Taiko Teachers Talk - Blaine O'Brien

You can't talk about teaching taiko without phrases like "Authentic", "Legitimate", and "Traditional" coming up. When students embark on a journey to learn, they want to feel like they're investing in something real. They want evidence that their teacher can produce results. Are you that teacher? Do you feel confident that you're teaching it the "right" way? Do you ever feel the weight of thousands of years of craftsmanship and taiko mastery staring over your shoulder as you run your weekly class? When you teach something as old as taiko, it's easy to feel like you're under qualified. The community is growing every year, and someone has to be there to teach the increasing demand. But there are lots of different kumi-daiko styles and techniques in the LA area alone. Is there any way to create some kind of consistency? Well, last friday night, taiko teachers and students from LATI, Makoto, Kinnara, and TAIKOPROJECT gathered to talk about their teaching experiences. Our goal was to share ideas that work, and get a feel for how we all approaching teaching this ever-changing art form.

One by one, people arrived in the largest classroom at the Los Angeles Taiko Institute. We sat in a small circle of folding chairs like a taiko self-help group, and started off the meeting by sharing our prepared favorite taiko teaching tips. Tips were anything from short and sweet reminders about the importance of kuchi shouga, to in-depth essays about the power of language. Here are some big ones that helped start off the conversation.

1) Yuta Kato reminded us to "Go So Lo", and let students perform solo for the class occasionally. It gives a taste of what performance feels like, and prepares students the "the real deal."

2) Yuri Yoshida said that kuchi shouga is essential for learning beats, but it also helps to make your own lyrics for a certain part that is hard to remember.

3) David Wells taught us the power that language has to teach the same material in a different way for students who need a different approach. David also stated that "One step forward is NOT the same as two steps forward, one step back." Allowing bad habits, no matter how temporary, is never the better option.

4) Kris Bergstrom explained the importance of "Catching the 1", and training students to have a solid idea of where count 1 is even while you're playing complicated rhythms.

Then, Kris hit us with some hard questions. "When teaching taiko, what do you teach first? Form? Rhythm? Tempo control?" It seemed like everyone had a different answer. We were encouraged to remember our first day learning taiko. Our very first lesson. Some taught grip, and how to strike first. Others stressed kata before even even touching the drum. Janelle You, a new trainee with TAIKOPROJECT, hit us with a curve ball by reminding us that teaching about the history and culture should proceed any activity on the drum. Many agreed, and I was reminded of the importance of Aisatsu as a class tool to put people into the mindset of remembering taiko's origins.

Workshops came up next. We'd all taken workshops, or had been asked to teach them at some point. Kris asked us to think of our best workshop learning experience. Akemi Imai, from Makoto taiko, shared with us a great workshop she had with the Tsumura family in Yokohama, where they taught many members of Makoto the basic Miyake style. Akio Tsumura and his three sons had workshop members rotate around the drums and repeat exercises infinitely. Sometimes you were on a drum, sometimes you were waiting in line to get back on, but the beat never stopped. While the class directed itself, the Tsumuras were able to walk around and assist those who needed help, and let those who didn't keep playing. Other good workshop experiences involved maximizing the efficiency of your time when asked to teach new material. Jason Osajima shared a story in which a group asked him to teach a song. Rather than show up and teach the parts on-site, Jason sent an instructional video weeks before the workshop so members could learn the parts on a basic level. Jason was then able to show up and use every minute of his time there to make fine tuned adjustments and mold the piece to it's full performance potential. Kris also shared that the best workshops are always ones that make a difference when you leave. The ones that teach something that is relevant to what the group is doing at the time. When a workshop teaches something that is along the lines of the group's goals, the chances that they will integrate your help into their repertoire is much greater. I can personally attest to the truth of this, as I'm sure many of us have had a workshop that was fun, but ultimately not useful to us afterwards.

Overall, everyone had a lot of great contributions to the discussion. It was obvious that there were lots of different theories and methods to learn from.

Teaching taiko is a big job. When I was asked to teach taiko classes at a local high school, I felt completely unprepared. So I was inspired to do the research to build a solid curriculum, and I found lots of great information, but none so important as the origins of kumi-daiko. The reason we concern ourselves so much with authenticity and legitimacy when it comes to teaching, is because taiko is a very old instrument that deserves respect and reverence. But at the same time, kumi-daiko is very new, with some of its biggest contributors still walking this earth and playing on stage. Of what classical instrument in an orchestra could you say the same for? I like to think that the goal of talks like these is to share experiences in the hopes of creating a unified theory of what american kumi-daiko should be, and how it should be taught.

I hope this will not be our last discussion. I left the meeting feeling like we had only touched the tip of the iceberg. With some more discussion, and hopefully lots more contributors, I think we'll soon have a great road map for how to share kumi-daiko in the most effective, safe, and fun way.

thanks to LATI for hosting this talk!
-Blaine O'Brien