Thursday, November 29, 2012


Sparring tonight, I found myself going "light" on lower belts, by giving them slower techniques, or those that lacked intention.  I got called out for it, but found that when I tried to get more intense, it was really easy to slip back into "light".  Rather frustrating.

At my level I'm supposed to dominate my opponent.  Ok, fine, that's a different mindset than I'm used to, but it's something to work for.  And in being such a "threat" to my opponent, I should be giving them a reason to react in a similar way, regardless of their rank compared to mine.

It's a form of teaching, albeit it an aggressive one.  I need to make them step up their game in order to defend themselves - in effect, make them "hungry" to learn (how to defend themselves as I come in with a flurry, mind you).

In making them hungry, they are forced to respond in kind and make me hungry in return to defend myself.  It's a feedback loop of sorts.  Granted, being too aggressive to someone who's of significantly less skill will make them wilt, and some people don't respond well to direct aggressiveness (but we're talking about sparring in a karate class).

Relating this to taiko, how do you convey ideas and concepts?  How does your delivery affect other people's receptiveness?  No one's going to get excited by your song if you're not excited by it!  No one's going to look forward to trying out your ideas if you're not "selling" them wel..

Do you get excited about things that excite you?  Do you try to instill that sense of fun and joy in your dealings with other people?  Being genuinely enthusiastic (without being childish or condescending) while teaching something can really draw people in to what you're trying to get across.  That's a feedback loop that should be less uncommon than it probably is.

Remember that how you give information has a direct impact on how it's taken.  If you want people to be nonchalant, teach nonchalantly.  But if you want passion, you have to be passionate!

Monday, November 26, 2012

On talent and teaching

It's not always easy to teach what you know.

Someone may be an amazing composer, or have a revolutionary approach to a skill, or even have delved deep into a particular style...but it doesn't speak one whit to their ability to teach those things.  Just as it takes skill to play taiko or do a kata, it takes skill to get in front of a group of people and teach them how to do those things.

From a student's standpoint, it's really really really hard to try to learn from someone who doesn't know what they're talking about.  I don't think many people would argue that.  But it's also incredibly dissatisfying to have someone trying to teach me something they DO know about, but lack the ability to teach it.

From a teacher's standpoint, I find it's my responsibility to know what the hell I'm talking about.  I've had to teach things I didn't understand all that well and felt stupid when questions came and my answers were weak.      I'm also responsible to make sure that I'm actually teaching, and not just "speaking" or "doing."

It's not enough to just be good at what you do if you want to teach it to others.  After all the workshops and seminars I've been to, there are four things that I wish all teachers could keep in mind.

-A good teacher knows their material.  A teacher that's not put a lot of thought into what they're teaching is simply parroting what they've themselves been taught, and it will show.
-A good teacher is someone who understands what they're doing enough to modify the plan when needed.  If you're inflexible with your lesson plan (square peg, round hole), then students are going to feel like they're secondary to your ego.
-A good teacher is checking the pulse of the class.  It's not enough to just ask, "get it?"  A little bit of empathy goes a long way here.  
-A good teacher instills the joy in what they do into their students.  Being distant or removed from your students is the best way to make sure they hate what you're teaching them.  Enthusiasm and being genuine is the ultimate delivery method.

There will always be students that wanted more of *this* and less of *that*, or who wish you'd done more/done less.  However, if they feel like you are working hard to actually teach and not just be there to show them how superawesome you are, then what you've taught might actually just sink in and be there years down the line.

Everyone should try to teach something to others in their groups at least once, to understand that it takes both forethought and skill to do well!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Future mistakes

At karate we occasionally do a “line” drill.  This is where a column of people (attackers) face a single person (defender).  The closest attacker attacks, gets blocked/evaded, gets counter-attacked, then goes to the back of the column.  This rotation goes on for a while.

When we had the head of our organization visiting us a month ago, he said that the defender should have a particular mindset during this drill.  Instead of dealing with the attack then resetting for the next attacker, the defender should deal with the attack and be ready – hungry, actually – for the next attacker.  It’s sort of a “come on, who's next?” sort of mentality.  It changes the role of the defender from passive to active.

Odds are you’re going to get hit sooner or later.  His idea was not so much to make us into unfeeling warriors but to not let the result of the exchange linger and to be more than ready for the next attacker.

In taiko, mistakes can be minimized through practice, but they will happen.  If there’s a section in a song that trips you up, instead of dreading the next time, try looking forward to it.  Wait, why would you do that?

Take any potentially tricky part as an opportunity to get it right.  The alternative – and default for most people – is to think of it as something to dread.  And if you dread it, odds are you’ll continue to make a mistake there, creating a negative feedback loop.

In effect, the passages of a song are the “attacker” and you are the “defender”.  Here and then you make a mistake and get “hit”, but you have to snap back into position and be ready – be hungry – for the next opportunity.  You may get “hit” again and again by the same tricky passage, but you make it a self-fulfilling prophecy if you always expect it to happen.

Granted, if you get hit 28 times in a row, you might need to step back and figure out what to work on – sequence, chops, timing, movement, etc.  Making mistakes in a passage that you know is very different from not knowing it!

Maybe the idea of “combating” your mistakes is a bit too aggressive for some of you, but try to at least have the mindset that it’s not fearing your future mistakes, it’s succeeding at future opportunities!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

20 Precepts, part 4 (Release mind)

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: “Always be ready to release your mind.”

This one is pretty easy to talk about, especially since it mirrors a concept that SJT brings up often in workshops and school programs.  “Beginner’s Mind” is the philosophy that no matter how long you’ve been doing something – playing a song, practicing a drill, etc. – you can still learn something from it.  It could be 4 days or 40 years, the odds are there’s still more to learn.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played Renshu or done oroshi/straight beat as a drill.  I admit there were times early on when I thought, “why are we doing this again?  I already know how to do it!”  But that was my failing.  During the “simpler” stuff is the best time to work on the body mechanics: feet, knees, hips, posture, engagement, etc.  If you can’t do a simple drill well, the more complex stuff is just going to highlight the things you have trouble with.

It shouldn’t be about “what am I making mistakes on?” but rather “what can I do better?”  A mindset to improve will serve you better than the one to critique here.

There may be a few individuals out there that have mastered a particular drill to the point where they really may not have anything to learn from it.  But damn that’s rare!  Still, assuming that it is possible, it’s still ONE drill out of a countless amount.  Perfected don doko?  How about don tsuku?  Perfected a kata in its entirety?  What about the next one?

It’s not that you should always have your mind “empty”, because sometimes you want to come into a situation knowing things – like at a performance, or rehearsing for a performance, or teaching students, etc.  But being aware of how easy you are able to “release your mind” and have the beginner’s mindset will tell you a lot about how far you’ll go as an artist.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Relying on an audience

There are more and more themed running events, some more amusing (like adding "zombies") and some more extreme (running through brambled forests).

Some of these runs are brutal, with cold weather, damp conditions, and a near-guarantee to draw blood.  They're not very popular (go figure) but draw a very small group of sadists people who want to test themselves.  There's not a lot of glory involved, since they draw a smaller crowd, and from what I've heard, many don't finish some of these more extreme courses.

Where am I going with this?  Well, when you perform, are you performing for the audience?  Or for yourself?  Can you put out the same level of energy and skill when there's no one watching?  It's easy to say "yes" to that, but you might be surprised.

It's great to feed off the energy of an audience and return it in kind, but never rely on it to make your performance vibrant.  To that end, you have to make sure you do in practice what you want in performance - hold back in the former and I guarantee you it won't come out naturally in the latter!

Thursday, November 8, 2012


What do you do that others can follow?  In other words, what behaviors do you model well and what attributes do you embody that people might be compelled to strive for?

It might be something like clean striking or a never-say-die attitude.  Perhaps it’s a level of fitness you maintain above and beyond what’s required.  Or it could even be something not as readily apparent, such as supporting new members with positive encouragement.  It doesn’t have to be something you can necessarily teach, as long as it’s something positive.

Be careful when thinking “people love the way I xyz,” because "xyz" might be seen as something you’re actually not good at – make sure your ego isn’t getting in the way.

I know a lot of taiko players that think they don’t have attributes other people might aspire to, but that’s self-defeatist talk.  Just having passion about what you do can be something that inspires others!

This can be something that drives you to get better or helps you define what you want to be.  Do you want to be known for your teaching ability?  Do you want to be remembered for having great control over your dynamics?  Do you want to be known for taking comments to heart?   These make for great goals.

You shouldn’t only do good things in order to be known for them, but if you’re already doing them, there’s nothing wrong with making sure you’re doing them well!

Monday, November 5, 2012

20 Precepts, part 3 (No limit)

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: “It will take your entire life to learn karate.  There is no limit.”

This one is kind of a no-brainer, but still worth talking about.   I’ve talked in the past about people who stop trying to learn and sort of settle on “good enough.”  It’s not fair to judge everyone who thinks this way, because some people might feel there are higher priorities (life, family, work, etc.) or have some other limitations (money, physical, etc.)  But for the most part, if someone has the ability and decides to “settle”, I just have to ask, “why”?

Ultimately, I think there are two answers: fear and/or laziness.  It’s scary trying to learn new things and putting yourself in a position where you don’t have the answers.  It’s also so much easier to just take on small details but never push yourself in a significant manner.

There have definitely been times in my training that I’ve just wanted to take it easy for a while.  And there are definitely times when it’s scary having someone teach me that knows way more than I do, who can point all my errors out.  But damn it’s awesome to get past my own ego and get better at things.  It’s encouraging and empowering.

Don’t ever think you know all you need to know.  Don’t ever think that you “know enough”.  You don’t.  Don't be a cautionary tale to people around you, be an inspiration!

Thursday, November 1, 2012


The word “tradition” is the most controversial word in all of North American taiko.  Some people are afraid of the word or even vilify it,  while others flock to it or hold it tight to their breast.  What is it about this one word that evokes such a reaction?

My first response to that question is, “I dunno man, people have issues.”  But my more rational mind says, “the word is misunderstood.”

“Tradition” is just something that you or your group has done for a time.  Do you bow into the dojo or as a group before practice?  That’s a tradition.  Do you warm up as a group?  That’s a tradition, too.  Do you have an annual concert or always play at a certain festival?  Tradition.  Now that may not make what you play “traditional taiko”, but you can still have traditions.

For purposes of this post, I’m going to refer to “traditional taiko” as any taiko done as a customary pattern of action.  It could be something several groups do, something one group does repeatedly, or both.

The problem with someone asking what “traditional taiko” is that it comes with an assumed definition on the part of the person asking.  If the listener has their own (and different) definition, then you might have a complete misunderstanding.  So what kinds of “traditional taiko” are there?
  • Japanese festival drumming
  • Japanese court drumming
  • Japanese group drumming
  • North American festival drumming
  • North American group drumming
  • South American group drumming
  • European group drumming
  • And several other categories I'm missing or not even aware of... 
If you say you don’t play traditional taiko, you are probably just as right as you are wrong.  You may not play one of these traditions, but I’ll bet your group has its own traditions and/or fits into one of the above listed traditions.  See what I mean about misunderstandings?

Personally, I think the word “tradition” is as bothersome as the word “taiko” in a lot of regards.  What is taiko?  What is tradition?  It makes for a fun debate but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really change anything – and often people come away more confused!  While an audience member might ask, “do you play traditional taiko?” and it might be beneficial to explain what your group does, it’s a complete waste of energy to get upset about being thought of as traditional or make a fuss when someone calls their group traditional and you disagree.  It’s fine to want to inform people better, but you can’t get to everyone and this is one of those things that is annoying but has very little actual impact.

Now, the longer your group has been around, the more traditions it will have.  So that adds another level of complexity to the problem.  If someone asks about “traditional taiko”, are they asking about traditional NA group drumming or your group’s traditional group drumming?  Again, the best you can do is try to inform someone who asks, but in the grand scheme of things, is it really a big deal?  I don’t think so.

The more we get caught up in politics and policing and proper-ness, the less energy we have for playing and performing and enjoying the art that we love to do!