A quick update

My schedule is finally beginning to get a bit busier. I have been wanting to make several entries lately, but amazingly have not had the time to write all that I would like to. The schedule of working, training, and attending taiko classes three times a week, seems to be catching up with me. By the time I get home in the evenings, the first thing on my mind is usually sleeping. I am also finding it harder and harder to wake up to go jogging in the morning. But I am pleased that I have been able to keep up a regular jogging schedule for about a month now. I have tried in the past, but I think I always lost interest within a couple weeks. This time, though, I have a goal to motivate me to continue. At any rate, since my schedule is getting tighter, I may have to resign myself to making briefer entries in the journal.

So here is my quick update:

After worrying that we might have to stop attending our Tuesday evening taiko class (Kaga style drumming) because of work. We have actually been able to attend all but one of the classes this month. Next month also looks like we will be able to attend most of the classes.

The practices for the Shin-Matto-Bayashi Hozonkai have been getting more intense every week, mainly because there are two performances approaching. One this Sunday (9/30) and another October 7th. In fact, this week, practice was led by one of the members of Hono Taiko, Ms. Yamada (I do not know her first name). Needless to say, she made us work twice as hard as usual, which I think you notice twice as much when you are playing the Odaiko. The Odaiko is one of the more strenuous drums to play because, first of all you must use much larger and heavier sticks than the average size drums, and the stance requires your arms to always be in a raised position. An untrained person (that would be me) will likely be nearly exhausted after only a couple minutes of playing. Anyhow, here is picture of the blisters I developed at the practice:

The Hozonkai song is quite long, and I have actually only learned one section of it. When I say “learned”, I only mean the sticking and the rhythms, the technique is a completely different story. Therefore, it has not yet been decided whether or not I will be able to join the group for these next two performances or not. Either way, I will be in attendance at both concerts and if there is opportunity to take video, I will definitely post it for all of you to watch.


A Bit more about Children's Taiko

I recently received a comment from a reader who enjoyed reading the “Children’s Taiko” entry, so I thought that I could write a bit more about it.

I can’t say that I’ve been in Japan long enough to make a judgment like this, but it seems that taiko has become more and more popular over the last 10 years or so, and I am becoming aware of new children’s taiko classes all the time. Of course this could also simply be that as I travel further along the taiko journey, I am just becoming exposed to more of these groups. In any case, children’s taiko classes are certainly prevalent in Japan. My daughter is enrolled in two different classes, each meeting once a week. Many children also have exposure to playing the taiko in their kindergarten and preschool classes. To start my daughter’s first class at Asano Taiko, the teacher asked the parents to share their reason for signing up for the class. There were quite a few parents who mentioned that their children had started learning taiko at preschool/kindergarten and wanted to learn more.

So far, I haven’t come across any groups for children younger than 4 years old. From what I have seen, it is quite an accomplishment to get 4 year olds all playing the drum together. This week will only be our third week in the Asano class, but the teacher has not asked the children to play anything more than single notes so far. The notes are not even part of a rhythm; they are just working on having the correct stance and hand/arm motions. The other class, a neighborhood class, has also not moved beyond very basic rhythms, such as 4 quarter notes, or 4 quarters followed by 5 eighth notes. I am anxious to see what type of song they end up learning.

I have come across children’s groups, which are actually performing groups. Although the average age tends to be a bit older than 4 years old, the members do range in age from early elementary school through high school. One of these groups I saw at Exstasia this year. They were an all girl group from in Island somewhere in Western Japan. It was one of my favorite groups from the Exstasia concert; one of the ones that nearly moved me to tears. They were really incredible. The other group I saw more recently, but they also performed at Exstasia several years ago. They are called Koshu Taiko, or in Japanese writing:高州太鼓. I did not see them at their Exstasia performance, but just last week they performed at the festival of the school where I am working. Their members are also quite young, ranging from around 3rd grade through high school. I got to talk with them for a bit after their performance and we took a photo together.

I was also able to get a video of their performance. The file was too big to upload to youtube in one movie, so there are two parts to it. Please enjoy it.
Part 1

Part 2


Children's Taiko

My daughter is part of two children’s taiko groups. One is a neighborhood group; the other is a class at Asano Taiko for children. Although we are not part of these groups, (we are too old) watching the lessons can be very enlightening, particularly the Asano Taiko class. Here are two things I have learned from observing the lessons:

1. The switch to turn on the taiko – The teacher of the class at Asano began the class by asking the children (mostly between 4 and 6 years old) if they knew where the switch to turn on the taiko is. The kids had a lot of ideas, such as a certain screw on the side of the drum, or turning one of the handles in a certain way. Of course, the switch is not on the drum. After allowing them to make several guesses she told them that the switch to make the taiko play was their heart. I try to think of that now every time I pick up the sticks to play the taiko.

2. Stretching is very important – The teacher spent about half of the class (30 min) doing stretching exercises with the children. Perhaps it took a little longer than usual because it was only the second class and the children are still learning how to do the stretches. Nevertheless, she did mention at one point that it was very important to be as flexible as possible when you play the taiko. I believe she literally said, “People who are flexible when they play the taiko get an incredible sound.” Stiffness is an enemy to taiko playing, but for many beginners (myself included), it seems to be what your body “naturally” does. In fact, it is probably not natural, but unless you consciously think about relaxing, you tend to stiffen up. From playing various sports and learning various instruments, I think it is perhaps a result of nerves and having to think about many different things all at the same time, such as how to stand, how to hold your sticks, the music, etc.

As many wise people have observed, we can learn a great deal from children.


Videos added to Kodo Earth Celebration entries

Just a quick note to say that videos have been added to three of the Kodo Earth Celebration entries. If you would like to see them in context, please scroll back to the previous three entries. Or you can view them in this entry, without the intro.

Miyakejima Hozonkai

Kodo Friday Night Concert - Pre-concert fun

Friday morning performance of Okinawan music and dance


The Miyakejima Hozonkai at Earth Celebration

Part of Friday evening's concert, and Saturday morning’s fringe festival was the Miyake-Jima Hozonkai. If you have ever seen a Kodo performance, live, or on video, it is likely you have seen this piece performed. It is one of Kodo’s old standby numbers, like the Odaiko solo, and Yataibayashi. I believe that Kodo’s continuing performance of this piece has perhaps been a large reason for the widespread popularity of this piece in the taiko world. If you search for Miyake Taiko on Youtube, you will probably find several videos of the song, all performed by different groups.

Although Kodo has helped make this song one of Taiko’s most recognizable, they did not compose it themselves. Miyake Taiko is one of many traditional taiko pieces “kept” and performed by a hozonkai. A hozonkai is a type of cultural preservation group. They seem to be usually dedicated only to a very specific part of culture. For example, the Miyake-Jima hozonkai dedicates itself to the performance and preservation of this single piece of music, which is actually only a few measures of music repeated over and over again. There is also a vocal part which is inserted into the drumming from time to time, but this is also merely a few lines of music.

Perhaps, dear reader, you know the song, “Dueling Banjos”. Imagine a group of people who simply focused on the learning, teaching and performing of this song. If you wanted to learn to play “Dueling Banjos”, you would join this group. The group is dedicated to preserving the folk art of this one piece. From my understanding, this is what a hozonkai does. We have actually joined a hozonkai here, for the song, “Shin Matto Bayashi”. I will write more about that very soon, I hope.

We were able to see the Miyake Hozonkai twice at the Earth Festival. Once during the Friday evening concert with Kodo, and then again, at the Fringe Festival at Kisaki Shrine the next morning. Although the performance at the concert was impressive and enjoyable to watch, the Fringe performance was less restricted, involved more members of the group and lasted nearly 45 minutes. Not to say that I didn’t enjoy the concert, but regarding the Miyake Hozonkai performance, we got a much bigger taste of it the following morning.

I am not good at estimating numbers of people, but I would guess the hozonkai probably had about 50 members with them that morning. They set up one drum on stage, and three more drums on the ground in front of the stage. If you have seen Miyake performed, you know the stance used is very low to the ground and is one of taiko’s most physically demanding positions. Those of you who knew this already may have been surprised when I said they played for nearly 45 minutes. Obviously, with 50 members and only 4 drums, they were not all playing at the same time. Each drum has two people; one is playing the base rhythm (kind of like swing eighth notes - doo ba doo ba doo ba doo) and the other is playing the “melody”. I would say that they switched out players every minute to two minutes. In spite of the short playing time, it was still quite strenuous.

After seeing both Kodo’s performance and the hozonkai’s, I noticed some differences in the music and performance styles.

1. The placement of the drums. Kodo, and most groups that perform this piece, place the drums on a horizontal stand, which is close to the ground. The hozonkai placed all their drums except two directly on the ground. This makes the drum lower to the ground and forces the performer to take on an even lower, more physically demanding stance when playing.

2. Kodo will usually play this song with about 5 drums set up in a V shape. The two performers at the front/center both face the audience, forcing them to mirror each other’s movements. So when one player is hitting the drum with the left hand, the other player is hitting with the right hand. (We tried practicing like this on Sunday, and it takes some getting used to.) The hozonkai did not mirror the person on the other side of the drum. On each drum, one person was facing the audience, and the other had his/her back to the audience.

3. The stance of the person playing the jiuchi (base) rhythm was different. The Kodo players will usually play the jiuchi part with one knee on the ground, while the hozonkai remained on both feet, with their legs spread apart and bent about 90 degrees at the knees. I think they both have advantages/disadvantages. While it is easier for the hozonkai to transition back and forth between the jiuchi and the melody, it seems to be very strenuous for the legs to hold that position for so long. Whereas Kodo’s style of kneeling gives the legs a brief rest, it is more difficult to jump back into the playing stance for the melody and it takes a lot of practice to do it smoothly. It is impressive, though, to see how cleanly they can transition.

4. The hozonkai only played a rhythm of a few measures over and over, whereas Kodo seems to have added different sections in between this “chorus”. They often appear to be improvisations, but I have been told that improvisation is not really a part of taiko playing. Just about every note and movement during a song is planned out.

5. There was also some slight variation in the position of the sticks as they played, but I will not bother to explain that here because it is probably too difficult to illustrate without having a visual aid.

With all their differences, the two playing styles of this piece which we saw were both extremely enjoyable to observe. My wife and I have performed a version of this piece on a few occasions, and we hope to continue to perform it, but after seeing the performances at the Earth Celebration, we could see many areas in which we need to improve. We will continue to work hard and hopefully reach an acceptable level for performance.

Please enjoy this video of the Fringe Festival performance.