Monday, October 31, 2016

Optimal range

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I've been thinking a lot about distancing lately.

Take any single long motion, whether it's a lunging punch or a single strike from a raised position on the drum.  Overall, it's traveling a long distance.

The end of a technique, is relatively weak.  It's where you are slowing down, your body mass is compensating for the coming end, and the extension/snap is almost finished.  It's a spent technique.  A technique just starting out is also pretty weak, because it hasn't started to really accelerate.  That leaves you with a range of 10%-90%.

Now look at all the components of the technique.  If we look at a naname strike, you have initiation with the body, torso/hara turning, arm dropping, and wrist snap.  Each of those (should) happen in turn, eventually all moving together.  If you didn't have a drum, you'd stop at an extended point.  But you wouldn't necessarily want to stop at that same point if you had a drum there, because that point is the end of the technique.

When all of those components are at maximum acceleration, until they start to decelerate, that's your optimal range.  This range is often dependent on the mechanic that goes last.  In something like karate, you might move the body very quickly, but until the elbow is lined up in front of the body, now linked to support the punch, you're not at optimal range.  Hitting before that point means one of the components involved isn't able to link to another part in order to use its acceleration (in this case, the arm with the torso/core).

In taiko, the wrist snap is generally the last step of a strike.  If it comes too early, then other parts of the body aren't able to add to the snap fully.  It's also a very quick motion that doesn't afford a lot of time to sync it with everything else.  I didn't say optimal was easy!

You can look at other types of striking, like on shime.  I see people that punch downward, with a strike that ends up at an angle from the hand, rather than following the line of the arm.  Like an "L" vs. a "\", if that makes sense.  This means something is moving too fast for the wrist snap or the snap is moving too slowly.  It also requires an adjustment to alignment, to place the strike where optimal range takes it.  If it was optimal, the angle would be the same in bachi, wrist, and arm.

It's somewhat easy to tell when you're on the "too soon" side of optimal, because it's like throwing your bachi tip towards the drum.  It feels unwieldy.  But because we tend to focus on the arm during a strike, and it feels "good" to have full extension, it's harder to realize when we're on the "too late" side.

Think that's a lot to think about?  You're right.  Wait until you add the complexity of a second bachi, or multiple drums, or playing something mobile like katsugi okedo!  But don't despair, don't overthink.  This is just a tool that you can work with to improve your technique.

It's more efficient and I would argue easier on the body to utilize optimal range when striking something, whether an imaginary opponent or a stationary drum.  As taiko players, we tend not to think about this much because if you make a loud sound, you're doing a good job!  But can you do a better job?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

30 years from now, what's important?

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Imagine it's 2046.  Taiko has probably changed in the last 30 years...

Now in the past, I and other people have asked the question, "what will taiko be like in xx years?"

But let's change the question up.  Assuming some or many things change in taiko in the next three decades, what's important to you that stays the same?  Maybe nothing?  Maybe a lot of things?

Perhaps there's something very specific that matters to you, like the explicit way a thing is done now, or something more general that has room for interpretation.  I'm trying to be careful in how I describe things, because I don't want to give examples - I'm more interested in people coming to their own conclusions on this one!

So if you'd like, comment here or in the FB group when I cross-post the question.  I'm curious what people will say!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Don't look at the problem for the solution.

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In teaching karate, we often find that newer students especially put all their focus into what they can see.  This means most of the attention goes into the arms and hands.

Things happen like people leaning forward in an attempt to reach the target, squeezing the fist harder in an attempt to punch 'harder", scooping a kick up instead of snapping it because it feels like it's getting there faster, etc.

All three of the above examples aren't an issue of the foot or the hand.  They're from a misunderstanding of the fundamental behind the technique, and a high majority of the time, that fundamental comes from something they can't see when doing the technique.  I'm not talking about something in the organs, I'm talking about something they'd either need a mirror for or just have to look down while executing.  The former isn't always available, and the latter is very detrimental to almost any technique.

This translates to taiko pretty well, although there are differences.  It's often harder to watch ourselves play even in a mirror when arms are moving in broad swaths.  Whoosh!  Take odaiko, how much can you really see while you're playing on it?  On the flip side, if we're practicing a pattern that doesn't require a lot of movement, we can actually look down and watch our hands without affecting technique too much.

Getting back to my original point, often the things that need "fixing" aren't always in the obvious places.  Leaning forward to reach a target has nothing to do with the arms, it's about posture.  Squeezing the fist harder means the focus is on the hand instead of the connection to the entire body, where the power is generated from.  Scooping a kick because it feels like the fastest way to get to the target neglects the knee completely, which is integral to 98% of the kicks available.

As for taiko...  Inconsistent angles of striking?  Maybe your elbow isn't synced to your torso when you strike.  Bachi slapping against the head instead of striking cleanly?  Maybe you need to step away or raise your stance.  Arms and shoulders tired after a session?  Maybe you need to keep your feet and legs loose so the tension doesn't build up everywhere.  You get the idea.

Recording yourself and watching the video afterwards can be incredibly useful for this sort of analysis, but you should still look at other "parts" and not just the obvious.

There are two huge benefits to this sort of process, video or no.  One, you hone your critical eye which never stops being useful.  Two, you might find something else that deserves further study as you look for answers to the original issue.  As I've written before, analysis is probably the best path to progress.  But when it's hard to figure out what's giving you difficulties, it can really help to step back and look in a less-obvious direction!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

NA Taiko focus on musicality

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After seeing many conferences, gatherings, videos, Facebook posts, workshops, and classes online, it seems that the trend in North American taiko lately seems to be working on the musicality of the art.

Is that bad?  Not at all, just an observation.  It does seem to be a Western-oriented direction, though, more about playing multiple drums and complex patterns, increasing speed of playing and understanding theory.

In the past there were slight surges of interest towards areas like narimono (hand percussion) and Japanese music/songs, areas that still garner interest but don't have the same "buzz" that they used to.  There was definitely a surge in interest towards the song Matsuri with the whole "Matsuri Crashers" movement, one that's still popular.

I'm curious if or when there will be a swing in a different direction, such as towards movement, or something like stagecraft/emoting?  Or maybe it'll be something that bursts onto the scene that we don't have yet, like some form of technology that can be incorporated into a performance?  Maybe it'll be towards something that's already there, when someone re-invents a style or comes up with something novel about something fairly "mundane" in the taiko world.

Mind you, you might not feel like there's a movement towards musicality, based on your experiences.  That's valid.  I could be wrong!  But when I see videos being posted by taiko players, see the workshops being offered, see the interest from people at the group and NATC level, this is the trend that I see.  Again, it's not a bad thing at all.  Observing without judgement is a very good skill to cultivate.

Is there a taiko trend you'd like to see?  Something that you'd like to see more classes on, more workshops in?  Or are you just happy that there's so much out there already, and more is better?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Soloing for the song, part 2

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So in this post here I talked about the idea of "sitting in the song" or matching the feel when you solo.

I find that at a certain level, musicians who "get it", get it.  It's definitely an advanced concept, coming from years of experience or an understanding of musicality, or both.  It's one thing to listen to a piece and know what you want to play that compliments or matches the song, but then to be able to actually play it, in the moment, with all the other factors to consider, that's not easy.

How do you get to that point?  Well first is to understand that there are differences in each song, each situation, each ji, that have different characteristics.  You don't even have to know what you'd play differently at this point, just have this awareness.  How does a straight beat sound, feel different from a swung triplet, or dongo?  How does a matsuri song sound, feel different from a complicated piece in an odd meter?  How does it feel to solo when everyone around you is playing a ji for you versus you playing by yourself in an empty room?  Recognizing and identifying those differences is step one.

Think of all the different music genres.  You might have a Hip-Hop bass line that would fit in time over a Country track because they're the same tempo, but will it sound "good"?  (Don't get me wrong, it might work, but you can't just put it in there and expect it to work, you have to really consider the effect.)  If we stick with taiko, look at a song like Miyake.  The solo is to a dongo, but the stance and style of the song shape (limit) what the solo is going to sound like.  Transplanting a line from something more festive, even in a dongo, may not be a very good fit.

Step two is to have self-awareness about what you're playing.  How similar do your solos sound to each other, once you look at them outside of a song?  In other words, if you think of your solos as audio recordings and then isolate the track that has only your notes, do they all start sounding the same?  If that's the case, you might be imposing your will on the song, instead of sitting in it.

Let's look at the example of having everyone playing a ji versus being by yourself.  With everyone playing, you can get away with just a few notes and it "works" because there's something under you, supporting you.  But when you're completely by yourself and only playing a few notes, it can easily sound empty, disjointed, uneasy - even if it's the exact same solo.  A solo without a ji is quite a difficult thing to pull off.  Most people will have at least something to solo along to, but you can use this concept to influence what you decide to do.  Eitetsu Hayashi gave us a workshop on odaiko solos and said something very interesting.  He said that when he's by himself on the drum and no one is playing ji for him, he will play his own ji and solo on top of that with accents and flourishes and what not.  That gives the audience cohesion and lets them come on the ride with you, a ride that you control.

Just imagine how complicated this gets when you're not the only person improvising!  That's a huge step up from soloing.  When do you take the lead?  When do you give it up?  When do you add a little something-something?  Are you playing at the same tempo as them?  Are you matching their mood as well as the song?  Are you still in the tempo of the song?  Are you sitting in the song or are you just playing whatever?  Not easy, but so rewarding when it works, trust me.

Like most skills, the biggest part of this one is awareness.  It's an awareness that you have to be vigilant about, lest habits take over and you're playing what you normally would play, without considering the situation or song.  It's not something to only worry about at the higher levels, because practicing it early on can only make you stronger the longer you're able to do it.  So start sitting!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Listen. Try.

I was considering making this speech to students at the dojo, but I probably won't as it's a bit long.  Still, it makes for a good post!

As a teacher, I only ask for two things:

- Please listen.
- Please try.

That's it!  If a student can do both of those things for me, I will teach them to the best of my abilities.  But it's not always easy for them.  I'll even admit that when I'm a student, it's not always easy for me to do it myself!

To truly listen?  That means not waiting your turn to speak, that means not thinking about the next thing on the list, that means not making a joke with your friend, that means not looking at how other people are taking in the information.  That means not just hearing the words in your ears but also letting them process in your head.  If you already assume you know the information - even if you really do "know" it - then you're not listening, you're "aurally skimming".  Listening really takes an open mind.

To truly try?  That means sometimes not doing what you're used to doing, or not doing what is comfortable for you.  It also means doing what you've been actually asked to do, rather than what you think you heard or wanted to hear.  Trying means challenging yourself and not waiting for someone else to push you.  Trying doesn't always mean you have to sweat, but it means not being afraid to.  Speaking of fear, you can't try if you're afraid of failing.

The next class you have, try listening more intently and trying more earnestly.  If it's really hard, what does that tell you about how you've been practicing?  If you can only do it for a little while then revert to form, can you see how that might parallel your growth?  And you have to be honest with yourself, you can't hear one instruction, think you're doing a good job, then assume you're doing the same with the rest of the instructions.  It takes some intentional effort!

Sometimes, the simplest instructions are the hardest ones to follow, but yield some amazing results.

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Monday, October 10, 2016

Soloing for the song (feat. Ringo Starr...kind of) part 1

There's a tribute video to Ringo Starr, featuring several iconic Western drummers.  It's not a new video, but I just saw it recently.  You can watch it here.

Two things stood out to me in this video:

At 0:41, Questlove mentions how the most timeless drummers are the ones that are the most simple.  That's followed at 0:45 by Dave Grohl asking how to define the world's best drummer.  Is it technical proficiency, or is it someone who "sits in the song with their own feel?"

At 2:24, Dave plays a super-simple downbeat pulse and remarks how skilled a drummer is if a beat that simple can make people dance.

In taiko, solos often seem about playing the most notes, about one-up-ing the person who came before, about a new "trick", etc.  There's also a lot of focus (from instructors, from students) on proper technique, which is never a bad thing.

But none of those take into account the song itself.

Taiko is also a visual art form for the most part, but what if you were playing for an audio recording, or people who couldn't see you on stage?  Even if they can see you, are you "sitting in the song"? How are the skills you develop during practice and in performance helping you for a situation like that?

Oh, I know it can be difficult to add that to the other litany of things to worry about - your form, ki, sequence, tempo, volume, endurance, etc.  This is definitely something easier to consider for people that have been playing for a while.  But if you're not at least thinking about it early on, it's not like it's just something that magically comes to you one night as you sleep!

So ok, but what does it mean to "sit in the song?"  How do you play simply and still have an interesting solo?

That's a blog post for another time...

Thursday, October 6, 2016


1.)          __________ are better at taiko than __________.

2.)          _____  _____ can't be as good at taiko as _____  _____.

What did you put in those blanks?  I'm betting you put something in them.

It's only natural to put something in there, one group over another, but I'd hope that everyone who reads this post quickly dismissed whatever your brain put in there.  It's only natural to put something in there, but it's what we do next that defines us.

However, I know from experience that some people will fill in those blanks and believe it, even defend it.  That one group of people will never be as good as another group.  That Japanese players are better than non-Japanese players, that women can't be as good as men, etc.  This is something I've tackled multiple times on my blog and in conversations.

Can you prefer an aesthetic?  Yes.  Is that aesthetic better?  Subjective.  Not better for everyone, not better in all cases.  I can respect someone's opinion, but that's what it ultimately is, opinion.

Another danger of this mindset can come about in how you teach.  If you intrinsically believe people A are superior to people B, and you have to teach groups of both, how can you be sure your lowered expectations of people B aren't affecting what you say and do with them?  That you're not giving subtle (or not so subtle) clues to them when you interact?  Are you in fact part of the cause for the opinion you hold?

Put yourself in their shoes.  What if you knew your teacher automatically thought less about whatever group of people they included you in?  What if you could see and hear the differences in how they treated you versus a group of people they assumed were better than you?

Finally, how does it influence how others perceive you?  As you can tell, I don't think much for this kind of biased thinking.  It sets up unnecessary barriers and hampers interactions both ways.  Stating your opinion as fact on this can get people to respect you less, consider your opinions on other things as flawed, etc. 

I would normally say here that it's ok to have this sort of opinion if you know it's just your opinion, but I actually would like people to question it if is indeed their opinion.  There's so much taiko out there, there's so many new things popping up and old things being refined all over the world.  Why not keep an open mind and hope to be pleasantly surprised?

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Monday, October 3, 2016

A few seconds can last a lifetime.

I'm of the rather pale persuasion.  Since taiko has me playing outdoors a good deal, I use a lot of sunscreen.  Unfortunately, once a sweat forms, sunscreen often decides to play havoc with my eyes.

When that happens in the middle of a performance, I have to keep reminding myself that there could be someone taking a photo or video at exactly that moment.  Doesn't mean it's not extremely uncomfortable, even painful at times, but with my luck, the time I decide to wince or rub my eye is the worst possible time.

Now maybe you don't have to deal with sunscreen in your eyes, but what else might come up for you?  That itch you just have to scratch?  Shifting your stance into a more comfortable position while everyone else around you is still?  Looking around?  What about something harder, like not looking tired?  It's not easy to be "on" 100% during a performance, but it's such a bummer to see a picture in the local paper or online with your face haggard or your jaw slackened.

On the surface, this is just talking about making you look good - and helping your group look good, too.  But it's also about discipline and focus, about awareness of your habits and appearance on stage, things to work on to increase your presence and projection.

It might feel like extra pressure when you start thinking of maintaining a strong facade the entire time you're playing, but like most skills, when you start doing it more and more, you have to monitor it less and less.  Doesn't mean sunscreen's going to sting any less on the eyeballs, though...