Thursday, September 29, 2016

Where you can practice

photo credit: wikipedia commons
If you're a taiko player and reading this, I'm assuming you have a place you go to practice.  Maybe it's a studio, a dojo, a parking garage, or something else.

You're also very likely to have a practice pad or something you play on when you're home.

But how many other places can you practice?  Actually, that's not a good question.  Instead, the question should be "what are the other ways you can practice?"

I am constantly drumming on things with my fingers/hands.  My steering wheel shows where my fingers have strummed and tapped for years.  My desk and keyboard at home and at work make for a great chudaiko-shime combination.  When I don't feel like I'll look too much like a freak, I'm playing patterns on my chest with my hands and fists.  I'm constantly scatting or whispering patterns as I walk, because my step is a steady, natural tempo.  Being a natural fidget-er comes in handy for once, I suppose!

Why not in bathroom, kitchen, car, hallway, sidewalk, etc.?  There are few places that you can't practice, as long as you understand that you don't need to be in stance, have drumsticks, or even have drums!

I realize this might seem obvious to some of you, sure.  So keep it up!  For everyone else, start it up!  You might annoy a few people, but this is taiko, so c'mon!  :)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Leading a gig

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At SJT, members are encouraged to sign up to be in charge of festival gigs.  We do several of them a year, and often the same ones each year.  There's usually a lot of people who have done that gig before and at least one Staff member at each of those gigs, so there's support if people need it.

When one of us does this, it gives a nice break to Staff.  We take charge of creating the set, placing personnel, leading the practice for the gig, coordinating travel, and being the contact for whomever's in charge at the festival.

But there's a secondary benefit to this that is sometimes overlooked.  When you lead a gig, you get to see what it's like from the "other side", and gain a new perspective.

You'll gain a respect for how difficult it can be to balance parts, making sure that people get a good distribution of parts and accounting for a variety of skill levels and experience.  Sometimes it's even more complicated if the stage is an odd or smaller shape.

You also might get to see what it's like when issues arise that you don't normally think about.  It could be anything from people showing up late, to people not liking the parts they're given, to figuring out who's driving, to forgotten equipment, to getting stuck in traffic, and lots of other possible curve balls.

Once I started helping out with gig-leading, it made me a lot more tolerant of other gigs I played in.  I became aware that there might be factors I had no clue about (that Staff was dealing with before we ever got there), and if I got a spot or spots I wasn't thrilled with, I had a reason to believe there was a purpose to it.

So maybe you're not in a position to take charge of a gig, but it's really good to consider all the things that the people who do take charge might have to deal with.  Being reliable and accommodating as a player can be a real plus for the people who might be stressing out on details you'll never know about!

Thursday, September 22, 2016


I write about being tall in taiko.  There's one post here and another here.

However, it's not just that you have to adjust to things if you're tall.  Regardless of your height, you have to be aware of how your size affects all aspects of your playing...

Most groups use the same bachi for shime.  If they're on the longer side, it's going to be harder for a shorter person to control.  In this case, they might need to choke up more.  If they're on the shorter side, it's going to be harder for a taller person to get good leverage and they might need to have a reverse choke where the butt of the bachi sits in the palm of the hand.

If you play on an upright drum, tachi-uchi, then your height affects your default angle of strike.  A shorter person might have to strike horizontally whereas a taller person can strike at a downward angle.  A shorter person on shime might have to take a more upright stance while a taller person might have to get lower to make the striking technique a clean one.  These can change everything from how the hara is used to where tension occurs.

A taller person on a betta drum doesn't need to use a lot of strength to make a solid strike, whereas a shorter person might need to add a little bit extra whip to match that sound.  A shorter person making an arm circle will look quicker than a taller person right next to them making that exact same circle.  A smaller person jumping several feet in the air can look impressive, while that same distance jumped by a taller person looks lazy.  The distance has to be relative, not equal.

There are other things that height can or should affect: how a person dances/moves their feet, appropriate bachi length for personal use, foot placement after a turn or spin in a song, etc.

But the most important thing, as I say in post after post after post, is to be aware of these things.  Maybe you're on the taller or shorter ends of the spectrum and you know some of this stuff is a factor, but what else is?  Maybe you're more in the middle of the spectrum, but did you know this stuff affects people outside of the "normal" range?  If you're ever teaching people of outlier height, how do you take these (and other) factors into consideration?

Monday, September 19, 2016

It's ok to suck sometimes.

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I am constantly talking about growth and improvement when it comes to studying an art, how you should never accept things at face value, places to find inspiration, how to push yourself, etc.

But sometimes, you're just going to feel like you suck.

Maybe one day you feel you suck in just one aspect, like soloing, or improvising, or teaching, or flexibility.  Maybe one day you feel like that in many or all aspects.  Just realize a couple of things:

  • If you never feel like you suck at something, you might not try so hard to get better at it.

  • If you never feel like you suck at something, it's possible you suck at it but don't KNOW that you suck at it...

  • Sucking often comes goes cycles with success.  You get better at something which makes you more aware of the details, then awareness of those new details makes you think you suck at them, repeat.
  • "Sucking" is subjective.  Had a bad day?  Temporary.  Things are tricky?  That's not "sucking".  What you feel you "suck" at might be at a level other people wish they could be at.  Where you  think you "suck" now could be much better off than when you "sucked" a year ago.
  • Those who have struggled to get past something they felt they sucked at often make for much better teachers, because they went through many of the same things their students are going through.
Worrying about sucking can be more stressful than whatever the results of the sucking are.  And because of how are flawed brains are, that worry can often cause more sucking.  So while you don't want to be content with sucking, sometimes you have to accept it for the short term.  Acceptance can bring complacency, but also a bit of peace while you regroup and try again.

Suck today, but rock tomorrow!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Japanese taiko vs. North American taiko

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Ooh, controversial topic, right?  Nah.

I was just thinking to last week when Yurika was playing YouTube clips of taiko groups and I couldn't see them, just hear them.  For different clips, she asked if I thought it was a Japanese or North American group, and I was able to tell each time.  But how?

Well I'm going to start by saying this post isn't about judgement or rating.  It's going to be objective in the hopes that people reading it will consider aesthetics and factors they may not have noticed before.  I also want to say that while many of the things I note below may be true, they are not in any way exclusive to either region.  And finally, I'm not going to guess right each time, it was just a fun game.

1.) Kiai.  This is the easiest way for me to tell which of the two types of taiko I'm hearing.  Japanese kiai tend to sound like Japanese words with Japanese phonetics, and often - not always - use more hara in execution.  NA taiko often has kiai that are heavy on the "s" sound, and the vowels often have English phonetics.

2.) Patterns.  Often, NA taiko has a lot of polyrhythms and syncopation.  It's not like this is uncommon in Japanese taiko, but I find it's not as prominent.  Again, not a judgement, just an observation.  I think it comes from the Western ear and the music people listen to growing up.  With Japanese taiko, you get patterns that are not always in a predictable meter, that still have a flow.  For example, you might get two measures of eight followed by something in six, then something in four, then back to eight, or something in fourteen...ish.

3.) Repetition.  Somewhat related to the above, but I feel like there's more repetition in patterns and sequences in Japanese taiko.  Listen to a song like Miyake, Hachijo, or Zoku and you get a LOT of the same pattern...and then some more of it.  Listen to pretty much any NA taiko song and patterns are changing fairly often, especially in solos.

Those are the main three aspects I notice, but rather than go into a few others I can sometimes notice, I want to stop there and ask you what you notice when you listen to taiko music.  Can you spot differences, accounting for different levels of skill?

And let's not forget that taiko goes well past Japan and North America!  How do South American groups sound different than European groups than groups from Asia?  It's not that you have to judge, I just think it's a great tool to just have that awareness that there are differences, then the skills to hear them!

Even if you disagree with my points above, even if you can point out songs or groups that prove me wrong, at least you're being aware of those aesthetics, which is my goal for this post in the first place!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Western Notation

 photo credit:
In taiko, most songs and patterns are taught by rote (repetition), by kuchishoga (vocabulary of notes), or even by online videos.

Western notation is sometimes overlooked as a tool or thought of as making the learning of taiko as "less authentic".  I find it to be an invaluable skill, despite its limitations for taiko.

I can't write a new song on a sheet of paper and hand it to my group for them to play, because most people in the group don't read notation.  But I can give it to a few people outside of practice who do read music for them to try things out.  I can also put my ideas into notation software like Sibelius for me to hear patterns played back and then tweak things around.  This helps for when I want to present something not-written to the entire group, because I'll have some of the kinks worked out already.

But even more important than teaching patterns with notation - in my opinion - is how it makes you think of music in a different way.

Knowing notation means having a better understanding of how patterns can sound totally different when just one note shifts a tiny bit earlier or later.  It gives an ability to see patterns in your head in a very specific way and that ability can help you craft more interesting patterns.

Having notation "in your pocket" so to speak helps when you have a pattern or song idea in your head that you want to capture.  Sure, you can record that on your phone, but sometimes you're in a place where you can't do that, like a business meeting or already ON the phone, and a quick scribbling is all it takes.

Finally, learning notation enough to be useful to most taiko players really isn't a lot of work!  There are a lot of online resources that will teach you the basics.  All you'll ready need is to know:

  • How to designate meter and what the numbers mean (4/4, 7/8, etc.)
  • Notes and rests (whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth and maybe thirty-secondth)
  • Dotted notes
And that's it!  There's extra stuff that can be useful like dynamics/volume indicators, marks for repetition, accented notes and the like, but since most taiko pieces don't have to worry about pitch, harmony, chord progression, etc., you can take the basics and do a lot with it.

It takes practice and a willingness to do it until it becomes useful, but you won't regret learning any of it.!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Now you're in charge.

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Imagine a freak accident happens, like a dinosaur eating the teacher.  And other dinosaurs have also eaten all of the people in your group that have been there longer than you, who have taught more classes than you, etc.

Now it's all up to you.  What could you teach?

Let's say the day-to-day logistics are taken care of, by others who are able to step in to make sure bills are paid, floors are swept, checks are cashed, etc.  But you're the lead instructor now.

Were you paying attention before?  Could you convey the important points about your group's style and honor the intentions of those who came before you?  Were you content with being spoon-fed and receiving feedback, or did you try to understand fundamentals on your own?  Were you thinking of how certain styles of teaching worked with the group more than others?  Did you take for granted how much planning went into figuring out what to teach, class after class after class?

This is all food for thought.  It's easy to go to practice and receive a lesson, but if you're aware of just a little bit more about what it takes to plan and teach a class of adults, if you try to understand more than just what information is presented to you, you'll be prepared for things far less severe than dinosaur attacks, and be far more valuable to the group - and to yourself!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Kime and making mistakes

Kime, as I wrote about in a post here back in 2010, is all about the focus of intention and energy.  It comes from the Japanese verb "kimeru," which means "to decide".

In martial arts, kime is often seen as that laser-like focus on the target, whether real or imaginary.  It takes practice to hone that focus, learning when to turn it on or off and getting faster at doing just that.  Most martial arts have this aspect in their training, which comes in extremely valuable when in a situation when there is actual danger.

When sparring, there are two different forces at play, the physical and the mental.  The physical is easy to spot.  One person attacks, maybe both, there's some maneuvering, some defensive techniques, etc.  Those are very visual mechanics.  The mental aspect is not always as easy to spot, however.

A combination of techniques (say, two or three moves in sequence) is just a physical attack.  But add to that a strong force of will, a determination to impose that will on the opponent and take over their space, that's a...spiritual attack, if you will.  Not in religious terms but in the intention to disrupt or overpower the other's state of readiness or confidence.

Once aware of this second plane of attack, an observer can see when the intention of one person - the kime - has affected the other, whether on the attack or the counter-attack.  Sometimes the kime has more effect than the physical attack, especially if the other person wasn't ready or prepared in that moment.

And that brings me to why I thought about this post in the first place.  Sometimes, when two people engage in an exchange of techniques, the person who "lost" the exchange will often drop their intention, their mental guard.  It's an admission of defeat.  When that's done against a black belt, I often see the black belt (myself included) use that dropped guard as an invitation to attack yet again.  It's one thing to acknowledge defeat, but why yield to it?  That person just got defeated in the one exchange and then their reaction to that defeat then caused them to be hit yet again.

Going back to the idea of kime, think of making a mistake when you play taiko.  Think about the mistakes you've made or the kinds you're more prone to making.  How do you react?  When you mess up a solo, do you stop or freeze with your hands in some position, as your brain tries to re-orient itself?  When you play the wrong pattern, do you make a big deal of it with your facial expressions or body language?  Do you  yield to defeat?

I'm not perfect at it, but I've learned when I'm sparring and have "lost" (or even when I "win") an exchange, to stay ready, to stay focused, to even be looking for them to drop their mental or physical guards.  It's taken practice, but more than that, it takes intention.  Any one of you can have that intention, that kime when you make a mistake.  Just don't let the mistake become TWO mistakes because your reaction to it causes more attention than the mistake itself!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

To impress or to inspire?

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PJ Hirabayashi said, "Don't play to impress, play to inspire."  While a good piece of advice, it can be difficult to define what makes them different from each other.  

Trying to impress the audience is a very short-term goal.  I can and have been impressed with different things, in taiko and karate and other arts I've never studied.  But that feeling sometimes goes away by the time I'm in the car for the drive home.  There might have been a few cool moments, but they don't necessarily stick.  Being inspired, on the other hand, can last days, weeks, even years.  It might come from a small thing that's not meant to stand out, but resonates with you for a long time.

A lot of it comes from the person's intention in how they both approach and play the drums.  If the intent is to impress, to make people go "wow, that's cool!", then that's fine, but a very surface-level goal.  And often there's no telling if it worked or not, so there's no way to know if you succeeded or not.  It's easy to think "yeah, I was impressive", but that can easily lead down the road of self-delusion.  If, however, a person's intent is to represent themselves to the best of their ability, then success is decided by that person, not the audience.  And as with impressing, while there's no way to tell if it worked or not, it comes from a much more genuine place.

Another way I view the differences comes from my experience in taiko.  I've seen some people play the same solo in the same song for years.  I'm not going to be impressed after such familiarity; the "wow" factor is gone after so much exposure.  But I can still be inspired by it!  The way someone moves, or how they "sell it" to the audience, or the way the phrasing builds until the climax, whatever it might be, those are the kinds of things that can still inspire me to be better.

I won't go as far as to say wanting to impress people is a bad thing, or that I've never had that intention myself.  But it's a goal with limited pay-off, like giving a candy bar to a hungry audience.  It's enjoyed in the moment, but too many of them and the audience doesn't want any more and they're probably not feeling well.  Ok, maybe that last bit doesn't apply, but y'all get my point.

Impression can have impact, but inspiration can effect change.  Which would you rather impart to an audience?