Thursday, November 28, 2013

Cultural Appropriation

Just recently, pop star Katy Perry did a video for the Video 2013 American Music Awards.  In this video she used a large amount of Japanese/Asian imagery, from kimono to fans to aesthetics of set design, and even taiko.

I won’t link to a video here, because some of them are being taken down.  If you search for “Katy Perry American Music Awards” you’ll probably find it easily enough.

There are a lot of people angry at Katy for what they perceive of her appropriation of Japanese culture in this performance, because to them it comes off as racist or perpetuating a stereotype.  They argue that she is portraying Asian women as submissive and dependent on a man, especially noting the song title “Unconditionally” and some of the lyrics.   Others have argued that Its not racist, that it’s actually a way to positively show Asian culture of which Katy is a fan.

Some people have commented on how the people playing the taiko had form so bad that they couldn’t have actually been taiko players.  I tend to think they were dancers or musicians that don't normally play taiko.

So, two things:

First, I have seen people with form similar to the people playing in this video.  Maybe they were very new to taiko, maybe they lacked good instruction, maybe taiko doesn't come naturally for them, but it doesn't really matter.  Yes, there were some major fundamental issues to note regarding stance, striking, etc., but I don’t think it’s fair to critique these performers based on their skill just because they were in this wacky event.  Does their skill make them any less of a taiko player than someone more competent?   If the answer is no, then we can still critique these particular taiko players in terms of form but not in terms of validity.  If the answer is yes, then is someone who plays taiko “badly” for a year less of a “taiko player” than someone who plays well for a month?  That opens up a huge can of worms.

Second, cultural appropriation is a tangled, messy issue.  Some people feel very strongly on the topic due to personal experiences, often negative ones.  I am far from an expert in this area.  In art and pop culture, people will often take what appeals to them without context or knowledge of what they are taking or how they are offending people.   But I caution the taiko community when pointing fingers towards the outside when there are things within our own community:

  • Rising Sun symbols on clothing/costumes
  • Costumes/outfits that are sexy/inappropriate/worn in "interesting" ways
  • Japanese words/phrases taken out of context and used in group names, song titles, or "lyrics".
  • Taiko groups using Japanese instruments in unusual/questionable ways (taiko included!)
  • Taiko groups using non-taiko instruments/arts (from other cultures) in questionable ways
This list can beg the question: when is something “innovative” vs. “disrespectful”?  Or can it be both?  When it is worth pushing the accepted cultural boundaries in order to present new works?  The point is, some taiko players are not trying to offend or intend to perpetuate stereotypes, but may still happen anyways.

Anyways, am I defending Katy Perry?  Not really.  I don’t particularly think it’s a good song and I don’t really care for that genre of music.  I think this performance portrayed an immature version of Asian culture and lacks anything more than a big, in-your-face spectacle.  Is it racist?  Perhaps, depending on your definition of the word.  But is it worse that what sometimes is done in our own taiko community by groups who actually love the art form of taiko?   And if we are telling the world that these things are not acceptable to us, then what should the world think when they look at some of our members who are doing those very things?

Monday, November 25, 2013


500 published posts.  Wow.

I'll admit, not every post here is brilliant, not every opinion here is something I totally agree with now.  But it's still a lot of time and energy and thoughts and debates and passion all in one place that I never thought would get this far!

This blog is pretty plain-looking compared to most others out there, and I would love to do more with this blog in terms of format and design, but I haven't found any templates that I like.  Still, I keep looking. I'm also thinking I need to update the tags, because there's a ton of posts under "Perspective" but that's just as good as saying "Miscellaneous".  Granted, you can search for keywords from the site itself, but I'd like something people could look at and find topics of interest, like the tag cloud.

As for the posts themselves, I still look for inspiration from everything around me - I try to watch and observe and learn from the eyes of a student and the perspective of a teacher.  I question what people tell me but try to keep an open mind at the same time.  I want to help people thrive, to be better, to feel good about their own journey no matter how different it might be from mine.

And as always, I am really interested to hear what people would like me to talk about, whether you feel comfortable emailing me on Facebook or replying to a post (which you can do anonymously!)  It's fine to talk about what's on my mind, but I love taking on a subject that's on the minds of my readers.

Finally, I realize people coming to my blog have a lot to sort through and there have been a lot of really interesting posts over the years that have gotten lost in the chaff, so allow me to present some of my favorite and most-popular posts!

Most Popular (by view count)
  1. The Tall Whisperer
  2. Too late.
  3. Soloing, part 5-2: Rhythms on multiple drums
  4. The eyes have it, part 1: The "where"
  5. Observation 
  6. What archetype are you? 
  7. Review: Tao, The Martial Art of Drumming 
  8. My sponge is wet.
  9. Concentration
  10. Wrists!
 Tools and drills:
  1. How I compose
  2. Drill: Hemiola
  3. Drill: Sshhh
  4. Drill: Jumping Horsebeat
  5. Soloing, part 3: Musicality
 Posts of note (in no particular order):
  1. Who plays better taiko? 
  2. What the @%#&!* is taiko? 
  3. Failure *is* an option
  4. 12 weeks, 12 songs (prologue here, epilogue here)
  5. Excuses 
  6. Beginner's Mind 
  7. Start vs. Finish 
  8. Confidence 
  9. Japanesque 
  10. Perception of Quality
  11. Question Everything: Kiai
  12. Question Everything: Bachi
  13. When it's easy, you're doing it wrong
  14. Do simple things well
  15. Spoon-feeding

Thursday, November 21, 2013


At SJT we have a song called Spirit of Adventure.  It has a lot of components: naname drums in front, shime in the back, a pair of chappa, odaiko at the rear, and a pod in the back center consisting of a chudaiko with a shime on either side.  Nearly half of what the pod plays is improvisation, but for the first third of the song, it’s all about don doko.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, don doko  is also referred to as “horsebeat”, usually played right-right-left as a four-count pattern that goes 1 – 3 4  and repeats.  The graphic above illustrates this.

Played quickly, this pattern can be difficult.  Making the right hand play consistent notes while the left strikes on every other space requires some skill, and the longer the duration, the more it tests your endurance.  It’s one of the fundamental patterns any taiko player should be familiar with early on and have a lot of practice with.  The close cousin of don doko, don tsuku, is not quite as hard since two notes are quieter.  While it means you need to have two dynamics instead of one, it’s still a lot less work overall.

Now back to the song.  From the beginning of the song, the chudaiko plays don doko at various volumes, crescendo-ing and decrescendo-ing to match what’s going on in the front.  After waves of build-up, you're playing it very loud and rather fast, and by this point your right arm is burning.  Then it goes to improv, phew.  To make matters worse, you’re not using shime bachi, you’re to use something thick enough to strike the chudaiko but not too heavy since you also play the shime.  Adding that weight and thickness to your bachi that has a huge impact on technique.

No matter how strong someone can strike, how well they can improv, or how well they can project ki into the audience, that don doko pattern will kick their ass if their fundamentals aren’t there.  Some people might be able to play don doko nice and loud for a short while but if they don't have good form, they'll be playing unevenly and painfully before they’re halfway though.

When I started practicing this part, my right arm was on fire by the time I was at the crest, and my volume suffered greatly.  It would ache for the rest of the song!  Not fun.  But I practiced my fundamentals at home, at the studio, and out on the road when we had time.  Practicing that one fundamental pattern in particular not only translated directly to the song, but for dozens and dozens of other songs.

So while it’s not always “fun” to sit and just practice a fundamental over and over - especially when it's more "fun" to do other things - honing those skills will never stop providing opportunities for you.  You can practice fancy moves and fancy solos but how ready are you for something that tests your fundamentals?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Suck or fail?

Sucking.  Failing.  They're both unwanted feelings and they're both inevitable if you're an artist.  It's important to know the difference, and how those feelings affect you - as well as ways to cope with them.

When you feel that you failed, it's usually for a defined event or time.  You can fail a solo.  You can fail passage in a song.  You can fail an entire show or concert, even.  The thing to remember is that failing happens then is over.  It's finite.

When you feel that you suck, it's usually about something you feel you don't do well.  It's often a reoccurring feeling of something you have trouble overcoming or getting better at.  It can linger for hours, weeks, or even years.

When you feel you suck at something, you really have two choices.  You can dwell on it, or you can fight to overcome it.  It's hard when you choose to overcome and fail, but the alternative to not trying is far worse.  Some people feel they suck at something and wear self-deprecation like a thick wool coat, as if there is an odd comfort in that feeling.  It's hard to take off the coat and bare the "cold" as it were.

Failing can be difficult because you usually don't see it coming.  It kind of happens and then haunts you afterwards.  We can practice hard to prevent it from happening, but failure will happen as long as you keep trying to do things.  When you no longer fail, it's because you no longer try.

While sucking and failing are both bad enough, there's a hidden danger.  You can fail at something a few times and write it off to nerves or bad luck or blame other people.  But you have to be very careful that when you fail at something, it's not because you suck at it and not realize this.  If you fail because you suck and think it's just a fluke or someone else's fault, you'll never get past it.

In this way, failing is a bit easier to deal with, because it comes and goes.  Sucking is possibly ongoing and/or persistent, and admitting you suck at something is quite hard to do.  But through honesty can come improvement, and from improvement, growth.

Maybe you don't fail, and maybe you don't suck, but odds are you'll come across them as you keep learning more.  How you deal with those setbacks often determines what sort of artist you will become.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Your bachi

(picture by Wombatarama, via Flickr)

A few weeks ago we did an aerobic drill using Oedo Bayashi/Yodan Uchi patterns and movements.  It's something we do periodically throughout the year, testing our technique and endurance.

Due to carelessness, I left all my regular bachi at home and had to use a pair of volunteer bachi instead; much shorter and much lighter than I'm used to.  I found the drill easier overall, as there was hardly any weight to control/extend/swing in circles/etc.  But I also had to really stretch to reach and my hits weren't as loud.

Earlier this week we did the drill again, and I had my regular bachi with me.  The weight was much more noticeable and I got more tired, but I hardly had to stretch and it was so easy to make a good sound with each strike.  I find I prefer this, as the extra weight makes striking easier and I like being further away from the drum to accentuate our kata.

Now I'm probably not going to switch out my regular pair for something smaller, but now I know what something different feels like.

And so I ask you, my readers, when did you last use different bachi to see how they affect how you play a song?  Do you just use the ones you've "always used"?  Do you buy or make the same size again and again?  It's in your best interest to experiment with different kinds and see what happens!

Monday, November 11, 2013

On calluses

Taiko players have a very good relationship with calluses.  You play a lot and you’ll get them on your hands, especially when you’re new.  To some, they’re a badge of honor, to others a nuisance.

When I first started playing taiko, my hands were smooth, unscathed instruments.  After a short while of training, blisters formed, followed soon after by calluses.  Ah, relief!  Those calluses were great since it didn’t hurt to play anymore.  As time went on, I added both thickness and number to my calluses.

I started really focusing on striking and wrist snap and relaxation, about 10 years ago.  A few years after that I realized my calluses started to shrink, to the point where the few I have are really hard to see.  I can play faster and louder now than I ever could, but with less stress on the skin.  What happened?

Technique happened!  Relaxation and awareness were the key.  Being able to use the least amount of tension in my hands meant there was less pressure against my skin, and being able to process how much micro-adjustment I needed to make in my grip while playing meant it was eventually an automatic thing.

There’s a lot of factors at play here, and it’s not right to say calluses = poor technique:
  • Grip strength.  How hard are you holding your bachi?  How much squeeze do you really need?  Tighter grip = more tension = playing with a handicap.
  • Wrist snap.  The better your snap, the more you’re “catching” and the less you’re “throwing”.  Throwing means more friction whereas catching is over right away.
  • Dynamics.  If you play everything as loud as possible, there’s a lot of friction happening.  Songs and solos with dynamics help moderate that friction.
  • Sweat.  Some people’s hands get really damp and they squeeze harder to compensate.
  • Wax.  To prevent slipping (usually due to sweat), some wax their bachi which multiplies the amount of friction created.
  • Bachi type.  Odaiko, shime, oak, maple, smooth, rough, small, heavy, etc – the surface and weight and size of your bachi will all have an effect, as will your familiarity with them.
  • Skin type.  Everyone’s skin is different, and some are probably more prone to getting blisters and calluses.
In doing research on Western drummers, it seems to be that with enough relaxation and proper technique, calluses can be minimized if not simply avoided.  Some even use gloves or tape, but for most taiko groups both of those are distracting to the eye.
When you’re new and playing taiko, odds are you’re going to get blisters. Play on and they’ll become calluses. But over time and as you get better, you should find they fade out and pop up much less.  I’m sure there are some professional taiko players who have them; does that mean they’re not skilled?  Hardly – there are limits to what the body can withstand, even with the best technique. But for the rest of us?  The less calluses, the better! 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Not me!

Practice in a group for any length of time, and eventually you’ll hear the instructor say that all of you are doing something wrong.  This comes in many forms, from “I’m seeing a lot of X” to “you’re all doing it wrong”.

As a student, it’s hard sometimes to hear that, especially if the critique is about something I *know* I was doing correctly.  Didn’t they see I was doing it the right way? It can be frustrating.  Mind you, sometimes it might be a comment about something I’m not thinking about, and even if I am doing it correctly, it’s good to be reminded to be aware of it.

I strongly caution those who feel the need to defend themselves, though.  If you weren’t doing what the group was accused of, let it go.  Realize that the comment is delivered *en masse* for efficiency, not so much accuracy.  If you’re bothered at not being recognized for doing it right, consider the next point.

From the instructor’s side, if I have a group of 20 people doing a drill and 80% are doing something wrong, I’m not going to point out the 4 people that are doing it right; I’m just going to say that the group is doing it wrong.  Those four people will be fine.  I try to choose my words carefully, so if 50% are doing it right, I’ll say so.

The issue is when a student says “well I was doing it right.” in response to a group critique.  Things get awkward.  They obviously want recognition for their competency, but it’s not about them, it’s about the majority that needs to fix something.  There’s ego at play there, in a way that disrupts the importance of the message.  I find that the person who’s prone to speaking up like that has trouble taking direct critique later, in one way or another.  They tend to go hand-in-hand.

When critique is given to an entire group that you’re in, sometimes you have to suck it up.  If you feel you’ve been “wronged”, you need to ask yourself, is it so important that you need to take time and focus away from the message by speaking up? Or can you absorb the message and continue to do it correctly?  If it’s something big that you’re constantly doing well, you might get recognition for it – but if you keep “defending” yourself, odds are that’s less likely to happen.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Question Everything: Being good

What does it mean to be “good at taiko?”  In other words, as we practice, we’re all trying to be “good” taiko players, regardless of whether we want the spotlight, or want to enjoy some activity, or want to empower the community, etc.

I’m pretty good at twirling and spinning my bachi; does that make me good at taiko?  Ehh, probably not.  I can play don doko pretty loud and fast for a long time, does that make me good at taiko?  Maybe.  Why maybe?  Because it’s just a single skill and in itself doesn’t really say much.  If I can’t do anything else well, how would my only proficient skill define me?

Let’s take player #1.  Player #1 has excellent hands and soloing ability, but really bad form and terrible kiai?  If, hypothetically speaking, this person is 50% awesome and 50% terrible, does that make them “good at taiko”?  Or does it have to be a situation where there’s more strengths than weaknesses?

On to player #2, who enhances the ensemble with the best energy on stage.  The hitch is that they act like a jerk to other members of their group behind the scenes.   Is player #2 “good at taiko”?  Does the way a person interacts with their group affect this measure?  Or does it only matter what they bring when they’re actually playing taiko?

Finally, player #3 can’t stay on tempo, has weak striking ability, and takes a long time to learn new stuff – but damn do they *try*, and set an example to other people in how to approach hard tasks.  Is #3 “good at taiko” simply because of their tenacity?  Or does skill play a larger role?

There’s a huge missing variable in all these cases, which some of you might have noticed.  What kind of group are these players in?  Is it a group that values teamwork over chops?  Stage presence over depth of ability?  Power of striking over fluidity of movement?  What kind of group you’re in will effectively color what “good at taiko” means to you.  You might not totally agree with everyone in your group on who is “good” and who isn’t, but the group will have shaped your views somewhat.

Also, who’s judging?  Does a non-taiko player have the “right” to determine who is “good at taiko”?  Why not?   Maybe they think someone who is flailing about with terrible technique is “good” simply because it’s entertaining.  Maybe they think something simple and done well is boring, while those that play taiko know how difficult it can actually be.  But are they wrong in their judgments?  Are you “more correct” than they are?

A teacher can judge someone being ready to play a certain part, but teachers are human and sometimes ego or bias gets in the way.  I’m sure people with potential get held back because a teacher doesn’t like them for whatever reason (valid or not), so are they not “good at taiko” because the teacher thinks so?

What about you?  Do you think you’re “good at taiko”?   Why?  Why not?  Are you being biased?   Are you being harsh?  How many people would agree or disagree with you?  Again, subjectivity abounds.

So is there an answer?  Yes.  There are lots of answers!  But there is no RIGHT answer, for better or worse.  Best you can do is keep trying to improve, keep trying to learn, and keep inspiring others around you to do the same.