Monday, July 31, 2017

Random truths

Over the years, I've written a lot, learned a lot, un-learned a lot, too.  Along the way I came across things that turned out to be truths, and some things that turned out to be "truths".  The former are rules that apply to all of us, any time.  The latter are things that are selective, only work in certain situations, etc.

Just wanted to share a few truths that helped me out over the years:

- Only you can make you better.  All the workshops, seminars, teachers, and playing time amounts to nothing if you aren't willing to be somewhat vulnerable, open-minded, and have a critical eye of yourself.

- Teaching is just as much an art as the art itself being taught.  The best players don't automatically make for the best teachers.  And some people can teach you a lot without being anywhere near as good as you are, if you're open to learning.

- Just because someone is good, doesn't mean they're right.  Don't let celebrity status determine who you follow.  Have your own thoughts, test out things for yourself before embracing them blindly.

- The person who struggled may be a better teacher than someone naturally gifted.  Someone really good at a skill without trying may not have felt the need to step back and break down the nuances of mechanics, while the person who struggled and tried really hard to improve might be aware of a wealth of details they had to learn to get better.

- More notes does not mean a better solo.  More notes means faster hands, but it doesn't mean musical hands, in-tempo hands, fitting-the-song hands, or varied hands.  Often, the best players are the ones who can say the most with the least amount of notes.

- If it's ensemble drumming, benefit the ensemble.  It doesn't help the song if you stand out drastically, even if you feel like you're having a blast.  Sometimes it helps to step up, sometimes it helps to cut back.

- Be authentic.  You can take movements from others, you can play songs to be like other groups, you can make decisions that make you like other organizations, but in the end, you need to know who you are and why you're doing what you're doing.

- Training in Japan is a solution, not the solution.  There are great opportunities and teachers in Japan, but don't neglect the vast resources you have access to without having to travel abroad, especially if you live in North America.

- The question "what is taiko?" is only as important as you want it to be.  This is a question that will never be fully answered.  While what matters is what taiko means to you, realize it might not mean the same thing to the next person.  Who's right?  No one.  Everyone.

- The more popular you want taiko to be, the more people will use it in ways you don't like.  Can't have it both ways.

- Playing harder doesn't mean playing better.  There's a point where you're just punishing the poor the drum as well as your own body.  Ask an expert of any physical art - you gotta relax to reach your full potential.

- Listen to your body.  If you're playing in a way/style that hurts, stop doing that.  Whether it's as easy as trying a different foot position or as difficult as leaving a group, it's your body.  You only get one and pain can last forever.

- Taiko is awesome.  Regardless of why you play, who you play with, or what you play on, realize you are creating art, not just consuming it.  We need that in our society.  You can inspire, motivate, surprise, and move people with a single hit on the drum.  Keep it up!

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

NATC is just around the corner...(again!)

I think I used that same title last NATC, ha.

In a few weeks a bunch of us taiko nuts will be down in ever-sunny San Diego, playing and sharing and watching and talking and overdosing on taiko.  Woo!

I always enjoy NATC, whether teaching or not, whether helping out behind the scenes or not (but at this point, it's never "not"!)

It's interesting that historically, 50% of the attendees are new to NATC.  This is their first conference and they tend to be the most excited, most starry-eyed, and most tired afterwards!

For the first time in a while, I'm going as a participant instead of a teacher or observer, and I'm looking forward to learning new things - or at least learning new ways to learn old things!  It's hard for me to have that experience, simply because of all the things I've done and all the time I've spent doing them.  It's one thing to learn a new style of playing, a new song, even a new instrument, but to put my ego aside and be open to re-learning how to strike, how to listen, how to think, that's something I hope I can be a good example of.

If you're going to conference, I hope you come - and leave - with these two things:

- Realize, what you have is what someone else wishes they could have, whether it be equipment, talent, opportunities, or even a personal attribute.  Appreciate.

- Also realize that the conference couldn't happen without so many people doing so many things behind the scenes, both before and during the weekend.  We have people willing to volunteer, to teach, to coordinate, to help where it's needed.  Gratitude.

I hope to see many of you there, and it's always a sincere pleasure to hear from those of you who have enjoyed my blog and benefited from it.  Play on!

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Oof. Tired.

I thought I would have time to post something between concerts, but I need to be nice to my brain and rest some more.  7 hours to Mendocino on Thursday, played a concert Friday night with minimal time to tech in, 7 hours back on Sat, and another concert with little time to tech in last night.  So...goodnight!  I'll be back on Thursday.  :)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Memorable quotes

I was thinking of all of the advice, stories, pearls of wisdom I've heard over my 23 years of taiko.  Unfortunately, with my wonderful memory, I've forgotten a lot.  Ah well.  A few lines, however, have stuck with me.  As part of me wrapping things up slowly here, I wanted to leave you with the few that come to mind readily and how I've interpreted/used them.  Apologies if I don't get the wording quite right!  And in no particular order:

1.) "Play to inspire, not to impress."  (PJ Hirabayashi)

This was one of the first pieces of advice I can remember outside of ones directed solely at technique.  It wasn't even something directed at me specifically.  This is probably the one piece of advice given that I've thought the most about.

Impressing people takes skill, yes.  You can't really impress people if you're not good at something.  The problem is, it's often very temporary, and often very conditional.  You might have an impressive move or routine, but if the person after you does something more dazzling, well, so much for your impressiveness.  And while someone might remember the time you did that really fast passage followed by a handstand, how much impact does it have the day after?  Would they even remember it?  Would others?  If people do remember it, to what end?  You might have people trying that move out, but aside from that, what does it do?  It has impact in the moment, but not so much afterwards.

Inspiring people doesn't necessarily take skill.  Sometimes it's the person not as good as the next who really puts it out there and inspires people, or overcoming a challenge/struggling that people identify with.  Inspiring can also be a long-term process, such as seeing someone climb "through the ranks" so to speak to play more songs, harder parts, etc.  Playing to inspire means not trying to have the loudest notes or the trickiest patterns or the loudest voice on stage, because it comes from within - the intention to do your best and to represent yourself, your group with authenticity.  It may not feel as exciting, but it's the kind of thing that can have lasting impact on those not just watching, but also those around you.

2.) "If all taiko groups looked the same, taiko would be a very boring art form."  (Roy Hirabayashi)

This seems like a pretty obvious statement on the surface, but when you think about it, how many songs are played by the same groups in NA alone?  Miyake, Omiyage, Yatai-Bayashi, variations of Yodan Uchi, etc.  This isn't a critique of those songs or any groups playing them, just a comment that in some ways, NA taiko (and in other places) is still relatively new as an art form.

There's a lot of "same-ness" in NA taiko, a lot of groups doing similar things with similar songs.  So does that mean taiko is a boring art form?  Hell no.  But what does it say about the art form in North America?  It's not easy to compose an entire show full of new works that are as exciting or as fun as the stuff already available, sure.  But if we rely on open-source pieces, play the same things as other groups play, wear similar clothing, etc., how does the art form evolve?

Or maybe the question is, does it need to?

3.) "Your performance might be a person's first time they see taiko, or a person's last time they see taiko."  (Kenny Endo)

This one is a classic that I think most people have heard - or many people, at least.  It's a really good reminder to never dismiss a performance you're in no matter how disorganized the setup is, how small the audience is, even what mood you're in at the time.

Imagine being on the other side, watching a group perform something you've never seen before, that you might find so much joy in...except the person playing a thing right now seems really disinterested.  Eh, so much for that, maybe you'll go do something else.  And later, when someone asks how that art form was, you might not have a great view of it.  There's a ripple effect that benefits no one.  As much as you love taiko, you'd hate it if someone came away with that viewpoint, right?  Pushing that extra inch, that extra drop of sweat, sometimes can be a huge difference.

4.) "It's all in one, man."  (Russell Baba)

This is a great piece of advice.  Having trouble with meter or worried about when to come in because the count is tricky?  Sometimes you just have to teach yourself how to feel it, rather than think it.

When I was in my percussion ensemble in college, I got sheet music that I simply could not follow along with.  My sight-reading skills were terrible.  So I re-created it in notation software and listened the crap out of it.  "This passage, then there's 3 sections of crazy, so then I know the goose horn hits five seconds later, and then bam I play here."  That was WAY easier than trying to keep up with 14 time signatures happening within a 30-second period, times 100.  Yeesh.

It can even be just knowing where the downbeat is in a solo, knowing where the accents are inherently.  It's about getting the tempo in your body instead of having to actively listen for it, which adds to the number of things your brain is trying to juggle at that time.  It really is like juggling, because instead of looking at each of the objects in the air (which gets impossible after only a few), you instead should be working with the flow and shapes of how things rise and fall.  It's one big picture...

Feeling the pulse of a song, in your head, in your body, that's a skill that more taiko players could stand to learn.  And it's not something best practiced in the studio/dojo, that's something you can learn just by listening to more music, different music, music that challenges your ear and makes your foot tap out a beat.  It's all about feeling a groove - any groove, all grooves - that a song provides and moving with the beat, not having to count on top of it.  An easy skill?  Not often.  But damn there are few skills quite as valuable.


There are so many good artists out there, not just in taiko but all over.  And there are so many good quotes that can really change how you think about your art, if you take a few and really think about them.  And that's what I'd like you to do, to think about something you heard a while back that stuck with you.  What's there below the words, below the surface?  Where can it take you?

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Monday, July 17, 2017

What really matters

As I start winding down my blog, I'm trying to think of what posts I want to end with, what points to make.  And in doing that, I was thinking about what really matters.

That, dear reader, is entirely up to you.  No one can tell you what matters to you but you.  I and others might be able to shed light on things you hadn't considered, but it won't make you suddenly care about them.  Only you decide what your motivations and interests are.

It's important that your group(s), if you're in one, are able to give you the things that matter to you.  Maybe it's camaraderie, maybe it's stage time, maybe it's the ability to express yourself, whatever.  But more importantly, you need to know what matters to you.  And the best way to know is to ask yourself what your priorities are, what would hurt if taken away from you?  Those are the things that matter.

I've posted about everything from overcoming fear, to stage presence, to balance - but maybe those things don't really matter to you.  I hope I did touch on the things that did, somewhere in my blog, and I hope I made you think about them in greater detail.  If I'm really lucky, I helped you find even more things along the way.

And so I'll end this post with something to consider.  There are things that matter to you greatly that may not matter to others, to people with just as much experience and/or passion as you.  Never fault someone for those differences and try to avoid judgment, lest they do the same to you.  We may not all get along, but if you think of kumidaiko, of ensemble drumming - as drumming with the community, not just your group - then you might start thinking of how to play together in a broader sense.  And that would be something, wouldn't it?

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Compositions for outdoors vs. indoors

So over the Obon weekend, I got to enjoy a lot of collegiate taiko, as well as play taiko myself.  One thought I had this weekend was how some songs are suited better to an indoor environment than outdoors.

Sounds die off a lot quicker when you're outside, and there's competition from environmental sounds (wind, conversations, traffic, etc.)  Complex patterns often get lost, while quieter passages sometimes can't even be heard!  It's a shame when I can see notes being played that I can't hear.

It can also be hard when there's not a strong, identifiable ji or underlying pattern that supports the rest of the song.  It can be simple, like dongo, or something with more flavor, but when there are interlocking/competing patterns without one of them being the clear base, I find some songs become harder to follow outside.  These same songs indoors might be easier to hear with tones decaying slower or timber more easy to differentiate.

This doesn't mean a song has to be boring so that parts can stand out, not by a longshot!  It comes down to volume and execution, usually.   But having a group of people playing different patterns on multiple drums while one person in back plays a polyrhythm on a shime can be hard enough to be clear indoors, let alone when that shime is really hard to hear outside!

Sometimes it helps just having more bodies - more hands, if you will.  But unless those hands can play together really well, more hands can easily mean more audio "clutter" which doesn't help.

Another possible solution might be to modify a song for outdoor use.  Simplifying patterns, switching out one section for another, etc.  No need to scrap a really good song because 5% would be hard to hear!

My point here is to consider how different environments can affect how a song is received.  When we play the instruments, we hear them louder than anyone else.  When we rehearse, many of us hear them indoors, and for others we hear them relatively close to us.  Putting yourself in a potential audience's shoes can be really enlightening, even leading you to compose songs specifically for an outdoor stage, perhaps?

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Sorry, another postponement.

Hi readers!

Well it's the day after San Jose Obon and I am probably dead.  Since I'm writing this before it all happens, I can only assume, but I'm usually dead after.  Coming off a trip to Maui and a cold and work emergencies, I don't have time to blog for today's post, but I'm sure Obon will give me plenty to think about.  See you Thursday!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Maui Taiko's 20th Anniversary!

Maui Taiko's 20th Anniversary concert was a blast!  It was really awesome to play with them on stage, and an honor to have them invite us to be at their first concert!

We had a rehearsal of some sort each day we were there but the last, and they were very sweaty rehearsals, heh.  But the show went off really well, with a crowd of about 700!

One thing from this performance was how much I take for granted with concerts and stage shows.  For people new to that kind of show, there are factors like makeup, lighting, spikes, etc., that has been the norm for us for so long.  It's fun to see people excited and a little nervous over those kind of details.

The show itself was a pretty ambitious one.  It was their 20th Anniversary (involving 4 classes/tiers), but they also invited us, Marco Lienhard, two local minyo (Japanese folk dance) groups, and a group from Japan, Uneme Taiko, that they connected with many years ago.  That's a lot to coordinate and it was impressive how it all came together.  Oh, and Maui had an Obon to play at the night before the show, which is crazy but it sure didn't stop them from putting it out there for the concert!

Having members of the group with family there made it all the more special, with food and accommodations and parties (and after-parties, and after-after-parties...)  As much as I'm the last person to enjoy sun, I'm looking forward to another trip back out there.  We ate lychee nuts right from the tree, picked pineapples from the bush to be eaten minutes later, were well-fed by a lot of generour friends, and if it wasn't for my metabolism, I'd be 10lbs. heavier right now!

During our free time, there was food, shopping, food, beaches with turtles, food, beaches without turtles, food, a Lavender farm, food, and a farm where we picked lychee fruit and pineapples from (which is food).  If it wasn't for my metabolism, I would be a lot larger right now...

And while I did avoid getting burned, I did come away with a cold that I have to shake before Obon weekend hits, because it's going to happen whether or not I'm feeling well!  Hope to see some of you there!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Just a busy little taiko player...

Going to keep this short...

So two weekends ago was Swingposium, right in the midst of a HUGE project for me at work.  And by the time you read this post, I'll have flown out to Maui for Maui's 20th Anniversary concert where they've asked SJT to perform as guest artists.  Can't wait!

Then this weekend is SJ Obon, which is always crazy busy/fun.  And the weekend after that is NATC, yee-haw!  But that means right now?  Too much going on to give decent time to a blogpost.  So enjoy your (holiday) weekend, depending where you live, and I'll see you again on Thursday!