Thursday, May 29, 2014

Collegiate Invitationals 2014

So last weekend, I attended the 20th Annual Collegiate Invitationals down in Southern California, held at California State Northridge and hosted by Jishin Daiko.

I had a lot of fun as part of SJT's workshop team - we performed amongst the other workshop leaders which showed the kids who everyone was, we did three workshops throughout both days, and there was a lot of socializing both with the kids and the other leaders.  I'm not going to write a review of the weekend, but instead talk about the differences between Collegiate Invitationals (CI) and the North American Taiko Conference (NATC).

The first difference I noticed is in the energy from the participants.  You have a younger crowd which lends itself to a different energy from NATC, because the latter has a huge range of ages but a lot less people in the younger spectrum.  With NATC I feel like people are really excited to be there; to learn from leaders they are really excited by.  With CI, the energy is more about hanging out with people you haven't seen in a while and meeting new friends.  It's like the participant focus at CI is more inward towards self and friends and at NATC it's more outwards towards participants and leaders.  Both events have a mix of both energies however, and neither one is better or worse; just the general feel I got. 

NATC is also a much bigger production, with more resources, a little over twice the number of participants, thrice the number of workshop leaders, and a TON more support staff to handle it all.  That makes CI a little more intimate in a way as things tend to happen in a smaller space and you see the same people over and over.

Both events are chaotic, but I feel like CI has more chaos for the size compared to NATC which has more chaos in total just because there's more stuff happening.  To NATC's benefit, there's an institutional memory of what worked and what didn't that gets passed to the next Conference.

With CI, participants don't get to pick which workshops they get, which means it's a mixed bag, but I feel like most workshops are pretty beneficial since the kids haven't had much exposure to a lot of other taiko.  With NATC, you may sign up for workshops you really want and only get some of them, which is a yay-boo situation.

I have to admit it was fun during the workshops to show the kids some tricks they'd never seen before.  It's also fun knowing I've been playing taiko longer than many of them have been alive, ha!  I'd love to go back and help teach another series of workshops, but it may not happen for a couple of years depending on SJT's schedule and where I'm needed at the time.  Looking forward to the next one!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Collegiate Invitationals 2014: pre-post

I was away all Memorial Day weekend, attending the 20th Annual Collegiate Invitationals down in Southern California.

I intend to write about it for my next post, but didn't want to leave an empty day today!

See y'all then!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Which is worse?

What's the worse to you?

- Someone who plays with genuine, unbound spirit but strikes sloppily, notes not quite falling into place.

- Someone who plays really fluidly and with ease but doesn't exude a sense of joy or energy.

- Someone who plays with great technical precision but looks jerky and awkward when they move?

Yes, this is a bit of rock-paper-scissors.  Still, I bet you could pick one of the answers without too much trouble.

But it's not the answer that's as interesting to know as what your answer says about you.  Are you guilty of the other two options you didn't pick?  Are you guilty of the one you did pick?  Are they all equally bad in your eyes?  Are they all equally good?  (In other words, does a player with one really good attribute and one really bad attribute still seem like a good player to you?)

Nothing earth-shattering here; just a fun question to make you think a little.

Monday, May 19, 2014

That's mine!

Ever feel like you “own” a part?  Something that you feel you "deserve" to play because you've been playing it for a long time??

Someday, the odds are someone else is going to learn it from you, or practice that spot while you play another position, or even perform it instead of you.  How does that make you feel?

I’ve definitely had parts that I’ve played more than anyone else in the group.  After years playing a particular spot, sometimes it was hard not to play it, because I felt like it was “mine”.  But that’s silly.  I mean think about it...

My goal should be to play any spot in every song, and play them all well.  That benefits me and it benefits the group  So let’s say I get to that point.  Should I be the last soloist in every song then?  Should I be on the most challenging spot in each song?  Should I play the more specialized instrument in each song?  And even if the answer is “yes”, does that mean no one else ever should?  After all, their goal is ideally the same as mine.  So it either becomes competition, or selfishness.

Competition I can understand because some groups work that way.  If you can play better than the other person, you can take their spot.  But in taiko, it’s not that common and would lead to where a few players get all the glory while others don’t get as much chance to develop.  When I was newer, I really wanted some of the spots I get to play a lot now.  Now that I “have” them, should I deny them to other people?  How’s that fair?

Of course I love playing certain positions.  But it speaks to my ability as both an artist and a teacher if I can help someone play those parts.  It’s one thing to play something well, but can I get someone else to do it as well or better than me?  Not as easy.  And if I’m actually good at playing that part, I’ll still get to play it again.

So if you ever feel like “well, I need to be playing that part”, ask yourself why?  Is it out of ego?  Are you worried it won’t be played as well without you?  Unless it was a part specifically written for you, odds are other people will (and should) learn and play it after you leave the group.  Even better that they do it while you’re still around so you can help teach it to them!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Soloing, part 10: Hearing yourself

Musically, there are two types of taiko solos.

The first kind draws in an audience, making them active participants as they try to predict where you're going and either are rewarded by being right, or pleasantly surprised when it does something unexpected.  The audience might not even know they're making those predictions, but they're definitely following along.

The second kind has a lot of random notes and patterns without much repetition.  It's almost like the hands/limbs are twitchy and the notes come out whenever.  The audience can't "grab on" to anything and will tend to be less interested and just...observers.

What's the biggest difference between these solos?  It's the soloist's ability to listen to themselves play.  There are two types of listening:

  • Input comes from your brain.  It's what tells you what notes and patterns to play, phrasing, etc.  If you were to sing your solo in your head with kuchishoga, you'd be listening to this as input.
  • Output is hearing what your notes actually sound like when you play them.  Volume, tone, and if you're in tempo is what output tells you.
It's not always easy to listen to your solo when you've got to worry about your form (kata), if you're projecting enough energy (ki), and if people are watching (nerves, lol).  On top of that, you've often got an ensemble behind/around you that's playing while you are, so that adds a variable of noise in your ears that can be distracting.

In taiko, you can put out a lot of visuals and really sell it, but without the musicality - without melody in your solo - you're just making a...dramatic spectacle of yourself.  Use it wisely or the impact diminishes pretty quickly.  And it's not like a pattern has to be fancy to make it melodic.  I've seen people sell a straight beat like it was the most impressive thing ever!

So take away the physical, take away the emotional, even take away the rest of the group.  Can you sing your solo using kuchishoga?  How does it sound?  Does it sound musical?  Coherent?  Does it seem like a random series of notes?  Unconnected?
  1. Think of the music you listen to.  Are you enjoying patterns that have a sequence to them?  
  2. Think of the rhythms that make your head bob.  Can you predict where things are going and "feel" the intention of the musician(s)?
  3. Listen to other taiko solos.  Are the ones you like the most full of random notes and patterns?  Or do they give you something to "ride along" with?  Also, I'd bet most people would say that the best solos build to a climax.  You can't build to that point without some sort of logical sequence, even if it's really simple.
So listen to your input, listen to your output, and take steps to make your solos melodic and musical.  It makes an ok solo good and a good solo great!  Plus, it's more fun to listen to.  :)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Beginner's Mind, part 3

I've mentioned before that Beginner's Mind can be taken outside the studio, outside the class, but now I want to look inwards into the classes themselves.

Let's hope you believe in the idea of Beginner's Mind, first of all.  You enter the dojo as you normally would, but then when does Beginner's Mind take affect?

It's easy to start it when you practice/play; you can think of any number of details to work on.  Things like form, technique, ki, etc., are something any of us can take advantage of.

But what about before that?  When you're prepping the equipment, can you improve on that somehow?  Maybe you help tie drums before you play - can you find something to improve on each time you do it?  Better pulling technique?  More efficient stand-building?

Still, how about even before that?  Do you do warmups before you get to the drums?  Stretching?  Can you approach that the same way you would approach practicing on taiko?  You want to get more flexible, I would assume.  Or maybe you want to get stronger - or both!

Wait, what about before even that?  When you bow to each other or bow into the dojo, can you improve on that technique?

Now, I hear the question a lot of you probably had while reading that: "why would I want or need to improve on my bow?"  Ah, thank you for asking!  It's not that the bow itself will prove helpful, even if you somehow perfect it, it's having the mindset that even the small things matter.  If you can make yourself look at everything as training, then you can extend Beginner's Mind to so much more than just hitting a drum.

Some people may find that exhausting.  Others may feel it takes the "fun" out of the art.  As for me, I like knowing that while I'm working on the big things, I'm trying to make sure that the little things - the gaps in between - are getting pushed up, as well.  It makes me that much stronger of an artist.

So where can you improve that you've not thought about before?  Even more, what happens when you do?

Thursday, May 8, 2014


When I enter a dojo, I bow.  This small gesture helps me remember that I’m not just walking into a normal room, I’m here and am agreeing to learn something.  Taiko, karate, whatever – it doesn’t really matter.

For SJT, after bowing into the dojo and at the beginning of practice, we bow in to each other in a circle, do whatever exercises are planned, then end with mokuso.  Mokuso is the act of meditation, often done sitting in seiza (the kneeling position that's very prevalent in martial arts).  In SJT, we use mokuso to calm and focus our thoughts for the practice ahead.

In karate, although we also do mokuso, there is emphasis on breathing.  We tighten the abdominal muscles during to practice the sensation we should have during kiai.  Tightening those muscles helps make taking an attack hurt a little less, so for us this is a very useful thing to practice.

I find that the act of actually tightening my abs puts me in a much more focused mindset than just focusing on breathing.  It’s a slight physical exertion that reminds me why I’m there and what I’m about to do.  With taiko, without a similar component, I find my mind wanders.  I’ll think about taiko, but it’s not as focused as I’d like.

What about you?  What sorts of rituals do you do in your group before you practice and how does it help (or not) get you into the right frame of mind?

Monday, May 5, 2014

When teaching is hard

I don't teach for a living and I don't get paid to teach unless I'm doing a workshop at a conference, but I tend to teach a lot.  There's a lot of challenges as a teacher that make me a better student, but sometimes there are challenges that are just plain tough.

Sometimes it's hard to figure out how much to discipline a group when they're not focused.  That depends on the environment.  At karate, maybe it's pushups.  At taiko, maybe it's telling people to please focus.  But even that's not a hard and fast rule, because something like pushups might just make people frustrated rather than focus more.  So I have to gauge things.

There's also the issue of teaching when people are already tired and/or grumpy - hey, I still have to teach you stuff, but now I have to figure out how to make it effective.  Do I let you know I sympathize?  Do I try to rally the group with positive words?  Do I promise a water break if you do the next thing well?

But for me, the hardest thing to teach are beginners.

I define beginners as those coming to classes over a span of time, maybe a couple of months, or even up to a year.  When I lead a Public Workshop that lasts for 3 hours or assist a Master workshop on the road, those one-shots are a totally different deal.  Those aren't meant for people to practice and come back; it's just a cramming of general information.

At the dojo, we have a new batch of beginners every 3 months.  We're constantly teaching the same basics and fundamentals over and over.  And where there's a large group of beginners, there's always a few that have issues.  Sometimes it's having no sense of right vs. left, or no sense of direction when turning around.  Sometimes it's being so tense that it pains me to watch. ("It's karate, so I must be fierce yarrrr!")   Sometimes it's not getting a basic fundamental no matter how I approach it. ("bend the back leg.  No, the other back leg.  No, bend it, not move it...")

When it's really bad, sometimes I feel like I just want to give up and ignore the few people that seem impossible to teach - and they're people who do care, but just can't do, at least not yet.  It's my job to make those who can't do, do...but damn is that hard sometimes!  It's really frustrating to not be able to get someone to get the "simple" things no matter how hard you try, but whose fault is it?  Ultimately, this is my responsibility...right?  Still, if I'm going to practice what I preach, then I have to keep trying and tackle the hard things because they will make me a better teacher, AND it will help those difficult students, now and in the future.

Why am I posting this?  Just writing up my thoughts.  A rant without being a rant, as it were.  Will I be able to better handle the next difficult student?  We'll see, won't we?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

New Song Diary: Bangerz, part 2

Last night I was able to teach a few sections of the Amiga song idea.  It was really nice to be back in composition mode again, and if this song gets picked to be developed/played, I'll be really happy to see it come to fruition.

I had been planning this session out for a good week and was glad to see people (mostly) doing what I was teaching.  I say "mostly" because some of the things were hard to get in a short time or physically taxing - not because people weren't good enough.

Interestingly, some of the things I thought would be harder were easier for people to pick up and vice-versa.  Still, I was able to see certain things actually happening and saw what needed to be modified, so from here I can flesh more of it out.

Let's hope this momentum gets the other song ideas I have stirring once this round is over; I missed composing!