Every now and then, fellow taiko players will tell me that my drumming looks a little different. “You’ve got a West Coast style,” someone might say to me during a Matsuri practice. Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Mark! In all seriousness, these observations are never offensive or unwelcome. Each person has a unique approach to taiko, and the nuances in how we play are essential to our identities as taiko drummers. Beyond defining our coastal affiliations, drumming styles help tell the story of how we started playing taiko, who we’ve learned from, what we prefer musically and aesthetically, and much more.
Over the last nearly twenty years, I’ve had the privilege of immersing myself in taiko groups with appreciably unique styles of kumi-daiko. Learning from each of these traditions has helped me not only diversify my drumming, but also learn the value of understanding our respective taiko journeys and why we play the way we do.
So, here’s my story, abridged.
I grew up in a small Northern California town and started out as a youth member of Sonoma County Taiko (SCT)—my local community group. I could not have asked for a better environment in which to start my taiko journey. At SCT, I made a group of friends that grew up together, learning to play, perform, and celebrate taiko. Above all, our kid’s group had dedicated teachers who put up with our shenanigans to help us mature as taiko drummers and as people—from childhood into adolescence.
I learned almost all of my basic technique—my weight distribution, the angle of my bachi for naname, etc.—at SCT. In the process, I built up a muscle memory influenced as much by my efforts to simply mirror what I saw around me than the fundamentals of what was being taught. Obliviously, I did not feel a need to deviate from this self-ingrained tradition.
That changed when I moved east to attend Brown University and joined the collegiate Gendo Taiko. Gendo was, undoubtedly, the best and most memorable part of my undergraduate experience. Like SCT, I found a tightly knit group of friends in Gendo that spent countless hours working together to teach, learn, and perform taiko.
Importantly, joining Gendo pushed me to abandon my comfort zone and adapt to a tradition of taiko already a decade in the making. Part of this process involved learning exciting pieces in Gendo’s repertoire that I had not learned at SCT. But it also meant relearning some of the muscle memory I developed as a child in order to approach taiko in Gendo’s style.
What helped me most during this transition was a vital concept I had started to learn as a youth member of SCT. As our kids group progressed, Arnold Shimizu—one of SCT’s founders and youth instructor—often dedicated time to explain the history behind certain pieces and expose us to various styles of playing them. I remember learning different styles of Miyake, watching videotapes of groups playing Hiryu Sandan Gaeshi, and attending workshops with guest artists in town.
At the time, I did not appreciate that these types of experiences are about much more than advancing technical skill and expanding repertoire. These experiences are about learning to appreciate drumming styles, not just for their physical differences, but also for their unique origins and influences, the rhythms and movements they prioritize, and the stories they try to convey through each piece.
At Gendo, this powerful lesson about taiko, and performance art writ large, came into focus. As I adapted to the new style, it helped to relearn fundamental techniques from Gendo’s perspective. For instance, watching videos of the Japan-based taiko duo that first taught the collegiate group helped me appreciate Gendo’s style of odaiko. And I drew from Gendo’s general preference for sharp poses over more fluid movements to adapt to the group’s naname style.
Most importantly, this transition prompted me to deconstruct my own technique—a work still in progress. Playing with Mark over the last four years, I am continuing to confront my taiko habits and discover new ways of drumming. The more taiko players I meet, the more I also understand where I fall into the towering “family tree” of our taiko community.
In a nutshell, I have learned that exploring new styles of taiko is an invaluable step in our growth as taiko drummers.
Of course, most of us will never move to a different state, coast, or country to pursue taiko. But, if you ever have the opportunity to jump out of your comfort zone and learn a new unfamiliar style of drumming, I highly recommend taking it—you might just learn something new about your own taiko style.