Asano Beat with Hono Taiko and Hikari

Last night (Feb 28) Asano Taiko held what is to be the first of monthly concerts in its Museum (pictured above). The performers were Hono Taiko and Hikari. Hono Taiko I have mentioned many times in this blog (in fact, if you search google for "hono taiko" this blog comes up on the first page of results several times). Hikari, I have not mentioned quite as often (I did a couple weeks ago, though, when one of their members was here for dinner). Hikari is also made up of three women (like Hono Taiko). The Hikari members are all in their early 20s and have been learning taiko at Asano since they were little girls.

The center of the museum had been cleared out and replaced with about 100 chairs for the audience. At the back of the museum, there is a platform, where there is usually an Odaiko placed with bachi so that guests can try it out. This platform had been transformed into a stage for the performance. It looked like this:

The lights went down and ambient (?) music began to play as images of the moon, cherry blossoms, forests were projected onto the face of the Odaiko. Enter the performers. The six women floated down the aisle toward the stage carrying small lanterns. The images projected on the Odaiko ended with a huge picture of the moon. Which was appropriate because the first song was 月光 (Gekko) or "Moonlight". This is one of my very favorite pieces written by Hono Taiko's Mizue Yamada. I am hoping that she will teach it to us before we leave so that we can perform it back in Michigan. Last night it was played with five parts: One person was playing two shime taiko. Two more were playing a large Okedaiko (maybe about 80 cm) along with a shime taiko. The other two people were playing two long pieces of bamboo. If you enlarge the picture of the stage, you can probably see them towards the front of the stage.

Gekko was followed by a short piece featuring a bamboo flute (shinobue) duet called Inishie. Yamada san of Hono Taiko and Okazaki san of Hikari played the flutes while they were accompanied by the other two members of Hikari. Hono Taiko's Kinoshita Chieko san followed the flute duet with an Odaiko solo on the giant drum at the back of the stage. After the Odaiko solo, Yamada san and Jige san, the other members of Hono Taiko, joined Kinoshita san on the stage for an old, Hono Taiko standby number, Nihon Kai(日本海) or "The Sea of Japan" which I suppose is meant to remind one of the nearby Sea of Japan. I have heard Nihon Kai before, but this was the first time I had heard it in its full length. It is pretty long and appeared to be fairly strenuous. I enjoyed it.

After Nihon Kai, there was a break in the music and Jige san took a few minutes to thank everyone for coming out, introduce the performers and explain a little bit about the songs. It is always interesting when Jige san talks because she tends to kind of talk in an almost stream-of-consciousness way, where she'll just say almost anything that pops into her head, start conversations with people she knows in the audience and appears to almost forget that she is in the middle of a performance. But I think that is one of the reasons that everyone really likes Jige san; she is such a free spirit. (In fact, she is one of the reasons I became captivated by taiko drumming.)

Jige san's interlude was followed by a number with just the members of Hikari playing shime taiko called Ranma (乱馬), which means "wild horse". Having spent the last 6 months focused on shime taiko playing, I enjoy and appreciate the shime taiko pieces all the more.

Hono Taiko returned after Ranma with a new (?) piece called "Out of the Blue" (no Japanese title). This was a much different piece than what I am used to seeing from them. It had a slower feeling about it and was dependent on a lot of interaction between the three performers. It was very musical and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

For the Finale, Kinoshita san brought out her shamisen and Jige san got out her voice and led the audience in a rousing version of a folk song. At the end, all six performers took a final bow on the stage to accept the applause. Then Yamada san, who was in the middle held up her hand, and put the finger of her other hand to her mouth, signaling the applause to stop, at which point the ambient music from the beginning began playing again. Each performer then picked up their candle lanterns they had brought onto the stage at the beginning and made their exit.

The concert was an hour, a good length if you have small children with you. It was very professional... well, of course it was, but this is somewhat remarkable because they didn't hire any professionals for lighting or sound, and so on. They only used people that they had on staff already. They called it a "completely home-made performance". The small venue and small number of guests (officially 126) made it an intimate and enjoyable affair. The March concert will be on March 21st, featuring Hono Taiko, some members of Hikari and Kumen Kirishima Taiko's former Odaiko soloist, Mayumi Hashimoto. If you happen to be in Kanazawa, I recommend putting it on your schedule.

Is Your Face Alright?

In Japan, where the school year begins in April, March is graduation season. The school where I work is having its graduation ceremony on Monday. On Friday the choir was practicing singing Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" to sing at the event. The music teacher was not happy with the students' expression while singing the song. At one point he told them: 顔を見るだけで聴きたくないんだ。 For those who don't read Japanese, what he said is: "Just looking at your faces I don't want to listen to your singing."

This made me think of my post the other day about developing that special something in your group. What I mean is that your facial expression is just as important as playing the right notes and dynamics and is another thing that can give your performance that little boost, setting it apart from the mediocre. If your face looks bored, your audience will probably be bored. On the other hand, if your face reflects the feelings of the music, whether it's happy, sad, intense, then you will captivate your audience and they will feel the music with you and have a much more enjoyable experience.

So if you have started video taping your practices, like I mentioned in this post, then another good thing to pay attention to would be the expression on your face.


Taiko Drums Cost How Much!?

Recently I've been putting more time into the business aspects of starting up this taiko center in Michigan. I'm reading a very insightful book, "The E-myth Revisited" by Michael Gerber for the second time and taking notes. For anyone who is considering starting, or in the midst of running a small business, I would highly recommend it. I've also been spending some time going through the primer courses offered through the Small Business Association website. (Also very helpful for people without much business background)

Anyhow, I was reminded of the importance of putting together a good business plan, so I brushed the dust off my partially completed plan, which I have hardly touched for about a year and started working on it again. I thought I would start with calculating some of the start up costs.

Now, I know, (and I knew) that taiko are expensive, but I don't think I had ever sat down and calculated the total cost in detail, that is, the cost of not only the drums, but of stands, cases and so on. By the way, cases can cost a lot more than you might think. So I compiled a conservative list of what drums we would like to get started and began to add up the cost. In the end, what we want will run around... $80,000! (Any charitable donors out there?) The aspect that does not take into account is shipping the drums from Japan to the US, which, from what I hear, can cost nearly as much as the drums. That is my next on my list of things to research, I guess.

Well, $80,000 is actually a conservative estimate for the drums. It is actually possible that we will end up paying significantly less than that. But even if it is cut in half, that's still $40,000, isn't it. I guess I'll just have to keep putting coins in my piggy bank.


2 Suggestions to Help Your Taiko Group Develop That "Je ne sais quoi"

Saturday I practiced mainly shime taiko from 1 to 5:30 PM. That's a lot of strain on one's wrist and it is slightly painful now. I need to take it easy. I don't want to damage it permanently.

Anyhow, At Saturday's practice for one of the groups I am in, Jigen, two pieces of advice given to us by Yamada sensei stuck in my mind. One wasn't actually advice, but it still stuck with me. Both had to do with stage presence.

Now, you can see a lot of taiko in Japan. Some of it is good, and some of it is really good. What is it that makes the difference between a good group and a really good group?  The groups that are really impressive, there is something different about them, something, ... you can't always put your finger on it exactly... something...that je ne sais quoi.

I might be able take a very simple phrase and play it perfectly: rhythm, dynamics, etc, just as it is written on the page, and it would probably sound fine. But give the exact same music to a member of a group like Yamato, for example, and have them play it and it will probably sound like a completely different song and be much more impressive. I hope you know what I'm talking about.

So how do you get to that point where you have that certain something than makes you a cut above the rest? Practice, of course, but there are other little things that can make a big difference. Here is one:

1. Act like you're cool (even if you think you're not).
We were watching a video of another Asano group, Sasuke, play the same song we are working on. Sasuke is made up of high school students and they took home top honors in a national youth taiko contest last summer in Tokyo. As we were watching them, admiring their movement in unison and so on, Yamada sensei said, "They think they're so cool". She was kind of teasing them, but I thought that unless you think you are cool, you probably won't look cool on stage. This isn't about being cool or not being cool, it's about thinking you're cool (not cocky cool, though). If you can tell yourself that you are cool for the 30 min or hour, or whatever that you are on stage, I think it makes a big difference. After all, you are cool. Drummers are cool and taiko drummers are not only cool, they're still somewhat unique (yes, even in Japan, it is unique to a certain degree). I don't know if I'm very good at explaining this "acting cool" thing, but I hope that you can follow my point.

And now for the other suggestion:
2. Play taiko with your whole body.
In Western drumming, I would say that one is probably trained to use mostly hands and wrists when playing the drums. If I asked what the difference between Western and Taiko drumming is, probably many people would say that for taiko, you need to use your whole arms. I say, you need to use every last part of your body, from the hair on your head, to your toe nails.

I think developing this partly just takes time and practice until you are comfortable enough with the correct stances, rhythms, and so on. You also have to be aware, though, that putting your whole body into your playing is just as important as playing the right notes. Yamada sensei had us work on this for one particular phrase in the song. When we eventually "got it" she said it looked 10 times better and asked us to do the same thing for the rest of the song.

She helped us to understand what she meant by using a sports analogy. She said using only your arms and/or upper body to play taiko is like a soccer player who only uses his leg and foot to kick the ball, or a baseball player who leaves his feet planted to throw a pitch. Picture those images in your head. Doesn't it look silly? If you think of a soccer player kicking a goal, or a pitcher throwing a pitch, their whole body is involved in the process. It should be the same with taiko. Although, your hands and arms are the main parts that are moving, your whole body should be involved in playing taiko.

I don't know if either of these suggestions are helpful to anyone out there. And I admit, they may not apply to all the styles of taiko that is being played out there. I also admit, that I probably haven't done a great job of explaining them clearly. It is kind of difficult to explain them without being able to show them. Then again, you never know what some people will find helpful, so I hope this will prove to be helpful to some of you.


Last Friday's Dinner

I just noticed that this will be my 100th post! Hurray! Let's hope for at least a hundred more.

Anyhow, last Friday we invited our taiko teacher, Mizue Yamada of Hono Taiko and Kazusa Okazaki, a member of a group called Hikari, the teacher of our daughter's taiko class and an employee working in the office at Asano Taiko over for dinner. We wanted to share our plans with them, hear their opinions, get their advice and so on. We were very happy and encouraged to receive the full support of our teacher, Ms. Yamada.

We didn't think to take any pictures, but Okazaki san did, and it just so happens that she writes her own blog for Hikari, the group in which she plays. She was kind enough to put up a couple pictures from the dinner.

Okazaki-san, member of Hikari and teacher of our daughter's taiko class, with our son and daughter

Okazaki san and Yamada san with our daughter (and a green tea flavored panda cookie)

If you can read Japanese, don't forget to follow Hikari's blog.


Kaga Taiko Lesson

Did I say the last entry would be "short"? I guess I did. Oh well. I've got to work on being less verbose.

As promised, I will write more about Kaga Taiko today. I'll try not to make it too long. There is a lot I could say (and probably will, eventually) about Kaga Taiko, but this time, I will just try to describe what Kaga Taiko practice is like.

The practice begins at 1:00 on Sunday afternoons, but people kind of show up when they are able to. Some are there right at 1:00, others show up as late at 3:00. If you are there on time, Ichikawa sensei will begin by warming everyone up together. Everyone plays on a nagado taiko, if there are not enough, some people will double up. Ichikawa sensei will play a rhythm used in Kaga Taiko, and then we all imitate it until he says stop. Then he will introduce another, slightly more complicated rhythm and we imitate again until he says stop. Usually, by the end of the warm up he has given us about 5, increaslingly complicated patterns, and then the warming up is finished. It probably took about 15 minutes.

After a short break, he begins teaching. Sometimes he will demonstrate a technique, rhythm or movement used in Kaga Taiko, and then we will each take turns trying it out while he makes corrections. Usually, however, the teaching takes the for of mini private lessons of around 15 to 20 minutes.

You see, when playing Kaga Taiko, there are usually only three people playing at a time. One is playing flute, the other is playing ji-uchi (doko don, doko don...), or "kobachi", as it is called in Kaga Taiko, and the third is playing the solo. Therefore, you cannot have all 10 people or so playing at once, you have to give individual instruction. At Ichikawa Juku the teaching is mainly handled by Ichikawa sensei, and sometimes by the assistant instructor, Chiaki sensei.

After the warm-ups, Ichikawa sensei will choose a student and say, okay, play something. If it is your turn, you come up to the front, play the best Kaga Taiko you can. When you finish your little 2 or 3 minute solo, Ichikawa sensei will instruct you and help you fix some of your mistakes. The better you are, it seems that the stricter he is with his guidance. Since my wife and I are fairly new at this, he is still pretty nice to us, but he warned us that he is going to be stricter if we continue.

Anyway, to give you a feel for the lessons, here is a short video from my wife's lesson last Sunday. The man is Ichikawa sensei and the woman is Chiaki sensei.

The drums are covered to mute the sound a little so as not to disturb the neighbors too much.

Well, again, this is becoming longer than I intended and there is still a lot more to say about Kaga Taiko. So, I'll just have to save it for next time. Until then, enjoy the video, don't forget to give it a rating, leave comments, share it with your friends, etc. and come back soon...


Do You Videotape Your Taiko Practices?

Today, a short entry with a suggestion for any of the readers who are in taiko groups of their own. I was recently reminded of how helpful and enlightening it can be to tape (video, that is) yourself, or your group during practice, and then watching it afterwards and critiquing the performance together.

With taiko, I think that the way the performers look and move together on stage is just as important as playing the correct rhythms and playing a song musically. But knowing how you look while playing, trying to see whether everyone's movements are in unison and checking to see if you, or anyone else has any type of strange movement tendencies going on is pretty tough to accomplish while you are trying to play the song yourself. Even if one member is to step back and watch, that person cannot see everything, and sometimes, it is more effective to see what is wrong with your playing on your own, instead of having someone else tell you.

You can solve some of these problems by putting up mirrors in your practice area. It can be helpful to a certain extent, but it is still difficult to concentrate on noticing every thing that needs to be fixed, while at the same time trying to perform the song. If you set up a camera, though, you can focus on playing/performing and then watch it afterwards as many times as you want, so that you are sure to catch all of the little things. It is amazing, sometimes, what you can notice when you step back like that to watch yourself play.

This probably isn't a groundbreaking suggestion for most of you. Many of you are probably saying, "Yeah, we already do that. Thanks anyway." We have actually been doing that for awhile as well. It isn't really a new idea for us either. It's just that this past Saturday, we did it for the first time in quite a while and I was so impressed by how effective it was in letting us know where we stood and what needed to be fixed.

It was a song that we have all memorized and have been practicing since last October (2008). It is quite a difficult song and a pretty long song as well, but we felt like we had made pretty good progress and were nearing an acceptable level of performance (which was good, because our performance is only about 2 or 3 weeks away). So our teacher, Yamada sensei, said, "I'm going to tape you guys and then I want you to watch it." So we taped it and sat down to watch it. We finished, it was quiet, Yamada sensei said, "You guys thought you were further along than this, didn't you. You're going to have to work really hard these next few weeks to get this ready."

She was right. Stepping back and watching it on video was very enlightening. I didn't realize how much I was actually looking down, instead of looking forward, out into the audience. Our dynamics, which we thought were really good, were hardly noticeable. Our accents were barely stronger than the unaccented notes. At some points, the height and movement of our bachi (sticks) was all over the place.

Although there are a lot of places to fix up, most of them are pretty easy to repair. Had we not watched ourselves on video, however, we wouldn't have noticed them... Until it was TOO LATE! AHHHHHHHH! Sorry, just kidding. Anyway, we decided to tape ourselves again next practice.

So, if you don't already tape yourselves at practice, I highly suggest that you give it a try. You may be surprised at what you notice.


Learning Kaga Taiko at Ichikawa Juku

The exit off of the highway is barely noticeable. There is no sign, and hardly any deceleration ramp, just a narrow street that quickly disappears underneath a bridge as soon as it leaves the highway. You follow that street through a small group of houses clustered together, then you come out into an open space with mostly rice fields on either side of the road. On the left is a slightly run-down textile factory, which also happens to be our destination.

We park in front of the building and enter through the side door. It leads into a large room with about 6 desks pushed together in the middle of the room covered in papers, coffee cans filled with pens, ash trays and so on. The walls are decorated with several posters of swimsuit campaign models from the mid-90s for tool companies and beer.

The room behind the door in the back of the office has only a table pushed into a corner, and a few chairs lining the wall. The windows have been covered with thick polystyrene and then covered again with sheets. In the center of the room is one large naga-oke taiko and about 6 nagado taiko.

This is Ichikawa Juku in Komatsu, Ishikawa prefecture, Japan. It is one of the few places where you can learn Kaga Style Taiko, the 400 year old traditional style of taiko drumming unique to this area. We decided to attend this school as often as we could, following our December Kaga Taiko recital.

The Kaga Taiko courses we had taken only lasted from September to December. After the classes finish in December, we didn't have any opportunity to practice this style of drumming. In comparison to modern, sousaku taiko (what most of us probably are playing) Kaga Taiko is much more difficult to play and master. Therefore, if we want to continue it after we return to Michigan, we figured we needed to learn as much as we could.

Ichikawa Juku holds classes on Sunday afternoons, starting at 1 PM and lasting until...well, until the last person leaves, I suppose. It's a tough schedule for us. It probably takes 40 or 45 minutes to drive there and Sunday afternoons, there tends to be a lot of events that come up. In spite of this, we decided to attend as much as we could, at least until November or December, when we are hoping to return to Michigan.

The style of drumming and the style of teaching is much different than what we have been mostly doing/learning here. It is very complicated, challenging and interesting. And unfortunately, today, I don't have time to get into it all, so I must save it for next time. Come back soon to check for the update (with video!)


Advice From Our Teacher

This past Friday evening (Feb. 13), taiko fans in Michigan were likely attending Kodo's performance at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. If you missed it, I believe you have one more chance to see them, in East Lansing at the Wharton Center at MSU (assuming that the performance is not sold out).

Unfortunately we could not attend the concert, since we are in Japan. Still, we had an enjoyable Friday evening. We had invited our teacher, Mizue Yamada (Hono Taiko) and our daughter's taiko teacher, Kazusa Okazaki (Hikari) over for dinner to talk about our plans for taiko in Michigan, get some advice and ask them a lot of questions.

We were very pleased to receive their votes of confidence and full support in our endeavour. We hope that at some point in the future, we will be able to invite both Hono Taiko and Hikari to visit Michigan, perform and hold workshops.

Yamada sensei had lots of advice for us, but I'll just share a couple things with you. As I expected, she told us to practice shime taiko really hard so that we can become really good at shime taiko. She said that, in general, if you are a team that is good at shime taiko, then you are likely a team that is good all around. (That is why I have been practicing shime taiko so hard these past several months. Want some suggestions on practicing shime taiko? shime taiko exercise 1, shime taiko exercise 2)

Another piece of advice she gave us was to practice so that you can keep a tempo, without speeding up or slowing down. My brother (the drummer) has also told me this many times and he says the best way to learn this is with daily metronome practice. (daily is the key here) You really have to internalize the tempos so that you can be consistent like a metronome even when the metronome is not there. Yamada sensei added to this advice, saying that while metronome practice is important, when you are playing with a group, it is more important to play together with each other. Of course, you don't want your tempo to speed up or slow down too much (unless it is part of the music) but were the group to speed up, and only one person notices it, and that one person stubbornly decides to keep the tempo, the group will not be together and the music will slowly just turn indiscriminate banging on drums. So, in a group, listening to one another and staying together is more important than stubbornly keeping a tempo. Hopeful, though, if you have been doing enough metronome practice, everyone in the group will be able to keep the tempo.

Well, just realized we ran out of milk for breakfast, so I must run out and get some before the kids wake up.


How to Practice Shime Taiko - Part 2 - Accents

I think practicing shime taiko every day with a metronome can really help you improve quickly. And not only with shime taiko or taiko playing, but with music in general. In December I pulled out my violin to begin practicing for a Christmas performance at school and I could even see improvements in my violin playing, thanks to the extra shime practice I had been doing.

The last time I posted an entry about practicing shime taiko I had a positive response from several readers, so I thought I would introduce another exercise I use nearly every day to practice shime taiko. This one comes to you thanks to my brother, the drummer for Chicago's Detholz. This exercise was actually taken from a book he showed me called, "The Rudimentary Cookbook", and I believe it is intended for snare drumming, but many of the exercises are easily transferable to shime practice.

Here is a link to a PDF file of the page: Shime Taiko Accent Exercise The exercise I refer to in this post is "EXERCISE NO. 2"

This exercise focuses on accents. If you can't play shime taiko with clean and decisive accents, your shime playing will probably not be all that interesting. This is a good exercise to work on developing accents.

Before giving my own recommendations and comments, here is what the book says about this exercise:

"The purpose of No. 2 is to enable the performer to place accents when and where desired while playing a rhythmically consistent pattern. Care should be taken to be sure that unaccented notes are kept low and even while accented notes are played fairly high. Keep in mind that accent height should always be relative to the overall dynamic level of the exercise."

My personal recommendation is to practice it starting with your non-dominant hand (left in my case), use a metronome and practice it slowly. I usually set the metronome on 16th notes at around 65 or 70. If you are not used to this type of exercise, you will probably not be able to keep up the tempo at a higher speed.

What I also found when I first started doing this exercise, was that I had trouble keeping the notes even in measures 9, 10 and 11. So I had to slow down the tempo to a rate where I was able to play them evenly. Now that I am more comfortable with the exercise, I will occasionally bump up the tempo to 80 or 90 (there are weaknesses that faster tempos can bring out also), but most of the time I am still practicing at 65 or 70.

The other big thing to keep in mind with practicing accents like this is to keep the non-accented notes as quiet as possible and the accents as clear as possible. This can be a challenge, especially playing at a faster tempo, but if you are able to do it well, it can make your shime playing 10 times more interesting. I think it is better to focus on keeping the unaccented notes quieter, than to focus on making the accents louder. Otherwise you may fall into the trap of putting too much arm movement into the accented notes. Accents and volume do not come from strength, but rather from the quickness of the stroke. So be careful not to put too much arm into it.

Hope this is helpful to all the taiko players out there.

Photo Credit: Flickr


Asano Taiko - 400th Anniversary Celebration

This June (2009), Asano Taiko is turning 400 years old. To celebrate their birthday, Asano Taiko is putting on three days of taiko workshops and concerts (a rare sale as well) on June 5th, 6th and 7th. I realize that most of my readers do not live in Japan, and posting the great taiko opportunities available in June may just make some of you envious (sorry) but then again, it is in June, which is summer, and there is a chance that some of you might be visiting Japan at that time and may want to plan a visit to Asano into your travels. If you can read Japanese, here is a link to Asano's 400th Anniversary Activities. If not, here is a brief overview of the three days:

Most workshops cost 1000 yen (a great deal) The Mini Taiko workshop is 2009 yen and the outdoor workshops are free.

Friday, June 5
Workshops 10:30 - 18:00
Making a mini-taiko
Outdoor Workshop 1
Shime Taiko Workshop
Odaiko Workshop
Outdoor Workshop 2
Miyake Taiko Workshop
Odaiko Workshop

Special Concert - 1000 yen
18:30 Hakusan-shi Matto Gakushu Center (白山市松任学習センター)
Guests include - Hono Taiko, Kaneko Ryutaro (former Kodo) Fujimoto Yoshikazu (Kodo), Hajijojima Taiko, Miyake Taiko, and more...

Saturday, June 6
Workshops 9:30 - 16:30
Making a mini-taiko
Hachijo Jima Taiko
Outdoor Workshop 3
Play (taiko) and dance Workshop
Shime taiko Workshop
Odaiko Workshop
Outdoor Workshop 4
Chappa Workshop
Katsugi taiko Workshop
Outdoor Workshop 5

Sunday, June 7
Workshops, 9:00 - 15:30
Katsugi Workshop
Shime taiko Workshop
Outdoor Workshop 6
Making a mini-taiko
Hajijo Jima Taiko Workshop
Miyake Taiko Workshop
Hokuriku Mitsu Uchi Workshop
Singing "Kiyari" Workshop ("Kiyari" is the song usually sung before, and during Miyake Taiko)

The workshops are all being led by well known, established, professional taiko players, from groups such as Hono Taiko, Kodo, Miyake Jima Geino Doshikai and so on.

As an added bonus, several times each day, for three days, there will be 15 - 30 minute mini-live performances in the Museum by many of the guest performers and workshop instructors. The times for the mini-live performances are:
1. 10:00
2. 13:00
3. 16:30

1. 10:00
2. 13:00
3. 15:00
4. 16:45 (15 min performance of Gojinjo Taiko)

1. 10:00
2. 12:30
3. 14:00 (20 min)
4. 16:00 (45 min finale)

Finally, Asano taiko will be offering 400 items at a sale price, drums, bachi, chappa, bags, etc., so if you're coming from overseas, leave some extra room in your baggage to take home that Odaiko!

If anyone would like more information about these events, needs help registering, and so on, please send me an email with your questions. I can't promise anything, but I'll do what I can to help you out. raion.taiko@gmail.com


Yamato New Year Concert - Part 3

It has been several weeks since we traveled to Nara to see Yamato perform their New Year concert. So it is probably time to finish up writing my "review" of their performance. This will be my third and final entry recounting Yamato's 2009 New Year Concert.

I have seen them around eight times now, and in the 8 years since I first saw them, their set list has not changed all that much, two or three songs at the most. Still, it never gets boring. Part of that is because they're simply awesome, and awesomeness never gets old. Another part, however, is that they are constantly adjusting and improving their pieces. The "Hayate" (shamisen piece) I saw at the 2009 concert is much different than the "Hayate" I first saw back in Salzburg in 1999; although it is the same song. Even the "Rekka" I saw at Exstasia this past summer was different than the "Rekka" performed in Nara a few weeks ago. Yamato is constantly tweaking their performance and their songs. They are always looking for little ways to make things better, more interesting, more exciting, always challenging themselves. Of course, this is good for their own development and improvement, but for the audience, as well, it has the result of making you feel that each time you see them, you are seeing a new concert (yet it still has that familiar feel, because you know all the pieces).

There is just one final aspect of the Yamato concert which I will share. I'm not sure exactly what to call it, professionalism? preparedness? anticipation of problems? Maybe it is all those things wrapped up into one, and I cannot think of the word that would describe that. Most taiko players have probably experienced bachi (sticks) breaking or slipping out of hands during a performance (or at least during a practice), and most of us probably have our trusty Yobi Bachi (spare pair) in a bag tied to the back of the drum, or at least on the floor or somewhere easy to reach quickly. Should we lose a bachi while playing, an extra one is then easily accessible. I would say that there were about two or three broken bachi during the Yamato concert, but their efficiency at grabbing the spare and continuing playing as if nothing happened is so good that you probably wouldn't realize that anything had even happened, if it weren't for the broken bachi flying through the air across the stage. They are able to adjust to these bachi mishaps so smoothly that they, literally, do not miss a beat.

But what really impressed me was how they dealt with a problem during "Hayate", the song which features shamisen. Towards the end of the song, the lead shamisen player, Mika Miyazaki, has an exciting solo. Yes, shamisen is a traditional Japanese instrument, but she gets into the solo so much, that you can't help recalling images of head-banging rock star guitarists when she plays it. It's great. Anyhow, a few measures before the solo, I noticed her turn her head backwards for a brief moment to the shamisen player behind her to her left. At the time, I thought she was maybe just getting into the music with her fellow shamisen players. But when it came time for the solo, I noticed they were both playing it. My first reaction was, "Oh, I so they put two people on the solo this year," but then I noticed something catching the light from Mika's shamisen. One of her strings had broken. I realized, she must have turned around to the girl behind her to signal that she should back her up on the solo. All this happened so seamlessly that neither my wife, nor the other two people we had come to the concert with even noticed that anything had gone wrong.

I am sure that they had planned how to deal with such a problem, should it arise. Otherwise, I doubt that Mika could have so easily and smoothly communicated that she needed back-up for the solo. Experience may have also played a role. My wife, having accompanied Yamato to Europe as a tour assistant in 1999 has seen Yamato perform over 100 times and told me that it wasn't the first time a string had broken during a concert. Knowing Yamato, though, I am certain that the first time the string broke on stage, they already had a plan in place.

Besides being impressed with the way they handled the broken string, I also was reminded that if one wants to be considered a professional, one must constantly be thinking of what could possibly go wrong and how to deal with that, should it happen.

The past three times I have seen Yamato performances I have felt and experienced the high level of talent and professionalism they possess. I suppose that seeing a group with such advanced technical ability and artistic sense and stage presence could be discouraging for some. As I said, the more I learn about taiko, the more I understand and appreciate what they do. It's almost like the feeling: the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know. But for me, seeing Yamato's performances has never discouraged me in that way. Perhaps it is partly because I know that Yamato's beginnings have some similarities to our own, perhaps it is simply because I am being optimistic, or maybe it is just because I believe in setting one's goals high. Whatever it is, seeing Yamato's performances has always been an inspiration to me and instead of making me think about how far we have to go, it makes me think about what is possible with dedication and hard work. I don't know if we'll ever achieve the level that Yamato has (we certainly don't plan to tour the world for 10 months out of the year), but I know that we can work hard and that's what I plan to do.

After the concert, we were able to take a picture in front of the stage with the members of Yamato. In the picture are me, my wife, my daughter, and two friends, who are also members of the same Asano Taiko groups we play with.