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!

image credit: https://lifeaftercaregiving.files.wordpress.com

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?

image credit: https://singularityhub.com

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!

image credit: http://blogs.clemson.edu

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?

image credit: https://previews.123rf.com

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!

image credit: http://static.wixstatic.com

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.

image credit: http://www.inspirednationonline.com

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.