THE BEAT OF SUMMER (finding the 1)

Sometimes I just do the best I can. I’d like to think that I am sometimes brilliant, but I know that sometimes I’m not even striving to be brilliant…sometimes I just buckle down, white knuckle through and do the best I can.

I often feel that way at the end of the academic year as I move through final classes and performances exhausted. I show up on time (hopefully!). I smile (at least I think I’m smiling!). I try to be organized and prepared. I try to stay focused and present…but one foot is already out the door as I find my way through those final, year-end commitments….in my mind’s eye, I am already floating around the lake, kayaking down the river, riding horses, spending time with family…

The funny thing is, once the classes and performances are over and I am actually out there floating on that lake or paddling down that river, I am usually thinking about taiko. I am either composing or arranging music or planning the next strategic steps we need to take as a group or envisioning new costumes or thinking about next year’s classes and performances or throwing drum sticks and a drum pad in my suitcase as I head out the door. Good grief. It’s hard to shut it down.

And of course I don’t really want to. I am a taiko drummer. Removing taiko from my life would be like cutting off my arm: an extremely painful loss that I would grieve for a long time as I would struggle to readjust. Taiko is no longer something I do; it’s a way of being in the world. At some point, taiko became a lifestyle, part of my identity. I play taiko because it’s fun, but I am a taiko drummer because, well… because I am. It’s become a personal demographic, like being a Caucasian, middle-aged female or a Midwestern American. It just is.

Like most things that are meaningful, “doing” taiko as a job requires more than just showing up…it requires an investment, an extension of myself that needs to be balanced. And counter-balanced… I don’t want to shut down the drumming, but for a while I am happy to not be expected to show up and drum at a certain time and place. I am happy to not be responsible for guiding a group through a process. I am happy to float around the lake, soak up the sun and splash out random rhythms with my hands on the water…

I only have two more residencies before I am officially on taiko summer break. During the month of June, I’ll be teaching taiko as part of two different art camps. This is not my first rodeo….I don’t know exactly what will happen, but I can make some best guesses based on past experience. I’ll pack my taiko kit, travel to location and work with whoever shows up. They’ll come in curious. Sometimes excited. Frequently wary. Usually willing. We’ll only have a few days to explore the vast world of taiko. A few days. Where does one start?

I’ll first show them photos of taiko drummers from the book The Way of Taiko. I want them to know I haven’t made this stuff up. That taiko is an ancient art form based on Japanese tradition and that even though there’s not much taiko here in Indiana, there are places in the world where taiko is rampant. Then I’ll get them moving.

“We’re going to learn how to find the 1,” I’ll tell them as I put a stool or a chair or a box or my backpack or something (anything!) in the middle of the room. I’ll line them up against a wall and put two sticks down on the floor end to end to mark a starting line. “You’re going to go one at a time, run and jump over the stool (or chair or box), keep running until you touch the chair on the other side of the room and then circle back to the end of the line.” At this point, they’re usually smiling and whoever is in front has leaned down into a “start” position like a racer about to run around a track.

I’ll point to the sticks on the floor and add, “But no one can cross that line until s/he hears the 1.” Now they look confused. I walk to a drum and begin improvising. “Ready and go,” I say. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8…” The first person usually misses the first 1 and takes off on beats 3 or 4. I’ll let the moment pass and keep going. Part of the game is letting them figure it out. And so the line continues with running and jumping and circling and drumming and counting and smiling and panting. I wonder if they realize that a good portion of this game is about letting them burn off energy so we can sit and do activities that require more focus. And of course we are building relationship. Quickly. (We don’t have much time together!)

About the time they figure it out, I’ll pause the game and explain we’re going to do it in sets of 4. Before I start counting again, I’ll ask if anyone wants to join me on the drum. Usually at least one hand goes up. I’ll give this new drummer sticks and a smile. No instruction. This moment isn’t about technique or rhythmic accuracy. This is about the joy of drumming, of making spontaneous music with friends. And of course, finding the 1. We’ll continue with me counting, “1, 2, 3, 4…” and so on. Then we’ll do it in sets of two. Usually I increase the tempo. And at some point, I quit counting for them. They’re on their own, moving faster and faster, trying to keep up, trying to hold on to the 1, until the whole game deteriorates into exhausted laughter (and sometimes rolling on the floor!) I’ll call them to a circle and prepare to hand out sticks.  But first I’ll ask, “What does that have to do with taiko?” Then I’ll let the group sort out the answer.

Taiko is so much more than beating on a barrel. More often than not, the best way to teach the art of taiko is to let students experience it from the inside out–especially when you only have a few days! Some of them will think taiko is weird (it’s certainly unusual here in Indiana) and hard (indeed it is) and they’ll be glad when the whole thing is over. For others, this experience will launch a whole new way of being. Some will intuitively sense that this whole idea of “finding the 1” is about some bigger truth (even if they don’t yet understand what that might be). They’ll have the fever and will continue exploring their world from a new perspective whether or not they ever drum again.

I certainly have the fever. Rhythms play in my head on a more or less ongoing basis. Apparently, my subconscious drums a lot–at least that’s what friends and family tell me. Apparently, I unconsciously drum while driving. (As evidenced by several accidents resulting in several totaled cars!) I drum while day dreaming. Even while sleeping. (Or so I’m told!) And since taiko is a mind-body form, this practice frequently involves movement and draws some unusual and curious attention from bystanders. Sometimes it’s full-out rhythms being played mindlessly on the steering wheel or grocery cart or kitchen table or my body. Sometimes it’s just small movement impulses that don’t appear at first glance to have any organized meaning but just look like bizarre tics. (This can create some embarrassing moments when out in public!) Sometimes it’s verbal rhythms articulated through “taiko” language muttered under my breath. (don, doko don, doko don, kata ka ka!) Sometimes it’s just a far-off stare that causes me to appear to be disconnected from my immediate environment. Someone who knows me well will say, “You’re drumming right now, aren’t you?” And I’ll return from my reverie back to a shared reality.

Once when I was coming out of anesthetic from a medical procedure, I started moving my arms and wrists in an odd manner. The observing nurse expressed some concern, commenting that she had never seen that reaction before and asked my mother if she knew what I was doing.

I was told my mother sighed and said, “She’s probably drumming.”

To confirm, Mom prodded me. “Hey, what are you doing right now?”

“Just making sure my wrists still work!” I answered in a drug-induced haze as I continued moving my arms in a rhythmic sequence. “Don do ko don, kata ka ka.” I said, muttering taiko language under my breath.

“Yep, she’s drumming!” Mom concluded.

Just goes to show…when push comes to shove, the beat goes on. Here’s to the beat of summer….and finding the 1!

 

 

BEGINNER’S MIND

I turned to see him carry it in through the front door. My family was exchanging Christmas presents at my mother’s house. My friend had gone out to his car, saying he had forgotten something. I was sitting on the couch with my back towards the front door, but turned to see him carrying in a large black case that looked like it might be housing a large instrument.

“Is that a cello?” I asked curiously as he carried it into the living room.

“Yes it is,” he said and set it down in front of me.

“You’re giving me a cello?” I asked, stunned.

“Yes, I am,” answered the man of few words.

“I’m going to play the cello?” My middle-aged mind raced, trying to make sense out of this interesting turn of events.

“If you want,” he shrugged nonchalantly.

My family watched as I struggled to unzip the case, my fine motor skills failing me in the midst of my excitement. The case finally opened to reveal a cello and bow lying in wait. Joy flooded through me and then I’m not really sure what happened.  I’m told I spent the next 20 minutes or so manhandling my new bow and picking out Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star as my family continued opening the presents my friend brought for them…brain teaser puzzles he intentionally selected to give them something to do while I explored my new cello as he anticipated I would. I eventually laid my new instrument to rest as we continued our holiday celebration, but went to bed that night tingling with excitement…I was going to learn to play the cello!

During the two years since, I have been screeching and fingering and bowing my way through this whole new world. Once again, I am a beginner and once again, I am falling in love. I am learning scales and struggling through basic technique. I am becoming reacquainted with pitch. I am playing simple songs. I am working to develop finger agility and striving to coordinate my bow. I am frustrated and elated and inspired. And nervous.

I am about to play my very first cello performance as a member of Fort Wayne’s Terrible Orchestra! This orchestra gives adults playing beginner instruments an opportunity to play in ensemble with other beginning adults.  The name doesn’t insult me; it reassures me. It reminds me that the expectation is low…very low. So low, it’s really hard to fail!

So low, in fact, that no one laughed at me when during my first group rehearsal my bow knocked the music off the stand of the person sitting next to me. (A cello is a large instrument that I am used to playing alone or sitting next to a teacher with plenty of space around us. When playing cello as a member of an orchestra, you sit close together! So close, that spatial awareness has become yet another facet of my learning curve!) Oh, most everyone in the orchestra, including me, did indeed laugh as our song was suddenly interrupted by scattered music cascading to the floor…but no one laughed at me! Everyone realizes that such things are bound to happen when playing in a terrible orchestra.

Attending orchestra has not yet heightened my technique or finger agility or intonation or quality of sound….in fact, those things are suffering because they are no longer getting my attention. Instead, I am learning the bass cleff. I am sight reading real music that doesn’t have fingerings written under the notes. My music at home has fingerings. When I was handed music the first day of orchestra, I realized I didn’t know the notes, much less how to play them. Some of them seemed vaguely familiar, but without the finger markings, my brain simply couldn’t make the transfer. As we played, I would sometimes ask the people sitting nearby, “What is that note?” They would give me a quick answer….which wasn’t particularly helpful because whatever note it was,  I didn’t know how to find it on my instrument. But my eye was able to follow along the path of music and I excitedly played open strings whenever I recognized an A or D. By the end of our first rehearsal, I was doing this fairly consistently so all the As and Ds in the song were nicely accented regardless of whether those accents were part of the composer’s vision!

The first Sunday after rehearsal I spent several hours studying my new music and identifying notes and fingerings which I carefully marked in pencil (I’ve learned it’s not good form to mark music in ink!). When I returned for my second rehearsal, I was given new music and once again I was sight reading. But this time, because of my hours of independent study, I recognized most of the notes AND knew how to play them…I just couldn’t do it fast enough. I trust that speed will come in time. For now, I celebrate my progress.

So much so that I am excited (and nervous) for my orchestral debut. I have invited a few friends and family members and will show up in my performance blacks, ready to play what I can, confident that at the very least I can accent the As and Ds….most of them anyway!