Monday, August 31, 2015

Video: Humor, composition, and Kodo

A bit of humor from Eiichi Saito and Masami Miyazaki of Kodo on Sado in 2013.  One thing to note is that what they do is a tool Eiichi uses to compose songs.  Watch it and you'll know what I mean!

Thursday, August 27, 2015


How much does being popular matter to you?

There's popularity on-stage, which can be from putting out more ki than others, having a natural smile, playing effortlessly, being entertaining, etc.  And without context, there's nothing wrong with it.

And then there's popularity off-stage, which is more about recognition.  Things like starting a new group, writing a song for public domain, leading workshops, launching a new initiative, heading up an organization, etc.  Again, without context, there's nothing wrong with that, either.

I'm sure as you read the examples, you thought of both positive and negative aspects, right?  I'll get back to that in a minute.

We all have an ego, and sometimes it's really nice to be acknowledged.  Maybe it's for talent, or for effort, or impact, but it's still nice!

What decisions do you make for the sake of popularity?  Do you feel less accomplished, less talented, without recognition?  Do you feel the need to go out of your way to make sure people see what you've done?

Let's say someone starts their own taiko group because they want to be "popular".  Is that bad?  Let's say they do it for so-called selfish reasons.  What if the group turns out to be really talented, entertaining, and/or have positive impact?  If the intention is "bad" but the outcome is "good", where do you stand?

So, I said I'd get back to the earlier examples.  When you read them, your opinions of them are shaped by your personal experiences.  Maybe you've met people who try too hard to "be entertaining", and you have a negative association with that.  Maybe you've met people who've written public domain pieces and you had an amazing impression of them.

When you do things for popularity, it's not just about how you put your message out there.  It's not just a one-way street.  It's also about how your message is perceived.  The bigger your broadcast, the bigger your audience, and the more likely you are to have a negative impression on people.  Granted, it's less likely if your message is "free taiko lessons for everyone!" but someone out there might be thinking "you're only doing that because you want to be liked."  And rarely is the message that altruistic to begin with.

I realize the irony of talking about this as I have a long-running blog and teach workshops at conferences.  As I've said before, the blog is for me to get my thoughts organized but I really love when people find it useful.  The workshops are a way for me to better myself as a teacher and I love when I can help people get better.  I know where my intentions lie and that counts for a lot.

So it's not that wanting to be popular is bad, but sometimes "making" oneself popular has the opposite effect.  Would you rather put your energies into being popular or being skilled?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Musical Technique vs. Musicality

One of the Four Principles in SJT is "Musical Technique".  A lot of you have heard this, either from my blog, from SJT, or from SJT members in person.

It's supposed to incorporate all the things you hear when taiko is played, as well as how you use kuchishoga to learn the patterns.

But really, that's a LOT to cram into one Principle!  So unfair.  There's really two aspects of Musical Technique (MT) that come into play: Technique and Musicality.  This isn't a brand-new idea, just something worth thinking about.

The mechanics of playing have a lot of different elements.  There's the balance between the right and left hand, the dynamic of volume you're trying to achieve, how consistent the paths of the bachi going down and back are, even what kind of grip you have at any given time.  These are things most people can be taught over time, to some degree.  It often comes down to how aware a person is of what they're doing, and how well they make small adjustments that "stick" once they're made.

Then there's musicality.  It's where your notes land - on the beat, juuust ahead, juuuust behind?  It's how well you feel the beat, how well you stay on tempo when someone else is moving away from it.   In soloing, it's where you place your notes and use ma (space) in your solos, how you phrase patterns, how well you feel a count in 4, 8, or whatever the meter.  Musicality is *much* harder to teach.  I personally think a good musicality comes from how much music a person listened to growing up, both the amount and variety of music.

I bring this up as a post because it's often to lump these two categories together.  A person might have great musical sensibilities but not ability to execute, or excellent technique but can't play in tempo consistently.  Even though there may be two aspects that make up this Principle, each aspect is made up of so many little things.  The more little things you're aware of, the more you can work on them and help others work on them as well.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Well damn.  This is my 700th post!

This post is less of the usual celebratory post I do when I hit a multiple of 700, and instead more of me looking back at the person I was when I started playing taiko.  To me, "ensemble drumming" was just about the music, and I didn't really understand that my intentions could be misinterpreted or how much that could affect my position within the group.

A few weeks ago, Yurika came across a document from back when I was auditioning with SJT.  PJ had written notes to herself from my first year (?) of taiko, with a dozen comments or so.

The first two comments are positive, about my technique.  Yay!   Annnd then there's ten more comments that are critical, all about my attitude.  Oof.  Thankfully none of these are new to me since they were all communicated to me by Staff for several years.

There were some of these comments that took longer to address than others, to be sure.  I'm stubborn!  But I can say that I made a LOT of progress on these critiques and now I can look back at them as a checklist of sorts.  I would also say that if I was honest, they're also the things I could easily lapse back on if I'm not careful.

My blog is full of posts on how you should try to be better, try harder, try to make yourself a better person and artist, etc..  It's NOT just about your skills, though.  In many cases, the things that cause friction aren't the way you play shime or how much syncopation you put in your solos.  It's more often what comes out of your mouth, the things you do (or don't do), and how people perceive your intentions.  I see these things, I hear these things, and actually didn't make it into SJT the first time around because of these.  I learned the hard way!

It's easy to sit down with a drum pad and work on technique, but it's a LOT harder to work on character, intention, and personality.  Sometimes, the biggest impact you create isn't from the taiko - it's from you.

P.S.: Thanks to all my readers for your support, your time, and your kind words!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Gratitude to the drum-makers

Most of the people who read my blog play taiko.  Not all, but most.

For those of us who play taiko, have you considered the work that's been put in to make the drums we play on?

Some of you might re-head or help maintain your taiko, but without those who make them in the first place, what would we have to re-head or maintain?  I know some of you right now are thinking "what about PVC and synthetic drums?"  It's true, technology and innovation have led to some excellent ways to make taiko accessible and affordable.  But still, without the taiko-makers, where would taiko be?

There's of course the "big two", Asano Taiko and Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten.  They've made taiko available since before any of us were born!  What's more, they continue to help support the world-wide taiko community in ways other than simply providing equipment.

But there's also the new taiko-makers from the last few decades, people who make taiko for groups that otherwise would never have them - and in many cases, are the reason a lot of groups exist, maybe even the group(s) you play in!

We talk about how important it is to respect our teachers and those who made it possible for us to play taiko, but those who make what we play on deserve just as much recognition.  Even if you can't personally thank the people who made our taiko, please take a minute and be grateful!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

I got nothing

So I'm sitting here trying to think about what topic to talk about, and staring at the blank page...and staring...and staring...

I've been spending a lot of creative energy on my two new song ideas lately, so maybe that's where the creative juices are flowing?

There have been many times where I would play patterns and try stuff out in hopes of getting some composition inspiration, and get nothing.  Even if I did get an idea or two, usually they weren't strong enough or interesting enough to spark any real momentum.  And it felt like a waste of time each time I came away with nothing.

But sometimes, that's just what's going to happen.  Maybe you're trying to write a new piece or craft a new solo, and you wind up with nothing.  Maybe it happens a few times, even.  It would actually be weird if it DIDN'T happen, I think.

The more creative you want to be, the more you'll have to realize that sometimes, nothing happens.  It doesn't necessarily get easier to deal with, but acceptance makes for much less stress about it!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Big fish

What happens when you feel you've plateaued in your group?  What do you do when you feel that you're the strongest player in the group - or one of the strongest - and there's little left for you to learn there?

A lot of people look to conferences, workshops, and the like for more training and knowledge, but there aren't a ton of them and many can't attend when one becomes available.  In the long run, it's easy to slip into feeling like the proverbial "big fish in a small pond".

Once there, self-worth inflates and ego swells.  You feel like you're at the top, that you've got all the answers.  You see people that are more skilled than you in other groups (maybe even on Facebook or YouTube) and make reasons in your head why they're not really that good, or how you're just as good.  Before you realize it, you've made a bubble of security that comforts yet limits you, and the longer it's been there, the less likely you are to put yourself in a situation that might crack it - like taking workshops, learning from others, etc. 

I've seen this bubble shattered time and time again, both in taiko and in karate.  Sometimes I admit there's a bit of schadenfreude involved when someone's got a really thick bubble, but usually it's painful to watch someone's reality crumble when they have to confront something contrary to their established beliefs.

No one wants to find out, in front of other people, that their skills lack.  It can be demeaning and humiliating to hear comments that make you feel incompetent, but there's a secret to making this not hurt so much...constantly seek improvement!

If you truly want to get better, then being "at the top" is just an inconvenience, not a destination.  It requires more work on your part to keep growing, not less now that you've "made it".  And the longer you bask in the pride of being one of the best in your group/dojo - even if your group is pretty good - the harder it's going to be on you when someone or something cracks your bubble.

The more of a "big fish" we become, the more of a bubble (fish bowl?) we create around ourselves.  It's not like I'm special or immune to this phenomenon, either!  It takes effort and honesty to step back and see the bubble, but seeking improvement and knowledge - even when it challenges what you're used to - is one way to keep the bubble at bay.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Composition in the group

I recently received a comment on a post I wrote late June, asking me about the composition process as it related to working with the group.

It's something I've not really talked about, although I've talked about composition in general.  So what happens when you move off of theory and introduce your ideas to the group?  Eek!

SJT has been having composition workdays meant to give potential composers time to work on ideas and bodies for them to utilize.  While this is a really useful thing, most groups probably don't have the luxury to have that much time.  And that's ok!

So here's how I view a good composition session when working with other people:

Make it clear when introducing something to the group what the purpose is.  Maybe you just need to hear people play stuff, maybe you're looking for feedback (or maybe you don't want any feedback!), maybe you'll need them to be flexible as you change things on the fly.  The more they know your needs, the less likely anyone will get annoyed - including you!

It's also important to have a plan, even if it's just "teach/play pattern A, then pattern B, then pattern C..." so that you're not wasting people's time thinking what to do next.  Just as important is taking into consideration the setup you want.  Do you want as many people participating as possible, or a smaller amount of drums with people rotating?  What equipment do you need ready to go at the beginning so that you're not having people build stands in the middle of your session and lose momentum?

You also have to take into account how you're teaching.  If you want everyone to "get it", then you have to be able to explain/demonstrate it in ways that everyone will get.  If you don't have time or if you're not worried that everyone will get it, then that's ok too - but it's important that *you* know what you want ahead of time.  Maybe you'll want to see how people figure stuff out, so you don't say too much, but it needs to be intentional and you might need to explain that it was your intention to do things that way.

Also important to consider is what you want to have covered by the end of your time.  If you need to teach A before they can do AB before they can do ABC...and your goal is ABCDEFGHIJK, then you may have a time crunch.  If you know there are certain things more important than others, try to schedule your session to get the important stuff covered early on.

There's likely going to be issues that arise.  Maybe you don't like how it sounds once you hear people playing it.  That happens!  It's important to accept the output in that case and be gracious for the time you have.  Maybe people can't play things the way you want them to play.  Are you asking for too much skill-wise?  Will it just take time that you don't have in a single session?  Or maybe people are offering advice when you already asked that people hold their comments.  It's important to restate your preferences without getting upset.

Then again, sometimes the mistakes/accidents lead to some interesting paths you didn't foresee.  Don't be too quick to discount them as you review the process later.

Of course, different groups operate in different ways and have different dynamics.  Your experience may completely differ from mine.  The important thing is to try, to learn, to get better, and come back a stronger composer!

Monday, August 3, 2015


"He who says the most often has the least to say."

I came up with that quote a while back and I want to say it's from somewhere else but maybe it really is original?  After thinking about it, I know I've heard the opposite, that people who say the least often have the most to say...

But in terms of the quote, I take note of people's solos.  It sometimes feels like those who play a lot of notes are less musical, less intentional than those who play less.  Watch a master play their instrument and you'll often see less played while feeling the impact more.  Watch a talented newbie play and you'll often see more played without feeling nearly as much impact.

It's easy to let your hands, your body do what it wants - wherever you are on the spectrum of skill.  What's harder is to have a message, a meaning, and intention in those notes, in those movements.  Sometimes the audience can't tell the difference, but sometimes they really can.  Is it worth spending time to make your solos have meaning?  Only you can answer that question.

Another aspect of this is when talking, communicating not as a performer but as a teacher.  What if you could only use 20 words in a single practice session?  You'd make them all have as much impact as possible, I'd bet.

Just like with playing too many notes or making too many movements, use too many words and eventually a person stops paying attention - they zone out.  (And yes, I realize the irony of saying this when I at times write long blog posts!)

What message are you trying to get across?  Have you thought about how it's delivered?  Can you have more impact with less words?  Can you say more with less notes?