Monday, April 29, 2013

Looking out to look in

There’s two ways to approach the study of an art.  One is to focus solely on the art as you are taught it, analyzing the details of form and the nuances of shape.  The other is to look at the art in comparison to other arts, how things are similar and how they are different.

For me, I’ve been able to focus heavily on my two chosen arts – taiko and karate – and relate the forms to each other.  I don’t think my taiko would get better if I didn’t have karate, but I think I would focus more on karate if I didn’t have taiko.  That being said, I know my karate has benefited from various aspects of my taiko training.

Lately, I’ve been interested in supplementing my taiko training by studying other arts.  I don’t have the opportunity to travel far and study outside the Bay Area, but I want to take lessons in things that touch on what I already do, in order to gain a new appreciation and perspective, as well as develop my skills further.

Last year I had a shekere lesson from a Latin percussionist that was at our 20th Anniversary Concert.  SJT uses shekere a lot in our repertoire, but I wanted to see if there were things in my technique or understanding of the instrument I could improve on.  As I was more interested in technique rather than Latin/Cuban music, I didn’t continue down that path.

I’ve made a short list of the next arts to look into:

1 – Stepping, or Step-Dancing.   This is a form of body percussion, which I am very much a fan of (doing and watching).  I think understanding a form of percussive movement might open me up to different ideas both in soloing and composition.  I don’t want to necessarily learn “dance” so this is a good hybrid that interests me.

2 – Improv (comedy).  At SJT, 90% of our songs have some form of improvisational soloing in them.   I’ve been soloing for 20 years now and want to see how other people approach improvising.  While I don’t want to “ham it up” during taiko, it would be interesting to use words instead of notes, explore a different kind of stage presence, and see how those skills translate back to playing drums.

3 – Konnakol (South Indian vocalization).  Unlike kuchishoga for taiko, where the sounds correspond to places on the drum, konnakol is only verbal.  I figure trying to take up tabla or mridangam at this point is too much, but if I can get a better concept of Indian rhythms through something I can do without a drum, that would benefit me a lot...for playing on a drum.

4 – Janggu/Janggo/Changgo (Korean hourglass drum).   This is the drum that inspired the katsugi-style okedo that Kodo made so popular.  I'm comfortable on katsugi, but I would like a different perspective on it as well.  I took a Korean drumming workshop at a NATC back in the day and although I wasn’t on a changgo, the rhythms were very different and very interesting.  I’d like to try it again.


I don’t figure I’ll get to all of these; I have to find classes/workshops that fit into my schedule and/or teachers willing to work with me.   I also have to find teachers that I feel comfortable with and hopefully who understand what I’m hoping to get out of it – but then again, it’s their art form and I’m just a student!

If I take any classes in these, I’ll write about it, for sure.

What about you?  If you could take workshops outside of the art you’re doing now, to help you understand that art better, what would they be?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Different perspectives

At our annual retreat last year, I said after 20 years of development, I didn’t want to look back in 20 years and regret what I didn’t do.

It wasn’t an insult or a statement of dissatisfaction, it was me simply stating that I need to take control of my development and not wind up blaming others for any lack of growth down the road.

So that brings me to my question for today’s post.  Imagine a meeting between three people:

You, when you first started taiko.
You, now.
You, in ten years (assuming you were still playing).

What advice would you give each other?  Would your past self be happy with where you are now?  Would your future self tell you both to practice more?  Worry less?  Is what you would want from your past self the same as what your future self would want from you now?

While none of us are done with our taiko journey, realize that what you do today affects what you can do tomorrow.  While obstacles and difficulties exist for everyone, other people can’t overcome them for you.  And as good as you might be now, how are you taking steps to make sure you keep getting better down the road?

The secret of relaxation

What's the secret of relaxation?  Tension.

If you’ve taken workshops from experienced taiko players, you’ve probably heard them tell you that you have to be relaxed when you play…that you have to get rid of tension…that you should “stay loose”.  Is that wrong?  Hmm.

Newer players are more prone to holding excess tension than experienced ones, but it’s there in just about everyone to some degree.  Until muscles are trained to do things efficiently, strength is used as a substitute because it’s simply the only option available.  That excess tension only slows us down, makes us more tired quicker, and often can be perceived by the audience.  I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s a good thing. 

My post today isn’t about how to get rid of this tension, but instead take a look at the idea that tension itself is “bad”.  So here are two ideas to contemplate:

- EXCESS tension is bad, but excess anything is usually bad!
- Relaxation should be the default mode, but not the only dynamic at work.

Imagine the best taiko show you’ve ever seen.  Now imagine it with no tension at all.  Yes, for those smart-asses out there (like me), you now picture drums that aren’t tacked now (no surface tension) and players lying down (no resisting gravity).  Ha ha.

Instead, imagine that there are no slow, deliberate motions, such as the lifting of the arms to create anticipation, or the ability to release that coiled tension into a deliberately sharp strike.  There are no sharp motions because it takes a moment of muscle “pulse” to tighten and change directions.  There’s no one playing to their limits because they would only play to a minimal level of effort.  There’s no stillness with presence, because that requires at least some conscious tension to remain looking “full” without slouching.

Almost all movement REQUIRES tension, save a small few.  The best martial artists I’ve seen have been able to focus their power into a precise moment of tension but then once that moment is over, the tension is gone.  And when I say moment, I mean moment.  Striking the taiko is much the same way.  For SJT, there is slight tension in the body as the body stretches from finger to toe, a moment of tension on the pull/drop, and a moment of tension to snap/control the bachi itself.  But that tension is NECESSARY to have precision and control.  Without it, the strike may hit in a less-opportune place, the bachi may bounce off at an angle, the sound may be lacking, etc.

While many people can benefit greatly from cultivating more relaxation, developing the awareness of when and how to use tension is the secret ingredient.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Drill: Being different

For those of you who solo, do you ever take into consideration the solos of the people before you, or the solo "styles" of the people in your group?

There's nothing wrong with soloing to express yourself and being genuine in that expression.  But think about the audience's point of view, especially if they're watching five, eight, or a dozen solos in a row.  Solos can easily start blending together, sounding and looking alike.  You shouldn't make it your main goal to "stand out", but it's worth thinking about.

Listen and look for patterns.  This applies to the solo before yours as well as all the solos as a whole.  Lots of syncopation?  Try staying on the downbeat.  Lots of playing stationary?  Explore the space around you.  Lots of notes?  Play less and make them count.

Not only does this help make you stand out to the audience, it provides variety and diversity to your group.  It does takes the ability to play in different ways and be flexible, but you can think of it as an opportunity to try new ways of playing rather than a difficult chore.  Besides, it's optional - you don't have to do this.

To start easy, don't do it while you're in a song.  Do it when you're watching one.  Watch the first soloist and take note of what they do and don't do.  Continue that observation through several soloists, then look at the solos as a group and take note again.

Having trouble seeing what's "left"/what else you can do?  Be creative.  Does anyone pause or hold a movement?  Kiai?  Jump?  Kneel/crouch?  Are there many ka played?

It's easy to stand out by being ridiculous but you probably don't need to go that far.  Just be observant and pick the places you want to "fill in".  Remember, as long as your solo is about being genuine rather than being impressive, you're on a good path!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

When does it matter?

When you make a mistake in a performance, you have to let it go.  It can’t matter because once you start thinking about how you messed up a second ago, you’re taking focus away from the moment you’re in NOW, which often leads to further mistakes, or at least a lapse in your presence.

However, having said that, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of thinking a mistake that you made during a performance doesn’t matter.

A lot of mistakes are easily written off by thinking the audience didn’t notice, or it didn’t mess up the song, etc.  While that may be the case, those kind of justifications focus more on the external – the audience, the song – instead of what you did or how you could do better next time.  Over time, those mistakes become “allowable” in your head.  They may very well be ok with your group, especially if you’re a more casual or community group.  But are they ok with you?  If so, why?

Imagine you’re in a group where mistakes are 100% tolerated, where no one is ever going to call you out on being off, or missing a cue, or playing the wrong section, whatever.  Will you let the group’s permissibility affect how much better you could be?  In other words, would you ever fix your mistakes without being called out on them?  I don’t know many players that would be okay with this, though I don’t know many groups that are THAT permissible, either.  Still, why not have the mindset to fix whatever mistakes you make, regardless of how your group treats them?

It's not easy to let a mistake slide "in the moment" but then be intolerant of it once the performance is over. It takes practice and thoughtfulness to be able to switch between the two in a good way.

"A mistake is only a mistake the first time.  The second time, it's a choice!"

Monday, April 15, 2013

Video: Bobby McFerrin on improvisation

I came across this video the other day and found it interesting, even though it focuses on singing.  Just change "singing" to "drumming", "scales" to "rhythms","modes" to "meters", etc.

From 0:56 to 2:06 is especially good advice for people new to improvising!

If you like it, disagree, or have questions, please feel free to share...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

On rhythm: Thinking vs. Feeling

There are two main ways to enjoy taiko: in your body, or in your head.   While most of us do a bit of both, it’s worth examining them both and seeing how either option can benefit you.

Most of us *feel* taiko before anything else.   Most people I know encountered taiko for the first time in a live performance and didn’t have the words to describe what they saw.  Even though their brains were trying to make sense of this new delightful thing, their bodies felt it plain and simple.   They connected to the performance because of the impact.  Taiko doesn’t have to be loud to impact someone, however – impact can come from the movements as well as the sounds.

The eyes and ears have a lot of opportunities during a performance, and they lend to a more cerebral enjoyment.   Because of all the data coming in, we can really appreciate things like anticipation, humor, nuance, variety, talent, etc., and enjoy those aspects months and even years after any given show.

Some of us are more geared to one side or the other, but is one better than the other?  No.  Just like some people have a “sweet tooth” and others like it spicy, there is variety and preference.

Where this really comes into play is in learning new rhythms, patterns, or whole pieces.  Do you internalize the notes or do you analyze them?

If you’re a feeler and someone is tossing patterns at you with the expectation to just repeat them, you might find yourself having issues.  It’s like being given a ton of facts in History class in 6th grade and having to memorize them for the test.  There's no connection, no context.  If you can somehow feel the pulse underlying those patterns, and keep that feeling connected in your body, then you'll have a "core" where patterns can rest and be referenced.

If you're a thinker and patterns are either too abstract or complex for you to latch on to at first, you can either reference them to something you are familiar with, or take as many mental notes as possible to work on it on your own between sessions.  If you can't get a pattern in an odd meter when it's being taught, what can you identify and use to help you take a step closer?  If you're getting frustrated not picking a song up as it's being taught, acknowledge that you may need some time afterwards and collect as much information as you can.

Ultimately, both methods together are greater than the sum of their parts.  Or...something like that.  Where one doesn't work, the other often will.  This also applies to more than learning, it also comes into play when teaching and improvising.

Just talking about these two methods is a post in itself; talking about how to develop them has to wait for a future post.  So in the meantime, ask yourself which of the two you identify with more and why.  Do you neglect the other side?  Do you embrace both?  What's your default?

There is no right way to process, as long as you process!

Monday, April 8, 2013


I've been thinking about respect a lot lately.

Bowing into the dojo, bowing to each other, bowing at the end of practice - those are rituals of respect but often they become more a thing we just do out of habit.  We do them because we're told to do them, because those are the rules.  You can bow to someone and completely loathe them. 

Respect, like trust, takes time to earn and once lost is hard to regain.  Often people think of respect as a thing that goes outward to others - you respect your teacher, you respect your fellow students, you respect your group, etc.  But it HAS to be a mutual exchange.

Showing respect to your teacher is important, but they also have to show respect to you.  Respecting your fellow students needs to happen, but they have to respect you in return.  Respecting your group is crucial but your group has to respect you as well.

So how do you show it?  On the surface, it's an easy process.  However, there are a lot of ways to show respect - which means there are also a lot of ways to be disrespectful, as well.

- Respecting other people's time.  When people are instructing, are you talking or making side remarks, jokes?  That disrupts not only the instructor but the instruction for others.  Are you making their job easier or harder?  Attendance is another way to show how much you respect the group, being frequently on time or not.

- Respecting the equipment.  Do you treat the drums as a piece of equipment or as an instrument of expression?  Do you take things for granted?  What about the smaller things?

- Respecting other people.  Every group I've spent time with (whether another karate dojo, taiko group, etc.) has their own culture and different levels of acceptable behavior.  Some allow little shenanigans, some allow a lot of levity.  But there is a line between good-natured ribbing and picking on an easy target.  How do you treat people who can't defend themselves (who are new, shy, aren't there, etc.)?

- Respecting the art form.  Do you practice your techniques with intent?  Do you aim to inspire or impress?  How much do you focus on the moment, learning what you can?  How much do you let your focus wane because you're not interested or looking for a distraction?

Respect often has a sympathetic reaction.  In a situation or environment where there is little respect, it will diminish.  Where it is encouraged, it will foster.  Respect needs to be actively cultivated just like any other skill or it will diminish

It's more than just what you do or say, it's how your actions have impact.  What examples are you setting for others?  Are you contributing to a positive impact or a negative one?  If you asked others to answer that question for you, what would they say?

Thursday, April 4, 2013


Taiko is loud.  Therefore, you should play loud.

…is it?  Should you?

Taiko CAN be loud, given the size of the drum(s), the intention of the player, the amount of people playing it, the way a piece is written, and even the characteristics of the venue,  But it doesn’t HAVE to be loud.  Sometimes the “loudest” parts of taiko are when things are the quietest.  What do I mean by that?

Imagine two different kind of speakers.  Both stand behind a podium, are of the same gender, and have the same content.  Assume you are interested in hearing that content.  The first speaker is loud, and anyone walking by outside the room could clearly hear them.  You can hear them over someone coughing loudly next to you.  The second speaker talks quietly, and that coughing would completely drown them out.

With the loud speaker, you can sit back, be passive, and still hear them.  In fact, you can probably text your friend or doodle something and still get the gist of what they’re saying. In contrast, the quiet speaker forces you to focus.  You have actively listen to their monologue or you’ll miss out.  Which one commands your attention more?  Which one will you remember more?

There is definitely time for good, loud, booming taiko.  There will always be that.  However, it should be a choice and not the default.  “Loud” is a dynamic just like “fast” or “happy”.  If you’re a composer, you should feel free to write your song to be loud, but what if things were brought down a notch?  Could you hear more?  As a soloist, you have many visual tools, but volume choice should be a tool you use as well.

Almost all tonal music has overtones, notes that resonate as a side-effect of the primary note.  Think of a piano; when you play one note, the vibrations from that note cause other notes to vibrate as well.  On top of that, how hard you strike will affect the sound.  When you strike a drum, there are a countless number of vibrations and ripples that happen, much like throwing a rock into a small tub of still water.  Striking dead-center will produce a different sound than striking a couple of inches to the side. 

Strike too light and there is no oomph.  The sound won’t travel very far and won’t carry the impact that taiko should have.  Strike too hard and while you have volume, it is a harsh, flat sound – because you’ve killed all those sympathetic vibrations that come from a more lenient strike.

While many newer players don’t strike hard enough, it’s more common that people will over-hit and produce those harsh tones.  Most of us are in the middle somewhere, but again, it’s about awareness.  I’m more likely to over-hit than under-hit, but if I can’t feel or hear the difference, I have no idea how much my “product” is affected.

You may find that playing at 90% of your normal power creates a better sound.  The trick then is to figure out how to play at 90% power but with 100% of the energy you would normally put out!  As long as you are constantly listening and developing awareness, you will be able to keep getting better.

If you keep listening, you keep growing!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Alaska Tour 2013

So I can finally sit down and write a bit about our week+ long tour of Alaska.

The load-in on the first day was probably the only mellow day we had, spending most of our time in the theater dealing with equipment and lighting.

The next three days had a total of six school shows, which started with an unpleasant surprise, but we managed to pull things together really well and adapted quickly.  Within those three days were four workshops: one at a local high school, one on fue, one on shime, and one on basics.  All the workshops went really well, but the stand out to me was the high school group.  There aren't a lot of HS taiko groups in the U.S. and this was the first one I'd ever worked with/met.  The kids were really appreciative and really took to trying what we were teaching.

The following day was our last school show (seven total) and our concert that night.  Before the show was a pre-show performance in the lobby from East High taiko followed by one from Tomodachi Daiko.  Our concert was really tight, one of the tightest we've done.  We had a crowd of just under 1200 and although the majority weren't taiko players, we felt like we had a "taiko audience".  It felt great!

The weekend was a whirlwind of activity, but most of it wasn't taiko!  A bunch of us went to the zoo Saturday, where I purchased an "Encounter" and got to play with the wolves behind-the-scenes.  There was also the newly-arrived polar bear cub, who was beyond cute.  Later that night was a benefit/gala/auction where we did our last performance of the tour.  We auctioned off a "part in a SJT song", which one of our biggest fans won that night.  It was a great way to end the official part of our tour.

Our last day, we went up to a local resort where I went skiing for the first time ever..  I am very good at gaining momentum, but horrible at slowing down.  Fun, though.  But I can cross the idea of "playing okedo while skiing" off my idea list...

Alaska was beautiful, our hosts were terrific, and who knew reindeer dogs could be so tasty?  :D