Cosme Del Rosario-Bell ’12, Ethnomusicology
When I first learned that I would be interviewing members of Taiko Maine Dojo, I had no idea what to expect. I knew the founder of the group, Liz Berg, had trained with Tanaka-sensei of San Francisco Taiko Dojo for four years, so I immediately pictured a very stern, intimidating woman who was likely to make me run three miles before she deemed me worthy of conducting an interview. My three months of taiko experience did not seem an adequate preparation for such an interview. Nevertheless, I jotted down several questions to ask Liz and hoped for the best.
When I stepped out of the car in Portland, Maine, I was surprised by the location of the Taiko Maine Dojo rehearsal space. I never would have found the building on my own because it does not look like a place where a taiko rehearsal would occur. Taiko Maine Dojo rehearses in a large, gray seafood factory building that spans the entire length of a Portland pier. The building is surrounded by hungry seagulls and a lingering smell of fish. The only indication of the taiko group’s presence is a sign reading “Taiko Maine Dojo” in a second-floor window. And of course, the sound of the taiko drums must reverberate along the entire pier once rehearsals begin. When I stepped into the building and began climbing to the second floor, I sincerely hoped that the strong fish smell would not pervade the rehearsal room.
After walking upstairs and greeting Liz, my apprehensions about the interview immediately vanished. Liz was extremely approachable and seemed eager to share her knowledge of taiko and information about Taiko Maine Dojo. The room was filled with multi-colored mats, PVC taiko drums, authentic taiko drums, various drum stands, and an assortment of Japanese-style decorations. The space is not exceptionally large, but it is perfect for a small-scale taiko group such as Taiko Maine Dojo. In addition to Liz, Taiko Maine Dojo consists of only four members—three Japanese-American men and one Caucasian woman. The enjoyment that each member has for taiko was instantly recognizable by the cheerful atmosphere that permeated throughout the room.
On the night I visited, the group was practicing for a show the following day at the University of Southern Maine. They began the rehearsal by playing Renshuu, a piece meant to teach basic taiko techniques. Liz invited me to join on this song, so I picked up my bachi, walked to a drum, and stood in my taiko stance. I quickly discovered, however, that there are many different versions of Renshuu. The one I knew and the one the group was playing were not even remotely similar, so I just held my bachi at my sides and peeked awkwardly around the room. I was disappointed and relieved that I wasn’t able to play—disappointed because I very much enjoy playing taiko and relieved because I probably would have made several mistakes if I had played. For the rest of the practice, I stayed on the sidelines and observed the group’s performance pieces.
In addition to Renshuu, the group practiced Soko Bayashi, Hiryu Sandan Gaeshi, and Shishimai. All songs are traditional taiko repertoire. Soko Bayashi and Hiryu Sandan Gaeshi are both eight-minute songs, so I was amazed by the stamina and energy the players exhibited throughout the pieces. Shishimai, or “Lion Dance,” is a simpler piece that involves only one drum while the other members enact a skit using a lion head. The dancing is somewhat improvised but follows a loose pattern. The piece, which is traditionally meant to frighten away evil spirits, is entertaining to watch. The group practiced each piece two or three times before practice ended.
After reading a great deal of taiko literature in my taiko class, I realized that the reasons people begin playing taiko are very diverse. I was eager to learn how and why the five Taiko Maine Dojo members started their taiko journey. I interviewed three of the group members—Atsushi “Atchan” Tamaki, Toshio Hashimoto, and Katy Rydell—in a group setting. Atchan stated that he had always wanted to play taiko, especially after two brothers from Ondekoza, a Japanese taiko group, stayed at his house. He had never imagined himself playing in a kumi daiko (group drumming) setting, but he decided to give it a try after meeting Liz. Toshio began playing taiko after hurting his knee. He had done judo most of his life, but a knee injury prevented him from continuing. After seeing one of his older friends play taiko, Toshio realized taiko was a potential replacement for judo. He met Liz when she was planning to start her own taiko group in Portland and has been learning taiko from her for the past three years. Katy is the only member of Taiko Maine Dojo with prior taiko experience before joining the group. She played taiko for three years at the Taiko Center of Los Angeles, and because she “wouldn’t move anywhere that didn’t have a taiko troupe,” she talked to Liz before moving from Los Angeles to Maine. Katy started playing taiko because she wanted to integrate storytelling and taiko drumming. I did not interview the fourth member of the group, Naoto Kobayashi. Naoto teaches taiko at Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale, Maine, so information about him can be obtained from the Hall-Dale High School interview. Members of Taiko Maine Dojo have very different reasons for playing taiko, but the group is able to harmonize well with each other nonetheless.
Liz Berg described how her interest in taiko arose after seeing a San Francisco Taiko performance:
I was blown away. I had never seen an art form that I immediately fell in love with before. I thought it was so cool because I’d been a dancer, an athlete, and a musician my whole life, and I thought it combined everything…I loved the choreography. I thought it was so cool to be moving around the drums. That was a huge appeal to me.
I asked Liz questions about a variety of subjects, including her training with Tanaka-sensei, her musical and dance background, and her most memorable performances. Her passion for taiko was evident with every question she answered. Liz moved to Maine to be closer to her family, but she loved taiko too much to stop playing. She started playing with Burlington Taiko and met Atchan and Toshio after a performance. She had mentioned the possibility of starting a taiko group in Portland during the show, and Atchan and Toshio were both interested. Atchan, who owns the building on the Portland pier, offered one of the rooms as a practice space, and Taiko Maine Dojo began to form. Liz borrowed six PVC drums from Burlington Taiko to get started, and the group has been playing together ever since for the past three years.
Liz has taught Taiko Maine Dojo members for three years and has taught at Colby and Bates. When asked about her method of teaching taiko, Liz said:
I wanted to teach in the style that Tanaka-sensei teaches, which is disciplined. You work hard at it. It’s not all fun and games. You have to take it seriously, work hard at it, and do it until it’s sometimes uncomfortable…I wanted to have that kind of atmosphere—a serene place of study.
Based on my observations during my visit, Liz has done well accomplishing her teaching goals. She makes members understand that playing taiko requires serious effort and dedication in order to improve. She is able to hear even the slightest mistake, even if it is simply one missed or extra drum beat. When I mentioned this observation to the other Taiko Maine Dojo members, Katy laughed and said, “If I’m too slow, there’s this muscle on the back of her neck…I can tell by the way she turns her head that I need to go faster.” Liz also made the group replay a song until all small mistakes were fixed and until she was satisfied. However, Liz also seems to know how to make learning fun. Just as my dance teacher used to do when teaching tap choreography, Liz creates mnemonics for difficult rhythms. Mnemonics imitate the sound and timing of the rhythm to make the section easier to remember and play. While the group was playing a section in which each member individually plays a two-beat rhythm, Liz continuously yelled, “Root beer! Root beer!” to maintain proper timing. Liz has found a good balance between joking around with other group members and ensuring that the group stays on task and learns the pieces.
Taiko Maine Dojo is comprised of five members who all share a passion for taiko. None of the members play taiko as a living. All have other jobs and play taiko as a hobby. For many, taiko has an initial appeal but becomes too tedious to continue. Taiko Maine Dojo had another five members, but all have left the group. Liz described the challenge of playing taiko very well by saying, “It’s way more than just banging on a drum. It’s your body timing, your movement, how you hit it, and how it looks when you hit it.” Those who continue playing long enough to learn basic mechanics know that the learning process is never over, especially in kumi daiko. Toshio explained the joys and challenges of playing kumi daiko by saying, “Playing taiko by yourself—it’s not very fun. In kumi daiko, you have to harmonize with other people. That’s why I like it. If you start thinking about other things, you make mistakes, so you really need to concentrate on harmonizing with other people.” All five members of Taiko Maine Dojo clearly have a strong love for taiko that allows them to view the constant practices as a means of improving, not as a punishment. Taiko Maine Dojo is not the largest taiko group in Maine, but it’s a talented group that exudes all characteristics necessary for taiko-playing: determination, energy, discipline, and the ability to harmonize. And in case you’re wondering, the rehearsal room does not smell like fish.
Jessica Balukas ’10, Biology
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Founded in 2002 by Dan Bensen ‘06, Bowdoin Taiko is now in its eighth year and going strong. As an incoming freshman, Bensen was already quite versed in taiko, having trained with the Stockton Bukkyou Taiko Group of Stockton, California during his high school years. He began the group early in his freshmen year, and spent the next four years increasing taiko’s exposure in the Bowdoin community. As taiko was relatively unknown on Bowdoin’s campus, Bensen focused mainly on exposing as many people to taiko as possible, opting to take a relatively relaxed approach to practices and less emphasis on technique than what he was accustomed to. Group membership grew each year of Bensen’s tenure, beginning with six members, and doubling in size by his senior year. Because the group had little funding, they were unable to buy drums or the materials to make them, and for the first year they they played primarily on gomidaiko, garbage cans covered with tape that mimic the sound of a taiko drum. Bensen’s tenure at Bowdoin was defined by his passion for taiko, culminating in a senior honors thesis on the history of taiko and how it is performed. As a component of his project, he built a tall, skinny drum that the group still uses today. Bensen also secured a large grant to buy more drums for the group, and his relationship with the greater taiko community allowed him to bring Kenny Endo and Odaiko New England to perform at Bowdoin. Bensen was an invaluable asset to Bowdoin Taiko, and he paved the way for those who have since led the group.
Each successive leader has brought his or her own unique flair to Bowdoin Taiko incorporating new choreography and songs into their performance routine. The year after Bensen graduated, Bowdoin Taiko fell under the leadership of Doran Rivera ’07, whose strong martial arts background propelled him to institute a more rigorous practice schedule and a focus on technique rather than general exposure to taiko. Following the philosophy of Seiichi Tanaka, founder of San Francisco Taiko Dojo, the first taiko dojo in the United States, Rivera stressed the importance of physical stamina and body positioning. The following year, the club was led by Andrew Stetzler ’08, whose junior year abroad in Japan allowed him to bring the group a number of traditional taiko pieces as well as a greater cultural understanding of taiko as a Japanese art form. Last year’s leader, MacConnell Evans ’09 placed a particular emphasis on the effective use of every drum, and broke the mold by incorporating a number of less traditional songs into the group’s repertoire, including a percussion accompaniment to Darude’s “Sandstorm.” Today, Alex Pfister ’10 and Alex Haskins ’11 are co-leaders of the group, and they along with Mark Mirasol ’10 sat down after participating in a workshop with Wynn Yamami to talk with us about the group and reflect on their time as taiko players.
How did you first become involved with taiko?
Mark M: I got involved with taiko my freshmen year after seeing the drums set up at the activities fair. It looked pretty cool. I remember showing up at the first meeting and hitting drums for about an hour. I really enjoyed it, and just sort of stuck with it for the next three to four years.
Alex H: Well, when I came to Bowdoin freshmen year I knew I wanted to be an Asian studies major, focusing specifically on Japan, so that drew me to it. When I found out they had a taiko group here I was like ‘wow,’ because that surprised me a little, I wasn’t expecting that. So I automatically joined, and this is my third year with the group.
Alex P: I’m a senior, and I’ve been playing taiko every semester I’ve been here at Bowdoin. I don’t think I saw the drumming at the activities fair, but I first joined because I saw a few posters advertising the group on campus. I did steel drum in high school, and I really missed it, so I knew I had to do something similar and I went and tried taiko and it was great. The thing about taiko is that it attracts a wide range of people, a very diverse group. Not just ethnically, but diverse from every standpoint. We have different interests – completely different interests – and we’ve become really close friends over the past few years.
Do you have any other rhythmic or musical experience that led you to taiko?
MM: Not really, I had never played taiko drums before, and aside from playing piano for a year at what, like seven – you know, good Asian child – I didn’t have any sort of musical training. I just started playing taiko and it was fun, and I’ve since picked up the ukulele.
AH: I dabble. I’ve tried a bunch of things. I like beats and I like songs so taiko sort of came naturally. Besides a year of violin, though, I’ve done nothing formal. When I got here, I just saw the drumming and it seemed interesting and the rest is history.
AP: I did some western-style drumming in middle school, as well as steel drum, so that naturally led me to taiko. I played violin when I was little as well but I HATED it. I also did gymnastics for twelve years and have done a lot of dance here. Mostly what I like is performance arts that combine music and dance.
AH: And I think that really reflects our group, because while you do have some people like Alex Casbara who has had an extensive history with drums and rhythmic percussion, others like Claire and Carolyn haven’t had the formal training but do have an interest in the Japanese culture and language. It really piggybacks off what Alex said before. You really have people coming from different areas, like (pointing) biology major, English major, government major. It’s really a nice mix.
What about taiko appeals to you, and what drives you to continue playing?
AP: For me, I didn’t know what taiko was before I got to Bowdoin. I just happened to go [to practice], and it appealed to me. It’s really the combination of music and dance that I love. I’m a dance minor here, and over the time I’ve gotten to do more choreography. It’s always just fun and you can be creative and put a lot into it, and the people, we are just silly all the time.
AH: Even in our silliness, though, we really care about it. What draws me is the resonance, the effect. I’ve been to taiko concerts, and when they hit the drum and your body moves, you just feel connected.
AP: Taiko is different than classical music – it involves the audience. When I played steel drum the audience was expected to dance, but the vibrations and resonance with taiko are surprising and powerful. It really draws you in. You really feel the music versus just watching and listening
MM: Going off that, the performative aspect of taiko for me is the greatest appeal. Coming to Bowdoin I was very shy, not outgoing, and here it forces you to be that bigger personality which I’ve sort of come into out of performances, too. Connecting with the audience is great and even that feeling when someone comes up to you saying you did a crazy good job, especially when you messed up, it feels good.
AP: It does feel really good though to have someone come up and compliment you on your performance. Not just like “Oh I’m famous,” but that what you did really made people happy or gave them something to think about. Performing is all about the audience.
What’s the typical response you get when you tell people you play taiko?
MM: At Bowdoin, they’re surprised I play taiko. Most people know what it is and are excited that I play, but taiko is definitely underrepresented here.
AP: We have a solid core group of seven or eight regulars, but we do have up to fifteen people in the club. It’s pretty consistent with past years, except last spring when many of us were abroad.
Have you reached a level where you feel comfortable learning new pieces and performing, or is it a continuing process?
MM: To an extent, it’s a continuing process, but now, you can give me a piece and I can learn it more quickly than say, two years ago. But when I first started, I don’t think I became comfortable playing it or standing in front of people until late into the second semester.
AH: I felt stupid when I played – very slow. The thing is, the people teaching know the song and the people learning don’t, so it’s hard. But once you get it down, it gets easier. Learning a new song is still tricky sometimes but the more you know the easier it becomes to pick up a new song.
AP: The fact that everything is mostly on the beat helps, and everything comes in sets of two or four or eight. We’ve actually tried to break out of that in writing our new song, Chocolate Thunder, experimenting with different beats. For me, though, steel drum is entirely off the beat, so it was a little weird for me to come in and play on the beat. But I really enjoy rhythms and working on them until I get them, and after a while you just get faster and better. There’s also an instant satisfaction with hitting the drum versus playing the violin – you can make that impact right away.
What are your biggest challenges as a leader, and how has being a leader helped you as a taiko player?
AP: When you aren’t leading the group, you don’t realize how much organization goes into it: emails, costumes, vans, et cetera – all of that adds up. I’ve gotten used to it, but that was hard at first. Teaching too, was difficult, and realizing how different people learn differently was big. So it’s challenging, but in a good way, and teaching other people has definitely helped me. At first I missed having someone else there to teach me, but at the same time I’ve become a better choreographer and performer, if not a better taiko player. A better multitasker, too. It’s definitely good for the brain.
AH: I’ve had a little experience teaching, and the biggest thing is that it forces you to remember the song. When you have to break it down and teach one part to people, you really need to rethink the songs and understand them more.
MM: It definitely makes you a better performer. Leading up to and during performances, the newer members are definitely nervous and they look to you to guide them. So you need to step up.
I imagine you spend the bulk of your time practicing, but do you guys ever touch on the cultural aspects of taiko and its impact on the Asian American experience?
AH: We are trying to. We do little things like opening greetings and incorporating other cultural aspects of taiko into our routines. We are also trying to incorporate Dan’s thesis into more of what we are doing.
AP: Truthfully, I don’t know much about the history of taiko, though Alex does. I took “The Art of Zen,” so I know a little about Japanese thought and aesthetics, but that’s about it. If we had all the time in the world, it would definitely be a bigger part, but we unfortunately have time limits and particularly in the spring we tend to have more concerts, so we really need to be at the drums for as much time as possible. As we’ve gotten things together more, we’ve sort of started to get out in the community more, and not just at Bowdoin. We’ve performed at a café in Brunswick, and we’ve also worked with kids groups. This semester we’ve be asked to perform six or seven times; we’ve even had to turn some down because of time constraints!
Do you think that you need to have an awareness of this broader cultural context in order to play taiko?
AH: I think it’s good to have, but it’s not necessary to pick it up and drum.
MM: Going into it, for us, its more people getting hooked and having fun, right off the bat. We don’t really advertise the cultural stuff too much.
Do you feel like you’re part of a greater taiko community, whether internationally, nationally, or in Maine, or are you just Bowdoin taiko? Do you represent Bowdoin, taiko, or just Bowdoin taiko?
AP: Personally, I think we’re just representing Bowdoin taiko. I mean, I guess the Colby group has been going for a while but we haven’t ever played together, I know some previous leaders have worked with Liz Berg in Portland for a little bit, but for us, we’re definitely an adaptation of what taiko is. I mean, we don’t know enough about the history, the technique, or the cultural context, and knowing that, we feel comfortable branching off and experimenting. At the same time, even though we call ourselves taiko, we probably shouldn’t.
AH: You take on the one hand the difficulty of getting people like Wynn to come, and it’s been so great to have him for even just a few hours, but generally there’s a lack of strong connection to the greater taiko community. We don’t know where to turn or who to turn to. As bad as it sounds, there is a lot of jealousy and song-stealing in taiko, and copyrighting songs has become a big issue, so the big thing is we have to be careful, but since we don’t have the solid training, we feel a little more comfortable taking risks and branching out.
As taiko is an art form rooted very much in Japanese tradition, do you ever feel hindered in your originality, conflicted between respecting tradition and branching out?
AP: I think it’s important in all art forms to experiment, and with all good talented artists, they begin with a very solid foundation in the theories and techniques of the art form. For people who know taiko’s roots and then go off and do their own thing, maybe they can be more respected in the community. Since we don’t have that, we just kind of do our own thing because that’s what we can do. Sometimes I wonder is this ok because I don’t know much about Japanese culture, but it’s never been a huge problem for us. It is there, though, and always something you have in the back of your mind. But its not like we wonder all the time “Is this okay?” We just make things and we hope people will enjoy them
MM: There’s definitely a playfulness with what we do.
AH: We always talk through everything first. I tend to be on the conservative side because I do understand a little bit about the history and I want to make sure we are respecting the traditions and doing taiko ‘right.’ It seems like its more of a personal thing, but there’s certainly no deep divide in the group, though.
Did you ever have any hesitation about playing taiko and not being Japanese or Japanese-American? Have you ever felt that without being Japanese or Japanese-American you couldn’t really be a taiko player, or heard sentiment to that effect?
AP: I’ve never run into that because when I started we only had one Japanese person in the group, and she had no idea how to play before joining the group. I have never been to a more conservative group so I guess I don’t really know.
AH: I think I felt it a little bit, it was just always a concern in my mind, but wasn’t so much after I went to Japan. When I was talking to my Japanese friends they were just very interested and saying things like, “Whoa you play taiko?” They never expressed any sort of surprise that I, an African-American, was playing taiko. They embraced it, and because of that I no longer feel any hesitation. It was mostly self-doubt, and I guess the thought lingers sometimes, like if San Jose Taiko saw what we did, how would they feel?
AP: I went to a workshop with TaikoProject, who are mostly Japanese American, which is made up of young people doing experimental things with taiko. Being with them there was no problem. Most of the participants were white Americans, and there was no uncomfortable feeling.
What is your performing outfit, and is there any contextual significance behind it, either to Bowdoin or the greater taiko community?
AH: It definitely changes a lot. Yesterday we did colorful shirts and jeans, but our standard outfit is a black outfit with a white stripe, similar to a martial arts uniform or a happi coat.
AP: The leader Doran ordered them a few years ago, and Bowdoin’s colors are black and white, so they made sense. But we like to have fun with our outfit too, experimenting with colors and different types of clothes. There is thought there though, just not really in terms of cultural context.
What are your future plans, and do you see taiko playing a significant role?
AP: I am graduating in a few months, but I got a job doing research for the biology department next fall. I applied with the intention working for nine months so that I can have three months to study drumming, I wanted to go to Trinidad and play steel drum but it really wouldn’t be safe for me to do that, nor would my parents let me, which makes me really angry but that’s okay. Kenny Endo sent out an email about a one-year fellowship a position I’m not eligible for, but I’m going to email him to see if I could study with him in Hawaii for three months next summer. If this doesn’t work out ill definitely look at other groups. I really want to use those three months to focus on taiko.
Bowdoin Taiko performs at events in Brunswick and throughout Maine. They combine a passion for taiko with respect for its history and their emphasis on performance makes for a fun and enthralling concert experience. They practice Tuesday and Friday evenings from 6:30-8:30 p.m., devoting an hour to reviewing their repertoire and spending the rest of the time developing new songs. For performance dates and other information, visit their website or contact Alex Pfister at email@example.com or Alex Haskins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Erik Johnson ’10, Economics and Douglas Wong ’10, Classics
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Rhiannon Ledwell ’11 is a multi-instrumentalist and music major at Colby College. For her final class project, she arranged the Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five” for soprano saxophone, guitar, bass, and taiko. Recruiting two drummers from the Colby Taiko Group, Rhiannon experimented with different setups and eventually crafted two interlocking base rhythms and an extended duet section for the taiko. Afterward she reflected on the experience in a short essay.
I have a history of jumping into projects before I really know enough to complete them. Last year I tried to start arranging Charles Mingus’s Fables of Faubus before ever studying arranging! Needless to say, that was unsuccessful. However, I started studying jazz arranging this year, so I thought it would be perfect to apply what I was learning and arrange a piece for a small jazz trio and taiko! When Wynn Yamami told me to “keep it simple,” (which is something I also often hear from Eric Thomas during my arranging lessons), I chose Take Five. The opposite of simple. Something about it screamed, “Add taiko to me!” when I listened to it, and the drum solo in the original piece made me think it would be perfectly suited for my project. The challenging part was that it is in 5/4, leaving me with no concrete examples of existing taiko pieces to work from. To simplify it, I put together a basic rhythm for the head, and allowed the taiko solo section to develop without a time signature…I think this was quite successful, especially since I wasted a couple practice sessions fooling around, trying (and failing) to come up with compelling rhythms in 5/4.
The “keep it simple” advice seemed to be lost in other aspects as well. The setup for the piece requires two performers on three drums; two on slant stands facing inwards towards a drum on the tall stand. None of us had ever played on a tall stand, so that was all inference. I also realized later on that this setup requires one of the drummers to play mirror image, starting everything with his left hand.
Much of the solo is transcribed from a Soh Daiko performance of Hachidan at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Sakura Matsuri performance; however, the choreography is adapted to fit the setup I envisioned. I created a couple of my own lines to supplement the solo (with much help from Doug and Max, both of whom I couldn’t have done this without!) and then, in a sudden burst of inspiration while drumming on my desk chair muffled with a sweatshirt, I arranged it into a much shorter, cohesive piece that could be inserted into Take Five.
Along the way, I realized how difficult it is to teach! Even once I finally had the whole arrangement planned out, I found it very difficult to convey my desires to the performers. Once I came up with the rhythms, I was relieved, that is, until I tried to play them on the taiko and found out I had no idea how to choreograph it! So much of taiko is form (kata). It is extremely stressful to teach something that you yourself aren’t particularly good at. It was obvious I didn’t really know what I was doing, and was making things up as I went along, so I give the performers a lot of credit for bearing with me! There was really no form of notation that I found useful for teaching. I did initially write out some of the kuchi shoga, and a chart of the arrangement, but that was only to jog my memory once I already knew the rhythms. It wasn’t very useful for teaching, and probably would make no sense to anyone except for me.
I was extremely apprehensive about how the taiko would fit with the Jazz group until I put them together for the first time today. The transitions are a little shaky, but all in all, I am pleased with the results!
One of my concerns as I was working on the piece was how I was representing t. What would Tanaka-sensei, or Kodo, or any other taiko player or group think of what I am doing? After all, I have only been playing for a couple months, and here I am taking bits of existing pieces, combining them with things I composed, and then putting all that in the middle of a jazz piece! After all the articles we read in class, I became a bit concerned with how I was representing taiko. But in the end, it is an art form, and I used this as a learning experience. I am trying to represent it to the best of my knowledge, and I don’t believe that combining it with jazz takes away from that. After all, taiko (particularly kumi daiko, or group) and jazz both developed from innovation. Why should they not continue to do so? This project embodies what, to me, the purpose of arranging should be—to provide a new way of playing a piece different from how it’s ever been heard before. My knowledge may not be complete, nor is the arrangement perfect, but I am certain nobody has ever heard Take Five played like this before!
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Like many high schools in the state of Maine, Hall-Dale High School represents the small-town New England values found throughout the Pine Tree state. Situated in the town of Farmingdale, Hall-Dale High School provides education to the quiet suburbs of Augusta. The high school mirrors the climate of the towns it represents, with a small, homogeneous student body, and a similarly cohesive faculty. Driving up to Hall-Dale High School, I was struck by these traits of homogeneity and social cohesion. Walking through the hallways it seemed that each student had a distinct familiarity with each other. My notions of Hall-Dale as a typical small-town public school seemed to be increasingly cementing. Just as my assumptions seemed to become reality, however, I entered Hall-Dale’s Taiko drumming club. Over the next hour, the students in the taiko group exuded drumming expertise, flare, and interest which completely contradicted my previously held assumptions of the school and community. After the students’ practice session, I was afforded the opportunity to delve deeper into their passion for drumming, the history of their involvement in the taiko club, and the nuts and bolts of their taiko experience.
The Hall-Dale Taiko Group consists of approximately twelve members. The practice which I observed included nine drummers in the club. There is another novice group which meets at a different time. The origins of the student’s involvement in the club varied significantly. Ben Fairfield, a junior from West Port Island, describes his original involvement in taiko as a result of his karate background: “I have been active in karate for a few years and have attended a camp in Hollowell where teachers from all around the east coast come and teach….It was at this camp where I first met Kobayashi-sensei [the Hall-Dale Taiko teacher] and he told me about the taiko club.” Other students, such as Greg Plourde describe their initial involvement in taiko as a means to expand their “percussion” experience. This musically-driven motivation was shared by Alex Stonier, who looked to taiko as an additional musical expertise to complement his honors band and all-state status as a percussionist. Although Fairfield, Plourde, and Stonier each had specific reasons for their initial involvement in taiko, the consensus amongst most of the group was that they got involved with taiko because of the “awesome” nature of the drumming itself and the “charismatic” character of their teacher, Kobayashi-sensei.
Regardless of the student’s original reasons for joining the Hall-Dale Taiko Group, it is clear that they have all achieved a high skill level. The students are dedicated to the group, and as senior Ashley McCollor explains, most of the members of the club have been practicing taiko twice a week for “at least two years.” What makes this consistent dedication even more impressive is that the Hall-Dale Taiko Group operates without substantial resources. “We have PVC drums downstairs for our performances but for our practices we play on tires,” Alex Stonier describes. In addition to the inability to play on drums for practice, the Hall Dale Taiko club also is confined to a small classroom. This classroom “makes it impossible to play one of our songs, Taiko Train, because of all the movement involved,” laments Greg Plourde. The lack of space and resources illuminates the labor of love which these students exhibit towards taiko drumming.
The high quality of the Hall-Dale drummers can be attributed to excellent teaching. Kobayashi-sensei is described as “charismatic” by Ashley McCollor and “the bomb” by Alex Stonier. These reflections were echoed by all of the other students interviewed. This affection for Kobayashi-sensei allows his lessons to influence the students profoundly. “His teachings of keeping the wrist loose allowed me to strike the drum much more effectively,” states Bridget Duffy. In addition to Kobayashi-sensei’s teachings, the Hall-Dale students also get instruction from Liz-sensei of the Maine Taiko dojo. Liz-sensei brings a disciplined approach to the form and stance required for taiko, greatly enhancing the student’s performance level. Although the students make light of her strict attitude, they do credit Liz-sensei with helping their drumming. “Liz-sensei has taught us a lot about stance, form, and power control which is really helpful,” describes Cassie Smith.
The impressive practice sessions of the Hall Dale Taiko club are supplemented by monthly performances. “We have performed over in Boston at the girls Japanese college, at the local children’s museum, and the Augusta Barnes and Nobles,” Ben Fairfield states proudly. During these performances, members of the club explain the origins of each song in their repertoire, and then play for approximately an hour.
Although the Hall-Dale Taiko Group exhibits impressive abilities at the drums, many of the students are unable to delve into the cultural meaning and movements behind taiko. Other than explaining the origins of a specific song, the Hall Dale drummers did not have the opportunity to delve into the culture behind Taiko. “What we do learn about the culture behind Taiko we do mostly on our own or in Japanese language class” explains Ashley McCollor. In fairness to the students, the lack of emphasis on Japanese culture is largely due to a shortage of practice time where the mastery of drumming is the primary focus. Also, Kobayashi-sensei teaches his Japanese language students a great deal about the country’s musical culture. In addition to the lack of time focusing on the culture of taiko, the Hall-Dale players also do not have the time to participate in the physical activities associated with taiko. “We do some stretching, arm circles, and occasionally push-ups” notes Greg Plourde, but these activities were hardly considered rigorous by most of the students interviewed.
At the end of the interview with the Hall Dale players, a clear trend had emerged: the Hall-Dale players were enthusiastic about Taiko, were excellent at performing Taiko, and were eager to continue playing Taiko. This enduring interest was especially clear regarding the senior members of the club. Ashley McCollor “would love to continue playing” if the college she attended offered taiko, while Brendan Wilson was exuberant that his future college, the University of Vermont, was in close proximity to Burlington Taiko Group. This sustained commitment from Kobayashi-sensei’s senior students is a testament to the impact this group has on the lives of these students.
Dave Hendrie ’10, Government
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It was a gloomy, cold, and windy day when I, and my companions, made the trip to Hall-Dale High School in Hallowell, Maine, on April 8, 2010. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Taiko is something of which I have recently become aware, and I surely didn’t expect to find it flourishing in mid-Maine. It was with this mindset that I entered the front doors of the Hall-Dale building and came face-to-face with Mr. Naoto Kobayashi who was talking with some of his taiko players. He seemed to be in excellent spirits, and was elated to meet us, some fellow taiko players in Maine. After introducing ourselves, he promptly escorted us through a low-ceilinged hallway, up a flight of well-worn stairs, and past rows of gray, all-too-familiar lockers to begin taiko practice. Mr. Kobayashi’s students were very eager to begin playing and warmly greeted him and us when we entered the room. His students were excellent taiko players and demonstrated a superb focus and concentration throughout the thirty or so minute practice that we observed. After the session ended and most of the students had made their way out of the classroom, we sat down with Mr. Kobayashi to ask him a few questions about his life and experiences with taiko.
Mr. Kobayashi was born and raised in Japan, but he came to Maine as a language teacher. He had been working for a hotel chain in Hiroshima, Japan, and had come into contact with a lot of tourists who neither spoke nor understood any Japanese (they spoke predominantly English). Mr. Kobayashi stated that, “it would be great if these people would be able to speak more Japanese. I felt that teaching them was my real job.” As a result, he moved to Tokyo, learned how to teach Japanese, and began to teach it to foreigners. It then occurred to him that the people he was teaching were already motivated to learn Japanese; they were, after all, living in Japan. Thus, if he wanted really help to increase the number of people who spoke Japanese, he should go and teach Japanese in other countries. Mr. Kobayashi decided to look for a teaching in America because they had been the country that had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, which was responsible for attracting the tourists to that city. He applied for and received a position at Hall-Dale Elementary and Middle School shortly thereafter.
Even though Mr. Kobayashi is Japanese, prior to coming to America, he had never had any experience playing taiko. He had witnessed taiko performances during several festivals in Japan and was familiar with it, but he had never tried to play. Upon arriving at Hall-Dale High School, Mr. Kobayashi was approached by Professor Tamae K. Prindle of the East Asian Studies department at Colby College to help her with a workshop with some Colby taiko players. He assisted Professor Prindle on several occasions and learned how to make taiko drums from PVC pipes from Mr. Stuart Paton of the Burlington Taiko Group in Vermont. These sessions, however, were far and few between, which resulted in a slow but steady introduction to taiko for Mr. Kobayashi. He stated that, over the span of a few years, taiko “gradually came into my body.” As Mr. Kobayashi began learning how to play taiko, he slowly began to incorporate it into his teaching of the Japanese language, because, “the Japanese language and taiko are both part of the Japanese culture. These are important to learn.”
The taiko group that he instructs at Hall-Dale High School is comprised mainly of students who are enrolled in one of Mr. Kobayashi’s Japanese courses, although, he notes that, “anyone can join. You don’t have to take Japanese to play a taiko.” There are two practice sessions a week, one for the beginners and one for the more advanced students, and each lasts about thirty minutes. We happened to observe the practice session of the advanced group, which would explain their excellent poise, rhythm, and drumming abilities.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Mr. Kobayashi’s taiko group is that he is almost entirely monetarily responsible for the Hall-Dale High School taiko group’s bachi, drums, tires, and songs. This is due to the fact that the school does not give him any funding for this endeavor. The taiko group that he instructs is an extracurricular activity, which might help to explain why there is no funding. As I learned from talking with a few of his students, the drums that are used during the performances are too loud to be used in the classroom—they can be heard throughout the entire building. As a result, Mr. Kobayashi went around to various car dealerships and garages in the Hallowell/Augusta area and asked if he could take their old tires off of their hands. He told us that he has “about twenty tires. I keep ten at school for the students, and I keep ten at home for when I do workshops.” The tires are an ingenious idea that enable the students to practice their pieces without disturbing too many people in the building. Mr. Kobayashi has also wrapped portions of the tires in tape so as to not prematurely ruin the bachi (drumsticks), which he makes himself. Additionally, the pieces that the group performs have been picked up over the years through his infrequent training with the Taiko Maine Dojo in Portland.
Yet another striking aspect of Mr. Kobayashi’s group and teaching style is that he is not overly concerned that his students practice correct taiko form, which is the hallmark of many other taiko groups. Instead, he considers himself a fairly laid back, but engaged, taiko instructor. Mr. Kobayashi was very aware of how to correctly play a taiko, but I came away from the interview with the understanding that he wants to primarily emphasize the musical piece, not the form. However, in keeping with the more traditional taiko values, Mr. Kobayashi does not give his students any sheet music or notation for the music they learn. Instead, he uses what is known as “kuchi shoga,” which is the oral presentation of the sounds of a drum, such as “don” and “ka.” He uses this style of teaching to demonstrate to the students how the drum should sound when it is struck, and was quick to point out its benefits (“You can even practice when you are driving your car!”).
As far as the expansion of his taiko group is concerned, Mr. Kobayashi would love to see it grow, but he loses students every year to graduation. He did, however, note one interesting fact: the dominant gender of the taiko group varies from year to year. He said, in a previous year, “mostly girls joined the club, but this year we had more boys. It’s an interesting group. We have a lot of fun.” And fun is exactly what I had on that April day visiting with Mr. Kobayashi and the Hall-Dale High School taiko group. Mr. Kobayashi is an extremely interesting and engaged instructor who initially came to America to teach Japanese, but ended up becoming more. He has become a cultural instructor by means of exposing his students to more than just Japanese words and characters—he has opened their world to taiko.
Jay Mangold ’10, Government
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I had the fascinating and revealing opportunity to observe a highly-impressive group of high school students from the Hall-Dale High School Taiko Club, based out of Farmingdale, Maine. I was able to see the club both practice during their usual after-school time slot and perform publicly at a Barnes & Noble in Augusta, the very next day. The club, headed by Mr. Naoto Kobayashi, an experienced taiko instructor and Japanese language teacher at Hall-Dale High School, is composed of approximately eight to ten students who, for the most part, are avidly interested in both Japanese culture and the Japanese style of drumming called taiko. Many of the students noted that they are both enrolled in Mr. Kobayashi’s Japanese language class at Hall-Dale High School and voluntarily chose to join the after-school Taiko Club. The word “taiko” in Japanese literally means drum, but in the context of the Hall-Dale High School Taiko Club, it refers to “kumi daiko,” or group drumming.
During my visit to the Hall-Dale High School Taiko Club’s practice, I was surprised to see that the students were not, in fact, drumming on real drums. I had envisioned several chu-daiko, (medium-sized drums) all lined up and ready to be played upon, just as was my experience learning taiko at Colby College under the instruction of Wynn Yamami. To the contrary, I entered Mr. Kobayashi’s Japanese language classroom, the place where the club practiced, only to find several used car tires, wrapped in tape, set upon the students’ desks. This makeshift arrangement proved quite effective, as noise containment was paramount given their setting within the main high school building. The students practiced with incredible precision, and their respect and reverence for both the art form and for Mr. Kobayashi was unmistakable. Needless to say, after only thirty or so minutes of observing their practice, my interest in this captivating group of students was building, and I was certainly looking forward to traveling to Augusta the following day to witness their performance at the bookstore.
I arrived at Barnes & Noble just before 7 p.m., the time the performance was to start. Mr. Kobayashi welcomed me warmly and asked if I wouldn’t mind snapping a few pictures of the performance with his camera. I, of course, obliged. Before taking my seat in the audience, I asked him several questions, specifically about the different pieces that the club was going to play that evening. As he was explaining the different songs that the students were about to perform, pride for his students emanated from him. He told me that the club, of which eight students were present, was going to play six different songs: Opening Song, Timing Drill, Renshu Taiko, Hiryu Sandan Gaeshi, Isami Goma, and Taiko Train. As 7 p.m. drew near, I took my seat in the front row, eagerly anticipating the upcoming performance.
In contrast to the tires-on-desks arrangement that was used during the club’s practice at Hall Dale High School, for their public performance, the club, which was comprised of mostly Caucasian, males, would be playing on several chu-daiko. These chu-daiko were comprised of cowhides stretched over PVC pipes. The PVC pipe drums stood about two feet tall with a diameter of approximately nineteen inches, and the drums were spaced out in a linear formation in between two sections of bookshelves in the book store. The students uniformly took their place on their drum—bachi (drumsticks) in hand—as Mr. Kobayashi welcomed the students’ family and friends in the audience.
Throughout the performance, the students would rearrange the drums into several formations: straight line, curved line, and staggered. The students were dressed uniformly in black t-shirts and jeans, and many of the shirts the students wore had Japanese writing on them. One of the students after the performance explained to me that Mr. Kobayashi had told all of the students to wear their Hall-Dale Taiko Club shirts, black with Japanese writing, but many students, including the one with whom I was speaking, had forgotten to wear it. Nevertheless, the group looked uniform, yet I would not characterize their costumes as Japanese-looking.
Throughout the entirety of the performance, there was a high level of precision and vivid intensity on the faces of all of the drummers. Their eyes were focused on the taiko, and their arms seemed to move with fluidity and ease. With each hit of the taiko, they embodied both grace and power. Moreover, their movements were dynamic; at several points throughout the performance, the students were jumping, swinging their arms, and moving all around the taiko. The drummers would periodically produce vocal exclamations (“Ha!”), adding to the drama and power of their performance. The students remained on beat with one another, and even as their drumming became more quick and powerful, their precision was impressive.
Mr. Kobayashi played only one of the songs with the students, Hiryu Sandan Gaeshi. While he was not playing, he was standing behind the group calling out the different kuchi shōga, the Japanese phonetic system for verbalizing the sounds of different hits to the taiko. During one song, he played a metal instrument called a cannon, highlighting the underlying beat of the song the students were playing on the taiko.
After the first two songs were played, one of the students came forward from her taiko to announce the Japanese title of the next song and its significance in English. She noted that the next song, entitled Renshu Taiko, literally meant “practice drum,” as renshu means “practice” and taiko means “drum.” Before the next song, another student stepped forward to announce the title of the following song, Matsuri Taiko, which translated to English means, “festival” and “drum.” For each of the remaining songs, a different student would step forward to announce the title of the next song to be played, so on and so forth.
After the performance, I had the opportunity to speak with some of the members of the club. I congratulated them on what I considered to be an exhilarating performance. I then asked them about their perception of how the performance went. I first spoke with Alex Stonier, a senior at Hall-Dale High School who was originally born in Yakota, Japan. He said that he thought the performance went exceedingly well because, as he stated, “Drumming is kinda my thing and everything, so I was pretty prepared.” Another student, Ben Fairfield, a junior at Hall Dale High school from West Port Island, Maine, noted that the performance was a success until he accidentally hit a fellow drummer with his bachi.
In the end, my experience with the Hall-Dale High School Taiko Club was both informative and fascinating, as I was able to learn more about the experiences of other taiko players in Maine. I look forward to improving my personal taiko ability and taking with me the experiences I had both observing and interviewing Mr. Kobayashi and the Hall-Dale High School Taiko Club.
Bonnie Foley ’10, Government
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