Thursday, October 29, 2015

What are you doing differently?

Odds are, you're getting hands-on instruction from a teacher, probably regularly.  Maybe you go online and find things like this blog to help you get better.

But what changed for you since last week?  What are you doing this week better than you were the week before?

Don't take it as a negative thing.  Take the opportunity to look at what you've improved in, whether it's doing something you were told to do differently, or something you figured out on your own.  It could be a big thing or subtle, but I'm betting it's there.

Maybe you really can't think of something that got better since last week.  Could be it's there but you can't think about it, could be last week was focused on things you couldn't improve on (for sake of this post).  Still, even thinking about it makes you aware that you can improve - that you could have improved.  Ideally, you take that to heart before next week, when you can ask yourself this same question.

Also, if you've been playing for a while it's sometimes hard to see differences from one week to the next.  Try month to month.  Year to year.  Bigger gaps mean more progress to see, even if there's also more to forget!

The idea here is while you might be taught how to get better, only you can feel the impact.  And while instructors might notice the changes before you do, the more you're able to see it for yourself, the more you can take charge of your own growth!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Metronome Love, pt. 5: Soloing

If you've been soloing for longer than a month, I will bet money you've gotten off the beat at LEAST once.  Even if you're a cyborg and can nail any set tempo without fail, you're playing with other human beings and the tempo is never mechanical with people, it's organic.  It shifts and bends with and without you.

So I say to you, play your solos along to a metronome!

"But Adam," I hear you saying, "didn't you just say we're playing to something organic, NOT mechanical?"  Yep, I did say that.  Here's the thing - learning to solo to a metronome teaches you to know your tendencies.  Do you tend to rush?  That's very common.  Do you tend to play late?  Are you inconsistent?  Even if you're able to stay steady, are you able to tell where the downbeat is or are you just "using the force"?

Playing to a metronome means you can play without the pressure of having anyone else watch or judge your solo.  You can play with headphones if you need to, ensuring you'll definitely hear the downbeat.  You can play at any tempo you want, any volume you want.  But what you have to focus on is staying on tempo more than anything else.

If you tend to get off-tempo, it's all-too-easy to play to the metronome, get off, get back on, and repeat.  That might teach you to recognize when you get off more quickly, but it would be even better to learn how not to get off to begin with, right?

So get the metronome going at whatever tempo you want, imagine the song you're soloing to (or just solo to the beep/click), and FOCUS ON THE TEMPO.  If you can't hear the metronome, play softer or turn it up.  That's the gist of the drill, but it can be a lot more difficult when you add in movements and effort and oops, where did the downbeat go?  So if you find you're having trouble staying with the metronome, stick with a base tempo and keep things mellow.  Add more later.

This will translate to playing with other people, because you'll have learned how to listen, learned what your tendencies are, and can make the adjustments that you need to, so much easier.

A solo that gets off tempo is like pasta with overcooked noodles.  You might have the best sauce, the best presentation, and the best wine to go with it, but it winds up a disappointing experience.  Once the pasta is perfect, everything else makes it so much better!

Thursday, October 22, 2015


The more I play music, the more I appreciate syncopation.  And I absolutely love putting it in my songs and my solos.  People think I have something against downbeats!

Syncopation comes when notes don't fall on the downbeat or in expected places.  It can be a simple as emphasizing the 2 and 4 when counting "1-2-3-4" or so complicated that you literally have no idea where the downbeat is.

At first, when people start putting syncopation in their solos, they often tend to throw it in wherever, which makes the patterns sound a bit random.  It's like a cupcake with a cherry stuck on the side of the cake part.  Then there's a point for some where they put in a LOT of syncopation to where the effect is lost because there's no "home" to come down on, no anchoring.  This is like a bunch of cherries and frosting with no cake.  Intentional syncopation is powerful, even if it's simple.  When it's complicated or prominent, it has to be even more intentional.

Now, I definitely get made fun of for my liberal use of syncopation.  But it's not like I'm making up notes that aren't there (like I've discovered "17th notes" next to the 16th notes, ha).  I just feel them wanting to be played.

One things that makes someone a master musician isn't how many notes they play (reflexes fade with time) or how fast they can play (speed fades too) but where they choose to play the notes they can.

For me, syncopation is the spice, the flavor that makes taiko so tasty.  You can have a strong stock (lots of players) and a hearty protein (playing together and loud) but then you add some spice, some patterns that weave around the strong downbeat, and you dramatically change what it feels like.  Maybe you add sriracha, maybe you add oregano, maybe you add peppercorns.  How much you add also changes the profile of the "dish".  But add too much and you have a mouthful of spice that ruins the experience...

So how do you get better at syncopation?  How do you get comfortable with it?  Like I've said many times on this blog, listen to more music.  New music.  Different music.  Genres like Electronic, Heavy Metal, and Funk are loaded with the stuff, and a lot of the lyrics in Rap music are delivered with it as well.  Western drumline and drum kit solos are also a huge arsenal of syncopation.

From there, maybe try repetition in your syncopation.  Try out patterns but repeat them so you can feel and hear what they're like, rather than just "ooh I put a note in between downbeats!"   Don't be afraid to play notes where you might normally NOT, because that's how you learn what sounds good and what doesn't, outside of your own head.

Finally, it's important to mention that the more you start using syncopation, the more important the sense of the downbeat is.  It's your lifeline, your anchor to all that fun - and when you lose that anchor, fun turns to chaos and it can be really hard to get back.  So at first, as you get used to it all, don't stray too far.  In my opinion, the best syncopation players have the downbeat so strongly within them that they can get miles away from it and still be rock-solid.  Many others are shaky only a few feet away!

I'll end with a few songs that might be useful, entertaining, or even daunting:

Stevie Wonder, "Superstition"
The Sugar Hill Gang, "Rapper's Delight"
D and K Cadence from the movie Drumline
Gene Krupa vs. Buddy Rich
Dave Brubeck, "Unsquare Dance"
Kodo, "Stride"
Incompetech, "Firebrand"

Monday, October 19, 2015

Question Everything: The little things.

When you bow into the dojo, bow to start practice, bow to each other, what are you thinking?

When you make a pose at the beginning or end of a piece or form, what are you thinking?

When you kiai, what goes through your head?

Do you do the motion because you're taught to do the motion?  Because it's what you've always done?  Do you kiai because it's expected?  Is that all there is to those actions?

The things we take for granted are often great places to learn lessons:

- Where's your weight when you bow?  Where do you bend?  Are you hunched?  Do you stop halfway or bounce?  Where are you looking?  How would you teach someone else to bow?

- Take a pose you hold in a song or a form.  What are you supposed to be embodying?  Did you just execute a counter-attack?  To what specific point?  Are you supposed to look strong?  Relaxed?  Are you tense in weird places?

- When you kiai to support a soloist, does your body language support the intention behind the kiai?  Are you giving that same feeling when not opening your mouth?  Do you think about when your kiai falls in a song or just let it go whenever you get a breath?

When you explore the little things like that, you gain two things:  One is the ability to analyze things easier, quicker.  The big things become little and the little things become second-nature.  The other is the ability to make informed choices about your movements, your energy.  To shift, to tweak, to make changes when needed.

It's too much to try to look for all of the little things, but if you take one song, one form, or even one single aspect for a little while, it's manageable.  It's not "sexy" or exciting as far as drills go, but it can pay off in spades down the line!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Soloing, part 13: Imitation as a tool

Photo: Associated Press

When I was new to taiko, I listened to Kodo and San Jose Taiko a LOT.  Cassette tapes and CDs and VHS were played over and over and over again.  And then over for good measure.

I tapped along to the songs I could only hear, and would play along to the videos I had.  There were about 2-3 songs from each group that I would listen to more than the others, specifically to play along with the solos.  I liked how they sounded, I liked the challenge of the difficult parts.

I was learning new patterns and new ways to solo, but I was also learning new sensibilities that were different to my own.  When I started playing along, it wasn't easy at first, but after a while I was not just playing the patterns along with the performers but enjoying some improvising of my own OVER those same patterns.  It's something anyone can do, if they want to put the time into it.

The groups and songs you like may not be the same songs I like, but that's totally fine.  The point is to find the ones that aren't easy to do at first, that make you practice and listen and figure out what's going on in order to train your ears and your hands.  If it's a solo you can play pretty easily, then it's not really teaching you something.  It should take some time to "get", because that means it's actually training you in something new.

One thing to note, though.  DON'T PERFORM THE SOLO YOU'RE COPYING.  That's bad form, like playing someone else's song without permission.  This is about using imitation as a tool, not as a way to play new solo patterns or movements!  You have to take what you learn from this and make it your own - which is yes, more work - but it's all part of this process.

And if you think you're good enough to play it all, try this (from 0:20 on).  Good luck.  ;)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Question Everything: What if it really was about you?

How many times have you been in a class where the instructor made a blanket comment that you ignored?

It could have been something like, "be careful not to speed up when you play xyz," or "don't tighten the shoulder on this move here," or whatever, really.  When we hear comments like these that aren't aimed as us directly, many of us think "well I wasn't doing that, so they weren't talking about me."

But what if you took every blanket comment and assumed they WERE talking about you?  What would happen?

Would you get overwhelmed with all the comments you now had to consider?  That's possible, in which case maybe take every other comment.  Being overloaded isn't going to help!

Maybe you'd start feeling like you're not very good, but you know you'd be doing this as an exercise, so that's not too likely.

Or maybe, just maybe, you'd start thinking about some of the things you figured didn't need to be worked on, things you took for granted.  You might find that you're doing things correctly, but in the process, find other things to think about or work on.  You might find new ways to explain/describe how you're doing things correctly, for when you have to teach it to someone else.

Of course, you don't have to do any of this, you can dismiss the comment even when you know it doesn't apply to you.  But does it make you any better?  Are you sure that you can't improve on the technique mentioned?  By repeatedly thinking "that comment's not about me," does it start to develop a mindset that sabotages you down the line?

It's pretty common for a person giving a comment to not single out the one or two people that the comment is meant for.  It's less harsh that way, but also means there's a good chance the person/people who need the comment the most don't "hear" it.  Is that person you?

So try taking all the comments you hear for a practice or two.  Or a month, whatever works for you.  Even just the act of processing what you hear differently can make you a better artist!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

New Song Diary: Two Works in Progress

A couple of nights ago, I had the entire practice session to teach my two song ideas.  It's a LOT of work to have two new song ideas to teach for about an hour each.  Most of that consisted mainly on keeping all the patterns straight and having a general plan of what to cover.  Happily, everything went well!

I mean, there was some smoke coming from people's heads, but that's kind of normal with my pieces...

The hybrid song idea (okedo + naname) went very smoothly.  Okedo patterns are a bit tricky given the syncopation (I apparently am not fond of downbeats, ha!), but people were playing them fine.  Naname players just repeat a lot of simple patterns, but now that I've seen how it looks and hear how it sounds, I can tweak their parts a bit.  For the presentation in November, I'll just have a few chunks to play, focusing on how the patterns interlock, and maybe some soloing.  That's a good start.  After that?  I want to think about the mood and purpose of the piece, but I have some ideas already.

The pod song I'm tentatively calling "LEFT to my own devices".  A little corny, but it also highlights that there's something going on with the left hand - namely, it never stops playing a straight beat.  This was a harder song to teach, simply because I had a lot more material and more of the rough sequence planned out.  It gets increasingly harder as the tempo increases (which is written into the piece), but no one died...except I haven't finished the ending yet and won't need to by November.

So things are good.  No guarantees that either will become full-fledged songs, no guarantees that either will be played at next year's Spring Concert, but things are moving nicely and there's a solid structure for both.  *phew!*

Monday, October 5, 2015

Video: Being silly

Watch this.  It's very silly.  Go ahead, I'll wait.

I was originally just going to leave that and end with "enjoy some silliness!" but I thought I would say just a bit more.

This is a good example of "selling" something that's silly.  Humor is a tricky creature on stage, often over-sold to the point of it feeling forced, or under-sold to where it feels awkward.

Comedy is an art, just like taiko.  It should be given time and thought when put into a song or a set, often needing time to "bake" before the timing and mood are just right.  The person doing it is also a factor - a joke told by Richard Pryor would not feel or sound like the same joke told by, say, Al Gore.

So as you enjoy the silly video, take some time to think about how humor can add to or distract from a performance.  Your audience will thank you for it!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Listen to new stuff!

Musically, I like to think I have pretty eclectic tastes:  Taiko, 80's, videogame music, Heavy Metal, instrumental soundtracks, Hip-Hop, Funk, Electronic, some Rap, Big Band/Symphonic, world music...lots of genres.  I know what I don't like as well, but it's a much smaller grouping.

I strongly believe that for taiko players, how we solo and compose is strongly influenced by what we listened to growing up - and to some degree, what we listen to now.  Another element that influences us is the group(s) we play with, especially how other people solo, but I've written about that before.

The reason for the post today is because I've started to explore dubstep, which is a genre I've not given much attention before.  I know dubstep gets a lot of scorn, for reasons I won't go into here, but as a genre there are some very interesting things that have been done since its start in 1999.  There are some amazing uses of the "drop bass" and syncopation done at faster tempos.  I'm finding it very inspirational in terms of thinking of rhythms in new ways!

Now, I don't recommend dubstep for everyone, and some of you might hate it outright, but my point is that if we want to grow as musicians, as artists, we need to be exposed to more things.  Stuck in a solo rut?  Listen to a new music genre.  Stuck in a compositional rut?  Learn the basics of a martial art or dance form (YouTube is great for this). 

I'd be curious to hear if anyone reading this does discover a new art form that inspires them, so please let me know!