Thursday, February 26, 2015

6 years!

Happy Birthday, blog-of-mine!  Six years ago I posted my first entry and look where I am now!  ...pretty much the same, but with less ranting, more questions, and always - always - striving to get better.

There's been 623 posts before this one.  That's a LOT of stuff to wade through for people coming here for the first time.  I highly recommend using the search bar here for something that might interest you, or clicking on a topic in the "labels" section that catches your eye.

As always, I'm open to tackling issues and topics that you might have, and you can reply to posts anonymously or email me on FB.

Also on that note, I'm curious if there's interest in certain types of posts, like more drills (either with or without video), more posts on composition, on touring, etc.  It never hurts to ask!

Looking forward to the next six years!  Thanks for being a part of it!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Sometimes, I wish I was a white belt.

Despite the title, this is very much a post about taiko.

Every quarter, my dojo gets a new slew of beginning students.  Most don't stay past the one class, but even some of the people that leave try hard.  Beginners (white belts) tend not to know anything and so they do exactly what's told of them.  They don't have conflicting information or a dozen other concepts to worry about.

On the other hand, those who have been doing something for a while can easily forget the fundamentals because they've had so many other things to work on: "advanced" techniques and new forms.  The earlier techniques may suffer because they don't take the time to re-examine them.  I see this in karate and taiko alike, where things learned early on have been modified to make them easier to do - at the cost of effective technique.

For example, at the dojo, watching the basic front kick this week (the very first kick we teach), I saw that the white belts, while worse at balance/speed/power, are doing the technique "more correctly" overall than the intermediate and advanced belts.  They don't know any better; they haven't learned how to "cheat" the kick yet.

What about you, dear taiko player?  What did you learn early on that you might be modifying because it feels better?  Does "feeling better" make a better technique or are you cheating yourself?

Part of the reason a good martial artist or taiko player looks so skilled is because they worked at making something work that wasn't comfortable at first, and not modify a technique to suit their needs.  While there are exceptions with some truly talented individuals, these are few and far between.

Always, always, always revisit the basics - and be honest when you do!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Bachi, bachi everywhere

When it comes to using bachi, there are two schools of thought:
  1. The bachi used should match the song and/or drum to facilitate the sound and look you want.
  2. A bachi is a bachi; you should be able to play well regardless of the kind you use.
Where do you fall? 

Personally, I'm more in the second camp but I understand the other point of view.

I'm not taking about songs like Miyake or Yatai Bayashi, where you often need specialized bachi because of the style of movement/playing.  Also, if playing odaiko or okedo, you absolutely need specific bachi to make sure you can play with good technique and not damage the drums!

But what about playing the same kind of drums (chudaiko, josuke, etc.) but in different arrangements or on different types of stands (betta, naname, etc.)?  Do you want a different bachi for song A, song B, song C, when the drums haven't changed?  Some of you are thinking "yes" and others "no".   And that's why it's an interesting question.

In a regular touring show, I'm using at least six different pairs of bachi.  I have my "generic" pair (lately walnut), odaiko, small katsugi okedo, large katsugi okedo, kulintang, and shime.  I have to keep track of what pair is on which side of the stage as I use them and cross over.  Adding another pair of bachi for a specific song adds even more to keep track of and sometimes the tables we use at a theater are pretty cramped with all the other stuff on there.

I'm also "fortunate" enough to be rather tall and I can't buy regular bachi at conferences or taiko stores that match what fits my length.  They're never long enough!  So I have to make my own which puts me at the mercy of the local lumber stores.  Walnut again?  Walnut again.

So I've been using the same weight, length, and density of bachi for many years now, for every song that's solely on chudaiko.  Would I want a different pair depending on the circumstances?  I'm not sure.  If my sound would truly be better, I'd seriously consider a lighter/denser wood, but I don't really fancy juggling a dozen bachi in a concert since space is not always a luxury.

But even more important than being good with one kind or several kind is - can I strike well with any type of bachi I have to use?  If I forget to bring my own or break one during a show, can I strike well with a smaller pair that I'm not used to?  Or a lighter one?  Heaver?  That's more important than having the "right" bachi on hand.  And ultimately, that's the point of this post, albeit it a long way to get to it.

Maybe you swear by using different bachi to achieve the maximum effect when you play, or maybe you've never thought twice about using anything other than the kind you first started with.  Regardless of which camp you tend to side with, is your technique solid enough to make a good sound with bachi that aren't ideal for you?  Or do your bachi mask a weakness that you may not be aware of?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Just because it's easy...

Let's admit it, it's fun to play big and loud, to throw in a lot of notes.  The audience responds well and it feels good to do it well.

Is it a sign of skill, though?

To some degree, absolutely.  To strike well enough to make a clean, loud noise or be dextrous enough to play a lot of notes quickly and in tempo is something that takes work.

But you know what's harder?

Playing quietly when everything around you screams to be loud - when it would be so easy to be loud.  Not so quietly that you can't be heard, but playing with dynamics deliberately and intentionally so that people have to listen if they want to hear you.  That's hard.

Know what else is hard?

Playing fewer notes when you really want to play as many notes as you can.  To pick the notes that matter; to use ma as you would any other note.

Now I'm not saying playing loud and fast is bad.  But when you think you've gotten really good because you can play louder or faster than anyone else, try something that's even harder.  See how hard it is to be just as dynamic but by doing "less"!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Do you really want to know?

Sometimes I feel like I'm a really good taiko player.  Things come naturally.  Rhythms are mine to command.  I can play as fast or as long as anyone else. 

And then I think, how is my technique, really?  And then I start analyzing what I'm doing. really analyzing.  And then things flip 180.  I find my technique is sloppy, my striking uneven.  My lower body isn't in sync with my upper body.  I'm gripping too tight.  My patterns are forced, unnatural.  I suck.

If I never took the time to know what I was really doing, I could have stayed feeling like a better player!  Why did I do that?  Ugh.

People often don't look at themselves in a way that forces them to really look at their technique because they know the above  will happen.  So they stay on the safe side of things.  On the other side, there are people who do want to know and they look, but that crappy feeling hits them like a low blow and it keeps them there.

It takes courage and perseverance to take a good honest look at your technique, accept that feeling when you find things you don't like, and then start working on them.  It takes more courage and perseverance to do it over and over again, knowing you may very well feel the same way about new things down the line.  But the key is that if you're really working on what made you feel crappy, you're very likely getting better.

So I ask you again, do you really want to know?

Monday, February 9, 2015

Question Everything: Getting over ourselves

The series of posts on here under the tag "Question Everything"  tackle subjects that a lot of people take for granted or often don't give a lot of thought about.  But what about the act of asking questions itself?

The other night, after karate, one of the intermediates was asking clarification about a technique that focused on footwork.  He was having trouble wrapping his head around how we teach a fundamental one way but this drill seemed to be countering the idea.

After it was explained to him to his satisfaction, he apologized for "being slow" to get it.  While I wasn't the one who explained it, I wasn't the only one who told him he was just fine - and good for him to ask for clarification!

How often do you not ask a question because you're afraid other people will think less of you, or you'll feel stupid?  Come on, we've all held back because of it.  But then how often have you lost out because you never got that answer that would have made things easier for you - or had to wait until much later?

I'm not talking about asking questions that were already just answered (I still do that, sorry), questions in a passive-aggressive style (didn't you want the shime people to not play like wounded ducks?), or questions that you could answer yourself (will it bother anyone if I put my worn tabi on the snack table?) but the questions that you really wanted to ask yet stopped yourself out of fear.

The reward of understanding something confusing is SO worth the chance of feeling stupid.  It's fear that talks you out of it, so tell fear to suck it while you ask how to do something better and get better for doing it.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

(Review) Kodo: One Earth Tour - Mystery

I attended Kodo's new show this past Sunday and wanted to talk about it.

The last time they came through, it was the first show touring here under their new Artistic Director.  It was too big of an  artistic shift for me, as a long-time fan and admittedly I struggled with it.  I went to this new show with uncertainty...but I liked it.

There were things I'd never seen in a taiko show - from the giant, snake-like dragons that coiled and slithered around stage with amazing dexterity, to the creative use of lighting that I don't want to talk  about so as not to ruin it for those who haven't seen it yet.  There was also more humor in the show than I've seen in a Kodo show, almost a bit much for me but still very entertaining.

One interesting aspect was seeing all of Kodo's "standards", such as Yatai-Bayashi, Miyake, Monochrome, and the odaiko solo...but in different fashions.  Yatai and Miyake were done on a much smaller scale, Monochrome was set up almost the same before taking a very different turn, and the odaiko solo was the last piece but framed differently (seen above).

After watching a few pieces, I came to realize that Kodo has effectively become style-less.  That is to say, they're more about moving well and playing well vs. adhering to a specific visual aspect.  The overall effect is very powerful!

I miss some of the "folky-ness" in the singing; it felt too polished for my ears but wasn't a huge element of the show.  I also miss seeing some of the more experienced players, but I know the newer members tend to get sent out on the U.S. tours.  However, if I had one "complaint", it would be that while I liked the new pieces, none of them stuck with me like older pieces have.  I have the new CD and will be able to get familiar with some of these pieces, but I miss driving home and repeating songs in my head until I'm sick of them.

The highlight of the show for me was being able to go backstage: saying hello/great show to some of the members, and see the dragons up close, haha.

I admit, I really do miss the more straight-forward pieces that dug their way into my brain as well as seeing the members I'd seen come up the ranks for years.  But if I look at the show for the show itself, I see a very skilled, energetic troupe with a creative vision putting on a fantastic show and I'm really curious what the next show will be like!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Soloing, part 12-1.1: Improvisation (addendum)

I've been thinking a lot about improvisation, especially about the way I characterized it in my blog post back here.

I think of improv in tiers: As a tool, as a skill, and as an art form.

As a tool, improv is mostly focused on your soloing.  You solo, maybe have some improv in there, then you finish.  The end.  While you don't have to spend much time thinking about it, you also get the least out of it.

As a skill, it can help your solo, but it can start being less "about you" in kumidaiko.  How do you use improvisation to accentuate the performance?  Say you're on chappa in a song that allows you some freedom in what you play.  When do you add a couple of extra notes or a buzz?  Maybe you can move around - when do you interact with someone or hold stance and project your energy at a specific person?

Another aspect of this is in kiai.  Aside from the parts when it's scripted into a song, when do you kiai?  What kind of kiai?  Choosing when and what do to in those moments is definitely utilizing improvisation, but we don't often think about it in that way.

As an art form, we move away from taiko-centric things.  It's more about mental fluidity and the speed one develops in generating new ideas.  I feel like someone who's really good at improvisation in one art will carry that skill over to any other arts they take up.  It's more than thinking outside of the box, it's how quickly you can get outside of it, what method you take to do it, and how far away you are when you're done.

For example, if I said "give me a color," what did you think of?  Red?  Green?  Moonlight blue?  Hippopotamus Orange?  Yeah that last one isn't a real color, but it made you think of something very...unique, right?  The further you can get away from that box, the more often those kinds of wacky ideas will come, even if they're not always appropriate, haha.

I probably think of soloing and improvisation more than any other aspects of taiko these days.  There's so much to discover within them and new challenges to tackle.  I hope this post sparks something in you, as well!