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.


Anonymous said...

Hear, hear, Brian! Good luck!!!
Shime is indeed very hard, and 4 shimes at the same time is a very hard thing to accomplish. In one of my groups, often we have two shimes, but once 1 player lost concentration and gets faster, the other usually followed along to make it right, which in result makes the tempo really really fast and screwed up the chus.
Have fun at the concert!

Raion Taiko said...

...and I would say that matching the player who is speeding up is probably the right thing to do. It might be fast, but if one shime player is stubbornly trying to keep the tempo, it will probably sound worst. I guess it kind of illustrates the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Joy said...

Playing shime continues to be the most challenging thing I've tackled as a taiko player. Beyond the actual mechanics of playing, there's the challenge of walking that line between leading the group and staying with the group. It's a delicate balance that I struggle with every time I play.