Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 comes to a close...

2014…so now what?

Last post of the year, wow.  Time flies etc. etc.

This past year was an interesting one taiko-wise for me.  Highlights included the collaborative concert with The Bangerz, the 40th Anniversary concert and being a part of the medley committee, and my last performance of the year, celebrating Glide Memorial Church’s 50th Anniversary on stage.

I got to flex my creative muscles working on the medley, but not composition-ally.  I’ve promised myself more time in the studio next year in order to make that happen.  At least there’s a transition in the works, but I want to compose a song again; I need to make that happen.  I’ve no excuse not to!

2014 also brings us the first World Taiko Gathering (WTG), happening in Los Angeles.  I’ll be teaching a workshop there on rhythm and syncopation, using both thinking (brain) and feeling (body) as tools for better comprehension and understanding.   It should be fun – let me know if you sign up once registration starts!

As usual, I hope this blog continues to be useful, thought-provoking, and entertaining.  I can’t promise all my posts will be equally engaging, but there’s still a lot more to say!

Keep practicing!

Thursday, December 26, 2013


It's not as common as it used to be, but sometimes I hear people asking if what they're playing is authentic taiko, or if another group is really authentic, etc.

Take a group like Kodo, were they "more authentic" in the past?  From playing more "staple" kumidaiko pieces that inspired so many taiko groups around the world, to taking on more world music into their repertoire, to the new direction of Tamasaburo Bando with daring costuming and theatrical elements, are they now "less authentic" than they used to be?  If they are, does it mean they're not as good?

And just what is "authentic"?  The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition says:
  1. Real or genuine : not copied or fake
  2. True and accurate
  3. Made to be or just look like an original
So if Kodo has male members wearing sexy outfits and glitter/makeup, is that not original?  Is it not true to their direction?  Seems pretty authentic to me.  Following that logic, taiko can be anything as long as it's played from a genuine place, right?

Sometimes the question about what is authentic is a sneaky way to not say what someone really thinks.  When I hear someone question another group's authenticity, what I hear is "That's not what I consider to be taiko."  And I want to ask those people what they think taiko "is", because it's a question that ultimately leads to "I just don't like what they're doing."  It has nothing to do with authenticity.

Don't waste time wondering if what you play is authentic.  Those who bring up that question about other groups only oppress and stifle, whether they mean to or not.  It's a term that limits people's ability to truly express themselves, to be a stronger player.  That's a negative energy that no one needs.  If you play from the heart, then you are being genuine, and I'll take genuine over "authentic" any day.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Odaiko solos

Today at the studio, I went for a long solo on the odaiko until my body started hurting.  I've done this a couple of times the last few years, both for a test of endurance as well as for the experience.

While playing, I experimented with patterns that wanted to come out.  Sometimes things cam out naturally, sometimes my hands "stuttered" when trying to play what was in my head, sometimes I just played a straight beat for a long period of time.  While I do love to solo, I find that soloing on odaiko is a very different thing.

It's not as easy to play a lot of notes, but even if you can, something gets lost.  The notes bleed into each other too much and the rumble muddies the patterns.  It sounds better when notes are more spaced out, with maybe some density in there for flavor.

It's hard to have too much space in between notes though, because there's not a lot of movement available to the odaiko soloist.  Maybe you can make some circles, or turn to the side and play, but mainly the arms tend to go up and back, and...that's about it.

So you're left with a limited, but powerful palette.  The best patterns aren't too dense or too light, but it's also how you play that makes it really an odaiko solo.  Since the audience can't see your face, you have to play with intention above what you might use when you're playing on any other style of taiko.  It's best done by using the entire body so that feeling "reads" to the audience.

I find that with other kinds of taiko (naname, shime, okedo, etc.) I can let my hands do a lot of the playing for me.  A pattern might come out that I wasn't planning to play and I can go with it.  On odaiko, however, I find that I need to be very much in sync with my body with what I'm going to play.

Because of that, simple patterns tend to come off the best, and the best odaiko solos I've seen usually are simple in that way.  Without the fancy patterns or movements available to other types of taiko, it's really about the connection between the player and the drum.  If the audience can feel that connection, feel purpose behind each note, and feel the odaiko in the odaiko, then you have a successful odaiko solo.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know!

Thursday, December 19, 2013


I'm back!  And I've thawed!  Apparently, Canada is cold in the winter...

So the highlight of my week in Toronto was a workshop with some of the members of RAW, or Raging Asian Women.  This group is running 10 years strong and just had their first official concert early this month.  I've been fortunate to get to know a few of the members as they've come to workshops in San Jose over the years.

The group has a strong mission of social justice and equality, and they operate as a collective in their organizational structure.  Rather than just copying from their website or not doing them justice in a short paragraph, I suggest you visit them HERE.

The workshop was a lot of fun to teach and all the members there were hungry to learn.  The environment was casual but still focused; I felt welcome into their space and their process.  I had some things prepared but also did a lot based on what I observed at the time.  The result was a lot of awareness and information that hopefully will give them a lot of options -  it comes down to not only individual discovery but also what the group style dictates.

The dinner afterwards was lively and with interesting conversations that went all over, from social issues to taiko to politics to empowerment back to taiko to music theory and beyond (oh and one about my sideburns too...).  I would visit RAW again just to have a really long discussion (although the addition of food is good too)!

I've seen RAW get stronger as a group and stronger as a performing company over the years and can't wait to see where the next decade will lead them.  I hope more people get to know them through both their love of the art as well as why the group is so passionate about what they do.  I'm definitely a fan!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Toronto bound!

I'm leaving for Toronto for a week and may not be able to post regularly.  Plus my fingers may not work due to the cold!

We are hoping to give a workshop to RAW (Raging Asian Women) when we're there, a group that is having their first concert the weekend before we get there, darn it!  But I'm really looking forward to seeing their space and working with them all.

We'll be on break when I get back, and I plan to get in the studio a bunch during the down time.  We'll see what I wind up tinkering on.

Stay warm!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Beginner’s Mind, part 2

Back in a post here I talked about SJT’s concept of “Beginner’s Mind.”  I’ve thought a lot about this concept and how it applies to our learning process.

Beginner’s Mind is an easy concept: no matter how many times you’ve played a drill or a song, you always want to approach it as if you can learn something new.  But what if you really look at this concept for all its potential?

- It applies to when you are practicing.

This is the basic, surface-level message.   If you think you “know” a drill or song when you’re practicing it, you’re not letting yourself improve as much as you could if you are thinking that you still have progress to make.  Are you striking in the same place every time?  Is your face showing the right mood?  Could you be kiai-ing more?  If someone took a picture during a big motion, would you be happy with the results?  These are just a sample of a long list of questions you could be asking yourself when you play.

- It applies to when you are being taught.

It’s really easy to think you know something and tune someone out who’s teaching it, whether to you or the rest of the class.  I find that hearing how someone teaches something I’m familiar with helps me when I have to teach it later.  I also like hearing different people explain the same thing in different ways.  You never know when someone will explain a concept in a way that just totally clicks for you.

- It applies to when you are observing.

You may have watched people play a song 1,000 times, but I bet there’s something to discover in the 1,001st.  What sticks out?  Is everyone’s energy “on”?  How’s the group tempo; where does it fluctuate?  What would you do differently?  These are questions that you can ask by looking at the group, let alone each person individually.  Even if you don’t/won’t make those comments later, by looking for things in this way, you are still learning.

- It applies outside of the dojo.

It’s not something you only want during practice, but also at performances.  What can you learn from how things are set up, both from your group’s side as well as the stage crew’s/presenter’s side?  Even the little things like setting up stands and getting the drums out are activities you can look at anew, either in terms of efficiency or thinking how you would teach someone to do it.

- It applies outside of taiko/art
Someone who isn’t able to find Beginner’s Mind in taiko probably has trouble doing it in their life as well.  While it is true that familiarity breeds contempt as it were, and over the years it can be hard to keep looking for new things to learn, the general mindset is either there or it’s not.  It’s quite fair to not be interested in something, but is your attitude towards daily things “what can I learn from this?” or more “I already know how to do that.”?

Whether it shows in their behavior, comments, or general vibe, a person with a Beginner’s Mind will invite people to want to teach them.  A person who lacks it tends to get fewer comments and eventually it leads to a vicious cycle of not wanting help and not getting it.

Beginner’s Mind doesn’t mean that you’ll always find new and wonderful things, only that you’re trying.  Are you trying?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Why get better?

My general theme for this blog is finding ways to help people get better at taiko, whether it be through motivation, examples, drills, or ideas.  But what if you don’t really want to get better?  What If you just want to enjoy playing?

If you’re more into taiko for the social/community aspects, or the musical/physical aspects, or a connection to Japanese culture, etc., more power to you.  As long as you’re enjoying taiko, go for it!

For me, I want to get better.  I need to get better.  And I want other people to get better as well because I think people will enjoy it!  So that’s what I blog about, mostly.

I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who started playing taiko and didn’t want to get better.  That person would probably be in the .01% of taiko players.  When we start, we’re generally pretty awful, haha.  We want to play in time, we want to strike well, we want to last longer than five minutes, we want to move with some semblance of poise.  And so, we practice.

Using a driving metaphor, each one of us starts on a road and sometimes we pull over to stop and rest (other priorities) or admire the view (reflect after a performance).  Many people will then continue on, but not all.  Those who continue on may pull over later, but yet still some never stop driving, always wanting to see new things and have new experiences.  Barring a flat tire (injury) or no car to drive (no group to play with, no drums), most people I think like to keep driving, albeit it at different speeds.  It’s not a race, but most people go the general speed of the convoy (taiko group) they’re in.

Some people will be happy with a short journey but enjoy the company of fellow travelers and the beauty of the places they’ve stopped it.  For me, every year I want to look back and see how much distance I’ve covered, remembering all the destinations I stopped at or passed through.  Part of the fun is in discovering what lies ahead.