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!