Monday, October 29, 2012


Critique is necessary for growth.  There are so many kinds of critique, so many ways to present it, so many ways to receive it, and so many possible effects from it.  Critique is not inherently a bad thing, it’s just information.  It takes on a “bad” or “good” aspect in its substance, delivery, effectiveness, and many other factors.

In prior posts I’ve talked about how to deliver critique and how it’s bad to deliver it without taking it.  But there’s a lot more to cover…

I measure critique in six parts: Source, Honesty, Intensity, Frequency, Intention, and Effect:

SOURCE: Who does the critique comes from?
HONESTY: How is the critique is presented?
INTENSITY: What's the delivery style?
FREQUENCY: How often is the critique given?
INTENTION: What's the purpose of the critique?
EFFECT: How effective is the critique?  How does the critique define the critique-r?

SOURCE is a pretty simple concept, but can have a big impact.  Most of us get the majority of our critique from ourselves!  Valuable critique from someone you don't respect is often taken less to heart.  We're only human.  I find that the best way to deal with this situation is to remember the critique and think about it later when the person isn't around, to look at it more objectively.

HONESTY can be a real tricky thing when it comes to critique.  Someone may not be very comfortable just saying what they mean, and so you might get a somewhat confusing or obfuscated comment.  If you’re taking the trouble to give someone a comment, unless it’s someone who’s really sensitive, most people will probably respect you just being upfront about it.  If you’re on the other side of the critique and you don’t quite get what a person is getting at, then take the initiative and ask.

INTENSITY will often determine if someone listens to the critique.  If you come off as angry or frustrated during your critique (especially if you ARE angry or frustrated), it’s really easy for people to discount what you say.  On the other extreme, coming off too mellow or apologetic in your delivery totally undercuts what you’re trying to get across.

FREQUENCY is another simple concept.  Too much critique from any combination of sources is going to be information overload.  If one person is giving too many comments - unless it's the head instructor - it's eventually going to get ignored.  If a group of people are giving too many comments, to any one person, eventually that person stops being receptive and becomes defensive.  Be aware of the environment!  If you or other people are making a lot of critiques, prioritize what you say to only be the most important things - or maybe say nothing at all!

INTENTION is one of those things that can take some time to have an effect, but it really hard to fix once perception is set.  When you give critique, is it truly for the purpose of helping someone get better?  Some people come off as loving the sound of their own voice or using critique as a way to make them feel better about their own abilities.  Once people put you in a category like those, even the good stuff you say will be tremendously dampened.  And even though we should try to remember what I said above (in source), it doesn't mean it's always easy.

EFFECT is a mixed bag.  It looks at what sort of critiques you tend to give and how effective they are.  It looks at how you give critique compared to how you take it.  It looks at how you critique yourself to grow.

Does the critique work in the short-term?  In the long-term?  Are you adjusting what you say to someone/people over time to make it more effective?  If not, why not?

Say there are a dozen things you could critique after watching someone.  Are you picking something superficial, or something that irks you but is really minor compared to the other issues?  Like intention above, people tend to notice that sort of thing and stop expecting you to give any insightful feedback.  If the things you bring up are mostly minor issues, ask yourself if it’s really important to bring them up.

If you’re good at giving critique but don’t take it well, how do you expect people to listen to you?  If your critiques tend to focus on a specific area but you yourself have issues in that same area, why should people take you seriously?  For example, it could be talking about finer details in kata when you have trouble fixing your own, or talking about how people should be more energetic when you're not putting it out there yourself.


Finally, there’s one last aspect to all this.  How you conduct yourself outside of practice will have a big impact on how your critique is received during practice.  If you’re critical about things in general, it gets hard for people to separate actual critique from just your personality.

I realize I could be accused of being critical outside of practice - I mean I have a blog that's often critical about a lot of things!  But it's not how I act outside of, or even during practice.  If you’re negative about things in general, people will filter out a lot of your critique during practice.  On the flip side, if you’re always positive about things and are making a lot of complimentary critiques, they may not have a lot of weight.  Consider the impact that YOU have on your critique.

Critique does not take place in a vacuum.  Everything from the mood of the person to the issue being critiqued to the choice of words used gets factored in.  Sometimes even the best said, best intentioned critique can be the worst possible thing to say.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

20 Precepts, part 2 (Spirit first)

The founder of Shotokan karate, Gichin Funakoshi, created the “20 precepts of karate-do.”  This is a list of 20 different philosophies, some specific and others general.  For this series, I will be looking at the ones that can apply to taiko and taiko training.

Today’s precept: “Spirit first, technique second.” 

Without spirit, technique is empty.  The best strike and the best stance without spirit is meaningless.  It does no good to hit someone with a punch that’s technically perfect without any sort of intention behind it.  It does no good to play a song that’s spot on but with weak spirit throughout.  But there’s a couple of distinctions that I’d like to make.

First, "spirit" isn’t just one kind of energy.  Just like not all techniques in karate are full-on, full-out, neither do they have to be in taiko.  I think that intention is the heart of the word “spirit” here.  Proper intention of what you’re doing – what you’re trying to do – in the technique is more important than the technique itself.  If you disagree with me, keep reading.

Second, I take this precept to mean “in execution,” rather than “in learning.”  When you perform a technique, or kata, or song, etc., you should be focusing more on spirit than technique.  Why?  Because if you’ve been practicing in earnest, then you don’t need to focus so much on the technique when it’s time to perform it.

And that brings me to my third point, which is that the precept merely states a priority.  It doesn't say to do one OR the other.  So when you’re performing something, while you should be aware of the technique, give more focus to the intention behind it.

When you’re learning something, it might be okay if spirit is lacking.  That’s the time when technique and fundamentals matter the most.  Just be careful you don’t bring a lack of spirit from the time spent learning into time spent performing.

Monday, October 22, 2012

20 Precepts, part 1 (Know yourself)

The founder of Shotokan karate, Gichin Funakoshi, created the “20 precepts of karate-do.”  This is a list of 20 different philosophies, some specific and others general.  For this series, I will be looking at the ones that can apply to taiko and taiko training. 

Today’s precept: “First know yourself before attempting to know others.”

This one is pretty easy to understand, but some people definitely have trouble with it.

I have spent countless hours in both karate and taiko trying to figure out how I move and how to move better.  It's my responsibility as a student and as a teacher.  It’s not always easy to be in a position of teaching others, because I realize their development can be affected by what I do and say with them.  If I’m confusing or unclear, I’m making them take longer to get better.  I don’t want someone to teach me like that, and so I don’t want to be teaching like that.

Sometimes understanding the underlying concept and having good communication skills can be all that’s required of an instructor.  You don’t need to be an expert in something to be able to teach it.  In fact, teaching becomes an important part of the learning process because it forces you to think in new ways and look at things from different angles.

I often see people who love to tell other people how to do things.  Nothing wrong with that!  I mean I love being able to teach someone how to do something, and some people are genuinely good at instruction.  It becomes an issue when a person becomes eager to teach but not as eager to improve.

If you can spot a deficiency in someone's technique, first ask if you have it yourself.  You'd better ask yourself that question honestly, because I'll bet the people you're talking to will notice if you do.  It doesn't mean you can't bring things up that need to be said, but maybe you could be spending more time fixing that issue - instead of looking for it in others - so that people will take your critique of it more seriously.

The main lesson of this precept is that we should spend more time on ourselves before we try to help or critique others.  Whether I’m just observing or experiencing it, it’s really hard to learn from someone who’s all about giving suggestions and critique when they’re not turning that critical eye inwards.  It’s honestly hard to listen to someone giving a lot of comments knowing they have a whole host of issues they aren’t working as hard to fix.  When someone who's teaching me is also continuing to improve themselves, that's a teacher I can respect.

None of us are perfect and we should all be capable of giving and receiving feedback.  But when the feedback comes from ego or is soured with a lack of self-awareness, the information is tainted.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

On testing (and failing)

As I write this, it's been about three hours since I took my 3rd-degree black belt test and about 2 hours since I was told I didn't pass.

I expected it to sting more, honestly, but I'm not thrilled about it (obviously).  I feel like I tested too soon and it wasn't the head sensei who failed me; I failed him.  I'm not the sycophantic type and I'm not trying to wax philosophical about it - he wanted to see more than I was able to deliver.  I failed because my body didn't have the proper understanding he wanted to see.

It wasn't all bad; I was pleasantly surprised how calm I felt when the test actually happened.  No hint of nervous energy after a day of butterflies in the stomach.  And I pushed myself hard the entire week.  It was 2-3 hours of intense, sometimes painful exertion a night, including tonight before the actual test.  I could have cut corners but I wanted to test myself.

So as I reflect about what I'm going to do from here, two things really stand out:

  • I practice what I preach.
I talk about fear and failure in many of my blog posts, and how the fear of failure is often worse than the failure itself.  It's nice to know I truly believe that.  I had my doubts about this test, and was definitely nervous the entire day.  But every time I felt that doubt in my head, I said there was no going back and since I was committed, I was going to see it through.

Pulling out would have been so much worse.  I'd have to explain why and I'd have the question in my head for a good year of "could I have passed?"  If I'm going to fail, then dammit, I'm going to fail gloriously.  I'll laugh about it later much easier that way.

This is a major learning opportunity and I have to look at it that way.  In some ways I feel like I'm at square one, having to rethink and relearn a LOT of the basics I've taken for granted.

  • Plan to test from day one.
I tried to learn brand-new material three weeks from the testing date and then learn what the head instructor wanted the emphasis to be (on ALL material) in the week of the test.  That was insane - and really, what was I thinking?  We tell other belts that the two weeks leading up to a test is NOT the time to be asking us to teach you a technique on your requirements.  Like three weeks is a big improvement over two...

As soon as you learn a new technique, you should be contemplating having to be tested on it.  This mindset is the only way you'll constantly question what you should be doing better.  Otherwise it gets easy to create arbitrary guidelines for when you should start trying to get ready.  Get ready now!  Don't wait until it makes sense "down the line", because who knows when that line will come?  It may never come unless you push forward to get there.

For taiko players, most of us don't really "test", but instead we learn new songs/new parts.  Maybe you know you'll play a song for the first time on a certain date, but why pace yourself?  If you think that the song is just around the corner, you'll push yourself a little harder.  And when the actual song happens, you might just be in a position of confidence instead of nervousness.


I was told that I should definitely test again at the next opportunity.  I have about a year to get to that level, but there's a lot of things I have to work on - some of it familiar, some of it brand new.  I can sit on my laurels, I can admire what skills I do have, but I'll be damned if I'm going to be satisfied with just that.

The first time I auditioned with San Jose Taiko, I failed.  In two months, I'll have been with the group for 20 years.  The only way a failure should shape you is when it drives you to become better.  Stay hungry.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Looking good

In a recent karate seminar, the instructor had said, “karate is about looking good.”  As with most sayings like that, it doesn’t sound quite right.  There has to be more to it.

He explained it more by saying that if your techniques look good it probably means you’re doing them correctly.  Ah, now that makes more sense, yeah?  If you have good body mechanics, understand timing, have good balance, etc., you’ll probably have strong, fast, technically more correct technique than someone who lacks those.

Now in taiko, this is usually the case…but not always the case.  In taiko, we not only have a visual element, we also have an audial one.

When the group is playing together, it’s sometimes easy to see who may not look “as good”.  On further inspection, you might find that someone’s extension isn’t crisp or their butt sticks out or their movements are disjointed.  Still, in terms of ensemble drumming, that person/those people that aren’t looking “as good” may not lessen the quality of the sound of the piece.

…or do they?

Looking at solos, it’s relatively easy to look “good” to the audience. In general, if you’re really energetic and making big motions during your solo, most audiences won’t notice your striking technique, unless it’s really bad.  So the test here is how well can you play a part in a song by yourself and make it sound good?  By “sound good” I mean use proper striking technique that generates a warm sound, not a weak nor harsh one.  And then once you have that metric of sound quality, what happens to it when you solo?  Are you sacrificing the audial for the visual?

The only real way to hear yourself and do this test is to practice by yourself, without accompaniment.  It’s not always easy to do, depending on the song, but don’t worry about tempo, worry about a good sound.  And be honest with yourself!  If you’re playing and you realize your strikes are weak, don’t pretend they’re not.  If you run through a solo and you hear inconsistent, sloppy strikes, don’t convince yourself that you’ll “make up for it with energy and movement”.  It’s like saying “oh, the table tends to fall over when you put stuff on it, but isn’t it pretty?”

I find it interesting that looking good without sounding good only works in a group environment.  Don’t hide a weak aspect behind a strong one, and especially don’t hide it in the midst of your group!

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Many years ago during one of our annual retreats, there was a discussion about who was being picked to play what parts.  In response to that, I said “every time you step on the mat, you’re being evaluated.”  And just the other day, in talking about a week full of seminars culminating in my next black belt test, I got told that “basically, the whole thing is your test.”

So what does this all mean for you?

Your group may have a system to determine who’s ready to play a certain spot or get to the next ranking, but it’s silly to think that there’s only a short window of time that you’re being evaluated in.  Everything you’ve done up unto that point – good and bad – is taken into account.  Have you taken to new spots well in the past?  Do you self-correct?  Have you been trying hard overall, not just for one particular spot?  Do you help others who are trying to learn the spot you got?  Do you get uppity when you get new spots?  All of that plus more come into play.

Sure, it’s easy to just say you need to be the perfect role-model and exemplary student when you practice, but none of us are perfect.   So instead realize that everything you do in practice (and sometimes outside of practice) is part of the audition for your next…everything!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Drill: Jumping Horsebeat

I've written a drill that can be done by anyone, but is also able to challenge everyone.  I turned to the ever-popular don doko to create what I call the "Jumping Horsebeat".  The "jump" in the name comes from the downbeat switching hands as you play.

To make sure we're all on the same page, I define don doko as notes falling on the 1, 3, and 4 of a 4-count pattern:  1 - 3 4 1 - 3 4 1 - 3 4 etc.  When sped up, this pattern mimics the sound of a horse riding at a fast pace, hence the name "horsebeat."  And no, I didn't make that name up, that's what it's been called since I can remember.  Sometimes this pattern is played as don tsuku, where the 3 and 4 are played quieter.

Below are five different ways to stick don doko in increasing difficulty.  Repeat each pattern slowly at first and while using a metronome if one is available.  You may have to start the harder patterns at a slower tempo, but you can always speed up in small increments as you get more proficient.  Each pattern is its own drill and is meant to be repeated.  There’s no need to flow from one to the other (yet!)

Drill 1: Alternating hands


A pretty simple version of the horsebeat, each hit is done by alternating hands.

Drill 2: R-RL and L-LR


Pay careful attention to the 4th and 8th bars.  This is where you’ll switch the downbeat to the other hand.

Drill 3: R-LL and L-RRs


The switch on the 4th and 8th pattern is the same as in Drill #2.

Drill 4: R-LR and L-RL


This one can get tricky so go slow at first!  Again, the switch happens in the same way.

Drill 5: R-RR and L-LL


You may find that patterns you find easier are later down the list (pattern 4 is easier for you than pattern 3 for example), but don't worry about the order too much.  What’s important is to make sure that the dynamics are even – that no note sounds louder or softer than the one before it.  This is yet another reason to start slow and gradually build up speed.

You can do a lot with these patterns!  For example:
  • Play the drills as written in order from #1 through #5 without pausing, then repeat.
  • Start any of the patterns with the left hand instead of the right.
  • Shorten or elongate the amount of bars you play before switching the downbeat to the opposite hand.  (2, 4, or 8)
  • Play don tsuku instead, adding the element of dynamics to the patterns.
  • Switching freely between patterns.  In other words, playing any of the six possible variations (R-RR, L-LL, R-RL, L-LR, R-LR, L-RL) in any combination that's not fixed.  This can be very difficult at speed, so start slow!
This is the kind of drill you can do anywhere, in the kitchen, the car, the bathroom, wherever your hands are free.  By "jumping" around, you’re working towards the ultimate goal here, which is developing hand independence. When you can trust in your hands to play what you want, you develop a sense of freedom and confidence that can only add to your performance!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Less is more, part 2.

During some of the downtime of the past annual concert, I was talking with our Lighting Designer.  He told me about a conversation he had years ago with a bluegrass musician.  During a discussion about bluegrass, the musician said, “it’s not about what you play, it’s about what you don't play.”

Let’s apply that to you, dear reader.  Instead of thinking about what you play, how are you defined by what you don’t?  How can not doing something make you a better performer/artist?  This post ties in a lot with my recent post about making your solos stand out, but doesn’t only apply to solos.

We can take this to a detailed level and look at specific patterns or notes. In a world where a lot of people play triplets during their solos, choosing purposefully not to do them speaks to your style.

Step back a level, and we can look at the visuals.  The moves you don’t do are only effective when presented against other people that do them a lot.  This is contrast, much like with musical patterns.  But even in terms of just what you do, like only angular or only flowing movements, a style is formed.

Another step back and we can look at style itself.  Never looking serious during a solo can define you.  So can never being predictable – but that’s a fine line, because if you’re never predictable, THAT’S predictable!

There’s also compositions, for those of you who either craft your solos or write whole pieces.  Some people never repeat the same pattern or section twice.  Other people might never do the same solo twice!  (That's hard, by the way…It doesn’t even have to be about the music either.  A composer might never fail to mention that someone gave them permission to write a piece, or leave out nothing (in other words, too much information!)

And finally, there’s behavior.  If someone is never late to practice, that defines them.  If someone never has an unkind word to say about someone, that defines them as well. 

Of course, the negatives apply as well, to all of the above examples.  Maybe a player never puts in any space (ma) during a solo, or never moves their arms away from the drum, or never changes their expression, or never changes their solo, or never arrives on time, etc.  Doing any of these doesn’t automatically make someone a bad person/player, but it does shape the narrative of who they are.

You can argue whether thought or deed defines a person more, but sometimes what’s not thought or done has just as much impact sometimes!

Monday, October 1, 2012


In the course of our taiko journey, we learn songs.  The vast majority of people learn songs through gradual and repetitive line-by-line sequencing, and/or having things explained in great detail.  You might have a song taught to you one-on-one, or in a small group, or as part of a large group.  Regardless of how it's taught to you, there's one thing all of those ways have in common - you are told what to do.

In other words, an instructor says "play this" and you play that.  They tell you to "move your arms here" and you move your arms there.  But what would happen if you had to learn a song from someone who didn't talk?  If someone expected you to learn a song from them without using words - you had to learn by watching and doing - would it freak you out?

So maybe it's not likely that someone wouldn't use any words at all, but suppose they didn't speak your language or they just taught without consideration for those who want some dialogue.  Most teachers would at least use hand gestures and vocal cues, at the very least. Still, let's go back to the original scenario.  Would you try even harder to learn the piece despite the lack of explanations, or give up until someone helped you through it with words? 

How much do you rely on people to tell you how to do something?  How much then do you stop looking for other solutions and instead become expectant on others to teach you through words?  To some degree, we are all guilty of this, to be sure.  Some people can take it to such a degree, however, where it literally stunts their growth.  If it's not told to them, they don't find it worth learning.

Although we have our preferred ways to learn things, you won't always be taught in the ways that suit you best.  Being able to learn a song quickly is a skill, but being able to learn through multiple teaching styles is sign of true ability.