Monday, June 30, 2014

The Next Taiko Star

Somewhere in my blog I think I wrote about the reality show "The Next Food Network Star".   The more I watch this show, the more I think it parallels what it's like to audition for SJT and what we look for in our members.

The competitors have to make food that looks good (kata), tastes good (musical technique), have a genuine and pleasant personality on camera (ki), and adapt to their coaches and judges telling them how to improve (attitude).  Granted, they're all competing against each other for ONE spot, so there's a lot of extra pressure.

The more I watch the show, the more I see how certain challenges would be hard for most taiko players (including myself) if they were adapted to taiko instead of food.  Try giving a 90-second tour of your practice space, however you want to do it, while including a useful taiko tip and making sure your personality comes through (and you only get one shot!)  Or how about working in a group with two other people to do a skit loosely based on taiko, that shows comedic timing and a clever premise?  Then there's doing a demonstration on camera that's been purposely sabotaged, where something like one of your bachi has been taken or the lights go off during the middle of it, etc.

Some of these scenarios just sound like fun to me, but if I knew my future in taiko depended on the outcome, holy crap!

There was an episode where teams of three had to do something comedic (like I mentioned above).  One of the competitors got this comment: "If you weren't in it, would it have mattered?"  In other words, their performance was so lackluster and their presence was so minimal in the skit that it wouldn't have made a difference if they weren't in it at all.

Now I know most of my readers play kumidaiko, or ensemble drumming - you're one drum amongst many.  And the case could be made that if you take away a drum here, a player there, you'd still have a decent song.  In this case, it's more about your presence, your ki.  Are you entertaining to watch without being distracting?  Are you adding to the performance even if you're in a supplemental role?  Would people notice your absence?

I also know that some people don't really care if they're "seen" or not.  They play for other reasons, and that's totally fine.  It's also nerve-racking for some to think of being evaluated on so many aspects while they're trying to have fun.  Still, if you want to improve, if you want to grow as an artist, maybe think of yourself as a contestant on a show that does judge you on different aspects.  A little internalized competition can be an excellent motivator!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Question Everything: Anger

John Lydon, (a.k.a. “Johnny Rotten”) was one of the biggest figures in Punk Rock.  Lead singer of the Sex Pistols, he made some huge waves and wound up being an iconic, controversial figure in the music world.

In his song "Rise" there's a line: “Anger is an energy.”  This is very true.  It’s often an ugly, dangerous energy, but it’s still energy.

In taiko, we tend to see anger as a very negative thing to be avoided. Most people I know (in taiko or not) will do a lot to be away from negative energy, from ignoring the person feeling it to physically distancing themselves from it.  Angry members/students offend and upset those around them, often leading to serious group dynamic issues.  Angry players make the audience uncomfortable and can even damage the drums.  Anger’s not even that great for the individual as well – tension, negative emotions, and probably a host of chemical reactions that aren’t favorable to the system.

Now I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t question things around me.   What if anger could be used beneficially?  Is there a way to channel it for something beneficial?

I’m no psychologist.  I write blog posts on what I know – and question what I don’t, looking for answers.  And I know that I’ve used anger in positive ways in playing taiko.

Sometimes before a concert, I’ve pep-talked myself angry.  Does that sound weird?  We think of pep talks as a positive, boosting experience, normally.  But I think of it like a boxer getting ready for a fight.  I want to totally destroy my opponent.  In this case, my opponent isn’t the drum or the audience or other players – it’s my doubts, my fears, my worries…it’s failure.  And so I might get myself a little angry to deal with it, proactively.

I dare my doubts to get in my head, I trash-talk to my fears. It’s a bit silly, and not something I do very often, but sometimes it’s useful.

Using anger in this way comes in useful even if I’m not preparing beforehand.  During a solo I might find myself getting off tempo or losing momentum mentally, physically.  I’ve literally screamed “NO!” in my head and used that anger to immediately refocus on what needs to be done.  There are times when I’m getting really tired and I use a little bit of anger to make myself keep going, keep pushing.  It works for me.

Getting angry is part of life.  Anger can be disruptive and harmful, but recognizing when and how to use it, even for just moments, can bring something pretty handy to your toolkit.

As for the song “Rise”, it was an anti-apartheid song.  That’s one way to channel anger!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Tension at the Dentist

Unusual post title, right?

So last week I went in for my teeth cleaning and although I wasn’t worried it was going to hurt, they’re never fun.  I know some people fall asleep in the chair, but no one can say having their teeth worked on is “comfortable”.

As I was lying there, hands folded across my stomach, I noticed that I was holding tension in different places.   One time it would be my thumbs pressing together, another time in my right calf muscle, another time across all of my toes.  Rarely would I feel when it started, most of the time it was only after I’d been holding that tension for some length of time.

It’s pretty obvious why there was tension; it’s not a big surprise that I was at times uncomfortable or they found a sensitive spot.  But what was interesting to me was the tension crept in whilst I was unaware and stayed there for who knows how long until I made myself relax there.  And it kept happening, over and over.  It’s not I was getting as stiff as a plank, but it was tension I didn’t want nor need.

You bet this relates to taiko.  When it comes to getting fluidity and being efficient and getting the best sound out of the drum, relaxation is the key.  The stiffer you are, the tighter you are, and the harder you have to work at things.

It’s not easy to be in the moment, playing through patterns and movements and kiai then having to think “am I holding tension in my left quadriceps?”  That’s not something you can do without practice and there are better ways to build up to that point, rather than forcing it.  Still, there are times when you can take inventory of where tension is creeping in.  Maybe you’re playing ji, maybe it’s a part in the back that’s not too involved, maybe you’re by yourself and have the luxury of time – take a mental accounting of your muscles.  Is your chest tight?  Why?   Are your forearms tense?  No need for that unless you’re at your limit of ability.  What about your butt?  No seriously, are you clenching it?  Why on earth for?  Your calves, are they so stiff that you have no pliability off the floor?  And if you don’t use a lot of footwork in your style, are your toes being tensed?  Poor toes.

Your body is a connected system and tension in one part causes tension in other parts – or at the very least, hampers your overall ability. Think of dancers or martial artists or other taiko players that really inspire you.  Are they tight or fluid?  Struggling or effortless?

It’s easy to spot the obvious signs of tension – muscle fatigue, slow techniques, even discomfort.  Finding tension when it’s subtle, when it creeps in, that’s much harder but just as valuable.   As always, awareness is the key to progress!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Power control

In taiko, power is often misunderstood.  Some people think that more power = better sound, but it's actually much more about striking technique than raw power.  If it wasn't, then a boxer or power lifter would have better strikes on the drum than any of us, right?

In fact, let's look at boxing for a minute.  Whether or not you've actually watched a match, it's easy to know how a boxer looks when they're punching.  There are powerful hits due to technique and putting their whole body into their attacks, but there's something else to it - control.  Without control, a boxer would be like a brawler in a bar fight, minus the inebriation: wild swinging and balance loss.  Instead, punches follow punches in combinations and are pulled back to be used in defense or offense again.  That takes control.

I see a lot of players wail on the drum and even if the drum can "take it", that power's going to be lessened down the road due to age, injury, or just being exhausted from using so much of it!  Controlling that power means it lasts longer.  However, more control doesn't mean more tension, it means using enough power to do what you want and how to get the body ready for the next motion efficiently.

Control comes from muscle strength and dexterity.  You have to have the strength to throw a punch or strike a drum well, but also the strength to halt it or retract it - when you want to do so.  If you flail, your body has to compensate, usually awkwardly.  If you slam into the drum, all that excess force causes a really jarring sound.  But if you're able to use your torso, arms, wrists, and fingers in a complimentary motion, you can still strike pretty hard and prepare for the next strike in a way that lets you play quicker than if you're just trying to generate power.  And that's not even taking into account what your lower body can do for you.

To gain control, you'll need awareness first and foremost.  If you don't know that you lack control, how do you know that you need to develop it?  If you don't know where you lack it, where do you start?

You can search for different drills online, but here's a few starting points:
  • Start slowER.  Play a pattern or song to a metronome at a slower, very comfortable tempo.  After a long while at that tempo, increase tempo by about 3-5 beats per minute and repeat until it's no longer possible for a period of time.  Do this over the course of several days.  It's not even about getting faster over time, but learning control at different tempos.
  • Strength development.  You can use weights, but it's more about conditioning the body.  Yoga can help, or even just finding exercises that work balance.  The "superman" floor exercise is a good example of this, especially the one-legged standing version.
Don't be a "brawler" on the drums, flailing, smacking, wailing away.  Be careful that you don't slam the drum so hard that the sound comes out harsh or abrasive.  Think like a boxer or a dancer or a martial artist and know that each motion needs to be balanced and efficient, not too focused on power.  Control yourself!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Informing yourself

Some taiko groups have a lot of songs in their repertoire.  SJT has nearly (if not over) 100 total, yow!  Some martial art styles have a lot of forms as well - there are about 25 kata in Shotokan, plus or minus depending on what your sensei decides to teach.  If you're learning taiko songs or kata, you're never starting from scratch each time, right?  You have some fundamentals to build on, shapes and movements that you can relate to what's being taught.

In karate, we've been saying that everything you do should be informed by what you've already learned.  We start with shapes and movements that are foreign to most people, sure.  Gotta start somewhere!  But after one basic stance, punch, and kick, most everything else we teach can refer to those three techniques.  This new stance is like the first stance, but the weight goes here and the front foot goes there...  This new block is like the first punch, see how the arm initiates the same way but then turns upwards...  In this way, we are learning a language of the body by starting with three letters and going from there.

There's another, deeper level of informing yourself, in the mechanics of moving, in how one movement relates to another.  How does it feel to open the hips in this stance?  Is it the same to how they should move in another stance?  How does the fist tighten?  Is it the same when striking with an open hand?  How should your posture be at any given moment?  Should it ever deviate?

However, there's still a more fundamental aspect to being informed by your body.  In general, the further away something is from your core, the "stupider" it gets. Without a reference point to go off of, the hands and feet can do some really weird things, things that are disconnected from the rest of the body and unable to use power generated from the core.  If you know how to move your core, how to generate power and be efficient from your center, then that can inform your thighs and shoulders, which inform your knees and elbows, which inform your hands and feet. 

The only way this informed movement can happen is awareness through practice.  It won't come even just by doing something correctly, over and over.  You have to take the time and think about these connections, both slowly and as you're doing them regular speed.  This is invaluable training, even though it doesn't guarantee you're doing things the right way!

Understanding how your body moves as a unit is much more valuable than thinking of it in parts.  Everything you've learned should inform everything you do from that point.  If there's no reference to go from, then how do you know if you're doing it correctly - or even doing it well?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Question Everything: Practicing fundamentals

When left to your own devices, what do you practice?  Are you more likely to:

- Improv/solo/play riffs?
- Play through a piece or chunks of a piece?
- Practice movements of a piece?
- Work on fundimentals/rudiments?

I find that I always have something to learn practicing the fundamentals, on straight beat, triplets, and doro/don tsuku, especially.  I try playing them faster and faster, being aware of what my body is doing and what it's trying to do.  Aware of where tension is building up and how I can release it.  Aware of where my technique is faltering and what adjustments are making things worse or better.

I think as long as you're practicing something, you're helping yourself get better, but I wonder how much better people would get with more focus on fundamentals.  This really isn't a critique but an honest question.

If people took more time on basic patterns and less time doing improv, pieces, solos, etc., would their technique get better at a cost?  Or would things come easier down the line?  For example, instead of thinking about what patterns to play, would working on playing faster (and evenly) help make the connection between what you want to play and what comes out stronger?

I realize this isn't a fully-fleshed out concept, but I was just thinking about it.  And you should too!  :)

Monday, June 9, 2014

Accuracy and precision

Where are you hitting the drum?

If you said "on the head", you're not wrong, but the head is such a big target!  Are you hitting dead center?  Inches away?  Between center and edge?  Near the edge?  Are you hitting different points on the drum every time you strike?

It might not seem like a big difference at first.  You can still make a nice loud sound even if you hit a spot that's 2 inches one way or the other, right?

In karate, we have three basic target areas.  Jodan (upper), chudan (middle), and gedan (lower).  We use those terms for the beginners to know where to stick their fists when they punch.  But after a few months, we start telling them to think of a specific point when they punch, not just "head" or "torso".  A punch directly to the solar plexus can cause serious damage, but hit two inches higher and you just get breastplate - which can hurt, but have far, far less impact on a person.

This is where accuracy and precision come into play.  If I hit someone with a punch consistently but messily around the "sweet spot", then I have good accuracyIf I hit a small target area consistently, then I have good precision, even if it's not the spot I'm trying to hit.  What I want is to have both.

In taiko, it's easy to hear some repetitive patterns (straight beat, dongo) sound very uneven when notes are hitting different locations on the drum head.  If you're drilling on a drum, it can be easy to literally look down and make your bachi hit the same spots.  But when you're playing a song and  thinking about sequence, ki, your solo, proper form, etc., are you sure that your striking is precise?

As we strive to become better taiko players - better artists - we need to find those little things that get overlooked and bring them up along with the big ones.  Accuracy and precision are two of those "little things" that definitely deserve a look!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Soloing, part 11: Standing out

Picture this: you’re watching a taiko piece that has half a dozen soloists in it.  Each soloist is loud and dynamic and fancy and exiting.  On the way home, you recall the song but can’t remember what it was about the solos that you enjoyed.  They all seem to bleed together; it’s a blur.  Sound familiar?  And that's just one song - what about after an entire performance?
In the moment, the most important things about a solo are that it’s working with and not against the song, matching the tempo, and the mood – it needs to be *on*.  But what about standing out?  Being memorable?

This is a delicate subject, because more often than not, when I see someone trying to stand out, trying to be unique, it’s either:
  1. More of the same.  If everyone’s loud, they play louder.  If everyone is playing a lot of notes, they play even more notes. 
  2. Painful to watch.  You can sense when someone’s trying too hard to be clever.  It comes off forced and disingenuous.
These come from the act of *trying* too hard.  So how to solo from a genuine place and yet still stand out?

Opposite. If everyone else is playing a lot of notes, you can play fewer ones but really really “sell” them in your body and on your face.  Bring the audience with you on those chosen strikes.  If everyone is wailing on the drum, you can use dynamics; explore quiet notes to make the audience *want* to listen to you instead of *have* to listen to you.  If everyone is staying put when they play, move!  If everyone is moving around, maybe hold a pose for a few seconds and “sell” that. 

Analyze.  Watch your group play a song you’re soloing in. It can be in person, or on a video.  See what everyone is doing – and then take note of what’s not being done. This is more subtle than doing just the opposite, above.  Maybe people are moving their arms a lot, but their lower body stays planted. There you go; you can move your feet!  Maybe people aren’t making a lot of direct eye contact with the audience.  Ooh, perfect opportunity to make that connection with the audience.  Is there a lack of repetition in patterns?  Make it easy on yourself and play repeated things.  What’s not being done that you could try?

Tricks.  Hmm.  I can’t say you shouldn’t do them, but I’ve seen WAY more tricks fail than succeed.  Oh you’ll stand out alright, but not for the reasons you wanted!  And some of the tricks that have succeeded come at a cost, like throwing your bachi high in the air and waiting until it’s caught, making for a lot of nothing being played, for example.

If you’re going to do tricks, practice practice, practice, practice!  In some ways, a trick attempted with skill and failed is better than a trick done but poorly.  Neither is good, though.  But after practicing a trick so many times, you should ask yourself if your time isn’t better spent on technique, form, musicality, or making the entire solo better instead of one moment that could blow up in your face.

Think of it this way.  If you have worked hard to make your solo pretty strong to being with, then a failed trick won’t ruin it.  But if you’re so focused on the trick that it’s the only part that matters, then you’re really hurting yourself.

Finally, it's much harder to figure out how to make your solo stand out by doing these sorts of things without making it a “look at me look at me!” type of endeavor.  When you try to stand out by trying to impress, at best it comes off awkward and at worst, obnoxious.  When you’re doing something that is done to inspire, that feeling is felt – even if what you’re doing doesn’t quite succeed.  The former comes from ego; the latter comes from being genuine. 

You don't NEED to stand out.  You can solo from that genuine place and enjoy yourself and people will enjoy watching you.  And "standing out" shouldn't be your main goal, but it can make your solos better in a lot of ways simply because it makes you think intelligently about what you're doing.  And if in the process you can truly express yourself better, all the um...better!