Stanford Taiko Intensive: Day 3

Kris led today’s workshops on choreography, composition, and small drum fundamentals, focusing as much on learning how to self-diagnose problems as on the techniques themselves. If yesterday was about learning how to sculpt an elephant, today was about learning how to fish; understanding how to teach ourselves took precedence over the underlying drills. This self-awareness is particularly valuable given that we are a collegiate group with no designated leader, so every member is very much responsible for their own improvement.

Tackling choreography, we covered otsuri variations, focusing on the concepts of fuchi opportunities, flow, independence of movement, and relevance. For readers familiar with the patterns, we played with fuchi opportunities using the 6-oclock Spread, experimented with flow with the Deli Slicer, and practiced independence with the transition from the otsuri into the following line, since the Deli Slicer ends in a position away from the drum. Kris then explained the relevance scale, where solely practical movements are on one end and visually striking but inefficient movements are on the other. He encouraged experimentation with taking a movement and shifting it in one direction or another on the relevance scale. A balance of both extremes thus combines strong strikes in a captivating manner.

We transitioned into talking about composition by developing our own otsuri variations, which Kris then helped us refine. He spoke of composition as the process of following a decision tree in the pursuit of a satisfying cherry, hopefully even combining a series of successes into a larger work. Kris also introduced the concept of literal composition, demonstrating with “STANFORD” as the muse. He began by notating the number of strokes necessary to write each letter, giving a pattern of 12332122. These numbers could then represent anything from drum tones to fuchi location, accented notes to named patterns, and so on. The literal composition jumpstarts creativity, especially helpful when abstract concepts are difficult to translate to the drum. We wrapped up the morning workshop by learning Groove 1 of Kris’ composition Squarepusher, developing greater facility with the different ways of producing sound beyond the traditional don, tsu, and ka. He talked about how the vast spectrum of sounds arises from a profound relationship with the instrument, understanding the unique timbres and possibilities of every location and approach. Kris also shared his kuchishoga periodic table, available here (though not the most up-to-date version, I believe):

The afternoon workshop on small drum fundamentals began with some call and response drills, after which we moved into talking about grip and wrist position. Kris referred to the hands being “Sensei 1” and the bachi tip being “Sensei 2”, both often reliable indicators for identifying things to be improved. He also encouraged us to develop the dexterity of the four fundamental strike transitions – low to high, high to low, low to low, and high to high. We practiced each, working to eliminate tension. Kris also pulled out a camera to slow down a hit and pinpoint the precise moments that were troublesome. We drilled with the sixteens drill as well as the 1e+a drill (previously the 1234 drill), with Kris delighting in our pursuit of truffles, or anything that can be improved. He gave us free time to practice, explaining that any observer should be able to tell what the objective of the practice is; just running the drill, for example, does not achieve this goal. He made sure to run drills with alternating segments of the whole group playing and an individual playing, giving everyone a chance to hear themselves.

We were also very fortunate this evening to be invited by Toshi Kato for a drum building workshop. He covered the details of building and refining a wine barrel body, sharing, for example, that the utaguchi, the rim of the barrel, should be angled just slightly upward to the center. The angle allows the skin to slide more easily when stretching, thus achieving a better sound. He then demonstrated a final stretch, all with generosity and good humor.