Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 comes to a close...

2014…so now what?

Last post of the year, wow.  Time flies etc. etc.

This past year was an interesting one taiko-wise for me.  Highlights included the collaborative concert with The Bangerz, the 40th Anniversary concert and being a part of the medley committee, and my last performance of the year, celebrating Glide Memorial Church’s 50th Anniversary on stage.

I got to flex my creative muscles working on the medley, but not composition-ally.  I’ve promised myself more time in the studio next year in order to make that happen.  At least there’s a transition in the works, but I want to compose a song again; I need to make that happen.  I’ve no excuse not to!

2014 also brings us the first World Taiko Gathering (WTG), happening in Los Angeles.  I’ll be teaching a workshop there on rhythm and syncopation, using both thinking (brain) and feeling (body) as tools for better comprehension and understanding.   It should be fun – let me know if you sign up once registration starts!

As usual, I hope this blog continues to be useful, thought-provoking, and entertaining.  I can’t promise all my posts will be equally engaging, but there’s still a lot more to say!

Keep practicing!

Thursday, December 26, 2013


It's not as common as it used to be, but sometimes I hear people asking if what they're playing is authentic taiko, or if another group is really authentic, etc.

Take a group like Kodo, were they "more authentic" in the past?  From playing more "staple" kumidaiko pieces that inspired so many taiko groups around the world, to taking on more world music into their repertoire, to the new direction of Tamasaburo Bando with daring costuming and theatrical elements, are they now "less authentic" than they used to be?  If they are, does it mean they're not as good?

And just what is "authentic"?  The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition says:
  1. Real or genuine : not copied or fake
  2. True and accurate
  3. Made to be or just look like an original
So if Kodo has male members wearing sexy outfits and glitter/makeup, is that not original?  Is it not true to their direction?  Seems pretty authentic to me.  Following that logic, taiko can be anything as long as it's played from a genuine place, right?

Sometimes the question about what is authentic is a sneaky way to not say what someone really thinks.  When I hear someone question another group's authenticity, what I hear is "That's not what I consider to be taiko."  And I want to ask those people what they think taiko "is", because it's a question that ultimately leads to "I just don't like what they're doing."  It has nothing to do with authenticity.

Don't waste time wondering if what you play is authentic.  Those who bring up that question about other groups only oppress and stifle, whether they mean to or not.  It's a term that limits people's ability to truly express themselves, to be a stronger player.  That's a negative energy that no one needs.  If you play from the heart, then you are being genuine, and I'll take genuine over "authentic" any day.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Odaiko solos

Today at the studio, I went for a long solo on the odaiko until my body started hurting.  I've done this a couple of times the last few years, both for a test of endurance as well as for the experience.

While playing, I experimented with patterns that wanted to come out.  Sometimes things cam out naturally, sometimes my hands "stuttered" when trying to play what was in my head, sometimes I just played a straight beat for a long period of time.  While I do love to solo, I find that soloing on odaiko is a very different thing.

It's not as easy to play a lot of notes, but even if you can, something gets lost.  The notes bleed into each other too much and the rumble muddies the patterns.  It sounds better when notes are more spaced out, with maybe some density in there for flavor.

It's hard to have too much space in between notes though, because there's not a lot of movement available to the odaiko soloist.  Maybe you can make some circles, or turn to the side and play, but mainly the arms tend to go up and back, and...that's about it.

So you're left with a limited, but powerful palette.  The best patterns aren't too dense or too light, but it's also how you play that makes it really an odaiko solo.  Since the audience can't see your face, you have to play with intention above what you might use when you're playing on any other style of taiko.  It's best done by using the entire body so that feeling "reads" to the audience.

I find that with other kinds of taiko (naname, shime, okedo, etc.) I can let my hands do a lot of the playing for me.  A pattern might come out that I wasn't planning to play and I can go with it.  On odaiko, however, I find that I need to be very much in sync with my body with what I'm going to play.

Because of that, simple patterns tend to come off the best, and the best odaiko solos I've seen usually are simple in that way.  Without the fancy patterns or movements available to other types of taiko, it's really about the connection between the player and the drum.  If the audience can feel that connection, feel purpose behind each note, and feel the odaiko in the odaiko, then you have a successful odaiko solo.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know!

Thursday, December 19, 2013


I'm back!  And I've thawed!  Apparently, Canada is cold in the winter...

So the highlight of my week in Toronto was a workshop with some of the members of RAW, or Raging Asian Women.  This group is running 10 years strong and just had their first official concert early this month.  I've been fortunate to get to know a few of the members as they've come to workshops in San Jose over the years.

The group has a strong mission of social justice and equality, and they operate as a collective in their organizational structure.  Rather than just copying from their website or not doing them justice in a short paragraph, I suggest you visit them HERE.

The workshop was a lot of fun to teach and all the members there were hungry to learn.  The environment was casual but still focused; I felt welcome into their space and their process.  I had some things prepared but also did a lot based on what I observed at the time.  The result was a lot of awareness and information that hopefully will give them a lot of options -  it comes down to not only individual discovery but also what the group style dictates.

The dinner afterwards was lively and with interesting conversations that went all over, from social issues to taiko to politics to empowerment back to taiko to music theory and beyond (oh and one about my sideburns too...).  I would visit RAW again just to have a really long discussion (although the addition of food is good too)!

I've seen RAW get stronger as a group and stronger as a performing company over the years and can't wait to see where the next decade will lead them.  I hope more people get to know them through both their love of the art as well as why the group is so passionate about what they do.  I'm definitely a fan!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Toronto bound!

I'm leaving for Toronto for a week and may not be able to post regularly.  Plus my fingers may not work due to the cold!

We are hoping to give a workshop to RAW (Raging Asian Women) when we're there, a group that is having their first concert the weekend before we get there, darn it!  But I'm really looking forward to seeing their space and working with them all.

We'll be on break when I get back, and I plan to get in the studio a bunch during the down time.  We'll see what I wind up tinkering on.

Stay warm!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Beginner’s Mind, part 2

Back in a post here I talked about SJT’s concept of “Beginner’s Mind.”  I’ve thought a lot about this concept and how it applies to our learning process.

Beginner’s Mind is an easy concept: no matter how many times you’ve played a drill or a song, you always want to approach it as if you can learn something new.  But what if you really look at this concept for all its potential?

- It applies to when you are practicing.

This is the basic, surface-level message.   If you think you “know” a drill or song when you’re practicing it, you’re not letting yourself improve as much as you could if you are thinking that you still have progress to make.  Are you striking in the same place every time?  Is your face showing the right mood?  Could you be kiai-ing more?  If someone took a picture during a big motion, would you be happy with the results?  These are just a sample of a long list of questions you could be asking yourself when you play.

- It applies to when you are being taught.

It’s really easy to think you know something and tune someone out who’s teaching it, whether to you or the rest of the class.  I find that hearing how someone teaches something I’m familiar with helps me when I have to teach it later.  I also like hearing different people explain the same thing in different ways.  You never know when someone will explain a concept in a way that just totally clicks for you.

- It applies to when you are observing.

You may have watched people play a song 1,000 times, but I bet there’s something to discover in the 1,001st.  What sticks out?  Is everyone’s energy “on”?  How’s the group tempo; where does it fluctuate?  What would you do differently?  These are questions that you can ask by looking at the group, let alone each person individually.  Even if you don’t/won’t make those comments later, by looking for things in this way, you are still learning.

- It applies outside of the dojo.

It’s not something you only want during practice, but also at performances.  What can you learn from how things are set up, both from your group’s side as well as the stage crew’s/presenter’s side?  Even the little things like setting up stands and getting the drums out are activities you can look at anew, either in terms of efficiency or thinking how you would teach someone to do it.

- It applies outside of taiko/art
Someone who isn’t able to find Beginner’s Mind in taiko probably has trouble doing it in their life as well.  While it is true that familiarity breeds contempt as it were, and over the years it can be hard to keep looking for new things to learn, the general mindset is either there or it’s not.  It’s quite fair to not be interested in something, but is your attitude towards daily things “what can I learn from this?” or more “I already know how to do that.”?

Whether it shows in their behavior, comments, or general vibe, a person with a Beginner’s Mind will invite people to want to teach them.  A person who lacks it tends to get fewer comments and eventually it leads to a vicious cycle of not wanting help and not getting it.

Beginner’s Mind doesn’t mean that you’ll always find new and wonderful things, only that you’re trying.  Are you trying?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Why get better?

My general theme for this blog is finding ways to help people get better at taiko, whether it be through motivation, examples, drills, or ideas.  But what if you don’t really want to get better?  What If you just want to enjoy playing?

If you’re more into taiko for the social/community aspects, or the musical/physical aspects, or a connection to Japanese culture, etc., more power to you.  As long as you’re enjoying taiko, go for it!

For me, I want to get better.  I need to get better.  And I want other people to get better as well because I think people will enjoy it!  So that’s what I blog about, mostly.

I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who started playing taiko and didn’t want to get better.  That person would probably be in the .01% of taiko players.  When we start, we’re generally pretty awful, haha.  We want to play in time, we want to strike well, we want to last longer than five minutes, we want to move with some semblance of poise.  And so, we practice.

Using a driving metaphor, each one of us starts on a road and sometimes we pull over to stop and rest (other priorities) or admire the view (reflect after a performance).  Many people will then continue on, but not all.  Those who continue on may pull over later, but yet still some never stop driving, always wanting to see new things and have new experiences.  Barring a flat tire (injury) or no car to drive (no group to play with, no drums), most people I think like to keep driving, albeit it at different speeds.  It’s not a race, but most people go the general speed of the convoy (taiko group) they’re in.

Some people will be happy with a short journey but enjoy the company of fellow travelers and the beauty of the places they’ve stopped it.  For me, every year I want to look back and see how much distance I’ve covered, remembering all the destinations I stopped at or passed through.  Part of the fun is in discovering what lies ahead.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Cultural Appropriation

Just recently, pop star Katy Perry did a video for the Video 2013 American Music Awards.  In this video she used a large amount of Japanese/Asian imagery, from kimono to fans to aesthetics of set design, and even taiko.

I won’t link to a video here, because some of them are being taken down.  If you search for “Katy Perry American Music Awards” you’ll probably find it easily enough.

There are a lot of people angry at Katy for what they perceive of her appropriation of Japanese culture in this performance, because to them it comes off as racist or perpetuating a stereotype.  They argue that she is portraying Asian women as submissive and dependent on a man, especially noting the song title “Unconditionally” and some of the lyrics.   Others have argued that Its not racist, that it’s actually a way to positively show Asian culture of which Katy is a fan.

Some people have commented on how the people playing the taiko had form so bad that they couldn’t have actually been taiko players.  I tend to think they were dancers or musicians that don't normally play taiko.

So, two things:

First, I have seen people with form similar to the people playing in this video.  Maybe they were very new to taiko, maybe they lacked good instruction, maybe taiko doesn't come naturally for them, but it doesn't really matter.  Yes, there were some major fundamental issues to note regarding stance, striking, etc., but I don’t think it’s fair to critique these performers based on their skill just because they were in this wacky event.  Does their skill make them any less of a taiko player than someone more competent?   If the answer is no, then we can still critique these particular taiko players in terms of form but not in terms of validity.  If the answer is yes, then is someone who plays taiko “badly” for a year less of a “taiko player” than someone who plays well for a month?  That opens up a huge can of worms.

Second, cultural appropriation is a tangled, messy issue.  Some people feel very strongly on the topic due to personal experiences, often negative ones.  I am far from an expert in this area.  In art and pop culture, people will often take what appeals to them without context or knowledge of what they are taking or how they are offending people.   But I caution the taiko community when pointing fingers towards the outside when there are things within our own community:

  • Rising Sun symbols on clothing/costumes
  • Costumes/outfits that are sexy/inappropriate/worn in "interesting" ways
  • Japanese words/phrases taken out of context and used in group names, song titles, or "lyrics".
  • Taiko groups using Japanese instruments in unusual/questionable ways (taiko included!)
  • Taiko groups using non-taiko instruments/arts (from other cultures) in questionable ways
This list can beg the question: when is something “innovative” vs. “disrespectful”?  Or can it be both?  When it is worth pushing the accepted cultural boundaries in order to present new works?  The point is, some taiko players are not trying to offend or intend to perpetuate stereotypes, but may still happen anyways.

Anyways, am I defending Katy Perry?  Not really.  I don’t particularly think it’s a good song and I don’t really care for that genre of music.  I think this performance portrayed an immature version of Asian culture and lacks anything more than a big, in-your-face spectacle.  Is it racist?  Perhaps, depending on your definition of the word.  But is it worse that what sometimes is done in our own taiko community by groups who actually love the art form of taiko?   And if we are telling the world that these things are not acceptable to us, then what should the world think when they look at some of our members who are doing those very things?

Monday, November 25, 2013


500 published posts.  Wow.

I'll admit, not every post here is brilliant, not every opinion here is something I totally agree with now.  But it's still a lot of time and energy and thoughts and debates and passion all in one place that I never thought would get this far!

This blog is pretty plain-looking compared to most others out there, and I would love to do more with this blog in terms of format and design, but I haven't found any templates that I like.  Still, I keep looking. I'm also thinking I need to update the tags, because there's a ton of posts under "Perspective" but that's just as good as saying "Miscellaneous".  Granted, you can search for keywords from the site itself, but I'd like something people could look at and find topics of interest, like the tag cloud.

As for the posts themselves, I still look for inspiration from everything around me - I try to watch and observe and learn from the eyes of a student and the perspective of a teacher.  I question what people tell me but try to keep an open mind at the same time.  I want to help people thrive, to be better, to feel good about their own journey no matter how different it might be from mine.

And as always, I am really interested to hear what people would like me to talk about, whether you feel comfortable emailing me on Facebook or replying to a post (which you can do anonymously!)  It's fine to talk about what's on my mind, but I love taking on a subject that's on the minds of my readers.

Finally, I realize people coming to my blog have a lot to sort through and there have been a lot of really interesting posts over the years that have gotten lost in the chaff, so allow me to present some of my favorite and most-popular posts!

Most Popular (by view count)
  1. The Tall Whisperer
  2. Too late.
  3. Soloing, part 5-2: Rhythms on multiple drums
  4. The eyes have it, part 1: The "where"
  5. Observation 
  6. What archetype are you? 
  7. Review: Tao, The Martial Art of Drumming 
  8. My sponge is wet.
  9. Concentration
  10. Wrists!
 Tools and drills:
  1. How I compose
  2. Drill: Hemiola
  3. Drill: Sshhh
  4. Drill: Jumping Horsebeat
  5. Soloing, part 3: Musicality
 Posts of note (in no particular order):
  1. Who plays better taiko? 
  2. What the @%#&!* is taiko? 
  3. Failure *is* an option
  4. 12 weeks, 12 songs (prologue here, epilogue here)
  5. Excuses 
  6. Beginner's Mind 
  7. Start vs. Finish 
  8. Confidence 
  9. Japanesque 
  10. Perception of Quality
  11. Question Everything: Kiai
  12. Question Everything: Bachi
  13. When it's easy, you're doing it wrong
  14. Do simple things well
  15. Spoon-feeding

Thursday, November 21, 2013


At SJT we have a song called Spirit of Adventure.  It has a lot of components: naname drums in front, shime in the back, a pair of chappa, odaiko at the rear, and a pod in the back center consisting of a chudaiko with a shime on either side.  Nearly half of what the pod plays is improvisation, but for the first third of the song, it’s all about don doko.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, don doko  is also referred to as “horsebeat”, usually played right-right-left as a four-count pattern that goes 1 – 3 4  and repeats.  The graphic above illustrates this.

Played quickly, this pattern can be difficult.  Making the right hand play consistent notes while the left strikes on every other space requires some skill, and the longer the duration, the more it tests your endurance.  It’s one of the fundamental patterns any taiko player should be familiar with early on and have a lot of practice with.  The close cousin of don doko, don tsuku, is not quite as hard since two notes are quieter.  While it means you need to have two dynamics instead of one, it’s still a lot less work overall.

Now back to the song.  From the beginning of the song, the chudaiko plays don doko at various volumes, crescendo-ing and decrescendo-ing to match what’s going on in the front.  After waves of build-up, you're playing it very loud and rather fast, and by this point your right arm is burning.  Then it goes to improv, phew.  To make matters worse, you’re not using shime bachi, you’re to use something thick enough to strike the chudaiko but not too heavy since you also play the shime.  Adding that weight and thickness to your bachi that has a huge impact on technique.

No matter how strong someone can strike, how well they can improv, or how well they can project ki into the audience, that don doko pattern will kick their ass if their fundamentals aren’t there.  Some people might be able to play don doko nice and loud for a short while but if they don't have good form, they'll be playing unevenly and painfully before they’re halfway though.

When I started practicing this part, my right arm was on fire by the time I was at the crest, and my volume suffered greatly.  It would ache for the rest of the song!  Not fun.  But I practiced my fundamentals at home, at the studio, and out on the road when we had time.  Practicing that one fundamental pattern in particular not only translated directly to the song, but for dozens and dozens of other songs.

So while it’s not always “fun” to sit and just practice a fundamental over and over - especially when it's more "fun" to do other things - honing those skills will never stop providing opportunities for you.  You can practice fancy moves and fancy solos but how ready are you for something that tests your fundamentals?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Suck or fail?

Sucking.  Failing.  They're both unwanted feelings and they're both inevitable if you're an artist.  It's important to know the difference, and how those feelings affect you - as well as ways to cope with them.

When you feel that you failed, it's usually for a defined event or time.  You can fail a solo.  You can fail passage in a song.  You can fail an entire show or concert, even.  The thing to remember is that failing happens then is over.  It's finite.

When you feel that you suck, it's usually about something you feel you don't do well.  It's often a reoccurring feeling of something you have trouble overcoming or getting better at.  It can linger for hours, weeks, or even years.

When you feel you suck at something, you really have two choices.  You can dwell on it, or you can fight to overcome it.  It's hard when you choose to overcome and fail, but the alternative to not trying is far worse.  Some people feel they suck at something and wear self-deprecation like a thick wool coat, as if there is an odd comfort in that feeling.  It's hard to take off the coat and bare the "cold" as it were.

Failing can be difficult because you usually don't see it coming.  It kind of happens and then haunts you afterwards.  We can practice hard to prevent it from happening, but failure will happen as long as you keep trying to do things.  When you no longer fail, it's because you no longer try.

While sucking and failing are both bad enough, there's a hidden danger.  You can fail at something a few times and write it off to nerves or bad luck or blame other people.  But you have to be very careful that when you fail at something, it's not because you suck at it and not realize this.  If you fail because you suck and think it's just a fluke or someone else's fault, you'll never get past it.

In this way, failing is a bit easier to deal with, because it comes and goes.  Sucking is possibly ongoing and/or persistent, and admitting you suck at something is quite hard to do.  But through honesty can come improvement, and from improvement, growth.

Maybe you don't fail, and maybe you don't suck, but odds are you'll come across them as you keep learning more.  How you deal with those setbacks often determines what sort of artist you will become.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Your bachi

(picture by Wombatarama, via Flickr)

A few weeks ago we did an aerobic drill using Oedo Bayashi/Yodan Uchi patterns and movements.  It's something we do periodically throughout the year, testing our technique and endurance.

Due to carelessness, I left all my regular bachi at home and had to use a pair of volunteer bachi instead; much shorter and much lighter than I'm used to.  I found the drill easier overall, as there was hardly any weight to control/extend/swing in circles/etc.  But I also had to really stretch to reach and my hits weren't as loud.

Earlier this week we did the drill again, and I had my regular bachi with me.  The weight was much more noticeable and I got more tired, but I hardly had to stretch and it was so easy to make a good sound with each strike.  I find I prefer this, as the extra weight makes striking easier and I like being further away from the drum to accentuate our kata.

Now I'm probably not going to switch out my regular pair for something smaller, but now I know what something different feels like.

And so I ask you, my readers, when did you last use different bachi to see how they affect how you play a song?  Do you just use the ones you've "always used"?  Do you buy or make the same size again and again?  It's in your best interest to experiment with different kinds and see what happens!

Monday, November 11, 2013

On calluses

Taiko players have a very good relationship with calluses.  You play a lot and you’ll get them on your hands, especially when you’re new.  To some, they’re a badge of honor, to others a nuisance.

When I first started playing taiko, my hands were smooth, unscathed instruments.  After a short while of training, blisters formed, followed soon after by calluses.  Ah, relief!  Those calluses were great since it didn’t hurt to play anymore.  As time went on, I added both thickness and number to my calluses.

I started really focusing on striking and wrist snap and relaxation, about 10 years ago.  A few years after that I realized my calluses started to shrink, to the point where the few I have are really hard to see.  I can play faster and louder now than I ever could, but with less stress on the skin.  What happened?

Technique happened!  Relaxation and awareness were the key.  Being able to use the least amount of tension in my hands meant there was less pressure against my skin, and being able to process how much micro-adjustment I needed to make in my grip while playing meant it was eventually an automatic thing.

There’s a lot of factors at play here, and it’s not right to say calluses = poor technique:
  • Grip strength.  How hard are you holding your bachi?  How much squeeze do you really need?  Tighter grip = more tension = playing with a handicap.
  • Wrist snap.  The better your snap, the more you’re “catching” and the less you’re “throwing”.  Throwing means more friction whereas catching is over right away.
  • Dynamics.  If you play everything as loud as possible, there’s a lot of friction happening.  Songs and solos with dynamics help moderate that friction.
  • Sweat.  Some people’s hands get really damp and they squeeze harder to compensate.
  • Wax.  To prevent slipping (usually due to sweat), some wax their bachi which multiplies the amount of friction created.
  • Bachi type.  Odaiko, shime, oak, maple, smooth, rough, small, heavy, etc – the surface and weight and size of your bachi will all have an effect, as will your familiarity with them.
  • Skin type.  Everyone’s skin is different, and some are probably more prone to getting blisters and calluses.
In doing research on Western drummers, it seems to be that with enough relaxation and proper technique, calluses can be minimized if not simply avoided.  Some even use gloves or tape, but for most taiko groups both of those are distracting to the eye.
When you’re new and playing taiko, odds are you’re going to get blisters. Play on and they’ll become calluses. But over time and as you get better, you should find they fade out and pop up much less.  I’m sure there are some professional taiko players who have them; does that mean they’re not skilled?  Hardly – there are limits to what the body can withstand, even with the best technique. But for the rest of us?  The less calluses, the better! 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Not me!

Practice in a group for any length of time, and eventually you’ll hear the instructor say that all of you are doing something wrong.  This comes in many forms, from “I’m seeing a lot of X” to “you’re all doing it wrong”.

As a student, it’s hard sometimes to hear that, especially if the critique is about something I *know* I was doing correctly.  Didn’t they see I was doing it the right way? It can be frustrating.  Mind you, sometimes it might be a comment about something I’m not thinking about, and even if I am doing it correctly, it’s good to be reminded to be aware of it.

I strongly caution those who feel the need to defend themselves, though.  If you weren’t doing what the group was accused of, let it go.  Realize that the comment is delivered *en masse* for efficiency, not so much accuracy.  If you’re bothered at not being recognized for doing it right, consider the next point.

From the instructor’s side, if I have a group of 20 people doing a drill and 80% are doing something wrong, I’m not going to point out the 4 people that are doing it right; I’m just going to say that the group is doing it wrong.  Those four people will be fine.  I try to choose my words carefully, so if 50% are doing it right, I’ll say so.

The issue is when a student says “well I was doing it right.” in response to a group critique.  Things get awkward.  They obviously want recognition for their competency, but it’s not about them, it’s about the majority that needs to fix something.  There’s ego at play there, in a way that disrupts the importance of the message.  I find that the person who’s prone to speaking up like that has trouble taking direct critique later, in one way or another.  They tend to go hand-in-hand.

When critique is given to an entire group that you’re in, sometimes you have to suck it up.  If you feel you’ve been “wronged”, you need to ask yourself, is it so important that you need to take time and focus away from the message by speaking up? Or can you absorb the message and continue to do it correctly?  If it’s something big that you’re constantly doing well, you might get recognition for it – but if you keep “defending” yourself, odds are that’s less likely to happen.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Question Everything: Being good

What does it mean to be “good at taiko?”  In other words, as we practice, we’re all trying to be “good” taiko players, regardless of whether we want the spotlight, or want to enjoy some activity, or want to empower the community, etc.

I’m pretty good at twirling and spinning my bachi; does that make me good at taiko?  Ehh, probably not.  I can play don doko pretty loud and fast for a long time, does that make me good at taiko?  Maybe.  Why maybe?  Because it’s just a single skill and in itself doesn’t really say much.  If I can’t do anything else well, how would my only proficient skill define me?

Let’s take player #1.  Player #1 has excellent hands and soloing ability, but really bad form and terrible kiai?  If, hypothetically speaking, this person is 50% awesome and 50% terrible, does that make them “good at taiko”?  Or does it have to be a situation where there’s more strengths than weaknesses?

On to player #2, who enhances the ensemble with the best energy on stage.  The hitch is that they act like a jerk to other members of their group behind the scenes.   Is player #2 “good at taiko”?  Does the way a person interacts with their group affect this measure?  Or does it only matter what they bring when they’re actually playing taiko?

Finally, player #3 can’t stay on tempo, has weak striking ability, and takes a long time to learn new stuff – but damn do they *try*, and set an example to other people in how to approach hard tasks.  Is #3 “good at taiko” simply because of their tenacity?  Or does skill play a larger role?

There’s a huge missing variable in all these cases, which some of you might have noticed.  What kind of group are these players in?  Is it a group that values teamwork over chops?  Stage presence over depth of ability?  Power of striking over fluidity of movement?  What kind of group you’re in will effectively color what “good at taiko” means to you.  You might not totally agree with everyone in your group on who is “good” and who isn’t, but the group will have shaped your views somewhat.

Also, who’s judging?  Does a non-taiko player have the “right” to determine who is “good at taiko”?  Why not?   Maybe they think someone who is flailing about with terrible technique is “good” simply because it’s entertaining.  Maybe they think something simple and done well is boring, while those that play taiko know how difficult it can actually be.  But are they wrong in their judgments?  Are you “more correct” than they are?

A teacher can judge someone being ready to play a certain part, but teachers are human and sometimes ego or bias gets in the way.  I’m sure people with potential get held back because a teacher doesn’t like them for whatever reason (valid or not), so are they not “good at taiko” because the teacher thinks so?

What about you?  Do you think you’re “good at taiko”?   Why?  Why not?  Are you being biased?   Are you being harsh?  How many people would agree or disagree with you?  Again, subjectivity abounds.

So is there an answer?  Yes.  There are lots of answers!  But there is no RIGHT answer, for better or worse.  Best you can do is keep trying to improve, keep trying to learn, and keep inspiring others around you to do the same.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

What I used to think...

In my first year or so of taiko, I used to think that:

- I only needed one pair of bachi.
- Japanese taiko was mostly "traditional" kumidaiko.
- Crossovers (on okedo) were the most impressive thing.
- Paradiddles were impossible!
- Getting a better sound meant hitting harder.
- Calluses meant you were skilled
- Taiko would just be a hobby
- Bachi were bachi (length and weight didn't matter much)
- There were just a few reasons why people played taiko.

This is just a partial list, and over the years assumptions came and went.  I wonder what I would think 10 years from now about what I think now?

What about you?  What do you know (or think you know) now that was different from what you thought in the beginning?

Monday, October 28, 2013


I had a post planned for today but decided to pull it because it might be taken in a negative light.  As much as I like to stir things up sometimes for the sake of dialogue, I don't want to cause ill will in the community at all.


Why don't I work on another blog post for Thursday and all of you enjoy this video?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Taiko-thon 2013

I don't normally promote events, but this one is coming up soon and is for a cause near and dear to me!

The Taiko Community Alliance is holding "Taiko-Thon 2013" next Saturday, November 2nd.  They're planning to have taiko groups playing or submitting clips all day long, starting at 9:00am PST and going until the afternoon, maybe as late as 5:00pm?  Could be earlier, I'm not sure.  All of this will be broadcast over Livestream, but you'll need to go to their site HERE to watch the fun.

San Jose Taiko will be performing a 15-minute set at the top of the program, but I'm not sure who else

The goal is to raise $50,000 in pledges by December 31st, 2013, which will help future North American Taiko Conferences and the future of the TCA.

To ensure that NATC can continue to improve and to help the TCA meet the growing needs of the Taiko Community, your support will be greatly appreciated.  Also, no one from the TCA asked me to post this, I just want them to do really well so we can all benefit!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Time for a nap...

Not much of a post today.  Had a 3-day drive to Colorado last week, 5 days of tour in the middle, and a 3-day drive back from Nebraska.  Having that right after the 40th anniversary makes for a lot of material to write about but a very tired blogger.

On the flip side, my 500th post is coming up, and that should be fun.  I have a new series of posts in mind that might be helpful to a lot of people who both read this regularly and bring new people to the blog.

Keep well and keep practicing, y'all!

Thursday, October 17, 2013


When is copying someone or something good?  When is it bad?

When you start playing taiko, it's really good to have someone to copy, in the sense that you are trying to learn how to "be" by replicating their motions and sensibilities.  But after a time, if you continue to copy someone, you're not getting better as an artist, you're only getting better at copying.

Some might say if you are copying someone truly great, then you are learning how to be truly great as well.  To me, it's good to continue to learn from someone truly great, but to copy them for too long stifles the potential someone might have.  On top of that, you can only copy someone as much as you are like them - physically, mentally, background, etc.  If you spend too much time trying to copy someone that's too dissimilar to you, you'll be spending a lot of time compensating when you could be improving.

Another type of copying is taking someone's "moves" in your solo.  If someone in your group has a signature move or moves they do during any given solo, and you do that same move during yours, this can be good...or really bad.  If your group is ok with that sort of thing, or the other player is, that's great.  Otherwise, you're asking for a lot of trouble!  It can be a way to try new moves you wouldn't normally do, but it also means you're not exercising your creative muscles!  Be careful of taking moves you see from other taiko players/groups, unless you would feel comfortable talking to them in person about what you did...

Finally (at least for this post), there's copying another group's songs, which is a really big subject to delve into and so I'll stay brief.  Copying another song that's not open source without permission is just plain wrong.  Copying with permission is fine, but like the above, each song you copy means less opportunity to flex your creative muscle.  Too many songs like that, and you stunt the growth of the group!  On the flip side, you might find that copying a song in this way gives spark to a different ideas and ways of thinking/composing within your group that you normally would not have come to.

So to copy or not to copy?  I don't have the answers, so all I can say to you is think before you copy!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Learning what's not taught

How much are you learning from your teachers?  How much are you learning aside from that?

Teachers teach us.  That's the whole idea of being a teacher, right?  But teachers, no matter how good, will have their limitations, things they can't teach.

Sometimes it's hard to figure out what you're not being taught, but even harder to be proactive and learn it on your own or with someone else.

In my opinion, a really good teacher does not want you to be a clone or a copy of them.  Those who do seem insecure or have a dangerous ego.  The good teachers want to teach you, but will want you to grow in ways they might not be able to teach.

But in order to do that, you have to look at what they're not able to help you with and then figure out where to go from there.  Honor your teachers by growing, not by copying!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

40th Anniversary: Behind the Scenes (Spoilers!)

Last Saturday was our 40th Anniversary Concert, a 2-hour production with 20 performers from SJT, 5 of our junior members, 8 dancers from Abhinaya Dance Company, 3 of their musicians, and 1 DJ from the Bangerz.  The entire second half was a 60-minute medley of 25 of our songs without pause.  It was one of the best performances I’ve ever been a part of and one I think people will remember many years from now.

For this post, I wanted to give people a look into what a day in the theater is like for such a big event, since it’s such an immense undertaking.  I’m not going to say TOO much, because I don’t want to ruin the mystique or get myself in trouble, haha.  However, I know that some people are curious about what it’s like to make this kind of a show happen.

Most of us arrive at the theater by 9am Saturday to start unloading the equipment brought in both a large Budget truck and one of our vans.  Some people have arrived earlier to prep the stage or start working with the Lighting Director.  The stage crew has already started building the riser (raised stage) in the back.

With so many of us available, it takes about 90 minutes to prep all the equipment.  The shime are tied in the lobby stairwell, the okedo tied and strapped and given wraps, the stands assembled, the tables set on both sides and covered in blankets for all of our bachi and percussion.

There’s a crew working on the lobby displays, and a crew working on the merchandise tables and T-shirt display.  Actually, I think it was the same crew doing both!  There are a couple of people setting up the green room, where food is put out.  Lighting is still going on and the projections/videos are being tested and tweaked.  Our sound technician arrives around this time.  During the whole time we’ve been there, the theater crew is lowering and raising pipes (where they hang the lights and other things from) and constantly working around (and in between) us.  They don’t get in our way and we try to stay out of theirs!

From here it’s a bit of waiting, until we can help one of the teams.  The merchandise table needs people to fold shirts, the spike team needs people to help place and mark where the drums go.  By now most of us have put our personal stuff in the dressing rooms upstairs and hung our happi on the clothes racks on both sides of the stage for the multiple quick changing required later.  There’s a lunch order made at a couple of different places nearby and then there’s a bit of a break for those who aren’t helping one of teams.

After lunch comes the sound check, where we run a couple of the songs where microphones are used.  Levels need to be balanced, especially for the non-taiko instruments (violin, hand drums, vocals).  From there we get ready to run the entire show, in costume, with all the costume changes, lighting, and sound that we can.  Some of the women from SJT need to do hair and makeup during this time.  For the run-through, some non-playing things may not be ready or set, but adjustments can be made once people see what happens.  Yes, that means we are playing the concert before we play the concert.  That’s two shows in the space of about six hours.

Dinner break in the green room is noisy and crowded as people eat what they need to before the final push.  We have performers and technicians and family and some ex-SJT members, and the mood is pretty relaxed.  The show starts at 8 and we’re ready to go at 7:45 to bring everyone together and center.

There’s a delay because of the line outside, so we wait for 10 minutes, but once we start, it’s on.  All those nights and weekends and so many hours spent outside of practice in prepping and planning come to fruition.  As we perform, we don’t know what the audience is really seeing – the effect of the lighting isn’t known to us until we watch the video on the following day.  But it doesn’t matter; we’re putting it out there with all we’ve got.

The two hours pass by so fast due to all the times we’ve rehearsed it and the joy of playing.  We’re off in the lobby after the end and see fans, family, friends, so many people happy with what they’ve seen and happy to see us.  It’s hard to talk to any one person for too long because there’s someone else always coming up, and so we don’t always get to say goodbye.  And it’s not long before we have to get backstage to start packing up, still running on adrenaline and excitement.

Personal stuff gets put away, costumes grabbed from the racks, then changing upstairs.  Equipment is broken down, drums are normally untied (but we don’t have time this time), everything is put into boxes or bags, spikes are peeled off the stage.  All the food needs to be packed, all the displays packed, all the merchandise packed plus an accounting for our totals.  It’s chaotic and if you don’t have something to do, it’ll take three seconds to find what to help with.  And everything that just got packed tightly in the truck and van is then taken back to the studio to be unloaded once more.

It’s now 1:15am on Sunday and we circle up, just the remaining SJT members and a few volunteers to close out and thank everyone for their hard work.

So does it always happen like that?  Nope.  Did it all go as planned?  Nope.  Am I going to explain?   Nope!  But for those who don’t play concerts or do larger events like that - or who are just curious - this was a glimpse into what went on in order to make a single anniversary show happen – and that’s just the day of, not the days, weeks, and months leading up to it.  Hope to see you at our 45th!  And 50th, 55th, 60th