Monday, May 6, 2013


“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.

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