Video: Five Study Tips for Taiko Players

Eien kane photo 2018 taikothon copy.jpg

A few months ago I was asked to submit a video for the Taiko Community Alliance Taikothon 2018, a one-day online event where videos from taiko artists and groups are broadcasted for public viewing. Typically, the videos contain live performances, discussion on a topic, or even skits (I especially enjoyed the creativity and production quality of Zenshin Daiko’s submission). Two years ago, I made a video explaining my approach to the rules of rhythm by breaking down the notion of pulse and subdivisions. This year I decided to contribute my top five tips - practices which have most significantly helped my development as a taiko player. Below is the video, which covers these tips and demonstrates them in an example where I play a hip Edo Bayashi atarigane transcription along to a cool funk tune. My top five study tips for taiko players are:

  1. Think like a drumset player - good drumset players prioritize consistent timekeeping and being good accompanists. This means that we are always working on tempo control and playing with appropriate dynamic levels. Listening and flexibility are crucial ingredients for good accompanying.

  2. Transcribe music - students of jazz commonly transcribe and learn to play the solos of their favorite musicians. Not only does this practice teach you what kind of notes to play, it provides invaluable insight into why those notes are played and the phrasing (inflection) used to bring them to life.

  3. Study traditional music - there is no substitute for experiencing the depth of an art form with centuries of history. When healthy, traditional music is full of life, constantly changing due to the cycle of practitioners keeping the best parts and removing the worst parts. There is a reason for everything contained in traditional music, and this is powerful.

  4. Focus on your sound - the sound of your instrument is the most uniquely personal part of playing music. Trying to emulate your teacher’s sound or your favorite musician’s touch on the instrument is the path that will lead you to improving your sound.

  5. Take private lessons - just like the clear difference between rehearsing with your group and practicing on your own, studying privately with a good teacher will greatly accelerate your development compared to learning in classes or workshops. Private lessons should have a laser focus on your goals, and a good teacher will provide the tools for you to reach them as long as you put in the work.

My most important bachi & sticks for taiko

My most important taiko sticks

My most important taiko sticks

I am constantly on the search for new bachi and drumsticks at local drum shops, big music stores, Asano Taiko US in Torrance, Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten in Asakusa, or the marketplace vendors at the North American Taiko Conference. Japan is my favorite place to go shopping because it's very common to see a digital scale in the drumstick section for picky people like me to precisely match a pair of sticks by weight. There are many different materials used to make sticks, including bamboo, kashi (oak), hickory, maple, birch, hou (magnolia), and hinoki (cypress). In addition, you can find a wide variety of mallets, brushes, and other alternative sticks made by a number of different companies. Considering the enormous variety of drums, cymbals, and percussion instruments available to us, it might be easy to understand my obsessive search for the best stick for each application.

What are some of the factors involved with stick selection? This can be a deeply personal topic and each musician will have their own hierarchy of criteria. Here are mine:

1. Sound – the most important consideration. Sometimes it's a simple decision and other times it's necessary to compromise and make it work for a number of dissimilar instruments.

2. Feel – the stick needs to feel comfortable and work for my playing style. I check out the length, diameter, weight, finish, and balance to narrow down my choices.

3. Wear and tear – I make sure the sticks will not cause damage to the instruments. I also match the sticks to the instrument so that I don't have to replace broken sticks constantly.

4. Tradition and uniformity – there are times when it makes sense for an ensemble to use the same sticks in striving for uniformity of sound and visuals. I also consider traditional sticks with historical significance.

One of the workshop topics I have taught is called Taiko Sounds and Sticks, where I introduce ways to get many sounds out of one drum as well as discuss and demonstrate the common materials and dimensions of taiko sticks. My goal is to convey the depth of this topic and share my knowledge so that the participants leave with a foundation in stick selection details. It's a fun moment when someone hears the subtle difference between two similar sticks when I play them side-by-side on a drum.

This photo shows the collection of sticks I currently use. It is very close to the stick recommendations in my article called Ten Useful Sticks For Taiko Players. There are additional sticks I use depending on the situation, but these are my most important ones. The sticks labeled VF RH 36cm is a marching snare drum stick (Vic Firth Ralph Hardiman) that I cut off and sanded. This hickory stick works well in a mixed-taiko set up and has good sound and durability on rims and cymbals.

Taiko sticks labeled

Taiko sticks labeled

Old bachi from my childhood

Old bachi from my childhood

This other photo shows two pairs of sticks from my childhood. The smaller kashi bachi were given to me by my first taiko teacher Saburo Mochizuki, and I used them to play the Sukeroku Daiko repertoire he taught to our youth group in Saitama. The larger hou bachi are from a Miyake Taiko summer intensive I took on Sado Island at age 11, taught by Kodo members.


Ten Useful Sticks for Taiko Players

Asano Taiko US

Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten

Japan Percussion Center

Interview: multi-percussionist Patrick Graham talks music, sound, and groove

photo by Randy Cole

photo by Randy Cole

Recently I talked with Patrick Graham, a Montréal based percussionist who is doing really interesting work. The first time I heard Patrick perform live was in 2009 at the North American Taiko Conference (Los Angeles) evening concert as a guest artist with On Ensemble. I was immediately drawn to his playing and have become an even bigger fan as I've heard more of his music over the past seven years. In this interview, I asked Patrick about his background, musical training, his concept of sound and groove, and composing. His thoughtful conversation is in symmetry with his music so I would encourage everyone to check out the web links below for video, music, and additional details about his work.

Patrick's musical background and interests have a lot of overlap with my own. No wonder it was so much fun playing with him for an On Ensemble concert in the summer of 2014. It was one of those rare occasions where the music just comes together right from the beginning, as comfortably as if we had always worked together. It's a feeling that is hard to describe; maybe something like speaking the same dialect of our musical language. I also enjoy just hanging out with Patrick and talking about music or whatever. We live pretty far away from each other but I'm pretty sure we'll be collaborating in the near future. Stay tuned for that!

I have included music from Rheo, Patrick's album which came up in our conversation. The tracks excerpted in the interview are: King Worm, Liminality, Le Souffle M'envahit, Brilla, and Strata. It's a great album and I would recommend everyone checking it out at the links below.

From Patrick:
"I've been so fortunate to study with many fantastic teachers. I am indebted to them.
Bob Slapcoff at Vanier College, Pierre Béluse and D'Arcy Gray at McGill University, Trichy Sankaran, Glen Velez, Tokyo-based sensei Taichi Ozaki (stage name Kato Tosha), Kodo's Tomohiro Mitome led the taiko Koh-Kan workshops in 2000, Tetsuro Naito, Carlo Rizzo and Zohar Fresco."