Monday, March 31, 2014

Lower body

SJT is known for our use of our lower body.  However, I'm not sure if most people realize that it's not movement for movement's sake, it actually generates a lot of our power and disperses the workload throughout the body.

I see far too many taiko players who hold their lower bodies stiff and/or who do so much with their arms/hands without letting the lower body contribute.  Sometimes it looks painful how much is going on "up top" with so little given to "down below".

Now I know that some groups and some styles don't use a lot of lower body activation.  If it's a purposeful aesthetic, I can understand.  I just think most people don't have those parameters set in their group but don't get a chance to really explore what the lower body can do for them.

Today we rehearsed our touring program, leaving next week.  I'm playing every song without a single break (aside from the intermission), with a lot of ending parts and physical effort.  I consider myself in pretty good shape, but if I didn't use my lower body throughout - from shime to odaiko - I would be a gasping mess by the end, and probably in some pain.

It's hard to talk about what you can do with the lower body without showing, without demonstrating.  Words aren't sufficient.  However, you can start by thinking about what your lower body does (or doesn't do) normally:
  • Are you on the balls or heels of your feet?
  • Are you flat-footed or able to push off when needed?
  • Do your legs remain still when you play or are they letting you shift your weight?
  • Do your knees bend inwards; do your thighs collapse in?
  • Can you shift your weight from side to side easily?
These realizations won't magically make you able to use your lower body more, but if you're not aware of what you're doing, you can't get any better.  It's one thing to move when the choreography says so, but when you're not given specifics, I think you can only benefit from exploring ways to let your lower body move.

I don't know how many people will eventually read this post, but I really hope some of you take this idea to heart and experiment with what's available to you.  Whether it's through self-exploration or workshops taught by others, your body will thank you for it!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

New Song Diary: Bangerz in the Fall

So after our last concert with the Bangerz (the local -  and very talented - San Jose crew), we're doing a short tour with them later this year.  The group will be writing some new pieces to add to the existing ones.  I didn't compose anything for the first show, but I want to try something this time.

I'm taking tracks from video game music, specifically from the Commodore Amiga 500 - a computer that hasn't been made in decades, by a company that hasn't been around for nearly as long.  Some of the games on the Amiga had songs that I really got into, so much so that I would record them on a micro-cassette recorder to listen to when I was away from the computer.

I've been listening to and narrowing down tracks to use, figuring out pitches and beats-per-minutes, and thinking about how to make a piece that's enjoyable for the audience, and more than just nostalgia for me.  I need to figure out how to make a cohesive piece out of parts, how to arrange the taiko to make for an interesting set up, when and what to play on, and how to make something interesting in the movements.  Basically, everything from writing a new piece!

It'll be interesting to work with the Bangerz this time, since it'll be a new experience.  It's a variable that I'm not used to, and I think they'll be able to do some amazing stuff with the tracks I give them!

I'll let you know how things go, but I have to say it's nice to have inspiration to write again.  It's been a while!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Being proactive

One comment I used to get all the time in my earlier taiko days was that I wasn’t being peripheral or proactive enough.  I would let things happen around me rather than see what needed to be done and then do it.  Examples of this were cleaning up after an event or helping put stuff away.

In the dojo, there’s a dry mop and we expect someone to wipe the floor before practice when there’s time.  Doesn’t matter who does it, it just needs to happen.  Unfortunately, there’s only about 4-5 people who think to do it, out of a class of…40-45 or so.  Even if you take out the beginners who don’t always care so much, that’s still a good pool of 10-15 intermediate students.  So maybe one-third think to sweep.

What about you?  What tasks are done by others in your group, whatever group(s) you’re in, that you let happen?  Are you aware of the things that you could help out with?  Do you feel like other people will take care of them and it’s not your responsibility?  What if everyone else in the group felt the same way?

This is one of the reasons I eschew being too social in taiko, because I can see how it can be a distraction. People that wind up chatting a lot often have others doing things nearby (or even around) them.  It can lead to resentment if it happens too much.

For the dojo, while we’d like more people to be proactive in the sweeping (at least), we do have one incentive system in place.  If one of the black belts starts sweeping and isn’t replaced (or asked to be replaced) by a lower rank before the end, the whole class gets to do pushups.  By the time you hit black belt, you’ve swept the floors hundreds of times, so you shouldn’t have to - that’s our mindset. And it does make people much more aware that the floors should be swept!  But that’s probably not going to fly in most taiko groups, ha!

So ask yourself before, during, and after practices – what gets done all the time that you can help out with?  Cleaning, setting up, putting away, maybe something else?  If it’s always done but you’re never one to do it…why not?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A picture is worth 1,000 excuses.

We were packing up after our last in-studio rehearsal for our annual concert when one of the song leaders showed me a picture he had taken of me.  The note had been made before that I needed to lower my head in the beginning of this song, and I thought I had been doing it ok since then.

Nope!  The picture he showed me had my head clearly not tilted enough and I realized I had to exaggerate what I thought was “ok”.  It was exactly what I needed to see in order to fix things.

This is something that can benefit both the teachers and the students out there.  I’ve said how recording things during practice is very useful – and still is – but a picture to demonstrate a point is also really useful.  If someone is leaning in a weird way, holding their bachi poorly, not making the right expressions, etc., a picture will show proof.

There’s always the chance someone will come back with “well that was a fluke” or “I don’t normally do that.”  If they are confronted with proof of the issue and have trouble accepting it, well that’s a larger problem.

If you are shown a picture that highlights something a person wants you to fix, maybe it’s not always easy to accept it, but now you have a really good tool to help change things.  You now know what you’re doing, so you can adjust, exaggerate, tweak – whatever it takes!

So if you’re trying to work on something kata-related, maybe ask a friend to take pictures at certain times from different angles, so you can see for yourself what it looks like.  As with most analysis like this, it’s not always easy to digest, but it does get easier and ultimately can make you a stronger artist.

Monday, March 17, 2014


What is it about the greats - the musical masters - that make them sound so much different from everyone else?  I'm not talking about just taiko here, but that's where I'm going to focus.

The best taiko players I've heard aren't necessarily the ones who can play the most notes.  There will always be someone who can play more notes than them, so it's not about that.  The best I've heard also tend not to be the loudest strikers, either.  Hitting hard is something a lot of people can do; it's hitting well that's difficult.  And while big motions can be fun to watch, intentional movements have a lot more impact.

The great musicians place their notes with purpose and control.  Patterns feel organic, textured.  Space is used to convey meaning.  Style doesn't really matter, nor does athleticism.  Some of the best can't play as fast or hit as loud or move as quickly, but when they hit, those notes carry weight.

Now I realize this is all subjective and somewhat flowery speak, but the point is in identifying what we hear in the players that have that expertise and mastery of the art.  Practice and experience got them there, but so did all the things I talk about in my blog: awareness, pushing past limits, listening to how they sound, etc. It came from hard work and honest practice.

Nuance takes time, but time itself won't give you nuance.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Drill: Developing the left hand

As taiko players, it's important to have both hands be strong.  When one hand is weaker, it limits the tempo and difficulty of the patterns we can play.

Most taiko players are right handed and most patterns are right-hand oriented (don doko, don tsuku) - the left hand gets a bum deal.  The best solution is to practice a lot of patterns switched, starting on the left.  However, a lot of training can happen outside of practice time, if you really want it.

When I was doing accounting work for a company many many years ago, the 10-key calculator was in between two different computers at my workstation.  Half the time it was on my left, and half on the right.  It was too much of a pain to unplug it and move it each time to make it on the right side of the keyboards, so I dealt with it on my left side half the time.  Although it was a pain at first, I got faster and faster with my left hand and I felt the results of that "training" in my playing in those years.

So I got to thinking about what other things a person can do to work their weaker hand, outside of the studio or practice pad.  Try doing these things in the weaker hand, or switching which hand does what:

  • Using chopsticks/fork/spoon
  • Brushing your teeth
  • Turning a key in a lock
  • Using soap/shampooing
  • Using a remote control
  • Scissors (really hard to use in the left hand unless they're left-handed scissors!)
  • Washing dishes
  • Washing the car
  • Pouring a drink
  • Throwing something
The list can go on and on; I'm sure you can think of others to add.

(As for the picture above, that's a Gyro Ball.  A fun little toy that really works your grip and wrist strength.   I recommend getting one if you can; they're not too expensive, easy to use, and actually gives you a workout!)

Monday, March 10, 2014


Could you do an entire practice without saying a word?

For most of us, myself included, probably not.  If you're giving instruction, you're answering a question, you're giving a kiai, or telling someone where something goes, etc., you need to talk to people.

But how much more than that do you need to do?  How much do you do?

If you've read my early posts, you know I talked about this kind of thing more often.  I'm bringing it up because I've been shushing people in the dojo more lately and it's on my mind.

During partner drills, when the focus should be on the drill, chatter is wasted energy and lost focus.  I totally understand when people need to say something for safety or clarification; that's not chatter.  When people are in the back of class while other belt groups do a kata or drill, the idea is to keep quiet and respect those who are drilling, not to take a break and chat with friends.

So I thought of the question, how much practice can you get through without saying anything?  How much do you talk during practice, and how much of that takes away from what you could get out of it?

Now I know most groups allow some friendly banter, and most people have it.  But it can be too much especially when it's a habit, when it's distracting the people you're talking to, or when it's distracting others around you.  I try to keep myself in check, but it's not always easy for me to always avoid chatting to someone next to me just because they're there.  I'm human.

So the next time you start talking during practice, ask yourself, are you talking for the benefit of someone?  Or the benefit of the group?  Or because you feel more comfortable filling silence with words?  Or because it's just...what you usually do?

I also know that talking can lead to more camaraderie, bonding, and a sense of community.   So to eliminate it from practices is harsh.  Still, are you aware of how much of it you do and when it would be better to hold off?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Question Everything: Context

What's wrong with kicking bachi out of the way when they're on the floor in front of you?

I can feel the collective shudder from all the taiko people reading this.  How the hell could you do such a thing?

At the very least, a person's bachi are the means by which they play taiko, so they're kind of important.  On the other side of the scale, they're the link between the heavens, the player, and the drum.  So thinking of kicking them away is anathema to pretty much...everyone.

So what happens when you're playing taiko and someone drops one that rolls near you either during a solo or a part that requires a lot of movement?  Are you going to risk messing up - or injury - just to avoid stepping on it?  Or will you "bite the bullet" and kick it away, whether it's under a stand or even off-stage?  Is it ok in that context?

What about when a bachi breaks on you and a piece of it is on the floor in front of you?  Same question as above - will you kick it out of the way, or dance around it?

I like finding exceptions to absolutes, and loopholes in logic, even if I don't take advantage of them.  So my point here isn't so much the specific questions about bachi.  Instead, I want you to think about things you think you would never do while playing/practicing and try to think of a context that would change your mind, even if unlikely.

Think of this as a mental exercise more than finding a reason to be contrary.

I'll leave you with my favorite example of this type of thinking:

Parent, in mid-argument: "If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?"
Kid: "Well considering my friends generally aren't suicidal people, if they were all jumping off the bridge, it's probably because it's on fire at the time.  So, yes, I probably would."

Monday, March 3, 2014

Does comfort hold you back?

What are you doing now that will make you a better player a year from now?

The other week at the dojo, I spent an entire class pushing to make my front stance longer and working on initiating stepping by squeezing from the thighs, as is proper technique for us.

It sucked.

I got tired a lot faster than normal and near the end of the workout I seriously considered stepping out to take a break a couple of times.  I was also the slowest person in the class, even slower than the beginners.  That was a surprising blow to the ego, as it turns out.  I had to remind myself that I was slow for a reason, and it was both temporary and for a reason.

Why did I put myself through all that?  Because comfort in technique can lead to complacency, and complacency shows when people work on something until they forget about it.

Once we get comfortable doing things a certain way, we'll default to it.  That's physiology, that's human nature.  So then where do you go from there?  How do you get better?

Imagine taking up weightlifting.  You start light and learn how to lift properly first.  Once you get the basics of technique, you move up in weight.  You get to a moderate weight, and stay there until it becomes pretty easy.  And then...then what?  Do you increase the weight or just stay where it's comfortable?  Upping the weight means struggle, means more sweating, means you won't look as calm and composed, but it also means working towards improvement over time.  Do you lift heavy one day then go back to easy from then on?  Or do you grit your teeth and go back to the heavier weights the next time and the next?

My front stance is never going to get any stronger if I don't purposely make it longer every time I step in it.  My technique is never going to be any stronger if I don't squeeze from the center every time I initiate a step.  It's not going to be easy.  I have to want it and I have to make it happen over and over.  I won't always get to focus on doing those things, but the only person that's going to make it happen when I can is me.

A year from now, if I keep pushing just that little bit more each class from now, I'll see the results.  I'll have a lower stance, I'll have better core mechanics.  (Btw, the stance being longer is cosmetic - the muscle development and delivery of weight is what matters.)

It's easy to pay attention to something you get comments on, but what about when it's something physically challenging and takes months to make a little bit of progress?  What about when something you were good at is now something you struggle with while you try harder?  Willpower and ego will definitely get a workout...

After a point, you have to determine what you want to be better at and be willing to work at it longer than a class or two - remembering why it's important even when it might not be as fun as it was before.  Comfort is good when it prevents injury.  Comfort that keeps you from pushing yourself to the next level is not.