What Taiko Teaches Me

Let me show you a video of a local taiko group, Nen Daiko, performing a piece called Rouga which means “Wolf Fang.” It is meant to represent a pack of wolves hunting. This piece was composed by Ryo Shimamoto, mentor to my taiko teacher Mark H. Rooney.

I have been taking taiko classes for 8 months, and while I love taiko, it is challenging to keep up with it. Classes are an hour away without traffic. I leave at 3:30pm and get home around 8:30pm. That’s tough with family commitments every Sunday. The drive really takes the good out of me (I know – it sounds wimpy in a region where many people commute that far every day). I feel guilty not getting ready for the week with my family. So I had decided to take a break from taiko for the summer.

But when I watch Rouga, I want to play. I love the intense looks on their faces, how the rhythm bounces back and forth around the group. I love how their shoulders move like the wolves’ shoulders, how they move their bodies from crouching to leaping, how their bachi, or drumsticks, hit the drums in a loping motion that looks just like wolves running down a hill. (My favorite part starts at the 0:44 mark of this video – watch those wolves come loping down through the snow.) Even their “kias” or calls to each other during the performance sound like wolves barking to each other – “Come on! Let’s go!”

Taiko as a Symbol of Focused Life Purpose

My taiko teacher, Mark, is phenomenal. He is hilarious. He plays a drum in a way that blows your mind. He knows what to say and how to say it to each student. He teaches us light-hearted festival songs, intense songs, games that make you feel like a kid again, memory tests that make you exercise your whole brain. He has a whole taiko world view that fits together like a perfect puzzle.

Mark loves taiko, breathes taiko – I think his heart is a taiko drum. I wish I had that singularity of purpose. I wish it all wove together so neatly. I keep trying to understand how my life fits together so I can have that focus too.

That singularity of focus has a physical form in taiko, called “kumidaiko” or playing the drums exactly at the same time. It’s not easy. As Mark says, people have natural tendencies to play the beat on the front end of it, or right on it, or slightly after. People interpret the “right” way to play the beat differently. And he tries to have us tune in to each other so we sense what the others are doing. Are we are aggressive bunch that is going to hit the beat full on the face? Or have we all be listening to reggae and will hit it with a more relaxed attitude? Being so in sync with other people – that doesn’t happen in regular life.

At one taiko workshop, Mark turned out the lights and we played. It took away everything I rely on – the body language, the rules about how you share information without words. It felt like I was drowning and free at the same time. Every day I’m just trying to sync up with people and even though I have tons of data, we just can’t hit the beat at the same time. And sometimes I wonder if they are even playing at all.

Taiko is more than playing a drum when you are with Mark. There are layers of meaning. There is a cultural layer – learning about Japanese culture. No – let me be more specific – we learn about Japanese-American-growing-up-on-the-East-Coast culture, which is a specific thing. I love that we are talking about finding a home across cultures – finding a home is a very important theme to tackle in any context.

And there is a “meaning of life” layer. Mark asks questions like, “What is it about your life that lead you to taiko?” as if everything in your life leads directionally to taiko. What other class is there an assumption that everything in your life has brought your feet to that class? But of course, that is true. Everything is connected and builds upon itself even if I don’t see the patterns. I have always been interested in experiencing other cultures – I had my honeymoon in Japan, and I went to the international school Lester B. Pearson College. Sure, I never played musical instruments and never heard a taiko performance before I took the classes. I love to dance but the more I drum, the more I question whether I have rhythm. I’m clutzy and generally stink at remembering left and right. I learn from physical repetition and not from observing. It just is what it is.

And then he asks, “What does taiko bring to your life?” because as he notes, if it brings nothing, you will not keep doing it. What does it bring? That thumping makes me so freaking happy. I make that beat with my hands and this barrel of a drum with its exquisitely shiny wood and a head that has as many textures as my hand-stitched quilts. When we play exactly in time as a group, it’s goes throughout my whole body. I live most of my life virtually, building websites. I love moments where I feel my whole body is in the moment.

Singularity of purpose – it is really just an attitude or perception. I may envy Mark or other friends who have a life vision that can be summed up in a sentence. I haven’t found my sentence – but I’m sure it all fits together. My brain has always wanted to crawl over the facts of various life paths and it drives me nuts because it doesn’t feel efficient. When you are trying out everything, everything happens at a surface level. Mastery brings a different knowledge than curiousity. And life tends to degrade to busy-ness. That’s why finding a wholeness to this scattered journey feels important to me right now.

Taiko as a Confidence Destroyer / Builder

Taiko forces me to be brave. Every time I hit that drum, there is a little shudder – something like, “Did I just make that sound? Did I have the guts to possibly hit it wrong, throw that bachi across the room?” People say I’m an extrovert and that means I get my energy from being with others. But most of the time, I don’t want to stand out. Taiko makes you very loud and magnifies your actions. I love when we play together but I hate improvised solos. I don’t want to be alone up there. Usually when I’m standing up somewhere alone, I burst into tears. I want to be in sync. I want everything to look beautiful because it happened together, like the loops on one of my more perfectly hooked rugs.

The more I practice taiko, the more upset I am with myself. I expect to be better. I expect to connect more with the other players. I expect it to flow more easily. Every time, it’s this deeply humbling experience. Before the class starts, we sit in silence for a minute to bring ourselves into the room. The theme running in my head is “I’m so incredibly lucky that I can be here – that this class exists, that I am healthy enough, that I have the money, that my husband will take the kids.” And then when the class ends, and we have another moment of silence, I am picking up my bruised ego and saying, “It’s not about that – it’s the process, not the end – remember the joy of the bachi in your hand – stop focusing on everything you did wrong.” But it’s not easy to put your ego aside, is it? And I begin to wonder, why do I do this again? My self confidence doesn’t need a weekly pounding. Throw on top of that my guitar and tae kwon do classes, most days at work, interactions with the kids and there is hardly a scrap of self confidence left.

There is that saying, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Being humbled is good for me. We say the education system is destroying our kids’ creativity and making them afraid to experiment because we teach there is one right answer. I may be a product of that education system, but I damn well am not going to be afraid to fail. A rich life means not being competent all the time.

I try to imagine being Mark, with students at all different levels. And the closest I can imagine is when I am showing people my Trashmagination stuff. The most common response to TrashAnatomy or other projects is “I could never do that.” Just like I’m saying, “I don’t think I can ever play Rouga the way it should be played.” But when people say that to me, I want to say, “This is not about you or me. Let’s not compare ourselves. I want you to give this the mental energy that shows you respect the process. Focus and contribute any way you can. You will bring something different than me. I have obsessed about this, and it’s a foreign language for you, but you will still teach me something. It is inefficient to compare yourself to others – it is disengagement. Trust there is a line between us and we need to send energy across that line. Step out of your ego and be here with me.”

So I’m going to assume that’s what Mark is saying too, even when I can’t get it. I’m going to assume that the fact that I bring my heart is what he finds interesting, and where we will grow something. I may not ever feel comfortable doing an improvised solo, but I may bring something to this that no one else ever did. We cannot know unless I engage.

Watching – hearing – feeling Rouga – the wolves coming down the hill – it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s not about my precious time or struggling confidence. It’s about that moment of kumidaiko, and singularity of purpose. It’s about being in the moment and not worrying about the petty or the grandiose. Really? Just bring those wolves into those drums.

2 thoughts on “What Taiko Teaches Me

  1. Carl Brown on

    Carla – that is fantastic – both your writing, your expressing yourself and the video. I appreciated your explanation of the wolves and could visualize them in the music. Well done!

    Keep up the good work and keep writing and beating those drums. You are refreshing.

    • Carla Brown on

      Wow – Dad – thanks! After I wrote this, I thought, “Do I really want people to know the stuff I am thinking or that I worry this much?” Yep – the script continues always. So I’m glad you found it refreshing and not annoying! I so love this Rouga piece and I hope some day I can perform it!