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! 

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