Thursday, January 30, 2014

Imitation is the sincerest form of...skill development!

When I was new to SJT - and taiko - I would listen to taiko recordings in sickening amounts.

I listened to SJT's 15th Anniversary cassette so many times that I had to get another one years later.  I learned songs that I hadn't even seen; I learned how to play along to solos not knowing what was song and what was improvised.  I tapped on my lap while taking the bus, I tapped on the steering wheel when driving a car.  Over and over and over.

When it came time to play some of those songs, I knew them well.  Sure, there was kata to learn and some things had changed, but I knew how they felt and I knew what patterns sounded good in solos.

I did the same with media from Kodo, which at the time was two VHS and a handful of CDs.  When I got the "Live at the Acropolis" DVD, I would watch Zoku and try to play along with Ryutaro Kaneko's solo.  It blew me away and I wanted to learn to play it, even though I would never actually play Zoku or a solo like that in SJT's repertoire.  That didn't matter.  It took a while to know it well enough to start playing along, then a while longer to get some of the patterns, then longer again to get the sticking and which drums were played when.  But I did.

I also listened to one song in particular, Yu-Karak II.  This song, mostly (completely?) on katsugi okedo, has some amazing rhythmical juggling in the solos half-way into the song.  There's still a couple of bars I can't get!  Still, in trying to tap along to it, play after play after play, it shaped how I hear and how I play rhythms to this day.  I'm not going to go as far and say I can solo like a Kodo member, but the influence is there.

When you listen/watch something like that over and over, when you can replicate it to a competent degree, you are learning valuable skills.  You're learning to think of rhythms you might not normally play, opening your mind to new ideas.  You're also learning patterns that push your dexterity, even if it's just tapping them out on your lap.

Sure, it's an investment of time, but I bet you can find a song or two by a taiko group you really like that you would love to play along to.  It doesn't have to be the whole song; maybe there's a section that really grabs you.  And it doesn't even have to be a taiko song!  Drum corps, rock, techno, anything that you can play along to that challenges you is totally suitable.

I still listen to songs and play along to them.  Where it was San Jose Taiko and Kodo, now it's Heavy Metal, Videogame Music, and...well, still Kodo, haha.  The point is, it's a great way to play along with music you already like that helps you in becoming a stronger taiko player!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Do you do that?

I've talked about having a critical eye when watching others and while watching yourself on a recording, but what about bridging those two?

When you watch someone else playing and you notice something in their technique - good or bad, try asking yourself, do I do that?

It's really easy to watch someone in order to give them advice or critique, but if it only stops there, you're doing yourself a disservice.  Maybe someone doesn't bring their left arm up as high as their right, but are you then guilty of it as well?  And that's the easy stuff to spot!

If you watch someone with an odd bend in their knee, how sure are you that you don't do it?  If you see someone soloing that doesn't look very confident, are you sure you don't seem the same way?  How do you know?  This is a whole other level of self-awareness and correction that you can only get by being honest with yourself.  It takes a bit of discomfort because you WILL find things that you're doing incorrectly, and it's up to you if you want to pretend you aren't or take the time to work on them.

After a while, you'll find that the discomfort starts to go away AND your critical eye is sharpened both inwards and outwards.  In doing this, you'll find that watching others translates into critiquing your own technique, and how awesome is that?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

My frustrating experience (as a teacher)

Regular readers know I help out with the Friday morning classes at the dojo when we have them.  Last week I was teaching the yellow belts a new stance: back stance. The back stance is the 3rd stance they learn, starting with front stance and side stance (as beginners) then back stance.  The main difference in stances is where the weight is: more on the front leg, or balanced, or on the back leg, respectively.

After breaking down the back stance for a good while, I had them move forward and backwards with it.  I noticed one woman keeping the weight on the front leg.  This wasn't unusual to see because they're used to moving in a front stance, and even those who get the weight distribution wrong understand when I tell them to push it back.  Some need to hear it again and again and again, but they can shift back.

This one time, though, I had someone who didn't get it at all.  She would step forward with her weight on her front leg, but when I told her to shift her weight back, she just...couldn't.  She didn't get the concept.  And I tried to step through it with her so she had a visual example, but it didn't help.  So I paused the drill and reminded her it was the stance we had just worked on for the last 15 minutes, but...nope, still didn't click.

I found myself getting really frustrated, and I had to stop the drill so I could really break it down.  I recognized I was not in a good place and was getting more upset that I found myself frustrated - a dangerous circle!  I eventually had her step out with one foot just a few inches while keeping all her weight on her other leg, and she finally got it - most of it, anyways.

Thinking back to it, I don't know if I'll face that same scenario again, so I don't think I'm going to change things, but it does make me think about what I should take into consideration.  For example, since English wasn't her native language, I need to make sure I'm clear about the core concepts when I'm teaching them for others like that.  If I'm feeling frustrated, I need to keep it off the student and off of me, by literally taking a moment and thinking of an alternative way to teach the concept.

Teaching something you know is often harder than learning it to begin with.  You can learn how to teach, but the only way you can learn how to handle obstacles is to encounter them.  It's not fun, but overcoming those things is what helps a good teacher become a great teacher.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Question everything: Taiko solos

We just had a workshop with Stanford Taiko, part of which we had them doing solos with a lot of movement and very little striking.

We had six drums set up, one per person, and eventually got people moving all over the place: around the drum, facing away from the drum, moving far away from the drum, etc.  Very few notes were played even amongst the group of six.

So it got me thinking, if it's your turn to solo and all you do is it still a taiko solo?  Does it matter if there are notes played or not?  Does a player need to still address the drum?  Is a solo without notes still a taiko solo as long as there are notes played in the rest of the song?  Does having bachi while soloing automatically mean it's a taiko solo?  What about bachi but no taiko?

If it's easy to say "no notes = not a taiko solo", then what if they play only a few notes?  How many notes per solo is then a taiko solo?  It's a slippery slope!

This also touches on the question of "what is taiko".  What if a taiko player solos on a timpani?  Or a tire?  Is it a taiko solo?  Is it a solo if the other instruments are taiko but not the one they are soloing on?

There's not going to be a right or wrong answer, I just want people to think about how they define certain things that they might take for granted.  More awareness often leads to more understanding!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Asalato Journey, part 3

So for this year's annual concert in March, I'm writing a transition using asalato.  I got 4 new pair from Kris Bergstrom when he visited Japan last and they're a great size for once!

I definitely hit a ceiling with what I could do; my right hand does the basic stuff really well but I hadn't used the left too much.  Even so, there's a whole host of flipping/spinning that feels like a huge jump in difficulty, but someday...

Anyways, my original idea was to have a few asalato + a shime, with me playing one of each.  While I think I could pull it off, I felt the shime was taking away from the focus of the transition, which is the asalato.  Since most people have never seen one, I want that to be what people enjoy.

I do want to add something other than asalato, but as a secondary tone.  And I want to showcase some of the cool things asalato can do, but without risking a lot of mistakes - in other words, doing simple things well!

This is both a compositional challenge and a push on my asalato skills.  I can clack and twirl fine when I'm practicing, but this will be a performance and I only get one shot!  I'm not worried about failing as much as I just want it to be a good clean run.

Maybe once it's done, I'll see if I can get permission to post a video of it on here!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Isolation by parts

The other night in karate, we partnered up and watched the other person do a single kick over and over and over.  The watcher could tell their partner to slow it down, kick higher, stand up straight, kick from a stance, break it down into sections, etc.

The goal was two-fold: to have your technique analyzed under a microscope, and to observe what your partner was doing so as to be aware of possible issues in your own technique.

A kick I thought I had a good grip on was picked apart - not in the kick itself but all the other parts.  None of it was really new, just things I had neglected or forgotten about.  And this was just one kick of many, one technique of LOTS.  Oy.

So how to apply this to taiko?  You might find that you can tell a lot by looking at a single strike, but often that's not enough.  Take a short - and I mean short - section of a song and have someone watch you or watch them.  Do it over and over with different parameters.  Try it on the left side to see if the same issues show up there.  Do it one strike at a time.  Do it really slow.  Do it really fast!  Change things up to isolate any issues that might be there.

Isolation is something you can even do on your own, in a mirror or recording yourself to watch later, or sometimes just by doing it over and over and doing some mental checking-in.

The more you do this as a drill, the easier it becomes to spot things in yourself and others when it's not isolated.  It improves your critical eye and body awareness, two skills that are invaluable when growing as an artist.  Try it out!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Teaching through questions

Remember that old saying?

"Teach a man to fish and you'll feed him for a day.  Unless that man was just asking you for directions and now is confused why you gave him a fish."  Or something like that, anyways.

Something I try to do more and more when I'm teaching is to answer a question by asking a question.  While that can be annoying when handled poorly, it's a great tool to make the person find the answer on their own.

There's generally two outcomes from this: they answer it right or wrong.  Sure, sometimes they might get close or "in the ballpark", but still.

If they get it wrong, at least you made them think about it!  And that is huge.  It makes them less reliant on being spoon-fed and then you can tell/show them the answer.  If they get it right, even better!  You've now shown them that they knew the answer all along, but didn't have the confidence to believe it.

Is this always the right approach?  Absolutely not.  If you're teaching something totally unfamiliar or teaching people brand new to the art, this just becomes frustrating.  You also have to know the answer to the question asked you, and not just use it as a deflection. 

Finally, even if you don't teach or assist, you can use this concept to ask yourself the question before you ask it of the instructor.

Questions can be helpful, but also used as a tool to help a student come to the right answers!

Monday, January 6, 2014


It all comes down to your grip.  No matter how strong, energetic, athletic, creative, or flexible you are, without a good grip on your bachi, you’re hampered.

Imagine trying to cook dinner while wearing oven mitts the whole time. Sure, you could do it, but it would take a lot longer and probably not be as good of a meal overall.  I find that a lot of people who play taiko don’t even realize they’re wearing those mitts, as it were.

I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on grip, but it’s something I spend a lot of time studying.  I went from years of having several noticeable calluses on my hands (which started as blisters) to having only one that's noticeable and a few that are pretty mild.

So how do you improve your grip?  To be honest, that’s something you could spend an entire workshop on.  In fact, that’s something I spend a lot of time on in my striking workshops! 

The one thing that I can talk about most effectively here is options.  What are your options when gripping bachi?

There’s a top, middle, and bottom grip.  My other fingers are extended to show the important parts of each one:
So what are the benefits of these grips and why would you need more than one?

The easy answer?  Blisters.  Imagine new bachi on a hot summer day, some sweaty playing and ouch!  Now what?  How do you keep playing when one of your fingers is crying out for mercy?  If you’re used to different grips, you can shift the fingers and keep playing, even if it’s not as comfortable.  Without the ability to switch, the pain is only going to get worse or you have to let your playing suffer…or both!

The more complex answer?  Efficiency.  Some grips can be more suited to certain things, especially the top and bottom grips.  The top grip is sometimes called the “shime grip” because it lends itself to quicker movements.  The bottom grip is often more comfortable for less rapid striking.

The reason your top two fingers can play much more rapidly isn’t just because they’re the strongest two of each hand, it’s also because you can use all your fingers to squeeze quickly when striking.  The closer you get to the bottom two fingers, the more you lose that space between the end of the bachi and  your palm.  When I’m playing very fast, that snap-squeeze action helps me both strike quicker than any other part of my body can and helps keep my bachi where I want it.

If you’re playing a repetitive pattern like dongo, there’s no need to tax your top two fingers when you might “need” them later in the song or set.  Using the bottom grip saves you some resources.  With enough practice, you’ll find that some patterns you used to need your top fingers for can be played with the bottom (or middle) two.  In general, the more patterns that you can shift down your fingers, the more skilled your hands are.
A lot of what works for you needs to come from trying things out.  You may work really well with a bottom grip as a default if your hand strength isn’t enough for what you’re trying to play.  You may find that a middle grip feels weird at first but becomes the most comfortable.  The core idea here is to be aware of what you’re doing – in all things – so that you can make informed decisions and get better!