Odaiko New England

Swim Like a Drummer

Yesterday morning I swam 10,000 yards (5.68 miles/9.14 km)  in about 2 hours 38 minutes–the longest swimming workout of my life.

I was participating in a special New Year’s event for Cambridge Masters Swim Club.  The swim was broken up into units of 100 yards swum on timed intervals.  I chose 1 minute 35 second intervals for each 100.  All I had to do was repeat that 100 times.

There were 7 people in my lane when we started.  One by one, we launched into our swim, leaving 5 seconds after the person before us.  The first few 100’s were easy, with lots of rest, and plenty of time for our coach (Abe) to check on us.  I felt like it would be a piece of cake.  That didn’t last.  About 2/3 of the way through I started wondering if I was going to make it, but two things kept me going.  One was the moral support of my two dear friends who took a moment to cheer me on, though they had not been able to keep going themselves.  The other was taiko.

What’s good for a taiko player…

Shigeru maintains a stable frame while playing odaiko.  (Photo courtesy Lauren Poussard)

Shigeru maintains a stable frame while playing odaiko. (Photo courtesy Lauren Poussard)

I’ve often thought about taiko while swimming, as the two activities have  a lot in common.  In particular, swimming is often like a slow oroshi.  Both involve the careful coordination of your entire body, while keeping to a steady rhythm.  Staying relaxed is a big part of maintaining endurance, and the details of arm movements can really make a big difference in either activity.

Though I’ve been aware of this for quite some time, it’s become much clearer to me in recent months.

At the end of October, Mark and Juni were off in Switzerland for a week, performing with Marco Lienhard of Taikoza.  While they were away, the other ensemble members took over leadership of the community rehearsal.  Each led a separate segment of rehearsal, which serendipitously built up in a wonderful way: from Shigeru’s segment on body awareness, to Kristen’s oroshi involving mindfulness of our motions, to Karen’s segment on observing one another while playing a song.  It was a wonderful practice, and a real change of pace from the previous few months which had included a lot of intense preparations for performances.

One of the many things that really struck me during that practice was something that Shigeru said.  He explained that he’d noticed the importance of maintaining one’s frame across a wide variety of activities.  From taiko to dance, to swimming, golf, basketball, etc., athletes and performers who are good at what they do, are good at maintaining a strong and stable frame.  (You can think of the shoulders and hips as the corners of a body’s frame.)

He is so right!  It doesn’t look good if a dancer dances hunched up on one side, the best swimmers do not twist much as they swim…  This doesn’t mean that people are completely rigid, but rather that they maintain square shoulders and a stable core while staying relaxed.

When we moved on to Kristen’s segment, she talked about using our koshi: starting the motion from the core–so that we aren’t just using our arms to drum–instead we are using our whole bodies.  Engaging muscles in our cores allows for much greater strength and endurance than if we rely on our arm muscles alone.

All this was reinforced by a visit from Kaoru Watanabe a couple of weeks later.  I was lucky enough to participate in two sessions with him, one on body mechanics playing on yokodai, and one on Yatai Bayashi.

Kaoru focused on starting movements from one’s koshi, and allowing one’s arm to follow along.  He broke it down in an exercise that allowed us to focus on moving a single joint to hit the drum, gradually working from wrist to elbow to shoulder to koshi.

He noted the importance of good posture–mostly emphasizing that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to hunch over as we play.

He also discussed the concept of the unbendable arm, using expanding muscles in your arms and back, rather than the strength of one’s biceps to keep your arm straight while under outside pressure.

Here’s a video which describes the same concept:

This is an important concept for taiko because you usually focus on bending your arm as you bring it downward to hit the drum.  Shifting your focus to expanding the arm outwards has a big impact on what muscles you use, how your arm moves, how relaxed you can be while playing, how it looks, and how long you can endure.

…is good for a swimmer.

Much of what Kaoru, Kristen, and Shigeru shared has translated into good advice for swimming.  The first time I jumped into the pool after Kaoru’s visit, I started thinking about those expanding arm muscles; and the more I thought about it, the more I could feel the motion come from my back.  The more I engaged my back, the stronger I felt.

When I swim I’ve always known that the power in my kick comes from my thighs and buttocks, not at all from bending my knees or flexing my feet  (in fact, I keep my knees and ankles almost completely relaxed).  Yet until Kaoru put the last piece in place, I never made the connection that what was true for my legs is also true for my arms.

As I continued my swim this morning, I thought about those connections: the expanding arm muscles, maintaining my frame, finding strength in my core, and using my back muscles to move my arm.  Focusing on these things allowed me to continue.  Though I was tired, I was able to maintain my intervals, finishing the swim 100 yards at a time, stroke by stroke.  I was swimming like a drummer, and I’ve never gone so far in my life.

2 comments to Swim Like a Drummer

  • Diane Miller

    I will think of this when I am swimming!

  • Rebecca Kay

    Hi Beth,
    Just came across your “Swim Like a Drummer” article and enjoyed it very much. I have been a masters swimmer for 35+ years, but a taiko drummer for only 1 1/2 yrs. I have done the 100 100s before too — what an exhilarating experience! I’ve slowed down a bit over the years — now my intervals are at 1:45. However, I’ve never thought about swimming from the core and the meditative mindset I get into with swimming as being also available and desireable with drumming. Of course! Thank you for taking the time to write out your experience and observations — it is helpful to me with drumming.
    Rebecca Kay
    Ashland, OR
    Ashland Taiko