Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: The Way of Taiko

Recently, I was contacted by Stone Bridge Press, the publishers for The Way of Taiko by Heidi Varian.  I was offered a copy of the 2nd edition in exchange for a review.  My taiko library is rather short on books aside from a bunch of Kodo stuff, and I knew The Way of Taiko (TWoT) had been around for a while, so I was very happy to review it.

Overall, I would say the book is well-written and a wealth of information by someone who clearly loves the art of taiko.  My only issues are small ones that come from having a different perspective of taiko overall, but I still highly recommend the book to anyone who plays taiko today.  The book is compact and that suits the format really well.  The pages are of good quality and the pictures are vibrant and plentiful, over about one-third of the book itself.

We start with a historical perspective of taiko that continues through the era we're in today, with a glance towards what may come.  We go from taiko in Japan in its earliest days to the birth of kumidaiko, to its introduction in North America and a little bit past that.  There were some things I didn’t know about, or some I’d heard but forgotten!  For this part alone, I think a copy of TWoT should be in every taiko group’s library, from casual to professional to collegiate to senior.

The next section goes into instruments and their usage, a daunting task with so many different stories and opinions out there.  I have to give the author the benefit of the doubt for the things I hadn’t heard before, simply because I don’t have anyone saying otherwise.  For instance, even though SJT uses the term “jozuke” where other groups use “chudaiko”, TWoT says that they are basically the same drum, but called different things depending on what stand they’re placed on.  While I’ve never heard that before, I have no reason to not believe it.

In this section it might have been nice to give a mention to the popular non-Japanese instruments used in North American taiko (clave, shekere, etc.), but I realize that might have been a lot of extra trouble to document.  Still, seeing as how this book is not just about Japanese taiko but also North American taiko, it would have been welcome in this 2nd edition.  It would also have been nice to hear more about the katsugi-okedo, since its popularity has grown enormously in the last few years, as well as the Korean influences on that style of playing.

There's a section about the mindset a taiko player should have, and this is where I start to find myself less engaged, because my style and background are different.  It would have been nice earlier on to have seen something say that this is not the only way to approach taiko, like no one style of karate is the only way to study karate.  Some people might like to hear this perspective on how to approach playing taiko however, so I don't think it's entirely out of place. While it would be a pain for the author to constantly say “this is only one way to think about it” or “this is how I learned it”, in the book there is only one short mention in the middle of these sections that this is Tanaka-style.

There are detailed explanations on how to hold the bachi, how to stand at the drum, how to strike, etc.  I don’t think someone would try to learn how to play taiko from this alone, but it does a good job of trying to cover all the basics for this particular style of taiko.  It conveys that there is a lot more to taiko than just grabbing a stick and thwacking at a drum.

There was also a section on how to behave during a practice that sounded more like how to behave at a very strict karate dojo.  Like earlier, this distanced me from the reading, even though my background is in traditional karate, because 95% of the groups I’ve met (Japanese, American, European, etc.) are very much not like this.  Again, I realize she is describing Tanaka-style taiko (and describing it well), while I have a very different perspective and a lot of different experiences that differ from that.

Given that my biggest issue was around the author coming from a very specific style/viewpoint, a better title for this book might be “A Way of Taiko.”  I don’t mean that in a snarky way, I’m being very sincere.  Despite my minor criticisms, I think this book is an excellent reference for anyone who plays or is in interested in taiko.  There is a lot of great information in this book, and knowing what the author is trying to convey makes this something that belongs in any taiko library!

With the 2nd edition now out, if you or your group doesn't have a copy, now's a great time to fix that!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Perception of time

You know that time when you dropped your bachi and it felt like it took 5 minutes to pick it up?  Odds are it didn’t even take 5 seconds.  Or how about that time when you were soloing and felt like you were leisurely thinking about what to do next?  I’ll bet your solo was over before you realized it.

Now, I’m no neuroscientist and I don’t know any neuroscientists.  But I am fascinated with how the brain works and perceives reality.  Temporal perception varies depending on what we’re doing at any given moment.  “Time flies when you’re having fun” is a great example of this principle at work.  But the opposite is true in those moments when we need it to be.

The other day we had an outdoor gig at a local community college.  During one piece I had a short solo for 8 counts.  Although I had set this solo previously to make sure I could nail it, I was still thinking to myself about each strike, the spaces in between those strikes, which count I was on, and if I was on tempo or not.  I was having a verbal dialogue in my head and didn’t think much of it, until I saw the video that a friend had posted on Facebook.  I watched my solo take literally all of four seconds.  My perception of time in those four seconds was way out of scale with reality at the time!

I know I’m not being mind-blowing here talking about some things seeming longer or shorter than they actually are, but just remember that the next time you drop your bachi or make a mistake that seems to last forever, don’t be so hard on yourself – it passed by much faster than it seemed to for you!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Video star

Imagine someone wanted to do a documentary on (insert your art here) with (insert your group here) and they approved it with your group to videotape you for a couple of weeks during rehearsals.  How would that affect how you did things?

Would you be on better behavior?  Would you try harder?  Would you focus more?  Would you do things to help out that you normally don’t do? 

So what stops you from doing all that without a camera on you?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Even the best fail

I’m sure there are people who play taiko that you really admire, if not outright idolize.  Or maybe you don’t play taiko but do something else where you have that same admiration.

We usually only get to see the best of a performer, whether it’s a polished piece or a dazzling solo or a video of a well-rehearsed performance.  But rest assured, before they got to that point, they failed.  A lot.

Oh, I’m sure there are some prodigies out there that failed way less than others, but I bet they’ve still failed plenty.  Is that a judgment?  Hardly.  I’m simply pointing out that even the best of us have failed more often than they’d like.  And the thing to take away from this is that they are as good as they are BECAUSE they have failed as much as they did.

Whether they tried a new solo and got off, whether they kept dropping their bachi in a difficult song, whether they had a collaboration that clashed, whether they wrote a piece that fell apart, or even if they just messed up doing drills, they failed.  It obviously didn’t stop them, did it?  They’re as good as they are because they learned from those failures.

It’s not that a person has to be the best there is to be admired, either.  Someone who tries out for a group and doesn’t make it in but makes something of that experience can turn a fail into a catalyst for growth.  Hell, I didn’t make it in to SJT on my first try, and now I’m in my 21st year with them.  Someone who never gets new things but works on it later so they’re not holding the group back is turning a fail into motivation.

It’s not enough to learn from your mistakes.   You have to be okay with making them sometimes.  You can’t fear failure to the point where you keep yourself from situations where they *might* happen.  Show me the person that you admire that has never failed in the past and doesn’t make mistakes now, and I’ll wait for you to wake up, because you’re dreaming!

Monday, September 16, 2013


I love writing new pieces.  I don't put a lot out there, for different reasons like time, commitment, priorities, etc.  Still, on any given day I will have 3-4 different song ideas going through my head and several patterns that are unrelated.

To some, that might sound remarkable.  But there's a downside, at least for me.  Thinking so much about new patterns and new songs means I've heard things hundreds if not thousands of times before I even introduce them to someone else.  And by that time, they often lose their "punch" to me, because I'm over-familiar with them.

What I don't think is all that exciting anymore may totally entertain other people, but it's hard to remember that.  And this can extend to the songs you play, too.  What you're playing for the umpteenth time may not thrill you, but to the person hearing it for the first time, it might completely rock their world

Remember the first time you heard/saw taiko, then remember that nearly every time you perform, there are people who are being blown away.  Stay inspired and keep spreading the joy!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Representing another

Just recently the Taiko Community Alliance (TCA) had its first conference full of brainstorming and information-gathering.  Because there was limited space, there were only a limited number of participants allowed.  Realizing that so few people would not necessarily cover the wide range of people playing taiko in North America, the organizers came up with a novel idea: each of the participants would conduct an interview with another taiko player in North America, get their perspective, and represent that person as a sort of proxy during the conference.

What does this do, aside from causing a bunch of people to be schizophrenic?  It allows a person to bring their own perspective to a conversation, but also help advocate for someone else whose voice might not get heard otherwise.  The TCA asked some people to be interviewed and sent out a open call for others who wanted to be heard.  I’m not privy to exactly how groups were then sorted, but there were then categories of people made – people just out of collegiate taiko, teachers and leaders, taiko professionals, etc.

There is a potential downside to a system like this, where a person can say they’re speaking for someone else in order to deflect reaction at a controversial idea, but in this situation, I don’t think that was happening.  It looked like people were happy to not only bring a different viewpoint but also try to understand it better for themselves.  From everything I saw via streaming video and heard from people who went, that “proxy advocation” was a real eye-opener.

So let’s take that idea into your own group(s).  All of us to a degree are selfish, because we’re human.  We all have our individual needs.  Maybe you want less time to warm up and more time playing.  Maybe you like the newer compositions more and wish they were practiced more often.  Maybe you want fewer notes given overall because it’s taking up a lot of time.  Like the TCA did, think of the different sub-groups within your group and what their concerns might be.  Do the older members need that warm up time more than you do so that they avoid injury?  Do the people in charge feel the older compositions better represent the group?  Do the newer members need those notes in order to make the most improvements?  Those are the things that having another perspective can give you.

It’s not possible to always represent someone else, but it’s something that makes you a more peripheral and more compassionate person.  Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is a cliché perhaps, but there’s a reason why it’s stuck around as long as it a has…

Monday, September 9, 2013

We forget

Sometimes, amidst all the thrill of what ifs, the conferences and gatherings, and the hubbub about the next exciting taiko fad, we forget how awesome the sound of a single strike can be.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

On motivation

What motivates you to get better?

There are a lot of artists (not just taiko players) that don’t have to worry about being motivated, because they’re still pretty new and getting a lot of instruction.  Motivation isn’t all that necessary there because information is being given to them in order to raise them up to a certain level.  Sure, you still want to have motivation, but you can be somewhat passive in your drive and still get pushed forward.

Sooner or later, however, there’s a point where you’re not going to get that same kind of attention, for whatever reason.  Maybe you’ve been in the group long enough to where newer members are the priority.  Maybe you’ve gotten good enough to not need so much focus.  Maybe even you’re just too much trouble to teach!

I worry about people who are used to being pushed then figure they're going to still get better just by showing up.  It's not a taiko thing, it's a human thing.  It's hard to realize that the group or your sensei or what-have-you is not giving you the answers and now it's up to you to find them yourself.  Where I might find that exciting, others might find that demoralizing.  The easy way out is to simply not worry about it and not grow.

To some people, it’s not good if fame or glory or wanting the spotlight is your motivation.  But if it truly makes you better, to me that’s better than not being motivated at all.  You still have to work on your skills to keep that attention!  Different things motivate different people, and it's up to each of us to find out what those things are so we can use them effectively.  Motivational posters and inspirational quotes might ring a cord in one person, and actually de-motivate someone else.

Motivation can be inspired by goals, whether you set them or someone else does.   A new solo to get comfortable with, a new song to learn, a new style of drumming - all of that makes for a good reason to try harder.  But what if there's no real goal other than to put on a good show?  That's when it's easy to sit back and coast, but by the time you realize you're not getting better, you've been there for a while, and unlearning the bad habits you've developed is a pain in the butt!

It's not always easy for me to be motivated, but I'm a fighter and I'll use a little fire to call myself out on it.  I don't want to look back in five years and think I could have been doing so much more with the resources available to me, for months at a time.  I don't expect to always be beaming with excitement or raring to go, and I have to accept that there will be times when I'm just not excited about my art - whatever it might be - but I'll regret it more down the line if I don't come back at it with a fighting spirit.

The longer you play, the more motivation has to come from within, from you.  Whether you fight to find it or not is a personal choice, but a choice that will shape where you are now and beyond.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Improvisation and Composition

Improvisation and composition are both wonderful things that have a bit of overlap.   One is real-time and one is more at your leisure, but both are things that you are creating from your head.

I've found that a lot of people want tips and tricks about how to get better at one or both, whether it's formally in a workshop or just in casual conversation.  While I recommend a more formal workshop (like the ones Roy Hirabayashi teaches), I had a thought on the subject I wanted to share.

I think of improvisation as a muscle.  The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.  Like with lifting weights, you can do different things like increase the amount of weight or amount of repetitions, depending on your interests.  This would equate to focusing on the style/songs you play, taiko in general, or other kinds of world percussion.

Improvisation in taiko is a combination of mental acuity and reflexes.  This makes it seem difficult for some people, because you need both to be effective.  It just takes time to first be able to recognize what you want to play in the moment, then have the ability to make it happen.

I think of composition as a skill.  It simply takes work to get better but isn't something that people need to have to be good at taiko.  Composing can be as difficult or as simple as you want it to be and the group you're in may impose certain conditions or rules on new works that shape what the outcome may be.

Composition relies a lot on inspiration and/or necessity.  Because it takes both time and thought, it's easy to over-think an idea and agonize over decisions.  Setting goals and parameters is often a good way to start generating ideas, as well as starting small.  If this is a skill, you wouldn't want to tackle a larger project at first without knowing how you managed that skill.

Improvisation is over before you know it while a composition can span years.  There's excitement in both, depending on if you like immediacy and the joy of being in the "zone" or if you prefer planning and a payoff after a lot of work.  Both of them take practice and effort to make better but are never bad to spend time developing.  If you want, you can compose a song that has a lot of improvisation for the best of both worlds!