Odaiko New England

Simple Plans for Simple Pleasure

It went down sort of like this. During a spare moment at the dojo, Cat said something like, “Before the summer’s over, I really want to swim at Walden Pond.” Diane sighed, “Oh! That sounds good. I want to go, too.” At that point, Beth made it happen.  Last Friday, nine of us and three kayaks (thanks to Tanya and Kate) had a delightful afternoon swimming laps across the famous pond, paddling around, taking in the serene scenery and enjoying each others’ company. It was a sweet, summer afternoon.

Wet Taiko Players in the Woods

Wet Taiko Players in the Woods

Taiko Whirlwind, or What happend to April, May, and June?

Spring is the busy season for Odaiko New England.  It’s the time of year when everyone wants to have taiko at their outdoor festivals.  It’s also my personal busy season.  I’m a landscape designer, and run my own business.  I know I’m not the only taiko player to have a difficult time balancing work, life, and taiko, so I imagine my spring will sound familiar to a lot of folks out there.

It all started in April, right after we got our new ONE jackets and other gear:

Sheilarae, Kristen, Jasmine, and I sported our new jackets while loading for the first of many spring gigs.

Sheilarae, Kristen, Jasmine, and I sported our new jackets and hats while loading equipment for the first of many spring gigs.

April 17: Stone Church Arts

The week I finished my taxes, I completed spring cleanups for 2 clients, planted 5 apple trees, interviewed 2 new crew members, organized my tools, and attended taiko practice as usual.  The week’s activities culminated in a 2 hour concert in Bellows Falls, VT on Saturday.  This was an excellent show, based on reVision, our 15th anniversary concert from last spring.  Since it was a full length concert, we needed transition pieces to distract the audience while setting up drums for the next piece.  That meant I got to break out my sanshin and play Island Stroll with Diane again.  I am happy every chance we get to perform it.  The first time was terrifying, but now I think we are both getting a lot more confident.

Kristen and Karen playing Shin-en.

Kristen and Karen playing Shin-en.

May 1: Rhode Island Cherry Blossom Festival

The last week in April included many hours of weeding, mulching and pruning, during the day, with visits to the dojo in the evening.  I needed the practice since, on May 1, we had the privilege of performing at Rhode Island’s first Sakura Matsuri (Cherry Blossom Festival).

Unfortunately, the same early spring and warm weather that brought me a lot more April business than usual, also encouraged the cherry blossoms to open well ahead of schedule.  That meant that the blossoms were long gone by the time we were there to celebrate them.  It was also surprisingly hot weather for early May.  No matter!  We still had a good time with both performances that morning.

A noisy waterfall in the background in Pawtucket, RI wasn't loud enough to drown out the sound of our drums.

A noisy waterfall in the background in Pawtucket, RI wasn't loud enough to drown out the sound of our drums.

May 1: Wesleyan University Student Recital

For some of us, performing twice in one morning, just isn’t enough taiko.  So, after we finished our performance at the Cherry Blossom Festival, Kristen, Tanya, and I hopped into Tanya’s car and drove to Middletown, CT.  There we had a delicious and leisurely meal before meeting up with Karen and watching the Wesleyan University student taiko recital.

The Wesleyan students displayed tremendous energy, and some pretty awesome solo skills.

Mark loosk on as the Wesleyan Students perform Matsuri.

Mark looks on as the Wesleyan Students perform Matsuri.

Fortunately, there was time for ice cream with Mark before our drive home.  On our way, Tanya and I learned that a massive water pipe had burst not far from my home, affecting the drinking water supply for the entire area–much of the Boston area was under a boil water order.  (Lucky Tanya lives far enough West that she didn’t have to worry about it.)

May 2: Walk for Hunger

The very next day, we had an opportunity to bring taiko to the masses.  Project Bread’s Walk for Hunger is an enormous fundraiser, involving over 40,000 people who walk to raise money for emergency food programs.  Our job was to play at the finish line, as a way of thanking the walkers for their efforts.  We also served as entertainment for the volunteers stationed at the finish line to hand out water.

This type of gig has a very different feel from a stage performance.  For one thing, we were playing to create a festive atmosphere, to an audience that wasn’t likely to give us their full attention, except briefly as they pass by.  That meant that we didn’t play our standard arrangements of a wide variety of songs.  Instead we played fewer songs with more looping.  We played in the sun for over two hours, so I was especially appreciative when we were given ice cream bars.  Did I eat 3?

May 8: Spring Thunder Festival

Twice a year, we put together a taiko showcase in order to give our students an opportunity to strut their stuff, while giving members a chance to try out something new.  The spring showcase (or Spring Thunder Festival), was a smashing success.  Watching the students perform with joy can be quite inspirational for a jaded old player like myself.   (Yeah, okay…  4 years of taiko hasn’t actually jaded me, but the students are still an inspiration.)

The community members had the chance to learn the Hachijo-Yatai Bayashi Medley in just a few weeks.  That was both challenging, and a blast!  I love playing the Yatai part against Hachijo.

May 15: Asian Heritage Festival, House of the Samurai

A week later my parents were planning to come for a visit.  But wait!  I’d volunteered to perform at the House of the Samurai Asian Heritage Festival in Londonderry, NH that weekend!  What to do?

Easy Solution: Mom and Dad were driving from VT anyway, so they just stopped in Londonderry to see me play, and then gave me a ride home.

I particularly enjoyed this gig.  The House of the Samurai is a Karate dojo which also has programs in Yoga and Chi Gong.  The space was beautiful, Ken and Mandy (the owners of the dojo) were tremendously nice, and after our performance we had the chance to relax and enjoy the other activities they’d arranged for the day.  It was my parents’ first chance to see a our festival set–which it turns out my Mom likes a lot more than the formal concerts.

Cat, Joy, Jasmine, ?, the Odaiko, ?, Juni, Diane, and myself after the show.

Cat, Joy, Jasmine, Ken and Mandy Akiyama, Juni, Diane, and myself after the show.

May 22: YMCA Movie Night

Thanks to Karen, we had a quick chance to build a connection with our neighbors at the North Suburban YMCA in Woburn by performing a few songs before they screened “Up”.

June 12: Waltham Riverfest

Last year, I had my first chance to lead a gig.  It was an exciting opportunity to get practice in leadership, logistics, and public speaking.  But the memory will always be darkened by the fact that I spent the rest of my time that weekend arranging a trip to Texas for my cousin’s funeral.

I couldn’t help thinking about the good and the bad from last year, but with my family in the audience, and rain clouds overhead, the second Waltham Riverfest was a completely different story.  Last year’s performance had been perfect weather.  This year, the looming rain began to fall just as the previous act wrapped up.  Fortunately, we had a plastic sheet to protect the drums, and the organizers had a canopy that we could set up under.

We couldn’t have played without the canopy, but it was very small-about 10 feet by 10 feet.  Somehow, we managed to squeeze the odaiko and 3 chudaiko under it.   Fortunately I’d brought Smokey, my Remo shime.  Since she’s made of synthetic materials, it was okay to play her in the rain, so we didn’t have to fit 5 drums into the tiny space!

The audience was larger than last year, despite the significantly worse weather.  There wasn’t enough space for naname, and I was concerned that the rain would get harder, so we had to shorten the set, but still managed to play a Reimei remix, Kashmir, and Shin-en before a wet audience.  We even managed to pull off some audience participation.

Meanwhile, another crew of Odaiko New Englanders were getting rained on while participating in the Boston Pride parade and festival.  But that’s someone else’s story.

June 13: Dragon Boat Festival

The next day, we put in our annual appearance at the Boston Dragon Boat Festival.  This has been one of my favorite festivals since the first time I played it in 2007.

This year our set included Mahora, a marathon song, which I remember playing at Dragon Boats two years earlier.

June 26: Taiko in the Woods

As June, and the busy season, drew to a close, a few of us attended a private camping party, in which we had the chance to play for the other attendees.  I love playing with the forest as a backdrop.

Cat captured me mid-twirl as I played Matsuri.

Cat captured me mid-twirl as I played Matsuri.

Always a Little Behind

Keeping up with posting to the blog can be tough with a performance schedule like this, on top of practices and the miscellaneous work that we do for the group–not to mention our day jobs.  Even though there are many ONE members who could be blogging, we don’t always find the time.  I don’t know how my favorite Taiko bloggers (like All Things Taiko, On Ensemble, and Raion Taiko) keep up!  I don’t even have time to read all their awesome posts, let alone write for and manage the ONE blog!  Maybe I’ll learn.  Maybe next year I’ll keep up…  For now, I’m going to cheat a little bit, and post this with a date of July 1 for the sake of our archives, even though I’m actually writing this much later.

Bellows Falls Vermont

Spiking the Stage

Spiking the stage

On April 17, Odaiko New England’s (almost) full contingent – Ensemble and Community – trekked to Bellows Falls, VT to perform at the Opera House as part of the Stone Church Arts Series.

Kristen and Shigeru playing Senryū

Kristen and Shigeru playing Senryū

I have had great vacations in Vermont, but was unfamiliar with Bellows Falls.  So, prior to the show, I did a little research.  According to their website, the mission of the Stone Church Arts Series is stated as “bringing the world to Bellows Falls.”  Further research noted that the Opera House had recently been renovated.   Taken alongside the scenic pictures of the waterfall, covered bridges, and fall foliage, Bellows Falls seemed be a special place – commitment to arts in a beautiful setting.

Driving into Bellows Falls, the scenic part was easily confirmed with the waterfall and river.  The downtown had all the qualities of a small New England town with its five and dime store, galleries and small shops.  In one of the windows, I spied artwork from a local school.  All were easy confirmation of the importance of art in the community.

As we walked down the street to find lunch, we saw our posters in practically every storefront.   Clearly, there was a lot of community support for Stone Church Arts.

We had lunch in a great little coffee shop with homemade breads, desserts, and sandwiches.  In the back of the shop, there were a few tables, some cushy chairs, and more art on the walls.  Two people were playing backgammon, and a women was reading to her child.  There were some shelves with books.   I found one of my favorite cookbooks – The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Birnbaum – which was a likely source for the beautiful desserts.  Midway through lunch, a man walked in, took one look at us and said “You must be the taiko drummers – I just bought my tickets!”

Our audience that evening was fantastic.  It was a fun show to perform.  (I had my cleanest performance of Kashmir!)  After the show, I got a chance to chat with a few audience members.  They were very enthusiastic, asking many questions regarding our practice schedule and equipment, and thanking us for coming.  I thanked them for being such a lovely audience.

To Stone Arts Church Series, thank you for having us and introducing me to this special community.  I can’t wait to come back!

Putting our hands together before the show

Putting our hands together before the show

TAO: The Martial Art of Drumming

TAO review: Berklee Performance Center, Thursday, March 18, 7:30pm

Taiko performances can give audiences the impression that taiko and martial arts are closely-related disciplines, if not fully intertwined as one art. The group TAO seeks to obliterate any distinction between the two while putting on a dynamite concert. Since I have no background whatsoever in martial arts, I cannot comment definitively on how successfully TAO accomplishes this mission; however, in performance there is no question that TAO puts on a thrilling, exciting show. This is a group that hits an audience between the eyes with blazing energy, exuberant, restless rhythms and exceptional athleticism.

Thanks in part to the fine acoustic environment of the Berklee Performance Center, the group’s sound was clean and articulate. An array of wireless mics for the performers and instruments was no doubt carefully aligned, with degrees of reverb calibrated and volumes balanced. TAO’s attention to sound prompted me to recall the amount of time Mark, Victor and others spent working on the sound balance for ONE’s “reVision” concerts.

The group’s choreography is precisely crafted – down to the last detail. While much of the movement was performed with a panache that suggested spontaneity and improvisation, my impression was rather that these had each been completely planned and polished, calculated for maximum effect so as to leave nothing to chance. From time to time the group seemed to pull in an element from Blue Man Group here, a comedic exchange there, which never failed to entertain the audience. The group’s visual appearance also evinced a similar attention to minute detail: the costumes were excellent, and even the performers’ hair was scrupulously tended to, whether frizzed out, short and spiky, or drooping locks partially obscuring the eyes, a multitude of styles, every strand perfectly in place.

The transitions possessed some ambiguity; was the music being played still part of the previous song, an entirely different song in its own right, or the intro to the next song? On one hand this could be confusing for those who like to know what’s being played and when, but I think many people would prefer to simply experience the performance without wondering which song is which. Having no clear start or finish to some of the songs helps to convey a quality of time out of time so that the audience comes under the group’s spell.

The group’s outstanding athleticism is mainly demonstrated by the male drummers, which made me wonder about how TAO sees the role of its female members, who, other than assertively playing Odaiko, generally do not perform the most physical or flashiest movements. Precision-crafted choreography isn’t limited to one particular physique or brute strength; while we may never know the rationale behind TAO’s leadership’s decision to not have any of the women participating in the same choreography as the men – at least, in the full-ensemble pieces featuring the most aggressive, acrobatic moves – audiences will wonder: Why does it have to be that way?

A remarkable contrast of styles came to mind, having seen Kodo in 2009 and TAO one year later: Kodo, for all its virtuosity, is exquisitely economical in its movement and playing. Not an ounce of wasted energy. On the other hand, while TAO does not recklessly misuse energy, its members expend an extraordinary amount of it to achieve the extroverted, aggressive, dynamic entertainment that appears before the audience. To use a pair of sports metaphors, it’s like the group was playing full-court, run-and-gun basketball while running two half-marathons – with only a 15-minute intermission in between.

I don’t want to sound like I’m nit-picking, but a possible shortcoming of this approach is that subtleties of sound, composition, and performance can be lost on an audience after they’ve been hit with a pumped-up sonic and visual barrage.  If TAO seeks to achieve a perfect blend of art and full-throttle taiko, the group may need to explore ways to strike the right balance so audiences will appreciate the quiet songs just as much as the noisy ones.

The group’s approach suggests a fascinating cultural perspective; the members live and train in a national park on the island of Kyushu, observing a strictly disciplined lifestyle and practice schedule in much the same way as Ondekoza, Kodo and Shidara. However, while such groups strive to maintain a thoroughly Japanese identity and serve, one could say, as guardians of Japanese culture, TAO deliberately steams ahead in a different direction. For example, right from their first recording, many of the compositions reveal non-Japanese influences; songs like “Horizon”, “Queen”, and especially “Maori” go beyond traditional taiko rhythms. Most telling is the fact that the group is establishing an office in NYC and its management apparently views America as a kind of entertainment Mecca. TAO doesn’t just want to embark on world tours – it wants to enjoy a level of success in America far surpassing that of any predecessors or contemporaries.

Any reservations aside, TAO performs exhilarating, vibrant, engaging taiko – simply, it’s a “must-see” ensemble. I hope the group continues to pursue new ideas for making taiko accessible to people who might otherwise have no interest in seeing a taiko performance, and it would be great if their combination of taiko and entertainment leads more people all over North America to discover the unique quality of joy imparted by taiko – and to discover the taiko groups that already exist within their own communities.

7 Years Ago: My First Taiko Workshop

It’s been seven years since I first played a taiko at one of Odaiko New England’s three-hour weekend workshops. Here are some of the words I wrote that day about my new experience:

Drums who are now my old friends.

Drums who are now my old friends.

I went a little early so that I was sure to be on time. I was pleased to see that we would be using real drums (though they had a few packing-taped tires just in case). One of the people there who was also early gave me some ear plugs, which made me so happy. I was also happy to learn we would be in our bare feet, if we choose.
I practiced some kanji while I waited for the class to start. Everyone arrived on time. We introduced ourselves and most people there had some musical background. One woman had even done a lot of taiko while growing up in Japan.  (She was a treat to watch; she looked so amazing doing it.) Then we started with warm-ups. I surprised myself by doing 25 real push-ups.

My sit-ups were oh so more pathetic.

We finished warming up and stretching. Then they played the simple piece that they would, in the three hours, teach us to play. I was a bit skeptical, but hey, aim high.

They set us up and taught us basic stuff. I got the tall standing drum to start, which was a bit hard to apply the basic techniques to. The class had a tendency to speed up while playing. I tried to keep visual beat with the person in the middle. I could never get the form down, but I did surprise myself with the rhythms. However, when things did speed up, I lost it. I was much worse than two-thirds of the class.

We rotated on the drums so we could try all the different types. The breaks were beautifully timed, the exercises did a good job of establishing that we could do it and usually also pushed us beyond our limits. Once we’d gotten some basic hits down (light hits, medium hits, large hits, horse rhythm, rim hits, vocalizations) they taught us and had us memorize (quite well to my surprise) the two fairly complex pieces. They had the whole class play both together and then split us into groups and had us play the interlocking pieces to form the main piece. Half the class would watch, the other half would preform. Since most people were pretty good it sounded reasonable at the end. Most of the people picked it up really well.

Drums of all shapes and sizes.

Drums of all shapes and sizes.

My first workshop!

My first workshop!

And then the instructors finished off the class with a performance of their own which was a lot of fun to watch.

It was fun, it was hard and I’m going to be sore tomorrow. All in all it was a great three hours and they did a really good job of teaching a lot to us in a very short amount of time.

I’m so happy that day happened. Odaiko New England, taiko and the people I’ve met there are an amazing and wonderful part of my life. It was so much fun that day and it still is.

Shinnenkai: New Year, New Members

All Members Gathered for a Group Shot to Welcome 2010

ONE members gather to welcome Shane, Greg and the New Year

Pardon my sentimental blubbering. A few days ago in a shinnenkai celebration, with cheers, laughter and more than a few damp eyes, we welcomed two new members to Odaiko New England: Greg and Shane. It was with enormous pride in their efforts, accomplishments and promise that we bestowed on them in our welcome ceremony the rare and esteemed Purple T-Shirt of Membership. This was a huge step for us, because they are the first new folks to join since our Community Group was formed. Two years ago, in a leap of courage and faith, five ONE members invited in fifteen additional enthusiastic and dedicated taiko lovers, and the Community Group became a reality. Suddenly ONE quadrupled in size from an intimate group of five, to an intimate group of twenty. It was a new model for everyone.

This huge and sudden growth has been a challenge: logistically, emotionally, and professionally. How to provide equipment for so many people? How to make group decisions? Train and rehearse so many different skill levels? Distribute performance opportunities fairly? Together (and with the wise guidance of the Fabulous Five original ensemble members), we did it! Sixteen years after our founder Elaine Fong began banging on old tires, we are growing and flourishing. We finally have a real office! Paid staff! Costumes that fit (mostly)! For sure, our equipment could use some upgrading (I speak lovingly of drums such as Mr. Jingles, Harry the Hiccupping Hira, Helen the Holey, and Thumper the shime). But that, too, will surely come to pass.

The admission of our first “new” new members Shane and Greg has led us to think about who we are, what we do, and where we want to go. Some foregone conclusions: (1) we love taiko and want to share our passion; (2) we don’t just want to drum: we want to drum together; (3) we are a family: we share each others’ joys and sorrows, watch each others’ backs, nurture each other as we can, and rejoice in our “in-laws” (partners, families and pets). So welcome, Shane and Greg, to the joyous, passionate and diverse taiko family that is Odaiko New England.

Shane and Greg sporting their new purple t-shirts.

Our newest members sport their purple t-shirts.

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.

An amazing taiko year

I cannot believe the amazing taiko opportunities that 2009 has brought me. I was lucky enough to have played in at least 33 shows. Each one taught me something about taiko, performance or myself. I decided to write down a thought about each one as way to summarize my year.

My snow driving skills put to good use… So much fun to be in a show with such other wonderful musicians… Attack of the curtain!.. Thank goodness for the extra help, or we would have never made it to the next appointment!.. I was certain she’d said “Last time!”… Bananas and a rubber chicken… Testing my new camera by taking pictures of Tiger Okoshi… Good thing I carry my own hachijo bachi… Amazing to see the girls so enthusiastic… MC’ing because I’m loud and the mic is broken… A night sky filled with confetti… 4 shows in 4 days is my taiko limit and when someone offers you nuts, take them!… Great fun to jump into a piece I hadn’t played in 6 months… Improvising on stage as people file in… Too many things to mention… Temporary tattoo for Sheilarae… My first parade and being very colorful… Playing Reimei at dawn… I can’t help but thank my closest taiko friends for letting me drag them to a mountain and order them around… Playing in the back of a pick-up truck and dancing in the street… Manny, the world’s largest athlete introducing us and waiting for Martin Short before we can set the stage… Forgot a drum stand, time to improvise!.. Made our own hachimaki in the time between shows… The ONE family bond is stronger than my personal fears… Canceled due to tornado warning!… Solidified the relationship of performer to audience… This street isn’t big enough for all the noise we make!.. Many amazing taiko groups under the apple trees… So many of us were sick, but we still gave it our all… Even sick, you can’t stop me from fue!.. Almost everything that was said about their dojo, we could echo about ONE. It was amazing to see their strength of community and what it had built… My first MC’ing where I got to think about it ahead of time… ONE working towards its own street fair! Plus I made a new shime stand.

A few of the years taiko moments.

A few of the year's taiko moments.

I feel exceptionally blessed by taiko in 2009. I can only hope for what 2010 might bring.

My Extended Taiko Family

“We’re gathering our extended taiko family for the holidays,” I wrote on our website to promote ONE’s 2nd annual Winter Extravaganza.   It was an ironic statement for me, since my own family would not be coming.

And so it was that I left my taiko widower and orphans at home to take part in our 2009 Winter Extravaganza on Sunday the 13th at our dojo in Woburn.  And extravagant it was!  We had performances by six taiko groups and guest violinist Yael Bat-Shimon; plus a crafts bazaar, bake sale, auction and reception.

But first, there was a lot of work to be done to get ready.  ONE members and students began arriving as early as 10:00 am to begin decorating and setting up for the event.  I arrived around noon to help set up the reception snacks and bake sale.  It was an unfortunate task for someone who’d forgotten to eat lunch!  Our savior, former Community member Junko Kargula, arrived with sushi, crackers and hot tea.  She was soon followed by Wasna with a batch of her Aussie Lamingtons — not for the bake sale, but for us!  We truly and unanimously adore Junko and Wasna!

Before long our dojo was festooned with holiday cheer.  Christmas trees, garland swags, lights and wreaths transformed our minimalist practice space.   Jasmine’s snow-dusted cherry blossom mural and last year’s wrapping-paper cranes formed a beautiful backdrop for the coming performances.  Karen’s origami and orange tulle pom-pom garlands hung from the lobby ceiling.  We were ready for our guests.

The first group to play was ONE’s Recreational Taiko class.  They played Raku, which Karen and Shane brought back from a visit to Shidara in Japan earlier this year.  As a mom, it’s hard to watch.  I marvel that no one put an eye out or lost a tooth playing this wildly dangerous song on a crowded stage.  But anyone could see that they were having a blast, and the audience loved it.

Recreational Taiko Class Playing Raku (Photo Courtesy Wasna Nark-Kasem)

Recreational Taiko Class playing Raku (Photo Courtesy Wasna Nark-Kasem)

Next up was Wellesley College’s collegiate taiko group, Aiko.  Their song — also called Aiko — was a peaceful and complex exchange of rhythms.

Aiko from Wellesley College playing Aiko (Photo Courtesy Wasna Nark-Kasem)

Aiko from Wellesley College playing Aiko (Photo Courtesy Wasna Nark-Kasem)

The third number, Yatai Bayashi, played by ONE’s Taiko Styles class (and yours truly) was a grueling  event for a number of reasons.   Firstly, well, it’s Yatai — a taiko song played in a stomach-burning half-sit up.  Second, we had so many masochists — er, taiko players — who wanted to play, the song took nearly 20 minutes to get through.  And third, I missed six weeks of rehearsal time in the months leading up to the Extravaganza so I played like a buffoon.  My apologies to those who put in a much better effort.  Yatai was mercifully followed by a break for auction- and craft-browsing and bake sale goodies.

Taiko Styles Class playing Yatai Bayashi (Photo Courtesy Wasna Nark-Kasem)

Taiko Styles Class: Shime players keeping the ji for Yatai Bayashi (Photo Courtesy Wasna Nark-Kasem)

Taiko Styles Class playing Yatai Bayashi (Photo Courtesy Wasna Nark-Kasem)

Taiko Styles Class playing Yatai Bayashi (Photo Courtesy Wasna Nark-Kasem)

ONE Ensemble members returned with Kaminari, in which the thunder god playfully dances and beats his drum against a background of vocals, strings and more percussion.  This is my absolute favorite ONE piece!

The Odaiko New England Ensemble playing Kaminari  (Photo Courtesy Hiroshi Hasegawa)

The Odaiko New England Ensemble playing Kaminari (Photo Courtesy Hiroshi Hasegawa)

An adult community ed class taught by our own Mark H Rooney at Concord-Carlisle High School played next.  Joining them was Mark’s student from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, jazz musician Tyshawn Sorey.  Their thunderous performance piece, Kiyohime Daiko, did not actually loosen dust and debris from the rafters, nor shake loose any light gels, as is typical in other venues, but it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of power!

Next up was Kashmir, again with yours truly.  Many members of ONE’s Community group had only just started learning Kashmir four short weeks ago.  Well done!

Dave Buerger is ready for Kashmir (Photo Courtesy Wasna Nark-Kasem)

Dave Buerger is ready for Kashmir (Photo Courtesy Wasna Nark-Kasem)

In all, 49 taiko players performed together for a finale piece, Kokyo.  No stage could contain the enormity that was Kokyo, as it was more party than performance.  Hilda and Rita wore jingle bells as they played our big hiras out in front of the stage.  Others played accessories as they danced among our guests in the audience.

Kokyo! (Photo Courtesy Wasna Nark-Kasem)

Kokyo! (Photo Courtesy Wasna Nark-Kasem)

In the end, I only missed my family a little bit.  As I congratulated David’s daughter on her impressive tennis season, asked Jasmine’s son about his chorale performance earlier in the week, and chatted with Lauren’s mom and Mark’s parents, I realized that I was with my taiko family, after all.

Shidara Residency

If you are a taiko player in North America striving to be the best player you can be (whatever that might mean personally to you), then at some point you have probably thought to yourself: I should really go study in Japan. Then you say to yourself…”Self, what kind of crazy idea is that? You have responsibilities here. You have [college/a wife/a mortgage/kids/a sick cat]…you can’t go to Japan. Plus, don’t forget how much you love hamburgers!” So the Japan idea goes out the window.

But wait! There are opportunities out there to get a meaningful glimpse into that world without having to throw a wrench in the works. One such opportunity that came into existence recently is the Shidara Residency. Shidara has put together a program that feels like a mini apprenticeship. Their goal is to provide an authentic experience of what it means to be a taiko player in Japan. I had been playing taiko for less than a year when I first heard about it and I jumped at the opportunity and let me say, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Not to mention that it made a big difference in my understanding of taiko.

Shidara residency participants pose for group picture

Shidara residency participants play Raku

We all posed for a group picture in front of a sakura tree in Toei cho. During one of the workshops we learned Raku, a piece written by Shidara’s leader Chabo.

This was Shidara’s first residency, and while it will most likely evolve and improve over time, they did an amazing job. The residency was two weeks long and took place in April of 2009. The bulk of the residency was spent living and learning alongside Shidara members. Shidara is very dedicated. They live their lives for taiko, 24/7/365. The key here is that you spend your time living as they live. This isn’t a program tailored to what they think North Americans would like to do while in Japan.

This is what a typical day of the residency was like:

0515: Wake up.
0545: Morning taiso then go for a group run in the mountains.
0700: Have breakfast. Squeeze some practice in.
0830: Souji: Clean compound in groups.
0900: Morning workshop.
1200: Have lunch. Clean up.
1315: Afternoon workshops.
1730: Onsen
1915: Dinner. Clean up.
2000: Free Time / Practice
2100: Workshop Participant Meeting
2200: Go to sleep

Shidara put on a mini-performance for us.

For the most part, this is what a typical Shidara member’s day would look like too. There are, of course, some differences. When we did uchi-komi it would last for 15-20 minutes instead of Shidara’s usual 1-1.5 hours. Our practices were structured into detailed morning and afternoon workshops. These workshops were a privilege to attend. I noticed the Shidara apprentices were in the back of each workshop paying close attention and eagerly taking notes. This was obviously a learning opportunity for them as well.

We had workshops covering Bachi and Fue making, equipment maintenance and care, uchi-komi (shime drill), Kihon (basics of Shidara’s style), dance basics (with guest instructor Akira Kataogi), Onikenbai costume history and dance background (with guest instructor Akira Kataogi), and accessories (chappa, shamisen, etc…). We also devoted a day to learning a song called Raku. This is an original composition by Shidara that they have written as a gift to the rest of the world. Their desire is for as many people as possible to learn and play this song, no strings attached. We learned it in a morning workshop and then played it for the local villagers that afternoon as a thank you for the wonderful barbecue lunch Shidara and the villagers made for us.

Shidara_Bachi_500 Shidara_Onikenbai_500
We made bachi from scratch using locally grown hinoki. Akira Kataogi performed for us during the dance workshop.

Every aspect of their lives is focused on improving themselves as taiko players. They don’t just practice together, but they live together, which solidifies the group and allows them to draw inspiration from each other and their surroundings. The mountains they live in are often sources of inspiration for their music. And not just big things like that, but other things you wouldn’t necessarily think of…like using their chopsticks in their left hands while eating to improve coordination and dexterity. They truly dedicate their whole lives to taiko.

There is an unbelievable wealth of experiences in a trip like this. A blog post can’t even begin to capture it. An experience like this will increase the breadth and depth of your taiko life. So, visit other taiko groups, attend taiko conferences, see every show you can, listen to every CD, watch every DVD…your instructors didn’t get to where they are by practice alone and neither should you.

Shidara_Fue_500 Shidara_Sendoff_500
Here I am making a fue from local bamboo. Shidara played for us at the train station as we left Toei cho.

BTW: Shidara is coming to Boston in March of 2010, so if you want a taste of the Shidara Residency but don’t have the time or money for a trip to Japan, then consider a trip to Boston. You won’t regret it. More information can be found on Odaiko New England’s website.