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.

Interview: Mike Penny talks shamisen, taiko, viral videos, and the Kubo movie

I recently had a fun conversation with Mike Penny, a fantastic shamisen player based in Los Angeles. I was introduced to Mike by our mutual friend and colleague Kyle Abbott of Bachido, and when I started to check out his online lessons, youtube videos, and eclectic array of music, I became more and more intrigued to talk with him. One of the reasons I can relate to Mike’s approach to music is his ability to incorporate a diverse mix of influences, from European classical music to odd-meter Balkan music to Frank Zappa to the traditional style of Tsugaru shamisen. In the interview, we talk about how Mike got into shamisen as well as his involvement with Bachido, playing with taiko players, creating his many viral videos, and the controversy surrounding the new movie Kubo and the Two Strings. He sent me some of his music and I have included them in the recording. The titles in the order you will hear them are: Sou Da Ne, Leavin’ Fo’evah, It’s a Good Day, and Gan Barou.

About Mike
Mike Penny has received several awards for his innovative performances and compositions using the Tsugaru Shamisen. In 2007, he received the Japan Foundation’s Uchida Fellowship which allowed him to study with one of Tokyo’s most highly respected Tsugaru shamisen instructors, Toyoaki Fukushi. Mike has given hundreds of public performances and continues to perform regularly as both a solo artist and in various ensembles. He has become well known through his many viral video performances on YouTube, and has gained a following for his unprecedented style of shamisen playing which combines traditional and extended techniques in a variety of musical contexts including jazz, Balkan folk, Western classical, and popular music in a fusion of both east and west, past and future. In addition to performing and teaching private shamisen lessons in his hometown of Los Angeles, Mike is also heavily involved with, the online international Tsugaru shamisen community which holds semi-annual international shamisen camps around the world at which Mike participates as an instructor.

With Mike Penny in Hollywood, July 2016

With Mike Penny in Hollywood, July 2016

Video: Benny Greb on the Art and Science of Groove

Groove is an all-important topic for drummers. I spend a lot of time researching and practicing to strengthen my concept of groove, and to help my students boost their skills. It can be a challenge to precisely define this word because it is a very personal thing. If someone asks you to "make the music groove more," what do you change? Two different drummers might adjust different elements of the beat and still be able to improve the groove. Because this concept can't be notated on sheet music, it's necessary to learn from live concerts, audio recordings, videos, and teachers. The first step starts with acknowledging the utmost importance of good timekeeping, feel, and groove.

I am a fan of Benny Greb because of his musicality as well as his humorous and effective teaching approach in his instructional videos. His newest video is called The Art and Science of Groove, which is available online as a physical copy or digital download. Greb appeared on Drumeo's YouTube channel and summarized his new instructional video, answering questions and demonstrating his approach. Below is a list of the five main topics covered. I would highly recommend that you watch the YouTube lesson and order the actual video. He presents the concept of groove in a very clear method that is easy to understand and provides many useful ideas and exercises.

"My basic point is that time and groove is not a super advanced subject; it should actually be the first thing and the most important thing." - Benny Greb

Greb: these myths about groove are untrue - you have to be born with it, it takes forever to develop, and you can't change your feel.

1. TIME – "feel the quarter note pulse in parallel to what you are playing." The example Greb uses is to clap the "football clave" while vocalizing the pulse using a "chid" sound. He also recommends practicing with a "gap click" where the metronome is audible on the first bar and silent on the second bar.

2. FEEL – "everything that is lifelike has a certain pattern of breathing out, breathing in, like this exchange of downbeat, upbeat, in and out." He suggests thinking of a pendulum swinging side to side for regulating your breathing. "When something really grooves, it's an outgrowth of empathy."

3. SOUND – "just by the sounds and sound levels that you use, you can completely create new grooves." Greb demonstrates by playing a swung funk beat and gradually changing the balance of the bass drum and snare drum as well as switching from hi-hat to ride cymbal. This is a good example as the beat clearly shifts from a rock-type feel to something much more jazz oriented without changing the actual rhythm.

4. BODY – "if you have a weird posture or do something with your body, it can be that things you can do, suddenly you can't do them." In his example, Greb taps his foot at a normal 90° angle position, and then pulls his foot in under the throne to show that the foot tapping becomes impossible with the smaller angle. He also points out a common mistake where drummers breathe normally during timekeeping but hold their breath during fills. "Play a groove and pick a breathing tempo that's a fraction slower than you normally would breathe… You get into a very nice relaxed state by doing that."

5. MIND – this is the "most underestimated" part. "Your mind is the architect that makes musical decisions that guides what you actually do." Greb suggests changing your mindset by putting a question mark on any statement. "A fill has to incorporate tom-toms?" He says a player can come up with something fresh and exciting without spending hours practicing it. "A fill has to be something else than a groove?"

Q & A
How do you translate practice sessions to a live performance setting?

"First of all, make sure you record your practicing to see if it's really there and not an illusion. Make it's measurable. Do you have a recording? Did it sound bad or just feel bad?" If there is a definite difference between the practice room (great) and live performance (bad), "it is probably because you don't have enough headroom practiced." In a live situation, "you have less bandwidth available to execute things that you practiced."

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."

How my online lessons work

I have been teaching online lessons by Skype for several years now. While most of us are accustomed to learning from our teacher in the same physical space, current technology is good enough that real-time instruction through a screen is still very effective. I feel that the person we study with is more important than the format of the lesson. There may be teachers available locally but if they don't offer what you need, online lessons can be a great alternative. They also have their own advantages beyond the fact that the two sides can be anywhere in the world (with internet).

How does it work? First, you would send me an email describing what you're interested in covering. Then we set up a meeting time that works for both of us. My policy is that payment is made before the lesson takes place, and the online check out system (Stripe) on my website is secure and works well. There are no refunds but credits are issued for emergency cancellations and rescheduling with a minimum of 48 hour notice. Most of my online lessons have been through Skype so you would need to have an account as well as a screen with a camera (desktop computer, laptop, iPad, iPhone, etc). The slight delay doesn't allow us to play at the same time, but a lot can be accomplished through demonstration and explanation. To take advantage of the format, I send web links, PDFs, and audio files relevant to the topic. Students in the past have also uploaded videos (public, unlisted, or password-protected) of their practicing or performance to get my feedback. And it's possible to record the lesson using software such as Skype Call Recorder. Beginning students, advanced players, and all levels in between are welcomed in my studio.

What do I teach? Past lessons have covered drumset, taiko, percussion, shinobue, and composition. My workshops page shows specific topics I have offered, but I am always open to requests. Perhaps you are learning a new piece and need some guidance on how to work on it. Maybe you want to learn a new instrument such as the atarigane and are looking for basic technique. It could be that you want to write a piece but don't know how to structure your ideas. Or perhaps you want to become a stronger soloist and better improviser. One topic that is requested regularly relates to exercises for improving stick control and rhythmic accuracy. Your musicianship will progress forward if you have goals to work toward, a good practicing strategy, and thoughtful feedback from an outside perspective. If you are interested, I recommend trying one lesson to see if it fits your needs. I have included a short video here so that you can see what the lesson would be like. Please contact me with any questions or to schedule a lesson.