Thursday, July 28, 2016

Drill: Dance of the Magic Dragon

So there's a song I've had for a while, called "Dance of the Magic Dragon".  It's a short little piece with multiple drums and percussion grooving together at a fast tempo.
Ever since I had it, I tried playing along to the underlying straight beat (the really fast ji, if you can call it that) with my hands on my leg or a desk, whatever.  My forearms would start to burn after a little while, getting to the point where I couldn't keep playing and would have to stop.

Just now I was able to go from 0:06 to 1:08, way further than in the past.  Of course doing that just before typing this blog post was brilliant, because typing is harder right now.  Ouch.

It's good to have something that challenges you that you just can't quite do.  I just need a few more seconds and I could make it to the first break, right near the end of the song.  But I'm not quite there even though I'm trying all the tricks and positioning I can think of to prolong my playing.

What's your challenge?  What can you attempt but not quite get to...yet?

Monday, July 25, 2016

New Song Diary: Too many ideas!

So last night as I'm brushing my teeth, some thoughts that were in the back of my head came to the forefront, and I wound up playing patterns on the towel bar in the bathroom, toothbrush still in my mouth.

I've had an idea to write something that showcases SJT's chops, because we're more known for our visual/kata, but have the ability to play some really good stuff.

It might be a solo piece, which isn't really our style, or a transition, or a small-ensemble piece, but the idea is simple and actually somewhat related to my last piece where the left hand played a downbeat throughout the entire song.

Still, I have another idea I've been toying with for a month or so that I wrote about a while back.  Two songs is a bit much, but who am I to say no to inspiration?  Stay tuned...

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Putting your technique to the test

A couple of days ago, SJT did another one of its forays into playing/creating in public spaces, this time at the San Jose City Hall and plaza.

One of the ideas we came up with was to play part of a song on a catwalk high above the plaza, roughly four stories up.  I volunteered to be one of the ones going up, because I wanted to see how it felt.

The catwalk was sturdy, made of some kind of concrete, a good six feet or so wide, with railings on either side about foot feet high.  No danger of falling off.  However, playing a song like Oedo Bayashi/Yodan Uchi that has a lot of turning and jumping across made for a very interesting experiment.

I wasn't afraid of the height, but I was intensely aware of my bachi.  Hitting the railing behind me would probably catch my bachi and result in it falling a serious distance.  I was also aware that in certain parts of the song, the catwalk would shake slightly, making my stance feel a little wobbly.

My grip was not as loose as it normally is, and my focus was a bit split to compensate for future shaking.  I had to continually "fight" to open my grip, to trust in my stance, and to make it seem like I was having a ball.  And I was, really!

There are many stages that are too small, too cramped, with things nearby that you really don't want to smack with your bachi.  It's times like this when you find out what your technique is really like.  What happens when fear of impact creeps in, worry about footing, concern for the space around you?  Does technique that you didn't have to think twice about now start falling apart?

No one wants a gig where you're cramped and in danger of causing damage - to anything.  But those are the ones that teach you how to adapt, how to deal, and push you as an artist.  If you need everything to be perfect before you play, then how much are you limiting yourself?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Someone's got to be the first.

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Every San Jose obon we have an early-morning discussion session between some members of SJT and the collegiate groups playing over the weekend.  One of the questions asked in my group was how to write a song that was different to the group's current style, in terms of mood/energy.

My answer was that someone has to "be the first" to do it.  Someone has to be the first to push the limits, stretch the boundaries, test the waters, etc.

If no one writes a song that goes a little outside what's "normal", then what happens to the repertoire of songs in 5, 10 years?  More and more and more of the same, to a point possibly where songs are hard for the audience to distinguish between.

If no one solos with different patterns than everyone else in the group, or with different motions than everyone in the group, then again, how will people in the audience distinguish between them all?

Stepping a little outside what's expected, what's "accepted" can cause friction or discomfort, sure.  But it can also cause growth, can also trigger new ideas.  You can learn what's off-limits in theory vs. in actuality.  Without trying, the boundaries are all hypothetical.

Going too far at first is not always a good idea, however.  You could actually turn people off to the idea because it's too extreme, reaching too far, etc.  It's like asking for a cookie before dinner vs. asking for an entire cake.  One is reasonable, the other is not.

You might find the group votes your idea down.  It's possible.  But it's up to you whether or not that ends your attempts, or you mark it up as experience.  Personally, I have done countless things that were remarked on, some that were actually explicitly forbidden later (amusing but don't do that again) and some were highlights of my solo history.  I've written things where people had to do something out of the norm, and some of those things became key points the song while others make me shake my head when I think back to.  Without trying those things, I wouldn't have the experience, creativity, or willingness to do some of the things I do now.  And I feel like there's still SO much more I haven't even thought about yet!

You don't have to be groundbreaking or revolutionary (I mean, it's not bad if you are), but you can be intentionally curious and exploratory if you want to be.  After all, someone's got to be the first...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Those little voices.

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As human beings, there are these little voices that chatter in our heads that do nothing but cause self-doubt.  It's especially common in composers, because composition is such a personal thing and often takes many months of work and re-work to achieve one new piece.

Thinking of a new song idea is often one of the most exciting things a person can experience.  The inspiration, the potential, the visuals, the expression, all of it can come together and be a very powerful, empowering feeling.  Until those voices come in...  Then it's about how the idea isn't original enough, not interesting enough, requires too many drums, is too difficult to play...  Next thing you know, the idea is tossed in the trash.

But you have to fight those voices, because you won't be able to shut them up completely.  Get your ideas down, somehow, somewhere.  Scribble the notes, the patterns, the movements, the moods, the poses, get it documented in some way.  That way, if the voices do win the battle, you're not completely defeated.

Another way to look at it is being able to come back to your idea later on, with a different perspective.  Maybe you get that sense of the initial thrill you had, maybe you think of new directions to take it, maybe you have no idea what the hell you were trying to get at, but it's making you come up with new ideas!

For me, I have notation software that I use to put down patterns that come to me, use Western notation when I can, or even use primitive hash marks if I need to.  I have a folder with just under 100 "things" to listen to, from simple 1 to 4-bar phrases to several minutes' worth of patterns.  Every couple of months I'll browse the library and see what stands out.  It keeps the wheels spinning and I'm adding new stuff a couple of times a month.  Those little voices in my head have certainly had their fair share of victories, but what I've got in my archives are never going away.

My last point is that composing is not easy.  If you can't get past those little voices, you'll never get past actual people complaining and critiquing your work, which is bound to happen.  The more you compose (not just how many songs you write, but how much time you spend composing), the easier things will get.  If you give up too easily, then those voices are going to win over and over again...

Monday, July 11, 2016

San Jose Obon 2016!

So it's Monday and I'm writing this in advance because I'm going to be beyond tired come this blog post.

San Jose Obon is such a huge event, starting (for me) Friday night with the potluck full of collegiate players, friends of SJT, and SJT itself.  There's probably about 250 people who attend, and about 95% of them either play or have played taiko.  We eat, we rehearse Ei Ja Nai Ka, we clean up, and we rest for the weekend!

Over the weekend there's six taiko performances, 4 collegiate groups (2 each day) with SJT playing at the end on both days.  Then there's the dancing a few hours later; we had over 1200 odori dancers last Obon Saturday and I want to say around 900 on the Sunday?  With even more people around, watching.

Add all the food, games, crafts, and other entertainment, and it's like a 2-day block party/carnival right outside our door.  Literally, like 50 feet from my doorstep.

I'll be taking and posting pics of the collegiate taiko and dancing as I normally do to post later in the week.  If you've never been to SJ Obon, I highly highly recommend it, as it's the largest in North America, has a lot of taiko to enjoy, and is in the heart of SJ Japantown!

By the time you read this, I'll be recuperating, so I hope you were able to attend, but if not, come over in 2017!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Question Everything: Song names

I've seen a lot of taiko pieces, and one thing I've noticed is a lot of them have Japanese names.

Surprising, I know.  An art form that came from Japan has people giving new compositions Japanese names?  Wow.

But for all of those songs written outside of Japan, by people of non-Japanese decent, why give it a Japanese name?  There's nothing inherently wrong with that, mind you, but why?

I wonder why, especially in North America where there are a lot of European and non-Japanese Asian taiko players/composers, there aren't more non-Japanese song titles.  Where are the Gaelic, Mandarin, Tagalog names?  I've really wanted to use something Gaelic (I'm part Irish) like "Saoirse" or "Aoibhneas" but I'll feel sorry for people trying to pronounce them...

I've written about eight pieces now and the only one with a Japanese name was a co-composition where I let my partner name the piece.  A Japanese name never occurred to me with the others.  Maybe future compositions will inspire one?

Sure, a Japanese title might really capture the essence of a song the way you - or a composer - wants it to feel.  But was it because it "sounds better" in Japanese?  Sounds "more authentic"?  Are you picking a Japanese title because the words speak to you and what you want from the piece, or because it's the "default"?

Here's a list of random non-English, non-Japanese words that (probably) don't have a counterpart in other languages.  Can you imagine how a song would sound or look with these as a title?  Would you be able to capture these well in Japanese?  Or any other language rather than their own?

- Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan, South America) "implying a wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start."
- Wei-wu-wei (Chinese) "a deliberate, and principled, decision to do nothing whatsoever, and to do it for a particular reason."
- Duende (Spanish) "the mysterious power of a work of art to deeply move a person."
- PĂ„legg (Norwegian) "anything — ham, cheese, jam, Nutella, mustard, herring, pickles, Doritos, you name it — you might consider putting into a sandwich."
- Gumusservi (Czech) "moonlight shining on water."

After writing this blog, I think I'm going to hunt for something really nifty to inspire my next piece.  Who needs English when you can say shemomedjano which means "you can't stop eating even after you're full" in Georgian?

Thanks to for the awesome words!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Soloing and improvisation

Been thinking about the difference between soloing and improv lately....

In taiko, I hear these terms used interchangeably, but it's really not a big deal.  People seem to understand the meaning based on context.  It's important to realize, however, that these are two different skills that can be totally independent of each other.

A solo generally means one person has all the attention.  The easiest example is being the only person on stage, but it could be a stage full of people where one person is the only one moving around or playing something.

Soloing requires the ability to "sell it".  All eyes (and maybe ears) are on you!  It might be a prescribed pattern that's dictated by the song or you could be improvising stuff, but in those moments, you represent the song, the group, and yourself.  No pressure!

To improvise (improv) is to make things up on the fly, out of the blue.  It doesn't mean you can't have done it before, just that it wasn't something set.

Improv can be in the movements, in the notes/patterns played, in your kiai, even in your expression and energy.  I'm guessing a lot of taiko players see improv as the thing they do during a solo, if they want to make things up.  But improv can happen outside of soloing, too!

When and what you kiai is often improvised, no?  Sure, some songs have it written in, but otherwise, you kiai when you feel it's right.  That's improv.  And in some songs, say something like Matsuri or a more casual piece, if you embellish what you play on narimono or assorted percussion (like chappa, kane, chekere, etc.), that's improvised.  Same if you do it on a shime or any other instrument, really.

A lot of taiko players seem intimidated or nervous when it comes to doing solo work or drills.  Partially I think that stems from not having a large repertoire of things to pull from, but also from the pressure of thinking "I need to make things up on the spot".  But realize that a solo doesn't mean you have to improvise, and you're probably already doing a lot of improvisation you hadn't realized in songs you've been playing!

Play a pattern from a song that fits the ji you're soloing in.  Pressure gone.  Embellish a bit, expand on it a bit.  What can you do from that?  Next thing you know, you're improvising more and more and hey, it's not such a big deal!

Stand in front of a mirror and just look.  Make faces.  Pose.  Move around, but keep looking.  There's your biggest critic, and you're doing ok, right?  If you can "sell it" to yourself, then you can "sell it" to the audience.

It may still not be easy to solo AND improvise, but at least you can look at them as two different skills, two things to work on at your own pace instead of one big insurmountable problem.