What is a Kaga Taiko Lesson Like?

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In January Mayumi and I decided to dedicate more time to learning the traditional Kaga style of taiko drumming. We had taken two four-month "Primer" courses through the Ishikawa Taiko Association and desired to learn more. We headed out to the Ichikawa Juku in Komatsu, where Mr. Kazutaka Ichikawa teaches. Almost everyone in the Komatsu area who plays taiko has been taught at some point by Mr. Ichikawa. As we talked with Ichikawa sensei about our plans to return to the US at the end of this year and teach and perform taiko in Michigan, he was pleased, but he also warned us that we would have to work hard if we wanted to do Kaga taiko.

"If you really want to learn Kaga Taiko, I'm not going to go easy on you any more," he said.
"That's alright," I replied, "we don't have much time, so we need to learn quickly."
"You're not going to like it. You won't want to come back next week," he warned.
"Don't worry, I can handle it. I'll be back," I said.
"I'm serious. No more "Mr. Nice Guy," he gave one final warning.
"I promise, I won't give up," I said decisively.
He turned to the person next to him and said, "Man, I hate stubborn people."

Of course it was all in good natured fun, but he was serious when he said that he would teach us more strictly than before. The few times I visited his Juku last year, I was always warmly welcomed and although I was instructed and my technique was often corrected, no matter what I played, I was almost always praised. "Wow, how long have you been learning? That was really good," and other encouragement was often offered.

This time, however, my first lesson after telling Ishikawa sensei about our plans, was a bit different. I played my 2 or 3 minutes and the first thing he said was: "Wow, that really sucked." (more or less). Then he proceeded to break down what I had played, making small corrections here and there. Actually, he wasn't all that harsh in his criticism. Following the "that really sucked" comment, he was actually pretty kind, but perhaps he didn't let me get away with as much as he might of before. There are some other students with whom he is much stricter. Still, he has been holding us to a higher standard than before and we are learning a lot.

As I have mentioned in past posts, Kaga taiko is a very old and traditional form of taiko drumming with a history of over 400 years. In contrast to the more modern styles of taiko, where there are many different styles and a lot of freedom in rhythms and movements, Kaga taiko is filled with all sorts of intricacies and theory. Certain movements are okay, and others are not. Certain rhythms are fine, but there are some rhythms or phrases that should follow other rhythms or phrases. It's all very complicated and every lesson I take, I understand why he calls the modern styles of taiko "Kindergarten" taiko. (Of course, I still love the "Kindergarten" taiko as much as I enjoy Kaga Taiko).

I don't know how proficient we will be able to become at playing Kaga Taiko by the time we return to the US, but it is enjoyable and exciting to be learning a style of taiko drumming that is unique to this area of Japan.

A couple weeks ago, my father accompanied me to the Kaga taiko lessons and recorded the whole thing on video. My mother watched it later and she said that even though she couldn't understand the Japanese, she could tell that Ichikawa sensei was an excellent teacher. In fact, she even said that if Kaga Taiko were an Olympic sport, she imagines that he is what a top coach would teach like.

It was about a 20 minute lesson and I had to split it up into three parts to get it onto YouTube. It is there, though, and hopefully it will give you an idea of what learning and playing Kaga Taiko is like.

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What Do You Wear When You Play Taiko?

Well, I'm just about to leave for Nagano for a couple days to go and see the monkeys in the hot springs. Hope I'll be able to bring back some photos. Why are we going to Nagano? I've always wanted to visit Nagano and since my parents are visiting at the moment, it was a good excuse to go there.

Now my mum is a pretty good seamstress, so we thought we would ask her to make some simple taiko outfits for our son and daughter. They are finally ready, so yesterday I snapped a few pictures of the kids in their new taiko clothes. Here they are...


Asano Beat - Chapter 2 "Fragrance"

Last Saturday I attended the second monthly concert given at the Asano Taiko museum. (The debut of the monthly concerts I wrote about last month here) Last month's concert was titled 月のしずく, something like "drips of moon". This month was called 香 or "Fragrance". The performers were, once again, Hono Taiko, Kazusa Okazaki of Hikari and a guest flute player, Mr. Yagi (sorry, I can't read his first name).

Each piece for this concert was intended to express a fragrance of nature. The evening began in similar fashion to last month, with the lights going down and images of nature being projected onto the large Odaiko (pictured at the start of this post) accompanied by soft, ambient music. I even thought that I smelled some type aromatic fragrance in the air as the concert was starting. The first, by Hono Taiko, song was slow and soft. It used taiko drums along with a few keys (?) of a Gamelan xylophone. This piece was expressing the fragrance of the moon. A bamboo flute (shinobue, not shakuhachi) performance followed which represented the fragrance of the forest. Next, the sound of thunder came over the sound system and what followed was a piece played on Odaiko along with two shime taiko, symbolizing thunder and rain (this was my favorite piece of the evening) representing, of course, the fragrance of rain. Next we heard the a unique bamboo flute and taiko piece representing the fragrance of the wind. The flute used in this piece was designed and made by Mr. Yagi (the performer). It was about a 5 foot piece of bamboo, which he played horizontally and it had a deep, rich sound. He was accompanied by Jige san and Kinoshita san of Hono Taiko.

We then had an interlude with some comments from Jige san, who is always interesting to listen to. She joked around with Mr. Yagi about how he could use his unique bamboo flute to hang his laundry. She kept talking and talking and talking until finally, Yamada san and Okazaki san, who had been on stand-by for the next piece for several minutes, made it very obvious (in a humorous way) that it was time to stop talking and move on to the next piece. (All part of the show, I think, but amusing, nonetheless).

The last two pieces were not associated with any type of fragrance. First we heard Raigun (雷郡) played by Yamada san (Hono Taiko) and Okazaki san (Hikari). This is the same song Yamada sensei taught JIGEN, a group I am in, for the Asano recital last October (2008), but we played it with 9 people and they only had two for this performance. They had lined up about eight drums across the stage. There were shime taiko on either end, and then different sized Oke taiko meeting in the middle. They used all the drums to cover the three different parts between the two of them. It was interesting to see how they did it.

The last piece was performed by Hono Taiko and was called "Tomoe" 巴. Tomoe the symbol that we would probably call "yin-yang" and in taiko, you often see three of these yin-yang shapes, which is called a mitsudomoe. Anyways, it was a pretty exciting and energetic song.

The finale was the same as last month, with Kinoshita san playing shamisen, Jige san singing while playing a hand-played taiko, Yamada san and Okazaki san on taiko and Yagi san's flute playing.

Once again, it was a wonderfully produced program, very enjoyable to watch, only about a hundred people came to watch, making it very personal. This time my parents, who are visiting, were able to attend the concert with us. They have seen world re known groups like Yamato and Kodo several times, but I think they particularly enjoyed being so close to the drums and being able to see the energy and passion of the players in such close proximity. My dad even said, "That was the best taiko I have ever seen!". My daughter also came with us, and enjoyed the first half, but fell asleep for the second half.

On the way out, my parents were able to take photo with Hono Taiko and Yagi san, the flute player.

It was another great concert and I can't wait until next month's. It is April 26th.


Asano Taiko Spring Recital - Part 2 (and taiko in Michigan survey)

Let me start by thanking all the people that have responded to our "Taiko in Michigan" survey. The responses so far have been very helpful and very encouraging. If you haven't taken our survey and wouldn't mind giving your opinion on some of our ideas, we would be thrilled if you would follow the link above, or the one right here: Click here to take survey The questions are short and easy. The whole process shouldn't take you more than 1 or 2 minutes. Thanks again for your troubles.

Now, just a few more thoughts about our performance/recital a couple weeks ago. I was actually quite worried about a couple of the pieces because I knew they weren't ready. One, we knew pretty well, but it was just missing that certain something. The other, we had just barely memorized in time and if the littlest thing had gone wrong, it could have been a complete disaster. Luckily, we got through it without any major disasters and the audience seemed to be pleased. I could recognize this from their applause, and I also was told by several people afterwards that they enjoyed our performance.

This reminded me of something that Jige san of Hono Taiko told us last May after Yume Mitai (one of Asano's amateur groups) had performed as a guest at a major concert, featuring famous taiko players from all over Japan. After we had finished the concert and finished putting all the taiko away, she told us: "Good job, everyone. For many of you, this was a step along the road to becoming a professional. Part of being a professional is taking money from your guests and sending them home happy."

Of course, this most recent concert was a recital and there was no admission charge, but you still want to send the guests home happy, so they don't feel like they wasted a complete afternoon. And it seems that we were able to do that. Even though we were not satisfied with our own performance, the audience was. I guess performers need to have a type of double standard. On a personal level, if you are really striving to be the best, you'll probably never be really satisfied with your performance. There is always something to improve, or something you could have done better. On the other hand, if you wait until you feel that your performance is "perfect", many of us would probably never make it out on the stage for a performance.

I guess what I'm saying is that if your audience goes home happy (whether you charged them money or not), then you can feel that your performance was a success. At the same time, you are likely aware of areas you want to improve at will continually strive to make better.

After all, performing is a form of practice as well. There are certain aspects of performing that you cannot replicate while you're practicing. A couple months ago we went to talk with Mr. Asano about our plans for taiko in Michigan. One of his pieces of advice sticks out in my mind. He said, "We have to get you guys performing more. One performance is worth 100 practices."

I guess that's it for my thoughts on the Asano 2009 Spring Recital. Thanks for reading and please don't forget to take our survey. One last time, the link: Click here to take survey


Asano Taiko Spring Recital 2009

Last Sunday we successfully completed the March 2009 Asano Taiko Spring Recital, 今響きが風になる. Saturday began at 8:30 with loading up drums from the Asano practice space, the rental warehouse and Asano EX and then transporting them all over to the concert venue, the Matto Bunka Kaikan. (The same place we saw Exstasia two years ago.) Then we moved on to rehearsing.

For this recital I was part of the back stage crew. While most recital participants were only busy during their own rehearsal time, the stage hands were tied up all day helping the groups figure out which taiko to use, getting organized back stage so that the drums could be easily and quickly moved on and off and marking the location of the drums for each group.

Each group performing in the show had about a 20 minute time slot to figure out where they would place their drums on the stage, play through their piece once and make any final adjustments. Once the group decides where to place their drums, we marked the spot with little pieces of colored tape. For this recital there were so many groups playing, we ran out of colors and had to get creative with the way we used the tape.

On either side of the stage, the drums were all organized into different sizes and then "taiko corrals" were taped on the floor to make sure they got back into the right spot.

I had three rehearsals to participate in during the afternoon. Other than that, I was backstage trying to help keep everything running smoothly. After the last group finished their rehearsal, the stage hands had one last meeting to make sure that everything was ready for the next day.

The day of the concert, we still had to arrive around 8:30. There were about 3 groups that hadn't rehearsed the day before, so they were schedule to run through their numbers Sunday morning. Finally, the last thing we did before lunch break was to run through all of the transitions between the groups, just moving the drums on and off stage. This helps everyone, stage hands as well as performs, to remember what their responsibilities are during the transitions. It really helps the main event to run smoothly. Then it was time for lunch and to get the hall ready for the guests.

The doors opened at 1:30 and at precisely 2:00 the curtain rose on Hono Taiko and Hikari performing 天地響応 (Tenchi Kyou-ou), formerly known as 聖鼓 (Shoko). This was followed by the "Asano Taiko Kids" groups. First the beginning group (which my daughter played with) followed by the intermediate and advanced groups. My daughter was thrilled at the end of the day after the concert when they announced which students had "graduated" to the next level. From April, she will be allowed to move up to the intermediate class.

My first performance was with JIGEN and wasn't until about halfway through the program. So for the first half, I was busy helping out backstage. But eventually, our turn was approaching and it was time to get changed into our outfits. We came out and gave a good effort, but it was lacking in many areas. As I have mentioned in previous posts, JIGEN was given a rather challenging piece to learn for this recital and we probably could have used at least another month of practice time. Then again, maybe we should have practiced more on our own as well. At any rate, we made it through the song without falling apart.

(My mum took this picture and had the camera set wrong, but I kind of like the way it turned out.)

After JIGEN, I only had enough time to change for the next group, Shin Matto Bayashi Hozonkai. I play Odaiko for this group and was particularly looking forward to performance this time around because we had added Shamisen, which make the song a lot more interesting. After this performance, Jige san, of Hono Taiko, who was Emceeing the event, called me back out on the stage for an interview. After some pleasantries, she announced to the audience our plans to return to Michigan next year and play taiko there. I was a bit surprised by it. There were several people in the audience who didn't know about these plans (co-workers and students) whom I hadn't plan to tell for some time yet. Oh well, it's no big deal. Furthermore, it is encouraging because it is like a indirect "stamp of approval" from Asano Taiko and Hono Taiko on our plans. I mean, if they were embarrassed of us, or didn't want us to proceed, they wouldn't be announcing it at one of their sponsored events, now would they.

After the interview, it was back to the dressing room for one more costume change for my last group, Matto Yume Mitai. For this group I was playing shime taiko again. Although it was my first time to play the shime part for this song, it was our fourth or fifth time to perform it, so we are all pretty comfortable with the music. It was easy for me to submerse myself in the music and just enjoy playing without having to think about what phrase comes next or what to do next. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The only thing left was the finale, where we packed the stage with as many taiko as possible and as many people as possible and played Mushi Okuri, a traditional taiko piece from the Kaga area.

When the concert ended, the clean up began almost immediately. Pull up the tape from the floor, put the taiko back in their cases, disassemble the stands that can be disassembled, begin loading the drums back into the trucks and vans. There is a huge amount of work that needs to be completed, but with all the people we have helping, the concert venue is cleaned up and all the drums are back in their proper places at Asano taiko within about two hours! It always amazes me how smoothly and quickly this whole process is carried out.

I have more to say, but this is getting long and I seem to be running out of time, so I will save it for another time.


Save Andrew Sole

We've been talking about money fairly often. We are getting to the point in our planning, where we need to start thinking about where and how we will get money to buy drums and to pay for other costs associated with our plans. It seems like musicians never have enough money. Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that says, "Real musicians HAVE a day job"? It's usually true, because trying to "do" music rarely brings in enough money to pay the bills.

My older brother, Andrew, has been trying to "do" music every since he has graduated from college, nearly 13 (?) years ago. He is a truly amazing drummer, and when we return to Michigan, we hope that he will work with our taiko group in an advisory/consulting role. If you'd like to see just how good he is, please have a look at this video:

In the past few years, he's actually done alright, financially, from performing and teaching lessons, but one of the challenges facing an independent musician is affording health insurance. And it just so happens that my brother has had back problems, very expensive back problems, for probably around 10 years now.

Recently we heard from him, that his back had started to act up again and he needed to go back to the doctor. He was told he needed to start treatments immediately. Within a week, the bill was already close to $2000, which all has to come out of his own pocket. (Nice timing, with tax season right around the corner) At the moment, his back is too painful to play the drums so if he doesn't get the treatments, he can't play the drums, and if he can't play the drums, he doesn't make any money.

To help my brother cover some of his medical costs, a very close friend of ours set up a web page to collect donations for Andrew. You can find the page here: Save Andrew Sole

I realize that a lot of readers probably don't know my brother and it's not easy to donate money to someone you don't know. But should you feel moved to help him out, please do stop by the Save Andrew Sole Website to put a few coins in the hat. Help, large or small, is more than welcome.


How to be More Than a Decorative Shime Taiko Player

Tomorrow is the big day. It's 7 AM now and in about an hour, I'll be heading out to Asano Taiko to load up drums and move them to the concert venue: The Matto Bunka Kaikan Hall. Then, starting after lunch, each performing group has about 20 minutes to figure out how they are going to move the drums on and off the stage, where there going to stand, run through their piece and make any last minute adjustments needed.

On Monday, at practice for Yume Mitai, we ran through the piece once at the end of practice for Yamada sensei. She had general comments for each part, but her harshest comments were for the shime taiko (my part). She said we need to try harder, we are not leading the group, the group is leading us (there are four of us) and the way we played, the only purpose we served being there was decoration.

The way she said it was not quite as harsh as that, but that was the gist of what she said. I understood that the way we played was not good enough, but I wasn't exactly sure "where" we had to try harder. We all know our parts now, we had pretty good energy and expression. What was it, specifically, that we needed to fix?

Tuesday, I was able to get to Matto Bayashi practice about 30 minutes early and Yamada sensei also happened to be there, so I took the opportunity to ask for some clarification about what was wrong and how to fix it. It was one of those incidents where someone tells you something that, maybe you know it unconsciously, but until someone puts it into words, you don't really understand it, or grasp it. Do you know what I mean? When someone tells you, you feel like, "Well, yeah. Duh, of course!"

So here it is; the "revalation" about the purpose of shime taiko given to me by Hono Taiko's Yamada Mizue sensei!

Shime taiko are like the conductor in an orchestra, or like a metronome. Everyone should be following them, and they do what they can to hold everyone together. More often than not, shime taiko are playing ji-uchi, or a continuous, repetitive beat, like "te ke te ke te ke te ke te ke..." or "don doko don doko don doko don doko..." or "do ko do ko do ko do ko do ko...". The "melody", being played by the nagado drums, or sometimes Odaiko, should be able to easily fit in with that base, ji-uchi beat.

Now, imagine you have an orchestra with two conductors. The chances that their tempos and interpretations of the music would be slightly, or significantly different. How hard would it be for an orchestra to stay together while following two, different conductors? Or how about if you took two metronomes and tried to start them at the same time? Even if you have them set at the same tempo, it is extremely difficult to get them clicking at exactly the same time. Probably you'll get two different beats. Now imagine trying to play your part along with those two, unmatched metronomes. I don't imagine it would be very easy.

This is essentially what Yamada sensei was referring to as our problem. It wasn't that our energy or expression wasn't enough. It wasn't that we didn't know our parts (except for one little section). The problem was that the four of us were not playing together. In order for us to lead the rest of the group, the shime taiko part must be exactly in unison. If we are not together, the only thing they can do is just play their part on their own and we have to follow them. Even though there are four of us, in order to correctly fulfill our role, as leaders, conductors, we must become one conductor, one metronome. Does this make sense to you?

Following the harsh comments after Monday's practice, the four of us had decided to get together Thursday night to get in a little extra practice. I asked Yamada sensei if she had any suggestions as to what would be the most beneficial to us. She suggested that before we begin practicing our parts in the song, that we spend some time just practicing ji-uchi rhythms over and over, focusing on playing in unison. A pattern like I mentioned in this shime taiko practice post. Only after we feel that we have all gotten on the same wave length, should we begin to practice our parts for the piece. And, of course, while practicing the piece, continue to focus on listening to one another and playing in unison.

I've noticed that I've dedicated several post over the past few months to shime taiko playing. Since I took on shime taiko parts for two groups I am in, I have certainly learned a great deal about playing taiko. I am beginning to understand more and more why, both Yamada sensei, and Mr. Asano, himself, told me that if I really want to excel at taiko playing, the best thing to do is to master shime taiko playing, and much of the rest will fall into place.

Well, one more day, and we will see how/if all this practice has paid off. Now I better get ready to go.


Asano Taiko Spring Recital March 8, 2009

I went to get my haircut yesterday. It's nice and short now. My friends and co-workers now know what my short haircut means. As soon as I come to work the next day, they ask me, "So when is your taiko concert?"

This time it is this Sunday afternoon (March 8) I will play in three groups, Mayumi (my wife) will play in two and my daughter will play in one. It will be a busy day. We'll really have to give it our best, though. This time there will be a lot of people coming to see it, including some of my students, co-workers and my parents have even traveled all the way from Michigan to see the performance. (Well, that wasn't the only reason they came.)

So this past week has been filled with taiko practices driven by the thought: "This is our last chance to practice altogether before the big event." Our most challenging group, Jigen, does not feel very well prepared. I am certain that all of us have made improvements since our October debut, but the song we took on to learn for this recital is significantly more challenging, in that for half of it, all 9 of us are playing shime taiko. And if you are a regular reader of this blog, or a taiko player, you will already know that getting 9 shime taiko to play in exact unison is not an easy task.

The other group my wife and I play in together is Shin-Matto Bayashi. This time around it certainly will be "shin" (new) because for the first time in a long time, we will be playing with Shamisen players, which will add a nice melodic element to the piece. The piece also calls for a flute part and is we actually only perform half of it. When played in full, it is maybe more than 20 minutes long and for these recitals, there are so many groups that need to play, each one is limited to 10 minutes. The time restraints, as well as a decline in members in recent years, has led to a stripped down version of Shin-Matto Bayashi. Therefore, it has been quite a while since anyone has seen it performed with the Shamisen players. Maybe next time we can add back the flute parts.

The group I play in by myself, Yume Mitai is playing the same song we have played the past three concerts, but this time around, many people have switched parts. I moved to Shime Taiko, along with two other nagado players and one of the Odaiko players. Two of the original shime taiko players moved to the nagado part, the other one moved to Odaiko. One other nagado player also moved to Odaiko. With so many people moving around to different parts, it is also likely that, although this is the fourth time we have performed this piece, it will probably sound a bit different.

I was going to write about the advice I got from Yamada sensei about playing shime daiko in a group, but I think I will save that for next time, as this has already gotten longer than I had intended.


Hina Matsuri - Girl's Day

Happy Girl's Day! Today is Hina Matsuri in Japan. Since we have a daughter, we have been displaying our hina ningyo dolls for a couple weeks now. Technically we should take them down before tomorrow. The superstition is that if you leave the display up after March 3, your daughter won't be able to get married. I think we're going to tempt fate, though and leave it up an extra day so that my parents can see it when they arrive on the fourth.

Our display is pretty simple and cost around 60 USD, but for really nice ones, they can run in the 10s, even 100s of thousands of dollars.

When I have a chance, I like to try and watch the second story/chapter of Kurosawa's "Dreams", which is set during Hina Matsuri and has a beautiful scene in the peach orchard where the dolls come to life and perform a solemn dance and music.