Monday, September 29, 2014

Physician, heal thyself

From experience and watching people teach others, one of the hardest things to accept is having someone giving comments about how to fix something that they themselves aren't good at.

The first issue with this is problem pretty obvious - it's frustrating to take a comment like that because you're thinking if they can't do it, it's not fair for them to point it out.  Listening stops.

The second issue is that the comment may be very valid, but now it's been associated with the commenter, and perhaps unfairly invalidated.  So I may suck at staying on tempo and point out that you're not staying on tempo, but just because I have my own issues with it doesn't mean my comment's wrong.

I've heard this problem approached well by people who say "I know I have problems with this myself, but..." before they state the critique.  You don't want someone to give 50 comments like that, but it does help.

Not being able to do something well doesn't mean you shouldn't give comments that are valid when appropriate, but it will serve you well to think how those comments are perceived.  Maybe you'll even wind up with better insight of your own abilities and how to address the ones *you* get critique on!

Thursday, September 25, 2014


I've seen a lot of taiko songs where the performers walk to their drums and immediately start playing.  Sometimes it's on purpose, sometimes not.  What lacks in this case - whether or not you mind it - is kamae.

Kamae is roughly translated as "posture" or "ready".  Sometimes kamaete is used to tell people to "get ready" or "get into position."

I don't mean to say that people should always get into a set position before they play.  Well, sort of.

The idea of kamae to me isn't only about the physical.  Getting your body situated at the drum is just a part of it.  It's not even about getting into a specific stance, either.  You can be standing and still be in kamae.  There's a lot about the body being in a set position that helps the mind settle/focus just enough to get into a performance mode.  It's sort of like bowing to each other when practice begins - yes it's courtesy, but it signals that practice is beginning and the mindset should change to reflect that.

As an audience member, there can be a (not-so) subtle difference, as well.  Someone walking to the drum and totally in that performing mindset without a visible kamae can still *have* kamae. But when someone walks to the drum and either never quite settles, looks uncomfortable, or goes right into playing, that can be a missed opportunity.  It's that extra bit of showmanship, of performance, of letting the audience know that ooh, NOW it's starting.

You remember that first time you saw someone playing the odaiko in a way that made your jaw drop?  I bet they paused at the drum before they played it, right?  Maybe even took their time getting into a stance and/or time to bring their arms up in no particular hurry?   Now while it's not something you want for every song, it's an example of very deliberate kamae.

Ultimately, a group's style and your personal philosophy will dictate how important kamae is to you.  Still, it's good to think about if you're doing it or not, if others are or not, and what effect it has or doesn't.  That awareness, as always, only gives you more ways to improve your art!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Those fundamentals...

It's fun to learn new things.  A new song, a new form, a new style, new instrument, you name it, it can be fun! Even things that aren't new can be a lot of fun, like playing a song, soloing to a fun ji, sparring, practicing an advanced kata, etc.

But with all of those things, don't neglect the things that make doing those possible: the fundamentals!

When I'm at the dojo and see someone trying a technique that's too difficult for them, sometimes I'm able to tell them what they're doing wrong.  Most of the time it goes back to a weak stance, bad alignment/posture, or the inability to coordinate sequential body movements.  The same issue often happens when they're working on a kata and plowing through the sequence to try and make it "strong".  Without those fundamentals, the strength will always be lacking.  Inversely, however, with better fundamentals, that form (and every other form) will be stronger.

This is very akin to playing songs in taiko without the fundamentals.  It's not as much fun to work on posture as it is to play that cool song with the bachi twirling.  It's such a chore working on getting a good wrist snap compared to being able to solo on multiple drums.  And who wants to worry about making your strike more efficient when you can work on playing more notes in a short amount of time?

I hope you saw that those were facetious statements, but let me answer them anyways:
  • Without good posture, you can twirl and spin and flip bachi but you'll never be as relaxed, which means you're already handicapped.
  • Without a good wrist snap that comes without thinking, switching from drum to drum will take more effort and cause more tension.
  • Without an efficient strike, you are essentially choking off the amount of notes you will ever be able to play.
Seeing my point?

No, it's not "sexy" to work on the fundamentals.  It can also be a real kick in the ego to re-examine things that you know you need to work on.  Still, remember that fundamentals work NEVER stops paying off.  The more you continue to reinforce the foundation, the more you can build on it!  But if you're focusing more on growth, playing new things, learning new things, then you may have a very shaky structure underneath you that just gets more wobbly as you add things on top...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Lyrics: Lose Yourself

I came across some lyrics that made me think about confidence.

Eminem's "Lose Yourself" is from his movie "8 Mile", about an aspiring rapper overcoming setbacks to be able to succeed and make it in the spotlight.

In the hook, the lines are:

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo

Some would say that just adds to the feeling of pressure when performing, but I choose to look at it as saying you need to seize the experience and make it yours.  If you have the wherewithal to think about messing up, to worry about if you're doing things right, to worry about x y and z, then you've essentially retreated within yourself and the performance is not affecting you.  You've separated yourself from it.

Sometimes the best way to be confident is to act confident.  Sometimes it's just giving yourself up to the performance.  Either way, you have to be proactive and make it happen.  The alternative?  Wait for it to be there down the line, years later.  Not the worst thing, but why wait if you don't have to?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Question Everything: Perception

I caught a new show last week called "Penn and Teller: Fool Us".  It's a British show about legendary magician duo Penn and Teller watching magic acts and trying to guess how they were done.  The episode I saw had a pair of illusionists, someone who did suggestions sealed in envelopes, and a card trick act.

While it was fun to watch the acts themselves, I found that I was way more interested in how Penn and Teller analyzed the performances.  They were impressed by the illusionists and not sure how it was done, although Teller did make a correct guess (that was kept between him and the performers).  They were stumped by the guy who had sealed envelopes with audience guesses.  They were able to figure out how the card trick was done, but they admitted it was because of the angles that they were made to sit at for the purposes of the TV cameras.

What really stood out was how they mentioned "to the layman" a few times in talking about what they saw.  The audience was seeing the performance in a totally different way from what Penn and Teller were seeing.  I'm sure some people in the audience (like me) were watching to try and figure out how the tricks were done, rather than just enjoying the show.  What we were seeing, however, was the act the performers wanted us to see.  We see the overall, the highlights, the misdirection.  We're not able to see the subtleties, the things that are strategically hidden, even sometimes the underlying skill that enables a person to do what they do.

Someone highly skilled in the art will be able to see things you and I cannot, maybe even sometimes when those things are pointed out!  I know that from all of our concerts, I am much more aware of how a performance is staged, how people and drums are spaced, the effect that lighting has, etc.  There are people much more proficient in that area than myself who see far more than I do.

Sometimes we make mistakes and think, "it's ok, the audience didn't notice."  But you know, some of them might have noticed quite well - just like perhaps you would notice something in a taiko performance that the layperson might not.  It's not an idea meant to freak you out, just to make you realize that you should always try to do your best and not just use that as an excuse.

Also, it's good when planning something to think of how it might appear to people who aren't aware of the details as well as those who are.  What will people who have never seen taiko think of your solo, song, or show?  What will experienced audiences think?  What about experienced players?  It also can be useful to think of angles and how they affect how things will be perceived, even if just to use as a way to critique your work in a different light.

Sometimes it's great to just sit back and enjoy a show, but what are you looking at?  If you care to look closer, what's there to see?  And when you see what you're looking for, what's left to be discovered?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Body Awareness, pt. 2

A while ago, I was at a bowling alley and observed people playing.  I'm not that great at it myself, never having taking lessons, but I've definitely enjoyed many games of it so far.

One woman was having some issues not getting her ball in the gutter, so a friend of hers tried to help.  She was drawing the ball back with her right hand and letting the weight of the ball swing it around behind her, so when she threw the ball, she was throwing in an arc and basically guaranteeing a gutter-ball.

I watched him show her how to pull the hand straight back without any arcing, just back and forth past the leg in a straight line.  He even moved her hand for her, so she could feel the sensation of not-arcing.  And then she went to bowl...and arced and threw it into the gutter.

It was an interesting display of a lack of body awareness.  I didn't think badly of her because of it, but it made me wonder what was missing.  She was told, she was shown, and she was moved in the general way that would have helped her form tremendously, but something didn't click.

We all have a limit to where our body awareness can't pick up on something quickly, and absolutely it's affected by who's teaching us.  Still, where are you in terms of being shown what to do and being able to do it?  If someone moves your body a certain way, will you be able to repeat that movement without them?  What is your body remembering?  Are you aware of what you're doing differently than before?

I find body awareness is one of those things that can make all the difference.  It's one thing to put your hands in a position you want, your legs in a stance you want, but can you keep them there two minutes later?  Can you remember how it felt to move a certain way and when you're not moving that way?

Some people come by this skill really easily, but if it's not something that comes natural to you, it just means you'll need to take more time and work at it.  Still, as skills go, this is one that can pay off in spades.  You'll need to be honest with yourself, and it might take someone else to help keep you honest, but it has direct, obvious effects and never stops being valuable.  Learning it in one place will help you in others, as well!  For example, you could always try bowling...

Monday, September 8, 2014

When bad information is good

We all want good information, right?  You don't want to waste your time learning something that's incorrect only to find out later that you've been mistaken.  Or does even that have possible benefits?

A long time ago I was watching a Batman cartoon.  In one episode, Bruce Wayne is downtown when a robbery happens nearby.  Before he can react, Batman comes to stop the crime.  But since Bruce is Batman (spoiler!), Bruce is dumbfounded.  What just happened?  After other confusing things happen, Bruce is in the library where he tries to read a book.  The letters and words are garbled, shaped chaotically, impossible to read.  That's when he realizes he's in a dream, because you can't read in a dream.

As a kid, this stuck with me.  I never knew that, but wow, how cool is that!

And then a few months ago, I woke from a dream where I was reading something - and I remembered a sentence once awake.  But you can't read in a dream, I thought!  Hmm.

Turns out I was wrong, and on research, I'm not the only one asking that question.  Other people seem to have heard this "fact" and found it to be wrong.  At first, it's not a big deal.  You find things that you thought were one way were in fact another all the time.  What makes this interesting is that had I never heard the incorrect statement that you can't read in a dream, I never would have given the realization to the contrary any thought.

Something I took as "truth" was wrong all along.  It didn't affect how I lived my life, and I'm sure there are many many more things that I'm wrong about that I haven't discovered.  Still, if I hadn't learned it wrong to begin with, I may never had paid attention to the truth of the matter later; it would have been just a fact among many that I skim over daily.

Does this mean you should learn things the wrong way first?  Nah, that's inefficient.  Just realize that because you now know what was wrong, that knowledge helps you reinforce where NOT to go, what NOT to do, and that can only help you to go in the right, informed direction!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Soloing, part 12-1: Improvisation – as a whole

I've been thinking about improvisation a lot recently.  I was doing a couple of sessions with our auditioning class and wanted to get them thinking about improvisation on top of giving them some concrete drills.

What is improvisation, anyways?  It’s the act of creating something on the fly, impromptu, in the moment.  Everyone improvises.  You improvise a dozen times a day without realizing it, I bet.  Do you drive?  Then you decide on the fly when to merge, when to slow down, etc.  Do you talk to people on the phone?  Then you’re deciding what you’ll say based on the conversation.  Do you have a pet?  How you play with your pet is probably another example of improvisation in action.  True, this isn’t what most people think of as “improv”, but it’s still there.

Most taiko players see improv as a tool.  It’s just the thing they use when it’s time to solo.  The solo ends, the tool is pocketed away until next time.  That doesn’t mean they’ve mastered the tool or that it’s something they’re comfortable with, but the tool still works.  On a basic level, this is fine.

You can also take improv to a higher level by thinking of it as a skill.  And with any skill, the more practice you give it, the better it can get.  We practice striking, we practice tempo, we practice sequence – so it makes perfect sense that improv would also be on that list.

Finally, taking it one step higher, you can view improv as an art form.  It’s something that you can spend years of study on – decades even – and still have so much more to learn. There is the day-to-day improvisation that we do as human beings, sometimes even for survival, but most of the recognizable improv that we think about is attached to an existing art form.  If I pointed at you and said “improvise!”   What would you do?  Would you sing a song, do a dance, play a rhythm?  Would you arrange things into patterns?   Maybe tell some jokes?  All of those things are already their own art, and you’d be using improvisation within them.

On a larger level, there are so many things people can improvise within!  Some of these are: comedy, sparring, drumming, singing, dancing, guitar, poetry, debate, cooking, etc.  When you watch/listen to someone improvising in those arts, is there anything you can learn and use in your taiko solos?  On a smaller level, just looking within taiko, there are many elements you can improvise in within a solo.  Some of these are: rhythm, movement, footwork, facial expressions, intention/mood, interaction, kiai, etc.  When you solo (or plan a solo), how many of those elements are you taking into consideration?

While I’ll get more into taiko-specific improvisation in the next part of this series, I think it’s really important to understand that since improvisation is not unique to any one art, it’s worth looking at other arts and asking how they utilize it.  What can we learn in the process?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Soloing, part 9-2: Endings

There’s almost nothing sadder than a solo without an ending.  It's like a story without a conclusion, a melody without resolution, a cake without frosting?  Ok, maybe not that last one.

Wait, don’t all solos have an ending?  I mean when it’s over, that’s the end, right?  What I’m getting at is having an intentional ending, anything from long minutes to a pose.  This is your final point, your pearl of wisdom, your signature, etc.

A really good ending can save a so-so solo.  I know I’ve been out of the zone, trying to find something that feels better, not quite getting there, and then just flipping the switch and pulling off a strong, set ending.  It’s sort of like hitting an “abort” switch, but with a good outcome.

However, a so-so ending can bring a great solo down.  Imagine getting really into a movie but at the end, the plot resolves in a really unsatisfying way.  That’s what you’ll remember, even if you enjoyed the rest of it.

It’s also a shame when a solo just ends without any indication that.

…it’s ending.

I don’t think you necessarily need to have a set ending for all of your solos, but it can’t hurt to have a “go-to” ending that you can pull off when you really need it.  I would also say that you should at least step up your endings compared to whatever else you’ve been doing.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, it doesn’t have to one-up the people before you, it just needs to feel like it’s intentional in its effort.

A benefit to having a set ending is that you know you have something safe to “land on” (a counterpart to the Launchpad from 9-1).  It gives you some freedom to explore, and you have the option to just plug on the ending at…well, the end.

I also recommend watching taiko solos and taking note of how people end their solos.  What works for you?  What doesn’t?  And then can you identify why or why not?  That will go a long way into helping you find your own way of leaving the audience with a great solo.