Thursday, August 29, 2013

Question Everything: Kumidaiko

Kumidaiko is the common term for ensemble taiko drummingTaiko by itself was used in festivals or ceremonies or sound effects, but traditionally it was a solo instrument until around the 1960’s.  There's a lot more to it, but that's the gist of it.  Most taiko players will know this much, at least.

When we play taiko in a group, we try to sound like one drum, precise and together (assuming you’re all playing the same pattern, of course).  This is the essence of kumidaiko.  However, if you’re not listening to yourself, you may be causing the ensemble to NOT sound together.  So you should listen to yourself, right?  But if you focus too much on what your output is, then you can go in the other direction and lose the ensemble and still be off!

When we solo, the group supports us.  It’s still kumidaiko.  However if you stick out amongst the other soloists (stylistic differences, lack of skill, getting carried away, etc.), then should the group still support you?  Most people would say yes.  But is it still kumidaiko when one person is so apart from the rest?  Or is it something else?

Most of us have seen (and some even played) an odaiko solo in practice or performance.  If it’s just one person on a drum, that’s not kumidaiko – it can’t be, by definition.  But does kumidaiko only refer to the individual piece, or something larger?  And how many people playing at once make an “ensemble"?  Two?  Three?  Seven?

I know this is a lot of semantics for some people, but looking closer at the terms we use without a second thought can tell us a lot about how we think!

Monday, August 26, 2013


Kumidaiko, or ensemble drumming, is pretty much what made taiko so popular in these last 50-ish years.  Multiple drums playing at the same time is pretty powerful stuff!  Sometimes I forget how powerful it is, though.

This past weekend, I was leading one of our Public Workshops, where we give a 3-hour taste of SJT to interested people.  We normally start with one of our songs to get people energized and also to see SJT play if they haven't before.  We have 2-3 people teaching any given workshop, and so the song is on the smaller side.

This time, however, there was a group of performing members coming back from a gig right as we started, and they volunteered to stay for the opening song.  What would have been 3 became 11.  And even though the song is the first song any of us learn, it felt amazing to play it with so many more people.

If I had known it would be 11 players at first, maybe I wouldn't have felt it as much, but the surprise of the additional instruments and ki was pretty powerful stuff for me.  It reminded me that even though I consider myself pretty aware of the stuff I could take for granted, having other performers that I can play with is something I shouldn't overlook.

Next time you're playing with your group, think about what it would be like to have less than half of the people there.  Enjoy the energy and sound that a larger group of people can make!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Soloing, part 8: Soloing as speech

There are many ways to think of how to solo.  A general rule of thumb is that a solo should have a beginning, middle, and an end.  Sometimes it’s hard to define what a “middle” is, or how one section is different from another.  Also, you might find that you have to cut your solo in half and then what?  Everything reduced by 50%?  No middle?

I tend to approach soloing as if I was giving a speech to the audience, trying to convey an idea.  Instead of words, I’m using notes and rhythms.  Thinking of a solo that way means you need to ask yourself some questions:

- How do you want to introduce yourself?  If you’re overly clever or oBnOxIoUs, you’re going to lose some of your audience right away.  Grab their attention, but don’t force it.  What you play here sets the tone and expectations (which you can play with later)

- What’s your point?  In other words, what are you trying to get across?  Show them your voice, your style, and express yourself in the moment.  To some, this is the easiest part but to others it’s the most difficult.  Think of the song and the ji to help figure out what you’re trying to “say”.

- What feeling do you want to leave the audience with?  You can be solid, humorous, exciting, playful, etc.  Just like in a speech, you want to wrap things up and come to a close.  Staying in this vein also means you don’t want to introduce too many new things at the end, just like you wouldn’t end a speech about fishing talking about astronomy and motorcycles.

So there’s a basic framework for beginning, middle, and end.  We can use this concept of speech/words to develop things further, though.

Every song has its own voice; every ji has its own feel.  A straight beat in one song is not the straight beat in another.  Think of them as venues or topics or audiences.  How do you fit your speech to your environment?  Are you going to speak with passion?  With clarity?  With abandon?   With exuberance?  With caution?  Also, you wouldn’t speak about your love of pizza to a group of businessmen the same way you would to a group of kids, right?  Same subject, but your tone of voice and vocabulary have to adjust.  This applies to having a dongo as a ji and soloing the same regardless of the song you’re in.

Now if someone talked to you about how much they liked soloing and all the patterns they could play while soloing and what they’re thinking about in the moment but to be careful about thinking too hard because that can cause problems down the line that you might stumble over but sometimes that’s ok because it forces you to learn from your mistakes…  Well, no one talks like that, except for maybe little kids.  No, when people talk, there’s a natural rhythm.  In speech, we talk with our personal style, full of punctuation and rhythm.  Commas and periods are our ma, our pauses.  Higher volume and exclamation points help us emphasize certain points, as we use our dynamics.  If you want to be creative, think of other parts of speech and how you could convey them through rhythm, things like question marks, rhyming, talking with an accent, etc.

There’s no one way to approach a solo, but sometimes the way you prefer doesn’t always work the best.  What other ways can you come up with?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Bored black belts

My blog has a lot of advice for people looking to improve themselves in taiko (and other stuff, but mostly taiko).  Not all of it is easy to do, and some things take a lot of work.

I'm sure some people have read a post I've written and thought that it's easy for me because I'm younger/older/taller/been around longer/etc.

The other night, my sensei said, "If karate was easy, we'd all be black belts and we'd all be bored."

Sometimes the journey is more of a reward than the destination, and sometimes it's good to remember that if it's an easy journey to get to your goal, how much is that goal worth?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Shoelaces tied together

It’s almost a cliché to hear someone say that they’re their own worst critic, but that doesn’t make it any less common.  However, how often do you really acknowledge what needs the most work and then work on it?  Maybe it’s easy to admit to yourself what you have trouble with, but then what?  Have you gotten complacent with the things you need the most work on, simply because it’s “comfortable”?

Would you run a marathon in shoes that had the laces tied together?  Of course not, you would stop running and untie them.  What if the knots were really complicated and took some time?  I bet you'd take the time then get back in the run, rather than keeping them tied, run funny, and take 10x longer to finish the course.

Make a list of the 3 things you most need to work on.  Maybe you keep getting told to fix something, maybe you have trouble with a particular song, maybe it’s technical, maybe it’s presence, maybe it’s too much of something, maybe it’s not enough of something else.  Just write out 3 things.  They don’t have to be all equal in terms of importance, you just have to be honest with yourself.

If you keep getting told to stop doing something, list that.  If you keep messing up a solo, list that.  If your hands have trouble keeping up with the group, list that.  It’s not fun admitting what your weak spots are, but I’ll tell you – everyone has them.

When I was newer to the group, I got told my competitive nature was a liability.  I didn’t feel I was all that competitive, but you know what?  When the people in charge keep telling you that it’s a liability, it’s a liability!  I didn’t protest it so much at the time, I just didn’t think it was a big deal…but it was, and it kept me from being more accepted by and integrated into the group.  In one of our songs that has a lot of solos getting passed around, I would often play dense, complicated stuff that made it really hard for the person following me.  It was easy for me to laugh it off, but ultimately it meant I was being selfish and making myself look “good” at the expense of the group.

It was never really hard to figure out what I needed to work on, because I was being told.  Odds are that it’s the same for you.  Even if it’s not that easy to figure out what to work on at first, the more honest you are with yourself, the easier it’ll be to not only identify those areas, but then deal with them.

It may not be easy to accept that your laces are tied together, and it may be even harder to work out the knots, but once they’re untied, imagine how good it will feel to run full-stride!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Simple joys

Do you still take pleasure in the simple things?

When you first struck a taiko, I bet it felt pretty damned cool.  Do you still feel that?

The simple act of appreciating a strike often gets lost under all the fancy, under all the thinking, under all the other stuff.

Next time you get a chance, enjoy the simple stuff - or at least appreciate it, because without that, why are you doing it?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Making sets

Every 5 years, SJT does an anniversary concert with a medley of our songs.  We've got a great medley planned for our 40th, this October.

I was on the medley committee for the 25th, but I don’t recall too much about it, unfortunately - it was 15 years ago.  For the 40th, I’m once again on the medley committee but this will be the first time I’ve created the transition sheets for a concert.  It's a massive medley, with over 20 songs represented, taking up the entire second half of the concert.

Most people in the group have led sets before, usually the festival sets that are from 15-45 minutes in length.  When you design a set, you have to figure out what songs are to be played, in what order, who’s going to play what parts, how the drums are going to get into position, and what (if anything) is happening between songs.  It can be pretty simple for the smaller sets and pretty complicated when the whole group is involved.

For concerts, there’s usually twice the amount of gear needed because there are specialized instruments for songs we don't play at festivals.  Also, we can have people do “raps” at festivals explaining songs or upcoming events or the like, but at a concert we want to have musical and visual transitions that are more rehearsed than just “move your drums here.”

I love the challenge of trying to figure out how things can be done.  Some things are necessity, some are possibility.  You start filling in the blanks and soon everything starts coming together until the end where the final details get tricky: if I put ABC here, then XYZ can't play here...  With a concert, you have a lot more options but also a lot more juggling.  I may have more equipment to do things on, but now I have to keep track of it all, too!

To some people, this is the last thing they want to tackle – and that’s fine, there are things I’m not fond of that other people like to do.  However, I highly recommend that if it’s possible, you help plan a set with your group.  Why?

1.) It makes you look at a set differently.  You'll start looking at what makes sense and adding your own flavor as you get comfortable.  You'll also start seeing where things can piece together.  Then when you’re in sets that you didn’t create, you’re able to see things that may have been missed or need adjusting and can do them without waiting to be told.

2.) You start appreciating how sets are made.  It’s really easy to just be told what to play and do it, but soon you’ll take it for granted.  Once you do the work yourself, you’ll realize how much effort goes in to creating a set for everyone involved.  Where you may have complained about not having as many parts as a comparable member, you might instead look at the set and realize the reasons why.  Where you might feel you should get more solos, you might instead realize that newer members are being given more opportunities to step up.

3.) You start trying to make the coordinator’s job easier.  Instead of causing problems, you try to solve them.  You stick to commitments.  You don’t want to be the one that causes the entire set to need to be changed, or the person who asks for allowances that inconvenience others.

4.) It makes you think ahead to why people might complain about parts and addressing them before giving the set out.  It’s not so much about wanting to deal with complaints less, as it is about seeing to balance and fairness.

It may not be possible in your group for you to volunteer to plan a set, but you can still put yourselves in the shoes of the people who do.  Some of you might find it enjoyable, others will loathe it.  Either way, it will make you much more peripheral and appreciative of your role in a set in a very short amount of time!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Illusion of Knowledge.

"The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”  - Stephen Hawking.

There's a program called Brain Games on TV that talks about...well, the brain.  One segment focused on how the brain fills in the blanks of all the things we don't know about, called the Illusion of Knowledge.  It's a coping mechanism, a way for us to not feel inadequate about all the things we don't know.  When you really think about it, there's a ton of things each of us doesn't know.  How does this work?  What keeps that together?  Where do those things come from?

They used the example of drawing a bicycle, or explaining how a zipper works.  I'll bet you know what a bicycle looks like, but drawing one?  And I'd bet you've all used a zipper, but can you describe exactly how it works?

So let's look at taiko with this in mind...

How do you raise your arm for a strike?  How do you initiate a strike?  Where are you striking on the drum?  How do you let the bachi move in your hand on impact?  What are your fingers doing at that moment?  Where is your center of balance?  What are your feet doing?

Those who teach the most often tend to have thought about this stuff the most, but not always.  Sometimes it's the students who are putting more thought into things!

It's one thing to not know how to do something, but it's another thing to assume you know how it's done.  How much of your art do you really know?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Building blocks with...blocks

Where I practice Shotokan, we try really hard to teach new things based on what’s come before.  If you’re learning a new stance, we refer to a previous stance.  If you’re learning a new kick, we reference a kick you already know, etc.  But it’s more than that.

If we teach you a fundamental concept – in our case, initiating movement by bringing everything into the center by squeezing the thighs and armpits – then we want you to use that concept with everything we do, so you’re constantly getting better at it.  When you don’t use that concept, then what are you drawing from?

While that concept is pretty easy for most students to grasp mentally, what often gets overlooked are the smaller things.  We do a lot of calisthenics as warmups before our work outs, with the standards like pushups, situps, etc.  Most people's default is to do them however is easiest for them, but lately we've really been pushing the idea that there should always be a principle to be built on, even while warming up.

So when people are doing situps, we want them to have a guard up.  It’s not a formal position of hands as much as just having the hands up.  When we're doing kicking drills or sparring, the hands are in a very similar position.  When people do pushups, we want them to keep their elbows close to the side instead of opening up.  All of our punches come from the side of the torso, so we want *those* muscles to be developed.  By keeping the body doing the same things whenever possible, those skills/muscles/actions will get stronger much quicker.

How about you, dear reader?  When you’re doing warm ups, are you thinking about how you’re doing them?  What elements touch on your group’s principles?  When you’re playing drums or percussion, are you thinking about what’s common – or should be common – amongst each part? 

It doesn’t just apply to the physical, although the physical is easier to explain and account for.  In karate, the etiquette leads to mindfulness and the mindfulness leads to discovery.  The etiquette also leads to focus and that focus leads to intensity.  At least, that’s the idea.

Where are the connections when you practice?  What things should be carried across to other areas and how many of those do you do?