Thursday, December 29, 2016

Goodbye to 2016...

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It's always hard to remember how much stuff I've done over the last 12 months when I write these recap posts!

We had a great home concert with 11 new works from songs to transitions, and I was happy to see Left to My Own Devices be performed.  I don't know if there's life in it after its debut; I really liked the gimmick of having one hand play a simple beat non-stop plus adding a ton of polyrhythms, but now that it's out of my head, I might be ok leaving it there.  We'll see!

Definitely felt like I grew as an odaiko player because of all the prep I did for the solo in the concert.  It helps to have a drum that I can reach up and play on instead of adjust because of my size.

Only two weeks of touring, and early in the year, but that was it.  One of the busier tours but touring is one of those things that you really enjoy when you're doing it and really miss it when you don't.  Well at least for me!

Lots of taiko throughout the year, but overall it was pretty normal for me.  Which is good!  Don't need a lot of crazy years.  Like next year might be...

Monday, December 26, 2016

Question everything: Strengths

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Some people are really meticulous in their jobs.  They can follow every step exactly and precisely to get the information they need.  But sometimes, those peple have trouble making leaps of faith, skipping steps for the sake of time, and/or using their intuition.

Some people are really good at making others feel comfortable.  They have a knack for getting people to loosen up and enjoy themselves in a situation.  But sometimes, those people have trouble giving necessary critique, and/or avoid making a tough decision that might upset one of the involved parties.

I'm sure you can think of several other examples like this with people that you know outside of taiko.  So how might these lessons apply to you within it?

Maybe there's something you're really good at, like having naturally fast hands or being really fluid in your movements.  At what point might those talents start becoming a detriment?  It could be that being really good at something meant you never had to think about it much, so you're not well-equipped to teach people who struggle at it.  Or that because you might be the best in your group at it, you feel you don't need to work on it (which can be a big shock if you go outside your group and see where you fall in the larger "pond".)

Or, maybe you have the ability to project joy without having to think about it.  It just beams from your face and body naturally.  But what happens when you have to play a song that requires a different energy, and find it difficult to change your energy and expression?

Or, maybe you're really creative and come up with ideas all the time, and are good at articulating the ideas.  But how are you when working in a group where other people's voices are just as important as yours?  Can you hold your thoughts in for the sake of other people getting to exercise their own creative and leadership muscles?

When taken far enough, the things we're good at can be the same things that hold us back.  It might not be obvious for some things, it might not happen with others, but if you're not questioning your abilities, how do you know?

...hell, my penchant for asking questions all the time hasn't always been the best thing for me.  ;)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Satisfaction > Fun

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People have asked me what keeps me going.  23 years of taiko is one thing, but add to that being in a group that demands a lot of commitment, is often physically demanding, not doing this for a living, not being a solo artist...why do I keep coming back?

I may change my mind about this later on, but right now I feel like what keeps me coming back for more is satisfaction.  That is, putting in effort and seeing it be fruitful.  Maybe it's in teaching a new piece or imparting knowledge through a workshop or drill.  Maybe it's in practicing for a solo in an upcoming show on a new part or song.  Maybe it's working on something I need to improve and finding success.  Regardless of how or where I find it, it is satisfying to know I was able to do that thing, I did a thing well, and/or I got better at that thing I worked on.

Can it also be fun?  Sure, but seeking "fun" can lead to disappointment.  Some people naturally try to find something fun in every activity, but what if it's not to be found?  If you're not planning the practices or performances, what might be fun to you isn't in your control.  Maybe the next 30 minutes is on a drill that you really don't care much about.  Do you suffer for your lack of finding "fun"?  Does the group?  How much fun is "enough" for one practice or performance?

It's not like fun shouldn't be part of your training, of course not.  Training without fun makes for a toxic environment.  But "fun" is a short-term thing, whereas "satisfaction" is something best suited for the long-term.  I think that's an important distinction to make!  If you're working on a drill that's difficult for you, you might not find satisfaction in it if you don't feel that you improved.  But you might find it fun to do, which is better than neither satisfied nor having had fun.

I also don't feel like my group is responsible for me having fun.  Maybe I've had a really stressful week, so should the group cater to my mood for the week?  Probably not - for me, or for anyone else, because how is that fair to the other people?  However, if the group has planned for things that are fun throughout the year, that's great!  Also great if they've set up ways and opportunities for me (and others) to improve, because then I can look back and see where I've improved.  That's satisfying, at least for me.

Everyone has their own definition of what makes a practice fun, or what makes a practice satisfying.  But it's really good to realize what's important to you and in what sort of context.  If you had fun all year long, at every rehearsal, that's great!  But you might ask yourself, "was the year satisfying?"  If you feel like you were satisfied with what you did in 2016, that's probably even better!  Why?  Because it's much less likely you'll ask yourself, "yeah, but did I have fun?"

Or am I wrong?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Taiko resolutions

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New Year's Resolutions are cliched but sometimes they're useful, right?  You think about what you want to be, what you want to achieve, and you have to reflect in order to do that.

So what about taiko resolutions for 2017?  Maybe it's something general, maybe specific.  Maybe it's easily-achievable, like going to NATC 2017, maybe it's really hard but worth trying.  It could be something you've never done before or something you don't always do.  Whatever it is, you should make one!

Me, I'm going to write a new song this year.  That's not new for me, but I still want to make myself do it.  What kind of song, what shape it will take - who knows?  But it's my resolution for 2017.  What's yours?  

Thursday, December 15, 2016

What's next?

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I post stuff like this on the Facebook page, but don't often get a lot of responses, so I'm keeping it here today.

I'm wondering what, if anything, will change for the taiko world in 2017.  There's the 2017 NATC.  There's online services up already and people using the internet to give lessons.  There are more conferences and gatherings happening world-wide.  But these aren't new, even if they're growing.

What's going to be different, what's going to happen that's not happening now or not been done before?

I'm not complaining or criticizing, honestly.  Just wondering.  We might not see anything new, and that's no one's "fault".  Nor is it bad.  Maybe something big comes onto the scene and introduces a technology or opportunity we don't have yet?

Our community, as a whole, progresses slowly.  It's the nature of the art form.  There are outliers, to be sure, but it still takes years for them to affect what people do.  While there are groups that produce the highest caliber of taiko players, however you qualify that, the other 99.9% (okay, maybe 99.5%) of taiko players just play for fun.

So this post is just some food for thought, nothing more.  No one knows what the next big thing will be, how the taiko world will react, or if things will continue as they have been.  As long as people are playing from the heart, as long as people are spreading their joy with others, does it really matter?  Nah.  :)

Monday, December 12, 2016

There's always more...

A few weeks back I had a session with Staff for a "check in".  This gives us the ability to talk about what's on our minds, Staff can talk to us, and then there's time to work on things they notice about the 4 Principles in us.

My "thing" this time was that during solos, I'm not really using my lower body like I could.  Because it's easy for me to rely on my hands and arms, I'm not pushing off with the feet, activating the legs, etc.  While I'm doing it during the song, I'm slacking when soloing.

I'm posting about this partially to remember for when I read my old posts (haha), but also to show that just because you can do something well, it doesn't mean you can't do it better.  And also, even when you're really used to something, someone can see things you might not and show you improvements.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

My new guidelines for composing.

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I really want to write more songs.  I have a ton of ideas that I want to explore and see which have potential.

However, I know what my tendencies are in terms of composing.  I know what I do, both good and bad, and why I'm not making more pieces.  So I recently came up with the idea of making a set of conditions for my compositions.

I don't want to call them rules, because I don't want to be limiting myself.  They're more things to keep in mind and help keep me on course.

Right now, I only have a couple, but will add more as they come to me.  No idea how many I'll come up with, but I don't want too many:

  1. You can do anything.
  2. Don't try to do everything.
Who knows, maybe this is the entire list.  We'll see.  I hope this idea of mine helps others who are trying to compose, even if my actual list doesn't!

Monday, December 5, 2016

A time for review

Last weekend was SJT's annual retreat, a 2-3 day event where we all come together and talk about out personal highlights, changes to our schedule, group goals, past events, future plans, etc.

It's evolved quite a bit since I've been going, from more of a bonding-type retreat to more of a business meeting.  It used to be a big emotional event as it was the one time a year when people could speak up, but now we have systems in place where it's not such a big build-up and people are able to focus, which in a way has mirrored the evolution of the group.

Anyways, my post today is about reflection.  What did you do this year?  What was your personal highlight?  What do you wish you had gotten to do or try?  What will you try to do next year?  There's another North American Taiko Conference next year, will you go?  What do you hope you get to do or see there?

Sometimes stepping back and looking around is the best way to plan ahead.  If you're always in the moment - or never thinking about them - then you might miss out down the road when you wish you had planned something a little better!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Withering critique

This post was inspired by Kaoru Watanabe, an excellent musician and taiko player.  He recently posted on the FB Taiko Community about how when he was in Kodo, after a show, the group would do a review, on the stage.

One show found him getting direct, harsh feedback from the director of the concert.  It was painful to read, and I can't imagine how it felt to receive.  I won't go into what he did as a result of that here (you can find it on FB) but it was positive and got him to the caliber of player he is now.

I've gotten a lot of critique over the years.  Some of it has been constructive, some of it blunt.  Some of it was 1-on-1, some of it was in front of a group.  Some of it was from peers, some of it from people whose opinions had serious weight.  Some of it was in taiko, some in karate, some professionally.

I feel like how you initially receive the hard critique isn't as important as what you do with it.  If a really mean or withering critique makes you angry or sad?  That's fine.  That's just you processing.  I totally get that.  But then what?  Assuming the critique was valid, what are you going to do about it?

It's here where a person defines themselves.  If you're "lucky", the critique was objective, given straight, and you can't argue with what was said.  But if not, it might have been given by someone you don't like, driven home more than enough times, and/or in front of enough people to be embarrassing.  Ouch.  To put your pride aside and separate the chaff from the message is hard, but if you can do it and then work on improving?  That takes some grit.

Now there's a line between harsh feedback and someone just being a jerk, as well as a difference between critique given to honestly point out what needs improvement and harping on someone because it makes them feel better.  Once those lines are crossed, things get more complicated.  Comments like that are a different sort of thing and often speak more to the critiqueR than the critiqued.

Sometimes it's harder to deal with the short-term frustration of getting comments than realizing what's best for your long-term growth.  It might help to think of proving yourself in someone's eyes to give you the motivation to try harder, or to prove to yourself that you can overcome a weakness, but whatever you do, it's best to do something.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Nothing here to see!

Busy week and didn't have time to write a post, so instead, go to YouTube, search for taiko, and watch a group you've never seen before!  What do you notice?  What can you learn?

See you on Thursday!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Giving thanks.

A post on Thanksgiving?  Good time to reflect on gratitude.

I've posted about this before, so I'll keep this one short.

Next time you go to practice, be grateful you found something you enjoy doing, something that makes you happy that you *can* do.

Next time you strike a drum, be grateful for the animal, the tree/plant, and the earth that made that drum possible.  Be thankful for those who assembled it so that you could play it.

Next time you play a song or drill, be grateful for the group that made what you're doing possible.  If you're a leader of the group, be grateful for the dedication and sweat of the people that populate the group.  If you're a member of the group, be grateful for those that take care of the things you don't have to worry about, to make sure the group survives.

There's a lot of anger and fear out there right now.  Be grateful that you can bring some joy, some beauty into the world.

The more grateful you are, the more opportunity you have to make things better.  Think about it.

Monday, November 21, 2016


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 As taiko players, we know we have to listen to our rhythms to stay with the group, listen to the balance of front row vs. back row, listen to the quality of our strikes, etc.  But are we listening when people are teaching?

At my karate dojo, we have a student that is very eager to reply with affirmatives when he is given corrections.  He then likes to show us how he does it and explain why he is doing it differently.  But in doing so, in putting so much energy into replying, he is not listening.  And by not listening, he's not learning.  He's a bit of an extreme case of not listening, but this sort of thing happens everywhere, not just in a dojo or in taiko.

Next time you're in a group of people being given a lesson of some sort, if you can, look at the body language of the other people.  Are some of them just waiting to speak, to reply, to give their opinion (agreeing or contrary?) then they're not listening.  They're focusing their energy outward instead of receiving and taking IN information.

The thing is, I do it, you do it, we all do it.  Sometimes there are good reasons to do it.  But it should be intentional and not a default mindset.  Eventually you start missing out on valuable information when you're just waiting your turn to speak instead of taking it in, and eventually the people teaching you might give up on trying, since you're always keen on replying.  Some may even find it disrespectful, especially in an hierarchical pedagogy, like some traditional Asian arts (sempai-kohei styles).

Try recognizing when you feel the need to speak up and how long you hold on to that energy.  If it's three seconds, not a huge deal, but if you're waiting for a minute?  How much are you really able to absorb when your energy is set to project instead of receive?  Is is preventing you from getting better?  Is it creating a perception of you in others that isn't favorable?

Yes, I realize there's irony from one who writes so much to talk about listening.  I had to work at being a better listener myself, and I'm really glad I did just that.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


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How much are you comfortable moving your feet while you play?  Now, how much do you think that enables/prevents you from utilizing power or doing more things in your solos?

At our last practice, we did a workshop exchange with a local dance studio, The Get Down.  They taught us a short routine made up of different dance steps, then we taught them some taiko basics, then we had a bit of a jam/improv session.  It was a ton of fun to not just move differently, but to be encouraged to move in different ways than we're used to.

Now, SJT's style is not everyone's style.  We do a lot of lower body focus and foot activation to help us do what we do.  But even if that's not something you do when you play, having skilled feet and legs is extremely useful in playing taiko.

The more comfortable you are with balance, alignment, and shifting weight, the more you can relax while you play, even in a stationary stance.  Take a group like KODO, where you might see deep stances held for a long time.  You think they're not light on their feet?  You think they don't focus on staying relaxed?  I would go as far as to say that one of the reasons they can be so strong in their stances is because they focus on their lower body technique, including footwork.

Almost all really good taiko players I can think of are comfortable moving around, but the great ones - in my opinion - are also nimble and/or light on their feet.  Factor in age and flexibility, and you can see that most of those who have been playing for decades have this aspect even if they don't jump and spin and bounce around.

I've done martial arts for almost as long as I've done taiko.  It's been in different styles here and there, mostly karate.  The ability to move what I want, when I want it is something that benefits me to no end in taiko.  But it's more than just learning a new skill, it's also about comfort.

Most soloists prefer to stay behind their drum.  It's safe.  Some people dare to branch out and move around or away from the drum, but it doesn't always look natural - or even comfortable.  It's hard to practice moving around when you don't know what to do, when you only do it during your solo.  Just knowing where you *can* step, knowing how your feet *can* move, that's a potential huge boost to confidence.

And there's really only one way to do it...and that's to do it.  I recommend a basic martial art, boxing, or dance class, something that makes you use your feet in a different way.  It doesn't have to be a huge commitment, something once a month is still better than nothing never a month, right?

There's a wealth of skills out there that we as taiko players can really benefit from.  They're not always going to come to us, so we have to not just make the effort to go to them, but to be aware of them in the first place!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Sometimes we laugh.

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Laughter is one of those interesting things.  We do it to bond with others, when we find something funny, to deal with stress, to express joy, and other reasons.

We're told sometimes to "laugh off mistakes".  Is that a good idea?  Yes, and no.  It does no one any good to dwell on making a mistake during a song or drill, because it tends to cause more mistakes down the line at worst and keep us unfocused at best.  But it's also at times all-too-easy to dismiss a mistake that needs to be addressed by laughing at it (even if you're only laughing on the inside).

Keep getting off in your solo?  Sure it makes it easier to be self-deprecating and joke about how awkward it was, doesn't make it easier for others in the group to try to stay solid when you're playing.  Maybe you keep forgetting the sequence of a song, and laughing about it makes the mood lighter, but you're not helping you - or the rest of the group - until you can get it down.

Few things are black and white.  If you're humorless about a mistake, yours or someone else's, then you're just a big ball of stress and that definitely affects your playing and the group dynamics.  If you're always laughing about your mistakes, then things don't really matter and that definitely has an effect on your progress and how much the group can rely on you.

When something is funny, it's funny.  When you need to laugh, laugh!  But don't let humor become a blanket excuse to make everything ok, because that doesn't really help anyone in the long run!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Go play taiko.

It's two days after the election and almost everyone posting on my Facebook page is in various stages of grief.  I'm not going to make this a political post, but I do want to make it relevant.

Go play taiko.
  • Play for those who don't have a voice.
  • Play to bring joy to those who need it.
  • Play to represent your heritage.
  • Play to connect to what - and who - matters to you.
  • Play for those who can't.
  • Play and *be* in the moment, in the sweat, in the rhythm, in the beat.
I've said it before, taiko don't care who you are, where you came from, why you play.  They just want you to make a good sound.  So let's go do that.  Make some good sounds!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Submit your workshops for NATC 2017 now!

Today, Monday the 7th, is the last day you can submit workshops for NATC 2017.  The format is a little different this year, but it's not too late!  You have until 11:59 PST tonight to submit.

This year there are no single submissions; you have to submit either two or three workshops - or apply to teach one of the mini-intensives.  Details are at

Good luck!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Want to get better in your group? Practice alone!

Simply doing a thing usually makes you better at a thing.


Sometimes you're doing a thing way more complicated or laboriously than you need to, preventing improvement, or sometimes you hit a cap where you're just not getting better.  And sometimes, when you're involved in an art like ensemble drumming, all the other people around you make it hard to tell what you need improvement on!

Playing a song by yourself sounds weird, especially if it's other parts are missing.  But you get to hear yourself.  Are your strikes even?  Are they really?  You can slow down and speed up on your own, but if you have to play as if you were playing with other people - even though you're not - does it sound good?

It's easy to think "I sound fine" in an ensemble, because it's one big lump sum.  Sounds get rounded up in the group striking and edges are harder to hear.  Maybe it's not you hitting a slight bit behind everyone else, but how do you know it's not you?  Have you played to a metronome and know your tendencies?  Maybe it's not you playing weaker left hand strikes, but how do you know it's not you?  Have you played by yourself and listened to both hands, or better yet, have someone listening when it's just you to tell you?

In the ensemble, it's so easy to get caught up in the energy and movement and sounds and volume, but when it masks, or worse, enables poor technique, the only solution is to isolate yourself for some solo practice.  The last thing any of us wants is to be the person that makes the ensemble sound worse, while we think we're doing just fine...

Monday, October 31, 2016

Optimal range

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I've been thinking a lot about distancing lately.

Take any single long motion, whether it's a lunging punch or a single strike from a raised position on the drum.  Overall, it's traveling a long distance.

The end of a technique, is relatively weak.  It's where you are slowing down, your body mass is compensating for the coming end, and the extension/snap is almost finished.  It's a spent technique.  A technique just starting out is also pretty weak, because it hasn't started to really accelerate.  That leaves you with a range of 10%-90%.

Now look at all the components of the technique.  If we look at a naname strike, you have initiation with the body, torso/hara turning, arm dropping, and wrist snap.  Each of those (should) happen in turn, eventually all moving together.  If you didn't have a drum, you'd stop at an extended point.  But you wouldn't necessarily want to stop at that same point if you had a drum there, because that point is the end of the technique.

When all of those components are at maximum acceleration, until they start to decelerate, that's your optimal range.  This range is often dependent on the mechanic that goes last.  In something like karate, you might move the body very quickly, but until the elbow is lined up in front of the body, now linked to support the punch, you're not at optimal range.  Hitting before that point means one of the components involved isn't able to link to another part in order to use its acceleration (in this case, the arm with the torso/core).

In taiko, the wrist snap is generally the last step of a strike.  If it comes too early, then other parts of the body aren't able to add to the snap fully.  It's also a very quick motion that doesn't afford a lot of time to sync it with everything else.  I didn't say optimal was easy!

You can look at other types of striking, like on shime.  I see people that punch downward, with a strike that ends up at an angle from the hand, rather than following the line of the arm.  Like an "L" vs. a "\", if that makes sense.  This means something is moving too fast for the wrist snap or the snap is moving too slowly.  It also requires an adjustment to alignment, to place the strike where optimal range takes it.  If it was optimal, the angle would be the same in bachi, wrist, and arm.

It's somewhat easy to tell when you're on the "too soon" side of optimal, because it's like throwing your bachi tip towards the drum.  It feels unwieldy.  But because we tend to focus on the arm during a strike, and it feels "good" to have full extension, it's harder to realize when we're on the "too late" side.

Think that's a lot to think about?  You're right.  Wait until you add the complexity of a second bachi, or multiple drums, or playing something mobile like katsugi okedo!  But don't despair, don't overthink.  This is just a tool that you can work with to improve your technique.

It's more efficient and I would argue easier on the body to utilize optimal range when striking something, whether an imaginary opponent or a stationary drum.  As taiko players, we tend not to think about this much because if you make a loud sound, you're doing a good job!  But can you do a better job?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

30 years from now, what's important?

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Imagine it's 2046.  Taiko has probably changed in the last 30 years...

Now in the past, I and other people have asked the question, "what will taiko be like in xx years?"

But let's change the question up.  Assuming some or many things change in taiko in the next three decades, what's important to you that stays the same?  Maybe nothing?  Maybe a lot of things?

Perhaps there's something very specific that matters to you, like the explicit way a thing is done now, or something more general that has room for interpretation.  I'm trying to be careful in how I describe things, because I don't want to give examples - I'm more interested in people coming to their own conclusions on this one!

So if you'd like, comment here or in the FB group when I cross-post the question.  I'm curious what people will say!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Don't look at the problem for the solution.

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In teaching karate, we often find that newer students especially put all their focus into what they can see.  This means most of the attention goes into the arms and hands.

Things happen like people leaning forward in an attempt to reach the target, squeezing the fist harder in an attempt to punch 'harder", scooping a kick up instead of snapping it because it feels like it's getting there faster, etc.

All three of the above examples aren't an issue of the foot or the hand.  They're from a misunderstanding of the fundamental behind the technique, and a high majority of the time, that fundamental comes from something they can't see when doing the technique.  I'm not talking about something in the organs, I'm talking about something they'd either need a mirror for or just have to look down while executing.  The former isn't always available, and the latter is very detrimental to almost any technique.

This translates to taiko pretty well, although there are differences.  It's often harder to watch ourselves play even in a mirror when arms are moving in broad swaths.  Whoosh!  Take odaiko, how much can you really see while you're playing on it?  On the flip side, if we're practicing a pattern that doesn't require a lot of movement, we can actually look down and watch our hands without affecting technique too much.

Getting back to my original point, often the things that need "fixing" aren't always in the obvious places.  Leaning forward to reach a target has nothing to do with the arms, it's about posture.  Squeezing the fist harder means the focus is on the hand instead of the connection to the entire body, where the power is generated from.  Scooping a kick because it feels like the fastest way to get to the target neglects the knee completely, which is integral to 98% of the kicks available.

As for taiko...  Inconsistent angles of striking?  Maybe your elbow isn't synced to your torso when you strike.  Bachi slapping against the head instead of striking cleanly?  Maybe you need to step away or raise your stance.  Arms and shoulders tired after a session?  Maybe you need to keep your feet and legs loose so the tension doesn't build up everywhere.  You get the idea.

Recording yourself and watching the video afterwards can be incredibly useful for this sort of analysis, but you should still look at other "parts" and not just the obvious.

There are two huge benefits to this sort of process, video or no.  One, you hone your critical eye which never stops being useful.  Two, you might find something else that deserves further study as you look for answers to the original issue.  As I've written before, analysis is probably the best path to progress.  But when it's hard to figure out what's giving you difficulties, it can really help to step back and look in a less-obvious direction!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

NA Taiko focus on musicality

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After seeing many conferences, gatherings, videos, Facebook posts, workshops, and classes online, it seems that the trend in North American taiko lately seems to be working on the musicality of the art.

Is that bad?  Not at all, just an observation.  It does seem to be a Western-oriented direction, though, more about playing multiple drums and complex patterns, increasing speed of playing and understanding theory.

In the past there were slight surges of interest towards areas like narimono (hand percussion) and Japanese music/songs, areas that still garner interest but don't have the same "buzz" that they used to.  There was definitely a surge in interest towards the song Matsuri with the whole "Matsuri Crashers" movement, one that's still popular.

I'm curious if or when there will be a swing in a different direction, such as towards movement, or something like stagecraft/emoting?  Or maybe it'll be something that bursts onto the scene that we don't have yet, like some form of technology that can be incorporated into a performance?  Maybe it'll be towards something that's already there, when someone re-invents a style or comes up with something novel about something fairly "mundane" in the taiko world.

Mind you, you might not feel like there's a movement towards musicality, based on your experiences.  That's valid.  I could be wrong!  But when I see videos being posted by taiko players, see the workshops being offered, see the interest from people at the group and NATC level, this is the trend that I see.  Again, it's not a bad thing at all.  Observing without judgement is a very good skill to cultivate.

Is there a taiko trend you'd like to see?  Something that you'd like to see more classes on, more workshops in?  Or are you just happy that there's so much out there already, and more is better?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Soloing for the song, part 2

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So in this post here I talked about the idea of "sitting in the song" or matching the feel when you solo.

I find that at a certain level, musicians who "get it", get it.  It's definitely an advanced concept, coming from years of experience or an understanding of musicality, or both.  It's one thing to listen to a piece and know what you want to play that compliments or matches the song, but then to be able to actually play it, in the moment, with all the other factors to consider, that's not easy.

How do you get to that point?  Well first is to understand that there are differences in each song, each situation, each ji, that have different characteristics.  You don't even have to know what you'd play differently at this point, just have this awareness.  How does a straight beat sound, feel different from a swung triplet, or dongo?  How does a matsuri song sound, feel different from a complicated piece in an odd meter?  How does it feel to solo when everyone around you is playing a ji for you versus you playing by yourself in an empty room?  Recognizing and identifying those differences is step one.

Think of all the different music genres.  You might have a Hip-Hop bass line that would fit in time over a Country track because they're the same tempo, but will it sound "good"?  (Don't get me wrong, it might work, but you can't just put it in there and expect it to work, you have to really consider the effect.)  If we stick with taiko, look at a song like Miyake.  The solo is to a dongo, but the stance and style of the song shape (limit) what the solo is going to sound like.  Transplanting a line from something more festive, even in a dongo, may not be a very good fit.

Step two is to have self-awareness about what you're playing.  How similar do your solos sound to each other, once you look at them outside of a song?  In other words, if you think of your solos as audio recordings and then isolate the track that has only your notes, do they all start sounding the same?  If that's the case, you might be imposing your will on the song, instead of sitting in it.

Let's look at the example of having everyone playing a ji versus being by yourself.  With everyone playing, you can get away with just a few notes and it "works" because there's something under you, supporting you.  But when you're completely by yourself and only playing a few notes, it can easily sound empty, disjointed, uneasy - even if it's the exact same solo.  A solo without a ji is quite a difficult thing to pull off.  Most people will have at least something to solo along to, but you can use this concept to influence what you decide to do.  Eitetsu Hayashi gave us a workshop on odaiko solos and said something very interesting.  He said that when he's by himself on the drum and no one is playing ji for him, he will play his own ji and solo on top of that with accents and flourishes and what not.  That gives the audience cohesion and lets them come on the ride with you, a ride that you control.

Just imagine how complicated this gets when you're not the only person improvising!  That's a huge step up from soloing.  When do you take the lead?  When do you give it up?  When do you add a little something-something?  Are you playing at the same tempo as them?  Are you matching their mood as well as the song?  Are you still in the tempo of the song?  Are you sitting in the song or are you just playing whatever?  Not easy, but so rewarding when it works, trust me.

Like most skills, the biggest part of this one is awareness.  It's an awareness that you have to be vigilant about, lest habits take over and you're playing what you normally would play, without considering the situation or song.  It's not something to only worry about at the higher levels, because practicing it early on can only make you stronger the longer you're able to do it.  So start sitting!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Listen. Try.

I was considering making this speech to students at the dojo, but I probably won't as it's a bit long.  Still, it makes for a good post!

As a teacher, I only ask for two things:

- Please listen.
- Please try.

That's it!  If a student can do both of those things for me, I will teach them to the best of my abilities.  But it's not always easy for them.  I'll even admit that when I'm a student, it's not always easy for me to do it myself!

To truly listen?  That means not waiting your turn to speak, that means not thinking about the next thing on the list, that means not making a joke with your friend, that means not looking at how other people are taking in the information.  That means not just hearing the words in your ears but also letting them process in your head.  If you already assume you know the information - even if you really do "know" it - then you're not listening, you're "aurally skimming".  Listening really takes an open mind.

To truly try?  That means sometimes not doing what you're used to doing, or not doing what is comfortable for you.  It also means doing what you've been actually asked to do, rather than what you think you heard or wanted to hear.  Trying means challenging yourself and not waiting for someone else to push you.  Trying doesn't always mean you have to sweat, but it means not being afraid to.  Speaking of fear, you can't try if you're afraid of failing.

The next class you have, try listening more intently and trying more earnestly.  If it's really hard, what does that tell you about how you've been practicing?  If you can only do it for a little while then revert to form, can you see how that might parallel your growth?  And you have to be honest with yourself, you can't hear one instruction, think you're doing a good job, then assume you're doing the same with the rest of the instructions.  It takes some intentional effort!

Sometimes, the simplest instructions are the hardest ones to follow, but yield some amazing results.

photo credits: and

Monday, October 10, 2016

Soloing for the song (feat. Ringo Starr...kind of) part 1

There's a tribute video to Ringo Starr, featuring several iconic Western drummers.  It's not a new video, but I just saw it recently.  You can watch it here.

Two things stood out to me in this video:

At 0:41, Questlove mentions how the most timeless drummers are the ones that are the most simple.  That's followed at 0:45 by Dave Grohl asking how to define the world's best drummer.  Is it technical proficiency, or is it someone who "sits in the song with their own feel?"

At 2:24, Dave plays a super-simple downbeat pulse and remarks how skilled a drummer is if a beat that simple can make people dance.

In taiko, solos often seem about playing the most notes, about one-up-ing the person who came before, about a new "trick", etc.  There's also a lot of focus (from instructors, from students) on proper technique, which is never a bad thing.

But none of those take into account the song itself.

Taiko is also a visual art form for the most part, but what if you were playing for an audio recording, or people who couldn't see you on stage?  Even if they can see you, are you "sitting in the song"? How are the skills you develop during practice and in performance helping you for a situation like that?

Oh, I know it can be difficult to add that to the other litany of things to worry about - your form, ki, sequence, tempo, volume, endurance, etc.  This is definitely something easier to consider for people that have been playing for a while.  But if you're not at least thinking about it early on, it's not like it's just something that magically comes to you one night as you sleep!

So ok, but what does it mean to "sit in the song?"  How do you play simply and still have an interesting solo?

That's a blog post for another time...

Thursday, October 6, 2016


1.)          __________ are better at taiko than __________.

2.)          _____  _____ can't be as good at taiko as _____  _____.

What did you put in those blanks?  I'm betting you put something in them.

It's only natural to put something in there, one group over another, but I'd hope that everyone who reads this post quickly dismissed whatever your brain put in there.  It's only natural to put something in there, but it's what we do next that defines us.

However, I know from experience that some people will fill in those blanks and believe it, even defend it.  That one group of people will never be as good as another group.  That Japanese players are better than non-Japanese players, that women can't be as good as men, etc.  This is something I've tackled multiple times on my blog and in conversations.

Can you prefer an aesthetic?  Yes.  Is that aesthetic better?  Subjective.  Not better for everyone, not better in all cases.  I can respect someone's opinion, but that's what it ultimately is, opinion.

Another danger of this mindset can come about in how you teach.  If you intrinsically believe people A are superior to people B, and you have to teach groups of both, how can you be sure your lowered expectations of people B aren't affecting what you say and do with them?  That you're not giving subtle (or not so subtle) clues to them when you interact?  Are you in fact part of the cause for the opinion you hold?

Put yourself in their shoes.  What if you knew your teacher automatically thought less about whatever group of people they included you in?  What if you could see and hear the differences in how they treated you versus a group of people they assumed were better than you?

Finally, how does it influence how others perceive you?  As you can tell, I don't think much for this kind of biased thinking.  It sets up unnecessary barriers and hampers interactions both ways.  Stating your opinion as fact on this can get people to respect you less, consider your opinions on other things as flawed, etc. 

I would normally say here that it's ok to have this sort of opinion if you know it's just your opinion, but I actually would like people to question it if is indeed their opinion.  There's so much taiko out there, there's so many new things popping up and old things being refined all over the world.  Why not keep an open mind and hope to be pleasantly surprised?

image credit:

Monday, October 3, 2016

A few seconds can last a lifetime.

I'm of the rather pale persuasion.  Since taiko has me playing outdoors a good deal, I use a lot of sunscreen.  Unfortunately, once a sweat forms, sunscreen often decides to play havoc with my eyes.

When that happens in the middle of a performance, I have to keep reminding myself that there could be someone taking a photo or video at exactly that moment.  Doesn't mean it's not extremely uncomfortable, even painful at times, but with my luck, the time I decide to wince or rub my eye is the worst possible time.

Now maybe you don't have to deal with sunscreen in your eyes, but what else might come up for you?  That itch you just have to scratch?  Shifting your stance into a more comfortable position while everyone else around you is still?  Looking around?  What about something harder, like not looking tired?  It's not easy to be "on" 100% during a performance, but it's such a bummer to see a picture in the local paper or online with your face haggard or your jaw slackened.

On the surface, this is just talking about making you look good - and helping your group look good, too.  But it's also about discipline and focus, about awareness of your habits and appearance on stage, things to work on to increase your presence and projection.

It might feel like extra pressure when you start thinking of maintaining a strong facade the entire time you're playing, but like most skills, when you start doing it more and more, you have to monitor it less and less.  Doesn't mean sunscreen's going to sting any less on the eyeballs, though...

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Where you can practice

photo credit: wikipedia commons
If you're a taiko player and reading this, I'm assuming you have a place you go to practice.  Maybe it's a studio, a dojo, a parking garage, or something else.

You're also very likely to have a practice pad or something you play on when you're home.

But how many other places can you practice?  Actually, that's not a good question.  Instead, the question should be "what are the other ways you can practice?"

I am constantly drumming on things with my fingers/hands.  My steering wheel shows where my fingers have strummed and tapped for years.  My desk and keyboard at home and at work make for a great chudaiko-shime combination.  When I don't feel like I'll look too much like a freak, I'm playing patterns on my chest with my hands and fists.  I'm constantly scatting or whispering patterns as I walk, because my step is a steady, natural tempo.  Being a natural fidget-er comes in handy for once, I suppose!

Why not in bathroom, kitchen, car, hallway, sidewalk, etc.?  There are few places that you can't practice, as long as you understand that you don't need to be in stance, have drumsticks, or even have drums!

I realize this might seem obvious to some of you, sure.  So keep it up!  For everyone else, start it up!  You might annoy a few people, but this is taiko, so c'mon!  :)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Leading a gig

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At SJT, members are encouraged to sign up to be in charge of festival gigs.  We do several of them a year, and often the same ones each year.  There's usually a lot of people who have done that gig before and at least one Staff member at each of those gigs, so there's support if people need it.

When one of us does this, it gives a nice break to Staff.  We take charge of creating the set, placing personnel, leading the practice for the gig, coordinating travel, and being the contact for whomever's in charge at the festival.

But there's a secondary benefit to this that is sometimes overlooked.  When you lead a gig, you get to see what it's like from the "other side", and gain a new perspective.

You'll gain a respect for how difficult it can be to balance parts, making sure that people get a good distribution of parts and accounting for a variety of skill levels and experience.  Sometimes it's even more complicated if the stage is an odd or smaller shape.

You also might get to see what it's like when issues arise that you don't normally think about.  It could be anything from people showing up late, to people not liking the parts they're given, to figuring out who's driving, to forgotten equipment, to getting stuck in traffic, and lots of other possible curve balls.

Once I started helping out with gig-leading, it made me a lot more tolerant of other gigs I played in.  I became aware that there might be factors I had no clue about (that Staff was dealing with before we ever got there), and if I got a spot or spots I wasn't thrilled with, I had a reason to believe there was a purpose to it.

So maybe you're not in a position to take charge of a gig, but it's really good to consider all the things that the people who do take charge might have to deal with.  Being reliable and accommodating as a player can be a real plus for the people who might be stressing out on details you'll never know about!

Thursday, September 22, 2016


I write about being tall in taiko.  There's one post here and another here.

However, it's not just that you have to adjust to things if you're tall.  Regardless of your height, you have to be aware of how your size affects all aspects of your playing...

Most groups use the same bachi for shime.  If they're on the longer side, it's going to be harder for a shorter person to control.  In this case, they might need to choke up more.  If they're on the shorter side, it's going to be harder for a taller person to get good leverage and they might need to have a reverse choke where the butt of the bachi sits in the palm of the hand.

If you play on an upright drum, tachi-uchi, then your height affects your default angle of strike.  A shorter person might have to strike horizontally whereas a taller person can strike at a downward angle.  A shorter person on shime might have to take a more upright stance while a taller person might have to get lower to make the striking technique a clean one.  These can change everything from how the hara is used to where tension occurs.

A taller person on a betta drum doesn't need to use a lot of strength to make a solid strike, whereas a shorter person might need to add a little bit extra whip to match that sound.  A shorter person making an arm circle will look quicker than a taller person right next to them making that exact same circle.  A smaller person jumping several feet in the air can look impressive, while that same distance jumped by a taller person looks lazy.  The distance has to be relative, not equal.

There are other things that height can or should affect: how a person dances/moves their feet, appropriate bachi length for personal use, foot placement after a turn or spin in a song, etc.

But the most important thing, as I say in post after post after post, is to be aware of these things.  Maybe you're on the taller or shorter ends of the spectrum and you know some of this stuff is a factor, but what else is?  Maybe you're more in the middle of the spectrum, but did you know this stuff affects people outside of the "normal" range?  If you're ever teaching people of outlier height, how do you take these (and other) factors into consideration?

Monday, September 19, 2016

It's ok to suck sometimes.

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I am constantly talking about growth and improvement when it comes to studying an art, how you should never accept things at face value, places to find inspiration, how to push yourself, etc.

But sometimes, you're just going to feel like you suck.

Maybe one day you feel you suck in just one aspect, like soloing, or improvising, or teaching, or flexibility.  Maybe one day you feel like that in many or all aspects.  Just realize a couple of things:

  • If you never feel like you suck at something, you might not try so hard to get better at it.

  • If you never feel like you suck at something, it's possible you suck at it but don't KNOW that you suck at it...

  • Sucking often comes goes cycles with success.  You get better at something which makes you more aware of the details, then awareness of those new details makes you think you suck at them, repeat.
  • "Sucking" is subjective.  Had a bad day?  Temporary.  Things are tricky?  That's not "sucking".  What you feel you "suck" at might be at a level other people wish they could be at.  Where you  think you "suck" now could be much better off than when you "sucked" a year ago.
  • Those who have struggled to get past something they felt they sucked at often make for much better teachers, because they went through many of the same things their students are going through.
Worrying about sucking can be more stressful than whatever the results of the sucking are.  And because of how are flawed brains are, that worry can often cause more sucking.  So while you don't want to be content with sucking, sometimes you have to accept it for the short term.  Acceptance can bring complacency, but also a bit of peace while you regroup and try again.

Suck today, but rock tomorrow!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Japanese taiko vs. North American taiko

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Ooh, controversial topic, right?  Nah.

I was just thinking to last week when Yurika was playing YouTube clips of taiko groups and I couldn't see them, just hear them.  For different clips, she asked if I thought it was a Japanese or North American group, and I was able to tell each time.  But how?

Well I'm going to start by saying this post isn't about judgement or rating.  It's going to be objective in the hopes that people reading it will consider aesthetics and factors they may not have noticed before.  I also want to say that while many of the things I note below may be true, they are not in any way exclusive to either region.  And finally, I'm not going to guess right each time, it was just a fun game.

1.) Kiai.  This is the easiest way for me to tell which of the two types of taiko I'm hearing.  Japanese kiai tend to sound like Japanese words with Japanese phonetics, and often - not always - use more hara in execution.  NA taiko often has kiai that are heavy on the "s" sound, and the vowels often have English phonetics.

2.) Patterns.  Often, NA taiko has a lot of polyrhythms and syncopation.  It's not like this is uncommon in Japanese taiko, but I find it's not as prominent.  Again, not a judgement, just an observation.  I think it comes from the Western ear and the music people listen to growing up.  With Japanese taiko, you get patterns that are not always in a predictable meter, that still have a flow.  For example, you might get two measures of eight followed by something in six, then something in four, then back to eight, or something in fourteen...ish.

3.) Repetition.  Somewhat related to the above, but I feel like there's more repetition in patterns and sequences in Japanese taiko.  Listen to a song like Miyake, Hachijo, or Zoku and you get a LOT of the same pattern...and then some more of it.  Listen to pretty much any NA taiko song and patterns are changing fairly often, especially in solos.

Those are the main three aspects I notice, but rather than go into a few others I can sometimes notice, I want to stop there and ask you what you notice when you listen to taiko music.  Can you spot differences, accounting for different levels of skill?

And let's not forget that taiko goes well past Japan and North America!  How do South American groups sound different than European groups than groups from Asia?  It's not that you have to judge, I just think it's a great tool to just have that awareness that there are differences, then the skills to hear them!

Even if you disagree with my points above, even if you can point out songs or groups that prove me wrong, at least you're being aware of those aesthetics, which is my goal for this post in the first place!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Western Notation

 photo credit:
In taiko, most songs and patterns are taught by rote (repetition), by kuchishoga (vocabulary of notes), or even by online videos.

Western notation is sometimes overlooked as a tool or thought of as making the learning of taiko as "less authentic".  I find it to be an invaluable skill, despite its limitations for taiko.

I can't write a new song on a sheet of paper and hand it to my group for them to play, because most people in the group don't read notation.  But I can give it to a few people outside of practice who do read music for them to try things out.  I can also put my ideas into notation software like Sibelius for me to hear patterns played back and then tweak things around.  This helps for when I want to present something not-written to the entire group, because I'll have some of the kinks worked out already.

But even more important than teaching patterns with notation - in my opinion - is how it makes you think of music in a different way.

Knowing notation means having a better understanding of how patterns can sound totally different when just one note shifts a tiny bit earlier or later.  It gives an ability to see patterns in your head in a very specific way and that ability can help you craft more interesting patterns.

Having notation "in your pocket" so to speak helps when you have a pattern or song idea in your head that you want to capture.  Sure, you can record that on your phone, but sometimes you're in a place where you can't do that, like a business meeting or already ON the phone, and a quick scribbling is all it takes.

Finally, learning notation enough to be useful to most taiko players really isn't a lot of work!  There are a lot of online resources that will teach you the basics.  All you'll ready need is to know:

  • How to designate meter and what the numbers mean (4/4, 7/8, etc.)
  • Notes and rests (whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth and maybe thirty-secondth)
  • Dotted notes
And that's it!  There's extra stuff that can be useful like dynamics/volume indicators, marks for repetition, accented notes and the like, but since most taiko pieces don't have to worry about pitch, harmony, chord progression, etc., you can take the basics and do a lot with it.

It takes practice and a willingness to do it until it becomes useful, but you won't regret learning any of it.!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Now you're in charge.

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Imagine a freak accident happens, like a dinosaur eating the teacher.  And other dinosaurs have also eaten all of the people in your group that have been there longer than you, who have taught more classes than you, etc.

Now it's all up to you.  What could you teach?

Let's say the day-to-day logistics are taken care of, by others who are able to step in to make sure bills are paid, floors are swept, checks are cashed, etc.  But you're the lead instructor now.

Were you paying attention before?  Could you convey the important points about your group's style and honor the intentions of those who came before you?  Were you content with being spoon-fed and receiving feedback, or did you try to understand fundamentals on your own?  Were you thinking of how certain styles of teaching worked with the group more than others?  Did you take for granted how much planning went into figuring out what to teach, class after class after class?

This is all food for thought.  It's easy to go to practice and receive a lesson, but if you're aware of just a little bit more about what it takes to plan and teach a class of adults, if you try to understand more than just what information is presented to you, you'll be prepared for things far less severe than dinosaur attacks, and be far more valuable to the group - and to yourself!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Kime and making mistakes

Kime, as I wrote about in a post here back in 2010, is all about the focus of intention and energy.  It comes from the Japanese verb "kimeru," which means "to decide".

In martial arts, kime is often seen as that laser-like focus on the target, whether real or imaginary.  It takes practice to hone that focus, learning when to turn it on or off and getting faster at doing just that.  Most martial arts have this aspect in their training, which comes in extremely valuable when in a situation when there is actual danger.

When sparring, there are two different forces at play, the physical and the mental.  The physical is easy to spot.  One person attacks, maybe both, there's some maneuvering, some defensive techniques, etc.  Those are very visual mechanics.  The mental aspect is not always as easy to spot, however.

A combination of techniques (say, two or three moves in sequence) is just a physical attack.  But add to that a strong force of will, a determination to impose that will on the opponent and take over their space, that's a...spiritual attack, if you will.  Not in religious terms but in the intention to disrupt or overpower the other's state of readiness or confidence.

Once aware of this second plane of attack, an observer can see when the intention of one person - the kime - has affected the other, whether on the attack or the counter-attack.  Sometimes the kime has more effect than the physical attack, especially if the other person wasn't ready or prepared in that moment.

And that brings me to why I thought about this post in the first place.  Sometimes, when two people engage in an exchange of techniques, the person who "lost" the exchange will often drop their intention, their mental guard.  It's an admission of defeat.  When that's done against a black belt, I often see the black belt (myself included) use that dropped guard as an invitation to attack yet again.  It's one thing to acknowledge defeat, but why yield to it?  That person just got defeated in the one exchange and then their reaction to that defeat then caused them to be hit yet again.

Going back to the idea of kime, think of making a mistake when you play taiko.  Think about the mistakes you've made or the kinds you're more prone to making.  How do you react?  When you mess up a solo, do you stop or freeze with your hands in some position, as your brain tries to re-orient itself?  When you play the wrong pattern, do you make a big deal of it with your facial expressions or body language?  Do you  yield to defeat?

I'm not perfect at it, but I've learned when I'm sparring and have "lost" (or even when I "win") an exchange, to stay ready, to stay focused, to even be looking for them to drop their mental or physical guards.  It's taken practice, but more than that, it takes intention.  Any one of you can have that intention, that kime when you make a mistake.  Just don't let the mistake become TWO mistakes because your reaction to it causes more attention than the mistake itself!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

To impress or to inspire?

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PJ Hirabayashi said, "Don't play to impress, play to inspire."  While a good piece of advice, it can be difficult to define what makes them different from each other.  

Trying to impress the audience is a very short-term goal.  I can and have been impressed with different things, in taiko and karate and other arts I've never studied.  But that feeling sometimes goes away by the time I'm in the car for the drive home.  There might have been a few cool moments, but they don't necessarily stick.  Being inspired, on the other hand, can last days, weeks, even years.  It might come from a small thing that's not meant to stand out, but resonates with you for a long time.

A lot of it comes from the person's intention in how they both approach and play the drums.  If the intent is to impress, to make people go "wow, that's cool!", then that's fine, but a very surface-level goal.  And often there's no telling if it worked or not, so there's no way to know if you succeeded or not.  It's easy to think "yeah, I was impressive", but that can easily lead down the road of self-delusion.  If, however, a person's intent is to represent themselves to the best of their ability, then success is decided by that person, not the audience.  And as with impressing, while there's no way to tell if it worked or not, it comes from a much more genuine place.

Another way I view the differences comes from my experience in taiko.  I've seen some people play the same solo in the same song for years.  I'm not going to be impressed after such familiarity; the "wow" factor is gone after so much exposure.  But I can still be inspired by it!  The way someone moves, or how they "sell it" to the audience, or the way the phrasing builds until the climax, whatever it might be, those are the kinds of things that can still inspire me to be better.

I won't go as far as to say wanting to impress people is a bad thing, or that I've never had that intention myself.  But it's a goal with limited pay-off, like giving a candy bar to a hungry audience.  It's enjoyed in the moment, but too many of them and the audience doesn't want any more and they're probably not feeling well.  Ok, maybe that last bit doesn't apply, but y'all get my point.

Impression can have impact, but inspiration can effect change.  Which would you rather impart to an audience?

Monday, August 29, 2016

Mistakes as entertainment

Have a watch at this.  Listen for two minutes, the length of the story told.

In this clip, one of my favorite artists, John Cleese recounts a story about an accident on stage during a live performance.  Can any of you relate?

Does hearing the advice that Eddie Izzard gave to John Cleese resonate with you?  Does it make mistakes seem a little less daunting?  What about the idea that not worrying about things makes it more fun, and that the audience can feel that?

Food for thought, eh?

Thursday, August 25, 2016


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Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic that can be defined as "flawed beauty".  It's the art of imperfection.  A crack in a cup gives the cup more personality; an aged book makes the book more interesting. There's a lot more to the definition, but for purposes of this post, that will do.

In taiko, we tend to like things to look as much alike as possible.  We strive, in kumi-daiko (ensemble drumming) to have people play as one.  The default seems to be to achieve perfection where everything looks and sounds perfect.

But would that be a good thing?

At the SJT studio, we have one of our original taiko, an ex-whiskey barrel with one head removed.  It looks old, the metal rings are still attached from it's boozier days, and we rarely ever play on it.  The sound from it, however, is unique.  It's not bright and punchy like any of the other taiko I hear - not just in our collection, but in other performances.  The attack is very loud and crisp, the decay is quick but deep.

Many years ago, at either our 20th or 25th anniversary concert (I forget which), we used another of our original taiko that was also without a second head.  The sound was unique and chosen for a takebue piece.  Because it didn't look as nice as we'd like, we draped it in a cloth for the performance.  Without that drum, I think the song would have lost a lot of its musical quality and been another flute+drum piece.

So consider, while we strive for perfection, that perfection isn't the only goal.  Quality doesn't always mean flawless and sometimes beauty can be found in the differences between things.

(If you like this post or the idea of wabi-sabi, I highly suggest looking online for pictures or even articles on the subject!)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Is this taiko? Vol. 01

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Is that taiko?

I bet most of you are saying "no", for various reasons.  Let me see if I can guess most of them:

  1. They're not playing on taiko; those are western drums.
  2. They're not using bachi, those are mallets.
  3. They're not in any real stance or kata.
  4. Their technique is really sloppy.
  5. They're not wearing any sort of Japanese outfit, just white suits.
  6. They don't kiai.
  7. They're a bunch of White guys.
  8. It's not a taiko song.
  9. You didn't like it.

What did I miss?  Let's take a closer look:

  1. They're not playing on barrel-style drums, nope.  For some of you, that's the defining issue right there.  But with more and more alternatives to buying or making drums from barrels, when will this be less of an issue?
  2. I've seen a lot of different kinds of drumsticks in taiko, from mallets to bamboo slats.  I've even seen taiko players use their hands! *gasp*  Does what you strike a drum with define the art form?
  3. Does a low stance make a taiko player?  There are a lot of people who don't have a very deep or very athletic stance.  Sometimes the drums are just really low to the ground and a person doesn't have the flexibility to get low.  Many groups also don't care or focus on a very deep or stationary stance.
  4. Does sloppy arm technique mean it's not good?  Close your eyes and tell me how it sounds.  More than a few taiko pieces sound similar to this, and this group is very much on-beat when they play.
  5. There are a lot of performances where people wear all kinds of weird things.  Suits are far from weird.  
  6. Okay, they don't kiai.  But they interact with the audience in a VERY similar way that taiko groups have, in a call-and-response style.  Some taiko groups and players are so new and/or so focused on doing well that there's little interaction with the audience, or even each other.  Does how you exchange energy define your art form?
  7. Yep, a bunch of White guys.  So what?
  8. What is a "taiko" song?  Kodo did a version of "Orekama" which was originally written for a percussion quintet.  There are several narimono-only (hand percussion) songs out there.  Is your definition of what a taiko song is based only on what you've seen before?  If the exact same patterns were played on actual taiko, could it then qualify in your eyes?
  9. Not liking a thing doesn't make it less of a thing.  I loathe onions but that doesn't mean they're not onions.  Not liking Justin Timberlake's pop music doesn't mean he's not making pop music.  What if someone didn't like your taiko performance?  Does that make it "less" taiko?  Nope.

Personally, I'm not saying I think it's taiko, but like with most of my posts, I want you to think about the reasons behind your feelings on questions like this!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Better at teaching...or doing?

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Ok, you have two choices to choose from:

One, you can be really good at your art.  You could be someone people admire, aspire to be like, talk about favorably.  But you're not good at teaching.  You can't figure out how you do what you do, or maybe you're not good at communicating it, or maybe you don't have the temperament for it, etc. - but you at least know you're not good at teaching.

Two, you can be really good at teaching your art.  You could be someone that people turn to when they struggle, when they need advice, when they need things broken down or new perspectives.  People listen to what you say with respect.  But you're "just" good.  Not great, but solid enough so people understand you're not all theory.

Which would you choose?  Why?  And an even more interesting question, would you think less of someone who chose the opposite?  Why?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Is easy what you want?

When I'm playing Oedo Bayashi/Yodan Uchi, where there's a drum on either side of me, it makes things so much easier when I'm closer to the center.  With my wingspan, I can easily reach both drums to play whatever I want.

But it doesn't look very nice when I do that.  My arms don't need to extend (and in fact, they can't) when I'm that close, so I look cramped.  Same with my legs; I don't need to sink into my stance and use my lower body much so I look lazy.  But it's easy, right?

That solo I can pull out without thinking, in that song I've played for ages, that's easy to do.  I can "sell it" without thinking.

But every time I do that, I'm not really improving my skill by a significant amount.  On some level, sure, but the diminishing return is super-diminished by now.  So I'm losing out on an opportunity to create something new, exercise my improvisational muscles, improve on different techniques.  But at least it's easy, right?

Let's be honest, we all like things to be easy from time to time.  All that hard work you go through training and trying and failing and trying again, you want it to pay off, right?  It should!  And you should be able to enjoy that, too.

Finally crafted the perfect solo?  Enjoy it, work on it, improve it, savor it for a while.  Yes, the audience will enjoy it, but does that mean you can't make/create another solo that they'd enjoy?  Do  you feel comfortable when you play in a certain position?  Does that mean it's where you should be positioned?  Does it mean it looks good?

If you dwell in a place that's now "easy", what does that mean for you a year from now?  How will that have made you a better player/performer/artist?  After all, growth often means discomfort and/or struggle.

In a way, if nothing's ever easy when you're practicing, then you're often growing!