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.