Monday, July 29, 2013

What inspires you?

We all have things that inspire us, whether it's a person or place or event or sensation.

Me, I listen to music.  A lot.  Sometimes I'll play a song over and over and over ad nauseam if it just hits a certain chord in me.  It might be straight for an hour or over the course of a couple of days.  I'll think of how certain parts could translate to taiko, either in a solo or a new composition.

So what inspires you?  And how often do you let it?  How often do you expose yourself to the things that make you want to grow, try, create, explore?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Question Everything: Talent

I wrote a post last year here about looking at talent through your own lens and how that lens can warp where you see talent.  But what are you seeing when you see "talent"?

Imagine a group lines up a bunch of naname (slant stand) drums in a row and plays them in a line of people, moving down that line.  They strike well, but they look uncomfortable, both unfamiliar with the song and with the kata.  Are they talented? 

The twist here is that this happened when Kodo came to our studio a long time ago and played one of their member’s local songs.  Most of them didn’t know it and were picking it up quickly, but naname isn’t a style that Kodo does much (if at all). 

So if you see someone who’s not dazzling you on a particular instrument, does that mean they’re not talented?  And does talent, in terms of performance, only apply to the in-your-face stuff like spins and twirls and jumping about?

If someone doesn’t have the fastest hands or the flashiest moves, are they less talented than the people that do?  What if that person holds a really steady tempo and/or never gets off the beat?  It may not wow the crowd, but it’s equally impressive.  That’s a talent.  There’s also a talent in recovering after a mistake, either so the audience never notices or showing poise under pressure.

Is remembering how old songs used to go a talent?  Is being able to play a different solo each time a talent?  Is making people smile when you make eye contact with them a talent?  Is inspiring people through being genuine on stage a talent?  Of course these are talents, but do we recognize them?

Next time you watch a performance, can you see what talents people have that aren’t readily apparent?

Monday, July 22, 2013

On Composition: Parameters

A lot of people who have composed or who want to compose often find themselves having trouble with beginning a new piece.

Where to begin?

Imagine you have a big canvas in front of you, totally blank.  You have brushes and paint and pens; you can create anything you want.  Go!

...hmm, where to start?  What color, what pattern, what brush, where on the canvas?  So many choices!

And that's where a lot of people get stuck.

Now imagine you come to the canvas and someone has drawn a couple of things.  What those things are doesn't really matter.  It could be two large circles on top of each other, a series of jagged lines across the page, or something like a hand print.

Is it easier now to start creating?  Your mind takes the basic shapes and starts creating around them.  It's like cloud-watching; we interpret abstracts and flesh them out in our heads.

So if you want to write something but can't figure out how to start, put some parameters in place and see what happens.  These don't have to just be visual, they can be anything that gives you a starting idea.
  • Use only one taiko, the rest is non-drum percussion (cowbell, shekere, kane, etc.)
  • Set up is in a certain shape, like a T or X or something abstract
  • Everyone plays while kneeling
  • Mirror images - either split down the middle or pairs or what-have-you
  • Fast and/or dense patterns but sections or solos that are sparse and/or full of movement
  • More people than instruments - what do they do/where do they go?
This was just 6 ideas off the top of my head, some are definitely better than others, heh.  The point is that having a jumping-off point often makes it easier to start something.  And if you have trouble coming up with parameters yourself, ask a friend!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Watch it!

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – if you have the opportunity to videotape yourself at a practice or performance, do it!

The reason I’m bringing this back up is because of a video taken during last weekend’s San Jose Obon.  In one of my solos, I did a move that didn’t feel very clean.  The tempo was fast and I delivered the notes where I wanted, but it didn’t feel like it looked good.

Then I saw it on video and I was pleasantly surprised; it looked good!  Go figure.

There were other songs that day where I got to watch myself and again was happy to see that what didn’t necessarily feel as strong at the time looked better on review.  Mind you, I can certainly pick out things that need improvement, but that’s a given when watching a recording.

Recording yourself takes the variable of interpretation away (or at least most of it).  What you thought was a major mistake might actually have been barely noticeable.  What you thought was an epic solo might actually have looked awkward.  What you thought was a badly-executed pattern might have been really in the pocket.

This post isn’t a revelation, just a reminder that what we see in our heads is often a lot different than what really happened.  Most people would be well-served to watch themselves recorded and see the truth!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Handling compliments

How do you handle someone complimenting you after a performance or a demonstration?  What if the praise is well over the top?

This past weekend was San Jose Obon, our biggest festival event.  I had the last solo of the last song on Sunday.  As we were packing up, a man motioned to me and asked if I had a second to talk.

He said my solo really stood out to him of the eight in the song, and then he asked me if I knew Gene Krupa.  I told him I did, and he said my solo reminded him of Krupa's style of playing.  Since we were both fans, we talked a bit about Krupa's style.

I was actually a bit shocked by the compliment, because Gene Krupa is a legend among drummers.  It's like comparing my karate to a world champion or my writing ability to Hemmingway's.  I've gotten a lot of compliments but that was way off the charts.  Like my solo?  Thank you!  Like it the best in the song?  I'm glad it had an impact!  Reminds you of Gene Krupa?  Uh...well now...

Personally, I don't think I'm near that level, but instead of telling him that I thought he was wrong, I told him he was too kind and thanked him several times.  I figured that instead of having an argument about what he was feeling, I should just let him say what he wanted to and take his compliment with humility.

I've seen people take compliments poorly, like they were ashamed someone else really liked what they saw.  I've also seen people react almost too neutral to compliments, like the person could have said "I like kittens" instead of "I really liked your energy/solo."

So when you get a compliment, how do you handle it?  And what if that compliment is overwhelming, how do you accept it graciously without creating an awkward moment?

(Here's a link to one of my favorite Gene Krupa videos.  At 1:34 he has a short solo but the whole thing is pretty awesome.)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Leading and following

In watching competitive reality shows, I often hear participants criticizing a group leader.  It’s a lot of “they don’t have leadership skills” or “they don’t know what they're doing.”  On the other side you have the leader who’s often criticizing people on their own team for not following directions or for trying to usurp leadership.  Sometimes one side is right, or even both, but it's more common that they're both wrong.

What's your style of leadership?  If you prefer a more collaborative process, make sure you know the difference between welcoming input and relying on it.  If you like to take the reins and dictate roles, be careful when handling suggestions so that dictation doesn’t become dictatorship.

How are you as a follower?  Do you wait to be told what to do or try to be proactive?  Can you put the good of the group ahead of yourself for a project or do you voice your disapproval?  Are you someone who can carry out the leader’s directions or do you feel the need to constantly give input?

Personally, I feel like the best solution is to put yourself in the other party’s shoes, not in a theoretical way but a very practical one.  If you’re following someone’s instructions, ask yourself if the way you’re behaving is how you’d like someone else to behave with you in charge.  If you’re leading a group, ask yourself if you’d like to be led in a similar way.  Granted, sometimes what works for you doesn’t always work for everyone else, but this mindset can help you be aware of what mannerisms you’re exhibiting, regardless of your role.

There have been many times where I just wanted to tell someone in charge my opinion on what would make a drill/song/exercise/you-name-it easier, but I learned to ask myself if it really needed to be said and if it was going to make things better or worse.  There have been (and still are) times when I’m in charge and ask what a group wants to do, but then have to make a decision because people are either offering too much input or too little.

It's not just a taiko thing; I mean I teach a lot more in karate than I do in taiko.  It's a group thing; a people thing.  It’s also rarely a black and white situation.  Even a really good leader will have a bad day, and even the most reliable follower might react unfavorably.  You might also have a leader who can really use perspective from another voice or a follower who needs to remember they’re not in charge.  Both of those can be handled in ways that make things better or worse for everyone involved.

Sometimes it's hard to lead, but it can be equally hard to follow.  How can you make it easier for the person or people on the other side?

(artwork: Delacroix, 1830)

Monday, July 8, 2013

What are you watching?

When you watch a taiko performance (especially a live one), where are you looking?

Early on, the soloist or the front row or the odaiko player in the back would get my attention the most.  Now I’m finding that the more taiko I watch, the more I look at the people away from the spotlight.

I’m not “looking for weaknesses”, I’m just trying to see how the ensemble functions as a whole:  Where are the newer members placed?  Have they teamed up the weaker players with the stronger ones or kept them apart?

Mind you, as a composer, I want people to watch the stuff I want them to watch.  I don’t want them to focus on the back row, for example, even if the back row is doing just fine!   However, as an observer with that in mind, I find that watching the rest of the piece can be more interesting than just what’s meant to get my attention.

This method does mean I’m more likely to just enjoy the songs as if I was watching the “intended” parts, but sometimes all it takes is a quick look here, a small glance there, then I’m back on the focal point again.

This is made much easier through recording and watching it later, but we don’t always have that luxury.

So, as an observer, break away from the “shiny object” you’re meant to be watching and see how the rest of the song looks.  As a composer or arranger, assume people are going to see not just the polished side of the rock, but also the rough edges as well.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Please don't say this...

I haven’t ranted in a while, but this one is fun…

There are two phrases that can really test a teacher’s patience.  The first, less insidious one is: “well, *I* learned it this way.”

How often does that phrase really help things along?  It implies that the student disagrees with what they’re being taught, almost as if they know better.  It’s as if the instruction is seen as an attack to what’s familiar to someone, to which they have now put up a defense to preserve things.

In my experience, it leads to further explanation from the instructor until that person is eventually doing what was asked in the first place.  If the instructor isn’t able to assert leadership right away, this can break down into a lot of people offering their opinions, which just takes up a lot of extra time.  If the instructor is less inclined to explain and just wants to move on, this can upset people who aren’t “convinced” and didn’t like how things were handled.

Mind you, sometimes a teacher is open to that sort of dialogue, or hasn’t planned something quite thoroughly enough to where someone really should be stepping up and saying something.  This, however, is the exception.

The second and more dastardly phrase is “our style/group does it *this* way.”  Unless the instructor is asking for this sort of information, this phrase is much like the first but hides behind “the style” and puts a kibosh on progress.  How so?  Well when it’s you telling an instructor that you do it differently, they can engage you.  But if you say “my style” or “my mom” or “Clint Eastwood” tells you to do it a certain way, now we’re attacking it/them when we tell you to change.  And even if one party doesn’t see it that way, the other party might.

Why do I bring all this up?  Last week at the dojo, I had two incidents during the same class.  It’s not like this never happens, but twice in a row was a bit much…

One student wanted clarification on a specific technique, and so I provided one - to which he said his style taught it a different way.  And that left me wondering what exactly he expected.  Did he want to hear me say, “you’re right, forget that you came here to learn something, you just do it however is easiest for you”I understand comparing the differences in style and being observant, but c’mon…  If I’m going somewhere to be taught a style of something, I don’t want to just be allowed to do my own thing, because then I’m not learning what I came there for!

Another student asked me to show which part of the foot we use for a specific kick because his previous style used a different part.  In explaining that we use both but have a preference, I referenced another kick where he was taught to use again a different part than we teach, saying he did it in tournaments and it worked there. then why did you ask me in the first place?  Even though he wasn't getting upset about it, he was basically arguing with me about the answers I was giving him, simply because it wasn’t what he was used to.  Ultimately I told him it's what we expect to see on tests and it’s up to him whether or not he wants to pass.  That’s not my preferred response, but I had already tried logic through words and demonstrations and couldn't spend more time with him.

There's a variant on this which goes, "that's not the way I was taught..." which is usually in response to getting conflicting information.  This is more likely to happen within a group when information is contradictory or has changed over time.  Sometimes it's said in a defensive way, but other times it's a way to make sure that the instructor is on the same page as the rest of the group.  While this phrase isn't intrinsically bad, if it's a person's default "mode" when getting confusing information, they're preventing the chance to learn something new and seeing where the instructor might have planned to go.

I also find that when someone is being taught by a person they greatly respect (or fear, ha), these phrases never come up.  If someone my sensei invites to give a workshop tells me to do xyy, I will do xyy and try my best.  No way in hell am I going to say “well, I was told to do xyz.”   Maybe after it’s over, I can ask for the reasoning, if I haven’t figured it out for myself.  If Tanaka-sensei comes up in a workshop and tells you to turn your wrist a certain way when you strike, are you going to say “but my group does it differently?”  Would you really?
We all say these things to a certain degree and I’ll admit I’ve gotten caught up in it myself, but think carefully before you say either one of those two phrases to someone teaching.  It’s often more of a defensive mechanism rather than anything else, but it can turn a learning experience into something much less productive.  Finally, how do you know that doing something differently than what you’re used to won’t lead you to a greater understanding of things?

Monday, July 1, 2013


At the dojo, we sweep the floor before class starts.  There’s one push-mop and it takes about 2 minutes to cover the entire floor.  It’s a pretty simple job, with one unspoken rule we have:  Don’t let a black belt sweep the floor.

Our black belts have been there at least 4-5 years but probably way more than that.  It’s assumed that in those years, they’ve swept probably hundreds of times.  By doing it so they don’t have to, it shows respect to not only them but the dojo as well.  The idea is the dojo comes first, then you.

Sometimes none of the lower belts sweep and one of us black belts will start sweeping.   Usually someone sees this happening and rushes over to offer to take the handle.  If that doesn’t happen and the black belt finishes sweeping, it’s not going to end well for the class.  It means tons of extra pushups and sit-ups and mountain climbers and all the calisthenics that make things hurt.  Needless to say, the black belts rarely have to sweep.

At a dojo with a more defined sempai-kohai system, it might always be the newer members who are expected to sweep.  With us, it doesn’t matter if you’re new or not.  And sometimes, when a black belt does grab the mop and have others offer to take it, we’ll refuse and it won’t mean extra pushups – it shows that everyone should take responsibility, no matter the rank.

It’s also noticed who sweeps.  In a class of about 50 people, there’s a small pool of about ten who regularly sweep.   We’ve reminded the class that everyone is responsible, but for some reason it doesn’t really sink it.  This won’t ever factor into a belt test, but it’s a sign of respect and awareness.

Maybe you sweep after, not before.  Maybe you make the new students sweep.  Maybe you don’t even sweep!  But think about the things that your members are expected to do and ask yourself how often do you do them?  Are you the first to help out or the last?  How do you think it makes you appear to others?  If the group followed your example, would it run smoothly or would things be a pigsty?

It’s not easy to stay peripheral and make sure all the little things are taken care of, but it’s better to try than to “let someone else do it”, no matter how long you’ve been in a group.  You can set a good example in more ways than the hierarchy of your group dictates.