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.

9 takeaways from Kenny Endo's interview for TCA

Kenny Endo photo on Eien's blog

On April 23, 2016 Elise Fujimoto of Taiko Community Alliance interviewed Kenny Endo by livestream video. I wasn't able to catch it live but did watch it later in the TCA archive. The video link is below and I would encourage everyone to go see Kenny talk about his background, composition, ji (underlying groove), practicing, kumidaiko (ensemble taiko drumming), costumes, and the future of taiko performance. 

See the video here

My connection to Kenny goes way back. We met when I was a little kid living in Saitama, Japan and Kenny was in Tokyo playing with Oedo Sukeroku Daiko. One particularly memorable event was a concert held inside the Maruki Bijutsukan (art gallery known for large painting panels depicting the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing), where my youth taiko group directed by Saburo Mochizuki sensei shared the stage with Sukeroku Daiko. Many years later, I reconnected with Kenny in Honolulu, Hawaii. Although my excuse to relocate there was to pursue a Masters degree at the University of Hawaii, the real reason was to study and perform with the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble and Taiko Center of the Pacific. It was a great seven years and I learned so much about taiko and being a professional musician.

I am listing my top nine takeaways from the interview. Of course there are many more interesting and insightful moments in the conversation so it's worth setting aside the time to listen to the whole thing. If you have some of your own takeaways, please share in the comments section below.

Kenny's website

1. In recalling one memorable performance, Kenny mentioned going to Moscow for the first time and, having grown up during the Cold War, "realizing it's not the people, but governments that are fighting."

2. "Maintaining your passion and curiosity" will help you have a long and successful career.

3. When composing, Kenny uses a thematic approach. Sometimes a rhythm comes first and other times it starts with a melody. He usually composes melodies on a shinobue (Japanese horizontal bamboo flute) or keyboard.

4. For Kenny, the elements of a great taiko performance include the energy and spirit of the performers, overall sound, visual aspects, stage presence, and the actual pieces.

5. In speaking about his experience with Sukeroku Daiko, "the ji alone was enough to make you want to feel like getting up and dancing. It's easy to solo over."

6. Kenny's advice to players of all levels: "try to play every day…when you come together it makes the group stronger." Another one: "the longer you've been playing, the more you need to practice." Finally, Kenny quoted his teacher Saburo Mochizuki: "renshu wa kibishiku, sorekara ensou wa tanoshiku, meaning practice with discipline, hard work, and focus so that you can be comfortable and enjoy the performance."

7. Kenny says "in workshops I find that people can solo better than they can play the ji. A lot of times the ji is overlooked. It's kind of like the foundation of a building – if it's strong you can build anything on top but if it's weak, no matter how fancy the building, it's going to have problems later."

8. Kenny mentions that his practicing routine is half technical (with a metronome) and half creative. "I enjoy and look forward to practicing."

9. Asked about the future of taiko, Kenny says that "kumidaiko is relatively new," and that the many different directions – dance, music, theater – are all valid. He is "optimistic that taiko will keep evolving and we will see lots of great performances come out."