Monday, February 29, 2016

Odaiko solo

For this year's home concert, I'm doing a 2-3 minute odaiko solo.  At first, this didn't seem like a big deal:  I've soloed for 20+ minutes at the studio by myself and I feel comfortable with my technique.  But then I started thinking a bit more about it...

For one, I'll be the very first person people see in the show, the very first person to play anything on stage.  On top of that, we haven't had anyone do an odaiko solo since PJ - let alone as an opening - for many years now.  Finally, it's not just playing whatever until I get tired, I have to have a concert-worthy opening and be solid for those few minutes before the next section.

There are a few things that help, though.  On tour, I'm often the first person people *see* playing, so it's not a big deal to be the actual first person playing, even for a little while.  As for it being a while since PJ did her solo, I don't feel like I have to replicate what she did.  While I do feel like I need to represent the group well in those few minutes, I have to do it in my voice, which is what I'll be developing over the next 5-6 weeks.

I'm not worried, but it is an opportunity to take some time polishing technique, pushing myself artistically, and enjoying the fact that I get to play an odaiko solo in a show that's longer than a few bars!  Hope to see some of you after the show next month!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Made it to 7!

Seven's a lucky number, right?  It'll be seven years of blogging as of tomorrow, Feb. 26th!

Anyways, it's been a lot of fun so far and the process of thinking of so many things to blog about has made me a much more thoughtful artist.  There are plenty of things I don't or can't talk about in a forum like this, and sometimes I struggle to come up with new things to talk about, but the journey has been invaluable so far.

The amount of people that have told me they appreciate my blog and my posts is always a plus, and knowing I've given people a lot to think about is part of the reason I enjoy it so much!

What's in store for the next year?  Well, now that I'm back to working full-time, I don't have as much time to do things like videos or detailed drills, but I have some in mind I would like to put up nonetheless.  Until then, we'll see what new controversies pop up in the taiko world, what old ideas deserve a closer look, what things we take for granted need shaking up, and general shenanigans as per the usual.  :)

Thanks for being a part of it all!

Monday, February 22, 2016

How to compose

photo from Wikipedia

"In order to compose, all you need to do is remember a tune that nobody else has thought of."
- Robert Schumann

I like this line.  Well, if I didn't I wouldn't have put it up, right?

It's hard to compose taiko songs that are very different from other taiko songs.  Not convinced?  Think of how many groups there are, how many groups you've heard, and how many songs are similar.

  • How many songs have a similar ji?  Dongo, horsebeat, straight beat - those three ji pop up in a large amount of songs.
  • How many songs feature 3-5 naname drums facing forward in a line?
  • How many songs feature all betta drums with people facing forward the entire time, shime in the back row?
That covers a lot of taiko compositions.  On top of that, the more taiko you listen to, the more you start thinking in patterns similar to what you're hearing.  So if you're in a group and don't listen to a lot of taiko outside of that group, there's a good chance that your new song will fit really well into a future performance, because it looks/sounds somewhat similar!

This expands out to what other music you listen to and arts you watch.  Think about it.  If you only ever listen to one genre of music, your brain has a smaller repertoire to work from.  You open up to new genres, and you get exposed to ideas that weren't there before.

So back to the quote.  Composition is a tricky thing if you're looking for inspiration, but sometimes it can help to look for what's not there.  What hasn't been tried?  What arrangement of drums haven't you seen before?  What stance would be different?  What type of movement have you never seen in a taiko piece?

Granted, some of the ideas you'll come up with won't work for a song, but that's ok.  The point is to stretch your imagination and creative muscles in thinking outside your expectations and comfort zones.  It's not to say you can't have an awesome song that has similarities to other pieces, but instead to look outside rather than inside for inspiration.

Thursday, February 18, 2016


photo by

In a few cases, when I walk out of a room and close a door behind me, I'll give it a push as I keep walking and hope it closes shut.

I could easily shove it with great force and ensure that it closes, but it would slam shut hard and loud.  That's excessive.  It actually takes skill and intention to have it close completely by using juuust enough strength/technique and none more than needed.

It doesn't always work.  Sometimes I push a little too hard and it closes but I can hear how much louder it is compared to better attempts.  Other times it doesn't get all the way.  But with a few different doors I "frequent", I've definitely gotten more consistent at getting juuust enough strength to do the job.

I'm sure you're all fascinated by my door-closing abilities, but how does this relate to anything useful?  Simple.  A good strike only needs as much effort as it needs.  Sound confusing?

To strike a drum hard is easy.  Anyone can do it.  Refinement and efficiency is what sets the master apart from the novice.  Do you want to keep striking the drum harder than you need to?  Of course not.  It makes for an abrasive sound and is harder on the body than it needs to be.  So over time, using less strength to achieve a good sound makes for a worthy goal.

Sure, you can keep striking hard without worry for years, especially if you're younger.  But what about when you're older and don't have the same strength?  Or when there's a song that requires finesse?  Are you only using finesse in some songs?  Why not practice it in all songs?  Again, striking hard is easy; it doesn't take too much thought.  Finesse is NOT easy to do with a big chunk of wood being swung down towards a hide-covered barrel, people screaming around you, and the excitement of performance beating in your heart.  Without constant practice, we just wind up thwacking a drum hard.

And I'm not preaching here that people need to play quieter, either.  Sure, not playing as hard might lead to less volume, but the point is to only use as much force as you need.  The door closes just as securely if I slam it versus if I push it shut with juuust enough strength, and I don't piss off the neighbors by rattling their bones, either!

You can still play loudly with finesse; they're not mutually exclusive.  Loud is a quality of the output and finesse is the skill in which the strike was executed.  Too much focus in either aspect leads to uncomfortable extremes.  But just imagine how it would feel to play as loudly as you needed to, having the control you wanted to, and having the satisfaction that comes from the marriage of the two!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Remembered for...?

We probably have a thing we'd like to be remembered for in our group(s) when we leave.  But we also have things we probably don't want to be remembered for, either.

It's almost impossible to have everyone as your friend, to have only positive things that people think about you.  But the question this time is: will you be remembered for the positive or the negative?

Rub enough people the wrong way, and even though you might have the best hands out there, your skill isn't what people are talking about.  Keep a positive attitude for years, and even though you might struggle in a lot of songs, people remember your energy instead of your mistakes.

Maybe I have a lot of skill sets that I might be remembered for, but I also know I was difficult to work with for many years.  While I'm still stubborn and will press a point I care about, I've taken a lot of steps to be more helpful, more peripheral, and more of a role model.  I want to be remembered for a number of positive contributions and skills, not for when I pissed people off or was difficult to deal with.  Admittedly, the longer I play, the easier it is to justify (in my head) any sort of off-putting behavior.  I see this sort of thing in a lot of places, not just in taiko, not just the arts.  It's something I have to continually monitor!

We can't really control what people think of us overall, but if you're aware of the critical things people might think about you (which takes honesty and inner dialogue), you can take steps to turning things around and leave a positive impression as your legacy!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Teaching: Stepping up, stepping down.

A couple of things have come up that made me think about teaching in different ways.

One was the animated movie "Kung Fu Panda 3", which talked about the teacher giving up his teaching position to the senior student, in order to allow the teacher to pursue higher levels of training.  The other is that my sempai (senior) in Shotokan will be taking a sabbatical, maybe permanently.  My sensei will still be there and teach the entire class + advanced workouts, but when we split the class into beginners and intermediates, I'll be given one group to teach.

Both examples are about being forced to step up.  Leaving the movie (and pandas) aside, it's hard not to think that I won't be as good as the person before me.  I want to do a good job and make people better, make them think and try and do more, but can I?  How much more studying will I need to do - do I have the time to do - in order to be a better teacher?

It's easy to not worry about it when someone is teaching you, or the class.  And it's not like I haven't taught these classes/students before when sempai has taken time off, been sick, etc.  But to think that this might be a long-term thing puts all it in a different light.

There's also figuring out how much to follow the way things have been taught and identifying your own style.  Not talking in terms of material or priorities, but things like: how much humor to use?  How many guilt trips?  How much to let things go vs. be strict?  How much talking, how much doing?  What works for the class vs. what works for me?  While I know it will be a learning opportunity for me if this is a long-term thing, it's not just about me.

So maybe you're not in a position where you teach yet, but what would happen if you were made to?  If you couldn't rely on someone to give you all the lessons you were used to receiving, could you step up, leave ego aside, and continue to take the class forward?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Rolling up the sleeves...

Just a short update post today!

This week we start tour rehearsal for a 10-day trip to PA, NJ, and NC starting early March.  It's definitely shorter than the tour last year, which was 4 weeks long, but that's ok.  A month is a long time on the road!

And this rehearsing happens in the middle of our semi-annual concert rehearsals (happening mid-April), so that's three shows to prep for: tour concert, tour school show, home concert.

Some of us actually are even busier, because two weekends ago there was another collaborative concert with the Bangerz down in Southern California that took many hours in January to prep for.   And after the home concert is a 5-day run-out in May, which I'm not going on, but others are.

It's a busy schedule that pretty much eats up every Saturday through April and into May.  Then we jump right into festival season with the various matsuri and obon happening around the Bay Area.  Actually, the day after the 2-show home concert is the first festival of the year, Haru Matsuri.  Some of us are crazy enough to sign up and do it (like me), so that weekend will be lethal.  But fun!  But no, seriously, gonna die.  But fun die!

Hope to see you somewhere, either on the road or here at home.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


The other night in the studio we were doing our warm-up stretches and I was doing a butterfly stretch, with the feet soles together and the knees outwards.  I noticed my calluses and thought about just how much my feet are involved in my two arts.

In Shotokan, we generate a lot of power through driving our mass into the opponent as well as using as much of the body as possible involved in each technique.  The former requires a lot of push and stoppage from the feet, while the latter requires a sturdy, solid base.  That means my feet are involved greatly in even the simplest of techniques, and the more I move, the greater the load on them.

In SJT, the foot action is just as important as what the hands are doing.  The balls of the feet are constantly pushing, the toes are gripping, the ankles are flexing.  The larger the strike or movement, the more the feet are involved.  Even on the shime, there's foot action, albeit subtle.

What I want you to think about, dear reader, is how much your feet do as well as how much they could do.  Maybe your group doesn't want you pushing off your feet; you'll stick out in a bad way.  Or maybe you'll feel like it pushes you out of alignment.  But who knows, you might find some extra foot-work eases the pressure on your knees and back, or makes it easier to play longer with less exertion.

Not every style of martial arts nor every style of taiko is so foot-oriented; I just happen to be in two arts that demand a lot out of my feet.  Take some time if you can and take a look (maybe not literally) at what your feet do for you!  Give 'em some love!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Watching without listening

The other night I was watching a taiko video online and had the sound off.  I didn't turn it off because I didn't like what I heard; it was an accident.  However, without sound, there was less information for my brain to process and I really noticed the visuals - more than I think I would have with the sound on.

I felt like I was able to notice how much of this group was in sync with each other (or not), to focus more on the way they were using their body to strike the drum, and could look at their ki without the "distraction" of hearing kiai.

It was interesting, to say the least.  It wasn't a negative experience; it wasn't all flaws and mistakes.  I was just able to see things with more clarity.  I think it would prove an interesting tool for either a group or self-evaluation!

Technology has made training so much easier, but there are some interesting things like this that come up unexpectedly.  Another example of this: when people are standing still for any length of time and there doesn't look like there's any movement, if you watch the recording on fast-forward, you can see how swaying is really happening over time.  It's more than you think!

We listen to taiko through streaming, mp3s, and CDs, so we don't think anything of just listening but it seems weird to just watch, right?  This is just another tool you can use, one of many.  It makes you see taiko in a different light, removed from other "distractions" as it were.