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?

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