Thursday, March 28, 2013

Question Everything: My Blog

Weird title?  Not really.  I believe everything should be questioned, even if those questions are easily answered without a moment’s hesitation.  Why should my blog be exempt?

I started my blog to post my thoughts about various issues in a passive way.  There was no Facebook taiko group to post in back then, but even now with one I don’t want to clutter it with countless ideas and questions.  I am by no means an expert on the things I write about, no matter how much I’ve done some of those things.

My opinions are just that – opinions. What I say comes from my perspective, not from San Jose Taiko. There are posts on here I know that Staff would disagree with.  While some of what I say comes from what I've been taught, unless I say otherwise, it's all from my constantly-seeking mind.  Hell, there are posts on here that even I question years after writing them!

Sometimes I’ll post something controversial on purpose, to get people thinking.  Sometimes I’ll post something that everyone would agree with.  I never state what I write as Truth, and never should you take what I write as Truth, either.  Question what I write.  If you disagree, why?  If you agree, why?  Can you articulate it?

No matter how much you respect or admire someone’s teachings, you should always question them.  You can be a good sheep, following where you’re told to go, or you can be a good student, questioning what you have been taught.  Questioning doesn’t mean arguing, it simply means thinking for yourself.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Question Everything: Effort vs Efficiency

When I finish a concert, should I be tired?  Or should I feel like I have more left to give?

I bounce between these two concepts a lot.  On the one hand, if I'm really tired after a show, then I know I pushed myself really hard and put myself out there.  ...or maybe I'm just using too much energy on unimportant things, things that make me inefficient.

On the other hand, if I finish a show and still feel like I have a lot of energy, then I feel like I've been really efficient with my output, using my resources wisely.  ...or maybe I'm holding back when I should be exerting more, and not pushing myself hard enough.

Sometimes I'm in a show where I just won't get tired, because I'm not playing a lot of parts or not playing parts that are physically challenging.  That's a different story.

I guess for me, I don't want it to be one way or the other.  Sometimes I want to leave a stage completely spent, and other times feeling like I was smartly efficient.  What about you?  Which way makes you feel more "successful"?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Playing taiko without bachi?

Going to keep this brief, as I'm in an Alaskan hotel with spotty connection...

Today we did a workshop for a High School taiko group here and explored ma (space) to get them away from playing so many notes and forcing them to experience movement.  Some SJT members demonstrated possibilities of movement during solos, and in one of my sections I placed both bachi on the floor and did some freestyle movements.  Nothing fancy, just being bachi-less.

There's another song we play in a lot of our sets where I start my solo by putting both bachi down with a *splat*, then "waving" to the audience.

It might sound impossible to play taiko without bachi, but that's what I'm doing in those short moments.  So ask yourself, how can you break past things you think aren't possible?  How can you be creative and go past risks, past limitations?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Hello from Alaska!

By the time you read this, I'll be in Anchorage, Alaska for a week of taiko-y goodness with Tomodachi Taiko and friends!  I'll probably still keep the normal blog schedule and post my ramblings on Thursday and Sunday, but then write about my adventures when I get back.

The way people are acting, it's about -460 degrees Celsius out there.  But I'm looking forward to the cold, personally.

It should be a fun tour, and I hope to see some moose!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A one and a two and a...

Tempo is one of those things people either get really well or have trouble cementing. 

It’s an interesting phenomenon, watching people get off-tempo.  Sometimes a leader counts off “5, 6, 7, 8” but then people come in at a faster tempo.   Even more common is someone holding a position of support (back row, percussion, etc.) who doesn’t realize when they’re getting off (for whatever reason).

I’ve seen people get visibly upset knowing they were off and not able to get back on, and others who were clueless that they were nowhere near the beat.  So how do you train to get better at getting good at staying on tempo?

The easiest answer is also one of the hardest to learn from: use a metronome and drill just about anything – a ji, a song, a solo, whatever.  The problems are that it requires extra time to do outside of practice and it may take a lot of work just to train yourself to be more solid.

What I recommend is using your body to feel the tempo of whatever you’re playing.  Pulse it in your feet, bounce it in your knees, groove it in your chest – hell, even bob it in your head, if it’s not too distracting (to you and/or the group!).  This is definitely better for practice than performance, unless you’re allowed to move pretty freely in a song.

At first, this might actually seem more difficult than trying to remain relatively still and keeping tempo, but once you trust your body, you can use it to hold that tempo you want and focus on other, more fun things.  When you feel a tempo in your body, you have another level of understanding that you can utilize.  If your hands start to speed up, your body might inform them that the tempo is “back over here”.  Most of us are actually using this sort of internal metronome, but many don’t develop it.

I strongly suggest exaggerating the movements you do at first.  Ideally, you start doing this at a slower tempo/song.  Bob and pulse with much more emphasis than you ever would in a performance.  Think of a batter prepping by swinging three bats before going to the plate, but only using one to hit.  When you’re up “at bat”, you minimize those extra movements, but you’re still feeling it internally.  Those big motions are to help connect and understand what you want the body to feel, but in practice you’ll only need it on the inside (or small, unnoticeable external movements).

This is a skill invaluable for long-term development.  When I’m off on a syncopation "adventure", I know where I am because I feel the downbeat; I don’t have to count or watch where other people are.  Naturally, It took me a while to get to that point, but it was a skill worth learning.  If I ever start getting off (in whatever role), I make sure my body is more involved and lock into that.  It requires trust and practice, but I find my body knows where things should be when my brain is confused.

This idea of physically pulsing/feeling is one you can practice whenever you find yourself in a supportive role.  How much you can do depends on your group and what you’re doing at the time.  You never want to sacrifice technique or tempo for the sake of the pulse, so start simple until you can coordinate what you’re playing with making your body move.  "Simple" can be something small or something big, and it's up to you to find what works.

If you want other people to feel the joy and power in what you’re playing, you should be able to feel it in yourself, too!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Question Everything: Support

What does it mean to “support” another player?  We usually take that term to mean “support a player on stage”, but why stop there?

Consider supporting someone on stage as a skill.  At first most of us learn how to support another player on stage by copying how others in our group do it.  If there’s a lot of kiai, we tend to kiai a lot   If the kiai are more like screams, then we’ll scream too.  If there’s room for embellishments during their solo, then we learn what embellishing is acceptable.

To some people, that’s where the supporting stops.  And while it may genuine, it may also not be as developed as it could be.  Some kiai because they feel they have to kiai, where it can become less a shout of spirit and more a shout of noise.

If someone else is soloing and you feel like letting out a big powerful kiai to boost them, then by all means, go for it!  It doesn’t even have to be on a certain beat or all that musical.  What’s much harder to do is to be really paying attention to that soloist, feeling their style, hearing their rhythms.  To kiai in the spaces or get louder on percussion during a really exciting part takes practice, but can often amp up the effect of the solo more than the sum of its parts.  Naturally, knowing the soloist’s style over time makes this easier, but it’s still a skill to be practiced, just like playing fast for long periods of time or being light on the feet.

You can see this kind of support sometimes in duets between master artists, like when two musicians play with each other.  They may not be completely playing off each other, but they are listening to and reacting to the other person without having to really think too much about it.

Another way of showing support is through the face and body language.  Shifting the weight towards the soloist, keeping your gaze at them, and smiling are all examples of this.  Again, this can always be improved on and shouldn’t be left as a “default” state.  Are you really listening to the soloist?  When can you “punctuate” their pauses or moments with a sharp nod or a quick push of the weight in?

As there are different ways to support a soloist onstage, what about off-stage?  Ever tell a fellow player that you really liked their solo?  Ever taken a move and re-purposed it, not quite stealing it but making it more of a homage?  It's not quite as easy to support a soloist off-stage but it is possible!

Ultimately, supporting a player takes many different forms.  It's up to you to explore how much and how far you want to go, but as always, question how much of it you do and how you do it!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Format un-change

Well, after a week of the new format, I decided to switch back to the old one.

For me, it made things more difficult in terms of posting and previewing.  For viewers, posts were previewed on other sites that led some to unfortunate conclusions.

So we're where we were before!  Ah well.  Not sure when I'll tinker with the site's format again, but I plan to keep posting just as much as before!

Monday, March 4, 2013


Taiko is an art filled with passion and joy, expression and meaning.  It's really easy to put yourself into the moment no matter what group you play with or what style you enjoy.

But as with all art, it's really important to understand restraint.

Without restraint, there is excess:  A canvas overloaded with paint, dripping on the floor.  Lyrics drowned out against the scream of a guitar.  Jumping, flailing in a bright costume against a brighter backdrop.  Aside from the times when this is deliberate, to make a statement, these examples are hard to enjoy.

In taiko, watching a solo that lacks restraint is often pretty painful.  Sometimes it's in the form of over-hitting, smacking the crap out of the drums.  Sometimes the soloist never stops moving, a whirlwind of chaos that becomes unsettling in it's...perpetual-ness.  Other times there's an abundance of notes in a solo, as if the soloist is trying to create a protective barrier of rhythm around themselves.

Think of a world-class artist, musician or not.  They know when to add those extra touches, make things exciting, even how to use what's not exciting to create texture.  This is about ma, space, artistry, what-have-you.

There is another kind of restraint that's not necessarily a bad thing to give up, but this is more about ki or energy.  To really put yourself out there in your playing, to drop the barrier of self-consciousness, that's something that can be a positive thing.  It's sometimes awkward when you purposefully push yourself there - like being overly excited (and often leading to over-hitting) - but when it's genuine and you're not restraining your ki, it can be transformative to both you and the audience.

I'm not someone who will say that we should all "color inside the lines" and follow the norms and rules, but if you want to make your solo enjoyable, if you want people to get what you're playing, then restraint is a tool you need to make use of.

Add restraint to your toolbox and choose your moments.  Otherwise, you're just a dripping canvas.