8 Concepts for Becoming a Better Improviser

Eien on taiko-drumset hybrid setup

Eien on taiko-drumset hybrid setup

I have added a new entry about improvisation to my articles page, which contains other topics such as stick selection, metronome games, ji playing, and atarigane technique. By making these free tip sheets available, it's my hope that they help you find new ways of approaching these topics. I'm always happy to take questions or any feedback so feel free to contact me. For more in-depth discussion and demonstration, check out my instructional videos. Previews are on my youtube channel. While the best way to learn involves being in the same space, I would consider online private lessons to be a great alternative option because it still allows for live feedback and in-person demonstration. Finally, I will be covering the topic of solo creation in a workshop on June 4 at Asano Taiko US in Torrance. Here is the information and registration page: 


8 Concepts for Becoming a Better Improviser

Improvisation is a valuable skill which anyone can develop through deliberate practice and by accumulating experience. It can create spontaneous interaction during performances and help ignite a creative spark for new compositions. Mistakes during performance are inescapable; being prepared to improvise with them can produce new avenues for inspiration. Like any skill, the specific way you practice improvisation is important. Here are eight concepts for becoming a better improviser:

1. Copy good improvisers – choose several improvisers you like and learn to play their solos exactly note for note. This can be done by ear or transcribing into notation. Analyze why you like these improvisations.

2. Focus on rhythmic accuracy – the first sign of insecurity is inconsistent rhythm. Use a metronome and start with simple ideas to focus on the quality of your rhythmic placement. Record yourself and listen back for areas to improve.

3. Self copy game – improvise a one-measure phrase and then play the exact copy in the next measure. Continue the cycle and gradually add complexity. Make it more challenging by working with two-measure phrases or with odd meter.

4. Sing what you play – simultaneously singing and playing your improvisation is an excellent way to break away from the limited ideas that are stored in your muscle memory. If this is too challenging, only sing your ideas first.

5. Incorporate space – strive to become comfortable using space, which can be used to highlight the notes and improve your phrasing. Not playing anything can be an opportunity to think about what to do next and to listen for ideas from others.

6. Explore sounds, timbers, and dynamics – practice a wide variety of ways your instrument can be played. Exaggerate contrast to expand your range.

7. Work on accompanying – being a good accompanist is just as important as developing your own improvisation skills. Listen, play mindfully, be solid, and provide energetic support.

8. Trade solos – trade improvised solos with other players. If they are better than you, your musicianship will grow more quickly.

See more articles at www.eienhunterishikawa.com/articles

Interview: Kiyoshi Nagata talks Daihachi Oguchi, Kodo, and the taiko artist life

Kiyoshi Nagata

Kiyoshi Nagata

I had a fun time talking with Kiyoshi Nagata, the founder and leader of Nagata Shachu based in Toronto. We first met in Vancouver at the 2008 Regional Taiko Gathering, and I remember how his workshops and concert performance were all great. In this conversation, I learned a lot about Kiyoshi's interesting background which included training from Osuwa Daiko's Daihachi Oguchi as well as Kodo's apprenticeship program. Nagata Shachu, his professional taiko ensemble, keeps a busy schedule with tours, recordings, and an impressive array of artistic collaborations. One of the most interesting aspects of Kiyoshi's group is the large number original compositions they have created and performed. His website lists this repertoire along with many other informative resources so I would encourage everyone to check it out at the link below. Another topic Kiyoshi discussed in depth was his teaching philosophy. I wanted to hear his perspective because he has taught taiko classes for credit at the University of Toronto and public classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Kiyoshi kindly sent me his newest CD/DVD set called Toronto Taiko Tales, and I have included some music from the album in the interview. I enjoyed it for the original compositions as well as the quality of the audio recording. The pieces are Hana, Enya Totto, Taichi no Sakebi, Tokiwa, Zare Shamisen, and Araumi. His youtube channel is full of concert footage so you can get a glimpse into the work of Nagata Shachu.

Kiyoshi Nagata

Kiyoshi Nagata

Kiyoshi Nagata, founder and artistic director of Nagata Shachu, has been performing in a career that spans 35 years. His principal studies were with Daihachi Oguchi (as artistic director and performer of the Toronto-based, Suwa Daiko from 1982 to 1992) and with Kodo (as an apprentice from 1993 to 1994). With the assistance of a Chalmers Performing Arts Training Grant in 1999, Kiyoshi studied classical percussion with Paul Houle at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

Since 1998 Kiyoshi has taught a credit course in taiko at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. From 2003 to 2011, he established a public taiko course at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. For eight years, he instructed two community groups, Isshin Daiko in Toronto and Do-Kon Daiko in Burlington, which he helped establish in 1995. Kiyoshi is also regularly invited by universities and taiko groups to conduct workshops and present lectures.

In 1994, Kiyoshi founded the cross-cultural percussion ensemble, Humdrum, whose debut Toronto performance was ranked fourth in Now Magazine’s “Top Ten Concerts of 1995”. He has composed and performed taiko music for dance, theatre, film and radio and continues to collaborate with artists from all genres of music including traditional Japanese instrumentalists.

Interview: Katsuji Asano of Asano Taiko US - 日本語 (translated by Julia Asano)

Katsuji Asano of Asano Taiko US

Katsuji Asano of Asano Taiko US

I am very excited to feature Katsuji in this interview, which was superbly translated by Julia. It has been a pleasure working with Asano Taiko US (ATUS) and the Los Angeles Taiko Institute (LATI) since they opened their fantastic facility in Torrance, California - offering workshops, co-coordinating Kyosuke Suzuki sensei's US workshop tours, and helping to make Edo Bayashi materials available on their online store. My first visit to ATUS was filled with a sense of awe at the scale and commitment to quality in every detail. The two main studios are equipped with everything a drummer could want: high-tech sound dampening in the walls, beautiful floors and mirrors, white boards, amplifiers, comfortable temperature, and of course the incredible number of amazing taiko sitting there ready to play.

Asano Taiko US

Asano Taiko US

Operating out of this facility is LATI, a one-of-a-kind taiko school offering an extensive array of classes taught by some of the most experienced and thoughtful teachers I know. I especially appreciate the balance of older and newer taiko forms originating from Japan as well as elsewhere. Because of its clear significance, ATUS has quickly become a hub of high-quality workshops, hosting a constant stream of musicians and educators offering an assortment of topics in various genres. 

Katsuji helped to fund my Edo Bayashi intensive in Tokyo in October 2016 where I was able to deepen my study of this festival music through one-on-one lessons with Suzuki sensei. I'm certain that his thoughtful responses in this interview provide insight into his vision of advancing the art form of taiko, and I'm happy to be involved in this symbiotic partnership. I also want to thank Julia for making this information available in English, capturing the essence of Katsuji's answers much better than I could have.

1. Can you describe the history of Asano Taiko and how Asano Taiko US (ATUS) was opened in Torrance, California?

Asano Taiko US in Torrance, California

Asano Taiko US in Torrance, California





The first time I saw taiko being performed in America was at the 2005 North American Taiko Conference. I was surprised to see how popular taiko was and how different the U.S. taiko was from Japan. Taiko players in the U.S. are very open natured and willing to share their knowledge of taiko which was both surprising and interesting for me. 

After meeting Julia, I had opportunities to participate in many American taiko events and started to wonder, what if I started a business in the U.S.? Would the taiko community grow even more? Would Japan, or even on a larger scale, the world have any effect on this unforeseeable challenge I’m about to embark on? Can we make this a business? I started pondering many questions to myself. After attending the 2011 North American Taiko Conference and seeing the US taiko community again, I decided to take the first step and start the business.

My first debate was choosing the right location. Should I start the new business in the east coast or west coast? After researching which areas had the most taiko groups and a bigger Japanese community, I decided that Southern California is the place to be. I chose Torrance as the city due to its accessibility for commute and ideal properties. 

2. What is the Los Angeles Taiko Institute (LATI)?

Los Angeles Taiko Institute

Los Angeles Taiko Institute

LATI is a taiko institute housed in Asano Taiko U.S. located in Torrance, California. We opened in July 2013 (when Asano Taiko U.S. opened) and started with less than 20 students and now have over 200 students coming every week. We offer various types of classes for all levels and have 9 instructors who teach anywhere from 2 yr olds to students in their 70’s.

3. UnitOne, the ATUS taiko ensemble, consists of very experienced players. What is the artistic vision and mission for this group?

UnitOne at 2015 North American Taiko Conference

UnitOne at 2015 North American Taiko Conference

How it started


Due to our country being an island nation, I believe that when it comes to musicality, the style of music becomes limited as they get passed on to the next generation (I would like to note that this is a good thing, as this is how traditional art have been continuously protected and honed over the generations). Because of its small ethnic group that Japan is based on, I believe it created strength in team play when it comes to expressing Japanese Taiko.


However, the downside to this close-knit formation is that it becomes harder to create new and innovative music with originality. The groove feeling of the artists have become limited. But in America, various cultures and backgrounds intertwine, allowing many opportunities to interact with diverse genres of music. It from this melting pot where taiko in the U.S. have the sensibility that Japan has yet to experience. Taiko in America has its strength in originality, their ingenious musicality standing out in each and every player.


Currently, I believe that taiko in both countries have the same sense of unity as a team which has always been unchanged, yet we are in a place where taiko culture is facing a shift before our very eyes and “transforming” into something new. Instinctively I felt that it would be amazing if we can develop a team that can incorporate the strengths from both countries!  My hope is to deliver the good components of Japanese taiko, and give life to the potentials in each taiko player here in the U.S.


Lastly, the major reason why I decided to start this company is because I am surrounded by amazing taiko players. Many of the players here put much respect in the foundation and philosophy of taiko, and take it upon themselves to incorporate it back into their lifestyle for their own growth. I believe it is our mission as a company to continue this cycle and produce more taiko players such as them, making a mark in the art and history of traditional Japanese music in America.

4. What are some of your observations regarding the North American taiko scene?


- They look after their community
- They value the ideal of enjoying taiko (compared to Japan, they openly express their emotions)
- Taiko is used as their way of expressing their individuality
- Even the seasoned veterans are in a humble stance to learn
- They share their knowledge and expertise
- They are always passionate and striving to broaden their horizon

5. In 2015, ATUS sponsored Kyosuke Suzuki sensei’s workshop tour of California, Oregon, and Washington. Can you talk about some other ways in which ATUS is contributing to advance the art form?


We lend all of our studio drums to TCA during the North American Taiko Conference, and also to Intercollegiate Taiko Invitationals. We invite artists from Japan to host various types of workshops to bridge American artists in hope that they can have more access to Japanese art forms. 

6. What products and services does ATUS offer in the Torrance facility as well as the online store?

Asano Taiko US in Torrance, California

Asano Taiko US in Torrance, California

浅野太鼓商品全般を販売しています。在庫が置いていない商品でも日本に在庫があれば1週間程で届くシステムができています。また販売に関して特注品(バチや衣装、その他の楽器、台など)も受け付けており、できるだけプレイヤーの要望に応えられるようにしています。祭り関係のお店とASANO TAIKO USが直接取引きがあるので太鼓に関わるものを大体提供できます。また太鼓の締め直しや革の張り替え。浅野の商品以外での修理も受けています、修理はASANO TAIKO USで行うので時間と費用が随分抑えられます。「太鼓の音を育てもらう」そうゆう風に楽器と一生付き合って行ってほしい願っています。Online shopも開設して全米、世界に向けて販売が可能になっています。

We sell Asano Taiko products here at Asano Taiko U.S. Products out of stock can be ordered from Japan and we will receive them in 1-2 weeks. We also accept customized orders mainly on costumes, bachi, taiko, and stands, hoping to cater to all the needs of the taiko player. Asano Taiko U.S. has direct contracts with many shops that carry festival goods, allowing us to be able to supply most items relating to taiko and we also offer reskinning and restretching service. We gladly accept repair orders even for non-Asano brand items, and since repairs are done on-site, time and cost can be reduced greatly. We have also established an online store so now customers throughout the world can place an order with us. 

7. Do you have any events coming up in the next several months?


April - Bachi BBQ (LATI event)
June - Oedo Sukeroku Taiko workshops
July - Bridge USA performance
August - North American Taiko Conference
December - annual recital

8. What are some long-term goals for ATUS and LATI?

Growth of the taiko community.

To branch out and root deep in hopes that “taiko” will become a higher valued art form.

Improve skill levels of all taiko players.

Challenging many things that are possible only in the U.S.

Katsuji Asano of Asano Taiko US in Torrance, California

Katsuji Asano of Asano Taiko US in Torrance, California

Born in 1983 into the famous Asano Taiko drum-making family, Katsuji Asano quickly discovered a love for both business and the arts.  After graduating from Kanazawa Institute of Technology in 2006, Asano joined the Percussion Division of Yamaha Music Trading Corporation. 

In 2006, Asano returned to taiko (Japanese drums), and began work at Asano Taiko, Inc. in Ishikawa prefecture.  He learned both the craft of Japanese drum-making and the business side of marketing, working directly with taiko artists.  With hopes of spreading the art of taiko on an international scale, Katsuji Asano opened Asano Taiko U.S., Inc. in 2013, the first facility of its kind outside of Japan to offer an instrument store, on-site workshop, and taiko school staffed by professional taiko players.

Asano Taiko US
Los Angeles Taiko Institute