Monday, September 28, 2015

Question Everything: How good are you, really?

It's a really difficult question to ask...

First, whom are you asking?  Are they qualified to tell you?  Are they biased?  If you ask your parents, you might get a very different answer than if you ask your teacher(s).  Are they likely to dodge the question rather than answer it bluntly?  Most teachers I know would, at the very least, soften the critiques and highlight the positives - but is that an accurate picture of what they think of your abilities? 

If you ask someone who's only seen you a few times, you might get a much more honest answer, but they also have less context to judge you on .  If you ask someone who's watched you for years, the opposite might be true.  Which is better?  And what if the comments are unsolicited?  Do they have more or less weight?

Second, how did you phrase the question?  Because it's not an easy question, the more you qualify it, the more likely the results are affected, but that's not necessarily a bad thing .  For example, asking "Am I any good?" is a very open-ended question, which can let people pick what they want to focus on - your technique, your attitude, your solos, etc.  Asking "On a scale of 1-10, where would you say my striking technique on naname is?"  will get you a much more specific answer, but doesn't address all the other ways of striking, your form, your energy, etc.

Third, are you open to hearing the answer?  If you're thinking you're great and you hear "you suck", will you disregard what you heard?  Or the opposite, if someone tells you "you're great" but you think you suck...?  Will you take the comments at face value?  Do you know how that person gives feedback?

Some people need to really know you well before they're honest with you, some people will tell you what they think you want to hear, some people will be cryptic in their responses - how do you interpret that data?

Finally, what will you do with the information?  Are you looking for what you need to work more on?  If it's something you've heard before, will that make you more or less inclined to act on it?  Are you fishing for compliments to the point where the critique just becomes "noise"?  Are you going to remember what you heard in a week's time?

The answers to these questions are going to be different for each of us.  But what I've found in my experience is that the people that are truly good at what they do - regardless of the art - also have a REALLY good understanding of what their strengths and weaknesses are.  My theory is that the question of "how good am I?" is something they heard from teachers before, but is now something they ask of themselves, again and again.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Recovering gracefully

So I came a story the other day: 

Erin Hazler was used to running in the back of the pack, but this race was different.

She struggled for most of the Indianapolis 15K, and when she rounded the last turn, she recalled, she saw to her horror that she'd taken so long that the awards ceremony had already begun — a few feet from the finish line. Just when she thought the embarrassment couldn't get any worse, one of her friends started screaming her name. Her other friends took up the cry, raising their arms to form a victory arch for her to run through.

"You must have a lot of fans," the announcer said gamely, and dozens of people turned to Hazler, waiting for her to say something — anything — in reply.

"Take that, fast people!" she screamed in jest, and the crowd erupted in laughter.

Now I've talked a LOT in my blog about failing, about growing because of failure, and how fear of failure is worse than failure itself.  Ok, but what do you do WHEN you fail?  Notice I said when, and not if...  ;)

Maybe you drop a bachi - maybe you break one!  Maybe you have a set solo and clearly get off.  Maybe you fall down!  They've all happened to me and I've seen them happen to others.

Honestly, I think the only way you get better at dealing with a fail is through experience in failing, but it's not like you build up a tolerance per se.  Instead, you're able to keep calm and make more thoughtful or rational decisions, which might translate to the audience as quick thinking.

One thing you can do while you wait for your next fail is mentally go through the steps of what you'd do when it does.  So you're soloing and one of your bachi explodes into a cloud of microscopic wood particles.  Atoms.  How will you solo with just one bachi?  No, really, think about it - do you just do your normal soloing and pretend?  Do you put one hand behind your back?  Do you start doing more movements with your now-free hand?

Or let's say it's something really unlikely but possible, such as your naname drum falling off the stand and being flat/horizontal on the stage.  Maybe you scramble to lift the drum back up on the stand - nothing wrong with that.  But maybe you kneel and play the drum as it is, not trying to hide the fact that something terrible just happened, and instead embracing the situation as best you can (putting it back up after your solo is over, haha).

And finally, the biggest factor that will help or hinder you is your mindset.  Are you the type to panic at the thought of dropping your bachi?  Are you going to freak out when the lights go out on stage?  Will you grimace when you realize you have two different bachi to play your piece with?

Lemons from lemonade!

Monday, September 21, 2015

New Song Diary: Momentum for two

In November, SJT will be doing a Works In Progress (WIP) mini-concert for donors and special guests. at our studio.

The idea is not to present a finished or even completed song, but a section or snippet.  For the audience it could be a lot of fun, but for the composers it takes a lot of the pressure away to make a song and get to focus on composing a song.  From there, some of the WIP pieces might get green-lighted to be completed for our Spring Concert.  If not, they can still be worked on if the composer desires.

For this WIP, I have two songs lined up.  One is the piece I've talked about for a couple of years now - left hand playing a non-stop straight beat between the left and center drums, while the right hand plays patterns.  It's a very simple concept that really challenges the hands and brain.  The other song is a hybrid of two pieces I never got traction on - one being a katsugi okedo piece that focuses on chops and musicality, the other being on naname and playing facing the head flat-on striking in an x-form.

Workshopping both pieces has been really successful, if not always easy for the people playing the parts...

For the first piece, which I'm calling "the pod piece" for now, I'm aiming to do about 1.5 to 2 minute's worth of material, showing how I up the tempo in a sneaky way, throw some patterns, get some soloing, but this one is definitely the piece I'm still trying to develop a mood for.  Do I go a little silly?  Do I go a little rock-and-roll feel?

For the second piece, which I'm calling "the hybrid piece", I definitely have the mood of the piece I want, and I figure I should aim for the same amount of time by November.  Throw some patterns, soloing, and see how people take to it.

With both pieces, I have to constantly remind myself that I'm not WRITING A SONG by November.  I'm just doing "songstuff" for now.  It's weird for me not working towards a definite, finished project, but it's a good way to compose without too much pressure!

Stay tuned...

Thursday, September 17, 2015


Most of us play taiko.  I think that it's really hard to play taiko without passion, which means taiko players are in general, passionate people.  When we see something about our passion that offends or disturbs us, it's easy to come at things, well, passionately.  But often, it can make things worse.

My last post was about the thread in the Facebook's Taiko Community group and some of the points I brought up.  Recently there was another post about groups in North America that exclude non-Japanese players.  I took umbrage at the premise because it was put up as something that's common in North American taiko and something that our community is ok with.  A subsequent reply, much later in the thread talked about Americans being "ignorant" and I called that one out as well.

But I'm not here to have a pulpit to show why I'm right and blah blah blah.  What I'd much prefer is for people to take a breath, take a step back, look at the thing that bothers them, look at how their argument will sound when put into words, and realize that in many cases, context matters a LOT.

I realize that's a lot to ask - if more people did that in society, we'd have a happier life!  I admit I still have to work on this at times too, especially when I'm feeling really rant-y, haha.

Some of the arguments I see or hear have some pretty serious fallacies in them.  It's both from my ornery nature and a background in debate that I get involved in these discussions and threads.  Sometimes I do feel a certain way, but more often than not I just want to point out when a "fact" is just an opinion, or one persons experience doesn't mirror someone else's.  I want people to look at their arguments from a position of objectiveness and ask, are things really as bad as they seem?

I don't want anyone to feel an issue important to them isn't important.  I don't want anyone who wants to have a discussion to feel their topic isn't worthy.  I only hope that the loudest voices in the room aren't the ones that garner the most attention, that logic can have an equal place with passion when issues are brought up.

Now, what will the next controversy be?  Any takers?  :D

Monday, September 14, 2015


Nothing makes you more aware of your posture than tweaking your back.  So while making sure I didn't make it worse, I've been thinking a lot more about posture.

It's not so much just "how do I move without hurting myself", because that's a given, ha.  Instead, it's looking at the alignment of people when they perform, being aware of my own tendencies when I move, etc.

In karate, I know/have been told I often have a forward lean when punching.  I've been trusting my eyes to inform me of my posture, but they only see a tiny bit of me at any given time, mostly my fist in front of me..  And I'm trying to reach my imaginary target, which is causing me to lean forward and/or twist more than I need to in order to accomplish this.  Lately I've been working on feeling my technique instead of relying on what I see.

I can look ahead in the mirror, but that doesn't catch the forward/back alignment I need to work on.  If I turn sideways, I can't do the technique right while looking 90 degrees, either.  Also, at this point, I know what the issue is, so having someone tell me I'm doing it isn't helpful.  I have to start being able to feel what the proper posture is and recognize when I deviate from that.

Looking at posture in taiko is something worth taking time for, as well.  I see a lot of shoulders that hunch forward, butts sticking out, torsos curved/leaning forward, and/or torsos tilted to the side (especially in naname).  In many cases we as taiko players have the *ability* to see ourselves in a mirror (when there are mirrors to be had), but it seems we often have trouble *actually* seeing these things as well as adjust visually.  Just what is your skeleton doing?

How important is posture?  It's often that the posture is a result of something at work you don't want, things like tension, or over-extension, to name a couple.

The solution?  If you don't have any idea how your posture is, ask someone to take a look at it.  Maybe even a couple of people.  Ask them to look for tension, curves, and angles that don't need to be there.  If you don't have people, use a recording device and play something while recording from the front, then side, then back.  Be critical.  Be honest.

If you just try to play normally and adjust, it's going to be really hard.  Because what you're used to will be where you return to.  Instead, start from a position of good posture, relaxed, and play slower, softer.  Make the priority to stay in this "better" position and note how it feels.  From time to time, keep starting in this position and really focus on how different things feel.  It might take time, because if you're not being vigilant, you'll revert without realizing.

Is it worth it?  I can tell you that the better your body is in alignment, the easier everything else is in the long run.  So that's probably a "yes" then...

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Video: Madonna and taiko

THIS video was posted in the Facebook Taiko Community group.  Not all of you are members or go there often, but a really interesting discussion got started.

Essentially, for either a music video or concert tour, several dancers are being taught the basics of taiko (and flamenco).  The thread had people saying things ranging from that they didn't like it to that this isn't taiko to commenting on cultural appropriation.  After watching the video myself, I made a few comments that got a lot of "likes", and wanted to post those comments here.


"This thread/video touches on something I've pointed out to people in the past: If the taiko community wants to see MORE taiko out there, garner MORE attention and get MORE popularity, then we can't in the same breath be upset or shocked when it leaves "our" hands, "our" control.
The art form has to either have freedom to grow - which means seeing and hearing things people don't like, or be protected and held tight - which leads to isolation, maybe even stagnation.

I'm not coming at this from one side or the other, just noticing this push-pull dynamic from the taiko community that may never (should never?) settle."


"So here in this video we have a group of dancers trying to learn how to play taiko. They're not claiming to be taiko players. And there are those among us who say "I don't like it." That's fine. But when people say "that's not taiko," you open yourself up to the fallacy that taiko - the art form - can be defined. It can be described, but not truly defined, because it's growing constantly and people are doing stuff with it that we may never know about.

It goes back to the argument of "what is taiko?" which is a trap in itself. Who gets to define what taiko is to another? If Kodo plays Monochrome on phone books, is that taiko? If a group of Caucasians buy Asano drums and only get instruction from watching other groups play on YouTube, is that taiko? I'm not asking anyone those questions specifically, but I do ask everyone to be careful with labeling some taiko as "not taiko" when it's simply "taiko you don't like."


"Something else to consider is that we are all beginners at some point when it comes to taiko. For Madonna, she happened to want to use taiko and flamenco in her video - and maybe flamenco artists are saying the same thing that we are when they watch this video?

But consider this: there are a lot of taiko players out there that may never move as well as the dancers in this video, but maybe have better striking technique or better ki. Does that make them better or worse as taiko players? Also, maybe there are videos of us that other taiko players see and those players are thinking similar things about *us*!

Think back to the first few taiko lessons you had. Would you be embarrassed to have that broadcast to the world? Maybe the dancers felt awkward but this is their job - to sell it as best they can. And they look better than I did when I first played taiko for the first time, lol.

If we instead think all of us are beginners, if we instead look at taiko as an art form full of potential, we can still say "I don't like this" and yet still see how there are positives to be had.


There's a lot of topics in there that I might focus on in future posts, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts or the video, or both!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Honest technique

While observing a round of self-defense in the dojo the other night, I thought about the concept of "being honest" when training with partner.

If a set drill has me as the attacker and you as the defender, if I purposefully aim off-target to make it easier for you, I'm not giving you a real, or "honest" technique.  Same goes for if I go slower or modify the technique to make it less effective.  It means that you're learning to take an attack that's not realistic, and in response training a technique that's not as effective.

Of course there are exceptions to this being something to avoid, like if you're with someone much less skilled than you and you don't want to punch them in the face over and over again.  You want them to have a chance at first, but in a short time you should be working up to that honest technique.

So when I'm not "honest" about a technique, it trains poor technique on my part but also has a negative effect on my partner's technique.  So I got to thinking, is there a comparable lesson to apply to taiko?

Can you think of ways where you've held back in your technique to make it easier on yourself (and not for physical/medical reasons)?

Again, there are times when you maybe should "pull your punches" so to speak, but when you're not making an honest output, what deficiencies are you creating in your technique?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Why different grips?

I've talked about different grips in the past, which fingers you can use, how to hold the bachi, etc.  I've said that sometimes you'll need to use different grips when things aren't optimal, like bachi that are too heavy/light, having blisters, etc.

Last week I wound up with two bruised index fingers from a rigorous karate session.  One was so swollen that I had trouble closing my hand!  Luckily things are much better now.  But it meant that I effectively lost the ability to rely on the strength and dexterity of those fingers while playing.

If I wasn't used to playing taiko with a mid-grip (middle + ring) or rear-grip (ring + pinky), I would have been in a lot of pain and my striking would have been horrible.  And knowing how to use those grips isn't enough; if I hadn't practiced them previously - when I didn't need to - then I would have been floundering about when I needed them.

So nothing new today, just a practical example of something I've talked about before.  And keep your fingers safe!