Anyone who’s studied with Mark knows that he’s always telling us to get out there and learn taiko from other people, too. One of the best ways to do that is to go to a taiko conference. This week, Sara Harris tells us about her experience at the recent East Coast Taiko Conference, and why that is a great piece of advice. Enjoy! -Linda
The first practice after a taiko conference always bubbles with laughter, stories, and energy. In February, Miyako Taiko, the Mark H Taiko School community group, sent a record number of members to the annual conference for East Coast taiko groups: fifteen members strong. Taking Root, the 2020 East Coast Taiko Conference at the University of Connecticut, drew about 300 taiko drummers from the East Coast and across the United States to gather to learn, play, and have fun. This year, attendees were about evenly split between collegiate and community group players.
It may be hard to envision what the experience is like—how we spend our time and what we get out of it. I’ll admit, it’s not all that obvious what goes on. For the most part, this isn’t the type of conference where you sit and listen to people talk. What is it that we do all day, and why do are so many drummers eager to go? What do we get out of the experience that keeps so many of us going back year after year?
Just to get this out of the way right off the bat: We play taiko! By nature, a taiko conference is hands on. No one is sitting in hotel conference rooms listening to panels all weekend. We come to show what we’ve been working on, learn new instruments, songs, and techniques—and to jam! ECTC 2020 kicked off with an after-dark outdoor session featuring Burlington Taiko’s enormous glow-daiko. Bulbs inside the drum body make the head of the drum light up and change color. Lots of groups bring their equipment to the conference to share, and the opening night jam sessions are a unique opportunity to play a particularly resonant odaiko or check out a new hira design. An indoor jam following the outdoor session had dozens of players assembled for the session collectively create a base line from a series of claps, stomps, whistles and other body percussion. In turn, drummers soloed over the line.
We meet other people who love taiko. The world of taiko is made up of a lot of interesting people! At conferences, you get to connect to the person next to you in the jam session or at the lunch table, the people you meet in your workshops, and taiko friends you know you’ll get to catch up with, year after year. Every time, we share stories about who we met and what we learned from players in other groups. The groups’ styles, habits, practice routines, structure, and group dynamics can be so different, and there’s nowhere like a taiko conference to get exposed that range and variety.
It’s a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with instructors, too. The workshops are taught by a world-class lineup of professional artists and instructors, and they are often happy to share meals and time in between workshops to talk taiko. If you want to know what makes the taiko world tick, spend some time chatting with others in the community. The conference is a great place to connect and reconnect. This time, I met drummers who play with Columbia Taiko, Taiko Tides, and Swarthmore Taiko, all of which will be performing at the Sakura Taiko Takeover at the Tidal Basin on March 28.
We learn about taiko. Over the weekend, each attendee went to three two-and-a-half hour workshops with professional taiko performers from across the United States. We studied specific styles or techniques, such as how to play odaiko, Miyake, yatai bayashi, uchiwadaiko, or chappa. We learned songs. Or we studied specific aspects of playing, such as performance, expression, composition, soloing, or building community. Even when the material is familiar, the experience can be totally new when you learn it from a new instructor. One of the most exciting parts of coming back home is sharing new stretches, drills, pieces, and ways of thinking about playing that weave their way into practices for weeks or months after. This spring at the Sakura Taiko Takeover, Miyako will perform a piece two members learned in a conference workshop and taught to the rest of us. The workshops can be a challenge, but they also are accessible, and everyone’s there to learn.
We stretch ourselves. One of my workshop instructors asked us to think about how we react to being exposed to new things. They either fall in our comfort zone, or make us stretch, or cause panic. As we moved around the room and interacted with each other, she asked us to push through any mild discomfort and be open to the challenge of things that put us in our stretch zone. When the things you learn in a workshop cause you to stretch, you may come out of it with a tricky new move or favorite rhythm to weave into a solo. It may tax you physically. Or it may tell you something about yourself.
We geek out about drumming supplies. The conference marketplace at ECTC featured Asano Taiko and Kadon—suppliers of bachi, drums, T-shirts, and other instruments and equipment—as well as a table for the Taiko Community Alliance, a membership organization and resource for the community. The marketplace buzzes with activity from the moment it opens the first morning of the conference. Whether you need to replace broken bachi, are looking for a souvenir of your weekend, or want to practice on your own uchiwadaiko, the marketplace is always a big draw.
We get inspired by taiko! When practicing and rehearsing with your group, it’s easy to focus on mastering a specific pattern or technique. But the art of taiko keeps growing in exciting and sometimes surprising new ways. Every taiko conference features a concert, where taiko as an art form is on display. We saw the dynamic energy of Soh Daiko’s Matsuri, which opened the show; a new arrangement of Utsu Hachijo shared by Brown University’s Gendo Taiko, and a powerful and moving study on the theme of violence against women from Toronto’s Raging Asian Women Taiko Drummers. Here is where we come to see the traditions of taiko re-envisioned. The concert is an inspiring showcase of what the art of taiko can be and what groups in North America are making it into.
We reconnect with our taiko family. And finally, when we come back home, we all have the opportunity to share and reflect with each other. One of the great attractions of a taiko conference is the chance to learn about new groups and meet new taiko players. During the conference, the Miyako attendees are going in all different directions and may or may not have much of a chance to overlap. But telling our stories and sharing what we learned is a fresh highlight of the conference experience itself. The shared experience brings us closer together as a group.
And as soon as one conference wraps, planning for the next year kicks off. Gendo Taiko at Brown University has been selected to host the conference in 2021. What’s more, ECTC is only one of many gatherings for the taiko community worldwide. For example, after a decade of national conferences in North America, Japan for the first time will host the World Taiko Conference in November. Closer to home this summer is Connect 2020—twelve hours of drumming workshops with leading artists held over a weekend in August. In this January blog post, Miyako member Kim Morrison talks about her experience at Connect 2018. The Taiko Community Alliance is a great resource about all things taiko. Follow its Facebook page to learn about upcoming taiko events around the country and the world. Maybe we’ll see you at the next one!