Thursday, January 28, 2016


No one likes being uncomfortable.  That's why the definition of the word is what it is.  Even for those people who like to ham it up and put themselves in awkward positions, there are times and situations where even they will feel truly uncomfortable.

However, it's in those uncomfortable times that we define what kind of artist/person we are.

Some people avoid going there as much as possible, to the point where they don't take any risks.  Whether it's playing the same solo, not testing for a higher rank, or not learning new skills, all of this is risk-avoidance for the sake of being in a safe environment.  It comes at a price, though.

Some people worry so much about being in an uncomfortable situation, whether it's because of their skills or perception of weakness, that when the situation does arise, the output is far worse because of their reaction to it.

Some people seem to deal with a situation just fine, but are spending so much energy and focus on seeming ok that when it's over, the lesson has been lost.  It's like putting on a mask, but when the mask comes off, so does the information.

There are very few people that can truly be happy in an uncomfortable situation.  Laughter is common, but is a coping mechanism.  Frustration is much more common - and I'm no exception to that!

It's not easy to continue doing something that is challenging to the point of vulnerability if you have the option to step out through by making an excuse.  But even if you're expected to "do it" and have no way out, how you deal with it at the time and how you deal with it later say a lot about your character and potential.

Maybe those constructive comments you were getting in front of everyone made you feel really bad.  Do you shut down or do you suck it up?  Do you choose to disregard them later because it makes you feel better or do you see if there's truth to them?

Maybe a new part challenges your skill and you just can't grasp it.  Do you blame other factors for not getting it or do you keep attacking it?  Do you set aside time later to practice at your own pace or do you ignore it, putting it off until the last minute?

Or maybe it's something else completely that tests your resolve.  The specific instance doesn't really matter, but your reaction does.

I'm not about to say that you shouldn't ever get frustrated, that you should jump into uncomfortable situations, or that you should have unrealistic goals.  I just want you to think about how your reaction to these things shapes you and determines your growth.  Sometimes the question isn't "have you grown", but "can you grow?"

Monday, January 25, 2016

Question Everything: Are you any good?

When you read the title, you probably answered the question in your head.  For this post, however, the answer actually doesn't matter.

What I want you to think about isn't WHAT the answer might be, but WHERE it came from.

Is ability measured in terms of how long you've been playing, how many pieces you've learned, how many groups you've played with, who your instructors are?  Is ability measured in how strong, dexterous, smart, flexible, creative, loud, or energetic you are?  Is ability measured in how quickly you adapt, how far you've progressed, how well you teach others, how supportive you are?  Is ability something that requires others to compare to?  Finally, who determines the value of those factors?

There's your teacher(s), other instructors, your peers, your friends, the audience, and yourself.  Obviously each of those has different perspective, and also different weight.

For example, the audience after a show is likely to give you a lot of positive feedback.  But do they have the ability to tell a skilled player from a new one?  A professional vs. an amateur?  Maybe your instructor tends to give you only critique instead of praise, but does it mean you're not improving, not stronger?  Is the positive opinion of 1,000 strangers equal to one critical comment from your teacher?  What if a guest instructor gives you a compliment on something your main teacher says needs improvement?  How does that affect your feeling of ability?

Imagine a situation where you have two different classes with two different instructors.  In one, you're told you're at best doing ok, mostly getting critique and even at times being chastised.  In the other,you're hearing praise, compliments, and constructive comments.  Assuming both instructors are of equal skill, how do you determine how good you are?  Do you believe the one you like more?  Do you try to balance between the two?

Or what about when you feel like you're really getting better and one comment from a peer shatters that feeling?  Were they being observant or disrespectful when they made it?  Why does their opinion have such an effect?  Would that same comment from someone new have the same impact?

What if someone you really respect gives you a snide comment that makes you feel like you lack skill, but they were having a really bad day?  Maybe they don't remember to apologize or don't see you for a long time, so that comment sticks.  So now you feel like you're less talented than you might really be, because of a comment that wasn't really authentic.  Or let's say you get a comment from someone who has a bias either way, because of your ethnicity, the group you're in, your gender, or an assumption made about you.  The comment either inflates or deflates you because of this bias, but again, this wasn't an authentic comment and your sense of ability is now unfairly adjusted.

Then there's how we feel about ourselves any given day.  As our moods fluctuate, so does our sense of ability.  After a really stressful day, are you going to feel like you're better than you were a week ago when you were having a great day?  Maybe, maybe not, but it's easier to be harder on yourself when you're not in a good place, as well as the opposite.  Our internal ballast is subject to change depending on biology as much as environmental factors.

So I'll ask you again, how good are you?  Maybe you're a lot less sure, but DON'T think you're suddenly less or more able than you thought you were.  Just think about where your sense of ability comes from, both internally and externally, and think about all the factors that can affect where you think you are!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Answer the question

What's the question?  You tell me!

I was thinking about how I learned so much simply through having to teach.  This happened moreso in karate than through taiko, but it definitely happened in both.

Things I felt very comfortable with were questioned, and from people who genuinely needed/wanted to know.  "Why?" and "how?" came up again and again.  Sometimes, the answer was easy, because I had asked the same question in the past myself.  But often, it was a question that made me reconsider what I thought I "knew" or have to come up with a different way of explaining the answer.

I guarantee you that answering questions will make you a better student/instructor/artist.  So how do you get asked those questions if you don't teach students or classes?  Simple.  You ask them of yourself.  How do I move from here to here?  What angle should my arms be in?  What demeanor should I have at this point in the song?  How do I generate power when I come out of this movement? I'm sure you can figure out dozens of questions in this manner that will range from a couple of words to a more thoughtful explanation.

As I would in karate, going through move by move of a kata, you can do move by move of a song, anticipating the questions you might get.  You might find some questions that you aren't sure of yourself, so you ask someone who knows, and you become better for knowing.  You might find a better way of answering a question than the answer you personally received, or multiple ways to approach it.  You might find that you get stuck on a concept you thought you "knew" but are now unsure about, causing you to seek a deeper truth.

This whole idea is simply a variation on my Question Everything mindset.  Instead of questioning what's given you or what you take for granted, question from the viewpoint of another, who's learning from you.  What would you ask, and how would you answer?  Time spent here won't pay off in the end, it'll pay off right away!

Monday, January 18, 2016


If you read this blog regularly, you might get the sense that I don't like a lot of flashy stuff and that you should be really really good before you attempt anything fancy.  Not necessarily...

A lot of the flashy stuff just doesn't come off very well.  If you toss your bachi high in the air during a song but you don't catch it, that's pretty bad.  No one would argue that.  But if you catch it in your elbow and futz around to get it back into your hand that's still really bad to me.

Maybe you throw a cartwheel in your solo for the "wow" factor, but is it a good cartwheel?  Fully extended and clean?  Is the setup into and transition out of the cartwheel smooth or labored?  And then do you get right into a playing or wobble a bit?

Perhaps you want to kick over the drum but you're kind of unsure about it, and it looks to the audience like a very uncomfortable thing for you to do, because they can read you.

I can - and have - appreciated some of this flashier stuff when it's practiced, clean, and well-integrated.  The problem is that it's usually not those things...  Now that I think about it, I appreciate a well-rehearsed fail than a badly-executed success!

All I'm asking (if you're going to listen to me to begin with) is to practice the stunt you want to try, and practice it well.  Practice going into it, coming out of it.  Practice it as if your teachers were watching you, as if your co-workers were watching you, as if YOU were watching you.  Practice it until you don't worry about it, until you look forward to doing it.  Also important is to know when to NOT do it if it just doesn't feel ready.  People often ask "how do I gain confidence?" and one way to do it is to know when to restrain yourself and be ok with it.

So look...if you want to jump over a drum with your bachi on fire or somersault in mid-air before landing on the drum, just treat it with importance.  I love seeing new, unexpected things and always encourage people to think outside of the box, but when it comes to a performance, one badly done stunt can ruin the rest of a solo or song.  So good luck and keep trying!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Question Everything: Accuracy

Just going to jump into the questions...

What's the best spot on the drum to hit?  If you had an answer to that, why is that/are those the best spot(s)?  Did someone tell you or have you "figured it out" by practice and listening to yourself, by yourself?

Ask five taiko players what technique is best for striking the drum, and you'll get six different answers.  So, if one person told you where's best to hit, who's to say they're right?  Is one opinion good enough?

What about different types of drums?  Are the places to hit on a chudaiko different than an uchiwa or odaiko?  What about accounting for a newer head or a more worn one?  What about accounting for the size, density, and/or weight of your bachi?

Ok, so let's say in your head you have your answers to all these questions.  That's great!  But how are you at putting theory to practice?  Are you actually playing the way you answered?  Are you reaalllly?  If you really want to test your accuracy, record yourself playing an entire song, especially if you solo in it - but the drum heads have to be visible.  WATCH where you strike and LISTEN to how strikes might differ in tone.

Not that we need more things to think about when we're playing, but accuracy is one of those things that we can think about if we ever find ourselves looking for something to work on.  And if you feel like this is not a problem for you, try playing "left-handed", or having the other side lead, or playing with your eyes closed...

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The new guy

It's a new quarter at the dojo, and we have a new intermediate belt joining our class.  He's from a sister dojo, a seems nice, but it'll be an interesting time for sure.

He's a younger guy, means well, but he definitely sticks out and has a mindset that might very well make it harder for him to stick around.  Why am I bringing this up?  I'll get to it, don't worry.

When we bow, the only sound is from us saying something, if anything at all.  He'll slap his palms against his thighs.  When we laugh at a joke sensei makes, he'll instead say "hai" loudly (it's just an affirmation, but we normally save that for a command/request, not a joke).  When asked if a technique works the way he does it, he'll admit that it doesn't, but will keep doing it that way because that's how he was taught.

Now I'm not here just to point and laugh.  The slapping is something his dojo does, the "hai" can be seen as politeness, and continuing to do something that doesn't work might be the only thing he knows how to do.

I bring him up because situations like this make me think a lot.  In this case, about two specific things:

How aware are you when you stand out?

I don't mean genetically, I mean in terms of habits and behaviors.  It's one thing to know that you do things against the norm (guilty as charged) but are you aware when you do?  When everyone else is silent during a bow, are you making a loud, sharp noise?  I don't think you do, but there could be things that compare to that example.

When everyone else is being casual, are you being formal?  Or vice-versa?  Maybe it's good that you are, but you should be aware of it.

If everyone else is getting a concept that you're not, do you dig in and continue to do what you're used to, or open your mind and risk feeling "dumb" in order to learn?  The former means the group leaves you behind, while the latter means you keep with the group.

How much are you willing to sacrifice for growth?

If you were already "high up" in your group but had a chance to join a bigger group  (with no hard feelings) that promised growth, would you rather A) join the new group even though people were a lot better than you and your ego would take a big hit for a long time?  Or B) stay in your group and continue to be a "big fish" but not getting any better?

I think a lot of people would say they'd choose the first option, but when you feel like you "suck" for a long time (compared to other people in the group), even when you ARE getting better, things can easily stop being fun.  Because of that, even as much as I push people to grow and get better, I wouldn't fault people for picking the second choice.

So I applaud the new guy for coming to an unfamiliar dojo (even if it's the same style), but I wonder if he'll stick it out, given the first week of ego-slamming he's gone through.  And we're not being mean to him, just showing him another way of thinking about things.

It's akin to someone coming to a church of a similar but different religion, and having to listen to sermons and participate in rituals that he thought he was familiar with.  It's not easy.  Would any of us stick it out?  For how long?

Watching him struggle and continue raises questions that have no definite answer.  But sometimes those are the questions that help us grow the most.  Question everything!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Body Awareness, pt. 3

Photo by Daniel Peci (

After concerts, I often get asked if I was a drummer before I started taiko.  I tell them the truth: I'm just lucky to have very dexterous hands and my background is actually in martial arts.

In fact, if it wasn't for a background in movement, I doubt I would have made it into SJT, and would probably never have gotten into taiko at all!  But it wasn't because I was familiar with a wide stance or could throw a kick, it was because I was experienced with knowing my body and making small adjustments.  Body awareness.

When people ask me how to audition for our group, what they need to "have" or what helps, I tell them that the #1 skill to have is body awareness.  I'm not giving away any secrets here; it's not like you can fake this.  

Body awareness isn't some magical skill that only a lucky few achieve.  Touch typists have body awareness.  They don't have to look at the keys while they type because they know the relative positions of the keys on the keyboard and what positions their hands have to be in to hit the right ones.  Some line cooks have body awareness simply from making the same dishes over and over and making sure to not screw up or injure themselves.

For karate, constant critique and self-study led me to a good sense of body awareness.  In some cases, missing a target by one inch can mean the difference between disabling the attacker and just making them angrier.  Since precision really counts, I have to constantly make small adjustments.  And because karate is an art that has a "correct" way (depending on the style or dojo), most teachers can be very precise in saying how they want something to look.

In taiko, we often don't have this level of precision.  With most of us playing in groups, this is even harder to achieve.  If you try to strike the drum, you either hit it, or you don't.  Hitting an exact spot or one inch away isn't all that audible, especially in an ensemble.  Still, body awareness here can help keep tension at bay or help maintain evenness between your hands.

The movements we make in taiko are either functional or stylistic.  Functional movement is what helps us make a sound, makes us strike the drum.  Body awareness helps here by providing consistency of shape and motion, especially important if you're the only one on a particular instrument and can't rely on the ensemble to blend into.

Stylistic movements are the "eye candy", the shapes and poses and turns and spins, etc.  We don't need them to play but they make taiko much more enjoyable to play and watch.  These are the movements that benefit very much from body awareness.  Being able to sync up with the rest of the group pays off really well, and if you're off when everyone else is on, you really stick out.  Staying extended and keeping your bachi following that extension is visually powerful, but if you're not aware that your wrist is bent just enough to make the bachi point a different direction, you lose a lot of that impact.

So ok, body awareness is important, but how to learn it, aside from taking up dancing or martial arts?  You have to work at it.  Have people give you more critique.  Practice with a mirror and video cameras.  Work on specific poses and movements, not just playing the song (you know the sequence, so practice that some other time).  Watch other people and figure out if you do what looks "right" to you.  Don't just assume you do, prove it to yourself.

When all is said and done, body awareness is probably the single most useful non-musical tool for taiko players.  One that is well worth the time to work on despite the time investment.  And you know what?  Even just trying to be better at it can make you better at it, so if improvement is a goal, what have you got to lose?

Monday, January 4, 2016

Factors to improvement

I spend a lot of time thinking about improvement.  How to improve myself, how to help others improve, what helps people improve, what hinders it, etc.

My theory is that there are four variables involved in this:

Your awareness can come from your own self-perceptions (a mirror, a picture, a video, body awareness) or from others (critique, comments).  In my mind, this is the most important aspect because if you don't know what could or needs to improve, you can only improve with luck and have little control of your own progress.

The willingness to change can be surprisingly difficult for some people, whether it's out of ego, pride, stubbornness, or other personal factors.  Even for those who sincerely want to get better, factors like the following one can change this for the worse.

The ability to change has the most impact.  The progress you made on things at first eventually stops having as much effect.  People have to find new ways to keep improving after a point, or they lose their ability to do so.  It's frustrating to WANT to get better and not being able to!

Finally, for most of us, the group culture can affect how easy or difficult it is to improve, depending on their resources, how long you've been in the group, the infrastructure, number of other members, etc.

At first, it might seem like improving is simply a matter of wanting it, but like most things, on closer look, there's more to it than that.  Be aware, be willing, find ways to make it happen, and find how it best will work in your group.  It seems like a lot of work, but the payoff is worth it!