Thursday, June 30, 2016

Drill: Lights out

I might be wrong, but I would guess that the most active sense when playing taiko is the sense of sight.  There's so much visual input to take in and keep track of, even for those who wind up staring at the drums!  And then there's all that tactile, physical feedback from hitting and feeling the drum when you strike it.

But what about what you hear?  How much are you hearing?  What are you hearing?

If you ever get the chance, try playing with your eyes closed.  Especially your solo!  Now obviously you don't want to do this if your song involves a lot of movement, I'm not trying to get you hurt.  But if you can play parts of it (or the whole thing) while stationary, it will be a very different experience, trust me.

You can't see anything, so that frees up a lot of processing power.  At first, sure, you'll be a bit nervous, so this isn't something you just do once or for three minutes and get much out of it.  You need to get past the worry and get to the point where you can hear yourself.  And then, listen!  Really listen.  If it helps, don't play so loud at first.  Then add volume once you're convinced you're not going to kill yourself or the drum.

Does one hand strike louder than the other?  Are they the same tone or is one striking a different part of the drum than the other (in other words, is one hitting the center while the other strikes near the edge)?  Is there consistency to the sound and volume?

Here's the fun part.  If it sounds okay, make it *not* sound okay.  Change one hand position just a little and see if you can tell the difference.  Maybe you won't at first, maybe the drum head isn't sensitive enough, but you should be able to, eventually.  Now make it "better" again.  Experiment with this to train your ear to hear differences in sound, differences that you might not have noticed before.

To me, when I play shime and find the right spot to make my notes sound the same, it's such a rewarding feeling.  When it's not even, it's like an itch I can't reach or a smudge on my glasses.  The ability to adjust quickly and remain steady for an even sound is underrated and often overlooked.  Hitting the same tone on one drum with two bachi elevates how that player sounds.  Two different sounds, even moderately different, and it will never sound as clean, as polished.

So if you get the opportunity, I suggest trying this out.  I realize it's not always easy to get alone time on a drum, but at least be aware that this skill is something worth pursuing!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Physician, critique thyself

What if you got as much critique as you gave, in the manner you gave it?

Would there be a lot?  Would it be easy to take?  Would it be about the details or the generalities?  Would you find the suggestions clear or ambiguous, personal or professional?  Would you want less?  More?

Questions like these help you see yourself from the outside, less about what your intentions are and more about the outcomes.  There is no perfect teacher for everyone, nor can one person give the best feedback all the time, but if we're aware of how we ourselves come across to others, we can then choose to change, to grow, to get (and be) better artists.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Sing me a solo...

Sometimes in my improv sessions, I have people sing a solo, either with kuchishoga or freestyle/scat.  It's really interesting (and telling) to hear what comes out of people!

I find that how people sing their solo is often not the same as what they'd play with bachi in their hands.  In some regards, that makes sense because there's not the same need for visuals you might have when you're playing the drum, but for the most part, people's vocal solos have sounded much less complex than what they'd play.

I've noticed that a lot of people get much "shyer" when using their voice instead of playing the drum.  It might be because they're vocalizing in front of people (eek!), or that they've not been loud without a drum before, but even with those factors, it's a very noticeable difference.

The taiko definitely becomes a proxy of sort, a way to express one's self, but I feel like relying on the drum to have a strong solo is a false strength, maybe even a crutch?  I'm still thinking about this one.

To me, it's one thing if your hands can play up a nice solo, but if it's not coming from your head, then you're limited/ruled by your physical abilities.  While some people may have very good physical abilities, as I've said before, they fade in time or with injuries.  Having the ability to solo strongly in your head, with your hands, with your voice, with your body - these combined make you a strong soloist, much stronger than just one aspect!

So sing it up!  Especially in the car; no one else can hear you and you only look silly.  ;)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Did you know it was odd?

We're very very used to songs in 4.  It's the norm for Western music, and almost all popular music.  Sometimes you'll hear songs in 3 or 6, meters common in South Korean and African music, respectively.

Taiko is much the same.  How many songs can you think of in 3, 5, 7, or other odd numbers?  Maybe a few?  Maybe a handful?  Now name me all the songs in 4 (or 8).  I'll wait, it'll be a long list...

I've heard a good number of taiko pieces in odd meters, but it's not always the case that they're groovy, catchy, or even easy to listen to.  At times it feels like my Western percussion days where odd meters were more of an intellectual exercise rather than for the audience to enjoy (unless of course, you liked that sort of complexity).

I realize what's "groovy" or "catchy" is a subjective thing, but I think that the more that taiko players are exposed to songs in odd meters that don't come off clunky or overly complex, the more likely those players are to compose in odd meters and/or be more comfortable soloing in them, as well.

I've made similar lists in the past of some of my favorite odd-meter songs, but here goes:

Miyake (Did you know it was in 11?)
Mission Impossible Theme
Unsquare Dance
From Eden
Marta's Dance (first half) (bonus points if you can figure out what meter this is in!)

They're not always easy to find, but the best kind are the ones you didn't even realize were in an odd meter until later!

I'll leave you with this, the kind of music that makes me think the composer had a lot of hate for his bandmates, haha:

The Dance of Eternity

Thursday, June 16, 2016

YouTube and taiko

Ever spend an hour on YouTube looking up taiko?  You should.

I've seen taiko from all over the world, in places I didn't expect to see it.  I've seen ideas and compositions that make me scratch my head sometimes and inspired me at others.  I've seen collaborations I would never have thought to do, huge numbers of people playing together, classic pieces played with a twist, etc.

At worst, it's just entertainment, but it's also a great way to see what kind of taiko is out there, who's doing what, and how!  It might even give you some new ideas...

Monday, June 13, 2016

What do you really need?

Depending on the group you're in, you might have access to a lot of great gear, or are limited as to what's available.  But to make a good sound, to play a good song, what do you really need?  In other words, how much do you depend on other things to make your performance a good one?

Does the drum have to be a certain tone to make you sound good?  Or can you get a good sound of even a worn head?

Do your bachi have to be a certain length or weight to give you a good strike?  Or do you have the fundamental technique to compensate?

It goes beyond the equipment, too:

Do you need an ensemble to make your contribution exciting?  Or can you deliver a solid performance on your own?

Do you need a lot of flash and flair in your solo to get people's attention?  Or is your musicality and technique strong enough to draw people in?

Do you need multiple drums to sound interesting?  Or can one drum be enough to showcase your skill?

I'm sure you can think of other questions like these, and probably the answers, too.  It's not that it's bad to want certain things, to have certain preferences, but are they really preferences...or crutches?

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Weaknesses are ok

A while back the group went to a location downtown to see what the space would inspire from us.  We came up with adaptations of existing works and some experiments to try out a few weeks later.

The other night we went to a different location to start the process again.  I found that I came back frustrated, because it's been two times/locations now and I'm not getting inspiration from these places.  I find parts that are visually interesting, spend time going through ideas, but none of them are "good enough", too abstract, etc.

I'm happy to see other people are coming up with a lot of ideas, but it was bothering me that I was struggling to come up with one that I thought was worth bringing up.

And then I realized, it's ok!

I don't need to be inspired by the same things other people are.  And I reminded myself about all the things that do inspire me: music, sounds, motion, feeling, expression.  So maybe places don't speak to me, but that's fine.  And it took getting frustrated to have that conversation with myself and realize that it's ok.

It would also be too easy to go into the next site visit thinking "I'm not going to get anything from this, so I don't care", but that's a cop-out.  Instead, it's better if I just don't worry about it so much and seek out those things that I know do inspire me.  And for all those ideas that people did come up with, I want to help them come to life, not be the sourpuss that chokes the fun out of things.

It's often hard for us to acknowledge things that we're not good at, especially when you see other people doing them without too much difficulty.  But the alternative is to get bitter, get upset, get "worse", if you will.  The trick - and something that I still work on - is knowing when to fight against things versus letting them go.  Either way, until you recognize your weaknesses and can think about them objectively, how can you ever take steps to get better?

Monday, June 6, 2016

The longer you play...

You know, I was just about to write out a post when I realized it would be a much better question for the Taiko Community on Facebook.

I realize not all of you are members there, so I want to speak a bit more about the idea that came to me.

Originally, I was thinking about how if someone plays taiko with a group long enough, they might start actually looking less and less like the rest of the group.  Newer members are the ones who are the most likely to adhere to the "rules" and comments given - and then with time and familiarity, this lessens.

This isn't unique to taiko, to be sure, but still worth considering.  What else happens - or can happen, the longer you play?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

On Odaiko

 photo from Wikipedia (drum from Kodo)
Just going to start typing and see if I can sort my thoughts out...

Playing odaiko is not about showing off, it's about the truth of your technique.

In playing odaiko, you expose yourself to the audience through the drum.  Even if they can't see your face, it doesn't mean they can't see you - your strengths, your weaknesses, your intention, your technique.

All the things that you can get away with on betta or naname are laid bare on odaiko.  Extra motions, excess tension, stiff wrists, not using the lower body - there's nowhere for any of it to hide.

The iconic vision of the odaiko player is a man in a fundoshi, almost naked facing the drum.  While I don't ever need to wear one, I can understand what it's like to be bared to the drum without anything "extra".

Some people think it's all about playing loud and hard, but you can do that on any drum, really.  Others think it's about the solo but without the technique to support it, what are they really showing off?  And there are others who are just plain intimidated by what the odaiko "asks" for - big noise, a power stance, and "special" technique.

But the technique's not that special.  There's a learning curve, of course.  There are stylistic differences to be taught, yes.  But when it all comes down to it, it's about your fundamentals.  Stance.  Grip.  Relaxation.  Core strength.  Intention.

If you haven't really had the chance to play odaiko and you can take a workshop, I strongly recommend it.  Even if you have trouble doing what they ask of you, the experience itself is priceless.  If you are able to play and feel like things are difficult, use what you already know, because everything is connected!