Let’s Try Tuesday: Taiko (Japanese Drums)

Blog, Let's Try Tuesday, Personal Growth

Let’s Try Tuesday is a series dedicated to trying new experiences. Many adults are afraid to fail or embarrass themselves, so they stay in their comfort zone. But there are countless amazing things to see and do in the world, so let’s get out there and try! 

On August 6, 2016, I had the opportunity to attend a discounted Taiko class hosted by JETAADC and taught by Mark H Rooney. Mark has over 17 years of experience studying and performing Taiko, and has worked on and off stage with many renowned Taiko groups like Kodo and Taikoza, helped found the Taiko program at Wesleyan University, and was artistic director of Odaiko New England.

So naturally, I was very excited to learn from him!

What is Taiko?

To put it very simply, Taiko is hitting giant drums, with giant sticks, as hard as you can. Sounds pretty awesome, right?! It’s pretty much the best stress reliever on the planet, so I was pumped to try it after a long week at work.

From what I understand, Taiko actually just means “drum” in Japanese. So within Japan, Taiko can refer to anything from Western style snares and bass drums, to Japanese style Taiko. But outside of Japan, it’s specifically the large Japanese-style drums.

In addition, when we’re talking about specifically Japanese style Taiko, there’s a few different types:

1. Shime Daiko– the little small ones that are up on a stand. They usually have a little bit of a higher pitch, and they’re used to keep rhythm for the group. So they usually play a little bit of a fancier beat, and they keep everyone in sync.

2. Chu Daiko– medium size drums. They’re usually about hip height, have a slightly deeper pitch, and they’re used to play the main melody of the song. Most Taiko players that you hear are going to be playing Chu Daiko.

3. O Daiko. They’re HUGE, round drums that play a deep bass note. They are used mostly in performances, because they’re large and expensive.

(Watch the video above if you want to see and hear examples!)

Taiko, like a lot of things in Asia, has been around for a really long time. Historians think it’s probably been around since about the 6th century AD, and came from China or Korea.

Throughout time, it’s been used for many different tasks, from helping soldiers in battle, to traditional theater and court performances, to Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies. Even today, if you go to a festival in Japan, I guarantee you’ll hear Taiko music.

More recently, probably since the 1950s or so, has been the rise of something called “Kumi Daiko”, which are drum ensembles. This involves groups of Taiko players, all playing together as a band. They are a main attraction, rather than the backdrop to a festival, theater performance, or anything like that. They’ve become very famous internationally, and that’s the style that we learned in our workshop.

Mark’s Beginner Taiko Workshop

First, we started off with some basic stretching and strength exercises. Taiko is actually way more active than you would expect it to be, so you need to stretch before you start.

Next, Mark taught us a little about the form. Taiko is actually kind of a mix between stylistic martial arts and dance, so the form is super important if you want to play properly, especially if you’re going to perform.

Proper Taiko Form:

  1. The actual stance itself, including where your feet and where your body go. You need to have a wide stance, with one foot a bit forward, and one back, to have a nice 3D posture. Obviously you need to be facing forwards, towards your drum.
  2. Your arm needs to be straight when it’s going up, and positioned above your drum, so you can actually hit it.
  1. When your arm goes up, your shoulders should not. So they need to stay down, and nice and relaxed and loose, so you can actually play.
  1. Use a whip-like motion. When you hit the drum, it needs to have a whip-like momentum, and that’s where you’ll get a lot of the power from to actually make the loud hits.
  1. Hit the drum hard. Use all of your strength, and pretend that you’re hitting through the drum, all the way down to the floor, so you can get the power and volume that you need for Taiko.

Go ahead and watch the vlog if you want to see side-by-side examples of good form and bad form. A lot of people got it right. Me…not so much.

Once we got our form down, we started to work on teamwork. Remember, Kumi Daiko is a drum ensemble, which means we need to be able to work together as a cohesive unit.

To do this, Mark divided us into four teams based on the sides of the room, and we took turns playing the notes. The goal was to swap between groups without any weird variations in volume, awkward pauses in between, etc.

Once we got good at doing that, he brought in the cowbell. Because who doesn’t love cowbell? Every time he hit it, we had to shift direction. So it meant we had to pay attention and prepare to raise our arms and stuff like that. We needed to work as a team, not only amongst ourselves, but as a room.

In between all this, Mark was giving us little breaks where he would explain the history of Taiko, important figures in Taiko, about the drums, things like that. So we got a really good background about what we were doing.

Finally, the part were all waiting for, and kind of dreading, was to learn a song.

To teach the song, he actually had a really intuitive method. He called it the “say it, then play it” method. It’s exactly what it sounds like: he would say the rhythm, then we would repeat it. Again, check out the video if you want to see how it’s done.

It took a lot of practice, but I feel like we all got really good at it!

To finish up the workshop, we had a quiet moment dedicated to gratitude and reflection. We also had a class discussion.

My Thoughts

My thoughts coming out of the workshop were actually really different than my expectations going in, which was kind of fun. First of all, it was way harder than I expected it to be. Not only did I struggle to get the correct form, as you can see in the video, but I was also SOOO sore for the next few days, from my forearms all the way up through my back. I guess that’s why you see all those images of the buff Taiko players.

(Kodo member. Source)

However, since you do have to hit the drum hard, it’s fantastic exercise and a great stress reliever. I would love to do this every week just to get it all out.

My very favorite part of it was the sense of togetherness and unity that came out of it. When you have 25 drums in a room together, all very loud, you can feel the rumbling all the way down to your core and all around you. It kind of reminded me of the feeling of participating in a choir or band, or maybe singing a hymn in a large church. Working together creates music much more powerful than yourself alone.

I also love that Mark stresses that it’s ok to make mistakes. It makes it so low pressure when you feel like any mistake you might make in front of the class is just a drum solo!

Should you try it?

I highly recommend that you try Taiko, for all the reasons I’ve just listed. It’s a great stress reliever and very active, it’s really fun and different, and nowadays, it’s very accessible! There’s are quite a few tutorials online for how to build your own drums if you’d like, out of PVC pipe, barrels, etc. Or you can even just use the bottom side of a large trash can! No shame in being frugal.

That being said, if you live in a large metro area, I highly recommend looking into classes to get the beginner’s form down. If you live here in DC, Mark has a great one, which you can check out here. It’s not too terribly expensive, and he is super knowledgeable.

If you’re interested in Japanese cultural events in general, keep an eye on JETAADC and the other regional chapters, who often host cool events like this(even for non-JETs, like me!)

Thanks for taking the time to read this, but now I want to hear from you! Do you play any cool instruments? And have you ever heard of Taiko before?


Also published on Medium.

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