Thursday, April 30, 2015


As taiko players, we let our instrument do our "talking".  Big loud notes and big arm movements are exciting and dynamic, quiet notes can be calming or restful, etc.

But what a lot of taiko players often forget is that because we are just as much the instrument as the taiko is, that what we look like behind the taiko often sends just as much of a message as what we play.

If I'm playing a happy, festive song - like Matsuri or the like - and my face is neutral in expression, it dampens whatever my music or motions put out there.  On the flip side, even a very simple solo can be elevated immensely when the face shows sheer joy.

If I'm playing a very intense song and my face is relaxed, unengaged, then it looks like it's all too easy.  If the audience picks up on that, instead of drawing them in, I'm helping them disconnect from the performance.  But if I show on my face that this is something that requires focus and/or effort, that "sells" it to the audience.

Of course, either extreme is a bad idea.  Over-selling it can come off as insincere, fake, and/or tiring.  It can be a bit off-putting to put that much raw ki out there, screaming and/or flailing in my solo.  Someone who only has one "look" makes me wonder if it's genuine or just a mask pasted on.  I could be a defense mechanism against being nervous, perhaps?

I often say that people should practice soloing with different moods in mind, to practice being able to express different looks - but also to think about/be aware of their face.  And this is where the skill of acting comes in, something that most taiko players have never looked much into, including myself.

When you're on stage, who are you?  How does the group you're in effect this persona?  How does it change from song to song?  How does it change when you solo?  And how does it show on your face?  I can't answer any of these questions; they are different for each person.  But being aware of what your face is doing, what your face is projecting, will help take your taiko to another level!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Suck it up, make it better

So during this last tour we were watching a video of the previous night's show.  In the first song, I have to play the pattern don doko (right-right-left) for a long time, moderately fast, and sometimes pretty loud.  I take pride in the fact that I can do it and with nuances in where I strike on the chudaiko, variations in volume to accentuate the song, etc.

And then in the video, I'm watching myself play the two right-hand notes unevenly.  It's not quite don tsudon, which is a very common mistake, but it's not the constant I'd hoped for.

The next few concerts we played, I made sure to keep it steady.  It was more tiring; I definitely had to push my muscles to keep things going.  And I know I'll have to remind myself to keep on doing that for a while, because otherwise I'll slip into what was comfortable, which isn't the right technique.

Watching the video wasn't that damaging to my ego; I've seen myself doing worse!  But I wasn't doing something as well as I thought, and I had a choice to let it slide since no one else had an issue with it.  It meant swallowing a little pride and putting in more effort, but it also meant getting better and being satisfied that I *could* do it.

Have you watched yourself on video?  Have you noticed things that you let slide because it wasn't a big deal?  What would have happened if you pushed to make it better?  Why not find out?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Soloing, part 9-2: Endings

If you think of a solo as a monologue, a really inspiring speech can be hammered in with a great ending line, and a mundane speech can be saved by ending with something impactful.  Same with soloing!

How you end a solo often shapes how the audience perceives and remembers it.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen a soloist stumble during their solo/get off-tempo/struggle with patterns and then suck it up to deliver a really strong ending.  It's not total redemption, but it certainly helps!

I've also seen a lot of strong solos end weakly, either with a passage that comes off less interesting than previous ones, or end almost abruptly without a feeling of closure.  A weak ending is such a bummer because it affects a solo just as much as having a strong ending, but in the opposite way.

A good ending doesn't have to be fancy; a fancy ending can easily go over the audience's head.  The most impressive endings I've seen have been repetitive and "digestible".  Hell, a really good taiko player can play a straight beat and sell it well enough to be a strong ending.  A straight beat!

I do recommend having an ending you can "whip out" for any song you solo in, just for those times when you've tried something that didn't work, or just find yourself not in the zone.  If you craft an ending, make sure you can play it at the actual tempo of the song - and then a little faster than normal, juuuuust in case the song is faster than you plan.

With a launchpad like I described here plus a strong ending, all you have to do is fill up the middle bits.  And sometimes, that's the most fun part!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Spring Tour 2015: Epilogue

Well, that was a long trip.  A lot of performing and teaching, a good deal of driving, many new people to talk to, and holy crap did we eat!

Having so many people in and out for performances makes for a logistics jumble, but it meant more refreshed people coming in more often, which is good.  Not a lot of mishaps on stage this round, which is great considering how long we were out.  The biggest was probably the lights shorting out during intermission, but that was nobody's fault - and better they went nuts during intermission rather than during the show!

The highlight for me was definitely the workshop tour.  Three completely different groups with three totally different Missions as well as compositions.  It made me appreciate even more what I have here, but the best part was seeing how much people were able to take from what we offered.  Each group had different needs and each person had different "lightbulb moments" of discovery and realization.

We got really lucky, weather-wise.  Going back East after some serious snow and storms was a bit worrying, but we only had to deal with some cold and wind a few days, light snow maybe twice, and some rain on a couple of days.  It could have made things miserable for us and our audiences otherwise!

Our homestay hosts were incredibly generous and made the workshop tour possible.  We were fed well by them and by taiko friends we met up with on the way.  As always, food is how taiko people bond when they're not playing taiko!

And as for food, I don't know if I can top that one Soul Food buffet I found in Newark, NJ.  I can't think of another restaurant I want to go back to as much as that one, tour or otherwise.  And to think I stumbled across it by accident?  'Twas a good day.

I felt like I got better as a performer on this run, realizing how to make a few parts easier, recognizing some techniques I can improve on, and a couple of improvements in my solos.  Some of this I'll blog about later, if it seems like a good post.

Now we're going into our festival season as the weather warms up, and I have some song ideas I hope to tackle - and maybe actually compose something, finally...

Thanks for everyone who followed along for the past month! 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Fall Tour 2015: End


Actually, we got home a few nights ago.  Took several days to adjust back to the time (and weather) here in California.

We drove to MA for a school show at a day-and-boarding school, with all the kids in uniforms; very snazzy.  From there a short drive off to NH and the night off plus most of the next day.  We loaded into the theater there at 1:00, which is about 4 hours later than we'd normally do for a show that same night at 7:30!  Hustle time!  Despite that, the show went well!

The next day (Sat) was a long one, with an 8-hour drive to WV.  It was an easy drive, but driving is probably the most tiring aspect of tour, more than performing, or packing up after a show.  It helped that the following day was free, with the only thing planned being a review of the last show after dinner.  The town of Sheperdstown was really nice, and people recognized us from the posters around town.  It seemed they were stoked to see our show!  It was a great place to end our tour in.

After loading into the theater on Monday we had a workshop on stage after lunch.  After that, back to prepping for the concert that night.  The crowd was very appreciative and knowing we didn't have to pack that night made for a good evening.

Because we had a school show on our last day, we got out of the theater a little earlier without packing up.  However, that last day was crazy busy.  We packed up some in the morning, played our school show for a full house of about 400 kids, packed up the rest, had one team go pick up lunch while the other went to pack up our gear at the shipping company.  From there it was a mad dash to the airport before the window for check-in was over.  We made it with 10 minutes to spare!

I'll recap the tour in my next post, then back to regular rants stuff!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Fall Tour 2015: Part 6

Back to the grind!

Burlington took a long day of driving to get to, but it was a great experience with Burlington Taiko.  We homestayed with a few of the senior members of the group and received some great hospitality.

Before lunch we went over to the Burlington Taiko dojo to meet up with their founder, Stuart Paton.  It's always fun seeing new practice spaces, and BT has a really nice one.  We talked a lot about his ideas for making taiko and modifying the sound made, some of them pretty unique and I'll be curious to see what evolution they take.  After lunch, we came back to the dojo and spent about two hours just talking about grip and striking technique, with Stuart giving us a lot of things to think about by the end!

Right after that we did a two-hour workshop for ~16 people, most of them members or apprentices in Burlington Taiko.  Two hours is really short and we plowed through a few things that gave people a chance to try new concepts out.  It'll be interesting to see what (if any) BT decides to utilize down the road.  The potluck after was great to chat with people, but it wasn't long until we were back at our homestays, sleeping for the next day.

It was a pretty easy day that followed, with a two-ish hour drive to Castleton, VT, and about three hours of waiting in a bakery for the rest of the touring crew to drive in with the equipment from the last theater before the split a week earlier.  They had flown in the day before.  After lunch we had our load and tech in, which didn't take all that long.

This morning was a school show in the theater for ~450 kids, and we'll perform again tonight with a regular 2-hour concert in a few hours.  We know some of the BT folks are coming down to see us, so we hope we can give them a really good show (you know, along with the several hundred other audience members, ha!)

Tomorrow it's off to MA for a in-school show show, then from there NH and a final stop in WV.  I may or may not blog again before we head back, but if not, I'll write something up shortly after I get back!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Fall Tour 2015: Part 5

Canada!  Where the cold air comes from...

We definitely have kept busy during our workshop tour in Canada.  We drove about 7 hours to Ottawa to visit Oto-wa taiko for a series of workshops.  We joined them for their practice and did a little bit of exchange that same night of arrival, then had the next morning free (which was a nice rest).  That night was a three-hour workshop, followed by a two- hour workshop the next morning and a three-hour workshop that afternoon.  We were housed well and fed extremely well, getting to know Oto-wa taiko better and make the initial connection between them and SJT.

We left for Toronto after that last workshop, driving five hours to get in late and crash.  More homestays this time, and the next day (today) we had two three-hour workshops with Raging Asian Women (RAW).  The first was more for their apprentices and the second for members.  SJT and RAW have really clicked ever since a few of their members came to our studio for a Taiko Weekend Intensive, and many of us have kept in touch and kept the connection vibrant with workshops and correspondence over the years.  I'm a big fan of the group and what they do, so today was very impactful for me.

Tomorrow we leave in the morning for a 7 hour drive back across the border to Burlington, VT, where we'll stay with members of Burlington taiko and have a short workshop the following day.  My first experience with Burlington was on my first tour, some 18 years ago, so it'll be fun to see how the group is doing and reconnect!

But for now, sleep calls...