Monday, August 14, 2017

(post) NATC 2017

So it's the day after conference, but I'm writing this far in advance because I *know* I'll be in no shape to write anything.  I probably had a lot of fun and embarrassed myself a couple of times doing wacky things.  Probably!

I'll see y'all on Thursday!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

(pre) NATC 2017

Woo!  Heading out this morning to San Diego for the long-awaited North American Taiko Conference.

I'm feeling calm about it, but looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones, challenging assumptions and learning different approaches.  I'm planning on not getting enough sleep and walking many many miles back and forth across campus, because that's the norm, haha.

If my blog has helped any of you, made you think twice about something you never thought much about before, or just been entertaining over the years, I'd love hearing it if you find me this weekend!  I'm guessing I've got about a month left for this thing before I put it to rest.

So enjoy yourself if you're going this weekend, and if not, I hope you can make the next one!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Wrapping Up: Fear vs. Failure

These two things are topics I came back to again and again in the course of my posts.

Which is worse?  Is the fear that prevents you from trying something worse than actually failing at it?  Is failing at something you've been practicing for a while worse than messing up because you're so worried about it?

To me, fear is far more crippling than failure is.  You can and will fail as you progress, screw up on the road to getting better.  But you can learn from failure!  It might very well suck at the time, but a year later the sting is gone and you've probably taken steps to make sure that failure never happens again.  But fear?

Fear will keep you from trying.  And not trying means not doing, which means you can't get better at something.  Fear will spiral around in your head and wind up convincing you that something with a small risk could end up with the worst humiliation ever.  Fear can actually affect your technique and make you more likely to fail!

You might make a failure a bigger deal than it is, but ultimately it's something that actually happened.  Fear is a product of the mind that can be expanded to ridiculous levels with no basis in reality.  You know why kids learn so quickly?  One reason is that they have no fear, no baggage about "what if..." and "but I might..."  They just do.  And if they mess up, they mess up.  It doesn't have the impact we as adults give it.  We can learn from that.

Would you rather be someone who only plays a limited amount of things because they're worried about looking like a failure in front of others?  Or someone who's open to trying new things, often messing up, but getting better with every attempt?  Which of the two types is going to wind up better off in the long run, with more experience to draw from, more practiced skills?

That's not to say that failure is minor.  While I recommend brushing off mistakes and errors during the performance, I strongly recommend taking them seriously after the show.  If you don't address the things that went wrong that were within your control, you're not going to get better and you're limiting the potential of the ensemble.  But failure is rarely literally failure in these situations.  Your bachi aren't going to explode into 50 pieces and blind someone.  You're not going to hit the drum so hard that it rolls into the audience and crushes someone.  You can't screw up a song so badly that the composer catches on fire!  Mostly likely, you get off tempo or play the wrong section.  That sucks, but is it really "failure"?

Failure can and will happen, but once it does, the song continues.  You move on.  Fear can and may happen, but it won't go away until you make it go away - either by forcing it out or doing the thing you were so worried about.  I would rather fail almost any day rather than fear the failing.

So what about you?  What do you fear in your art and how can you overcome it?  Where did you fail and how did you learn from it?  And has fear of something caused you to fail?

I'll end this post with a quote attributed to Bruce Lee.  "Don't fear failure. — Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.”

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Wrapping Up: Improvisation

Not sure exactly when I'm ending the blog, maybe end of September?  As I get close to the last post, I decided I wanted to talk a bit about the things I think about a lot in a series called "Wrapping Up".

What a better topic to start with than improvisation?

Improv is quite the art.  I've written about it at length, as you'll find if you've read my posts.  To be good at improv, you have to first be good at the thing you're improvising in.  For taiko, this means musicality and technique, but also often movement and energy/expression, as well.  Some people are better at it than others; most of us will need to practice it to get good with it, let alone comfortable with it.

Want to be good at improv?  Work on risk management just as much as your musical ability.  Improv means not playing what you've always played and sometimes not playing what's the most comfortable for you.  This means you might not play something great.  Which means you might not play something good.  Which means you might fail.  But that's a risk you have to take, in order to improve the skills that can make your improv better.  Eventually, your skills grow, your comfort increases, and the risk diminishes.  What's more, even when you do encounter a "fail" moment, you're better able to handle it and move on, IF you've been practicing!

Another thing that you'll need to be a good improviser is being able to adapt to the situation.  Maybe you don't want to overshadow/out-do someone, maybe you need to match a mood, maybe you need to kick the energy up three notches, whatever.  Or maybe you're not the only person improvising, so you need to balance what you're doing with other people.  Sometimes these observations are easy to take in, happening over an entire song or set, but other times you need to react within a few measures before reacting yet again.

And the last component is having a large repertoire to pull from, in terms of patterns and movements.  If you're totally comfortable improvising but only have five patterns you can play, that's pretty limiting.  If you can only improvise to a slow dongo, you're pretty limited to what songs that'll be useful in.  If you can only improvise using large movements, what about songs that don't call for them or when in smaller venues?  The more things you can pull from your "kit", the more pieces and situations you'll be able to fit into when you improvise.  Where do you get more patterns?  Listen to more music.  I can't (and won't) stress this enough!

Good improv takes mental acuity and active practice.  While a set/scriped solo delivered spot-on can be super-rewarding, for me it's never matched the feeling of being "in the zone" and having things come out of my hands and really really nailing it.  I hope it's something you already practice, but if not, it's never too late!

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Monday, July 31, 2017

Random truths

Over the years, I've written a lot, learned a lot, un-learned a lot, too.  Along the way I came across things that turned out to be truths, and some things that turned out to be "truths".  The former are rules that apply to all of us, any time.  The latter are things that are selective, only work in certain situations, etc.

Just wanted to share a few truths that helped me out over the years:

- Only you can make you better.  All the workshops, seminars, teachers, and playing time amounts to nothing if you aren't willing to be somewhat vulnerable, open-minded, and have a critical eye of yourself.

- Teaching is just as much an art as the art itself being taught.  The best players don't automatically make for the best teachers.  And some people can teach you a lot without being anywhere near as good as you are, if you're open to learning.

- Just because someone is good, doesn't mean they're right.  Don't let celebrity status determine who you follow.  Have your own thoughts, test out things for yourself before embracing them blindly.

- The person who struggled may be a better teacher than someone naturally gifted.  Someone really good at a skill without trying may not have felt the need to step back and break down the nuances of mechanics, while the person who struggled and tried really hard to improve might be aware of a wealth of details they had to learn to get better.

- More notes does not mean a better solo.  More notes means faster hands, but it doesn't mean musical hands, in-tempo hands, fitting-the-song hands, or varied hands.  Often, the best players are the ones who can say the most with the least amount of notes.

- If it's ensemble drumming, benefit the ensemble.  It doesn't help the song if you stand out drastically, even if you feel like you're having a blast.  Sometimes it helps to step up, sometimes it helps to cut back.

- Be authentic.  You can take movements from others, you can play songs to be like other groups, you can make decisions that make you like other organizations, but in the end, you need to know who you are and why you're doing what you're doing.

- Training in Japan is a solution, not the solution.  There are great opportunities and teachers in Japan, but don't neglect the vast resources you have access to without having to travel abroad, especially if you live in North America.

- The question "what is taiko?" is only as important as you want it to be.  This is a question that will never be fully answered.  While what matters is what taiko means to you, realize it might not mean the same thing to the next person.  Who's right?  No one.  Everyone.

- The more popular you want taiko to be, the more people will use it in ways you don't like.  Can't have it both ways.

- Playing harder doesn't mean playing better.  There's a point where you're just punishing the poor the drum as well as your own body.  Ask an expert of any physical art - you gotta relax to reach your full potential.

- Listen to your body.  If you're playing in a way/style that hurts, stop doing that.  Whether it's as easy as trying a different foot position or as difficult as leaving a group, it's your body.  You only get one and pain can last forever.

- Taiko is awesome.  Regardless of why you play, who you play with, or what you play on, realize you are creating art, not just consuming it.  We need that in our society.  You can inspire, motivate, surprise, and move people with a single hit on the drum.  Keep it up!

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

NATC is just around the corner...(again!)

I think I used that same title last NATC, ha.

In a few weeks a bunch of us taiko nuts will be down in ever-sunny San Diego, playing and sharing and watching and talking and overdosing on taiko.  Woo!

I always enjoy NATC, whether teaching or not, whether helping out behind the scenes or not (but at this point, it's never "not"!)

It's interesting that historically, 50% of the attendees are new to NATC.  This is their first conference and they tend to be the most excited, most starry-eyed, and most tired afterwards!

For the first time in a while, I'm going as a participant instead of a teacher or observer, and I'm looking forward to learning new things - or at least learning new ways to learn old things!  It's hard for me to have that experience, simply because of all the things I've done and all the time I've spent doing them.  It's one thing to learn a new style of playing, a new song, even a new instrument, but to put my ego aside and be open to re-learning how to strike, how to listen, how to think, that's something I hope I can be a good example of.

If you're going to conference, I hope you come - and leave - with these two things:

- Realize, what you have is what someone else wishes they could have, whether it be equipment, talent, opportunities, or even a personal attribute.  Appreciate.

- Also realize that the conference couldn't happen without so many people doing so many things behind the scenes, both before and during the weekend.  We have people willing to volunteer, to teach, to coordinate, to help where it's needed.  Gratitude.

I hope to see many of you there, and it's always a sincere pleasure to hear from those of you who have enjoyed my blog and benefited from it.  Play on!

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Oof. Tired.

I thought I would have time to post something between concerts, but I need to be nice to my brain and rest some more.  7 hours to Mendocino on Thursday, played a concert Friday night with minimal time to tech in, 7 hours back on Sat, and another concert with little time to tech in last night.  So...goodnight!  I'll be back on Thursday.  :)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Memorable quotes

I was thinking of all of the advice, stories, pearls of wisdom I've heard over my 23 years of taiko.  Unfortunately, with my wonderful memory, I've forgotten a lot.  Ah well.  A few lines, however, have stuck with me.  As part of me wrapping things up slowly here, I wanted to leave you with the few that come to mind readily and how I've interpreted/used them.  Apologies if I don't get the wording quite right!  And in no particular order:

1.) "Play to inspire, not to impress."  (PJ Hirabayashi)

This was one of the first pieces of advice I can remember outside of ones directed solely at technique.  It wasn't even something directed at me specifically.  This is probably the one piece of advice given that I've thought the most about.

Impressing people takes skill, yes.  You can't really impress people if you're not good at something.  The problem is, it's often very temporary, and often very conditional.  You might have an impressive move or routine, but if the person after you does something more dazzling, well, so much for your impressiveness.  And while someone might remember the time you did that really fast passage followed by a handstand, how much impact does it have the day after?  Would they even remember it?  Would others?  If people do remember it, to what end?  You might have people trying that move out, but aside from that, what does it do?  It has impact in the moment, but not so much afterwards.

Inspiring people doesn't necessarily take skill.  Sometimes it's the person not as good as the next who really puts it out there and inspires people, or overcoming a challenge/struggling that people identify with.  Inspiring can also be a long-term process, such as seeing someone climb "through the ranks" so to speak to play more songs, harder parts, etc.  Playing to inspire means not trying to have the loudest notes or the trickiest patterns or the loudest voice on stage, because it comes from within - the intention to do your best and to represent yourself, your group with authenticity.  It may not feel as exciting, but it's the kind of thing that can have lasting impact on those not just watching, but also those around you.

2.) "If all taiko groups looked the same, taiko would be a very boring art form."  (Roy Hirabayashi)

This seems like a pretty obvious statement on the surface, but when you think about it, how many songs are played by the same groups in NA alone?  Miyake, Omiyage, Yatai-Bayashi, variations of Yodan Uchi, etc.  This isn't a critique of those songs or any groups playing them, just a comment that in some ways, NA taiko (and in other places) is still relatively new as an art form.

There's a lot of "same-ness" in NA taiko, a lot of groups doing similar things with similar songs.  So does that mean taiko is a boring art form?  Hell no.  But what does it say about the art form in North America?  It's not easy to compose an entire show full of new works that are as exciting or as fun as the stuff already available, sure.  But if we rely on open-source pieces, play the same things as other groups play, wear similar clothing, etc., how does the art form evolve?

Or maybe the question is, does it need to?

3.) "Your performance might be a person's first time they see taiko, or a person's last time they see taiko."  (Kenny Endo)

This one is a classic that I think most people have heard - or many people, at least.  It's a really good reminder to never dismiss a performance you're in no matter how disorganized the setup is, how small the audience is, even what mood you're in at the time.

Imagine being on the other side, watching a group perform something you've never seen before, that you might find so much joy in...except the person playing a thing right now seems really disinterested.  Eh, so much for that, maybe you'll go do something else.  And later, when someone asks how that art form was, you might not have a great view of it.  There's a ripple effect that benefits no one.  As much as you love taiko, you'd hate it if someone came away with that viewpoint, right?  Pushing that extra inch, that extra drop of sweat, sometimes can be a huge difference.

4.) "It's all in one, man."  (Russell Baba)

This is a great piece of advice.  Having trouble with meter or worried about when to come in because the count is tricky?  Sometimes you just have to teach yourself how to feel it, rather than think it.

When I was in my percussion ensemble in college, I got sheet music that I simply could not follow along with.  My sight-reading skills were terrible.  So I re-created it in notation software and listened the crap out of it.  "This passage, then there's 3 sections of crazy, so then I know the goose horn hits five seconds later, and then bam I play here."  That was WAY easier than trying to keep up with 14 time signatures happening within a 30-second period, times 100.  Yeesh.

It can even be just knowing where the downbeat is in a solo, knowing where the accents are inherently.  It's about getting the tempo in your body instead of having to actively listen for it, which adds to the number of things your brain is trying to juggle at that time.  It really is like juggling, because instead of looking at each of the objects in the air (which gets impossible after only a few), you instead should be working with the flow and shapes of how things rise and fall.  It's one big picture...

Feeling the pulse of a song, in your head, in your body, that's a skill that more taiko players could stand to learn.  And it's not something best practiced in the studio/dojo, that's something you can learn just by listening to more music, different music, music that challenges your ear and makes your foot tap out a beat.  It's all about feeling a groove - any groove, all grooves - that a song provides and moving with the beat, not having to count on top of it.  An easy skill?  Not often.  But damn there are few skills quite as valuable.


There are so many good artists out there, not just in taiko but all over.  And there are so many good quotes that can really change how you think about your art, if you take a few and really think about them.  And that's what I'd like you to do, to think about something you heard a while back that stuck with you.  What's there below the words, below the surface?  Where can it take you?

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Monday, July 17, 2017

What really matters

As I start winding down my blog, I'm trying to think of what posts I want to end with, what points to make.  And in doing that, I was thinking about what really matters.

That, dear reader, is entirely up to you.  No one can tell you what matters to you but you.  I and others might be able to shed light on things you hadn't considered, but it won't make you suddenly care about them.  Only you decide what your motivations and interests are.

It's important that your group(s), if you're in one, are able to give you the things that matter to you.  Maybe it's camaraderie, maybe it's stage time, maybe it's the ability to express yourself, whatever.  But more importantly, you need to know what matters to you.  And the best way to know is to ask yourself what your priorities are, what would hurt if taken away from you?  Those are the things that matter.

I've posted about everything from overcoming fear, to stage presence, to balance - but maybe those things don't really matter to you.  I hope I did touch on the things that did, somewhere in my blog, and I hope I made you think about them in greater detail.  If I'm really lucky, I helped you find even more things along the way.

And so I'll end this post with something to consider.  There are things that matter to you greatly that may not matter to others, to people with just as much experience and/or passion as you.  Never fault someone for those differences and try to avoid judgment, lest they do the same to you.  We may not all get along, but if you think of kumidaiko, of ensemble drumming - as drumming with the community, not just your group - then you might start thinking of how to play together in a broader sense.  And that would be something, wouldn't it?

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Compositions for outdoors vs. indoors

So over the Obon weekend, I got to enjoy a lot of collegiate taiko, as well as play taiko myself.  One thought I had this weekend was how some songs are suited better to an indoor environment than outdoors.

Sounds die off a lot quicker when you're outside, and there's competition from environmental sounds (wind, conversations, traffic, etc.)  Complex patterns often get lost, while quieter passages sometimes can't even be heard!  It's a shame when I can see notes being played that I can't hear.

It can also be hard when there's not a strong, identifiable ji or underlying pattern that supports the rest of the song.  It can be simple, like dongo, or something with more flavor, but when there are interlocking/competing patterns without one of them being the clear base, I find some songs become harder to follow outside.  These same songs indoors might be easier to hear with tones decaying slower or timber more easy to differentiate.

This doesn't mean a song has to be boring so that parts can stand out, not by a longshot!  It comes down to volume and execution, usually.   But having a group of people playing different patterns on multiple drums while one person in back plays a polyrhythm on a shime can be hard enough to be clear indoors, let alone when that shime is really hard to hear outside!

Sometimes it helps just having more bodies - more hands, if you will.  But unless those hands can play together really well, more hands can easily mean more audio "clutter" which doesn't help.

Another possible solution might be to modify a song for outdoor use.  Simplifying patterns, switching out one section for another, etc.  No need to scrap a really good song because 5% would be hard to hear!

My point here is to consider how different environments can affect how a song is received.  When we play the instruments, we hear them louder than anyone else.  When we rehearse, many of us hear them indoors, and for others we hear them relatively close to us.  Putting yourself in a potential audience's shoes can be really enlightening, even leading you to compose songs specifically for an outdoor stage, perhaps?

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Sorry, another postponement.

Hi readers!

Well it's the day after San Jose Obon and I am probably dead.  Since I'm writing this before it all happens, I can only assume, but I'm usually dead after.  Coming off a trip to Maui and a cold and work emergencies, I don't have time to blog for today's post, but I'm sure Obon will give me plenty to think about.  See you Thursday!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Maui Taiko's 20th Anniversary!

Maui Taiko's 20th Anniversary concert was a blast!  It was really awesome to play with them on stage, and an honor to have them invite us to be at their first concert!

We had a rehearsal of some sort each day we were there but the last, and they were very sweaty rehearsals, heh.  But the show went off really well, with a crowd of about 700!

One thing from this performance was how much I take for granted with concerts and stage shows.  For people new to that kind of show, there are factors like makeup, lighting, spikes, etc., that has been the norm for us for so long.  It's fun to see people excited and a little nervous over those kind of details.

The show itself was a pretty ambitious one.  It was their 20th Anniversary (involving 4 classes/tiers), but they also invited us, Marco Lienhard, two local minyo (Japanese folk dance) groups, and a group from Japan, Uneme Taiko, that they connected with many years ago.  That's a lot to coordinate and it was impressive how it all came together.  Oh, and Maui had an Obon to play at the night before the show, which is crazy but it sure didn't stop them from putting it out there for the concert!

Having members of the group with family there made it all the more special, with food and accommodations and parties (and after-parties, and after-after-parties...)  As much as I'm the last person to enjoy sun, I'm looking forward to another trip back out there.  We ate lychee nuts right from the tree, picked pineapples from the bush to be eaten minutes later, were well-fed by a lot of generour friends, and if it wasn't for my metabolism, I'd be 10lbs. heavier right now!

During our free time, there was food, shopping, food, beaches with turtles, food, beaches without turtles, food, a Lavender farm, food, and a farm where we picked lychee fruit and pineapples from (which is food).  If it wasn't for my metabolism, I would be a lot larger right now...

And while I did avoid getting burned, I did come away with a cold that I have to shake before Obon weekend hits, because it's going to happen whether or not I'm feeling well!  Hope to see some of you there!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Just a busy little taiko player...

Going to keep this short...

So two weekends ago was Swingposium, right in the midst of a HUGE project for me at work.  And by the time you read this post, I'll have flown out to Maui for Maui's 20th Anniversary concert where they've asked SJT to perform as guest artists.  Can't wait!

Then this weekend is SJ Obon, which is always crazy busy/fun.  And the weekend after that is NATC, yee-haw!  But that means right now?  Too much going on to give decent time to a blogpost.  So enjoy your (holiday) weekend, depending where you live, and I'll see you again on Thursday!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Failure defines you best

Scary title?  Nah.  I just think of it this way.  Success doesn't define you, but failure does.

When you're doing well, you can shine, you can grow, you can achieve.  But when you fail, how you handle that failure shows the world (and you) who you truly are.

Maybe things come easily for you, maybe you're really talented.  That's great!  But when something challenges you and makes you struggle to learn or understand it, do you dig your heels in and try harder?  Do you try to find a way?  Or do you give up and/or make excuses?

Maybe you have access to a lot of great, quality equipment.  That's great!  But what happens when you don't?  What happens when you have to use drums that don't sound as good as what you're used to, don't fit the angles that feel best for you.  Do you take it as a challenge?  Do you enjoy the experience?  Or do you complain and make the performance less enjoyable?

Maybe you've been teaching for a while and have some really good things to teach.  That's great!  But what happens when a student doesn't get it right away?  What happens when a student asks questions that challenge what you've been teaching?  Do you engage, dialogue?  Do you maintain composure and put time aside after the class?  Or do you get frustrated and neglect the other students?  Or do you keep repeating your point of view without addressing the question?

Heck, maybe you even just flat-out fail in a solo somewhere.  Then what?  Most of us would jump back in and finish, but afterwards, after the show, are you angry?  Do you let that anger seep out into your words and actions with others?  Do you laugh it off?  Do you laugh it off to the point where you don't learn from it?  What do you do?

How you react to failure, to difficulties, really speaks to your character.  We're none of us perfect and there will always be times when we just get upset, when we lose our composure.  But there are defaults, there are patterns, and that speaks to your personality.

So who are you when you fail?

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Monday, June 26, 2017

Day off!

Taking a post off, since it's getting crazy-busy with this Swingposium collaboration and almost non-stop weekend taiko.  Swingposium, workshops for the public, Maui Taiko's 20th anniversary concert, San Jose Obon, NATC, several local festivals, one not-so-local festival, and a concert!

And then it's September.  Ouch.

So yeah, given all that and the news that I'm not going to be blogging for too much longer, I feel I can take a post off.  Go practice something in the meantime!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Winding down...

This blog has been active for a long time now.  Getting close to 9 years!

But all good things must come to an end, even if it's not entirely by choice.  I'm also finding that I'm starting to repeat myself on some topics, so maybe it's a good time to wind things down, take a retrospective at what I've written, and end strong.

I'm not ending with this post, oh no.  But the end  is on the horizon, wherever that horizon might wind up being.

If you've been reading, if you have questions or topics you'd like to see me address/rant on, now's the time to tell me.  I've taken more than a few suggestions over the years, and it's fun to see where an idea leads.  Maybe yours?

I don't think there will be a lot that's different for a while, just my usual rambling and pontificating about things that come to mind that I think might help others.  But stick with me for a little while longer, and I'll try to make it an enjoyable finish!

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Monday, June 19, 2017

Question Everything: What questions matter to you?

The questions you ask determine the answers you get.

I question everything.  It's not always endearing, but it's what I do.  And when I post under the "Question Everything" tag, I tend to pose questions and not try to give answers.  It's more than just because I know I don't have all the answers and want to remain mostly neutral.  It's because sometimes, the answers are less important than the questions are.  Sometimes, the exercise of thinking through the question leads to new ideas, new possibilities.  But even more important than that?  Knowing the right questions to ask.

Let's say you're watching someone play taiko and taking a look at their skills.  Do you ask "how could I make them better?"  "Am I better than them?"  "What can I learn from watching them?"  Maybe you ask multiple questions, which is good!  But think of the questions in this case, not the answers.

If you can look back at the questions raised your head, what do they say about your thoughts and motivations?  What kind of answers do they lead you to?  I'm not asking what answers you actually get, I'm asking what categories of answers open up depending on the questions asked.

So let's take the previous example above, watching someone play taiko.  If you're asking questions about how to improve their skills, how to make them "better" (whether or not you have the opportunity to do so), then your answers are going to be more specific, more focused.  But are they slanted towards a sense that you can improve on what you see?  Or that you want to show off how much better you think you are?  Which category do the questions you ask fall into?

Do you compare yourself to them?  Do you ask if you're better than them?  Are you trying to find reasons to put your own skills down?  Or maybe trying to find ways to make yourself feel better?

Are you trying to figure out what you can learn from someone when you watch them?  Are you focusing in one area that you think is the most important, possibly missing out on other, maybe even more interesting areas?  Are you looking for something you think you might see, rather than observe what you actually see?

I could go on and on, but you get the point.  Your mindset will tend to determine the questions you ask, and therefore, the kind of answers you'll receive.  So here's a scenario: someone who can't play fast patterns might watch someone who is really good at it.  This person figures that by watching the player's hands, they'll have a chance to figure out better technique.  And so they focus intently, until they see something that seems useful in the hands.  But what if the fast hands come from being relaxed, which comes from using the body more efficiently, from the core muscles to the lower body?  The answers lie there, not where the person is focusing on.  By thinking they can find the answers in a specific area, the questions are limited and provide limited answers.

There are a lot of ways this can go, and as humans we all have biases and blinders to deal with.  I just want you to realize that a lot of the conclusions you reach are a product of the questions you allow yourself to ask.  What about the questions you haven't considered, that other people might ask?  What answers are you missing out on because of questions you haven't thought of?

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

But I'm not tense!

Tension is your enemy.  And it's insidious, in all the places you're not aware of, creeping in often as soon as you turn your attention elsewhere.  It's even worse when you know it's there but can't get rid of it!

A few weeks back in the dojo, talking with a student about sparring, I told him that he was way too tense.  His response was, "but my shoulders aren't high up!"  That response took me aback a bit because it was a almost a non-sequitur at the time.  How did that matter?  But it did make sense, in that I understood what he meant...even though he was completely missing the point.

When I'm teaching at the dojo or working with people newer to taiko (or just our style of taiko), I'm often telling students to relax.  Sometimes it's as easy as reminding them to breathe!   One of the most visible signs of tension is when the shoulders are up too high.  If you've ever had a massage, you'll know there are a lot of sore spots on the upper shoulders and lower neck!  That's where tension likes to creep in, especially those of us who work on a keyboard a lot.

And this is what that student was getting at, thinking because his shoulders weren't scrunched up high, he wasn't tense.  Thing is, you can be tense no matter what position you're in, no matter what's up or down.  You can drop your shoulders and tense up to a painful degree.  If you want to be technical, unless you're lying down flat (and maybe even asleep), you're probably holding tension. Are you standing?  Well you'd collapse if you didn't hold some tension, so...

People may not feel tense, but the human body is great at compensating.  When something hurts, other muscles take up the slack.  When I hurt my back, my core muscles did a lot of the workload and I was told the strength of those muscles was the reason why the pain wasn't as bad as it could have been.  Stress is uncomfortable to the body, so think of it as a form of pain - and so the body will naturally try to compensate, so that you don't have to feel it.  Problem is, sooner or later, you *will* feel it, in soreness or injury down the line.  If you're younger, you won't feel it maybe for some time, but trust me, if you're ignoring stress now, you'll pay for it later.

So when you can, when you're practicing, instead of thinking, "am I holding tension?" think instead, "where am I holding tension?"  Find it, at least some of it, and try to get rid of it.  Breathe, stretch, collapse, shake it out, whatever.  And you have to assume it's there, because if you're in any sort of stance, if you're moving your arms up and around, you have tension.  If you think you don't, unless your art involves you lying in a puddle on the floor, you're sorely mistaken.  And maybe just sore!

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Technique - the cause or the effect? (pt. 2)

I usually don't add to a blog post that I've just done, but after my last one, I've been thinking more about the idea of seeing the result of technique vs. the cause of it

When you watch someone do a really cool thing, it can inspire you to try that thing yourself.  "Wow, that jumping triple kick hitting all three targets was really cool!  I'm going to try it!  Huh, I apparently suck at it..."   Or maybe, "that guy played 5 different drums with overlapping strokes and really fast patterns, I can do that too!  Oh wow, I'm not hitting things well at all..."

That's human nature, after all.  We see, we love, we want to do.  And it's not to say you shouldn't be inspired!  But you shouldn't also be discouraged by failing to be able to do as well...if you understand what's going on here.

I saw Akira Katogi play a couple of songs at TaikoBaka a few years back.  Here's a clip of him playing.  His style may not be unique, I don't know, but it was the first I'd seen like this and it was really really fun to watch.  So of course, when I got back on a drum, I lightly tried what I had seen, and as expected, I was horrible, haha.  But I planned for that.  I just wanted to see if I could figure out some of the techniques used, and...nope!  Not from just watching it once.

It's very clear that he has a lot of practice doing this sort of playing, but on top of that, he has good fundamentals that feed into his style of playing.  It's complimentary.  And while I might have really good this or excellent that, I'm missing the practice and the modifications I would need to make in order to do what he's doing.  So I wasn't disappointed, but instead more impressed by how easy he makes it look.

And that, that's what I hope to accomplish through this (and the last post).  Realize that impressive moments often come about through hard work and long practice.  The un-sexy stuff, if you will.  And sometimes it's the boring stuff that is really the hardest to do!  Keeping your right and left hand sounding even no matter what drum/style you're playing, staying on tempo in a solo, knowing to play a little quieter so that you don't overshadow another part, etc.  Those take a talent most of us take for granted...

Now, don't ever feel you shouldn't want to do the impressive stuff you see others do.  But realize, those moments are just moments, passing points in time and that still require strong fundamentals to achieve.  And while it's possible to replicate a moment through practice, it may very well be a lot of work for a little gain.  Maybe if you're going to put in a lot of work on something, it should be something that brings everything up so that you don't have to work a lot later.  Make sense?

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Technique - the cause or the effect?

We often see the result of a technique and want to be able to do the very same thing.  Watching someone playing a pattern really fast can be impressive, and it's tempting to just try and replicate it.  Watching someone do an acrobatic, fancy kick can be impressive, and it's tempting to jump up and try it.

But it's likely, you'll wind up getting tense amd hitting a bunch of wrong/bad notes, or pulling a muscle and falling over...

In talking with a student in the dojo earlier this week, he was saying how he needs to "hit hard".  I asked him what he meant, and he said if he was hitting someone bigger, he would need to "hit harder".  I told him if his technique was good, he could hit hard enough; he would have the ability to choose how powerful to make his strikes.  A bit later he said how he thought my jab looked like a hook so he was trying to arc his as well.  I told him it shouldn't hook, it just goes in straight.  When I thought about what he meant, I realized he was probably talking about how the elbow joint bends after snapping the punch out, because after that moment of tension, I'm relaxing the arm and it naturally bends a bit (and there's the "hook" he's seeing).

The effect that you see that impresses you is a result of good fundamentals, or at the very least a lot of practiced motion.  Either way, that person who impressed you understands how to do the thing they're doing.  You're likely to only see the impressive part, the result, unless you can step back and look at what's going on under the surface.

For a lot of fast notes on multiple drums, a person needs to be relaxed, have flexible wrists, know how to link their hands to their hara, know how to utilize their hara, and still have the presence of mind to listen for when things don't sound right so they can adjust in subtle ways.  To do a jumping spinning kick that has the potential to cause damage, a person needs to have strong leg muscles, be able to coordinate which parts of the body from head to toe to use when, and also have the ability to activate and deactivate tension in the muscles needed at the right time.  All of these steps described come with thought, training, and practice.  But they're not "sexy".  They're not what people go WOW for.  They go WOW for the result.  We all do, in some things or others.  Being able to see past the initial WOW and notice all the components needed to make it happen is a skill, and comes from both you working on fundamentals over time as well as the ability to appreciate that work in others.

A couple of other analogies I've come up with:

If I give you something you've never thrown, like a hand-axe, and tell you to hit that target over there, you can focus on the target and hope you hit it, or try to be in a steady, solid position and align your arm as best you can, your grip as best you can.  The former focuses on the result and will most likely end with an axe clattering on the ground, while the other might end the same way but with information you can use to better the next throw.

If I tell you that "Sam died," but you don't know Sam, you may very well not care.  You have no reason to care.  The result has no impact.  But if I first tell you that Sam was this person in my life and did all these things for me and then died in tragic watermelon accident, you very well might be astounded, saddened, or feel something.  You need something to enable there to be an impact in the first place.

So think about or find something that makes you take notice, maybe something that gives you a WOW.  Then look deeper.  What are they doing that enables them to wow you?  What is their body doing?  What's consistent about their technique?

When you realize that infrastructure is the way to producing amazing results, it can seriously change how you look at technique overall!

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Monday, June 5, 2017

How much ma can you stand?

Ma is the Japanese word for a gap or space.  In taiko, ma is a concept that is really useful, but that many don't really embrace.  So here's my question to you:

Imagine you're playing a solo on a stationary drum.  Doesn't matter what type.  Play play play, and then stop playing, even though it's still your solo.

How long can you go before you need to return to the drum?  How long can you stay still/hold a pose, make a motion (or several), move around, whatever, before you feel like it's uncomfortable and you need to make some noise?

Be honest with yourself - I'm sure you can imagine yourself not playing for a while, but really, with people around you watching, the rest of the group behind you supporting, the energy all around you, can you really hold out for a long time?

Ask yourself, why are you uncomfortable without playing notes?  What is it that compels you to return?  Is that something you can work on?  Could work on?  If not, why not?  Couldn't you make use of it in your personal repertoire?

Mind you, there's a point in any song, in any solo, where you can have TOO much ma.  But most of us won't cross that threshold.

This isn't to say that people need to play less notes in their solos, and it's not a judgement of any sort.  I Just want you to self-examine and feel that uncomfortable-ness on purpose for once, and use that feeling to start some internal dialogue.  Because why not?  Questions can lead to answers and answers can lead to growth.

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

The issues around you.

This quote is attributed to Ian Maclaren, a Scottish author.

When I go to a conference, participate in an online discussion in the FB taiko community, or even just have long chats with taiko friends, sometimes I'm reminded that my taiko is not their taiko.  My struggles are not their struggles.  This doesn't only happen when I talk to people, it can happen just by thinking about it, but it tends to happen more when other people are involved.

Most of us live in our own taiko bubbles, like we live our life in a bubble of some sort.  No, not going to get political, but we tend to be with like-minded people, play with like-minded people, etc.  In taiko, it's easy to forget that your group is not like other groups, that other groups have issues that your group does not.

Your group might not have budget issues, membership issues, location issues, concerns with social justice, authenticity concerns, repertoire deficits, equipment woes, identity conflicts, growing pains, etc.  But some other groups do.  And while you might not have any way to help them out - or even know which groups are facing which issues - sometimes it's important to realize that these issues may shape how they view you or treat you.  It's not that you should walk on eggshells everywhere you go, but again, refer to the quote above.

Many conferences ago there were a couple of "Non-Japanese in taiko" discussion sessions, and I felt the people who benefited the most weren't those who had issues within their groups, but the Japanese-American players who were surprised to hear that there were any issues at all.  When I attended the "Women in taiko" discussion session last conference, there were issues that I was reminded of, that I don't necessarily have to think about for myself on a day-to-day basis.  I'm sure if I went to an LGBTQ discussion session, I'd be enlightened about issues I'm not aware of or have to address.

It comes down to being a compassionate, aware human being.  Not being wracked with guilt because you can't know everyone's personal trials, but just knowing that everyone has their own issues, issues that you may never have even considered.  Be kind.  Always.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Question Everything: Traditional taiko

I've been seeing more people talk about/offer classes in traditional taiko.  It's clear this is to differentiate it from contemporary taiko, but what exactly is "traditional taiko"?

I'm not going to give a history lesson of taiko here, but ensemble drumming is a relatively new art form.  It was something that came into being in the early 50's, which puts it around the same age as jazz.  So when I hear people talk about "traditional" taiko, it either means ensemble drumming (kumidaiko) in the earlier years, or taiko before it was made into ensemble form.

For the latter, there are some older forms of taiko that aren't so much done as an ensemble, styles like those that come from Miyake and Hachijo.  But when people say they're teaching those styles, they tend to use the names of those styles

So that means it's probably referring to the former.  But what makes taiko traditional?  Is it only using Japanese patterns and rhythms?  What are those?  One person's dongo is another person's swung triplet.  Is it not using non-Japanese instruments?  Most taiko groups I've seen, regardless of what they play, only use Japanese instruments - or if they incorporate others, do it in very few pieces.  Is it not using non-Japanese movements?  Good luck identifying that one.

Take the katsugi okedo and the popularity of "crossovers".  This idea came from the Korean style of drumming called Samul Nori, adopted by Kodo.  Is it now "traditional"?  It's been "around" in Japanese taiko for ~20 years now, tell me?  If it's not traditional to you, will it be so in another 20 years?  40?  Ever?  This is when the definition argument starts getting blurry.

Not that it's a huge movement, but is the increased sighting of more "traditional" taiko teaching makes me wonder if it's a resistance to more contemporary taiko?  But only in North America?  Or Japan as well?  Or is it more wanting to show people what taiko is without adding bells and whistles, sort of a matter of pride?

This is not a judgement post, because I always try to observe and question, then to pass those to my readers to (hopefully) stir more questions.  So if you use the term "traditional" taiko, what does that mean to you?  And if you hear someone else talk about "traditional" taiko, ask them what that term means to them!  See what you can learn.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Question Everything: Taiko exposure

Tanaka-sensei is attributed to have said he wanted taiko to be as well-known in America as sushi. There have definitely been more and more non-taiko performances where taiko shows up, taiko groups are asked to play, and taiko is given exposure.

But what kind of exposure do we want?  What are we comfortable with?  Is it too late to start worrying?

Take, for example, Metallica using taiko in one of their shows here.

Some people will see that and LOVE it.  Taiko in a rock concert, with a legendary group, with a crazy amount of exposure!  Others will lament at the group playing the drum poorly, and say it's not how people should play taiko.  Then there are others who may not be sure if they like it or not.

Look closer and see that there are sensor pads on the drum head most visible - played by James Hetfield - which produce different sounds when struck.  We may never know why they did this, maybe they couldn't amplify the drum enough or maybe they mostly wanted the visual?

So now you have taiko...sort of.  Does it bother you?  Encourage you?  Why?

As a community we need to realize that the cat's out of the bag.  We can say collectively that we should strive to inform and educate people about the historical use and traditions of taiko, as well as the blah blah blah can I buy a set already?  That's happened before and will continue to happen, so now what?

If you're bothered seeing taiko played by non-taiko players, you should first ask, what's a taiko player?  Does one lesson count?  Four?  Ten?  Taught by who?  Played on what?  When you see people playing on taiko in shows like this and think maybe they're not very good, have you seen a lot of different groups play taiko?  There are community groups and beginners that may be at that same level of ability.  Do we need to ask "what is taiko" again?

As always, I highly recommend reserving judgments and asking yourself questions like these when you come across taiko in unexpected settings.  It's not that you should or shouldn't like what you see, but you should ask yourself why or why not...

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Taiko memes

So...I started making taiko memes, and I don't know why I never thought of it until now.

This post is not going to be one of the deeper ones, that's for sure.  So here's a small sample of what I've been doing.  I'm posting these and more on my FB page, and they're all original creations, good or bad, haha.   Enjoy!

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Exaggerating something that you do can be a really good idea to explore.  Through this idea, you may find out where you can and should give more.

I don't know how many taiko players consider themselves "performers," but taiko is often a performance.  Staging, arranging drums, movements, playing together, projecting energy, expressing yourself/yourselves, all of that is part of performance.

And with performance comes the output: what the audience sees, hears, and feels.  I've learned through my own experiences that while I feel like I'm really enjoying myself, it may not translate through my expression.  Here I thought I was really projecting and what I see instead on the video is a light smile.  So I have to exaggerate these expressions, to push myself past what I'm comfortable doing, to make it look how I feel.  It takes diligence and is something I'm still working on.

Do you see yourself when you watch a video and feel the same way?  It can prove interesting to really push yourself and focus on making yourself explode with feeling, even when it feels comical.  Do it enough times, watch the results, and dial things back if you need to, but trying to up your expression by degrees is really, really difficult.  Sometimes you have to make a large leap!

And then there's exaggeration of physical attributes, like in a stance or making shapes with your arms.  For example, I'm tall.  Shocking, yes, I know.  For taiko, I'm almost too tall.  However, it's really easy for me to reach multiple drums without having to try, and I can stand really close to a naname drum and have an easy time playing.  But when I look at myself on video, again, it doesn't look very good.  I had to learn to exaggerate - which meant working harder, sure - to get lower, get further away, to make it look "right".

And when it comes to holding the arms up, pulling the arms back, making circles, etc., even when it means more effort (gasp), the effect is really diminished when things aren't extended fully, joints are bent, motions are short-cut, etc.  Having the intention to practice things in an exaggerated way (without hurting yourself or messing up the music) can lead to some impressive visuals, even if it feels to you like you're being a showboat or feeling silly.  You have to try it and see what it looks like!

But wait, as with most things, going too far the other way can be a bad thing, too.

When you exaggerate to the point where you lose the intention of movement (getting flail-y, over-hitting, etc.) or rely on exaggerated expression to the point where you can't tone it down, well that's not good either.  There's rarely good to be found on either extreme of any spectrum.  However, I feel like most people (including myself) would find benefit in using exaggeration - or at least exploring it - in practice and performance.

If you ever thought "my stance is low enough," or, "I'm probably smiling enough,", then those are places you probably should look into.  It doesn't mean you should play taiko as if YOU WERE USING ALL CAPS, but using exaggeration as a tool can lead to some really worthwhile improvements!

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Question Everything: What makes someone "good"?

We all want to be "good" at our art, right?  We'll watch someone perform and think, "wow, s/he's good," or "yeah, that group is pretty good."

Well, what does that mean?  And does defining it make it more or less valuable as a metric?

If a person is super-musical but not that great at movement, are they still "good"?  What about vice-versa?

What about if they blend in perfectly with the rest of the group, is that good?  Is it "better" when they stand out?  Or is that actually not a good thing?

If a person is an excellent teacher but not as skilled as their students or even able to do the things they're teaching, does that make them not as good, even if the information is really valuable?

If a person is a great performer but rude or mean to people around them, does that make them "less good" in your head?

Is it important to you that other people see you as "good", whatever that means?  Why or why not?

If you see someone who would otherwise be "good" in your eyes, for the first time and they're having a bad night, you may not realize that they are, in fact, "good".  How many times might this have happened for you - and how many times might have someone thought that about you?

How often have you been told someone was or wasn't good, and had that opinion affect what you hear/see with your own eyes later?

If you think a person is "good" when you're new to an art, but then 10 years later think otherwise, when were you "right"?

Again, what does it mean to be "good"?  And how much does that definition depend on who's asking, what mood that person is in, how much context and experience that person has?

So, are we good here?  ;)

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

How labels limit potential

Ever told another taiko player that "oh, I don't play odaiko," or "I don't play fue."?  In other words, when was the last time you defined yourself by what you don't feel comfortable playing?

Was it because you haven't had the opportunity to enjoy/play something, or because you really don't like the feeling of being unskilled on a different instrument?

It would be easy to judge someone who does that, but I can't say I've never done it myself.  This is a human trait, after all.  Take fue, I've never tried more than a short 15-20 minute session to make some noise.  I wasn't good at it, the idea of learning to play it didn't really appeal to me as much as other instruments did, and we have other people in the group that are happy to take it up.  So I admit I will say "oh, I don't play fue," and it end there.

But what does it do to your potential as an artist when you start defining yourself more and more in such solid, binary terms?  What are you losing out on?

There are a lot of taiko players in North America who are of mixed-race.  Half-Japanese, half-Filipino, half-White, half-whatever.  Some people might very well say they're one thing or the other, choosing whatever suits them.  Maybe it's because they feel strongly one way, maybe it makes them feel better, whatever.  But what happens when there's indecision, when there's confusion?  It will make a person think, make a person question.  And from questioning comes answers, even if not solutions.  But there's potential there - energy there - from which to draw from, energy that cannot exist when someone simply decides "I'm not that," or "I'm this."

I can use myself for the next example.  I'm White.  My ancestry is Scottish, Russian, Irish, and German.  Didn't start karate until my teens, and taiko near the end of my teenage years, so no Asian influences growing up.  Now, could I call myself Japanese-American? There's a Japan, there's an America, but there's no place called "Japanese-America".  This term is an artificial construct that society created to help define people.  Being Japanese-American is being part of a culture, having a certain mindset, and based on all the activities I do and some of the ideals I've adopted, I could argue that I fall under the definition.

Some of you are probably thinking of reasons why I'm wrong, some of you are probably trying to wrap your head around the concept, some of you might be confused.  But in that, in those arguments and conflicting thoughts, there is energy.  That's the kind of energy I referred to earlier, the kind that can lead to inspiration, exploration, creativity.  To simply define myself as one thing and say "well, that's what I am" closes the door.  A few doors here and there help me get through the day, but if all I do is close doors, how much am I shutting myself off from?  Am I simply just trying to protect myself from thinking?  From questioning?  From seeing where it takes me?

So maybe you're not going to suddenly decide to take up an instrument you've been avoiding, or engage someone in a philosophical discussion about culture appropriation, but if you can be aware of the doors that you've shut - or that you've kept open - you can at least have the choice of what to do with them in the future.  Without that awareness, all you have is hallways with nowhere to go.

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Monday, May 8, 2017

How students can affect your teaching.

I get to teach very different groups of people, in different situations.  Sometimes it's taiko to people who've never played taiko before.  Sometimes it's karate to people who have been doing karate for years.  The combinations change, but there tend to be two general types of groups I encounter.

There's the quiet group who doesn't ask questions, often even when prompted.  They tend to do what you tell them, but it's mostly a monologue from you to them.  Then there's the group that is likely to ask questions, especially when they hear information they don't agree with or when it contradicts what they've heard before.  There's dialogue, even when it's not in a path you planned going in.

Now there's nothing wrong with either group, but sometimes they can take a difficult turn.

For example, when the quiet group just blinks at you, when you're making jokes or trying to be engaging and getting nothing back, boy is that draining.  In taiko, even total beginners tend to smile, but in karate I've had groups without any expression at all.  It could be due to intimidation of my position as a black belt, but...I'm not a harsh teacher and I tend to use humor.  Also with a passive group, it's easy to feel like a really good teacher - because I'm telling them what to do and they're doing it.  That's good teaching, right?  Ehhh...not necessarily.  If I'm not teaching them something good, then it's just parroting, not learning.  And "monkey see, monkey do" is not a great way to impart wisdom.  I can easily get a false sense of ability without anyone asking questions, anyone challenging me to explain something better.

But on the flip side, a group that keeps asking questions can make you feel like they don't believe you, or that maybe you don't really know as much as you thought you did.  Even if they're being respectful and asking questions genuinely, it can easily disrupt a lesson plan if you had a schedule you wanted to get through.  And it's draining in a different way than the above group, because you have to be more flexible, more on your toes.  It's easy to come away from a group like this feeling like you're not a good teacher or even a skilled artist, or to feel like you're mean, clamping down on the discussions by limiting questions or cutting people off.

So what's best?  There's never a "best".  It depends on your personality, the level of the people you're teaching, the kind of questions being asked, the mood of the people listening to you, etc. etc.  But these groups can greatly affect both your teaching and how you think of yourself as a teacher.  It's not limited to groups, either - a single student can have the same effects on you.

Another thing to consider?  How do you affect teachers with how you are as a student?  Hmm...

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Thursday, May 4, 2017

But what do you really sound like?

Kumidaiko, or ensemble drumming, is a wonderful, powerful art form.  When you're playing in it, unless you're drastically off-tempo, it sounds great to play with other people in a group.

The problem with playing in a group, especially a larger group, is that you really don't get to hear what you sound like.  This is especially true when you're all playing the same pattern/melody, but still applies when you're not playing what others are playing, like when you're soloing.

We think we're playing together, but it's a very loose version of "together".  The noise that a taiko makes (the big, booming sound) has an attack, when struck, then a decay as the sound carries.  One drum alone can be pretty loud, and then if you add several more drums on top of that, the combined attack can often sound like one note, smoothed out by the accompanying decay (also combined).

Years ago, Yurika and I were trying to hit our respective shime with a single note at the same exact time.  The difficulty was that we were in a recording studio with equipment that isolated our sound and it was painfully clear how hard it was to be exact, even with multiple tries.  It was a surprise for me at least, because I never realized how much difference could exist between two "simultaneous" strikes.

The reason for this topic today is because I think playing by yourself - for practice purposes - will tell you where your strikes are weak, where your tempo is unsettled.  If you have 5 other people playing the same pattern next to you, you cannot really tell if your notes are consistently even, because your ears just aren't that adept at picking out sounds.  Play by yourself and it's much easier to identify.

If you really want to check your technique, record yourself playing a song or solo and listen to it afterwards.  Are you steady?  Are your notes even between right and left hand volume?  It very well might be, but until you do something like this, how do you know?  And if you don't do you know what you can get better at?

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Monday, May 1, 2017

When it's over

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No, I'm not leaving the blog, not leaving taiko, nothing bad happening, just thinking about what happens when people eventually do leave taiko.

When you stop playing taiko, what will you always wish you got to do/try?  Maybe you wished you wrote a song, maybe you wished you got to take a workshop with someone specific, maybe you wished you could play on stage in fundoshi...  But it's too late, once it's over.

Whatever those things are, is it really too late to do some of them now?  Sure, maybe you don't have the money to go to Japan for a month and train, that's different.  But can you sit down and write a song, maybe with someone's help?  Maybe it doesn't even need to be performed, if you've at least completed it.  Can you manage to go to a conference or workshop just once to take a lesson with that person you're really inspired by?  Can you set aside a little bit of time each week to work on a song or solo so that you're ready to play in the song you've always wanted to play?  Even if you're not playing it, is knowing you could play it something to take satisfaction in?

What are your goals and which of them are closer than you realize?  Why not tackle them, one at a time?  The alternative is regrets, and regrets are far less fun than achievements!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Empty your cup

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There's a story in Zen literature about a scholar who asks a master to teach him.  The scholar tells the master about all he knows, about his opinions on things.  The master, while listening and pouring tea for the scholar, keeps pouring until the scholar's cup was overflowing.  When the scholar remarked how the master was spilling tea everywhere, the master told him that like the cup, the scholar was full (of ideas).  The only way the scholar then could take any more information in was to empty the cup.

An empty cup is ready to receive.

One of our brown belts at the dojo was talking to one of the black belts the other night.  The brown belt has a head full of assumptions about karate and there is no more room in his cup.  I was able to observe what happens when tea is poured in a full cup from this interaction.

When the black belt asked the brown belt what a certain technique was supposed to be about, it took a good 20 seconds for the brown belt to give a straight-forward answer:

"It's a block."
"Ok, what is the block defending against?"
"Well, it's a scooping block."
"A scooping block against what?"
"An attack."
"What kind of attack?"
"Someone punching me."
"Ok, but what kind of punch?"

Once the type of attack was established, it was clear that the punch was unrealistic and never going to ever occur in real-life.  But instead of once acknowledging that this was new, useful information (which myself and almost every experienced martial artist I know has their mind blown with at least once), the brown belt moved quickly to a different aspect:

"So that punch is never, ever going to be used.  Most common punch thrown is a right hook."
"Right, so I was thinking I was blocking it."

Because there was no room to take in new information, the response was to essentially ignore it - without confronting it or dismissing it.  This was mental over-spill, happening in real-time.  And it went on for a couple of minutes, with each new idea, each lesson given having no real effect.  Any sort of conflicting information to what was already in his head created dissonance that made him look at something else or justify what he was doing already was an equal equivalent.  Which, unfortunately, it never was.  His assumptions were filling his head and had been for so long, that it became a habit to mentally zip and dodge information that was being made available.

So think about your own learning, your own understanding of things.  How much can you really take in when presented with new information?  I'm not even talking about information you disagree with, stylistic differences, and the like.  I'm talking about learning things that might help you move better, play faster, teach more efficiently, etc.  Information that had you been a beginner, you would have absorbed with enthusiasm.

Emptying the cup doesn't mean you forget the lessons you've learned, only that you don't assume that's all there is to know.  It means putting your ego aside for a little while (which is hard, really hard at times!) and having a beginner's mind with the material presented to you.  Eventually your cup will fill again, and you'll have to keep emptying it, but as difficult as this process might be, what's the alternative?  Never learning anything new, and never understanding new ideas and concepts that make things you do now even easier?  I think it's worth the effort, yes?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Teacher obligations

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I feel obligated to my students.  Maybe I'm teaching a song to the group, maybe I'm teaching basic skills to the public, maybe I'm teaching a new form to people at the dojo, whatever.

Their development is in my hands.  Doesn't mean I'm responsible for their success or failure single-handedly, but it does mean I have the power to affect it greatly.  If I focus on the wrong thing for too long or use the time inefficiently, I'm making it harder for them down the line.

The hardest part for me for teaching is sometimes remembering it's not about me.  It's not about how good I think I am as a teacher, or how skilled I am at the skill I'm teaching, it's about understanding what my student(s) need to get better in the time I have with them.

A good example of this would be if I was a teacher who taught best by talking, teaching students who don't learn best by listening.  Ideally, they would adapt and it would make them better students to learn in different ways, but that makes it about my style of teaching, makes it about ME.  If I'm going to say I'm a good teacher, then I need to figure out how my students will learn the fastest.  Maybe some learn best with humor.  Maybe some need to see me doing it alongside them.  Maybe some need to write things down.  Maybe some need to understand context.  Not all teachers can figure out this information quickly, but the good teachers try.

I can tell at the dojo when I'm explaining a concept that's not sinking in.  So I get someone who's just blinking at me and have them do a thing.  Maybe I make them attack, maybe defend, maybe lose their balance, whatever.  They may not know HOW I did that thing, but now they know that that thing has purpose.  I also have had many occasions in taiko when I'm trying to explain a complicated sequence or pattern, and there's smoke coming from people's heads.  It's not that they're not smart enough to understand my super-awesome ideas, it's that I'm not doing a good job of teaching it.  I need to regroup and come at it in a different way.

Remember (or imagine) yourself back in high school, having a teacher would would read from the textbook along with you.  And you spent hours - days - of your life looking down at the book or up on the overhead reading the material you could have (or already did) read on your own.  Maybe for some people, that was effective, but it drove me out of my freaking mind!  I speed-read and going that slowly was agony.  I learned LESS that way.  And there was no dialogue, just passive listening, so unless questions were encouraged, there was rarely any sense of understanding of more than a surface level.

But a teacher that wanted our class to be passionate about a subject?  They would ask US questions, they would challenge our assumptions.  They expected us to prepare and were disappointed when we did not.  They would go on tangents to relate a lesson to something in real-life.  Nothing was ever *just* talking, just listening, just being shown, just comedy, just multimedia, etc.

If it helps, put yourself in the student's shoes.  Maybe the teacher is doing a technique that you just can't understand.  If only they would explain how it fits in to the greater whole?  Or maybe the teacher is telling you every detail you need to know to do it right, while you're just hoping to try it for the first time so what they're saying makes sense.

When I teach a workshop to the public, after warm-ups, basic body position, and general striking notes, I then give them a drum to play on.  I learned that as soon as the drums are in front of a group of people, half of them aren't listening to the notes I'm about to give.  It's "shiny object" syndrome.  And so I give 30-40 seconds of "whee" time to let them play/hit/feel what it's like, THEN go about the rest of the lesson.  Getting upset over and over again that people weren't listening wasn't helping anyone get better; it was just making me frustrated.  So since my goal is to teach people, not to get frustrated, I figured out a solution!

The teachers that really want their students to improve are the ones that attack it from different angles.  It's more work, it's more risk of "being wrong" in front of the students, but ultimately everyone wins out in the end!

Thursday, April 20, 2017


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I talk about gratitude in my blog from time to time, about being grateful to be able to play the art I love, to have a group of people that I can play with, an organization that makes my playing possible, even the equipment to do my playing on - and many other areas.

But I was thinking about the idea of appreciation, and how it's different.

If you go to an art gallery, you might come to appreciate some of the art.  You like how something looks, maybe even how it feels or sounds.  That's the purpose of the gallery, after all.  You can of course appreciate other things, like a beverage, furniture, sounds of nature, etc.

Playing a shime and hearing where the tones differ just inches apart, that's something I can appreciate.  Pulling out one of the oldest drums we have on the shelves, I appreciate how different and unique the sound is.  I appreciate the sound of the cracked chappa, the sound of the odaiko before the new heads were broken in, the spot on our sumo-daiko  that looks like Abraham Lincoln (no, seriously!).

All of these sounds and shapes have character, stand out a little from the rest.  And we may not want those qualities in an actual performance, sure - but acknowledging them, appreciating them, that's better than dismissing them or just labeling them in a negative light.

What little peculiarities are there in your equipment, your costumes, your rehearsal space, or even in your membership that you might miss if they were gone?  What's something that stands out when used - and so you may not use it anymore - but that has a quality that could still be artistically useful?

If you can appreciate, you can be grateful.  If you can be grateful, you can do some good!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Drill: Pass the trash

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The term "pass the trash" is used in a variant of 7-card stud poker.  It's also a good drill to use in soloing with your group.

Essentially, you listen/watch the other person solo before you, and then take some of it to start your own solo.  Maybe there's a distinct riff or pattern that you like, maybe it's a big movement, maybe it's a recognizable sequence you can modify.  It's not all that difficult of a drill, it makes you play things you might not normally play, and it makes you really pay attention to the preceding solo.

One thing that is often overlooked in a drill like this is that as the soloist, if there's someone after me, I have to "pass" something to them.  If my solo is really disjointed, doesn't have phrasing that they can pick up on, is too complex for them to replicate, or is just really off, then what can they use?  In essence, I've messed the drill up for them.

This isn't about copying someone, but borrowing, modifying, adapting.  It's successful when other people can see the two solos and identify what's being used each time.

"Passing the trash" helps create new "launchpads" for soloists, and helps exercise the improvisational muscles.  I highly recommend trying it!