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!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Question Everything: When is it taiko?

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I've posed this question in the past, but for my newer readers I'd like to throw it out there again with a slight change.  Instead of the broader "what is taiko?" question, I'll make it "when is it taiko?".

Follow along the steps and when it hits a level you feel qualifies as taiko, ask yourself why?

Imagine a group of people ("training" = "training in taiko):
  • with no training, standing, hitting phone books with Western drumsticks.
  • with no training, standing, hitting phone books with bachi.
  • with no training, in a low stance, hitting phone books with bachi.
  • with some training, in a low stance, hitting phone books with bachi.
  • with some training, in a low stance, hitting drums made out of PVC pipes with bachi.
  • with no training, in a low stance, hitting wooden taiko drums with bachi.
  • with no training, standing, hitting wooden taiko drums with bachi.
  • with some training, standing, hitting wooden taiko drums with bachi.
  • with some training, standing, hitting wooden taiko drums with bachi, playing a song written for Western percussion (marching band, orchestral, etc.)
  • with some training, but very unskilled, in a low stance, hitting phone books with bachi.
  • with no training, but very skilled, in a low stance, hitting phone books with bachi.
  • with some training, very skilled, playing non-taiko drums as if they were taiko (Western, Samba, African, etc.)
  • with some training, very skilled, hitting wooden taiko drums with bachi, incorporating non-Japanese elements such as juggling, hip-hop dancing, electric guitar, etc.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.  Which of those qualify as taiko for you?  Is it more dependent on training?  Stance?  Equipment?  Why?  Can you argue for the others or are you steadfast in your opinion?  Has your opinion changed over your time playing?

I find it really interesting when people qualify what is or what isn't taiko, and I'm happy to debate them with this sort of logic-list.  Most of the time, when people say "that's not taiko," what they really mean is "I don't like it" but don't want to come out and say that...

Recognizing that all of this comes down to opinion, we can either choose to be more open-minded or close-minded.  But either way, just realize that no one is "more right" than anyone else!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Nothing today!

Writing this in advance, as we've a concert this weekend in Auburn, Washington, and I won't have time to blog after I get back.  So enjoy the break until Thursday!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Question Everything: Dogma

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We all get taught things along our path.  Teachers here, instructors there, sensei and peers and people you didn't expect to get lessons from will all teach you something.

But when does it become dogma?  When do you believe something so much to be true, either because the person saying it means so much to you, or because it makes you feel good to believe in it?

When do you recognize the dogma you subscribe to and what do you do about it?

In my karate organization, for the rank of black belt I'm looking at next, I have to be able to interpret any sequence of movements from any of the myriad kata (forms) I know.  What is this block into this block into this movement into this punch actually supposed to be doing?  What is the attacker doing to cause me to warrant this sequence of moves?

There's an argument that says the movements should not be taken literally, that they teach concepts of movement and mechanics that can be adapted to suit the situation and preferences.  But the other school of thought says that the movements are to be done almost exactly as they are in the form, and it's up to the practitioner to understand the lessons hidden within.

I'm much for the former.  But our organization, the people who will be judging me, are for the latter.  And so I struggle under this but ultimately I have to follow the rules if I want to advance.  I can talk to others about my opinions, I can argue my case with people on both sides, but I'm not going to be able to change the system.  If the former is important enough to me (and it is), I will have to study that on my own but also train to do/explain what the requirements tell me to do/explain.

The dogma of my style, of my organization are clear, although at first I wasn't as aware of them, and now I can choose how I react to this information.  But this dogma is quite established.

A more extreme form of dogma in martial arts is when you have dubious schools that focus on harnessing energy to do extraordinary things, like drop an attacker without touching them, make people lose balance with just a light touch, etc.  The students have convinced themselves so convincingly (usually through the instructor's reinforcement) that these skills MUST work, that they do.  Even when they only work because of that belief, and not for or on anyone else.  This is an extreme form of dogma, but not too hard to fine.

In taiko, I see people adhere to different dogma, like they do in martial arts.  A certain group is "best".  A certain way of playing is "superior".  The sempai-kohai (senior-junior) infrastructure is the most "beneficial".  Being louder = being a better player.  Etcetera.  Some of these come from a person's own beliefs, but often they are taught and/or magnified from the instructor(s).

My group has its own style, its own set of rules, its own way of making things work effectively.  Some might even call it a dogma.  I find most of it works really well for me, but (and as anyone who knows me can attest), I still question and ask "why" because I want to know, I want to understand - not just swallow, not just absorb.  Even if something turns out to be the best advice I've received, questioning it well will only make it more valuable in the long run because I'll understand it better!

Just understanding that everything you've been taught, everything you know, might not be true, is scary.  Not scary "for some people", scary for all of us!  And it's not easy to speak up, to question, to make the effort to look past what's dangling in front of you.  But if you take away any one thing from my blog, let it be this.  Always, always question.

Monday, April 3, 2017


I've been thinking a lot about the concept of "uke".  In karate, "uke" is receiving/being the one who receives.  "Tori" is attacking/completing/being the attacker.

Watch this clip, which starts at 22:58, for about a minute (until 23:55).  There's a good example about what it looks like to "lack uke" in karate.

When I spar, against someone with equal or greater skill, I find my uke diminished against someone who has an aggressive offense.  I've been practicing, I've gotten better, but this is definitely one area I need more improvement in.  Mind you, the solution isn't to just take getting hit so I can hit back, that's recklessness and counter to the tenets of any martial art.

In taiko, you're not competing with another person, but in a way you are, against a fear of failure.  This fear is the enemy in a performance, and when you are so worried about making a mistake, your technique often suffers.  Tension builds, focus suffers, even movements and striking are lessened.  Ironically, you're more likely to actually make the mistakes you're so worried about.

Now watch this clip, (until 44:45) about what good uke is about.

I see people in taiko focus so much on their solo, or a particular movement in their solo, but that lose the ability to deal when they make a mistake despite all the planning.  That's like what the sensei here talks about as "training to win".  And even as I type this I'm realizing that this is the beauty, the benefit of learning improvisation, so that you can truly receive whatever comes in that moment, whether it be a feeling, a musical phrase, or even the energy from people around you.

So when you train, are you training to "win"?  Or are you training to be able to receive?  Are you able to maintain what your instructors have been trying to instill in you when things don't go as planned, or do you give up easily?  Think about this, think about where your mind goes when you perform (and practice) and be honest with yourself about how you react to the stimulus around you, good, bad or otherwise.  How's your uke?