Thursday, May 30, 2013

Appreciate


When you enter your dojo or practice space, in whatever form it might take, do you ever think about how much planning, how much money, or how much maintenance goes into giving you and your fellow players a place to practice?  Or is it just where you drive to a couple of times a week to have fun?

When you grab your bachi out of your bag/cubbyhole/locker/etc., do you ever think about how important they are?  How they are an extension of your body, how they allow you to make the sound that drew you to taiko in the first place?  Or are they just pieces of wood that you use to hit the drum?

When you play on a taiko – any taiko - do you ever think about how much effort went into making that one drum?  How much energy it takes from hundreds/thousands/millions of strikes and turns it into music, how the nicks and dents and flakes and tears all tell a story?  Or is it just the thing you strike with your pieces of wood?

When you play a song that someone else wrote, do you ever think how much work went into making it go from an idea to something that the group performs?  How many months someone spent fleshing out patterns and movements that needed so much time to teach, how much the composer had to deal with people pushing back when encountering difficulty, how the song gives the audience enjoyment?  Or is it just another thing that you do?

When you perform, do you think about how much was done to get you on stage?  That it took someone to talk to the presenter to work out pricing and spacing and technical details, that someone had to take into account the performer’s schedules, that it took years to build up the reputation of the group to the point where people wanted your group to play at their event?  Or is it just the thing you go to where you get to play songs?

For a lot of us who have played for a while, it’s easy to forget to appreciate these things because of familiarity.  We may not be able to appreciate them all the time, but we should be vigilant about trying.  Because if you don’t appreciate the things that matter, what DO you appreciate?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Body Awareness



I’ve had a lot of conversations about how you can tell if someone is talented or not.  If it’s an art I’m not familiar with, like painting or jazz, then I can only go with what I like.  But when I watch a martial artist or taiko player, it’s much easier for me to spot someone’s ability.

There are a lot of different areas people can be good in, but for taiko, generally the first thing I’ll notice is how a player moves, even if they’re mostly stationary.  It’s generally easy to tell a veteran from a novice because of confidence, but even a veteran can look awkward, without body awareness.

Body awareness is simply that.  Where are the different parts of your body and what are they doing at any given moment?  It’s like a mirror for your mind.  Can you “see” your stance?  If you’re playing betta, can you “see” tension in your shoulders as you play?  If you’re on naname, can you “see” the path of your arms?  If you're playing something mobile, are your limbs coordinated?

If you think your “inner mirror” can see things pretty well, test yourself in a real mirror to make sure you’re right.  Hold poses with your eyes closed then check yourself in the mirror.   Do repetitive motions while videotaping yourself from different angles then look carefully.  While this isn’t necessarily fun to do, if you think your body is doing the right things but it isn’t, you could be looking really awkward when you play. 

If you’re sure you’re doing well by yourself, you still need to check in with the rest of the group.  When you play, do you stand out in a awkwardly because your shapes aren’t the same?  What happens to your kata when you solo, do you lose the fundamentals?  Have your rehearsals or performances taped and compare yourself to others.

If you find that your “inner mirror” isn’t capable of giving you a true sense of what you look like, then use a real one to help out.  Set a pose up in the mirror, hold it, close your eyes, reset your body, pose, then look in the mirror again.  Or look in the mirror while moving repetitively, close your eyes, keep going, then look after a time.  Find things like this that you can use to help you remember how things should not only look but how they should feel.

Some people’s “inner mirror” overshadows an actual mirror sometimes, to where they’re looking right at themselves and don’t see how they’re making the wrong shape or sticking out.  That’s a subject too complicated for a simple blog post to address.  I chalk it up to having too much to process and some things get left aside.

Also, don’t fall into the trap of something that feels comfortable being the “right” way.  If you’re learning a song or form or style, what feels comfortable to you may very well not be the right thing to do.

Having body awareness is having power over oneself.  You can’t change what you can’t “see”.  It’s not an easy skill to learn, but there are few skills worth as much as attention.

I’ll end with a sort of checklist about things you can go over in your “inner mirror”

Pose

  • Connection to the floor 
  • Weight distribution
  • Center of gravity
  • Knee position
  • Posture
  • Degree of torso rotation
  • Shoulder tension
  • Shoulder angle
  • Arm position
  • Wrist angle
  • Hand position
  • Neck tension
  • Direction of face
  • Gaze

Movement

  • Parts of feet in contact to the floor
  • Weight distribution
  • Balance
  • Ergonomics of knees/ankles
  • Posture
  • Rotation of torso/hara
  • How movement is generated (where from?)
  • Shoulder tension
  • Paths of arms (during and after strike)
  • Angle of strike to drum
  • Position of hands on strike
  • Bachi reaction/recoil after hit
  • Position of shoulders
  • Head motion
  • Gaze

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What else you got?

There's nothing wrong with having signature moves when you solo, but how much do you rely on them?

In SJT, we have an unofficial rule.  If there are several solos in a song, and someone does a move before you, you shouldn't do it later in that song.  So if someone does all my signature moves before my solo, I have to come up with a new batch of things to do.

Another issue is having to solo for much longer than you're used to, for whatever the reason.  What are you going to have once you've exhausted your bag of tricks?

There's no "right" way to solve this, but it's good to keep in mind.   If someone preceding you "took" all your "good stuff", how screwed would you be?  How can you change up your established movements to make them look different?

Even if you never need to do different movements, you should never get stuck doing the same solo moves just because they're comfortable.  You'll never realize your potential that way!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Drill: Get off

video


Here’s a fun drill for you.  You’ll need something to hit, something to hit with, and a metronome and/or music track(s) to play.

I guarantee you, somewhere in the future, you’ll be soloing and you’ll realize you’re nowhere near the downbeat.  Crap!  What do you do?  A lot of people just keep going, hoping they’ll hit the groove again (but often don’t).  Others stop and try to figure out when to come in (but this makes it obvious to the audience that they’re off).  A few will do some sort of movement and use that time to hear what’s going on (clever, if you can pull it off and not look like the latter).

Ultimately, the goal is the same: get back on beat!  So here’s your drill:

1.) Solo to a steady beat
2.) Get off
3.) Get back on

So set up a beat on the metronome or play along to a song where there are steady sections (no tempo or beat shifts).  Solo for a few seconds, then go nuts.  Play “garbage”, play too fast, do whatever you need to do to be way off.  This might be easy for some of you and harder for others, but I’m sure you can all do it.  After a few seconds of that chaos, try to get back on the beat as soon as possible.

You may find that it’s easier to get back on by playing less notes at first, but try working up to a point where you can just hear where you want to be and play something more dense to get back in.

If you have a friend who can help you, this drill gets really good:

1.) Solo to a steady beat
2.) Have your friend turn the volume off
3.) After a while, have them turn it back up
4.) Get back on

This one is especially good because you will think you’re on until the beat comes back, and it's much more realistic.  If you find that you’re not off the beat, then try keeping the volume off for longer periods of time and/or try different tempos.

This can be just as much fun of a drill as it can be frustrating.  Still, finding yourself off beat and going “ha, I got you!” versus “where the hell did you go?” is hugely satisfying.  Have fun!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

How to get better



1.) Pick something you want to work on.
2.) Work on it for an entire month.
3.) Pick something else you want to work on, and go back to step #2 with it.

That’s it!  And no, I’m not being flippant this time, I really mean it.

A few years back in Shotokan, I was lifting my heel off the floor while stepping back in a front stance.  The stance is long, and it feels easier to lift the heel up then push the weight back.  However, it “cheats” the move by not using the right muscles when it’s done that way.  It was a bad habit of mine and hard to break.

So for a good month, that’s what I focused on.  While I couldn’t forget everything else, I made sure that I kept my damned heel down and worked the correct muscles in the legs and thighs.  It slowed me down to work at it, but I didn't go slow on purpose.  If I hadn’t made a focused effort, odds are it would have taken a long time to get rid of!

While it might take longer than a month to work off a bad habit or improve a skill, picking one thing that needs work and focusing on it can really help.  It may not be as easy as “I worked on it, I fixed it, it’ll never come up again”, but you might be surprised how much you can get done in a year with this sort of system.  It may also be hard in your classes to say “I know xyz isn’t looking as good, but it’s because I’m working on abc this month”, so be aware that other things might suffer as you shift your attention.

And yes, this is not “the” way to get better, but it’s a good way.  Having good instruction, having the right attitude, and having the willingness to want to get better are all crucial elements.

Personally, I would love to hear if anyone does this for a couple of months and works on a few things.  Let me know if it helped!

Monday, May 13, 2013

You have it easy.



There are a lot of taiko groups struggling out there, for space, for time, for recognition, for resources, for members…for pretty much everything.

But you know what?  They have it easy.  You have it easy.  *I* have it easy.

Let me clarify, before anyone punches the screen.  We all have it EASIER.

Every group is going to have some issues, some more painful than others.  But if you look at what’s available to the taiko community as a whole, we’re really fortunate these days.

There’s the semi-annual North American Taiko Conference which provides workshops and networking that would never be available to most of the participants otherwise.  There are several regional conferences that do much the same thing on a smaller scale.  There are more opportunities to do taiko as a career, whether performing or teaching.  There are more drum manufacturers across the country (and other countries) than ever.  More groups keep popping up/branching off and that leads to more people knowing what taiko is and having access to it.  There’s a Facebook group for taiko with discussions and resources added all the time.  There’s a ton of resources online from how to build your own drum to Youtube videos of performances to dissertations on taiko to tall White guys posting random things about taiko twice a week *cough*.

Just imagine what it took to start your own taiko group 30 years ago compared to today – realize that email was just becoming popular then (~1993).  You had to call, hand-write, and go meet people you wanted to talk to, IF you could find out who they were!

Sure, you could argue some of the above might also be negatives, like an inundation of taiko groups making it hard to stand out or conferences not being affordable to some, etc.  Sure.  You can also point to things in your own group making it really hard to stay afloat.  But we as a taiko community have it so much easier than the ones who started it all, in Japan, the Americas, Europe, everywhere.

So the next time you zip up your bachi bag, pull out your chappa that you got from online, tie shime that you got from a conference and learned to tighten from the internet, play a song that your group has been playing since the beginning, watch your taiko DVDs, or even bow into your rehearsal space, just give a bit of thought to how much was done to make those things available, to get to where we are now – to where YOU are now.

While it's not easy to know everyone who did everything to make it happen, when you find out who they are, thank them.

"How to compose"



The title of this post is in quotation marks because by no means am I an expert on composition.  However, I have seen a lot of new taiko pieces over the years, and written several myself.  I’d like to offer up some words of advice, based on my experiences.

1.) Don't put everything you can into it.  The kitchen sink is good for dishes, not for songs.  For those newer to composing, it’s often tempting to put in as much as possible into a new piece, but you wind up bombarding the audience with too much "stuff" and very little gets retained.  I’ve been to too many concerts where on the drive home, I couldn’t tell you what half of the songs were like for just this reason.

2.) What makes this song different?  If your song looks or sounds like the rest of the repertoire, why are you writing it?  If your group has a repertoire with 80% of songs on naname and you want to write a naname song, ask yourself what will make it stand out?

3.) When will it debut?  If you know you only have a few months to teach a piece, you really need to account for the skill level and accountability of the group.  Maybe it’s best to simplify or to pull the song instead and come back at a later date with what you really want.  I’ve seen new works where the players were just barely comfortable with the piece and the audience can feel that.  I’ve been guilty of writing songs like that myself, so I know...
 
4.) Know what’s important to teach.  In other words, prioritize.  Sequence, then substance, then details is generally a good order.  Focusing on one move too much or one pattern too much in the beginning may be detrimental to those learning the piece.  Realize that the players may be worried about how the whole song goes while you’re trying to improve a single part of it.

5.) Can it survive without you?  Are you the only person that can play a certain spot in a song?  Then you risk it never being played when you're not around or leave the group.  Also, consider writing pieces that you're not in from the beginning, to be able to really be able to work on it without having the added distraction of being *in* it.

6.) Gimmick or highlight?  If your song is written around a fancy move or a single moment, does the rest of the song hold its own?  Does the gimmick get old soon?  Does the moment warrant an entire song?

7.) Perfection can come later.  Maybe in your head you know exactly what you want, but realize that your piece will take time to write, time to teach, time to adjust, and time for people to get familiar with it.  If you want it to sound and look perfect at the first go, you will be disappointed.  Give it time.

8.) Familiarity breeds contempt.  You may very well get sick of your own piece as you write/teach it simply because you've heard it thousands of times in your head.  Fight that feeling as much as you can; other people haven't heard it anywhere near as much and it's not old to them!

9.) Know how you want to teach your piece.  I’ve watched people who know their piece really well struggle to get across their concepts, spend a lot of time talking about the piece instead of teaching, or both.  If it sounds like you don't know what your piece sounds like, people might tend to lose faith in the song before it's finished.  If you talk too much instead of teaching, it starts to sound like an exercise for your ego.  If you have the time, I recommend rehearsing how to teach the patterns/movements before doing it “live”.

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There's no "right" way to write a piece.  Still, there are ways to make it easier on you as the composer, easier on those learning it, and easier on the audience.  Admittedly, sometimes you have to stumble in order to figure out what works best for you, but a little help can't hurt!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Collegiate taiko



This past weekend I was fortunate enough to see Stanford Taiko’s annual concert, “On the Shoulders of Giants” Saturday night, followed by UC Berkeley’s Raijin Taiko’s annual concert “Kakera” on Sunday.

I’m not going to write a review of either show; that’s not the purpose of this post.  However, I will say that I enjoyed both concerts in different ways and for different reasons.  One was a little more like jazz and the other a little more like rock.

Aside from a couple of annual concerts, I get to experience a bit of collegiate taiko in the summer when we invite 3-5 of groups to play at San Jose Obon, but those shows are just a small taste of what a group has to offer.  It’s much like SJT playing a short festival set; it’s one facet of our performance repertoire.

I am amazed how much the groups can do with so much constant turnover.  I am inspired by the constant creativity – and even if the execution is not quite there, they are trying, pushing themselves past the fear that a lot of non-collegiate groups struggle with.

Their song transitions are often silly, which can work for or against them, but transitions are a tricky thing and again collegiate groups often do what most groups would never dare to.  Also, their audiences are often full of friends and college students, which make for a different vibe than other taiko shows.

It’s great that there are more and more college taiko groups popping up and annual gatherings of said groups are no longer only limited to the West Coast.  As time goes on, I find myself meeting more and more collegiate players and am always thrilled when they transition into groups after college, even if it’s not with us, ha!  ;)

If you get a chance, check out what nearby college groups are up to and support them as best you can.  Many of the people who are playing in collegiate groups now will be the leaders and founders of groups in the future!  And if there aren’t any collegiate groups around you, find them on YouTube and spread the love!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Percussion



“Here, you can play this.”  Five of the most dreaded words someone can say to a new taiko player, usually accompanied by handing some strange hand-held object that’s either struck or shaken to make noise.  How scary!

For sake of this post, I’m referring to percussion as things like chappa, shekere, clave, etc. – and not taiko, but uchiwa would certainly fall into that category.

Half of doing well on percussion is understanding the instrument.  If I handed you a guiro, bin-sasara, or a meinl cajita (that’s a real instrument, look it up), would you know how to play it?  If we had the time to research all our available percussion, that would be great, but we don’t, and we have to make due.  Sometimes you just have to sell what you have as best you can!  Shake what needs to be shaken, strike what needs to be struck.  Along the way, you have to figure out what’s not working and make adjustments.  Is it loud enough?  Is it too loud?  Does it sound harsh?  Do you have control over where things are moving?

Give someone who’s never played chappa before and they probably won’t know where to strike or what kind of wrist technique to apply, sure.  But they can probably hear when things sound abrasive, when the sound comes off muted, when the sound is “clean”.

The other half of doing well on percussion is body awareness, mixed with a little stage presence.  I’ve seen people who have really good posture playing on taiko, but give them handheld percussion and they look all sorts of contorted: leaning in odd ways, knees going all sorts of directions, etc.  If you can get into your default kata for taiko when using percussion, great!  Use it.  If the song is more “casual” and that kata would be out of place, then figure out what you can ease up on without losing posture. 

Better to stand upright and take small steps in place than wiggle/bend and look awkward.  Mind you, some people can really sell awkward, but generally you’re on percussion to support and not to be a distraction or steal the show, right?

Some people might disagree with me and say that it’s too hard to give someone supportive energy while standing upright, that doing what comes naturally is a better way to give support.  To a degree, I do agree with this, except that if you’re on percussion and still trying to get comfortable with it, then it’ll take you longer to do so while you’re not in a position of stability.  I would also argue that one can project a LOT of positive, supportive ki from a standing position and “standing position” doesn’t mean stiff or rigid.

Ultimately, percussion that is played well adds another dimension to a song, and sometimes can become a song in itself.  Giving percussion the role of “that thing we give people to play something on” devalues it and doesn’t allow for a greater understanding.  Sometimes people are happy just being able to play anything in a song, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but it should be a conscious decision when percussion is being used to give more people time on stage and when it’s being used to accentuate a song.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Setting yourself apart

The longer you play with a group, the more you will start to look and sound like the group when you solo.

It's sometimes easy to see with more overt things, like people doing the same movement or playing the same pattern.  It can also come through in more subtle things like sensibilities and the "contours" of solos.  And while there might be players who are outliers (i.e., who still remain more distinct in their solos) in the group, most likely they have still started to pick up and use elements from other people's solos.

Is this "bad"?  No.  The only "bad" solo is the one that's off-tempo.  I could argue that other things make a bad solo, like not matching the mood of the song or playing too many notes, or hitting too hard, etc., but some people might like that kind of stuff.

So let's assume you want to be more distinct in your solos, what do you do?

The first step, as usual, is awareness.  How aware are you of what you do in your solo?  What movements are you doing, what patterns are you playing?  What are your tendencies?  View them objectively.

Next, look at other people's solos from the same objective perspective.  What sort of things come up again and again?  How are people sounding similar?  What aren't people doing?

That should be all the information you need, really.  Depending on your style, you can "feel" when to try something new, craft a new solo from scratch with these ideas in mind, or adapt what you already do with a few new elements.  There's no one best way.

Maybe you don't mind blending in or not standing out, and that's fine.  Still, better it be a choice than just your "default".  Be aware, be present, be better!