Miyake Taiko Workshop

It is the last day of the Golden Week Holidays. Since Sunday, I could finally relax for a couple of days, but there are many people at Asano who had to get up Monday morning and continue working, practicing and performing.

There were so many new experiences this past weekend, I honestly don't know where to start, and I'm afraid I will forget about some of them if I don't write them down. For the time being, I guess I'll just begin chronologically and write about the Miyake taiko workshop.

There were two workshops on Saturday for Miyake Taiko. Both my wife and I took part, but at different times. I attended the first workshop since I had a rehearsal for the next day's concert later that afternoon. There were about 10 participants in the workshop, including Jige san of Hono Taiko. At the start of the workshop, Asano san gave a short greeting to everyone. He told us that he had been wanting to invite Miyake Taiko group for an event at Asano for a long time, but they are very difficult to get. He talked about how the Miyake style/song is very well known, because it is an established part of Kodo's repertoire. Kodo's Miyake, however, is slightly different because they have made some adjustments for stage performance. The Miyake taught by this father and son quartet (Tsumura family) is very traditional.

After Asano san's short introduction, the Tsumura's played a short demonstration of the piece, for those who were unfamiliar with it. They begin with traditional vocals, and after a verse (?) the ji uchi begins (da don, da don, da don, ...) It gave me chills the same way it did at the Earth Celebration last summer.

Following the demonstration, Mr. Tsumura (the father) taught us the melody rhythm in three sections. It is fairly simple, and can be learned fairly quickly. After that, he gave some guidance on how to hold, position and swing the sticks as you play. One of the important aspects of playing Miyake taiko is getting a big sound. This is one thing that I really notice when watching this family play, and comparing them with many other groups that perform this piece.

There are a couple factors that contribute to the loud sound. One is longer sticks. One of the things they told us all at the beginning of the workshop was that all are sticks were too short. I think I heard them say that their sticks are at least 50 cm long. This allows them to get a loud sound, but it also protects your hands. The drums they typically use for Miyake are about 1.8 shaku or 2.0 shaku. Those drums have a diameter around 60 cm, so if your sticks are short, you are likely to hit your hands on the rims of the drums. The way you hold the sticks is also different than regular taiko playing. Normally, you would grip the sticks with your bottom three fingers (pinkie, ring, and middle), leaving the thumb and pointer finger fairly relaxed. For Miyake, it is the opposite. The thumb and pointer finger grip the stick firmly. I don't know how to explain it well, but this allows you to get a wider (?) swing, and more speed, thus, leading to a louder sound.

Following his guidance on stance, holding, and swinging the sticks, we practiced playing the melody a bit more. We then went on to the ji-uchi, or base rhythm. It is also a simple rhythm, almost like swing eighth notes, but not so smooooth. Instead of duu ba duu ba duu ba duu, it's more of a da don da don da don da don. The key points Mr. Tsumura mentioned for ji-uchi was to swing the sticks parallel to the ground, instead of diagonally, and to swing the sticks with a big motion, making sure that the left hand especially swings all the way back. One reason for this big motion is because the person doing ji-uchi has their back to the audience (not the case with Kodo) and this large motion makes it more interesting for the audience to watch.

After we had practiced the melody and the base rhythm, we were taught how to smoothly transition between players, without a break in the song. As we watched the group, along with all their regular students, play last summer at the Earth celebration, they continuously switched players, without a break for nearly a half hour. They each played the melody rhythm about 5 times, and then another member would step in to take their place. When you watch them do it, it appears quite simple, but it is a little more difficult when you actually try it. The ji-uchi player switches out first. The new player backs in and takes over the rhyth, as the first player moves out of the way. The melody player is a little trickier. S/he pulls in the right foot towards the end of the phrase, kneeling down on the right knee. The last two notes before getting out of the way, the left foot is moved back, making an opening for the new player to step in. Most workshop attendees never quite got the hang of it, including myself.

Now we had learned the melody, the base rhythm, and how to transition between players, so we spent some time rotating around the room between two taikos so that Mr. Tsumura had a chance to watch each of us and give us a little bit of individual commentary.

The next thing to learn was speeding up. After playing the melody for awhile, someone usually decides to pick up the tempo, until it gets ever so fast, and finally the vocals come in again, and it slows back down. This is not so technically difficult, it simply involves listening to the base rhythm, and following that as it speeds up. The physical aspect is another story, though. The squating position of Miyake style and the moving back and forth is already strenuous, and when it speeds up it becomes even harder to do. With practice, though, I'm sure that those muscles build up and it gets a little easier. The musical point Mr. Tsumura made here was that the tempo should not start slow and gradually speed up, but rather, it starts slow, and stays slow until a certain person decides to go into the accelerando. Still, you don't play faster and faster as you play the melody, but rather you up the tempo each time you start the melody anew. Even then, it followed some sort of pattern like this: 1st time speed up, second time, speed up again, third time maintain tempo, fourth time, speed up, fifth time, speed up. Mr. Tsumura said that these sudden jumps in tempo, as opposed to gradual ones, make it clearer that you are not just getting faster and faster because you cannot keep a tempo, but rather because it is part of the music. Personally, I like the effect of the tempo jumps better as well.

Finally, we got a bit of a special treat because we had a small class (and perhaps we were faster learners than usual?) Anyway, Mr. Tsumura said that usually he didn't teach this aspect because there was not enough time. What he taught us was where to accent the ji-uchi as you accompany the melody. The accents pretty much fall in line with what the melody is playing. We practiced this as well, but not having built up the Miyake Muscles, our accents were a bit weak. The next day, at the concert performance, there was a point were all the Miyake players dropped out just one of them played jiuchi with these accents. The accents were so effective, though, that it still sounded like two people were actually playing.

At this point, there was only about 20 minutes left, and from then until the ending time, we just practiced what we had learned, rotating around the room between the two drums.

I was tired afterwards, but not so much as I imagined that I would be. I was mostly worried about having sore muscles, which I didn't really feel that much that afternoon, nor the next day (Monday was a different story, but I don't think that was from the Miyake workshop).

An interesting note Mr. Tsumura mentioned during the workshop. As most people know, Miyake Taiko is one of the standby numbers of Kodo. As I pointed out after seeing the performance at Earth Celebration, there are some differences between the Hozonkai style and Kodo's style. One of those differences was that during the ji-uchi (base) the Kodo players kneel on one leg, while the hozonkai remain in the squatting position (much more strenous). Mr. Tsumura shared with us the reason for this during the workshop. It seems that the only instruction Kodo received on Miyake style was also a two hour workshop (probably similar to what we had) from Mr. Tsumura and his sons. Mr. Tsumura said that when they first teach ji-uchi to students, they always do it from this kneeling position because it is usually too difficult for new learners to maintain for long periods of time. They also taught it to Kodo in this way, and since they only had the one workshop, they only showed them in the kneeling position. Some time later, when they asked Kodo why they played the ji-uchi from a kneeling position, there answer was, "because that's the way you taught it to us." Anyway, at least that is what I understood. I could have misheard some details, since I am not a native Japanese speaker, but my wife (who is) seems to have heard the same story. (I know I have an occasional Kodo apprentice reader out there, so if you know there are any flaws in this account, please let me know.)

So that is pretty much my experience with the Miyake Taiko workshop. Now that we have received some proper instruction on the style, I hope we can continue to practice it and improve. If you've read all the way to the end of this, thank you very much. You must be a big taiko fan or a relative. Next time, I will write about the concert on Sunday.


Alwen said...

I don't think I'm a relative, so that makes me a taiko fan. I first heard Kodo years ago in Kalamazoo.

Raion Taiko said...

Thanks for reading, Alwen. I'm glad you enjoy taiko. Do you live in Michigan? I've heard rumors that Kodo will be doing a concert in Ann Arbor this fall, but have not been able to find any thing to confirm that yet. Keep your ears open.

captainfez said...

I'd love to do this sort of a workshop on a trip to Japan; Miyake is the style I enjoy the most, but I have the most trouble with it.

Do you have any contact/timing details for the workshops? I'd be very interested in organising a trip for next year.

Great blog, incidentally.

Raion Taiko said...

Thanks Capt Fez, I'm glad you enjoy the blog. Miyake is a lot of fun, even though it is one of the more strenuous styles. As a matter a fact, I can give you some info on miyake workshops. Miyake workshops (by the Tsumura Father and sons) are currently offered twice a month at Asano's Tokyo Dojo: http://www.asano.jp/kyouwakan/class/index.html#miyake
The Tsumura's also teach all around Tokyo several times a month. You can see their schedule at: http://www.miyaketaiko.com/en/

Hope this is helpful.