Friday, 21 August 2009

Behind the O-Daiko

The O-Daiko ("big drum") is a magnificent instrument.  Long before I was given the opportunity to perform on the O-Daiko I remember watching a concert with awe and wondering what it was like to play such a drum.

I suspect others have the same curiosity, so some of the interesting points of my experiences are written here.

The O-Daiko is Loud

Usually when I play the o-daiko, I'm directly facing the "head" (one end of) the O-Daiko, and the O-Daiko is positioned at the back of the stage, facing the audience.  Therefore my back is to the audience, and the rest of the team with chuudaiko and shimedaiko are behind me, between me and the audience.

This positioning is important because I can't see anything except the big drum.  That means that during the course of a performance, I have no visual cues at all... only audio cues can tell me whether I'm in sync, and when to start and end my solo parts.  The O-Daiko however is so loud, that it tends to cancel out a lot of the other drums and therefore many of the timing & transitional cues are lost.

The sensation is something like having a "cone of sound" that envelopes me like a wall, negating all but the loudest and highest-pitched instruments.  I suspect this is why the tettsu-zutsu was invented.  The tettsu-zutsu is a short, metal tube which makes a very loud, high pitch when you hit it.  By itself, it's unimaginably annoying, but with all the drums going at full speed it has the benefit of providing a base rhythm that the O-daiko performer can hear, even when everything else is obliterated.

The beginning of the movie Rising Sun has a piece that shows this exact combination in action.
It is also interesting to note that I don't feel the O-daiko in the same way that the front and centre audience members do.  On the first hit, you can see them all jump -- not just from the sound (which they are expecting) but from unexpected sensation of feeling the vibration pass through their bodies.  However the "cone of sound" works, it seems to pass around me--or perhaps at my near proximity to the drum, is of a nature that is not really physically noticeable.

The O-Daiko hits back 

Because it's such a large drum and has a natural cow-hide skin, the skin vibration is significant.  I've never measured it at performance speed, but my guess would be that the centre of the skin fluxuates as much as 6 - 8 cm.  This means that when you hit the drum hard with a heavy bachi (drumstick), it pushes back hard, bouncing your stick away quickly.

The net result of this is that to keep a steady, fast rhythm, you have to "go with the bounce" and use that energy to rotate your shoulders quickly for the next hit.  In fact, to play fast, you depend on this bounce, which means that to play a fast rhythm with big movement, you must strike the O-Daiko hard (thus loud).  To play more softly, you either have to play more slowly, or you have to make the circular movement much, much smaller.

This action-reaction cycle creates an interesting synergy between volume, speed, and the distance of movement.

The bachi I usually use are also quite large and heavy, which means that certain rhythm combinations are very difficult.  In particular, anything that involves rapid double-strikes with the same hand.  The first hit, if it's too hard, causes too much bounce back and therefore an enormous amount of stress on your wrist as you try to halt and return the bachi for the next hit.

You also have to be careful to control the sticks, so that they slice down just past your ears and bounce of your shoulder for the next hit.  a few cm's off, and the bachi will bash you on the forehead.  I've never seen anyone knocked out from a bachi yet, but bruises around the forehead, temples, ears, and shoulders seem to be a hazard for new players who are just learning the ropes...

Another interesting thing to mention is the "shoulder bounce".  When you're playing fast, speed and consistency are critical, so I use both the action of the drum rebound, and the action of the bachi bouncing off of my shoulders as well.  So at fast speeds you see the bachi hit the drum, bounce off hard, arc past my ear, hit my shoulder, slice forwards and upwards to strike the drum again.

Clearly, getting whacked in the shoulders a few thousand times can leave you sore... but there is an art to it.  If you have enough control, there are big benefits to the shoulder bounce, which is faster speed and a lot less less stress on the wrists.

Preparing to Play

Since the bachi are large (about 3.5 cm diameter), they rest right against that sensitive webbing between your thumb and first finger.  I've learned to tape my hands well, which does wonders.  Basically I never get blisters -- if the taping is inadequate, you just end up losing chunks of skin, usually on the inside of your thumb.

Stretching is also critical, but I've only just begun learning what stretches work best for me.  I've observed that Kenji Furutate -- a brilliantly talenteted O-Daiko performer who puts my talents to shame, had an expert, intense full-back massage done for an hour just before his performance.  Smart guy.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Behind the O-Daiko - Post-Performance Recovery

Like any hard exercise, O-Daiko playing is followed by a good deal of soreness, plenty of hot baths, and lots of stretching.  My last big performance was a 90 minute event 6 days ago and I still feel it, particularly in my lower back, and upper neck & shoulders. 

At present, I only get to perform publicly on the O-Daiko a few times a year.  Normally I play the chu-daiko (mid-sized drum) on a similarly raised stand that positions centre of the drum at head-height.  O-Daiko playing is different in a number of key ways,
  • You're hitting higher, as the center of the drum is above your head.
  • You're hitting harder.  A big drum demands a heavy strike.
  • You're playing longer.  The O-Daiko is difficult to transport, and therefore it is only brought out on longer performances. 
  • The bachi are heaver.  I generally use larger and heavier bachi on the O-Daiko
These differences stress some new muscle groups that I do not normally use as heavily in a performance.  The muscles I notice most;

Upper traps, technically known as the trapezius (upper fibers), and the back of the neck or splenius.  Basically the entire back-of-neck area is noticeably sore.  This muscle group is stressed because the center of the O-daiko is above your head, so you are looking and striking upwards at an angle through most of the performance to get the loudest sound. 

Lower traps, aka trapezius (lower fibers).  Honestly, I'm not sure why these are sore.  Those musles are mostly used to pull the arm and shoulder back, which seems unnecessary as the O-Daiko bounces you back heavily already.  I may be tensing unconsciously.

Shoulders, in particular the lateral deltoids, which are sort of the "outside" of your shoulders.  These are used because your arms are lifted for much of the performance, with your elbows above your shoulders.

Hip flexors or iliopsoas, essentially the lower back & sides.  Power is generated through the hips, something like swinging a baseball bat, or throwing a good punch.  There is a lot of torso twisting accordant to that which stresses these muscles more than usual.
I'm a bit surprised that upper pecs and the front of the shoulders (anterior delts) are not sore at all, as these are used a lot.  I suspect they've been well enough conditioned in normal taiko playing to weather a 90 minute performance without ill after-effects.

Also intersting is that even with heavy taping, the entire inside of your hand, from the base of your palm to the fingertips, is rubbed slightly raw.  I don't normally notice this, except when I go to shower or wash my hands.  Warm water stings a lot for the first few days after the performance. 

Sunday, 14 June 2009

SkyCity Performance

We had a fantastic performance last night for St. Kentigern's school ball next to Sky Tower in central Auckland.  The organizer did a fantastic job of orchestrating the event, complete with fire dancers and geisha girls at the entrance.  And the most fun of all, they gave us the opportunity to roll out the big drum!

The crowd was amazingly vibrant and enthusiastic -- both the students and the crowd of passers-by who gathered to watch.  At one point I counted at least 20 cameras filming us.  Afterwards we learned that many of the people in that area were visitors from out of town enjoying the Auckland scene.

A couple from Australia said our performance was one of the most amazing things they had ever seen, and that there as "absolutely nothing like it" in Australia ;>

It was a great time--we even got a rest break in the middle of the performance due to a fire alarm!
Unfortunately, we were shut down before we could complete the 90 min non-stop performance, due to complaints from the 21st floor penthouse suite of the nearby hotel.

But if you got a chance to see the performance, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Event - Zeal MASH

We had a fun evening performance at a youth event called MASH, where a lot of different musical groups are brought together to expose teens to a wide range of genres, bands, and styles.

The event was at a great venue called Zeal, which is a really awesome 'youth-town' facility (ie, performance areas, recording studios, art galleries, cafes, lounges, X-box 360...) and is mostly run by volunteer work by youth.

After we'd done our set and pulled the drums off-stage, we realized that the crowd was trying to call us out for an encore -- but not being Japanese, they had forgotten how to pronounce "Tamashii".
The chant was enthusiastic nonetheless... "Tie-my-shoe!"... "Tie-my-shoe!"...
We had a good chuckle...

Sunday, 15 March 2009

On Honesty & Expression, and Unlimited Possibility

As a personal interest, I've been learning and performing Japanese Taiko Drumming for about 3 1/2 years now.  Taiko drumming is hard and fast; requiring a distinctive combination of strength, endurance, technique and rhythm.  I like to think of it as "music as an extreme sport".

In many ways, the movements and striking techniques used in taiko are deeply connected with the martial arts--and like martial artists, taiko performers are forever trying to balance strength and speed with precision and sharpness of technique. 

Most martial arts teach that you must first train your body, so that it can perform the techniques without conscious thought.  Westerners often refer to this as muscle-memory.  At that point, you mind is free to relax, observe, polish, learn, and pay attention to the "big picture".  This has a very important implication which is that the mind is just too slow to keep pace with the action -- and this is literally true in taiko.  Your body will not be in the right place or position if it has not been trained to begin that movement at exactly the right time -- often 1-2 seconds before that position, strike, or motion is needed.  Therefore if you have not adequately trained your body to a particular song, your rhythm will have off-beats, and your movement will be uncertain, half-hearted, incomplete, and weak-looking.

The ultimate zen state of martial arts seems to be no-mind, which to my understanding, refers to a state of heightened awareness where there is no conscious thought occurring.  You simply feel, sense, react... at a sort of instinctual level.  In this state, a master can sense almost anything coming before it comes, and know the best response without consciously thinking about it.

This relaxed state of no-mind can deeply benefit any endeavor you pursue, particularly when it requires fast or compicated physical movements.  And though I've known of this concept for some time now, today is the first time I've got to experience this principle personally and in full-effect.
One of the songs my group performs is named San nin no yuushi, which means "three warriors".  Three guys play on upright drums, with a series of movements and rhythms that represent a Samurai sword battle

Its a unique song, which my group has created -- so rather than being taught a choreographed set of movements, I was only given a rhythm to work with.  Most of the movement is my own decision.

Today during practice, we were rehearsing Yuushi, something completely new happened.  The best way to describe it is that I relaxed, in a very no-mind sort of way.  Somehow my mind was able to dis-engage from the activity of the song completely, and let muscle memory do its thing without the heavy interference that normally goes on.

What this means is that for the first time ever, I was able to be freely creative, with my whole body, mind, spirit, 100% invested into the performance.

It was an enlightening experience, one in which everything was committed to the song, and I discovered a completely new connection with the song, and with the art of taiko -- but far more surprisingly, a deeper connection with myself.

One of the more unexpected aspects of the moment was the sensation of unlimited possibility.  Speed was no longer limited.  Neither was power.  Movement?  Where do you want to go?  The speed of playing just sort of naturally jumped a comfortable 20%, and everything was is motion.  A whirling dervish of action.

This all ties into a couple of other recent observations, that the key to speed and accuracy is being truly relaxed and at peace.  Normally, anything you do involves a tiny bit of distraction, a tiny bit of reservation--and if you're stressed, the opposite happens and basic functions like memory and logic are paralyzed.

There was an interesting study I read regarding sports performance that observed out that people under intensely stressful situations, such as being locked in a burning house, are logically paralyzed.  People in a locked room try repeatedly to bash the door down, completely ignoring the fact that there is a key already in the lock, just waiting to be turned.  Those that survive report that they saw the key, but could not comprehend how to use it.

I think this is a spectrum -- one end being "panic", which makes you about as useful and structured as a wet paper bag.  And the other end being "peace and calmness", when your ability to react with precision, clarity, and perfect timing.

Perhaps it's a zen thing.  The more peace and calm you can achieve, the less limits you have on your action.  But whatever it is, it is incredibly useful and interesting.  And mysterious too.  I will be pursuing this state aggressively...