Thursday, November 27, 2014

Mozart and soloing

I was watching a special on Mozart the other day and I'm kicking myself for not remembering where.  There was an expert who had studied Mozart's works and talked a lot to the idea of soloing within a composition.

I planned to write more about the special but I'm forgetting too many details to make it useful.  However, there was one part that I do remember: for soloing, or "decoration", Mozart felt that this time was to deepen the expression of the piece, not to show off your finger virtuosity.

If we apply this to taiko (which is easy enough to do), it makes you think about how much your solo should relate to the song you're playing.

I have pretty decent hands and a really good feel for syncopation.  I can play some really complex, funky stuff in a solo.  But will it do justice to the song or am I just showing off?  How will I show depth across a series of pieces if all I'm doing is letting myself go nuts?

You can think about this as restraintA good musician has chops.  A great musician knows when to show them off and when NOT to.

So how do your solos accentuate and deepen the expression of the pieces you play?

Monday, November 24, 2014


The other night at the dojo, sensei had us pair up closest in rank, do an assigned kata, give comments, then have the person doing the kata give themselves comments based on self-evaluation.

In my pair, I watched first.  I made a comment on her posture in a few moves, then about how she was making a lot of "noise" in stomping about as she moved.  That note wound up taking the rest of the class...

Essentially, I wanted to know why she was making loud stomping when she went through her kata.  There are some actual stomps in the kata, but if the intent behind the move doesn't have a stomp, why stomp when moving?

I asked her why she stomped on the non-stomps.  Her answer was "because it feels stronger."  I then asked her why did it feel stronger?  She didn't have an answer.  At our level, that's a really bad response.

Before getting to that point, though, I was asking her why she was stomping loudly in some moves but not in others.  Her reply was to say, "well tell me which moves should be loud; I don't know."  It was really missing the point and eventually sensei came over and was able to phrase the question better for her.

Granted, understanding a technique in karate means something different than understanding a technique in taiko, but it comes down to body mechanics in either.  But her comment tonight - which she repeated several times to me - made me think about the techniques we do and take for granted.

Why do you do the motions you do?  Maybe the surface level is "because that's how I was taught", but is that really enough for you?  Are you content not finding answers and being a passive learner?  When do you take your learning into your own hands and ask yourself questions about how and why you do the things you do?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Letting it go

When you play music, you're playing in the moment.  When you make a mistake in that moment, it's in the past before you know it.  The problem is when you linger on that mistake - now in the past - while you still have to play in the present!

To some degree, we all react to mistakes when we play.  The ones who are best at coping show it the least, but a facial reaction or a few extra seconds of recovery can still hit them.  What makes a person better at recovery is more than just "experience", it's being able to let things go.

In karate, I'm finding that I'm trying too hard to make things fit in a self-defense situation.  I want my opponent to react a certain way, be in a certain position.  When they don't contort in the way I expect, I try to force them into the "right" position instead of "letting it go" and reacting from what is, not what I was expecting.  I'm not truly in the moment, but unlike playing music it could put me in a dangerous place!

Back to taiko - I've seen people drop their bachi and instead of getting a spare that's closer to them, they step away from their spot and awkwardly attempt to retrieve it.  It's even worse when they miss and have to try again!  Eek.  That shows that they kept that moment for far too long instead of letting it go and moving on.  Even when there's no spare bachi to be had, it's about making the decision: will going after it will be more of a distraction than going without?  Sometimes it's a hard call, to be sure.

I've seen people mess up a solo or a passage of a song and scrunch up their face, then leave it scrunched - which forces them to remember that moment, which doesn't help anyone.  If you make a face, un-make it as soon as you can so that your body can forget it as well as your mind!

In some ways, the more of a zen-like approach you take to playing, even if you play at a very high level, the more you can react and adapt to what happens when you play.  It's like any other distraction; how much do you fixate on the person dancing badly in the front row or that you forgot to bring tabi for the show?  Does focusing on those things help the performance?  Nope.  Just as you have to let those go, so with mistakes you might make.  Sure, take steps afterwards to minimize making them again, but that happens later.

So it pretty much comes down to being flexible, and then from there sometimes you also need to be decisive.  The hardest part is to get over that desire to "fix" something that's only there because you're holding on to it.  Let it go!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Finding value

SJT was very fortunate to have Kyosuke Suzuki do some workshops with our Staff before we left on tour.  Suzuki-sensei teaches, among other things, shishimai.  Shishimai is often refered to as "Japanese Lion Dance", but that's not really the best way to describe it.  There's a taiko part, a kane part, a fue part, and of course, the dance itself.  There's a short bio on him on the North American Taiko Conference website here.

Currently we're in the middle of about 4-5 sessions now where those Staff members are teaching what they learned to the rest of the group.  We're learning the kane parts and the patterns played on a pod of two taiko.

The taiko patterns are often difficult for different reasons - syncopation, too similar to each other, etc. - but it's all made more difficult by having to sit in seiza (kneeling) for as long as possible.  Staff had to do it for hours; we're *encouraged* to do it for as long as we can, ha.

Anyways, I've been thinking a lot about the value of learning these patterns.  We're not going to be performing it, and it's not something we're going to be practicing all that much I don't think.  While there are a few challenging patterns, I'm not struggling all that much.

It would be easy for me to just go through the motions, play the patterns, and bide my time until we stop doing this stuff.  But if I'm going to be there anyways, I should be trying to find value in what I'm doing.  I usually wind up observing what helps me learn the patterns easier, and that's valuable information.

Sometimes I just need to close my eyes and let myself miss a few notes if it helps me nail that ONE note I keep messing up so in the next round, I can catch it.  Sometimes I have to watch the person teaching us like a hawk and sometimes I have to not focus on anything and just let my hands play what they want.  Another aspect to the value is that while I don't think I'm necessarily getting an immediate benefit from these patterns, who knows what's sinking into my brain or my hands!

My point here is that if I only see value in the obvious things, what am I missing out on?  Am I really that aware of my synaptic processes to where I can tell what will add to my skill set?  Is anyone that good?  What if doing some things that aren't immediately dazzling makes me a better player or artist?  If I'm going to be doing it anyways, why not use the time to find value in something even if it's not something that excites me?

One mindset leads to frustration and stagnation.  The other leads to growth and awareness.  Which one would you choose for yourself?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Grip and friction

The other day I was trying to get two pieces of paper apart.  Exciting, I know.

The papers were aligned exactly alike and I had pinched a corner between my thumb and forefinger to try and separate them.  Instinctively, I pressed hard and tried moving my fingers in opposite directions, but nothing happened.  Then I tried easing up and going as gently as I could - which worked.

Now this doesn't call for a celebration, but it made me think about how much tension people use when they grip bachi.  When I teach workshops to people who've never played taiko before, I tell them that you don't want the feeling like someone could pull on it and never get it out of your hand.  I say that ideally it feels like it could fall out pretty easily.  That's an oversimplification, but still true.

I rarely hear people talking about surface tension or friction when it comes to grip.  Some will address the micro-adjustments that are needed to maintain hold on the bachi while playing, but there's a lot in how much surface tension plays a role in that.

There was an episode of Mythbusters where they showed that when you interlace the pages of two phone books, alternating page by page, the total amount of friction acting on all of those pages makes the books nearly inseparable.  A couple of pages doesn't add up to much, but hundreds of them do!

Regardless of where you're making contact between the hand and the bachi, you should be aware how little actual strength you need to keep the bachi from sliding out.  You'll need different amounts of grip strength while raising it up, bringing it down, and making impact.  While at first you should know what you need for each, until it becomes instinctual you run the risk of gripping harder than you need to and losing both quality of sound and ease of motion.  So how do you know how much is "just right"?

There are two ways to try to get the optimal amount of surface tension with your bachi.  You can either grip too hard (normal for some) and ease up until you find it, or start with barely enough to keep it in your hand and gradually tighten your grip.  I find that if you do the former - start tight and loosen up - you're more likely to revert because it's like you're degrees away from what's familiar.  You might also start with a hand position that's not optimal.  However, if you start with the latter, you're more likely to be aware of adding more tension than you need when you started with nearly none.

While this isn't the easiest concept to get across via text, the most important idea I can instill is that you should think about where your bachi is making contact, how much friction you need, and when that should increase or decrease as you play.

Think about it this way: if you have to separate two sheets of paper with two fingers, you can use strength to do it or try to go as lightly as possible.  With two sheets to separate (one strike), it really doesn't matter which way you choose.  But if you have to separate two pages 1000 times (1000 strikes), you're going to want to conserve your strength and be efficient! 

Monday, November 10, 2014


Here's an interesting little clip.  I'd never heard of Cobu before a few weeks ago when Uniqlo started having taiko groups play at various store openings in the U.S.

Cobu is composed of Japanese women but based out of New York.  They have some really interesting choreography and very good chops as a group.  I want to see more of their performances to decide where I stand, but so far I like what I see.

During this clip I was wondering how many people think of something like this video when they refer to "Japanese taiko"?  There are a lot of people who want to go to Japan to study taiko, but what about studying with groups that are doing much more contemporary stuff like this?  It's still Japanese taiko, but I'll bet there are many groups like Cobu doing interesting stuff like this at a quality level.

I like that people want to know where taiko came from, but I wonder what would happen to the "taiko scene" if more people wanted to study taiko from more contemporary Japanese groups that are pushing the art form rather than the more "traditional" ones?

I wonder if North American taiko will see groups more like this emerge from NA players - groups that explore a very different style and energy than what's being done now.  We definitely have groups that have a distinct style here now, but it's a comparatively small number.  Will groups like Cobu help push the next generation of taiko?  Or will people continue to prefer more festival or "traditional" styles of taiko?

I'll get back to this post in 30 years and we'll talk about what's happened.  :)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Question Everything: Definitions

I've written about this before: a post here and a post there.  But I've been thinking about it again, so I'm going to see what comes out.

How important is it to you to call things by their correct title?  Are there things that you're more lax about than others?  What about your pronunciation of the things you want to get right?

Group A might call something a "josuke" while group B calls it a "chudaiko".  How do you know which group is right?  Who's to say what's right?  Group Y might spell it "bachi" while group Z spells it "batchi".  Who's correct?

More importantly, if you're in one of those groups and see another group calling/spelling something different than what you're used to, does it bother you?  Why?

A shekere is a hollowed-out gourd with beads or seeds attached to a net that surrounds the body of the gourd.  A hyotan is also a gourd but with the beads on the inside.  I found myself getting upset when people would call a shekere a hyotan, but then I would also catch myself doing the same thing!  I'm still in the process of letting go of that concern; it's something I need to reconcile.  All I can do is to try my best to be consistent in my own terminology in the meantime.

If you're someone to whom terminology really matters, how assured are you that you're saying things correctly?  While there are people who are saying things with the right accent and inflection, there are people who aren't.  Should it be just as important to get the word right as the pronunciation?  Why or why not?  What happens if someone corrects your pronunciation?  Do you get defensive?  Why?

Do you impart the same importance to non-Japanese things, if you incorporate those other things into your art like costumes, equipment, or concepts?  If not, why not?  What do you let "slide" and why?

While a lot of this depends on the group you're in, should your opinion match the group's opinion?  If the group doesn't care, should you?  If the group does cares a lot, should you?

And what happens when someone you respect or are obligated to listen to calls a thing something different to what you're used to?  Do you continue to call it what they did?  Do you revert after because you like your way more?  Why?

Regardless of which "side" you might fall on, there are valid arguments for either:

One side can argue that if you spend so much time worrying about correct terminology and correct pronunciation, you're still not going to be able to please everyone (i.e.; people outside of your group, important guests, etc.)  It also detracts from a more casual environment if people are just there to have fun.  If people know what you're referring to, differences in terms aren't important.

The other side can argue that part of the art is learning the proper words and way of saying those words.  It might be important to recognize where things come from and to respect those things, they need to be named correctly.

10 years ago, there wasn't that much information available to the taiko community; now there's almost TOO much available.  How much of that information matters to you may not matter to the person next to you, or quite the opposite!  But as always, you should ask where you stand on things and more importantly, why?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Compare and contrast

After the workshop we had with Eitetsu Hayashi, I did a lot of thinking about his odaiko style and how different it was from what we tend to do in SJT.  It made me think about the instruction I've had in various things over the years, mostly within karate and taiko.

My training in Capoeira and Tae Kwon Do made doing Shotokan karate much easier in the long run.  I understood my body better, I was lighter on my feet, and being fluid was much easier of a concept to put into practice.  All of that helped with karate, both understanding how to make small adjustments as well as incorporating common principles into my performance.

I'm pretty damned sure that if I never practiced karate, I wouldn't have made it into SJT, which means I never would have continued playing taiko.  And so I urge you to learn things that are both similar and different from what you do now in order to become a stronger player.

For example, my taiko makes my karate stronger because I have different ways of approaching rhythm and pacing, as well as ki and intention.  I also have options in how I want to use my body and alignment for different purposes.  The arts are very similar.  Capoeira also made my karate stronger, despite the two arts being very dissimilar.  I learned how to use the same muscle groups in different ways, understand extremes in balance, and learned how to move with another person in harmony before I ever learned that skill in karate.

I'm not saying that if you only focus in one thing you'll never be as good as if you study other things, because there are artists out there that only study one thing.  But for most of us, who aren't the best of the best or able to practice just that one thing and nothing else, I highly recommend you take the opportunity to do something that's different to what you're used to.

If you're lucky enough to go to a taiko conference, are you signing up for the things you're already comfortable with or things you have some practice in but want more?  While there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, what about the workshops that touch on things you're not familiar with?  Don't move a lot when you play?  A dance workshop will open your eyes. Uncomfortable soloing?  Take a soloing workshop.  Only know your group's style of playing?  Learn a song that another group is teaching.  Shy away from more complex rhythms?  Take one of my workshops!  Yeah I know, shameless plug.  But you see my point.

It's just as valuable to learn something that's similar to what you do as it is learning something very different.  That idea shouldn't just be limited to conferences, either.  A short session on African dance will challenge any taiko player, a session with a Korean drummer will be just as difficult (trust me on this).  Sometimes you'll be lucky to have opportunities presented to you but often you'll have to seek them out.

This idea is more than just about playing taiko in more than one group.  I see a lot of players who look the same in one group as they do in another, so while they're getting more playing time, they're not necessarily learning anything different aside from the repertoire.  This is about taking a look at what you're doing and finding things that will both accentuate and challenge your concepts and abilities in order to give you more: more breadth, more depth, and ultimately, more fun!