really help.  So think of it this way: treat yourself the way you would look after others who you might be teaching.  You have to give yourself patience and keep working at it.

We often think of respect as a thing people have to earn to get, or as something we give to our instruments to make sure they last a long time.  Like I said in one of my earliest posts, you are just as much an instrument as the drums are.  Empowerment starts from within!