Thursday, December 31, 2015

2016: Looking ahead

So what's coming up next year?  Hmm.

There's a collaboration with the Bangerz in SoCal but I'm collaborated-out for a while.  I'll focus instead on my new piece, debuting in the April concert.  Before that though - in March - we have a 10-day tour East-ish.  Looking forward to that!

Might sign up for one of the TCA Committees, if it works with my schedule.  Always rewarding to help taiko prosper!

Finally, the blog might go through a major change sometime in 2016, but no idea if or when.  We'll see what happens.  Until then, post post post!  As usual, if you have something you'd like me to talk about or give my perspective on, email me on FB or comment on here (you can be anonymous).

Have a great 2016, question everything, and keep on growing!

Thanks, everyone!

Monday, December 28, 2015

2015: Looking back

Another year, another hundred thousand beats?  Something like that.

Looking back this year, it was a pretty busy one, taiko-wise:

Collaboration concerts with the Bangerz, a month-long tour with a week of teaching workshops in the middle, another busy festival season, and then into writing two new song ideas, one of which I'll be developing into a full piece for the Spring concert.

There was also NATC, and since I didn't teach a workshop this time, I wound up just observing the workshops and helping out here and there as needed.  Driving a ton of drums and equipment to Vegas and back in a huge truck was kind of fun, too!

There were a lot of good posts this year (if I do say so myself, ha):

My favorite drill
Bachi, bachi everywhere
Question Everything: Power
Baka waza
Big fish
Question Everything: How good are you, really?
Madonna and taiko
Ripples, pt. 2
Failure vs. mistakes

I hope these and other posts of mine have entertained, challenged, and amused you throughout 2015! One more post to end out the year...

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Soloing, part 14: Two cardinal rules

I've been thinking about what makes a good solo lately.  Some of the things are subjective, some are things I prefer, but I feel that a few things have to be in a solo regardless of any other factors to make it a good one.

First and foremost, timing.

When someone rushes ahead of the beat or significantly lags behind, it totally nullifies how awesome the patterns are, how impressive the movements are, how well they project, etc.

Every soloist is bound to get off here and there, and it's up until that point where they thought they knew exactly where the downbeat was.  Oops!  So it's not a horrible thing, just means it's not a very good solo when it happens.

If you get told more than a few times that you get off-tempo in your solos, this could be a potential red flag.  There's a couple of things you can do, such as play less notes or play quieter, but it's all about being able to hear the ji.  If you can't hear it, how do you know you're on?  We all think we're doing fine until we come up for air and realize we aren't...

Second, technique.

Maybe someone can play a really fast sequence, but you can see the tension in their grip and shoulders from a mile away.  Or maybe they have some super nifty patterns, but they're hitting really unevenly between their dominant and weaker hands.  Maybe someone is super fluid in their movements but they slouch when they play.  Or maybe they're really mobile but they don't extend at all.  Maybe they have really loud kiai but it comes from the throat instead of the diaphragm.  Or maybe they're really energetic but their expression is the same no matter what the song.

While some of these seem subjective to you, my point is it's really about HOW a person plays rather than WHAT they play.  You can impress with the "what", but you can inspire with the "how"...and also impress!

Personally, I find timing is more important to nail than technique, because you can be taught technique, but you can't be taught to listen.  You have to learn that on your own!

None of us are perfect.  We're going to get off: we're going to hit poorly, express ourselves less ably than we normally can.  But overall, I feel like these two rules set the foundation for everything else you can do in a solo, regardless of your experience or ability.  After this, the world is your oyster!  Or, if you're allergic to shellfish, the world is your...jello mold?  :D

Monday, December 21, 2015

Failure vs. mistakes

I talk a lot about failure in my blog.  From fear of it to dealing with it to avoiding it, failure is something I think is worth bringing up often, at least to lessen its impact on us as performers.

But in all my posts, I've realized that I've approached failure in binary terms, in black-and-white.  Failure is the worst-case scenario, the far end of the spectrum.  At the other end would be something like making an error so small that only you notice.

Actual failure is something most of us experience.  This could be something like starting the wrong song to having a drum break on you.  But all the other stuff?  I'm going to define these less-than-failure moments as "mistakes".

Mistakes happen all the time.  I'm betting you've made plenty but you don't dwell on them much.  An interesting question to ask yourself is, where does the difference happen between "caring" and "moving on" for you?  What mistakes cause you worry and what failures make you laugh?

I realize that simply telling yourself that "I will not fear failure" is a lofty goal.  But you can set your sights a little lower to start, and look at the mistakes that don't bother you.  Why don't they bother you?  How do you deal with them?  Can you apply that to bigger mistakes?

Some of you will recall that I've fallen OFF a stage before, early on.  That's definitely a failure.  I recovered really really well, (arguably enough to surpass the fail) but it was something that made all the failures later on over the years seem pretty minor in comparison.  Taking into account your previous failures or even other people's failures can make a new "failure" seem like just a mistake, instead.  Once you start doing this as a process, you might find that fear of future failures is lessened, because the failures are becoming less and less impactful.

No one wants to fail, but we all have coping mechanisms for the smaller mistakes.  Figuring out how to treat future failures is a big part of growing as an artist - taiko player or otherwise!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Different types of ki

One of the things I've struggled with in my taiko "career" is ki.

While my physical and musical abilities have made great strides, I still have to actively work on my ki within SJT.  Just when I think I'm projecting enough, I see a video and wish I was exaggerating more so it would translate better to a viewer.  I know I'm feeling it, but it's not being seen as I feel it.  That's no one's fault but mine!  It comes now and then in the times when I'm supporting or playing percussion that I slip from where I should be at.

While ki is a word that can encompass so many things, I'm using it here to define the energy one generates.  Recently, I stepped back and came to a great realization that helps me feel better about my struggles: there are different types of ki.  A matsuri song is going to have a very different energy than an odaiko solo, right?  This wasn't a new ide to me, but I'd never really thought about it in context of my struggles before.

When I'm playing odaiko, even though you can't see my face, I am trying to make sure you can see the intention in my body in my stance, in every strike, no matter if I'm fresh or tired.  It's not something I think about as much as have trained myself to do.

When I solo, I'm "on" and feel like that's when my projection is a reflection of the joy I'm feeling in expressing myself.

This definitely isn't limited to taiko, either.  When I'm in the dojo, my intention is to hit hard/score/win/overwhelm.  My kiai are part of my technique, part of the movement I make.  My projection is focused like a laser through my target.

And there are still many other examples that you can find all over the place.  A hip-hop dancer has a very different energy than a ballet dancer, but one is still projecting and showing intention just as much as the other.  A clown in a 3-ring circus projects a very different energy from a heavy metal vocalist on stage or a chef giving a public demonstration to a studio audience.  And then there's something like butoh, a Japanese dance form that specializes in slow movements.  That's a very powerful, very different form of energy.

What all this helped me realize that I'm not "bad" at projecting ki, I just have trouble in some areas over others.  What can my strengths teach me about my weaknesses?  Maybe it's easier for me to generate a more intense energy than joyful, ok.  Maybe instead of trying to "be" joyful, I'll try to be intense and dial it back and see if that works better?  That's where I am now, aware that I have the tools but just need to figure out how to use them.

I hope this post gives you reason to look at your own ki, the variety you feel and project, and how to use your strengths to bolster the areas that need help!

Monday, December 14, 2015


I was watching taiko videos on YouTube, as I'm wont to do, and became really aware of how much excess shoulder motion a lot of North American taiko players have.  Looking at both karate and taiko, I find that almost every motion/action is done best when informed by the center of the body - the hara - and wonder why the shoulders get so involved when some people play.

I've written a post about posture here and the hara here, but this touches on something more specific than either of those posts.

Playing taiko requires using the arms quite a bit, and it's easy to feel like the shoulders are the connection between the arms and the body.  People often throw their shoulders into their hits or lean towards the drum, either on purpose or subconsciously when they play.  There's a lot of excess tension from the grip through the biceps when this happens, and all the focus seems to be solely in those few muscles.  I see this a lot, probably more than any other single problem in taiko.  Is it really a problem?  Well, I think it dampens everything, from the visual impact to the quality of the strike.  So...yes!

But if the hara is given the job of generating power, of connecting the body, it can lead to ease of motion, an upright posture, and less tension overall.  Not saying it's as simple as willing it to happen, but looking at most martial arts and many movement-oriented arts, the center is the key.  Terms like "centerline" and "posture" come up again and again in these arts, as well as phrases like "dropping your weight" and "extend from the center".  You rarely, if ever hear people saying "move from the shoulders" or "hunch forward for more power."

I'm thinking most of you reading this aren't disagreeing with me, but sometimes it's easy to understand something but not recognize when you do it yourself.  How is your posture when you play?  How do you know?  Video is excellent for this, but sometimes you need more than one angle.  For example, a camera directly in front of you while you play shime might not show any lean in your body, but from the side, it tells a totally different story.

Good posture not only saves wear and tear on your body, it makes your techniques better.  And even if you have good posture already, examining the things you're already doing well now makes you a stronger player!

Thursday, December 10, 2015


I've been a 2nd-degree black belt for a while now.  I've been the most-senior member of SJT for several years now, too.

Those are pretty good things!  So why try to do more?  Well for me, I can't stand being stagnant.  The idea of improvement excites me.  Because I want to inspire others to try harder, too.  All of it.

The hard part is that improvement at my level isn't always easy.  I pretty much made it to 2nd-degree black belt on ability, but now that we're under a new parent dojo, testing rules changed.  It got a lot harder.  I blogged about failing my test for 3rd a few years back.  It's still going to be difficult to test again, but I want to keep working on it.

In taiko, I can play almost every spot in every song in our repertoire and have experienced so much simply by being there for so long.  My improvement comes in small increments in practice, and it's hard to find time to get it from outside the group, but I want to keep working on it.

Naturally, there are times when I'm happy to coast a bit - life happens and sometimes it's nice to relax a little.  But I don't accept that where I am now is "good enough" just because I'm doing well or have done a lot so far.  Taking on a hard task just for the sake of getting better isn't always comfortable, but to me, the alternative is worse.

This is in no way a judgement of anyone else or any other path that others might take.  This is me and my path.  I hope that I inspire others to try to do more and to let people know that more is out there for them, even when it's daunting or uncomfortable.

So here's to 2016 and whatever growth I may find!

Monday, December 7, 2015

2015 Retreat

So this past weekend, SJT had its annual 3-day (sometimes shorter) annual retreat.

Reports, retrospectives, brainstorming, planning, venting, discussing, all of that and more happens at our retreat.  Nothing I can tell you anything of, though.  Sorry!

Anyways, with work and then the retreat taking up my weekend, nothing much to post today.  Instead, take the time you'd normally spend reading my posts and play a kick-ass solo on your lap or desk or whatever's handy!


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Question Everything: Choosing a spot

In your group, do you ever get the choice of where you want to play in a song?

You might have a situation where different people know different parts and it's a bit of first-come, first-served.  Or maybe it's where you're practicing a song with multiple redundant parts (e.g.; 4 shime but all the shime are playing the same thing).  If you have the choice of where to go instead of being told, where do you go?  Why?  What does that say about you?

If you knew senior members of the group were watching where you went from song to song (if it's your choice), would that change which spots you took?  Why or why not?  Are you always going to the "prestige" spots, whatever those might be?  Are you always in the front?  Always in the center? Always hiding in the corners?  Is that choice a conscious one?

I'm not saying what you do now is "wrong", because without context, all I can do is hope you ask these questions of yourself.  So, ask yourself how you'd feel if someone else in the group took the same kind of spots you normally would take.  Would you even notice?  Would you form an opinion based on where they played (and didn't)?

In my 23 years of taiko, I've gone through a phase where I didn't know enough parts to have many choices, a phase where I could choose "prestige" spots but had to be careful lest I came off seeming arrogant, a phase where I purposefully chose last to let people have their choices, to where I am now.  Now I'll just pick a spot I want to play, sometimes "prestige", sometimes redundant/secondary, sometimes percussion, or sometimes I'll sit out if I know there are enough people.  Sometimes I'll wait a little bit, sometimes not.  I make sure I'm not always taking a solo spot, not always taking a center spot, etc.  It's much more balanced.

So what's right for you?  Only you can determine that, based on your group, practice etiquette, and how often you're able to pick a spot in a song.  But you should have an awareness about your choices, even if those choices are completely balanced in the end!