First Taiko Lesson

Taiko Drummers, Aichi, Japan

R and I attended our first class at Emeryville Taiko, the local Taiko dojo. It is only about a mile from our house and they have this huge industrial space in Emeryville full of drums, a little kitchen, and what appeared to be a transportable Torii gate.

We did a half hour orientation and were given the membership booklet. I haven’t been exposed to Taiko as an institution here in the West, other than seeing performances. The dojo follows just about the level of formality as my old Japanese martial arts schools did, such as bowing on entering, no discussion or questioning during instruction, formal hellos and goodbyes, etc. All very normal to me but I suspect some people were surprised by it.

Our class had 19 people in it plus the instructor. Of that group, I guess that probably 14 were new that night, just like R and me. I suspect that there is a heavy dropout rate and the sensei did give a little speech on how much work it takes to learn taiko. The gist of it is that, like martial arts, it takes a lot of practice and time to get good at it. The fact that the dojo is entirely oriented around performance might be a factor for many people as well. Many people have performance anxiety and to be told that it isn’t really taiko if you practice it alone or don’t perform might be off-putting for some people.

The class, after orientation, was a good two hours long and is run weekly on Thursday nights. They do an additional Saturday class, also two hours long, for those interested. It is clear that if you attend the weekly class, you will have to practice outside of class in order to do well, not simply show up once a week. I suspect that if I attended twice a week, I’d get a decent exercise program out of it along with everything else.

We stood in stance behind our drums with the left leg forward and bent, right leg out and straight, torso facing front, center of gravity pretty low and centered with the back straight. We banged on those drums with large sticks (“bachi”) for about an hour of that two hour class. We did a 15 minute warmup with stretching beforehand as well. In fact, I would guess that at least 75% of class time is standing in stance and going at it. My arms didn’t hurt much when we finished but I could barely walk, with my right leg (the rear one) screaming murder. At a guess, I would say that the effect was about the same as when we used to have to stand in horse stance in class for most of an hour. We had sweat rolling down as we played but I think most of us in the beginners group did pretty well.

I picked up my own set of bachi after class, which they recommend as they are higher quality than the general ones for class that get used by everyone. I fully expect to go back and I’m basically promising myself to check in with myself in three months to see what I think of it. I also expect that I’ll miss a few classes with my traveling later in the year. I’m not sure how I feel about performing but I suppose I’ll burn that bridge when it is time to go there.

One interesting bit, which I had heard in passing previously, is that there is no standard written notation for Taiko drumming. In Japan, according to our sensei, it is all transmitted orally with standard words used to describe different kinds of beats or sounds with the drums. Wikipedia notes that this phonetic system is called “Kuchi Shoga” and is a system for “pronouncing the sounds of drums.” A person learns the series of words for a song as they learn to play the songs, which is a very somatic way of learning music. Our sensei claims that all of her knowledge of songs is stuck in her head but if you learn it this way, you don’t forget the songs. She pointed to a small filing cabinet off the main space of the dojo, saying that it was full of notes by various students who had come up with their own ways to record the songs. She mentioned some were colored charts, for example, and that people seem to come up with their own idiosyncratic systems for doing this recording.

P.S. For the “weird note” of the evening, when we sat in seiza for a moment of silent contemplation at the end of the class, as soon as I closed my eyes, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” wafted through my brain. I instantly heard “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…” How’s that one work?