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

Summer Taiko Institute: Edo Kotobuki Jishi with Kyosuke Suzuki sensei

 North American Taiko Conference Taiko Jam performance of Edo Kotobuki Jishi

North American Taiko Conference Taiko Jam performance of Edo Kotobuki Jishi

What is Summer Taiko Institute?
Summer Taiko Institute (STI) is an intensive course entirely separate from the North American Taiko Conference (NATC). It is typically a 3-day program that runs immediately before or after NATC. This year, there are two different STI proposals: Women and Taiko (before NATC) and Edo Kotobuki Jishi (after NATC). Because my involvement is with the Edo Kotobuki Jishi (traditional shishimai, or lion dance, of Tokyo) program, this blog post will be about that course. The shishimai STI is offered by Kyosuke Suzuki sensei, who taught the same topic during the 2011 STI in San Jose. I was there, and will be assisting and interpreting again this year. You can find the official registration page at the link below. Please note: it is not required to attend NATC in order to attend STI.

 North American Taiko Conference Taiko Jam performance of Edo Kotobuki Jishi

North American Taiko Conference Taiko Jam performance of Edo Kotobuki Jishi

Suzuki sensei's shishimai performance in 2015 during Wakayama Shachu's appearance in Orlando.

Summer Taiko Institute
Edo Kotobuki Jishi with Kyosuke Suzuki sensei
August 14 - 16, 2017
San Diego, CA

Summer Taiko Institute: Edo Kotobuki Jishi official page

What will be covered?
The Edo Kotobuki Jishi of Wakayama Ryu (style) consists of one shishi dancer and three musicians: taiko, atarigane, and shinobue. This STI will cover all the movements of the shishi as well as taiko and atarigane parts. Participants of all levels are welcome to attend, although having a basic understanding of taiko will be helpful. Depending on time and interest, fue players may get some instruction if they have experience with the music. The bachi used by Wakayama Shachu are 32cm hinoki. The shinobue is size 6.5 Hosei. These can be purchased through Asano Taiko US here. The Kotobuki Jishi book and CDs are currently out of print, and they are completely different from the Edo Bayashi book and CD. Suzuki sensei is also teaching a 10-hour Edo Bayashi intensive during NATC, so the book and CD would be useful for that course. You can learn more details about these traditional art forms here:

Eien's blog post about Suzuki sensei

 Kyosuke Suzuki sensei

Kyosuke Suzuki sensei

Who is Suzuki sensei?
Suzuki sensei continues to be one of the most important teachers in my musical training. I started studying with him in 2005 and am constantly inspired by his performance and instruction, most recently during my Edo Bayashi intensive in Tokyo last October. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Suzuki sensei's artistry and teaching ability, a quick chat with someone who has experienced his instruction will help illustrate why he has so many fans. You can read more details at these links below.

Kyosuke Suzuki sensei biography, photos, and videos

Linda Uyechi's article about Jun Daiko's intensive with Suzuki sensei

Please contact me with any questions regarding this STI and I will update this page with the new information. Thank you.

 Shishimai demonstration after the 2011 Summer Taiko Institute

Shishimai demonstration after the 2011 Summer Taiko Institute

 Shishi gashira (shishi head)

Shishi gashira (shishi head)

Bonus video

 Impromptu Edo Bayashi jam with Isaku and Joe at their studio in Los Angeles, March 2017

Impromptu Edo Bayashi jam with Isaku and Joe at their studio in Los Angeles, March 2017

Step-by-step rhythmic practice using the theme music of The Walking Dead

Musical inspiration sometimes comes from unforeseen places. For the unfamiliar, The Walking Dead is a TV show about zombies (yet not really about zombies), but no knowledge of the show is necessary here. A little while ago I happened to listen more closely to the opening theme music and did some quick analysis in my head: strings playing three minor 9th chord arpeggios over one rhythmic motive (something like Gm9, Ebm9, Cm9). This is an especially common rhythm across many styles of music, making it a worthwhile study for future applications. Check out my videos Introduction to Notation & Reading and Notation & Reading Part 2 for demonstration of how to play and count these rhythms.

The very beginning of my sheet music shows the ostinato where the 16 subdivisions of the measure are divided as 6+6+4. Next to it is the simplified bass line where the 8 subdivisions of the measure are divided as 3+3+2. To deepen our understanding of this rhythmic motive, I wrote out several lines of six-note grouping variations to get familiar with. I recorded each line separately, and every rhythm was played four times. The notation PDF and audio MP3 are all downloadable.

Line A demonstrates combinations of 8th and 16th notes.

Line B introduces 16th rests.

Line C combines 16th notes with 16th-note triplets.

Line D combines 16th notes with 32nd notes.

Lines E and F are examples of how the above variations can be plugged into the 6+6+4 rhythmic template. Although not written out, I tapped my foot on the pulse while recording so that the relationship to the beat can be heard.

Line G shows the initial accent patterns against the quarter note pulse. Practicing the external pulse on your foot while playing various rhythms is one of the best ways to strengthen your rhythmic accuracy and improve tempo control. For an additional challenge, try playing these examples while using the metronome games explained in my Metronome Practice Tutorial video. As always, questions and comments are welcomed here.

8 reasons why all drummers should own "It's About Time"

 My well-used copy of the book

My well-used copy of the book

It's About Time by Fred Dinkins is one of the most important books I own. I have practiced and taught material from it extensively for about 10 years and it has tremendously influenced the way I approach timekeeping and ensemble playing. In the foreword, studio drumming legend Harvey Mason writes that the book "is a guaranteed solution to time problems," and likewise I'm convinced that the concepts and exercises presented by Dinkins will produce excellent results for anyone who practices them consistently. Included are two CDs containing exercises, demos, and play-along tracks. Although the book is designed for drumset players, I think it's equally valid for every kind drummer. I have applied many of the ideas and tools in teaching taiko lessons, workshops, and instructional videos. Here are my top eight reasons why all drummers should own It's About Time.

1. Emphasis on using your voice – Dinkins designed exercises to make us aware of different parts of the subdivision by learning how to sing it while playing a basic beat. It's challenging at first but very rewarding.

2. Excellent CD tracks – there are many practice pieces included, and they serve as useful tests. When my students are able to play the charts comfortably with the recorded music, they pass that lesson and move on to the next. I appreciate the real-world notion of 'either you can do it, or not.'

3. A section covering count offs – counting off a tune might seem like a minor issue, but it's something I take very seriously and emphasize with my students. The exercises in the book help to make your count off tempo consistent with your playing that follows immediately.

4. The 2 & 4 pocket – many styles of music have a backbeat (emphasis on 2 & 4) and working to "bury" the backbeats on the play-along track will help your sense of groove and consistent note placement.

5. Feeling the beat – talking about how the beat can feel on top, in the middle, or behind can be a frustratingly nebulous topic. Dinkins provides clarity by delivering a play-along track where the feel shifts in each new section, requiring the player to adjust slightly but noticeably.

6. Fills workout – another useful tool in the book is a chart where fills are required at the end of every four measures. Each fill must be the length specified, and the play-along track goes silent during these fills. Because fills are a common area of tempo insecurity, this exercise is very useful in improving steadiness and boosting confidence.

7. Hits workout – emphasizing certain accents is another area where the tempo can change, and the play-along track does a great job of addressing this problem. There is also attention on setting up these hits with lead-in fills.

8. The final exam – the very last thing in the book is a chart called "Time Maze" where all of the concepts presented in the book appear in one play-along track. A very welcome bonus: you can hear versions played by Dinkins, Harvey Mason, Ricky Lawson, Dennis Chambers, and several other celebrated drummers. Studying their vastly different approaches to the same piece of music is very eye opening.

Japan trip Part 2 - seeing concerts, kabuki, and friends

In the Japan trip Part 1 entry, I described the primary reason for my recent trip: Edo Bayashi intensive with Suzuki sensei. In addition to my lessons, there was a lot happening during my stay and I was able to attend some performances and see many friends.

The day after I arrived, I went to see Azusa Yamada's vibraphone trio in Tokyo. We first met almost 2 years ago through another Tokyo musician because I was looking for a vibraphone to rent for a Ginza performance with shakuhachi player Bruce Huebner. Azusa gave us a great rate to rent her Premier vibes for a two-week period, and two things remain in my memory about the instrument: it was one of the heaviest vibes I've ever played on, and there was a low E (which I couldn't get used to and had to cover up with a music stand bag for the gig). Her performance in the intimate space was very good and I especially appreciated all the original material in the program as well as the exciting playing of pianist Sachiko Nakajima.

The next day was the Wakayama Shachu performance at the Bettara Ichi Festival, which I described in Part 1. The day after that was a collaborative concert in Asakusa called Taiko Battle Live, featuring Makoto Yamamoto of Osuwa Daiko. I've known Makoto for several years, having visited him in Nagano as well as presenting Osuwa Daiko for concerts and workshops in Vancouver, BC. The program consisted of original music, solo performances, and some traditional music. It was also a fun surprise to see my very first taiko teacher Saburo sensei in the audience, as he had taught some classical repertoire to Makoto in preparation for this concert.

I enjoyed checking out Hitoshi Hamada perform at his CD release event in Shinjuku. I first met Hamada san in 2005 during a Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble concert tour. This vibraphone and saxophone duo played some very challenging original music and Hamada san sounded great as always. I was there with Bruce and Azusa so we took a group photo after the performance. It's not every day that three vibraphonists are in the same room together.

I was fortunate to see the famous Kabuki play Kanadehon Chushingura at Kokuritsu Gekijou (National Theater) in Tokyo. As part of the theater's 50th anniversary season, the play has been divided into three parts, and I saw the first third. The middle third runs in November and the final third runs in December. Because each part is approximately 6 hours long, the audience is treated to rarely-presented scenes which many kabuki fans have never seen or heard of. Everything was excellent: acting, music, staging, and bento. This was especially meaningful for me because I had been a geza musician (playing nohkan and shinobue) for Portland State University's presentation of Chushingura in February 2016. The video of that performance can be seen here: Chushingura blog entry.

It's always a great pleasure and inspiration to visit Ranjo san at his workshop in Chiba. He continues to answer my questions and share his wealth of knowledge every time I see him. In this photo, Ranjo san is wrapping one of my flutes to prevent a small crack from opening. I also met Fujita san on this recent visit, a great fue player from Akita Prefecture who demonstrated some of the music from his local festival on a Ranjo #4 hayashi fue. For more information about Ranjo san, check out this blog post: Ranjo blog entry.


Chichibu in Saitama is a special place. It's best known for the spectacular Yo Matsuri (annual night festival, Dec 2-3) and the music of Chichibu Yatai Bayashi. But there is also a very long history of Ji Kabuki (地歌舞伎, local kabuki) going back to the Edo period. This Hagitaira kabuki stage is at least 170 years old and continues to be used for theater and music. Apparently there are no carpenters in the area who are properly trained to make repairs on such an old building, so they have had to bring experts all the way from Kyushu. I attended the October 30, 2016 event where there were three kabuki presentations: elementary school, middle school, and finally the adult group. The performances were complete with live geza music as well as gidayu chant and shamisen, and the day was interspersed with performances of Chichibu Yatai Bayashi, Tsugaru Shamisen, and Chichibu Ondo. The overall presentation was remarkable, especially considering this very rural setting. Of course the youngest performers were the audience favorites, and the best moment for me was when the little girl finally got a turn on the odaiko, outplaying the previous versions by teenage boys and an adult. And all of the food and drinks I tried during the event were memorably delicious.

Another unique experience was visiting "the Switzerland club of Kanto" in Katashina village of Gunma Prefecture. These remarkable wooden horns are handmade by Kinsaku Hoshino using local cedar. I was told that the curved bottom portion is made out of a naturally shaped section of the branch that was bent by the weight of the heavy snow. Even the mouthpiece (similar to trumpet) is handmade. I was able to get a decent sound right away, so perhaps my music education degree finally came in handy many years later. Hoshino san offered to let me try the carving tool so I carefully took a turn.

Finally, I got to see an incredible concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo of the incomparable Eitetsu Hayashi. This was a mostly solo performance with the exception of one piece composed by percussionist Midori Takada. They have a long history of working together and this was apparent in their cohesive sound. Eitetsu's concerts are fantastic every single time. Without fail, there are always things I've never seen before, and such consistent creativity and attention to detail is truly breathtaking. Concluding the program was a 20-minute solo odaiko performance, and this was the finest odaiko playing I've ever seen. Absolutely beautiful.