Today I participated in a Taiko Communication Workshop with Mark H. Rooney. The goal of the workshop is to practice skills that help you tune in to other players in your Taiko group.
Look Up When You Bow
At the beginning of each Taiko practice, we say “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu” while kneeling and bowing. It means something like, “Please look favorably upon me while teaching me” or “Please help me learn.” Usually, I have seen people say this while bowing – they are saying it while in motion. Mark suggested that this is our first moment of connection with our teacher and fellow students, so in fact, we might say the words while looking into each other’s faces, and then bow. It’s a subtle difference, but it bring a different level of meaning to the words. Likewise, at the end of class, we say “Domo Arigato Gozaimasihta” which means thank you, and we should look up and then bow.
Inside Outside Jumping Jack
This was a new element in Mark’s taiso or warm-up. You tap the inside of your right foot with your right hand, then the outside of your right foot, then the outside of your left foot with your left hand and the inside.
In this activity, we first play facing each other in a large circle. We take turns being the person who raises the bachi, and the others try to exactly mimic our pace. Then we say “hup” or a similar sharp type of shout or kiai, and hit the drum. The nuances one learns are how to be deliberate in your facial expressions and body language to let people know when you are going to start the downward hit. There are small things you can do like take in your breath or raise slightly on your toes. If our goal is to sound like one big drum, we need to use these subtle tools to communicate.
Next, we all turn around so our backs are to each other. The only data you have to start your hit is the other person’s shout or kiai. You learn again that you can use the intake of breath and have a nice sharp “hup” to get everyone to hit at the same time.
While we still cannot see each other, we play a game where we count up from 1-10. Each person can hit their drum once, shouting the next number in Japanese at the exact moment when you hit. The challenge is that you must have only one person hit at a time. Somehow it works, sometimes at least.
We also practiced where one person stood at the front of the class and every four beats, they would hit the drum. In between the hits, they would move their body in all different ways. We all aimed to mimic their movements, but still hit the drum at the exact same time. There is a skill being the person at the front, to move slowly and smoothly enough that people can follow you, and to employ all those subtle body language elements we are learning to show.
Experimental Play Styles
Everyone is in a circle facing each other. You play 8 count solos, one at a time, and it rotates around the circle. Each time, Mark had us practice a Taiko skill. The skills were:
- ma – incorporating silence in a meaningful way – you are actually “playing” the silence
- dynamics – your hits get softer or louder
- fuchi – you hit the edges of the drum head where it has a higher pitched sound
- kiai – you incorporate your voice into your solo
- movement – you move your body in some way to add visual interest to your playing – this includes elevation, or playing the drum from down low or jumping up
- context – you incorporate some idea from the previous player’s solo into your solo
- playing the drum in unorthodox ways – such as slapping the flat side of the bachi on the drum head, playing from the center to the edges (which gives different sounds), using the tip of the bachi to stop the sound from the previous hit, gently rubbing the bachi along the nails that hold down the head to make a clicking sound
Sometimes you had to incorporate more than one skill in a solo.
This type of activity used to make me quite sick to my stomach, but something wonderful has happened. I have been practicing the song Renshuu so much that I have now have some small phrases of rhythm that come naturally to my body without me thinking. For many of my solos, I played a phrase from Renshuu but incorporated one of these aspects into the phrase. It greatly reduced the rush of panic I used to feel whenever asked to do a solo.
I particularly liked how Mark asked us to really push ourselves when it comes to movement. He has been working with dancers recently and he said it is making him think a lot about movement. He reminded us that we can jump for example. For one round of solos, he asked us to only hit the drum one time at the beginning of the 8 counts, and then use the rest of the “solo” to play with movement. One time, I lowered myself down to the height of the Taiko and gave it a hug as my movement. I love Taiko!
Taiko Speed Dating
For this activity, you set up the drums in pairs. You get in a pair with someone. They play a solo that lasts four counts. You then respond with your own solo that somehow, in some way, incorporates some aspect of their solo. This is called taking the context into account.
If you do not incorporate something from the other person’s solo, you are not having a conversation. If you mimic them exactly, you are not adding to the conversation. You must also look into the eyes of your partner and really communicate with them with your face and kiai. Mark challenged us to incorporate something but to also perhaps even “disagree” in the conversation. It is very challenging to do all this while also keeping your solos to four counts and keeping the gi. But I really enjoyed the activity because each person I played with has their own style. Some are more into movement, some into complex rhythms. Some are laughing the whole time, while others are serious. You get a lot of ideas for how to play by doing this activity.
Mark handed out playing cards so that we were randomly put into teams of three (Kings, Queens and Jacks). He set up 6 drums on a “stage” in a random configuration. When he called your suit, you were immediately “on” – without any opportunity to talk to your fellow drummers. You don’t get to talk at all and you don’t know who they will be. You all jump up and start performing. Even how you walk, run or jump up to the stage is part of the performance. The act needs to be about three minutes and it must have a beginning, middle and an end. Getting to the end is particularly challenging because you have to somehow signal to your fellow players, without words – “hey let’s wrap this up with some kind of dramatic ending.” You can move the drums around if you want into any configuration. And ideally, you incorporate the skills we practiced such as kiai, movement, dynamics etc.
I did this last year and felt like I was drowning. I could not feel the gi or rhythm at all. This year, I had two other players who are amazing, so I felt they carried me along, like how Bob makes me feel like a superb skater when he holds my hand at the ice rink. Immediately Tara jumped up and started playing a wonderful gi, or base rhythm, which gave me and Terry a foundation to build on. I quickly moved a drum so we could all see each other more clearly. Somehow we managed to have interlocking rhythms and make a song.
Tara and I had done Taiko speed dating, so we had found a common vocabulary for some parts. For example, I know she loves to play with dynamics. When I saw she was starting to “rev up” her body to go from soft to loud, I matched her body shape and sound, so it looked like something rehearsed rather than random. I was not shy about using my face to suggest a change of pace, or an ending. I pointed with my bachi a few times. It felt good mostly because of Tara and Terry, but I’ll take it!