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.

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