Thursday, July 30, 2015


photo by Tom Lacoste/
Do "new" or "cool" things influence how you practice taiko?

Say there's a new technology, a new style that's getting spread, or a new group full of talent that's drawing a lot of attention - how likely are you to want to utilize it, incorporate it, or learn from them?

Not to say it's a bad thing to want this, but not to say it's a good thing, either.

If lots of groups are starting to play katsugi okedo, does it make you want to have it in your group, too?  Are you doing it because you want the look or because you want to increase your skill set?  Do you want to get it on stage as soon as possible or are you willing to take the time learning the fundamentals and time practicing them?

Say lots of groups are playing the new open-source song "Happy Fun Song #3" which looks really cool to watch.  Will the fact that "everyone else is playing it" make you want to play it?  Is your group ready for it?  Will it add to the strength of your repertoire or stick out like a sore thumb?  Will it push your members and inspire them to try harder or always be just past the skill level of the members?

Say a popular group is incorporating juggling into some of their songs.  Not just just flipping one bachi, but three or four at a time.  Ooh, is that what you want to add to your repertoire?  Your solos?  Why?  Yes, they make it look really cool, but how does it make your taiko better?

This isn't always cut and dry, no.  Sometimes being inspired by a fad can actually help you become a more skilled player.  You practice, you gain skill, and maybe that skill benefits more than just a single aspect.  That's great!  But sometimes it takes time away from practicing skills that are far more beneficial to you and your group, too.

Inspiration can be hard to find.  When you feel it so strongly, it's great to harness as much as you can.  But since time is a limited resource, sometimes you have to step back and think twice about where "cool" is taking you.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Question Everything: Mistakes

No one wants to make a mistake, especially when performing.  But really, what *is* a mistake?

Say you're playing a song and everyone plays a pattern where the arms come straight up and then point to the audience.  You accidentally do point to the audience, then swing your arms up.  Totally obvious that it's not what the others are doing.  But what if you're in the center of the song, and the audience thinks you did it on purpose?  Sure, you and the group know it wasn't the right move, but if you ask the audience "did you see the mistake?" they might not know what you're talking about!

Now, say you have a set solo that you normally play in a given song.  Halfway through, you wind up playing something unintentional, improvising for a couple of bars, then coming back to your set solo.  Is that a mistake if it looked and sounded good?  Is it a mistake if only you knew you didn't play what you intended?

Let's make it more difficult.  What if you're playing a fast straight beat on shime as a ji and some of the time, your strikes are near the edge of the head, making different tones instead of the solid, sharp tone that you'd like to make.  Are those hits "mistakes"?

Is every mistake equally bad?  Is forgetting to kiai with everyone in a part of a song as bad as tripping and falling down?  Of course not.  So in your head, how do you rank what's acceptable and what's not?  Does it differ from what your group feels?

Some things are very obviously mistakes.  Dropping your bachi is a mistake, kicking the drum while spinning so that it moves three feet away from you is a mistake, hitting your finger and bleeding on the drum is a mistake!  For the less-than-huge things, however, sometimes it's up to you to define what is and what isn't a mistake.  Once you can quickly differentiate what's not a huge mistake, it's much easier to not let the smaller ones affect your performance - which helps you learn how to not let the bigger ones affect your performance!

No one wants to make mistakes, but a good goal is to eventually make mistakes that only you notice...

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Isolating parts

Sometimes I tell students in the dojo that I can tell how well their kata (forms) are by just watching their feet.  Sometimes I can tell how confident a taiko player is by just watching their eyes.  Sometimes I can tell how powerful someone's strike (in either art) is weak by watching the hips or hara.  These are not the obvious things to look at, but the not-so-obvious things can say a lot!

How often do you think of what your feet are doing?  Are you pushing off with them?  Where are you making contact?   Do you ever lift up the toes and rock on the heel? Do you let the rear foot roll onto the side when you push your weight away from it?

What about your hips, or your hara (center)?  Are you holding the core muscles still and tight?  Are you using rotation and compression to power your movements?  Are you tilting to one side?  Is there any activation of this area when you do smaller motions, like playing shime?

Where are your eyes when you play?  Are you looking at the drum?  Are you looking at the audience?  What if there's no audience at a practice?  Do you make eye contact or avoid it?  Do you have shifty eyes (eyes that go from side to side)?

It's not that you *should* or *shouldn't* do some of these things, it's more that you should be aware of what you're doing and the effect they have on you and your performance.  Does your group want that look?  Do you want that result?  When is something a stylistic decision and when it is undesirable?

For example, you don't have to use your feet when you play taiko, but something like a letting your foot roll onto the side usually means bad bone/joint alignment that could cause some pain down the line.  Looking around as you play might not affect your technique, but it might make the audience think you're uncomfortable.  Often the best teacher in these cases is to see yourself play and make those notes to address later.

While it's possible to focus too much on the individual parts and miss out on the bigger picture, sometimes the best way to make progress is to look at the little things carefully and take note of what you see!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Excuses, revisited.

When I was newer to SJT, the new members used to have a meeting every six months with all of Staff.  I was told flat-out that I needed to stop making excuses when someone called me out for something I was doing.

At the time, it was hard to hear, but what was I going to do, make excuses?  Ha!

It made me think a lot, though.  Excuses were my natural reflex when someone told me what I did wrong or needed to do better.  Not getting on stage fast enough?  Oh, it's because there's too much stuff going on off-stage that kept me from getting out earlier.  Getting off in my solo?  The back row wasn't loud enough.  Forgetting to move a piece of equipment?  Someone was distracting me.  Oy.  I can't imagine what it was like to give me comments when I kept doing that!

I don't personally get a lot of excuses from people when I'm teaching taiko-stuff, because normally the things I'm teaching are new songs, solo drills, new members, etc.  But in the dojo, there have been students who always give me an excuse when I tell them to do something/stop doing something.  It's really hard to keep trying to teach them; after months of getting excuses in response, as an instructor, I tend to stop expecting anything from them.

In taiko, making an excuse sometimes sounds like one is more important that what's going on around them - that other people need to change, not them.  As for me, I'm not saying I've done a 180 and never make excuses, but for the most part I can take a comment, acknowledge it was my fault and/or can fix.  That way, the issue is addressed and everyone can move on.

One of the best ways to get someone to stop doing something is to make them see how it looks to others.  For some things, like kata issues, making weird faces, overhitting, not enough ki etc., showing video often helps.  For something like this, which is more about personality and group dynamics, it's a little harder.  They have to ask themselves how they'd respond to the same treatment. They have to step back and wonder if that behavior is making them better or holding them back.  How to get someone to ask these questions of themselves?  Well in my case, direct comments did it.  To others, they might need a taste of their own medicine, so to speak.

Yes, sometimes things are happening that are out of your control that affect what you're doing.  Sometimes you need to "defend" yourself in these circumstances, sure.  But when a person's go-to response is to make excuses, they tend to lose people's respect and it's harder to for teachers to want to keep teaching them.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The perfect performance

There's no such thing as a perfect performance.

We practice in hopes of delivering a great show, but I feel like the idea of trying to make a perfect set is a flawed one.

First, you will make mistakes.  Everyone makes mistakes.  From hitting a note a hair earlier to being late on a wind-up, it happens.  And if you spend too much mental energy on a mistake, it's going to affect what you play next.  If you're looking to be perfect, you'll have trouble letting it go and before you know it, you're making more mistakes as the spiral begins.

Two, other people will make mistakes.  Just like you.  Let's pretend you're so awesome that you never make mistakes.  You still have to rely on the rest of the ensemble to make a good set, right?  You might be able to hold the most steady ji ever played, but if the rest of the group is getting off, it's still a mistake that you have no control of.  Or maybe you can adapt your solo to whatever tempo the shime are playing, but if the shime on the left speeds up while the shime on the right slows down...there's a mistake that you can't do anything about at the time.

Three, you can never account for all the other stuff.  Just this past Obon weekend, we had gusts of wind blowing up the chalk dust (that guide the dancers at night) right into the faces of some of our members.  I had sunscreen stinging my eyes in the first songs of each set.  We were anticipating having to avoid the lanterns overhead, but then there was a also power cable running the other way that was hard to avoid.  In the past, we've had lights go out, drums fall over, okedo straps give way, bachi break, speakers fail, rain in the middle of the set, etc...most of these things out of our control.

Another way to look at it is that that the people who seem the most experienced, the most unfazed, the coolest performers, are the ones who've dealt with the most mistakes.  They've been through all the mishaps and errors and after a while, figured out how to cope as they happen.  Sure, these artists probably train so as to minimize mistakes happening, but they don't break stride when they do.  To get there yourself means that mistakes have to happen.

It's not that I think there are a lot of people out there who freak out about things not going perfectly.  But what I do see are people that freak out about making mistakes, both making them in the future or while playing at the time.  Mistakes suck.  But the quicker you let go of them, the less you worry about making them, the better of a player you can become.  It may not be easy, but it is simple.

Monday, July 13, 2015

San Jose Obon 2015

photo from San Jose Bike Party

So I'm probably brain-fried by the time this posts.  I'm writing it a few days early because we're about to go into Obon weekend, and there's no way I'm going to feel like writing something up in the middle of it all!

Friday night is the giant potluck, full of collegiate groups, SJT peeps, friends, family, and food!  So much fooooood.  Then we teach "Ei Ja Nai Ka" to everyone who doesn't know it so they can come up and dance with us during our sets.

Saturday will have Stanford Taiko then Jodaiko from UC Irvine.  We play a little bit after that and I think the weather is actually going to be favorable (fingers crossed)!  About 90 minutes later the dancing starts, and I wouldn't be surprised if we got near 1300 people actually dancing - not counting all the observers!

On Sunday the collegiate groups have an optional discussion in the morning with SJT about whatever topics they've asked to talk about, in their individual groups.  It usually proves interesting!  Later that day we have Raijin Taiko from UC Berkeley play, followed by Bakuhatsu Taiko Dan from UC Davis.  Again, we play a little bit after, and again there's dancing a bit after that.  Never as many dancers the second night, but I believe it was still around...800 last year?  Crazy.

It's pretty much a non-stop festival weekend, since I'll be staying about 50 yards away from all the festivities/food/games/everything.  I'll overdose on gyoza and teriyaki chicken as usual, take waaay too many pictures and have to figure out which ones to post on FB, and go through enough sunscreen to coat a small house.  Here goes!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Baka waza

The other night in the dojo, during a breather between drills, I was sucking wind and leaning back to take a deep breath.  Another student next to me threw a mock punch at my exposed foot for no reason other than because it was silly.  I asked, "what was that?"  He answered, "stupid."  I called it "baka waza".

What's baka waza?  It literally means "foolish technique" and I use it to describe a silly or stupid technique - but in a light-hearted way, not to put anyone down.

I started thinking about this idea, baka waza, and realized what a powerful tool it is...

It takes *something* to break out of what's "proper" or what's "normal" and do something silly.  You have to be daring, and it takes a certain mental fortitude to try again when one thing doesn't work out.   Creativity comes into play here, too.  You can be silly in a myriad of ways, but it takes creativity to be purposeful about it.  Take a Matsuri solo - anyone can make funny faces, but what isn't being done?  What's silly but still fits the mood of the piece? 

Moderation makes baka waza truly potent, because if you're always going for the silly, the impact is lost.  Make moments happen and punctuate your solo maybe once or twice, but don't rely on baka waza to "save" a solo or think it's what makes a solo strong.  It's just one tool you can use.

Ok, so it's one thing to talk about how it's useful, but what the heck would baka waza be in a taiko solo?  You're not going to punch anyone in the foot...  Well, I'm not going to limit you by making a list of possible ideas, but I can share some of the things I've tried (and some I still do!):

- Jump away from the drum!
- Splat both bachi down on the drum and raise my hands away for a couple of seconds.
- Spinning jump kick (whoosh).
- Imitation of a Spartan with spear and shield from "300" using an uchiwa and bachi.
- Act like the stage is tilting to the left and right as I try to solo/like being on a ship.
- Pause in mid-move then smile at the audience before continuing.

Of course, there have been others that didn't work out - and a few that I've been told not to do again, heh.  And that's fine, because I've come away with way more things that were a lot of fun to do and helped elevate my solos with those moments.  Will I try things that don't work out in the future?  You betcha.  Am I worried about them?  Nope!  And you can't be worried about the ones you try that don't work out either.

Sometimes being foolish for a few seconds is so freeing, so empowering, because all the worry goes away and you are truly in the moment.  However, ff you plan too much in advance for a certain move, you can't truly be free (pressure) and it's harder to make it seem genuine.  So if you want to try baka waza, you should practice it at...well, practice, and see how things go!

What have you got to lose?  ...well, besides a little pride.  ;)

Monday, July 6, 2015

Two more years until NATC 2017!

So NATC 2015 is behind us and many of you were able to attend, which was great!

But now what?  NATC is always a whirlwind for everyone involved, but sometimes it's hard to keep the energy and momentum going when you go back to your group and things go back to normal.

For those who went, what did you take away with you that you're working on/practicing?  A skill?  A mindset?  A song?  Maybe the inspiration from seeing certain people perform or hearing them talk?

For those who weren't able to go, what are you looking forward to in 2017?  A certain workshop or teacher you haven't been able to take before?  A group you'd love to see perform?

For me, doing all the surveys keeps the conference fresh in my head, but in a month I'll have to revisit my own question!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Repost: Taiko don't care.

Given the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on marriage equality, I wanted to repost something I wrote back on July 5th, 2010 (almost exactly five years ago):

These are taiko.

Taiko don't care about your age, race, religion, creed, caste, nationality, culture, height, weight, sex, gender, orientation, or political affiliation.

Taiko don't care if you play because of your heritage, for empowerment, to further the art form, out of obligation, or because it's fun.

Taiko don't care where your bachi came from, who your sensei is, how big your practice space is, or how long you've been playing.

Taiko don't care if you play for concerts, festivals, corporate events, weddings, parades, restaurant openings, family and friends, or just for yourself.

Taiko don't care if your group is about testosterone, community-building, fancy patterns, superstars, Buddhist philosophy, social connections, joyous playing, or recreation.

All taiko want is for you to make a good sound on them. It's people that make issues out of all the other stuff.

Don't be one of those people.

Strive to make good sounds! :)