Thursday, June 27, 2013

Question Everything: Critiquing

Search for “taiko” on YouTube and you’ll get about 345,000 hits.  Some of them aren't actually taiko drumming, but most are.  And that’s not even counting all the “other” taiko clips where the descriptions are in Japanese, or people put it up as “Japanese drumming” because they don’t know what taiko is, etc.

Mind you, that’s just what’s posted on YouTube!  There’s stuff posted on Facebook, Vimeo, other video sites – and yes, even taiko that’s NOT recorded and uploaded to the internet *gasp*.  The amount of taiko performances around the world is a number I don’t think anyone could estimate well.

So with that many groups doing that many performances, you’re going to get a wide range of quality.  There are a countless number of karate dojo out there and there is an equally wide range of quality.  I came across this clip a few weeks ago:

I bet I can guess most of your reactions.  Some of you are appalled, others greatly amused.  Still others are thinking that maybe this is a group of special needs students (but it’s not).  Some of you may even be hoping these are the beginners, but alas these are the BLACK BELTS, some of them above the 1st-degree.  There are many other clips of this group, sometimes doing the same kata and other times sparring, but it is always the same visual.

Some of you may not see anything wrong with this clip.  People are moving with intention and effort, after all.  However, there is more emphasis on speed than technique, and as we get older, speed decreases while technique can improve.  Stomping the ground looks more important than stance, which is basically style over substance.  Even some martial arts that focus on the “pretty” for tournaments have a beauty and grace to them, which this video lacks.

So we have an example of one style, one school of karate that is really hard to watch.  And it’s really easy for me – or any of us – to make derogatory comments.  Here’s where I struggle, though.  What if this spectacle is bringing people joy?  What if it gives students much-needed self-confidence and stress relief?  What if the people you see have family or partners that are delighted watching their loved ones perform?  What if people see this and get inspired to do karate or martial arts themselves?  Would it then have worth?

On top of that, if you were at an event where you saw bad taiko or bad karate or bad something-you-practice, would you go over and tell them you thought it was bad?  Would you risk shattering someone’s self-esteem just to have your say?  Are you ok with being labeled a jerk?  What if one of them came up to you and asked your honest opinion?   Then what would you say?  Would you lie and say you thought it was great?

It’s easy to critique from afar, but when there are consequences to the words you say, how much changes?

Monday, June 24, 2013


One of the rooms I train in at the dojo has a wooden door set into the mirrored wall.  I usually get to see myself in the mirror in whichever room I'm in, but sometimes I'm lined up with that door.  When that happens, I can't watch my technique.

It had been a long time since I had been lined up with that door, but Friday night I found myself blocked by it.  And it felt odd, being very aware of not being able to see myself or my techniques.  I had to feel where my hands were, how my torso was angled, how my legs were bent.  Before the end of the night, I started feeling like the mirrors had been a distraction.

I find that for taiko, it's often nice to have the mirror; I can watch how I look in relation to the rest of the group.  But for karate, moves are more geared towards the individual and much too fast for a mirror to give me the kind of feedback that's useful.

Two different arts, two different views of the mirror.  But to expand on an earlier post here, I wonder how much the mirror becomes a distraction when we do taiko?  It's hard to ignore seeing yourself directly in front of you!  It's something that takes your attention, something for your eyes to look at and take processing power away from your brain. 

Those who don't have mirrors often wish they did, but for those who do have mirrors, don't get "shiny object" syndrome and forget to think about the things you don't see or the things that you can't.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: San Jose Taiko x The Bangerz

Is it weird to review a concert I was performing in?  Probably.  But it’s my blog, so I’m going to do it anyways!  Besides, it won’t be a true review as much as a reflection.

Last Saturday was the first collaborative concert between SJT and the Bangerz, a local DJ group with over 15 years of experience to date.  The first time the two groups were together was at the SubZero festival in 2010, where this took place.  The energy was incredible and the impact went well beyond the physical senses.

For this concert, we played for a sold-out crowd of almost 500 but before going on stage none of us were sure what kind of crowd to expect.  Were they SJT fans?  Bangerz fans?  Just curious?  Would they be as hyped-up as the crowd in the streets back in 2010?

The show started at 8pm, after about 12 hours in the theater for us.  The women all had their hair professionally done and a makeup tutorial, while the men...well, the men had more free time!  We had three of The Bangerz who went out first in silhouette to a spirited response.  A good sign, indeed.  When SJT took to the stage and started playing, there might have been another round of applause but there was no way we could have heard it with so much taiko and so much music blasting from the monitors positioned around the stage.  But you could feel the reaction from the audience even without hearing it.  It was powerful.

It was not a concert for those wanting to relax.  It was not a concert for those who think taiko is “loud enough”.  However, it was also not a concert where each group did their own thing or where the show was all about volume and spectacle.  It was a pretty well-rounded, exciting showcase of two really talented groups.

We put in a lot of work to get the right mood for each piece and to make sure the sound was balanced so the taiko didn't get drowned out.  At times we played on top of tracks and at times they accentuated our pieces.  It was a really good match and they were able to accommodate all of our suggestions and changes over the months leading up to the event.

If you're interested, there are some great photos here.

There's something about playing taiko for a crowd that doesn't know what to expect, but blowing an entire audience away is something that doesn't happen all the time.  Having that effect on a home crowd is pretty damned awesome!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Group time

In the past, I've talked about how much a metronome can improve one's skills in timing and rhythm, and I've even suggested that your entire group practice drills/patterns/songs with a metronome on to at the very least be aware of the tendencies.

This past weekend we just performed a collaboration with the local DJ crew and group friend, The Bangerz, as part of our 40th Anniversary season.  It was a 60+ minute show where almost every song had both taiko and digital music together.

But let me tell you something - when you're doing a whole concert to what's essentially a metronome, it's pretty freaking hard!  All the highs and lows from the taiko ensemble drown out the booms and the thwacks you would normally have down without a second thought, and even though you might know exactly where things are, that doesn't mean the rest of the group is there with you.

To get a group to play with full-on ki, proper kata, and stay on tempo throughout a song is one thing.  Doing it for a dozen of them?  Yikes.  It really tests how well you can focus while multitasking at the same time.  Yes, I know that's an oxymoron.  That's why it's difficult!

Now, this wouldn't be a proper post without things to think about, right?  If you find yourself the one person who's on while the rest of the group is getting off, how much should you stick to what's "right"?  Are you being a beacon or a distraction?  And if you find the group is fine but you're having trouble, what can you do to help get better?  Can you play quieter?  Use visual cues?  What's available?

Although I loved the show we just put on and The Bangerz were a blast to work with, I'm going to appreciate the ability to not be so precise for a while!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Stay hungry

In many bands and orchestras, there are chair positions, or rankings.  At set times, usually the beginning of a school year or season, people can audition for a higher spot, with something like “1st chair” at the top for any given instrument.  No one is forced to audition for a higher position, but the higher you get, the more competitive it becomes.  People practice hard to get there and practice hard to stay there.

So what would happen if that system was implemented in your group?  Imagine instead of “chairs” it was certain positions that were up for grabs.  It could be the ending solo in a piece or the center position or even something that was really fun to play like hand percussion.

I know a large majority of taiko groups flat-out wouldn’t go for it.  It goes against a lot of what those groups believe in, and that’s perfectly fine.  But let’s say your group did, for sake of this post.

How much harder would you work to get those positions you wanted to play in, knowing it was now open to anyone who wanted to try out for it?  How much harder would you work at keeping those spots once you got there?

I ask this because I see people in both karate and taiko who are happy to work hard for a goal, and then once there, settle - whether it’s a membership, belt rank, a level of seniority, or a song position.  It’s a feeling of “good enough” that can often become so very limiting to one’s development.  Sometimes just being in a group long enough means you’ll get the chance to do more, in time.  But if you knew that there were people who wanted your position/place/rank and were actively practicing to take it away from you, would “good enough” be enough for you?

Some of you may say “yes”, and that’s perfectly fine.  We’re not all competitively-minded and after a while it gets tiring.  But I bet a lot of the rest of you would in fact practice with more frequency and more intention because there are parts and places you want to be in.

Of course there would be downsides to this sort of system.  Arrogance could flourish at the top and some people might never get the chance to really rise to the occasion.  It might also fray a lot of the social bonds many people have formed over the years.  So I’m not saying it *should* be implemented, only to think about how differently you would react with such a system in place.

Unless you really don’t care where you’re placed, you should always stay hungry.  It makes you try harder and practice more.  It makes you a better role model and example.  And it means you have the potential to grow non-stop, even when it would be so much easier to wait for the opportunities to come to you.

Monday, June 10, 2013

No onions.

Imagine you go to a restaurant and order a burger.  You tell the server that you don’t want onions, you’d like cole slaw instead of fries, no onions, sesame seed bun, no mustard, and no onions.  The burger comes and…you get onions.  It’s great if you got fries and the right bun and no mustard, but it’s pretty obvious you didn’t want onions, right?

At the dojo, our advanced karate students are required to maintain a training log.  This can be anything from new ideas that came up to self-reflection, but should definitely incorporate the comments that they get from the black belts.  Imagine, dear reader, that you were keeping a log of all the comments you got from your instructors.  If you grouped them together, which ones would be take up the most space?  Those are your “onions”; the ones you need to work on the most.

I mean it makes sense, right?  But often our brains don’t think of it that way.  Imagine you get comments #1 #2 and #3 one day, #2 #4 and #5 the next, #2 #6 and #7 the next, and #1 #2 and #8 after that.  A lot of people would see the issues like this:

     1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Ok, that’s 8 things to work on, right?  Yes, but if you look at the frequency of those comments and list each occurrence of them, you’d get a list that looks more like this:

     1 1 2 2 2 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Which one needs the most attention?  Obviously comment number 2, right?  And listed that way, it’s really obvious.  While it’s not usually that easy in practical terms, if you grouped your comments down like this over time, I’d bet you real money you’d see the priorities clear as day.

On the instructing side, it’s definitely not fair to expect someone to fix something without giving them the proper tools.  If I tell you that you need to “use your lower body more when you move” over and over, that’s not helpful.  If I say “you need to engage your hara more to generate momentum” or “you need to keep the weight off your heels”, now that’s a tool you can use.  AFTER you have tools like that, THEN the comment about “use your lower body more” can be a reminder.

So think about what people tell you again and again.  Tackle the ones you hear about the most because there’s a reason you’re hearing them so much.  And if you can’t figure it out how to fix them, ask what you can do to make it better.  No onions!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What’s next?

When I started playing taiko 20 years ago, I had no idea what the taiko community was and barely even aware that there was one.

I missed out on going to the first North American Taiko Conference (NATC) back in 1997, but I wish I had.  It didn’t really pique my interest at the time but I didn’t really realize the scope of what was happening.  The second conference in 1999 was a real eye-opener for me.  Even though the movers and shakers had been in contact with each other way before that, it felt like the taiko community (in North America anyways) was starting to meet and mingle and communicate with each other.  Mind you, this was before Facebook, so interactions were less frequent and required more work to remain relevant.

Back then, the focus of the NATC and the taiko community seemed to be figuring out who we were.  Most of the workshops focused on the basics, and taiko gear was the hot commodity.

Around 2003-2005, the big thing seemed to be “superstar” groups like On Ensemble or Taikoproject, and performers that were now making a name for themselves.  Taiko was now possible (albeit it still difficult) to do as a career.  More people were starting to think of taiko outside of kumidaiko (ensemble drumming) and approach it as an art form, to explore and to dissect – not without some push-back from others.  There was also a strong push to make a national taiko organization that never took hold.

About two or three years ago, Facebook made it possible to have a centralized open-forum group for people to talk about taiko.  Many posts were controversial and threads easily went over 100 replies.  People were finally able to have a “discussion” without waiting for a national or regional gathering.  Most posters were those who had been around for a while, either posing the questions or answering them.

The last NATC in 2011 saw the pendulum swing away from the newer, genre-pushing groups and instead focusing on Japanese taiko and instructors.  This was something that many people wanted more and more of over the years, especially since modern communication made those resources much easier to find out about and contact.

And now we’re here at 2013.  The NATC is recovering from events beyond their control and looking at reinventing itself while regional gatherings are becoming more common.  More people are making a living doing taiko (although still a small number), and more drum makers are popping up.  Groups are formed faster than anyone can catalog them and the demand for equipment continues to rise.

I'm taking a stab at trying to predict what we'll see in the next few (5-15) years, but we'll see:

-  A rise in high school taiko groups in North America.
-  More attention and recognition of non-Japanese and non-North American taiko groups, such as in Europe and South America.
-  Not a large jump in recognition of taiko in culture or media, mostly due to the large majority of groups happy to play at festivals and small events.
-  Online instruction becoming a “thing”; people getting feedback live through video chat.
-  More novelty taiko gear, like lighted bachi, custom happi, maybe even drums that light up when hit.

What do you think?  What does the future of taiko hold?  What will we see in the future?  What would you like to see?

Monday, June 3, 2013

On glory

For most of us who perform, we really enjoy having audiences appreciate what we do.  Whether it’s a standing ovation at the end of a show or a handshake from a fan, it makes us feel really good to give that much joy.

But what happens if you crave that sort of response - when your objective isn’t inspiration but glory?

Glory and adoration are external motivators, and as such, out of your control.  You might like how it feels to receive them but can be affected when they aren’t there.  Imagine playing at a festival off in the corner with not a lot of people sticking around to watch you, or a corporate event where people are socializing and drinking and you’re mostly just background noise.  It doesn’t make anyone a bad person for not being into your set; it’s often the nature of the venue and the presenter’s wishes that affect things.  You might also perform for an audience that doesn’t “get it” but politely claps in the right spots.  So where’s the glory and adoration?  If you count on those to feel like you did a good job or to determine your self-worth, those kinds of gigs are going to hack away at you.

If your motivation is more internal, then it won’t matter what the response is.  If you’re playing because you love how taiko makes you feel, or because it gives you a way to express yourself, then you don’t even need an audience.  If you enjoy the energy your group generates, if you find satisfaction in a skillful strike, if you love being tired after a show, then you don’t give those external factors power over what you feel.  Granted, who doesn’t love a happy audience or excited fans, right?  But in this way, there’s no sense of loss when they’re not there – it’s a bonus!

It’s easy to say that the audience won’t affect your personal performance, but sometimes that can be a really hard test.  Playing on stage for Taiko Jam at the NATC is one way to see how calm you can be.  Having a couple of drunks dancing in front of you at a festival can test your concentration.  Sometimes you expect one thing and get another, and that discrepancy can affect you quite a bit.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t play for the audience, only that you shouldn’t use your expectation of their reaction to be a motivating force.  Let your joy come from within and people will notice.  Expect it from your audience and at times you will regret it.