Monday, February 27, 2017

Another day, another anniversary.

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Eight years ago, I started this blog.  I didn't have a schedule for it, I didn't have plans for it, I just wanted an outlet.  850 posts later, here we are.

Once I got past the first few years of posts that came "easily", I had to start thinking more about what to write about.  It made me think a lot more about things I took for granted, and made me look beyond my own personal experiences.

The more I wrote, the more I felt I needed to accountable - not really "to my readers", but to myself.  The act of saying - over and over - "try harder" actually helped me try harder!  And censoring myself from some of the posts I could write helped me be more thoughtful, which sometimes slips when I'm super-passionate on a subject.

Not every post is golden wisdom, and sometimes it's hard to write about something compelling after so many have been written.  But I still get something out of trying, and so the blog continues.  Who knows what's in store over the next year or ten, but as always, if there's anything people want to talk about or have me comment on, find me on Facebook and drop me a line - even if it's something that we disagree on.  Challenge me, inform me, teach me new things!  I'm always trying to grow.

And I hope you stick around for the ride!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Back on Monday

Sorry, been really busy lately and will have to skip today's post.  Back on Monday!  Keep practicing!

Monday, February 20, 2017

When to parameter

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I strongly believe in using parameters, or imposed restrictions, as a creative tool.

When used as a tool to create solos, a parameter can be like putting your thumb over a running hose.  You get a stronger stream that shoots further, because it's so focused.  You might not want nor need it for general use, but it might be the perfect thing for a particular purpose.

Maybe you're trying to come up with a new solo move or new patterns, so you put a parameter in that says "play double the amount of notes you normally play" or "incorporate a lot of spins".  It forces you to do things differently, and often can spark some really creative ideas you might not normally have come up with.

When used as a tool to create songs, a parameter can be a way to generate new ideas, but also a way to limit them if you're not careful.  For example, maybe you have too many ideas and making yourself focus on "only naname" or "use lots of hand percussion" helps set you on a path that gains momentum.  However, in my case, I learned that limiting myself too early on made things more difficult than they needed to be.

I was thinking of writing a piece but I didn't want it to be too much like this or too much like that, so I was hampering my creativity.  Better to just let it come out the way it wants to, and then steer it in a direction away from where you don't want to go, rather than never start because you're worried it might "go there".

Parameters have given me and many other people some incredible ideas and insights, and I can't recommend them highly enough!  If anyone wants some ideas on how to use them or what kinds there are, get in touch and I'll be happy to tell you!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The hardest things to learn.

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At SJT, there are four principles: Kata, Ki, Musical Technique, and Attitude.  Each one addresses several different aspects within them, and we've used these principles to evaluate new and current members for decades now.

In karate, there are requirements for belt ranks, which greatly differ from style to style, school to school.  Still, there are techniques and forms to learn and improve on as well as an attitude expected depending on the wants of the school.

Not every taiko group has requirements to "pass" something or to get into a different level, but there are always categories to work on, areas to improve on.  After years of teaching in different arts, of watching people in various workshops, of seeing people progress around me in different ways, it's interesting to see patterns...

Most people, with the right teachers and the right mindset, can improve on physical things.  I can tell you how to hold your form.  I can literally take your limbs and position you over and over again until muscle memory kicks in.  I can tell you "yes" or "no", "right" or "wrong" according to what I'm trying to teach you.  I can break down minute details of technique and work on repetition until your body accepts it as dogma. Not everyone learns at the same pace as others, but physical forms, style, and movements can be learned at least by brute force alone.

Endurance, strength, and flexibility are also things that are easy enough to improve, if you work at them.  More running, more pushups, stretch more, etc.  Doesn't mean it will be easy, but there are routines and trainers that you can turn to to make significant progress, if you're willing.

Expressing spirit is less natural for some, but often more about overcoming a self-imposed barrier than a physical limitation.  For kiai, it's hard for some to allow themselves to be loud, to be out there, to show how much joy they get from playing.  It might even feel embarrassing for some people to do it, until they do it enough to get over it.  In some ways, this can be a harder barrier than a physical one, but it's definitely overcome-able.  (I know, that's not a word.  But it's my blog, so there.)

Then there's the mental aspects, things like attitude, being peripheral, respect, thinking of the group's needs first.  If these things don't come easy from someone, they very well may take a long time to come about, period.  Teaching by example, lecturing, positive reinforcement - those may or may not work, because it's really about the other person willing to accept those lessons.  Stubbornness might be easily fixed in something physical by putting one in the position desired, but you can't "make" someone help out, "make" someone think positive thoughts, etc.  If a person doesn't want to improve, doesn't want to help the group where they can, then you're often stuck with a problem rather than a solution.

Finally, the most difficult thing to learn - in my humble opinion - is musicality.  I've written a lot of posts about this, I've had conversations about it on the FB group, I've taught workshops on it at conference as well.  Being able to play a diverse variety of patterns, being comfortable with improvisation, knowing when and where to use dynamics, things like that are very difficult to teach someone past a certain point.  Everyone can improve on these areas somewhat, but it's way harder to teach someone how to feel music than it is to teach something tangible.  I can give you music to listen to, but if you don't "get" the funk in this song, or the syncopation in that song, if it's not sinking in enough to incorporate into your head, then it may take months, years, or it might never get there.  Another reason why I say this is the most difficult one to learn is that with all the others, if someone really wants to improve, they can, with exceptions here and there.  With musicality, even if you really want to get better, this is the one that so many people struggle with, even with focused practice.

It's not that it's fruitless to try to get better at the things that are hardest.  In fact, quite the opposite!  The things that are the hardest to get better at are the ones that can use the most attention, but for the most part, they have to be worked on on your own time.  Your instructor has to teach a bunch of people at once, and it's more efficient to correct things like form and technique than it is to explain how to be "more funky" in your solos, easier to explain when to give more energy to the song than it is to show someone how to look around and help out where it's needed.

And I'm also not putting a value on these categories (which are a partial list and there are others I didn't get to!)  Is musicality more important than spirit?  Mindfulness more important than basic form?  That totally depends on you and your group, and will change from group to group - as well as within you, over time.

Even if there are multiple goals you or other people want to achieve, knowing that some are intrinsically more difficult than others gives a greater perspective to your training.  And you may read my list and disagree with the rankings, but that's fine!  Just don't base them on just your own strengths and weaknesses - think about your group and the other players you've met, and make your own!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Practice what you preach

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Some of you know what "Roy Drills" are.  Some of you have even actually experienced it, you lucky people you.  For those who don't, Roy Drills are a torture creation by Roy Hirabayashi, one of the founding members of SJT.

His idea was simple: follow the lead person in the center as they play a pattern, speeding up or slowing down, changing patterns when they do.  It sounds easy enough, but then do it on naname or tachiuchi (upstand).  Try not pacing yourself, playing earnestly.  And most importantly, don't stop!  Stopping = bad.

I've done it countless times over the years, since my first few months of taiko through just last week.  It's not as difficult as it used to be, so I like to sometimes go to the other side of the drum and play "left-handed".  That's a challenge.  Don tsuku, doro tsuku, don doko, all at fast speeds for long periods of time with the "weaker side" definitely pushes me.

So last week, doing these on the left side, during don doko, I could feel my left arm really getting stiff.  And I had to remember all the things I tell people when they're getting tight and stiff while playing taiko.  Don't use muscle.  Relax.  Use the body as much as possible.  Breathe.

And then, when it got tempting to back off and coast in order to save my arm from catching on fire, I remembered to set a good example, to hurt tomorrow, and just make it happen.  Not going to say I looked flawless by that point, but it was important to me to keep pushing because I keep telling others to do so - and because I want to get past where I am now in order to get better!

Anyways, that was just an example where I had to put my money where my mouth is (or bachi were, I suppose).  So now I ask you, think about all the advice you give, all the teaching you've done (either as a teacher or a peer), and ask yourself, do you do all of the things you tell other people to do?

Most of you are probably saying, "yes, of course I practice what I preach."  But do you really?  You may earnestly believe it, but when have you tested yourself?  When were you in a situation that pushed you to draw from the well of advice you give?  When did you last watch video of yourself and have OTHER people look for the things you tell them to do?  It can be scary, it can be humbling, but you know...if you want to get better, there's really no better way.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Constraints and creativity (article)

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I don't normally link to other articles in my blog, but this one ties into something I've talked about before when it comes to creativity, parameters, limitations, not taking things simply and thinking out the box.

Please take a look; it's not that long of a read.

There are a few things that I wanted to highlight from that article:

"Without constraints, the research suggests, we tend instead to simply retrieve exemplary use cases from memory; we typically sit on a chair, so that’s how we think of chairs."

We see this in taiko all the time.  Drums are drums.  Stands are stands.  Bachi are bachi.  But is that all they can be?  What else can you strike the drums with?  What else can you do with bachi?  We don't tend to think that way because we're so comfortable with doing what's expected.

"We dedicate our mental energy to acting more resourcefully. If you ask someone to design or build a product, you might get a handful of good ideas. But if you ask someone to design or build it while sticking within a tight budget, chances are you’ll get much better results."

If you want to be creative, having too much to work with can actually be a hindrance.  If you have four drums to play on, where do you start?  But if you only have one, you're more likely to explore than one drum than if you had four to split your attention over.  If you know you can have twenty people to play a new song, you might not utilize them as creatively as if you only get to use four.

Anyways, just food for thought.  If you're trying to be creative, trying to come up with new ideas and feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, narrow your options down and focus on limited resources and see what happens!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Anything but obvious.

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A few practices ago we were jamming in the studio.  I wound up on the hiradaiko/odaiko and handed a bat.  For those who aren't familiar with this or haven't seen it, a baseball-style bat is not uncommon to use on the larger drums.

Ooh, big bat, BIG drum.  Would be so easy to just pound a nice loud note out, even if I didn't play that many!

But, by doing what's easiest, what's expected, what I've seen hundreds of times before, what am I missing out on?  It's what I'm supposed to do, that all there is?

So after I got through a bunch of twirling-the-bat, I went to soft hits.  After soft hits, I played multiple notes even softer.  After that I lightly pressed it against the head to make a buzz.  Then a slap followed by a buzz.  I wish I had tried the handle to make noise, to see how it sounded.

How could this apply to other situations?  Say you're in a song with a lot of notes and the other soloists are playing a lot of notes and now it's your turn...  Sure, you could play a lot of notes.  That's expected.  But if you don't, that'll stand out, for sure.  And you can always play more notes later, but better it's by choice and not because that's all you're thinking about doing.

Is everyone starting their solo at the drum?  Maybe start by moving away from it.  Are all the solos funny?  Maybe yours is intense.  Are all the solos very busy, movement-wise?  Maybe you stay still and deliver.

It's really hard to think of options "in the moment", so watch other people and ask yourself, what else could they do or be doing?  Will you do it?  Could you try?  It's not to do something different because you're trying to be different - that can get tedious.  It's about knowing there are options and knowing when to exercise them!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Strength in softness

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Last weekend, Kodo came through the Bay Area to perform their show "Dadan".

Dadan is different among Kodo shows - and most taiko we normally see - in that there are no women, no fue, no dancing, just men and drums (percussion).  I've seen Dadan on DVD so I knew what to expect, but seeing it live brought something to light for me.

If you've seen Kodo before, you know they're all in better shape than most people will ever be.  Cut, in fact.  And when you think "a bunch of men playing drums for 2 hours", you might be inclined to think of loud, powerful, strong songs and enough testosterone to fill a swimming pool.

But I was impressed by the lack of reliance on raw strength.  I was impressed with the nuance of dynamics and appreciation for softer volumes when loud was such an easy choice.

And that makes me think about my/your/our taiko, what we're used to doing.  What's your default volume when you solo?  What's the default dynamic for new songs in your group or when you're teaching older songs to new people?

When does quiet say more than loud?  If everything is loud, then silence is sometimes deafening.  If you don't quite get that, listen to Monochrome, one of Kodo's most iconic songs.  There's a passage where all the players, all on shime, build to a chaotic, rising surge of volume, and then with a cue from the lead, they all stop.  Even when you know it's coming, it's striking.  Then quiet notes come creeping in.  Purposeful.  It makes you want to hear instead of being forced to listen.

So for all of you/us that are comfortable with loud, whether it be through drum or voice, even if you don't change your style of playing, start thinking about when you could make a difference by changing dynamics.  Appreciate the wealth of options you have and you'll find yourself a much more well-rounded artist!