Monday, August 29, 2016

Mistakes as entertainment

Have a watch at this.  Listen for two minutes, the length of the story told.

In this clip, one of my favorite artists, John Cleese recounts a story about an accident on stage during a live performance.  Can any of you relate?

Does hearing the advice that Eddie Izzard gave to John Cleese resonate with you?  Does it make mistakes seem a little less daunting?  What about the idea that not worrying about things makes it more fun, and that the audience can feel that?

Food for thought, eh?

Thursday, August 25, 2016


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Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic that can be defined as "flawed beauty".  It's the art of imperfection.  A crack in a cup gives the cup more personality; an aged book makes the book more interesting. There's a lot more to the definition, but for purposes of this post, that will do.

In taiko, we tend to like things to look as much alike as possible.  We strive, in kumi-daiko (ensemble drumming) to have people play as one.  The default seems to be to achieve perfection where everything looks and sounds perfect.

But would that be a good thing?

At the SJT studio, we have one of our original taiko, an ex-whiskey barrel with one head removed.  It looks old, the metal rings are still attached from it's boozier days, and we rarely ever play on it.  The sound from it, however, is unique.  It's not bright and punchy like any of the other taiko I hear - not just in our collection, but in other performances.  The attack is very loud and crisp, the decay is quick but deep.

Many years ago, at either our 20th or 25th anniversary concert (I forget which), we used another of our original taiko that was also without a second head.  The sound was unique and chosen for a takebue piece.  Because it didn't look as nice as we'd like, we draped it in a cloth for the performance.  Without that drum, I think the song would have lost a lot of its musical quality and been another flute+drum piece.

So consider, while we strive for perfection, that perfection isn't the only goal.  Quality doesn't always mean flawless and sometimes beauty can be found in the differences between things.

(If you like this post or the idea of wabi-sabi, I highly suggest looking online for pictures or even articles on the subject!)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Is this taiko? Vol. 01

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Is that taiko?

I bet most of you are saying "no", for various reasons.  Let me see if I can guess most of them:

  1. They're not playing on taiko; those are western drums.
  2. They're not using bachi, those are mallets.
  3. They're not in any real stance or kata.
  4. Their technique is really sloppy.
  5. They're not wearing any sort of Japanese outfit, just white suits.
  6. They don't kiai.
  7. They're a bunch of White guys.
  8. It's not a taiko song.
  9. You didn't like it.

What did I miss?  Let's take a closer look:

  1. They're not playing on barrel-style drums, nope.  For some of you, that's the defining issue right there.  But with more and more alternatives to buying or making drums from barrels, when will this be less of an issue?
  2. I've seen a lot of different kinds of drumsticks in taiko, from mallets to bamboo slats.  I've even seen taiko players use their hands! *gasp*  Does what you strike a drum with define the art form?
  3. Does a low stance make a taiko player?  There are a lot of people who don't have a very deep or very athletic stance.  Sometimes the drums are just really low to the ground and a person doesn't have the flexibility to get low.  Many groups also don't care or focus on a very deep or stationary stance.
  4. Does sloppy arm technique mean it's not good?  Close your eyes and tell me how it sounds.  More than a few taiko pieces sound similar to this, and this group is very much on-beat when they play.
  5. There are a lot of performances where people wear all kinds of weird things.  Suits are far from weird.  
  6. Okay, they don't kiai.  But they interact with the audience in a VERY similar way that taiko groups have, in a call-and-response style.  Some taiko groups and players are so new and/or so focused on doing well that there's little interaction with the audience, or even each other.  Does how you exchange energy define your art form?
  7. Yep, a bunch of White guys.  So what?
  8. What is a "taiko" song?  Kodo did a version of "Orekama" which was originally written for a percussion quintet.  There are several narimono-only (hand percussion) songs out there.  Is your definition of what a taiko song is based only on what you've seen before?  If the exact same patterns were played on actual taiko, could it then qualify in your eyes?
  9. Not liking a thing doesn't make it less of a thing.  I loathe onions but that doesn't mean they're not onions.  Not liking Justin Timberlake's pop music doesn't mean he's not making pop music.  What if someone didn't like your taiko performance?  Does that make it "less" taiko?  Nope.

Personally, I'm not saying I think it's taiko, but like with most of my posts, I want you to think about the reasons behind your feelings on questions like this!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Better at teaching...or doing?

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Ok, you have two choices to choose from:

One, you can be really good at your art.  You could be someone people admire, aspire to be like, talk about favorably.  But you're not good at teaching.  You can't figure out how you do what you do, or maybe you're not good at communicating it, or maybe you don't have the temperament for it, etc. - but you at least know you're not good at teaching.

Two, you can be really good at teaching your art.  You could be someone that people turn to when they struggle, when they need advice, when they need things broken down or new perspectives.  People listen to what you say with respect.  But you're "just" good.  Not great, but solid enough so people understand you're not all theory.

Which would you choose?  Why?  And an even more interesting question, would you think less of someone who chose the opposite?  Why?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Is easy what you want?

When I'm playing Oedo Bayashi/Yodan Uchi, where there's a drum on either side of me, it makes things so much easier when I'm closer to the center.  With my wingspan, I can easily reach both drums to play whatever I want.

But it doesn't look very nice when I do that.  My arms don't need to extend (and in fact, they can't) when I'm that close, so I look cramped.  Same with my legs; I don't need to sink into my stance and use my lower body much so I look lazy.  But it's easy, right?

That solo I can pull out without thinking, in that song I've played for ages, that's easy to do.  I can "sell it" without thinking.

But every time I do that, I'm not really improving my skill by a significant amount.  On some level, sure, but the diminishing return is super-diminished by now.  So I'm losing out on an opportunity to create something new, exercise my improvisational muscles, improve on different techniques.  But at least it's easy, right?

Let's be honest, we all like things to be easy from time to time.  All that hard work you go through training and trying and failing and trying again, you want it to pay off, right?  It should!  And you should be able to enjoy that, too.

Finally crafted the perfect solo?  Enjoy it, work on it, improve it, savor it for a while.  Yes, the audience will enjoy it, but does that mean you can't make/create another solo that they'd enjoy?  Do  you feel comfortable when you play in a certain position?  Does that mean it's where you should be positioned?  Does it mean it looks good?

If you dwell in a place that's now "easy", what does that mean for you a year from now?  How will that have made you a better player/performer/artist?  After all, growth often means discomfort and/or struggle.

In a way, if nothing's ever easy when you're practicing, then you're often growing!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Processing vs. intuition

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I often think about how talented or skilled players do what they do so well.  Some people might consider me skilled and have asked how I do it, but while it's easy to say what I do, I'm more curious how other people do it.

When I say "do it", I mean how people play or perform with combination of a high degree of ability, strike clean and fast, create interesting patterns, move dynamically and smoothly, play confidently, beam energy outwards, etc.

Right now my theory is that there are two approaches, depending on the person.

The first is Mental Acuity, which is the organic version of processing power.  Some people are really good at taking in information and reacting to it quickly.  It might be external, from the eyes or ears, or internal, from thoughts or emotion.  The ability to process quickly means less time spent on any one thing, as well as the ability to handle multiple streams of data simultaneously without being overwhelmed easily.

This is a hard skill to learn, but not impossible.  I think half of it is just not freaking out when trying to do a lot of things at once, which is easier said than done.  But it's not really something that comes from taiko as much as it comes from your daily life.  How do you handle stress, how do you multi-task, how do you adapt, how much do you objectively observe?  I feel like being good at those things directly helps your mental acuity.

The second is Intuition, which is trusting in your experience and skills to know what to do next.  This is where people who have been playing a lot - and/or for a long time - can do things that people younger, faster, stronger, etc., can't.  This skill shows when people play really well in unfamiliar settings or surroundings, because they're applying what they've internalized as much as possible.

Having the intuition of what sounds best next or how to position yourself or even when to stop playing is something all of us can learn, but it's not until it's thoroughly practiced when it becomes second-nature.

Of course, there's another aspect, that of "talent".  Personally, when I think of a taiko player or martial artist who I think of as "talented", I also know they practice a LOT.  There are some young kids out there who take to an art or a sport and pick it up more quickly than others at their age, but that might very well be because of their mental acuity compared to their peers.  And those are the ones who, as they get older, tend to practice and hone their abilities, not sit around and just be "good enough".

Some of you might think you don't have good mental acuity or intuition.  Others might watch someone particularly good and think they'll never be as good as that person.  The first is rubbish, the second is pointless.

We don't always recognize the skills we have.  And often it takes practice, for some things more than others.  Practice that most likely has to happen on your own, outside of the studio or dojo, practice where you take time and dissect and be honest with yourself, not just do what you did at practice again and expect results.  As for comparing yourself to someone else, if you can learn from watching that person, great!  Otherwise it's just an exercise in self-harm.  You'll never be as good as them, they'll never be as good as someone else...and what does it matter, really?  Go practice, instead!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Question Everything: Phrasing

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Yeah, this isn't the kind of phrasing you're thinking of.  ;)

Let's say you have a drill to impart to a group of students.  Are you more likely to think, "I'm going to teach them something," or "I'm going to help them learn something?"

When you perform in front of people, are you more inclined to think, "I'm going to impress them," or "I'm going to inspire them?"

If you have trouble grasping a new skill or song, do you think, "I suck at this," or "it'll probably just take some time?"

On meeting someone who has more skill or experience in taiko than you, have you ever thought, "I'm probably better than them," or instead, "I wonder what I can learn from them?"

We're none of us perfect, but how we approach things shapes how we react to them, how we learn from them, who we wind up being down the road.  Half of the battle is being aware that there are options!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Question Everything: More or less?

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Are you the type of person who feels like more notes in a solo is a good thing?  Or that less notes say it better?

Is giving a lot of feedback the way that you feel people will benefit the most?  Or that keeping it to a few points is more digestible?

Do you feel that explaining things in lots of detail is good for other people?  Or that keeping it to a minimum is enough?

Is a lot of movement during a solo more exciting for the audience?  Or are fewer movements more meaningful?

Whichever side(s) you're on, you're not wrong.  But you're not right, either.  Who's receiving? What's the context?  Have you considered going towards the other side of the spectrum?  If not, why not?

How would you explain a drill or an activity with far less words than you'd normally use?  Where would you play more notes if you tend to pick easier patterns to play?  When would you make a movement much more intentional in a flurry of motion?  Do you need to go into great detail for a simple thing? Can you go into great detail when a simple thing is not understood?

To experience the "other side" helps us understand not just ourselves but other people as well.  When we do these things, we are rarely just doing it alone.  Others are watching, listening, observing.  Knowing that the style you prefer is not always the best way to deliver can be a huge eye-opener and a start to becoming a better performer, teacher, and artist!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Soloing, part 15: Consider the song

There are a whole bunch of taiko pieces out there.  Many of them have solo sections in them.  But what I often hear in taiko performances are players that play very similar solos from song to song.

We all have a personal style within our group's style, yes.  And there will be people who are more geared towards movement, rhythm, energy, etc.  However, I think to really be a good soloist, a player needs to consider the song they're playing in.

Take a song like Matsuri.  Many groups play a version of this piece, a very festive, loose type of piece where solos generally can be very creative.  What fits that piece?  What doesn't?  Does anything go?  Those are questions with very subjective answers, depending on who you ask.

So think of it this way.  Take one of your solos, then take away the song.  Do that for a couple of the songs you solo in.  Do the solos look or sound the same?  How?  Why?

Think of it as a series of cupcakes: chocolate, red velvet, angel food, vanilla.  Each one is made from different ingredients and tastes different.  But then you put the same flavor icing on each.  Do they still taste good?  Sure, probably.  But by the 3rd one, you sort of know what to expect.  You may even start getting tired of that same taste!  As the baker, what are you missing out by just making the same icing over and over?

It never hurts to consider how your solos look and sound compared to each other from time to time, even if you don't change a thing.  Maybe buttercream is your favorite flavor, but do you really want it on every cupcake?