Thursday, February 28, 2013


The other day I was on the computer, while listening to Kodo.  I asked myself, “why can’t I solo like that?”  The question quickly turned into "why don't I solo like that?" And then the answer hit me like a light bulb going off: because my group limits me.

(edit: Actually, let me make it sound less conceited here - for any group, yours or mine or someone else's, there is a group style that members may or may not fit into exactly right.  We all have to make those adaptations, whether it means stepping up, holding back, or what-have-you.)

Now this isn’t going to be me disrespecting SJT or even being critical of it.  What I realized is that in our repertoire, when we have solos, I have to hold back.  In my earlier years, I was often told to ease off/back off/play less/etc. and at first I didn’t understand why *I* had to put limits on my abilities.  Later on I realized that just because I could didn’t mean I should.

When a song called for more interaction and cohesion in the solos between players, me playing really complex syncopation often meant the next player would get shafted.  As awesome as I thought I just was, I’d just make for a very awkward hand-off to the next soloist.  When a song had a groovy ji and I wanted to play something densely polyrhythmic, it was like me playing a different song from everyone else.  No matter how “good” those solos might have been, they weren’t strengthening the song or the ensemble.  In time, I came to realize this and figured if I’m really as good as I think I am then I should be able to tailor my solo to the song and play within those parameters.

I should clarify that the solos I’m referring to are more chops-oriented solos, less about movement and more about rhythm.  However, I was still effectively limiting myself by continually soloing within the established parameters.  It doesn’t make me mad to think about, it doesn’t make me think that SJT is to “blame”, or anything like that.  These were the songs and those were the rules!

What I realized was that while I get to express myself through ki and kata (energy and physicality) within the group, I don’t really get to express myself musically.  *That’s* where I feel restrained.  Again, this is no one’s fault.  What I have to do, if I truly want to express myself in a solo, is write a song where I can solo however I please.

Okay, there are limits on that – I can’t write a 10-minute-long solo featuring me.  I am still playing with SJT and there are a few considerations.  Any song I write needs to have parts that eventually can be played by others. Even if others aren’t able to play what I play in my solo, the spot itself can’t be too difficult or so customized to me.  And it's not just about the solos, although that is a large part of how I like to express myself.  My compositions were mostly with SJT in mind, thinking about how they would fit into the existing repertoireI never really tried to push compositional or musical limits and am just now realizing that I have the ability (and desire) to do so.

While I can strive to write a piece that is challenging to be in, I have to be aware that if others don’t find the challenge fun, no one’s going to want to play it.  It’s also interesting to think that if I make a piece that pushes people’s chops in order to play it, won’t that improve the group as a whole?

Ultimately, I am at a point where I want to express myself more, and explore what that actually means.  If I don’t feel the ability to do it within the group currently, it’s unfair to wait and expect it to just happen out of the blue.  I want to get into the studio, grab a bunch of drums, get the metronome on, and just solo until I feel what the ji should be underneath me, until I feel what kind of song would support that kind of soloing.  This idea excites and inspires me!  I have a song I’ve started to make some progress with, but this will be a very different creature entirely.

Examine your own group and soloing style.  You may not solo or you may not be familiar enough with soloing to feel you can ask yourself this question, but are you limited because of the repertoire and/or sensibilities of your group?  If so, what are you going to do about it?

Limitations can be like a brick wall, but sometimes it’s a brick wall where when you step back you realize you can either walk around it  - or find a better path altogether!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

New Layout!

Don't be afraid, I'm just trying this out...

I believe you can go to the upper left corner and change the layout you view the site in (classic, flipcard, magazine, etc.)  And over on the right hand side is a gray bar that will expand when you move your cursor over it so you can view archives, tags, etc.

I may or may not stay with this style but this is my 4-year anniversary of the blog and I want to change it around just a bit.

If you like my blog and haven't followed it yet, consider doing so?  I can see how many people view it via analytics but it's nice to have followers.  :)

Thanks everyone!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Soloing, part 7: Phrasing

What is solo "phrasing"?  It's the feeling of how a passage or rhythm(s) starts, ends and links with the next.  In a song in 4/4 time (which 95% of taiko is in), ending patterns in 4 or 8 feel natural.  When things don't end on the "1", unless deliberate, it makes for an uneasy phrasing.

When you read, punctuation provides a sense of phrasing.  A long sentence without punctuation feels awkward and bulky.  A sentence with punctuation in weird places makes it really hard to read (ex: "Fourscore and seven. years ago our...fathers, brought forth on this continent a new; nation conceived in - liberty and dedicated! to the proposition that all, men are created, equal."  Ouch.

Phrasing is one of those things that can make or break a solo.  It's natural for some, difficult for others.  There are generally four kinds of phrasing in solos, from "Mush" to "Hard"
  1. Mush -  patterns ending wherever they end instead of syncing them up to end on the "1" of whatever meter the song is in (4, 6, 8, etc.)
  2. Soft - some patterns ending on the "1", but some of them ending early or late (often leading to making the next few patterns in odd places.)
  3. Firm - most patterns ending on the "1" but playful placement of patterns that don't.
  4. Hard - all patterns ending on the "1" throughout the solo.
A lot of players stay with a Hard phrasing because it's safe and comfortable.  While this is often good for the audience, don't let it limit your creativity or growth.  You can try playing "through" a pattern of 4 or 8 (playing in 8 or 16, for example), or playing a smaller pattern with a fill for the remainder and ending on the next "1".

Firm shows the most control over phrasing, but can easily turn Soft.  Also unfortunate is when a player thinks they're being playful but it's gone to Mush.  I see this with new players who aren't solid enough yet and experienced players who "sell the show" in energy and movement but lose phrasing in the process.

Not ending on the "1" is syncopation on a macro level - instead of weaving in and around the individual downbeats in a measure, you're focusing on feeling the "1" of each measure.  Some people choose to solo Soft, thinking it shows complexity - and while it can, more often than not it just sounds awkward.  Leaving listeners unable to feel where your "periods" can disconnect them from the enjoyment.

A great way to train your brain to feel phrasing better is to cycle patterns (in your head or hitting something).  Play a pattern in 4 or 8 (or whatever meter you're trying to get better at).  Repeat it for a total of 2 or 4 times.  Then a new pattern, repeat that.  And so on and so on.  You cannot expect to count the meter in the midst of soloing; you have to train your body to FEEL the phrasing.

A lot of times, a solo that's a bit on the Softer side can be salvaged with a Hard ending.  If you can figure out how to end on the last "1" of whatever song you're in, you end on a successful note.  However, if you've been going Firm or Hard but end Soft or Mushy, it can really ruin all the work you've just done!  Like gymnastics, you can save a weaker routine with a strong landing, but if you fall after a brilliant routine...that's what people will remember.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Drill: Hemiola

Hemmy-what?  Hemiola!  This is something I have loved for years even before I knew there was a name for it.  There is a harmonic hemiola, but we’re only going to talk about the rhythmic one.

A hemiola is where the space of three equal beats is played by only two.  This happens mostly in passages of 3/4 or 6/8 time, the triple feel being replaced with a duple one.

Two great examples of this are the Christmas song “Here Come the Bells” (where you can hear triple over duple in the melody) and “America” (at 3:06) where the iconic lyrics “I like to be in America/Okay by me in America/Everything free in America” demonstrate a hemiola.  (Count the syllables and you’ll feel a 1-2-3-4-5-6/1-3-5- hemiola.)

The key here is the number 6.  If you can understand how rhythm is just math, and understand how to subdivide the number 6 at will, you can produce some really magical stuff…or if you’re like me, you get people telling you to “knock it off!”

For this drill, you’ll be based in a triplets, 6 alternating notes with accents on the 1 of each trio: 1-2-3-1-2-3/1-2-3-1-2-3.  There’s no need to go fast with these, you want to maintain tempo while differentiating between accented and non-accented notes.

As for the drill itself:

1. Groove triplets for a while, slowly. 
     - Sometimes accent only the 1, sometimes only every other 1.
     - Count to three out loud as you play.
     - Don’t play any faster than you can count out loud clearly (slower is better).
2. Start cycling your triplets into four sets of three.
     - Feel the cycle as 1-2-3-1-2-3/1-2-3-1-2-3.
3. When ready, play 4 sets of triplets (“threes”) and 3 sets of “fours”, repeat. Accent on the 1.
     - 1-2-3-1-2-3/1-2-3-1-2-3/1-2-3-4-1-2/3-4-1-2-3-4
     - Keep counting the numbers out loud! 

4.  When ready, play four sets of triplets and three sets of doro-tsuku, then repeat.
     - Once you understand the sequence, a metronome is super-highly recommended!

At first this might be tricky.  Logically, it’s just math, right?

  • Each single triplet = 3 beats
  • Each single doro-tsuku = 4 beats 
  •  3+3+3+3 = 4+4+4 = 12

It may very well feel like two patterns that don’t go together AT ALL.  But that’s the brain-bending beauty of the hemiola. 

As for practical use, first and foremost you really have to FEEL this triple-to-duple effect.  If you throw it into a solo or make it a part of a song without knowing how it locks, it’s going to sound like you’re  Once you have it in your bones (or wherever you keep your rhythms; I keep mine in my bones), then anything with a dongo/swing is great for a hemiola pattern like this.  Dongo is really a 1-2-3-1-2-3 pattern without an audible 2 played (1---3-1---3-) and you can drop a duple/4-count/doro-tsuku pattern in there nice and tidy.

At advanced levels, you can get some really funky stuff going with this concept.  Just because it’s in 6 doesn’t mean you can’t do it in 8 – within a 16-beat patern (8+8) you can pull of a couple of patterns of 6.  You can cut and paste the patterns around if you understand the math, and/or shift to upbeats to really weave some great patterns.  Here's some cut-and-pasting:

Mind you, the beauty of this sort of pattern comes from playing it sparingly – a touch of heat in your soup and not a mouthful of Tabasco!  As always, practice practice practice!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Paying your dues

How long do you have to be in a group before you’ve earned certain rights or privileges?   The easy answer to that is: “it depends on the group.”  It’s usually a much more complex answer than that, however.

Has the 15-year green belt (middle rank) paid their dues more than the 7-year black belt?  If someone who was the star in one group joins another group, do those “dues” transfer over? 

I’ll use myself as an example.  After 20 years with SJT, I like to think I’ve paid my dues for the most part.  While I could have and could still do more, I’ve been around a long time and been through a lot in my group.  It doesn’t mean I can slack off more or stop trying to get better, but if I want to tell people how to strike the odaiko better or explain how a rhythm should *feel*, I think I've “earned” the right to do that.  While our group is pretty democratic in that we can all make comments like that, what I say may have more “weight” because of my time and experience.

However, when I go to taiko gatherings like the NATC, this concept gets distorted quite a bit.  To people new to the art, they might not know me…from Adam (sorry, had to say it) and my 20 years doesn’t mean squat to them.  To others, they might feel like my experience makes what I say into gold; the other extreme.  Then when I hang around with the “classics” (those who have been around longer than I have and may have founded groups), my 20 years might seem like a small achievement and my dues aren't really "paid up".  I may never feel that I've paid my dues as much in that circle.  But that’s ok, it’s not really a goal.

There’s really no danger in feeling like you haven’t paid your dues, unless you self-deprecate to absurdity.  But there is a real danger in feeling like you have to those who don’t agree with you.

Acting as an authority on something before you’ve “earned” that right really undermines what advice you might truly be able to offer.  It's one thing to mentor someone, another to act like it's your place to tell people the right way to do something.  Assuming you get whatever benefits one who has paid their dues does makes you seem arrogant.

In groups that are more hierarchical, this kind of thing still happens.  In my dojo, when we see someone with say, 2 years' worth of experience teaching someone with only 6, we usually stop them.  That person with one year still has plenty to work on for themselves, and it’s not their responsibility to be teaching.  We don’t squash friendly chats or people asking general questions of those of higher rank, but teaching techniques and the like is considered bad form.

There's really no easy way to determine when you've "paid your dues" in a group.  But since the penalties for assuming are much worse (and long-lasting) than not, it's often better to give it a lot more time than you think is necessary.  And finally, if it's important for you - if it's a goal - to get there, ask yourself why?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hitting the drum.

On the surface, taiko players pretty much all do the same thing: we hit the drum.  That’s kind of what taiko is all about, regardless of your motivation.

But some players, when they play, do more than simply “hit the drum.”  Some project and extend their energy past the drum head, using their bachi as an extension of themselves.  Others just…hit the drum. Many players are in the process of going from the latter to the former, but some are stuck. 

I can see when a player is treating the head of the drum as the goal, and it has nothing to do with them physically looking at it or not.  You can close your eyes and (assuming you don’t miss the drum) you’d still have the same overall sensibilities.

This isn’t necessarily a binary thing.  There aren’t two camps of people at 100% and 0%, respectively.  While there are some people at 0%, the rest are all over the spectrum.  And I’ll admit these numbers are my opinion of things, since these are my observations.  I’m simply trying to put what I see into something qualifiable, even if I’m not actually using numbers in my head.  What would 100% even mean?

This isn’t about the kind of ki where you shine for the audience, smiling, yelling, etc., since that has nothing to do with striking.  And it has nothing to do with volume, either.  Smacking the hell out of the drum through force is still just hitting the drum, albeit it crudely.

What it is about is the big picture as well as the details.  It’s the grip, wrist snap, alignment, posture, hara, flexibility, and connection to the floor through the feet, among many others.  But it’s also the unity of individual motion and how to connect one motion to the next.  Your style doesn’t really matter; someone who’s drunk playing at a matsuri can demonstrate this kind of projection just as much as a seasoned member of a group like Kodo.

There is so much more than just getting a good sound out of a drum, so much more than just making the right shape, so much more than simply playing with the rest of the group.  The drum head is only a physical limit.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Asalato Journey, part 2 (with video!)

First post on this is here.

It's been a while but I haven't forgotten about this series.  I keep a pair of asalato on my desk and randomly play with them when I can.

I felt really comfortable with my right hand, enough that I started working on the left.  And the left is was is pretty stupid when it comes to these things, so it took a lot of practice.  I found that for some patterns, doing both hands at the same time made things easier.  Not all, but some.

What you see above is far from perfect; there are some obvious mistakes but I'm happy with this run.  Took a while to get a decent one!

The next level is still double-hand techniques, but with more independent movement.  That's gonna take a while, but I didn't think I'd even get to where I am now...

Keep practicing, keep questioning, keep growing!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

What do you want to be?

I was thinking, if you could define what kind of player you wanted to be, what would that sound like?

There's an unlimited amount of things you could say...  Do you want to be known in the taiko community?  Remembered for your contributions?  Or maybe a prolific songwriter for your group - or other groups.  Maybe you would want to to be a really solid support player, always reliable to hold ji no matter what happens.

Since you can "be anything", have you ever thought about it?  That ultimate goal?  It might change over time - and probably should - but it can be really useful to have one.

For me currently, it's "being able to play anything someone asks me to play."  That means no matter how quiet, how fast, how complicated, I want to be able to play it.  In time I'll probably change to something else, be it skill-related or otherwise, but it gives me a focus of what I want to be focusing on.

So what's yours?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Wasting time?

Wasting time is a concept that changes depending on the context.

Which of these do you agree with?

You're wasting time if:
- every minute of practice isn't planned out.
- every minute of practice isn't used to practice.
- you don't have a goal for each section of a practice.
- you talk a lot during practice.
- not everyone is involved during the majority of practice.

One person's "being creative" is another person's "wasting time".  One person's "stifling" is another person's "productive."

Sometimes it's good to be very focused and have a goal but sometimes it's good to allow for exploration and open-ended outcomes.  Different people are going to have different opinions on these,  and sometimes the best thing you can do is realize and respect that.