Monday, December 31, 2012

Cheese sketch

I've been a Monty Python fan ever since I was a kid.  Even before I got half of the jokes, I loved the randomness and creativity from the troupe.

One of my favorite sketches is the Cheese Shop sketch, which I love.  I'm not going to ruin it for those of you who haven't seen it, but I understand those who don't find it as amusing as I do.  Here's the link:

So why am I posting about this?  Because of this:

For those who don't feel like watching the video, it's an interview with John Cleese explaining how the sketch came about.

Ok, so what's my point of this post?

To summarize, *spoilers* the sketch is about a man going to a cheese shop and finding out that they have no cheese at all.  And the idea for the sketch came about in a very roundabout way.  After John Cleese got really seasick after a sketch, he was hungry and asked if they could get some cheese.  While looking for cheese, between the three Monty Python members in the car at the time, they got the idea that they could write a sketch about a man looking for cheese at a chemist's shop (pharmacy).  It's silly and random, sure.  No chemist would have cheese, after all.

But that wasn't the sketch, obviously.  They asked themselves, "why would a person be at a chemist's to buy cheese?  Because the cheese shop was out of cheese."  And that became the sketch.  A cheese shop out of cheese, made funny because the owner wouldn't admit to it.  Bam!

I didn't write this post to make you all watch a Monty Python sketch (although you should).  I wrote this post to show you that creativity doesn't really work in a linear format.  A does not lead to B then to CA can lead to "fish" then to "Oklahoma".  If from A you expect B and wait for only B or B-related things, you very well might wind up with nothing - except frustration.  If you allow things like risk and open-mindedness into the mix, it will pay off.

What's more, the more you practice and get familiar with that sort of thinking, the better you'll get at it.  At first, perhaps it's a little scary.  You might feel stupid or vulnerable.  Months, years later?  Not only is the fear gone, but the quality of the outcomes are much higher.  It's a skill, like anything else!  So stretch your mental fibers and warm up the cranial membranes...then start creating!

In the meantime, I'm going to go get some cheese and compose stuff.  No, seriously, I have some edam in the fridge.  :)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Looking back at 2012...

Last Second-to-last post of 2012, hmm.

I'm looking back at my first post of the year where I tried to guess how things were going to go...

Well, it was definitely not a normal or calm year.  Our annual concert was well out-of-the-ordinary and a bit of a handful, but my job was just to play what I was told, lol.  2013 is SJT's 40th anniversary and it's going to be a pretty big to-do, so I'm not worried about not being engaged!

There did turn out to be some light touring; I really enjoy getting to play in different places - especially for audiences who've never seen taiko before.  Next year we have a week in Alaska, which is one state SJT's not been to before (and neither have I!)

Didn't manage to write any new pieces, but I've gone from having one idea to having five.  Mixed blessing!  The pieces right now are:
  • The same idea I've had involving a never-stopping, simple ji played with one hand while the other hand plays patterns.
  • A piece focusing on a very distinct striking style we practice at SJT; my first attempt at a movement-oriented kind of piece.
  • The idea of a Heavy Metal-inspired piece, but the only thing I know right know is that I want it to be in 6/8.
  • I have an idea to write a mobile piece based on rhythms in 5 and 7 for a small ensemble.  Heck, everyone expects me to write something like this anyways!
  • Finally got around to exploring some melodic work using multiple kane, small metal gongs.  I've had the idea for years but only recently started pitching them and figuring out what goes with what.
I don't feel I grew much last year; it was a year of coasting and waiting.  I realized recently that by waiting for someone to give me purpose, I'm basically prescribing disappointment.  Next year is when I start being more aggressive with my own progress.  It's been 20 years and I don't want to look back after the next 20 with regrets!

Thank you, dear readers, for following my journey with its questions and opinions and rants and what-have-you.  As always, I love hearing feedback and hearing when people enjoy a post I've written.  Even though this blog is still primarily for me to brain-dump, I sincerely enjoy knowing that people find it useful and inspiring.

See you in 2013!

Monday, December 24, 2012

How I compose.

Composition can be a daunting thing.  When you get ideas, it's not always easy to get them out of your head into something you can utilize.

People have asked me how I compose, enough that it warranted a post.  My process is chaotic, mostly "whatever works" but backed by a lot of experience mixed with some actual training.

I'm going to use an example pattern I made in February 2012, called "Hooo."  Don't ask why it's called that, I have NO idea...  I'll show how each example applies to how I would capture the pattern:

  • I started with hash marks, vertical lines of differing sizes with dots to symbolize where the notes would fall.  This is something I still use when I have a tricky passage I can't figure out with western notation.  I didn't even know I was effectively making 16th notes with the hash marks; they were just a way to keep a count.
  •  When I got into music theory, I learned Western notation, a very effective way to write out rhythms.  It also helped to be able to "see" the patterns in a musical way instead of just dots in a linear progression.
  • Recording audio through a micro recorder, smart phone, or even calling your own voicemail works when I have a pattern where I can't write anything down.  If it's really complex or I'm on the freeway, it's easier singing the patterns out.
(This isn't a live recording, but the audio from my notation software.  Check out the link HERE.)
  • Recording video is also an option, but usually only if I have something really specific I want to capture, like a pattern with specific sticking.  It's pretty rare where I'll do that instead of one of the first three.
  • Finally, I keep an archive of all the patterns I create.  There's over 300 in a folder on my computer, everything from finished compositions to four-second snippets.  Sometimes I'll come across one that sounds really interesting but that I have no recollection of!  This is good for getting new ideas (that are actually old ones).

It's not hard to learn just enough Western notation to get basic concepts, especially for most patterns.  8th notes, triplets, horsebeat, 90% of all the taiko "staples" won't take a lot of time to figure out.  The most important thing is to figure out what works for you.  Maybe the hash mark system is something you can use and adapt, or you can use something like graph paper in a similar manner.  Just get those patterns down!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Difficult students.

Last Friday my dojo had its quarterly belt testing.  I wasn’t able to be there, but I asked sensei about the results.  Everyone but one person passed, and that person that didn’t was one of our blue belts.

This student had only been training with us for three months and came to one of the classes where I would frequently be handed the intermediates (anyone not a beginner).  He had trained somewhere else before and it wasn’t too difficult to get him up to speed on our requirements.

When sensei told me it was this particular student that failed (let’s call him “Zippy”), I immediately knew why before even hearing the details.  Zippy always had an excuse when I would tell him to fix something.  Sometimes it was “well when I learned it…” or “yeah, but…”  Very rarely did he just take a comment and fix it without making a face that read “I disagree.”  There were even times when I would say “stop doing X” and he would make a very annoying face as if he was really in disagreement…to which I would respond, “just stop doing X.”  But he would do it again, as if it were up for debate.  “Really, STOP doing X.”  Zippy had many ideas and was more interested in letting me know those ideaa than he was in learning how to get better.

Some of the black belts in the dojo would have just made him or the whole class do pushups.  I’m not quite that harsh, but I was getting tired of his need to state his opinion on most of my comments.  I didn’t get the feeling that he was so much lazy as he was full of himself.  Not a bad kid, just young and feeling like he knew a lot of things…but at a blue belt level, he’s had maybe a year’s worth of training.

Why all of this context?  So, after I heard he failed, my first instinct admittedly was “ha, he deserved it.”   But then I wondered, did I fail him as a teacher?  Could I have done more to prevent him failing his test?  Ultimately, I realized that no, HE failed his test.  He resisted being taught enough that it hampered his progress.  I heard he took the failure hard – who knows if he’ll return?  If he does, will he try harder, knowing his performance wasn’t cutting it?  We’ll find out in a month.

So the question for this post is, where do the responsibilities of the teacher end and the student’s begin?  This will depend a lot on the two people involved.  Some teachers will take a student’s failure as a failure of their own.  Some students will blame a teacher for their own failure – or give the teacher the credit when they succeed. 
I don't talk about the role of the teacher in this post because I've addressed that multiple times on my blog.  Of course it should be a mutual exchange, but isolating one side often yields insights.  

I’d like all of you to think about how you are as a student.  Do you make it easy to be taught?  Do you come with preconceived ideas about how things should be and ignore what’s contradictory, even if only in your head?  Do you actually listen when taught or are you just looking in the direction of who’s teaching?  Do you try to implement new information even when it’s not sinking in right away?  Are you there to learn or to show off?

If you make if difficult for someone to teach, it may eventually come back to bite you in the ass.  It can come in the form of karma as you get a difficult student down the line yourself, or more negatively as you fail a test or get passed over for a part you wanted to play.

Don't be like Zippy!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Too much of a good thing.

That signature pose you do is really awesome...until you do it four times in one solo.  And that spinning move?  It's really cool the first time, not so much the fifth...  And those triplets you sneak in at the end of a phrase?  Gets really predictable around the sixth time...

Most of us strive to find our own style of playing, even within the context of a strong group style.  This is especially true if you solo - we all want to express ourselves and possibly even stand out!

You have to look at what you do from the eyes of the audience.  A move that wows an audience is just less "wow-y" done over and over again.  I mean think about it, if someone did a beautiful back flip over the drum during their solo without losing a beat, you'd probably be totally impressed.  Now imagine seeing it again, then again, then again.  For most of us, it's just not as interesting by this point.  It also tends to bring up the question, "is that all they have?"

This reaction isn't limited taiko, either.  Anything visual that's done repeated times like that quickly often goes from "wow" to "meh", such as skateboard tricks, brick breaking, flying kicks, movie stunts, etc.  It's a little different with music where repetition is actually a good thing, but if we're talking in terms of a solo, it's quite the same.

For our audiences, subtle changes may not be enough to differentiate between moves.  For instance, if you do fancy signature move to the left, it may look exactly the same doing it to the right.  What you think is "different enough" may look "pretty much the same".  That's a hard call at times, but it's worth thinking about.

I don't mean to make this sound like finger wagging or scolding.  I just want people to think about what they do from the outside eye, and also comparing how they themselves view such things when they're watching people play.  This can be used as an opportunity for growth, if one is willing to work out what else they can do, how else they can stand out, what isn't being explored and go from there.

Be more than a gimmick.  Take what's easy and comfortable and use it as a launching point instead of a destination!

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Would you rather barely pass?  Or barely fail?

Earlier this week I was leaving my karate class and one of our newer students asked, “didn’t you test for black belt recently?”  I told him I did and what happened (read here if you haven’t already.)  I also told him that from what I heard, I was somewhat borderline...although the line might have been on the thicker side, lol.

To barely fail means you almost made it.  There was enough from you that the judges considered passing you.  Maybe you lacked a basic fundamental or had  too many inconsistencies, but you may very well have given them enough “good” that it merited a discussion.

To barely pass means you almost didn’t make it.  You did enough to make the requirements, but there were red flags or serious issues that worried the judges.  Maybe you were only able to improve marginally on the comments you got, or maybe you weren’t able to improve on those but made progress elsewhere.

There are a lot of situations where you’re going to want to pass, regardless of how slim a margin it was.  Anything that’s competitive, like interviewing for a job or where there’s a medal for 1st place – of course you’ll be happy barely passing!  Also, you’d definitely want to pass (even barely) anything that cost a lot of money or where there’s financial risk.

The situations where it’s not so clear are more the artistic and/or developmental ones.  Think about testing for a belt.  Do you want to wow the judges?  Or “meh” them?  Is it worth waiting a little longer to make sure you can do more than “meh?”  Think about putting on a show.  Do you want the audience to be blown away by the performance or forget about it in a day?  Is it worth putting in more effort (and time, if possible) to make sure you can really deliver something powerful?

I see a lot of people that are perfectly happy with barely passing.  It also keeps them from things like breakthroughs and triumphs, rewards that I couldn’t think about living without.  When you get used to barely passing things, you coast.  You do the minimum amount required.  You set your sights no higher than mediocre, and you get comfortable doing it.

Barely passing may be a relief, but it’s a trap that doesn’t encourage growth.  Barely failing can still suck, don’t get me wrong.   But it often means you tried and it gives you a reason to keep trying!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Bug-zapper moment

At one time or another all of us have a moment of insight: a "light bulb moment".

"A-ha!"  We say.  "I can save time showering by driving through a car wash with the windows down!"  Ok maybe we don't say that...  Point is, we have a moment of insight and then we're able to make progress on a problem, find a more efficient path, discover a new idea, etc.  It's part of the learning process.

But what happens when that insight leads to pain?  When the discovery leads you on a path that's uncomfortable?

I wrote back in this post about my belt test.  My dojo has been breaking down our fundamentals lately based on the priorities of our head organization.  We're looking at how each technique, each kata works according to the principles that should be emphasized.  They're not "new" principles, but we never made them a priority as much as they now.

Doing this kind of intense, detailed breakdown brings with it many "a-ha!" moments, but it doesn't make it easy to unlearn muscle memory that's not necessarily even "wrong", just not what we're trying to do.  While I have faith that in time the subtle changes will set in, being subtle makes them harder to stick.  And it feels painful to not have them integrate into my fundamentals better.

So my "a-ha" is then tinged with an "ouch".  Instead of a light bulb, I now have a bug zapper.  Provides light but is also painful to touch!

There's also the more negative kinds of discoveries.  These are things like realizing you're in the wrong group for you or finding out you're holding others back.  Those are big "bug zapper" moments.

Focusing on the more positive moments, maybe you find yourself understanding a concept better all of a sudden or having an idea that makes things better in the long run, but is hard to implement.  Sometimes that difficult journey - the one with a bit of pain - helps you appreciate the ones that come more easily.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Active "ma"

There are many examples of ma, or space, in Japanese art.  A painting with a lot of negative space is an example of ma.  A dance with a pause to emphasize a pose is also an example.  So is a kata in karate that contains a slow movement amongst the faster ones.  In taiko, ma can be both audial and visual.

One thing a lot of people have trouble with, whether it be in composition or soloing, is including ma.  A long flurry of notes without rests and breaks eventually just becomes a bumpy drone,.  A lot of motion without a pause or pose can get dull or perhaps even lost to the audience.

Newer players – and even some experienced ones – “hide” behind constant movement/playing.  To them it feels like they’re doing something when they move, and if there’s a lack of confidence or a lack of a personal repertoire to pull from, there’s more security in not stopping.

Time and time again I hear people telling others to “include more ma”.  And this is usually really good advice.  But it’s also often incomplete advice, albeit it no one’s “fault”.

To most people, ma translates to something like “stop playing”, “stop moving” or “make a big motion."   Sure, it can be.  Still, it would be like saying “taiko” is “a big drum”.  Again, it can be, but…

I’m sure every single one of you has listened to a song where a melody stops and tension builds with the bass or drums still going, then BAM the melody comes back in and it sounds awesome.  That’s definitely ma!  Or how about watching a break-dancer do a flurry of moves then POW hold a pose that "seals the deal"?  That’s ma too!  Ma doesn’t have to be about only about slow or quiet, it can be chock-full of tension, excitement, joy, etc.

I’ve started solos where I’ve playfully walked away from the drums…then came running back.  While that may not fly in YOUR group, think about what you could do that’s outside the box and fun at the same time!  For example, you could play a lot of notes and then pull away from the drum?  Even then, ma without intention is...empty.

"Space" is empty, yes, but we're not talking physics, we're talking performance.  What sort of mood do you want to portray?  Will you make a strained face that makes it look like you’re barely able to hold back?  Or a joyful face that exaggerates how much fun you’re having?  Maybe something more intense is your style?  You can hit and stop with a very focused gaze, but your body has to scream intention lest it look like you’re just resting.  Or you can treat your solo like a warrior’s dance – not to kill the drum, but to be strong and vibrant and confident.  You can move away sharply then come back twice as fast, or stand back and act “macho” for lack of a better word.

This sort of active ma requires a bit of acting ability.  You have to sell it, you have to exaggerate it!  Going overboard and making a spectacle of yourself isn't good, but it's still worth experimenting with.  Ma, like movement or rhythm, is something that shouldn't be narrowly defined.  Why not discover where it leads you?

Monday, December 3, 2012

20 Precepts, part 5 (Dojo training)

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: Do not think that karate training is only in the dojo.

I’ve spoken to this in the past.  If you only think about taiko when you get to your studio/dojo/parking garage/whatever, you’re confining yourself to a stunted development.  I think it's rare for anyone who plays taiko to think this way, but I do see it in degrees.

To only think that you have to be at practice to practice is almost as bad.  There are so many opportunities to train for taiko OUTSIDE of taiko that most people aren’t aware of.  I’m going to list the ones I do:

-        Noting similarities and differences of kata to taiko during karate
-        Playing with my timing and my opponent’s timing during sparring (syncopation!)
-        Maintaining an intensity of ki that I can add to my repertoire on the stage.

-        Listening to non-taiko songs and imagining them redone as taiko pieces.
-        Always having paper and pen on hand to scribble down a rhythm or concept.
-        Scatting patterns to the cadence of my footsteps while walking.

-        Tapping along to a song in the car/at home.
o   To keep up with a fast tempo.
o   To understand a complex syncopation or odd meter.
o   To improve around a familiar rhythm/ji.
-        Pulling out the drum pads.
o   Improvising over a song.
o   Improvising over a metronome.
o   Drilling patterns over a metronome.

-        Watching videos (YouTube, DVDs) of other taiko groups
o   How do the groups that impress me strike/move/project/compose?
o   What are groups doing that I don't like and how can I learn from it?
-        Listening to other taiko pieces and “playing along” to learn different musical sensibilities.

There’s no set time when I might decide to do something, either.  If I have free time, I might pull out the pads.  If I’m brushing my teeth, I might start tapping out patterns with the free hand.  In the car, the steering wheel becomes a trap set.

Practice outside of practice is sometimes more valuable than what you do at practice.  It rewires your brain to be on the lookout for opportunities to improve and it makes you proactive about your growth instead of relying on anyone – or anywhere.  On top of all that, it’s fun!