Thursday, January 26, 2017

My first pair of bachi

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When I first started practicing with SJT, they gave me a pair of bachi, or drumsticks.  I think they lasted for quite some time, but when they splintered or got too worn, I could buy another pair from the group's stock.

Problem is, those bachi were way too short for me.  I didn't realize it for somewhere near a decade into my training, but once I got a pair about two inches longer, everything changed for the better.  I didn't feel cramped.  I looked and felt balanced.  I could reach the drums and be far enough away to have proper extension and posture.  The fulcrum of my strike was finally balanced and if anything I had to make sure I didn't over-hit, because generating power was tremendously easier.  I can't go back.  I won't!

But as I constantly strive to do, I question everything.  And I reflected back on those days of playing with equipment that wasn't optimal for me.  It's no one's fault; that's the size everyone was using (and I had to fit into tabi that were too small for my gigantic feet, too!)  But was it a waste of potential growth?  Yes.  And no.

On one hand, I can only imagine how much better my striking and form might be had I a longer pair.  But on the other hand, I can grab a pair of our volunteer bachi (that we give people for workshops) and while they're super-short for me, I can play well with them.  It won't sound worse, it won't look bad to just won't look as good or feel as good to me.

Essentially, I learned how to play with a handicap, then was able to break free of it later.  I gained a skill I might not have learned if I never went through that - the ability to utilize strong fundamentals through something less-than-optimal.

Imagine only getting to use pencils that are only 1-inch long for years.  And then one day, you discover full-length pencils.  You can sit upright now, you can sharpen them dozens of times, you can even wiggle them between your fingers.  But in that time spent with the short "nubs", if you will, what did you learn?  You might have learned to be more concise, you might have had to learn to relax your hands more since you couldn't rest the side of the pencil against the webbing of your hand.  And those skills definitely transfer to a full-length pencil.

What's the lesson here?  Adversity builds character, but sometimes it builds more than that.  Maybe you have to play a performance in a space that's too short for comfort.  But rather than just gripe about it, use it as an opportunity to find how technique is universal, not just in optimal places.  Maybe the MC or announcer for your group said something really awkward or frustrating.  But instead of playing in an foul mood, use it as an opportunity to put yourself in the performance and joy of the moment.

Looking back at when you had less and finding the lessons you learned from it is something you shouldn't ever overlook!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Change it up

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We do things the way we like.  We settle into habits that are comfortable.

The problem is, growth is rarely comfortable.  You want to be able to do 100 push-ups?  Be able to teach a wide range of skill levels?  Or maybe solo on odaiko for 5 minutes straight?  I guarantee you those are not going to come easily.

For some things, you have to try a little bit harder every time you try it.  Build endurance, muscle memory.  For other things, you have to experience a situation that is uncomfortable, that you struggle through and learn valuable lessons from.  But there are other options, too.  Here's one: change what you prefer.

  • Do you like to teach by talking a lot?  Then try saying much, much less.  You're forced to use a different skill set to get your point across. 
  • Do you like to play simple patterns when you solo?  Force yourself to add syncopation and/or not in predictable chunks of 4.
  • Do you like to play a lot of notes when you solo?  Cut back and make the ones you play more meaningful.  Utilize movement, fill the space.
  • Do you tend to let other people talk and not speak up?  Raise your hand, make a point.  Be heard.
  • Do you wind up staring at the drum(s) when you play?  Force yourself to look up and out, even if it means playing less notes or moving around less.
Personally, that last one is something I have to keep working on - force my gaze up and off the drums.  It's not easy but it will never change if I don't work on it.

If you make one (or more) of these changes intentionally, for a practice or two, or try other ideas like these that I didn't mention, you gain a sense of perspective, make a challenge for yourself, and I guarantee you it will lead you to improvements.

If you only like things a certain way, you can grow...until you no longer can, and also no longer want to.  That's a dead-end mindset.  Always strive for growth!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Taiko in an age of instant gratification

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Instant gratification!  Twitter and status messages so everyone knows exactly what you're thinking.  Movies to download in less than a few minutes.  Music you can access instantly through a variety of online services.  Online shopping with overnight shipping.  Food from everywhere in your neighborhood coming to you.

If you want it, you can have it right away.  If you think it, you can broadcast it to millions right away.

How does taiko fit into a world like this?

One of the beautiful aspects of taiko is that playing it, experiencing it, puts you in the present.  In the now.  But that moment keeps expanding as long as you keep playing.  If you're practicing, you can focus on form.  If you're performing, you can focus on putting yourself out there.  It also teaches you about your role in a community - in this case, an ensemble.  You can't have your solo when you want it, nor your favorite piece to play when you want it.  It's "not about you."

Looking at social media, in a tweet or status update, I can say what I want and people will take it how they want it.  It could be seen as political.  Biased.  It could lack context and be mis-read.  In a solo, there are no words, just sound, motion, feeling.  It can affect people, speak to people.  When I communicate through a solo, the message is simple - I want to entertain you, delight you.  I want you to feel the joy I feel, in that moment.  It's about connection.

The most satisfied taiko players I know, the ones who are the most genuinely happy, are the ones that connect with other players.  Not through social media, but that person-to-person connection that helps people get better, helps people build and garner resources.

There's also the concept of ma, or space.  When you're playing a song, not just listening to it, you have to give the notes their proper spacing.  You have to listen to where your notes fall and how they line up with the rest of the group's.  You have to have that awareness and connection to the people around you to do well.  We tend to rush things as people.  We tend to speed up, we tend to make motions faster than they need to be.  Why?  I'm no psychologist, but maybe it's our culture, our want to get to the next thing quicker.  Recognizing that feeling of speeding up and acknowledging ma is a humbling, powerful feeling.  It's not about what *I* want, it's about connecting to the song and to the ensemble.

Related, we also tend to lean forward, stare into our screens, hunch over our keyboards, etc.  Taiko forces us to be in our bodies, be aware of our posture, work with our entire bodies and think about how the rest of the ensemble is moving, not just focus on the bubble around us.

Learning taiko teaches us patience, as well.  Odds are, you didn't get good quickly.  It took time to get where you are now and there's much more room to grow, right?  You might want to learn that new cool song right NOW but did it happen?  Nope.  It probably took you hours, days, maybe weeks!  And that was for one song.  However, all that time spent learning was time spent growing - getting better at playing, getting better at learning, too!

Also, if you play taiko, you are no longer just a consumer of art, but a producer of it.  Realize that this is a wonderful, important thing!  People that watch you play get to see, hear, and feel your output.  It's something anyone who performs gets to give their audience, something that can't be simply downloaded or purchased.  A recording is better than nothing, but so much less than being there, experiencing what you are generating.  What you are doing is valuable - for you, for your group, for your community, for people you'll never know you touched.

Technology might change, but connection will always matter.  What do you think?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Question Everything: Giving it 100%

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When we're new to taiko, most of us focus on striking harder, being louder.  We use more muscle, more energy, more effort in making that happen.  But at what point does playing harder stop being useful?  Can you keep building strength and momentum and have that equal a louder, or better sound with no end?

Sometimes there's focus on really strong ki, through kiai.  We try to kiai louder, push our bodies forward harder, show it on our face with more expression, etc.  But at what point can we physically not make more noise?  At what point does it harm the body?  At what point are you using too much effort and actually restricting or dampening the energy output?

I view learning technique through the lens of the kind of gauge pictured above.  It's easy for people to think that the "best" technique is when it's at 100.  But at 100, are you being efficient with your energy, your motions?  Are you being relaxed enough to last through a performance?  And even if you can push 100 and last long enough, could you pull back, be more efficient, and utilize nuance, skill?

Being at 100 is, in my opinion, somewhat brutish.  And where do you go from there?  How can you improve on technique at 100%?  "Wait," you may be thinking, "if I'm at 100 with a technique, isn't that the best I can do?"  No, there never is a best, and that's the point.  Instead of thinking doing MORE of a technique, it's better to think of doing BETTER at it.

Here's a good example:

Most of you probably don't practice punching very often.  That's fine.  Put your dukes up, so to speak, and throw a punch, then pull it back.  Whee!  Ok, that's your baseline.  Now squeeze your fist really hard, really really hard.  Harder!  Now punch and pull back.  Did that feel better?  Stronger?  I bet it didn't.  In fact, it probably felt uncomfortable!

So there's an example of a technique where doing something at 100 is detrimental to the execution.  Can you see how that applies to playing a drill, or a song?  It might be where being at 80 is better for keeping relaxed, or 60 is good for the time being because the focus isn't on you (and shouldn't be for that moment).  Knowing where to dial it up (or down) to as well as when is a valuable, difficult skill.

So the next time you play a given song, should you have the faculties to do so, take mental stock of where you are.  What number is your ki at?  Your intention and effort at?  Your volume at?  Can you adjust it slightly?  How does it feel when you do?

When someone says "give it 110%!"  I think they should try to kiai at 110% and see what happens.  :D

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Is being good at something...good?

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I wonder how much our own gifts hold us back sometimes.

Take the man with really fluid footwork.  Something he's known for and prides himself on.  When he solos, it's impossible not to notice how smooth and natural he moves.  But now there's a new song that doesn't use footwork, and focuses on playing fast patterns.  It's not his comfort zone and so he doesn't try as hard, knowing he won't have to solo in it much - or at all - because others will be better at it.

Take the woman who beams joy from her face and body when she plays, without having to think about it.  But now there's a song that's serious and intense.  She has trouble changing her expression because she never has had to before.  And when there's a solo in that song, she reverts to a happy, joyful energy and it never quite fits.

Take the kid who has amazing hands, naturally.  But now they're put in a song that requires more than they can deliver without struggling, without breaking down the fundamentals on their own time, outside of practice.  Their frustration grows, to the point where attitude is affected, they get argumentative or disruptive.

I'm sure most of us are either glad we're really good at something or wish we were.  But that talent, that gift, can also become a crutch, a weakness.

I know there are people who are gifted who will struggle with a new skill set, but take it in stride, will work on it in earnest.  But when we're good at one thing, and then struggle with something else, it can be easy to think, "well I don't have to worry about that difficult thing, because I can rely on the easy thing."  Don't do that!  It's like saying you don't have to go shopping because you have tons of bananas to eat.  Just bananas...  You need more than bananas!

Monday, January 9, 2017


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Stand on one leg, lift the other, and close your eyes.  (Wait, read this first, then close your eyes...)

If you keep your supporting leg stiff, you'll probably find that it's not only harder to keep your balance, but requires a lot more work to recover it.  If you instead drop your weight, let the knee bend, you should be able to stay balanced easier, and when off-balance, it should be less work to keep from falling over.  Stay stiff for a minute, stay loose for a minute; how do you feel at the end of it?

Now it's not that you're likely to stand on one leg and close your eyes while playing taiko, but I see a lot of people who keep their lower body/legs still and stiff.  If your balance is harder to maintain with stiff legs in the above example, if you find that your legs are more tired after a minute, can you see how that's what you're doing when you're in kata/stance and stiff?

It's not even that you have to move a lot, or be bouncy, or anything on the other extreme.  You can be still, but loose, with practice.  Having good balance can be rewarding on its own, when you're moving, spinning, jumping, even just shifting your weight.  But having good balance also means you're being efficient with your posture, your alignment, your muscles, etc.

Considering it's not something most of us think about, balance is one of those tools that can really accentuate a taiko player's toolkit - or be the one we need really badly as we're falling down...

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Question Everything: Sacrilege

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What's sacred in your group?  Not in a religious sense, but what practices were taught to you that were mandatory, what rituals are you expected to perform during the course of practice?

Are the bachi you play with sacred conduits or just pieces of wood or something in between?  Are the doors/entryways a place where you must stop and bow or simply the places in the wall you have to go through to get to other places?  Is the practice area only for practicing or used for meetings, eating, etc.?

It doesn't really matter what your opinion is; I just want you to think about it and understand why you think what you do, why your group thinks what it does.  Let's look at the bachi example:

Your standard pair of bachi, that you use for most songs, are they venerated?  Do you treat them like you treat the drums themselves?  What about when they splinter, crack?  Should they be played with until they threaten damage to the drum?  Is is respectful to tape them up and continue using them?  Are they just tools to create sound?  What about using them to strike the floor/stage?  What about tossing them in the air or to other people?  Is it silly to give a broken bachi thanks or is it a sign of gratitude?  Does adding LED lights make a bachi any less venerated?  What about other decorative markings?  Should you only use one side of the bachi?  Are shime bachi more or less sacred than the ones you use on chudaiko?  How about odaiko bachi?

That's a lot to think about for just bachi, but you can also apply that to the drums, other equipment you use like drum stands and hand percussion (How do you grab them off the shelf or from the bag?  Are they things that make noise or musical instruments?)  You can ask yourself similar questions to things like bowing at entrances or the edge of practice spaces (How long do you bow for?  What if you just need to hop off and grab something for a second?)

My point here is not to say any opinion is bad or wrong, that's never been my style.  I believe you should understand why you believe a thing is sacred - or not - and also know why other people might think the opposite of you.  This is especially true if you're someone teaching these ideas to students, so you're not just repeating what you've been told without thought!

Monday, January 2, 2017

...Hello to 2017!

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Well, 2017 has a few interesting things for me to look forward to, taiko-wise.

In the first quarter, there's an event for our donors that I'm not sure if I'm supposed to talk about, so I won't.  It's not a huge deal, but it's something I'm very much looking forward to.  Right up my alley!

There's NATC 2017 in San Diego, which of course I'm looking forward to.  Not teaching workshops this year, but as usual, will be helping behind the scenes - at least with surveys and survey data, if not actually during the conference itself.

It looks like we could have a big touring schedule in the Fall, but nothing's for-sure yet.  But now that I have a regular job again, I won't be able to take off several weeks at a time like I was able to before...still, I'm sure I can go out for some of it, which is always fun, even when it's super busy!

Finally, I'd really like to get another song written this year, but I'm not sure which direction to focus that energy quite yet.  I still have motivation from my song last year and want to keep using that energy while it lasts.

Hopefully I'll get to see some of you either at NATC or while out on tour, or maybe even if you stop on by San Jose and visit a practice!  Here's to a fruitful, rewarding, interesting new year!