Monday, May 30, 2016

New Song Diary: Another song idea...

I realized that I hadn't rinsed out the conditioner in the shower where I thought of the new song idea.  That's a good sign, I think.

This is the first real burst of inspiration since Left to my Own Devices, which is simmering in the background for now.

I want to make this new song something that can be played at a festival, not necessarily a concert.  Something that can be played by a smaller crew.  It's swung, it's syncopated, and...well, that's all I have so far.  Thinking of a few arrangements, but it's only a day old in my head and we'll see where this goes!  Wish me luck.  :D

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Create the challenge

Two nights ago, we did 30 minutes of Roy drills (non-stop drilling of patterns - usually on naname), and I decided to do them left-handed (on the other side).  Today in the car I tried playing along to a complicated pattern with my left while playing a complex pattern with my right.

This isn't to brag, it's to illustrate a point.  Besides, my left arm was suffering and I wasn't successful with those dual-patterns, haha.  However, things like this are what I credit for having the hands I do, the sense of rhythm I have.

When do you challenge yourself?  When do you take a more difficult route when you don't have to - and when it's not for the purpose of showing off?

You may be able to go to your instructor and ask them to push you.  And if you go to a seminar or conference, you might find a challenge there, too.  But how often is that going to happen?  What about the other 98% of the time?  The only person who can really challenge you, is you.

It can't be all the time; but it can't be never, either.  Knowing when's a good time and when to just do what you're supposed to do is important, too.  Also, you can't do it in a group setting if it makes you distracting to the other people.  But it's more a mindset you have to cultivate than anything else!

So when will you next challenge yourself with something more than you need to do, more than you would normally do?  Your progress is in your hands...

Monday, May 23, 2016

One size does not fit all

You wouldn't use an odaiko bachi on a chudaiko, right?  It's too big for the drum.  And you wouldn't really use shime bachi on one either, right?  You can certainly do it but the sound is pretty weak overall.  But aside from that, if you wanted to get a good sound from either case, you'd have to modify your technique to a really uncomfortable degree.

So if those are our two extremes, let's dial it back on both of them a bit.  We all play medium-sized drums with medium-sized bachi.  But are they the right size for you?  How do you know?  Have you tried something shorter/longer/lighter/heavier/denser?

A lot of people stick with the bachi they started with, and replace them with similar ones.  I've said it before but it bears repeating: I played with bachi that were too small for me by 1-2 inches and it had a serious impact on my technique.  I looked and felt cramped.  Discovering a longer pair made everything better!

So don't take your gear for granted, don't assume what you start with is what you should be using now.  Maybe you'll go overboard and want a different pair of bachi for every song you play, but until then, think about it!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Does not equal


Strength does not equal power.

Speed does not equal technique.

Volume does not equal spirit.

Practice does not equal perfect.

Failure does not equal failing.

Talent does not equal knowledge.

Soft does not equal weak.

Sweat does not equal effort.

Improvement is not always obvious.

Answers do not equal solutions.

Learning does not equal understanding.

Opinion does not equal truth.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Working on rhythm

Taiko players spend time working on sequence and form and spirit and improvisation and endurance and strength and group dynamics and percussion, to name a few things, but when was the last time you put on headphones and really listened?  Not just to taiko, but to music in general?  When did you last listen to music for the sake of improving your sense of rhythm?  You wouldn't think that you'd learn to play faster without practicing, right?  Then how would you expect to be more rhythmically robust without working at it?

For the most part, someone can teach you how to move in a certain style, make certain shapes, and learn a sequence of movements. You can also be taught how to emote, how to project energy and intention. And you can learn how to strike more efficiently, faster, louder, and for longer under someone's guidance.

But there's one area that I find is really difficult to teach to someone, and that's how to feel rhythm.  Issues can range from having trouble feeling a count of 4 or 8 naturally all the way up to syncopation in odd meters.  At a certain point, everyone has issues, no matter how good they are.

My point isn't that if you're having issues with rhythmic things, that you're out of luck, no.  It's that you really can't look to others to help you out here.  Is it possible?  Sure.  I do think that learning new songs can help increase one's exposure to new rhythms, but how many taiko songs will you learn vs. how many you listen to on the radio/CD/mp3/streaming?  I also know that listening to other people in your group solo starts to shape how you play rhythms, but is that always a good thing?  In my opinion, the best (and maybe only) way to improve your sense of rhythm is self-study.

Sometimes all it takes is listening to the downbeat, the pulse, on a passage that's tricky or complex for you.  Try focusing on one aspect, one instrument of a song to understand it, really feeling how it fits in with everything else.  Then do it again.  And again.  Then listen to a different part of the same song.  Repeat.

Practicing through focused listening isn't just good for learning how to feel rhythm and keep an internal ji, it's also good to expand your rhythmic vocabulary.  Someone who listens mostly to Funk is going to have a more expansive repertoire of rhythms to pull from than someone who listens mostly to a lot of Easy Listening, right?  Not judging either genre, but as taiko players, rhythm is good for us!  So listen to more music, explore different genres.  Seriously, this is such a powerful tool that anyone with the internet has at their disposal. 

I'll end this post with a few songs that I spent many hours listening to.  Not in total, but each.  They may be of little interest to most of you, but who knows, something might inspire you in the way it inspired me!

Art of Noise, "Beat Box"
Art of Noise, "Close to the Edit"
Nine Inch Nails, "Ringfinger" (from 4:05 on)
Overseer, "Skylight"
Primus, "The Awakening"
Hideki Naganuma, "Humming the Bassline"
Pulse: A STOMP Odyssey "Les Percussions de Guinee"
Sanford and Sons Theme
Two Steps From Hell, "Army of Drummers"
Zatoichi, "Festivo"
Dave Brubeck, "Unsquare Dance"

Annnnd that's enough for now.  Enjoy!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

On teaching: Questions

Teaching at first seems like an exercise in delivering information to your students.  And while that's not wrong, it's not all there is to it.  Questions are a huge part of the teaching process, but not just in the way you might be thinking...

The obvious way this comes into play is when students ask teachers questions.  That can be a very easy way to teach, assuming you know the answers!  I love it when I'm asked questions that are relevant to the topic, but then when the answers I give are digested.  If only it were so easy, right?

But asking questions designed to make students think can often be a lot more beneficial than simply answering their questions.  Maybe it's answering a question with "what do you think the answer is?" (PJ used to do that to me a lot, haha), or instead asking them something that reveals a mistake they aren't aware of (during belt testing, we black belts ask those kind of questions often).  Even simple questions can make people learn more than just giving them answers right off the bat.

What happens if you encounter a group of students that aren't very responsive?  They don't ask questions when prompted, they don't really give answers, and it can be anything from being shy or intimidated to simply not knowing what to say as a reason.  In this case, an invaluable skill is predicting what questions they do have, but aren't vocalizing.  This requires careful observation of them doing whatever it they need to work on and seeing what's tentative, what's uncertain.  That uncertainty might transfer to asking questions, so being able to figure out what those questions are (even if they themselves don't know they should ask) is a skill any teacher can benefit from.

Finally, you should always ask yourself, "can I take a different/better approach?"  A strong teacher isn't necessarily a *good* teacher.  What do I mean?  I mean you can have someone that knows their shit inside and out, makes people feel at ease, and can do everything they're telling you to do.  But what if they have all that but can't get their point across?  If a class of people can't get something the teacher is teaching, it might be the class, but it might be the teacher, too.  A good teacher has to be able to adapt on the fly.   The only way they'll be able to do that is to ask themselves if their style is working and if not, what to change.

You know by now that I find questioning things to be crucial to one's growth.  It may not ingratiate me with everyone, but it's who I am.  As a teacher, questions are a powerful tool for both you and your students, regardless of how long you've been teaching or how many students you have.  And since this post is about questions, I'll leave you with a good one:

If a teacher is teaching but no one is learning, is it really teaching?

Monday, May 9, 2016

What's in my arsenal

I'm often saying to try *this* or do *that* when it comes to soloing, but I often forget that sometimes people learn best from watching or being given examples.

So when it comes to soloing, these are my go-to's in no particular order:

  • Syncopation.  This is my bread-and-butter.  With good syncopation, you don't need to play a lot of notes and the variety of available flavors is plentiful.
  • Repetition.  Playing even a short sequence of notes more than once means you don't have to think about what you're playing and can plan the next few seconds.  It also gives the audience something familiar to enjoy.  Lastly, it makes it sound like you're being intentional rather than random.
  • Flams.  A simple percussive technique where one bachi strikes a hair before (or after) the other.  It's a variation on the single hit, but sounds different.  You don't hear it a lot in taiko but it's not hard to do.
  • Move away from the drum.  98% of the time, a taiko soloist is always within striking distance of their drum(s).  Moving away is unexpected.  Of course, you have to do something once you move away...
  • Express.  Making it look a little harder than it actually is (because I'm using good technique) is a crowd-pleaser.  There's a fine line between this and overacting, though
  • Ma.  Space in between notes is something to relish, not avoid.  Gives time to think, but also gives a solo a different flavor from one that's chock-full of notes.
  • Planning an ending.  For several songs, ending strong is a priority for me.  I like to have something to end with, whether it's eight measures long or just one.  Ending because I've just "run out of stuff to play" often doesn't sound, look, or feel as good.
These are just off the top of my head and I might think of more later, but this is a good list.  Maybe you like something you see and want to incorporate more, or maybe you think of what makes your list in order to make it stronger.  For the analytical players among us, use your predilections and figure out what works for you!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Question Everything: Tension

Almost every taiko workshop I've been in, taught, or observed talks about tension being the enemy.  The same is true for almost every karate workshop I've experienced.  Tension causes stiffness, reduces speed, reduces control, makes things more tiring, looks bad when moving, you don't want it, etc.

But as with most things, it's rarely a black-and-white situation.

I'm not talking about the tension it takes to remain standing, or to keep your head upright.  That's a given.
  • But what about the tension it takes to keep your arm extended and still? What would taiko look like without those visuals?
  • What about the tension generated for the sake of the audience, to make our efforts look even greater?  How much does a little exaggeration make for good entertainment?
  • Could you push off the ground with your feet to generate power or to move quickly without tension?  Without it, how much dynamism are you losing?
  • How good of a sound would you make without snapping at the wrist?  There's a lot of tension generated there.
  • Would you have any sort of a clean strike if you didn't squeeze your fingers at the end of it?
  • And would you be able to control the rebound if you didn't catch the bachi after the first hit?
  • Try to kiai without tensing the hara.  Not going to be much of a kiai, is it?
So, how bad is tension?  When is it unwanted, and when is it needed?

You wouldn't want to wear a tool belt with 100 hammers on it, but you'll want one handy when you find a nail that's sticking out.  Tension is not the enemy, it is simply a tool.  The better you are at knowing when and where you need that tool, the more you might find that you can leave it on the bench...

Monday, May 2, 2016

Thank a teacher!

I led the teaching of a workshop to the public this past weekend.  After it was over, one of the participants told me how good of a teacher I was and how much they liked my flow and humor.  It definitely made my day, since teaching is something I keep trying to get better at.

So why not make a teacher's day and thank them for helping you?  Maybe it's the way they teach, how much fun they make learning, or how much they've taught you.  It doesn't matter what the reason is as long as it's genuine.  And it doesn't even have to be to a taiko teacher, either...