Thursday, January 31, 2013

Building your mountain.

Imagine that building your skill in an art – any art – is like building a mountain by yourself.  The end goal is to make a big, strong, tall mountain that can stand the test of time on its own.

First thing you have to do is get the foundation.  Without a foundation, all the stuff you put on top is just going to sink down or fall off.  You need to make sure that the base of the mountain is supportive and solid.  Sometimes people wind up adjusting the foundation after things are already on top of it, but it’s often really difficult and you wind up needing to re-fit everything above it.

In this way, the foundation is much like your health: mental, physical, and emotional.  You also need to be able to respect yourself (something I talked about here) so that you can handle the process ahead.  Without this foundation, it really doesn’t matter what skills you acquire or how much experience you get because it will always be hampered by a soft or unstable foundation.

Next is the bulk of the work in the large rocks.  You’ll have to somehow get these up and over onto the foundation, arranging them in a way that will support each other as well as what’s to come.  Some of these rocks take a lot of work to get into place, like the big clunky slabs that barely budge.  Others roll and swivel really nicely.  Everyone has their own set of rocks and no two sets are alike.  The bigger these rocks are to start, the less work you have to do to fill in the mountain later. If you skimp on these rocks (unintentionally or otherwise), you’ll have to spend time making up for it later to make the mountain a decent size, because it’s not about speed, it’s about the finished product.

In this way, the large rocks are much like your core skills: stance, range of flexibility, body awareness, musicality, etc.  If you shortcut one or more of those core skills, you’ll wind up with either stunted or limited growth later on because like with the foundation, you don’t have the support for the next set of skills.  (Who wants a stumpy mountain?)  Also, imagine trying to increase the size of your mountain by enlarging the rocks in the middle of it!  Better to have those large rocks in place, even if it takes longer to get them there.

Following the large rocks are the small rocks.  There are hundreds of these, if not more, and they’re scattered all over the place.  Some are right at your feet while others may lie many miles away.  Depending on your group, you may get told which rocks to place, but you have also have a lot of freedom in which rocks you choose and what order you put them in your mountain.  This is where a lot of people rush to get to, at the expense of the large rocks.  It’s where the character of your mountain takes shape, where your style shows.  But without that support system in place from the first two steps, your mountain won’t support the weight of the small rocks for long and will lose its shape.

In this way, the small rocks are secondary skills: finger dexterity, lightness of feet, balance, projection, showmanship, volume (of voice), intention, syncopation, hand percussion, odaiko technique, etc.  Depending on the person, some of these skills are easily acquired (rock at your feet) while others take a rather long time (rock miles away).  The temptation to get to these skills quickly often has people neglecting their core skills and it shows, both in the lack of one or more fundamentals and a secondary skill that’s lacking.

The last step: the details.  This ranges from the grass and trees to the pebbles and dirt.  This process doesn’t really add to the weight of mountain but does “color” it.  It won’t make the mountain more solid, but it will make the mountain more “you.”  Some people will get to this stage and continue to focus on the details (the color of this bush here, that tree there) instead of looking into the mountain to find more ways to strengthen it.  However, all of us add to the details as we learn, even if we don’t focus on improving them until much later on.

In this way, the details are the personal style.  This could range from bachi twirls and flips to acrobatic antics, humor or intensity, exaggeration of effort or making things look really easy, and so much more.  While these are often a lot of fun to practice, some people act like once they get to this point, this is all that’s left to work on.  Those who fall into that trap don’t realize what’s weak in their mountain – or don’t care enough to fix it.

When using the mountain-building analogy, realize:

  • If you have to go back a step to a bigger rock (from small to large, for example), it may feel like those bigger rocks feel “heavier”.  In reality, it takes the same amount of effort to work on a big rock than it does a small one.  You’ve just gotten used to the smaller rocks and they usually deal with a smaller area of focus.  If anything, it’s more humbling to have to go back than it is tiring. 
  • In the first stages, development is obvious.  You’re putting in big chunks of mountain and those chunks are immediately visible.  When you start working on the smaller rocks, you may feel like you’re spending just as much time, but on more things and with less overall progress. 
  •  The holes are important too!  It’s impossible to fill in every conceivable space within your mountain, but some people will try.  While this isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing, it’s exhausting.  If you’re constantly focused on adding to your skills, you may never get to enjoy them.  Furthermore, the holes you choose to leave may very much add to your style of playing.  Some people have a really tough time being intense in a song, because being a super-happy-fun ball is just who they are.  Some people will never physically look the same as the rest of the ensemble and to a point, that hole may help define them more than be a “deficiency”. 
  •  Sometimes, an earthquake or other natural occurrence will do a lot of damage to a mountain.  For this analogy, think of it as learning something that completely changes the way you look at your foundation.  After the smoke clears, you may have to remove a lot of the small ones to re-adjust the large ones, in order to create a sub-structure that reflects your new understanding. 

So step back and look at the mountain you’re creating.  Where are you in its development?  What rocks are you putting in right now?  Where is it weakest?  Where is it strongest?  Can it hold its own weight?  Can it hold up to more weight in the future?  How's your mountain?

Monday, January 28, 2013

One hit.

Imagine you have one single strike of the drum to show (insert important people here) your skill.  What do you do?

Do you approach the drum tentatively?  Quickly?  Calmly?  With confidence?  With bravado?

Do you fill the room with presence?   Dramatics?  Humor?

Do you enjoy the motion of raising before striking?  Draw it out?  Make it quick?

When you strike, is the sound full?  Loud?  Purposefully subdued?  Textured?  Crisp?  Rounded?

Do you end the strike with stillness?  Movement?  Purpose?


Now, imagine yourself as one of the important people watching.

If someone ran on stage, hit the drum while running, then continued off-stage, would you judge them as unprofessional or amusing?

If someone took deliberately slow steps onstage, took a few minutes both lift and to strike, then several minutes to stand up and leave, would you think them overly-dramatic?  Boring?  Focused?  Artistic?

Is someone more impressive with blazing ki and a really strong strike or a peaceful demeanor and ease of motion?


I'm not trying to really get to a particular point in this post.  I just wanted people to think about how they would represent themselves in a scenario like this.  I also wanted people to think about how they would view others.  What does it say about you?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The art of the struggle.

I can't count the times I've heard taiko people make a remark similar to "I wish I had (insert player or group name here)'s talent."  Sure, it would be great to have more ability to make things easier for us in the long run, but there is something in struggling that often makes for a stronger player.

Consider that while the person with more talent might have had an easier start and gone farther faster, the person who took longer to get to the same point and struggled on the way had to learn how to make the best of their time.  It may have taken the "struggler" twice as long to get there but they've likely had to understand their body more so than the person who cruised through without having to consider the details.  In that understanding comes growth.

Consider that the person with more talent might not be as good at learning in workshops taught by other people, with other groups, or learning other skills.  In not being challenged as much as they progress, I've seen talented people get really frustrated when all of a sudden, they're not "getting it".  Those who have had trouble "getting it" over months and years and have struggled to do so already have a coping mechanism in place.

Consider that the person with more talent might not necessarily be a very good teacher, which is unfortunately something I have seen a lot of over the years.  Someone naturally really good at what they do still needs to understand why they're good at it before they can impart those skills in others.  Simply having the desire to isn't enough.  A person who has struggled to understand someone else's concept (a.k.a. being taught) for a while may very well have a better time understanding how to then transmit their own.

In addition (and perhaps contrary to) that is the value in struggling to understand what an instructor is trying to teach you.  If someone has something good to teach but you aren't getting it, the act of trying to figure out what the lesson is forces you to learn something.  In that struggle, you have to figure out how to use the tools you're given and the possibilities.  You may arrive at the wrong answer, but you've learned something in the process.  The alternative to this is is the expectation to be spoon-fed information, to have the answers given to you, and simply do what you're told.  In practice this sounds like the faster way to "learn" something, but like I've been saying all through this post, when you don't appreciate what the struggle gives you, you find yourself hitting frustration after frustration down the road because you haven't learned nearly what you thought you had.

I don't mean to imply that it's bad to have talent, that people with talent have issues, or that struggling inherently makes you a better person - of course not!  Having talent is great but as shown above, can also be limiting when relied on too much.

Appreciating the art of the struggle isn't always easy but you can - and should - learn something from it, even if it's an art you'd rather not practice!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Question Everything: Striking hard

In general, taiko are loud instruments.  Big surface, big drumsticks, big motions...all leading to some big sounds!

Yes, there are dynamics in many songs where there are quieter notes on purpose, but when it's ok to play loud, do you ever think about how loud you're playing?

I see too many players default to striking as hard as they can, just short of brutalizing the drum.  I can't tell if it's out of frustration/anger, lack of awareness, or what.  It makes me wince.  This mostly happens during solos, but also sometimes during the course of a song.  It's like having someone screaming at me.

Over-hitting the drum is more than just bad technique or bad for the drum.  It actually distorts the sound.  There's no "body" to the strike, no warmth, no "oomph".  It's just THWACK.  And while THWACK can have a place in music - like the sforzando in Western music does - it's brutal to the ears after once or twice in taiko.  A solo made up of strikes like that is downright offensive to the ears.

Hitting as hard as you can also prevents you from developing control: doro tsuku becomes doro doro at faster tempos, and/or your arms don't know how not to get tense during tricky rhythms.  While this happens to all of us, it happens more sooner and more often to those who default to thwacking because they're not developing fine motor control over their movements.

Finally, if you can't hear yourself thwacking, then you're not listening to yourself and the relationship to those around you.  It's just like getting off-tempo during a song and not noticing.  You might be thinking "I'm giving it my all!" but what's coming out is "I'm totally unaware of my output!"  If someone came up to you and started telling you about their day by screaming, how long do you think you'd enjoy that for?

So what's the solution?  I recommend finding a way to get some time to play by yourself and experimenting with how hard you really need to hit to get a good sound.  Listen for when you cross from "loud" to "harsh".  Force yourself to practice with this concept in mind, for as long as it takes.  If you really want this to sink in, have people listen to you and tell you when you're hitting too hard.  You'll find that being that accountable will make you shape up very quickly.

If you're playing really loud because you want to be heard, you definitely will be - much like shouting through a megaphone into someone's face will get you heard.  Make the taiko sing for you, not scream!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Making it difficult.

There was an article in the Economist recently about how Jack White, former front singer for the White Stripes, purposefully makes things difficult for himself.  He uses cheap guitars that may not hold their shape or tuning, or positions instruments far apart from each other so that he has to run across between them while performing.  For him, when music gets too easy, it becomes harder to make it sing.

Taking "the easy way" is something we all do at one time or another, but it can also lead to things like:
  • A bland product.
  • Stagnant progress.
  • Students who can't think for themselves.
Isn't something "easy" more efficient?  It can be, if it's truly done out of efficiency.  Isn't "easy" a way to help more people learn quicker?  Again, yes - if that's truly the goal.  The problem is that "easy" is just another word for "lazy" most of the time...

Having some "easy" things gives us balance.  The danger is when you actively choose "easy" as your preferred path.

When you've played a song a hundred, thousand, or even fifty thousand times, it's REALLY easy to not give it your all.  Maybe you don't want to sweat, maybe it's a performance where you don't have to try hard, maybe you know no one's watching you...but what kind of product are you making?  How is that making you any better?  Do it enough and it becomes a habit, and soon it's your default mode: bland.

When you spoon-feed students too much, you don't let them think for themselves.  They don't discover, they expect.  They don't confront challenges, they wait.  After a while, they lose the patience/ability to think for themselves, which limits their growth.  There's also a relation to the bland product above, because where's the motivation to push for themselves unless they're being explicitly made to?

This "easy" can also seep into decision making.  I talk about risk a lot, but it needn't go that far.  Maybe you can squeeze one more song/drill run-through before practice ends...or is it "easier" to just end early?  If song X takes a few extra minutes to sign up for but song Y is "easier", which one do you tend to want to play?  The solo you do in song Z every time is pretty easy for you to do now, but how much is it also holding you back?

I definitely make things difficult for myself.  Sometimes to the point where people in the group have told me to not do something, because it's distracting/too weird/doesn't fit in.  And there are a few things I know I do "easy", like one particular song where I have a set solo - and have for about a year now.

A slide is fun and doesn't take a lot of effort - but it's a short ride and when it's over, you're at the bottom.  The ladder requires effort but it lasts a long time and you rise higher and higher...

Monday, January 14, 2013


It's pretty natural to compare yourself to other people in your group.The problem begins when those comparisons limit your development.

I heard of someone who was auditioning for a group with a few other candidates.  I'll call this person Zed.  When Zed was told their skills weren't good enough, their explanation was that they had gotten to a level that was better than the others and so Zed felt he/she was "safe".  Three problems:
  1. Zed's evaluation of being "better" than the others was based on personal opinion and not necessarily true.
  2. The others didn't make it into the group, so even if Zed was better by a little bit, it still wasn't enough.
  3. Zed's attitude of only trying hard enough to do better than the others was a huge red flag for the evaluators.
By comparing his/her skills to the others, Zed ultimately shot themselves in the foot.   With a big gun.

Maybe with a group that's more competitive than this one, the strategy wouldn't have been as bad, but if you're going to use it you better be damned well sure you really are better in what counts.

The even bigger problem is what that attitude/strategy brings with it.  Who wants someone in their group who's only going to practice to get "good enough" at something?  Who's ever going to inspire someone by doing "just enough"?  What sort of work ethic does that person bring to a group?

It's one thing to be strapped for time and only be able to do "good enough".  It's another thing to not be able to achieve more than "just enough" due to a lack of ability.  But when it's your intention from the start, you're basically telling yourself (and everyone around you) that you don't care, that it's not important to do more.

So ask yourself - when you compare yourselves to others, do you limit your goals based on those benchmarks?  Is that all you want to be?

Be more, if not for your group then for yourself!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Sounds like taiko

If you were to close your eyes and listen to your own solo, would it sound musical?

Does your solo have phrasing?  Does it groove?  Or is it a series of unconnected notes?  In the heat of the moment what you play may sound great in your head, but sometimes you need to really listen to what you play.

A person's ki may sell a solo, sure.  But ultimately, taiko is a musical form and that's what you're doing - music.

Think of a live concert (even if you've never been to one).  The feel of the audience all grooving to the same beat is infectious, but the key term there is beat.  If there's no clear rhythm to lock into and follow along, there's no grooving to be done.

I'm pretty sure all of you listen to music, right?  Even if you have weird songs that don't have repetitive patterns and rhythms, I'll bet 95% of what you listen to does.  So why should your solo be any different from the music you like?

Think musically, play musically.  It may not happen right away, but when it does, it makes a HUGE difference!

Monday, January 7, 2013


Humor in taiko is one of those tricky things.

No one wants to be a group of clowns, but then again no one wants to be bland.  Some groups are pretty intense and don't use humor, other groups like levity and use it a lot.

A lot of humor I've seen is...almost there, but more on the painful side than the funny side.  I get what people are trying to accomplish but it's either not been practiced enough or is really funny to the people doing it without the audience getting the joke.

If you're going to do something funny, you have to get outside eyes to watch and comment.  Otherwise you really do risk creating something awkward, like when a comedian "dies on stage".  And no matter how side-splittingly funny it might be to your entire group, if it's not funny to someone who doesn't have the right context, you run into the same problem.

I'm not against funny skits or silly sections in a show, but when it's not funny, it really is hard to watch.  On the flip side, sometimes a little bit of humor has a huge impact!  I've seen bad jokes told well, and corny sight gags warm up an audience.

Just remember, humor's not something that can be thought of as an after-thought without risking some "damage" to your product.  Plan accordingly!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Audience I.Q.

In a chapter from David Byrne’s “How Music Works” he explains how he invited a famous Peking Opera actor to observe a Talking Heads concert.  One piece of advice the actor gave was that you need to let the audience know something is going to happen before it happens.  When David questioned that advice, (why would you want to ruin a surprise, for example) the gist of the answer was “audiences are dumb”.

Now, this wasn’t meant to insult the intelligence of the members so to speak, but that to state when you’re trying to show the audience this really cool thing over HERE, half of them may be looking over THERE instead.  You see this all the time with people filming taiko – they’ll record 2 minutes of someone playing a straight beat in the back while an awesome solo is happening five feet away.

This phenomenon happens a lot when people make mistakes, too: someone drops their bachi on stage and later a friend or family member says “I didn’t see that!   When did you drop it?”  It’s not always a bad thing when they miss something, but it tells you that there’s truth to the advice given above.

On the other hand, sometimes the audience picks up what no one else caught or thinks about.  We’ve been asked questions about the position of our knot in our obi, certain drum angles, ethnicity and gender ratios, and other questions that would be very hard to predict.  When we started using a different manufacture of taiko, several people noticed the change in sound as well.

Let’s face it – often we are the audience, watching a performance.  We think we’re catching it all but who really knows?  Ever have a friend (or a crowd of people) react in awe to something and you having to ask “what?  What happened?”  It happens to us all.

Sometimes what you plan in your head for a soloing move may not be seen by the audience, even if they’re looking right at you.  Both subtle things and fancy things can easily get lost no matter how much you’ve worked on something, no matter how cool you think it is.  

What the audience does tend to notice is confidence.  Confidence “sells”.  The most practiced, the most comfortable players have that kind of confidence, EVEN IF THEY’RE NOT THE MOST SKILLED.   I can’t stress that enough!  A simple pattern, delivered with repetition by a confident player, will have more impact on the audience than anything fancy or done with a frantic look.  That’s not to say they won’t get bored after 30 seconds of a confident don don don don don don don   Is an audience’s ability to hone in on confidence easily a good thing?  Does it mean they're "smarter" because of that ability or "dumber" because they're drawn to it?
To sum up?  The audience is dumber than you expect, but smarter than you realize.