Japanese Drumming – The Art of Taiko

The recent disaster in Japan has me stricken with all sorts of emotions. The obvious feelings of sadness and anguish stood out the most, but another one was curiosity; not about the hurricane, but about Japanese culture in general. Maybe it takes something major like this to probe a desire to learn something, but aside from a few things we are tuned into through the news and the cross-polination of American and Japanese cultures (food, design, tourism), I really don’t know much about Japan, the culture, and that which differentiates us. My affinity for music led me to research Japanese drumming, which it turns out, is very fascinating.

“Taiko” refers to various Japanese drums and the art-form of ensemble taiko drumming. Taiko drums make up a variety of japanese percussion instruments and for the most part are used with sticks. The first American taiko group, San Francisco Taiko Dojo, was formed in 1968 by Seiichi Tanaka, a postwar immigrant who had previously studied taiko in Japan. The video above shows the technique used in hitting these drums, which is very different from how we use sticks to hit drums in America. Some of the sticks they use are similar to ours, but others (such as the ones in the video above) are much longer and fatter, which wouldn’t really allow for the same kind of fulcrum/wrist flicking technique we use. Actually, the entire arm is used with these sticks. We rely very much on a fulcrum point to give drumsticks a bounce back effect while using our wrists, not arms. This is said to be an effective way to play faster by doing less and a technique that helps prevent injury. The idea is to remain loose. It actually looks as though the Japanese apply the same theory to a different motion that uses the whole arm. Although their wrists aren’t responsible for the sticks motion, their arms don’t appear to be stiff. It’s almost as though they are displaying a samurai demonstration using drums and sticks.

Furthermore, it’s not always just about drumming. Taiko ensembles fit the part through their antics and wardrobe. Chants, ninja-like movements, and traditional japanese clothing form the make-up of these acts. Other forms of music we are used to follow a similar model. Imagine Motley Crue without the platform shoes, lipstick, big hair, and provocative stage antics. Its all about forming an identity. The Japanese have successfully brought Taiko to the forefront of the Japanese drumming community. While the culture has always embraced western music, they have certainly contributed to innovation in their own right. Check out a few videos on youtube to see it in full effect.

Read more about Taiko

Farewell to Dave Brubeck drummer, Joe Morello

The passing of Joe Morello will certainly not go unnoticed in the drumming community. He died at his U.S. home in Irvington, New Jersey Saturday March 12 at age 82. Joe was an inspiration, an extraordinary talent, and one of my favorite teachers. Joe was most famously known as the drummer for The Dave Brubeck quartet. He played drums on recordings such as Kathy’s Waltz, Strange Meadow Lark, and Take Five, a composition in 5/4 which became one of the most successful singles in jazz music, according to the New York Times. His speed, mixed sticking, and feel stood out the most to me. Pay special attention to those components in the following video.

My favorite exercise, which stresses single hand independence is one called the Stone Killer. This is an exercise Joe learned from George Lawrence Stone. The goal is to develop speed, stamina, and control independently on each hand by working with them one at a time. It is mapped out like this:

RRRR LLLL (4 hits on each hand)

RRRR RRRR LLLL LLLL (8 hits on each hand)

RRRR RRRR RRRR LLLL LLLL LLLL (12 hits on each hand)


This is done at a tempo comfortable enough to make it through the exercise without slowing down, straining, or feeling overwhelming fatigue. I believe Joe recommends doing each line 50 times before moving to the next. I have many of my students do 20 each, but the count should be approximate.

The Stone Killer was one of many of Joe’s great teachings. His work will continue to live on, listened to, and imitated worldwide. Rest in peace Joe, and thank you for your amazing contribution to music. Read more about Joe, his career, and teachings on the following links:

The Kansas City Star

NPR Music

Stone Killer Forum of VirgilDonati.com

Homeless Drummers and Street Performers

I recall a late night in New York City, standing in line to get a Gyro when the clanking of buckets and pans caught my ears. Sitting outside on the sidewalk was a man with a similar set up I rigged together before I got my first drum set. I love street performers – Not the annoying ones who can’t hold a tune and more or less just aim to annoy you, but the ones with genuine musical ability will always get some change out of me… I had a brief conversation with the guy about drumming. I told him I played and that my biggest problem is not finding enough time in a day to practice. He responded “When the street is your home you got all the practice time in the world.” That comment really hit me. So I thought we were buds at this point and asked if I could jam with him. He didn’t like that idea. He wanted my money, not my attention. Fine, he got a dollar out of me. I still valued his commitment to street performing.

Would you believe street performing was the most common means of employment for entertainers before recordings existed? There is a violinist who plays at Suburban Station in Philadelphia every morning. I catch him when I take the early train and this guy always manages to start my day on the right note. I talked to him once and was able to determine that he’s not homeless. He actually works with bands around the city. Above and beyond anything, he just loves playing. Why not wake up early and make some tips for doing what you love? During peak hours, he pulls $20+. Thats better than a lot of conventional jobs and he doesn’t have a boss breathing down his back, mandatory hours, or the burden of working a job he hates. Great gig in my opinion, and more power to him and all others who exercise their passions through guerilla means. Try to stop and listen for a minute next time you come across a street performer. Many of them deserve some praise just as you and I feel entitled to it through the things we do in life.

How is a drum solo like a sneeze?

You can tell it’s coming, but you can’t do anything about it. BAAAAAAAAZING!

Yea, well sneeze this:

Phil Collins – A great contribution and a bitter end

Phil recently made this comment in reference to his retirement from music: “I’m sorry that it was all so successful. I honestly didn’t mean it to happen like that. It’s hardly surprising that people grew to hate me.”

As far as the music is concerned…..What a career! I don’t know that I’m sympathetic towards his complaints about not being loved though. 13 hit singles, 7 Grammys, an Academy Award, and 2 Golden Globes tells me that he is loved by plenty. He is also one of only 3 recording artists, along with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, to have sold over 100 million albums worldwide both as a solo artist and as the principal member of a band. I believe I watched him get inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 as well. His list of accomplishments goes on and on. Genesis was very innovative, his solo releases were catchy to say the least, and he always seemed to come out with the right songs at the right times. Just try to get Sussudio out of your head and I dare you not to air drum that big fill in In the Air Tonight.

If Phil is bothered about critiques of his ability, the reality is that his line of work attracts controversial opinions. The more successful someone becomes, the more we are all watching and judging. He doesn’t have the IT factor that Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, and Eric Clapton have, but his accomplishments were made possible from the devoted fan base he consistently received praise from. After all, you don’t get Grammys by not selling records. Phil Collins was one of those guys who just had a knack for writing songs that stuck in your head. I can’t say I’ve gone out of my way to pay close attention to his career. I don’t admire him like I admire extraordinary talents like Chick Corea or Miles Davis, but I certainly respect his contribution to music and so should anyone who understands the difficult test of time very few have lived up to in the music business. Now is probably a great time to get out of it anyways. Who knows how bad Lil Wayne and Miley Cyrus are going to screw it up? Hopefully this rut passes so he can look past media criticism and truly appreciate his accomplishments like so many of us do.

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