Monday, November 30, 2015

Ripples, pt. 2

I wrote here about the ripple effect, about how what and how you say things affects people and events around you.

Sometimes, it's what's being said that causes a big splash.  Something controversial, something heartfelt, something that strikes a chord.  It almost doesn't matter who says it, because it's the words themselves that cause a response in other people.

Sometimes, it's who's saying something that causes a big splash.  Group leaders and founders, teachers, people who've been in the community for a long time, and others like this are able to cause great ripples.

Most of us feel passionately about something, or many things.  And we wouldn't be sorry for causing some ripples, especially when they're positive!  Unfortunately, often the biggest ripples are the negative ones.

The most powerful ripples are those about the former from those in the latter.  Good or bad, they are heard and they are felt the fastest, the deepest.  That's just how it works, taiko or otherwise.  But sometimes the effects aren't really felt for a while, bouncing around under the surface, bouncing off each other, making new ripples that begin the process all over again.

When you drop a stone into a small body of water, the ripples extend outward.  When they finally hit an object, they bounce off it to create new ripples.  And those ripples bounce off each other.  It's much the same with how words get out from a speaker into the group or the community, and people talk about what they've heard, creating more ripples.

When those ripples are negative, it can be really hard to deal with them.  Maybe they come from someone you respect.  Maybe it makes you reconsider a group you enjoyed watching.  And now you're likely to create more ripples from your own experience, talking to others, furthering the process.  These are the ripples that wind up going back to the source, hurting their reputation, causing people to lose respect, or even outright shun. 

I've ranted a lot in my blog and realize that I may have had this effect myself, so I try to be a lot more careful these days.  My words don't have the weight of a lot of others in the taiko community, but they can cause ripples nonetheless.  And because of my blog, even the things I say to people in person can have the same effect.  It's not always easy to be a better person, but I feel I have a responsibility to try.  Otherwise I'm being a hypocrite.  This blog is as much about me getting thoughts out of my head as it is a way for me to better myself, after all!

Positivity begets positivity, negativity begets negativity.  What you say and do comes back to you, if not directly then in ways you don't notice at first, but in the ways other people think about you and react to you.  What ripples are you causing?

Thursday, November 26, 2015



If you're playing really loudly but aren't matching the volume with your ki, is that fair?  If you're playing really quietly but aren't just as focused, is that fair?  Fair to who?  The taiko!

I want you to think about the bond between the player and the taiko.  Without the other, what do you have?  An inanimate object.  Someone with a pair of sticks.  You need both to make the taiko come alive - the animator and the medium.

We express ourselves when we play taiko; our true selves come out.  But what I've found after years of watching concerts and festivals and workshops and jams is that some people "hide" behind the drum.  Not hide literally, but it's like the wall of noise they create by hitting the taiko feels like "enough" and they don't match the output in terms of spirit.  You can fool the ears, but you can't fool the eyes when you do this.

It can be as simple as projecting more when you kiai, or much more fundamental in terms of confidence or stage fright.

This sort of thing can happen in solos, where a subdued personality plays loud notes.  It's like using plain white bread to serve up the best, tastiest sandwich fillings.  It feels...lacking?  Matching the bread to the filling seems the best course.

Another way to think of this is trying to sing a song but keeping the mouth somewhat closed.  You can be heard, even understood, but the impact and quality of the music is dampened.  Open you mouth to sing and you can make something pleasant become something wonderful.

So make a deal with the taiko when you play it.  Don't hide your spirit behind the sound you produce.  Don't make the taiko do "all the work".  DO put your intention, your ki into the drum when you play.  It might mean putting yourself more out there, but even if that's uncomfortable at first, don't you think you owe it to the taiko?

If you treat the taiko like a partner rather than an object, you'll find you're more likely to match its output with your own!

Monday, November 23, 2015


Most of my readers - most of you - play taiko.  We tend to feel very attached, very passionate towards our art, regardless of why we play.  I've noticed that a lot of taiko players tend to feel that taiko is precious, that it's special, even that it's unique.  But is it?  Yes!  And no.

Some people approach taiko as a way to connect with Japan and Japanese culture.  For them, seeing taiko put in a music video and used in a perfunctory way may very well be upsetting on a personal level.  This takes something that is precious to them and - in their minds - belittles it.

Some people approach taiko as a way to explore or express their identity.  For them, seeing taiko used on an award show out of context or as just another drum may very well make them feel minimized.  It's something precious to them that has just been - in their minds - devalued.

Seeing a pattern here?

Now, some people see taiko as a drumming form to be enjoyed with friends.  Being told they're disrespecting other taiko players by not doing X or Y correctly may be frustrating to them.  Things precious to other people are being imposed on them.

Some people see taiko as an art form that has so much potential to grow and expand.  They want to make taiko more precious in their lives  and being told that they're "what you're doing is not taiko" is baffling.

Seeing another pattern here?

Essentially, this is a situation where everyone is wrong - or right, if you prefer.

I also see this sometimes when people discuss the issues in their taiko group or the taiko community as if their/our problems are unique to taiko.  Issues with identity, growing pains, recruitment, funding, social dynamics, authenticity questions, etc., all of those are very much like the issues discussed in other musical, dance, and artistic forms.  Most of us don't know about those similar issues unless we're somehow involved in other arts.

Considering that people in another art form are just as passionate about theirs as we are about ours, we shouldn't think that ours is "more precious" or more important.  It is "more precious" to you/to us, but those other people would make the same argument about theirs, right?  If anything, we can learn from what other art forms have gone through or are dealing with, because they are "us", just in a different art form.

It's important to acknowledge what is precious and why it is precious to you, but you can't discount anyone else's reason because these are personal and subjective for each of us.  You also can't impose your reasons on anyone else.  It's great to have discussions on this sort of thing, but discussions have to come with perspective!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Out of the box

I’ve taught workshops and sessions on improvisation, and one of the most valuable things I can tell people is to be creative.  Creativity is like a muscle that gets stronger the more you use it.

There are two different concepts I want to get to in this post.

The first idea is really trying to stretch your creative muscle by going to new and unusual places (for you).  Say you have a shime in front of you and a pair of bachi.  If you’re told to improvise with it, what would you do?  Most people – a high majority, I’d say – would play on the shime with their bachi.  And why not?  There’s nothing wrong with that.

But what about playing the stand that the drum is on?  Or the floor?  Or on yourself?  What about playing the drum with your hands?  Or the stand with your hands?  Or the floor?  Or yourself?  What about no percussion at all and using your voice to improv, say with either kiai, kuchishoga, or song?  What about doing a visual improv with motions and movements?  What about lifting the shime off the stand and holding it while you either play it or just move around?

For some of you, I may have just blown your minds.  For others, you may be thinking that all of that is dumb.

Regardless, if you can at least THINK about these possibilities, you’re starting to use that creative muscle.  Would I ever take a shime and roll it across the floor like I was bowling?  Probably not, but there’s a new idea that I might get other ideas from, and one of those might be something to pursue.  If you discount too many ideas in your head, then that creative muscle atrophies.  Remember, there’s a huge difference in thinking about something and doing it.

The second idea is sort of contrary to the first, but not completely so.  Imagine you have in front of you, a set of twelve drums.  Some are down on betta, some naname.  Some are lower toned, some are higher. Some shime as well.  You have your pick from six different types of beaters, from oak bachi to bamboo slats to timpani mallets.  You’re told to improvise.  What do you do?

I would say that a large majority of people would go NUTS.  Why not?  Sooooo manyyyyy drumsssss.  It’s fun!  But what about taking the most familiar pair of beaters (probably the oak bachi), and playing a solo on just one drum?  In a way, that’s thinking outside of the box, isn’t it?  And again, even if you don’t actually do a solo on just one drum, at least thinking about it means you’re using that creative muscle.

Creativity can be complex or daunting but it can also be simple and comforting.  The trick is to let your mind be flexible.  You can’t think of ALL the possibilities, but you can start with some!

Monday, November 16, 2015

New Song Diary: Works in progress?

Last Saturday, SJT presented 11 new song ideas (yes, ELEVEN) to a small audience.  These were all Works in Progress.  For us, a Work in Progress (WIP) means that there is more to do, adjust, rework, etc.  They’re also rarely as long as a full piece.

We’ve spent three, maybe four months developing our ideas, teaching them, and practicing them.  For the last 2 weeks we just did run-throughs of the 11 pieces to prepare for the presentation.   Compared to a “show”, this was less formal and with less pressure.

I’ve never had a “Work in Progress”.  I’ve only had…well, “Works”.  I write songs and they get played.  Not that anything I write is automatically good enough to BE played, but in the past when I’ve put in the time and intention to write a piece, it has been performed.  So now I’m looking at my two WIPs and it’s going to be different now that they’ve “debuted”.

In my head, I know my pieces aren’t done.  One is well on its way, and the other is just getting its footing.  I have a lot of work to do to develop them fully.  The thing is, I’ve heard them played dozens of times to the point where I’m used to hearing them as “completed”.  So I’ll have to step back and re-think of them both as still “in progress”, and remember that I can edit and adjust things as I feel I need to, even if some of the changes are large ones.

At this point, I don’t know if it was a good thing for my pieces to have this stopping point or not.  It's not that the WIP presentation was a bad thing, I mean that in the context of creating a new idea, would it have been better to keep creating and be open to change until the end?  Or is having a “foothold” a way to have a solid core to grow from?

I figure the answer will be different for each piece and I can’t “go back” and try different paths for them, so maybe there’s no way of knowing unless I, as a composer, wind up preferring one way or the other.  After my 12 Songs in 12 Weeks experiment, I did learn a few things about my preferences, but this is new territory and I want to stay open-minded.  

Regardless, at least one of these songs will be completed – but who knows when or where it (they) will be performed!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Blog post

I write a lot about how teaching makes an artist stronger.

My blogging is a form of teaching.  And while it started out for me as a way to rant and throw my thoughts up, I’ve often had to think out some of my ideas just as a teacher would.  How do I inspire someone to try harder, to expect more from themselves?  How do I describe a drill so that other people could understand it?  How do I encourage while also challenging held beliefs?

In some of my blog posts, I’ve asked people to think how they would teach something they know, or how they would approach someone if they were tasked to introduce a new concept or idea.
In that same vein, what would you do if you were asked to write a blog post?

Do you have a skill you’re known for in your group, like composing, energy/ki, or your practice methods?  Maybe you’ve been around for a while and can offer advice to people who are starting to feel bored.  Maybe you’re new and can write about what it’s like to find your way around.  The question isn’t so much WHAT you could write about as HOW you would write about it.
When you start considering your audience, tone, important points, examples, words to avoid, length, and other such aspects, you start thinking about the stuff you're familiar with in a very different way, if you're not used to teaching already.  Even if you already teach in a classroom or in-person environment, teaching through the written word is a much different experience.

The key to becoming a stronger artist isn't just finding new things and new skills, but in looking at what you already do and re-examining it in different ways.  You might just be surprised!

Monday, November 9, 2015


image from

When you first learn something, you generally try to make the same shape(s) that your instructor makes.  You learn to put yourself in those same positions, angles, arcs, etc.

At first, this is a great way to understand something new.  You may not get from A to B gracefully, but you can "do" A and B.

But there's a point when trying to match shapes is at best unhelpful, and at worst, detrimental.

Some examples:

1,) When I play shime, because my chest is moderately broad, my arms angle in somewhat.  They are straight, but they definitely point inwards a good deal.  If someone else matches that angle because they're matching my shape but is of a smaller build, they're going to be struggling to play relaxed with their arms unnaturally held out.

2.) When I play shime, because I'm tall, I have to get lower in my stance so that I'm not having to hit too far downward for the strike.  Someone shorter, matching my height on shime might very well be standing up far too high and have to do a lot more work with (still) bad technique.

3.) When I play odaiko or naname, I often get into a very wide stance that I'm able to have due to flexibility.  Anyone trying to match that shape without the same flexibility may compromise the rest of their technique greatly, or even injure themselves.

What I recommend, after you understand those basic shapes (however long it might take), is to figure out what's on the inside of those shapes, and also figure out how to move from one shape into another.  It's the internal stuff that's difficult to figure out yet immensely valuable.  But that, dear readers, is for another post (and I do believe I've talked about it in the past).

Shapes are like training wheels.  Great at first to build basic skills, but the longer you rely on them, the harder it will be to make any progress.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Drill: Volume

I've seen a lot of people play taiko who don't hit very hard.  And I've seen a lot of people play taiko who hit too hard.  It's easy to point out when someone falls into one of these two categories, but how do you - as a player - know where you fall?

"But Adam," I hear you say, "I strike just fine."  How do you know?  Were you told that explicitly?  Did the person telling you see a full range of your performance?  What if they're wrong?  I just want you to question those things you take for granted.  So let's assume you really don't know.

The easiest way to find out if you're on an extreme is to play something simple at your "default".   Something like a straight beat at a not-too-fast tempo.  Then try playing a little bit louder, louder, louder...  Or alternatively, a little bit softer, softer, softer...  If you find you can't go much in one direction, you're likely at an extreme.

But what if you're not THAT close to an extreme, and it's not so easy to tell?  Try thinking of volume on a scale.  Try thinking of it on a 1 to 5, or 1 to 10: whatever works for you.  The quietest you can play with control and still be heard is a 1, the loudest you can play without breaking something is the highest number.

Play a song, solo, or drill at your default volume.  Then do it again a notch in either direction.  from a 3 to a 3.5 on a 1-5 scale, or a 5 to a 4 on a 1-10 scale, etc.  Don't just go through the motions!  Then you get nothing out of the drill.  Take note of how easily you can hear yourself and how much more or less relaxed you feel.  Do it again, a notch in the same direction, and again, and again.  Then start at your default and go in the other direction.

If you find you have trouble playing softer but know you have room to get quiet, you'll need to stop your motions just a little bit sooner and focus more on timing the squeeze of your grip.  If you find you have trouble playing louder, think more about generating speed through gravity and use of the body instead of muscle, and hitting a target past the drum head (like an inch through the surface).

Did you find that you can play softer with less exertion?  Or louder and make a really sharp sound?  Did you find you can get a LOT louder?  Or a LOT softer?  Did you discover a range of volume that you're comfortable playing at?  Maybe you don't have to play as loud to make a really big sound, and that'll save you, the drum, and your bachi some wear and tear.  Maybe you can play louder with little effort.  This drill will help you find out.

Another benefit to this drill is learning how to use dynamics in your toolkit when you solo, instead of only playing one volume level all the time.  If you know you have a range, you can start using it a little bit here, little bit there.

For many people, the "default" volume is the only volume they're used to playing at, and that's not even necessarily a volume that's best for the drum or your body.  So explore what you're capable of, in both directions!  Otherwise, this is one less area for you to be personally empowered in, and who knows what you're really capable of!

Monday, November 2, 2015


Tension is the enemy.  There are arts out there that like generating tension - like weightlifting, or arm wrestling, but for the arts I practice and the arts many of you practice, tension is just a pain in the ass.

Too much tension in the legs means you can't use the body to power your moves.  Too much tension in the shoulders kills the arm's ability to truly unleash its full potential.  And tension in one place causes tension in other places, possibly in your entire body.  Don't believe me?  Clench a fist.  Your entire arm is involved, all the way up to your shoulder.  If there's tension in your shoulder, there's tension in your neck and torso, and so on.

When you relax, you let your body act much more efficiently, enable gravity to help, let your body absorb shock easier, and can react much quicker.  I don't know that I'm saying anything people don't believe, but the problem is making the body listen to what you want it to do.

Tensing is so natural, so easy to do.  It's almost like we're wired for it, so we have to learn HOW to relax.  As I've said before in previous posts, when you start a drill with the intention of relaxing, it's almost unavoidable to repeat many of the habits you're trying to break.  Learning small adjustments in the face of established habits is reaaalllly hard.

So I recommend putting yourself in a position where your habits have nothing to grab on to - no familiar footholds, in other words.  Try moving from a place of extreme relaxation.  Be sloppy, with just enough energy to keep you upright.  If it's something like taiko, maybe you don't let the bachi rebound off the head.  Or you collapse your weight down into the floor like a mini-squat.  Something like karate might have you almost falling after a kick or a turn leaving you all twisted up.  That's fine.  In fact, if you're comfortable in this state, then odds are you're not really putting yourself into the drill and holding tension.  Get wobbly-relaxed!  Breathe out when you move.  Take a lot of time between individual moves.  And DON'T WORRY ABOUT HOW IT LOOKS.  As soon as you worry about that, you'll want to adjust.

Keep in mind that relaxed doesn't always mean slow.  You can still accelerate a technique, but not control it.

This is where you can feel the extremes of relaxation.  And from here, you can start making adjustments.  Just a little bit, here and there.  Juuuust enough tension to keep your posture upright, or just enough to keep your arm from bouncing at the end of a movement.  Doing small adjustments back towards the "norm" can teach you a lot more about body awareness than trying to start at the "norm" and adjust from there.

So try a drill, song, form, whatever - and do it so relaxed to where you feel silly.  Can you still make a sound?  Can you still do it with speed?  Can you still connect your body?  Then small steps up, focusing on stay relaxed.  What do you learn?  What can you retain?  How different does it feel?