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Taiko Games: Whack-a-Don

Fun for students of all ages and easily adapted to different experience levels, Whack-a-Don is one of my favorite ways to energize/warm-up a group while practicing internalizing the pulse, good strike technique, and balancing group and individual attention.

I originally created this game for 8 people, but you can play with any number. It’s most successful if you play 8 or 16 don total. If you have a number other than 8 or 16, put people in teams of 2, or assign the drums more than one number.

The challenge is that each player must play their don exactly when it should happen no matter what. For example, the person at Drum #4 should their don exactly on the fourth beat even if the person at Drum #3 played late, or missed their don entirely.

The video shows the basic game and all variations. (Shout out to Taiko SOBA for appearing in the video!)

WHACK-A-DON, Basic version

  1. Arrange the drums in a row.

  2. Assign each drum a number, 1-8.

  3. Have players play 8 don in unison.

  4. Have them play 8 don again, but this time, each person only plays the number that corresponds to their drum. For example, the person at Drum #1 plays the first don, but none of the others. The person at Drum #2 plays the second don, but none of the others.

  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as long as you like.

VARIATION 1:

After Step 4 above, count an “Ichi-ni-so-re.” Players rotate drums during this count. The person at Drum #1 moves to Drum #2; the person at Drum #2 moves to Drum #3, etc. The person at Drum #8 moves to Drum #1. At the end of your count, repeat the 8 unison don and the 8 individual don, each person playing their new number.

VARIATION 2:

Rather than arranging the drums in a row, spread them around the room. Have players change drums during “Ichi-ni-so-re.” In this variation, players keep the same number when they move. Doing this at a brisk tempo is a fun challenge for more advanced players.

You can see it on the faces of the SOBA members at the end of the video- this game is FUN! Let me know if you try it. Happy teaching! 


Teaching 4th and 5th graders to solo

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Just like younger students, older kids can be intimidated by the idea of soloing. Breaking it down into its component steps makes it much easier to approach.

Soloing requires awareness of and ability to play on the beat (pulse), knowledge of form and strike, and competency with basic kuchishoka. Improvising adds a level of complexity that can throw off new players, so I recommend using the method below a couple times before opening the door to improvisation. The whole thing takes about 20 minutes.

  1. Pair students up and give each team a piece of paper and pen. Have them draw a table with 2 rows and 4 columns on their paper.

  2. Give students 5 minutes to create collaborative rhythm patterns using the kuchishoka they know, writing one kuchishoka in each cell in the table.

  3. At the end of the 5 minutes, count them in and have all students say their patterns together in unison. Repeat 2-3 times, until everyone is saying their beats on the same pulse.

  4. Have them say their patterns and play them simultaneously on their laps with their hands. Repeat 2-3 times. 

  5. Have students move to the drums and play/say in unison. Repeat 2-3 times. 

  6. Add a jiuchi. Repeat 2-3 times. 

  7. Have 4 drum teams remain standing while the others sit. Have these 8 students play their patterns one drum at a time (as soon as the first one finishes, the second starts, then the third, then the fourth).

  8. Repeat Step 7 with different groups of 4 drums until every team has had a chance to play their pattern. 

At this point, each team will have a duet that can be worked into a song arrangement. If time allows, repeat the whole process but let students create true solos rather than working in teams. Alternately, you can just let them work as true soloists from the beginning if you time/equipment/space allows.

For this method to work, students need 1) to understand the jiuchi and how it supports unison playing 2) to understand basic kuchishoka and 3) to know a song structure they can plug a solo in to (Sanae Swing, Matsuri, or the alphabet/ostinato activity would all work). If they don’t have those building blocks, spend some time on them before moving to soloing.

Let me know if you have any questions about this method. Happy teaching!

(Interested in teaching other ages to solo? Here’s the post on teaching younger students; here’s one about teaching adults; and here’s a game that makes practicing this skill fun for all ages!)

Teaching Adults to Solo: Feeling the Four

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If you’ve paid much attention to popular music in the US, you’ve probably built an experiential understanding of a 4/4 time signature. You can also probably sense when a musical phrase is about to end, and you may have noticed it’s often after 16 beats, or 8, or some other multiple of 4.  

Not everyone pays this much attention to music though, and I’ve worked with taiko students who haven’t built an internal sense of what 4 beats feels like (yet). As a result, they sometimes create solos that are 9 or 17 or 33 beats long. These can be cool, but more often than not they derail the rest of the students, who are concentrating on holding a jiuchi and/or playing the tag that’s coming up. There’s a time and place for advanced  solos, but it’s not usually your beginner class. If you have a student whose complex timing is difficult for your other beginners to follow, consider moving that player to a more challenging class before they get bored and quit!

Helping students build an internal sense of 4/8/16 beats frees them to focus on movement, playing on beat, expression, and the 1,000 other things that go into soloing. Here’s how I’ve helped students build an internal sense of 16 beats. It can be easily adapted to any phrase length.

  1. Play a straight jiuchi and lead your students in counting to 16 out loud on the beat. Make sure you don’t let two syllable numbers take up two beats.

  2. Keep the jiuchi going for another 16 beats while you continue counting out loud. Have students improvise a solo (everyone at the same time, aka chaos soloing). The students don’t need to count to 16 out loud while they’re playing, but they’re welcome to.

  3. Alternate the counting for 16/playing for 16 for 10-20 rounds.

As your students get more comfortable, step down your support (i.e., only count the first 4 and last 4; stop counting entirely; don’t let the students count out loud while they’re playing). You can (and should!) also try this with a swing and horse jiuchi. Doing this for a few minutes for several classes in a row will help your students internalize what 16 beats feels like.

Let me know how this technique works for you and how you adapt it, and happy teaching!

(Lastly, a shout out to everyone I connected with at NATC in Portland! It’s so inspiring to see taiko people from all over North America come together to share our love of this art form. I was deeply touched to hear how many of you have been using activities from this blog in your classes. Thanks to everyone who attended and took the time to say hi, and I hope to see you all at NATC in 2021!)



Teaching Beginners to Solo: Wipe Out!

You should always have more than one activity for skills you’re helping students build. A few weeks ago I wrote about teaching adults to solo using the kuchishoka deck.

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Wipe Out! is another great activity that 1) reduces the intimidation factor around soloing 2) shows how powerful ma can be and 3) builds a feel for an 8-beat phrase. Don’t let the fact that it’s a game make you think it’s only for kids! I’ve done this with kids and adults and it’s always a hit.

Here’s how Wipe Out! works. You’ll need a white board.

  1. Write the numbers 1-8 on the board.

  2. Have the students choose straight ji or swing ji and start that ji on the shime. (For true beginners, just go with straight ji.)

  3. Count the students in and have them play 8 don, one for every number on the board.

  4. Erase a number from the board.

  5. Count the students in and have them play 7 don and 1 su, placing the su on whatever number you wiped out.

    • For example; if you erased the 5, they’d play: don don don don su don don don.

  6. Repeat steps 4-5 as many times as you want.

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As people get more comfortable, challenge them by inviting a student to come up and do the wiping out, or by eliminating the pause/count in between the wiping out and playing the revised phrase, or by letting them change a number to ka by underlining instead of wiping out, or to doko by underlining twice (seen in the photo on the left).

It’s a little silly, it’s a lot of fun, it’s challenging but not impossible, and all of that generates an learning environment where students are more willing and able to take risks (like soloing!). Have fun with it, and happy teaching!



The Critical First Day: Taiko Fundamentals Gr 1-3

The first taiko fundamental I address is an awareness of pulse and the ability to play from that awareness. This skill (also known as a sense of rhythm) CAN be taught! I’ve found it works best when you scaffold it using voices and bodies before using drums, no matter what age you’re working with. The ability to follow a pulse is woven throughout most Music Ed standards, so spending time on it is a great way to teach taiko and helps kids meet state standards.

To build this skill in 1st-3rd grade, I echo teach a simple introduction chant that includes an experiential understanding of pulse. The steps are below and illustrated in the video. The whole thing takes 10-20 minutes, depending on how many kids get a turn in Step 5.

  1. Preview the full chant while finger tapping on the pulse.

  2. Echo teach the chant. Keep the finger taps.

  3. Demonstrate call and answer at the end of the chant.

  4. Choose a few kids to do their name as a call and answer at the end of the chant.

  5. Have as many kids do this as time allows.

  6. Explain how the finger taps show pulse, and how tapping pulse isn’t the same as tapping every note. (NOTE: the audio quality on the video drops here - my mic died - so you might have to turn it up to hear me.)

Since the kids are copying me exactly while I teach the chant, they’re showing the pulse with finger taps the whole time. With this experiential understanding, they’re ready for the term “pulse” when I cover it in Step 6. That, by the way, is an essential element of the Orff method: build experiential understanding before introducing terminology.

This great activity is from my original Orff training and I’ve used it for years. It’s written out here in western notation. Along with experiential understanding of pulse, it also addresses foundational skills for improvisation and call and answer. Lastly, it helps kids practice copying, which is a key skill in my classes for this age.

Students won’t build a perfect understanding of pulse this first day. Include some pulse practice in every session, though, and they’ll really be getting it by the end of your classes.

Questions? Let me know! Until next time, happy teaching!



Taiko Games: Read My Mind

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I first encountered this game in my Orff training and adapted it for taiko. It’s an excellent way to review songs, but can also be adapted to give students low-risk practice in making up 8-beat rhythm patterns. It’s great for students in grades 1-5 (roughly ages 6-11). Adults and playful high schoolers can have fun with it too, but it’s not a good fit for the middle school set (roughly ages 12-14).

The set-up

Choose a piece of a song you’re working on in class, but don’t tell the students what it is. For example, if your students are learning Matsuri, choose a line from that song (i.e., don don don kara ka ka).

Ask the students if any of them can read minds. (A few will raise their hands.) Tell them you’re thinking of a part of a taiko song and you want to see if they can read your mind. For beginning or younger students (1st-3rd grade), tell them which song. For more advanced or older students (4th grade and older), don’t tell them which song. For all ages, DO tell them how many beats long the part is.

How to play

  1. Arrange the taiko in a circle so all students can see each other. Include a shime.

  2. Teacher begins playing a jiuchi on the shime.The students begin playing phrases, trying to guess what phrase the Teacher is thinking of.

  3. When a student plays the phrase the Teacher is thinking of, Teacher says “1 person is reading my mind!”

  4. The other students then use deductive reasoning to figure out who’s “reading the Teacher’s mind.”

  5. As more and more kids figure out the correct pattern, the Teacher keeps giving updates. “Now 2 people are reading my mind! Now 3!”

The game continues until everyone is “reading the Teacher’s mind.”

Variations

  1. Instead of a phrase from a song, think of an original 8-beat rhythm pattern and see if any of the students can figure it out. (Sometimes I start a round with no particular pattern in mind. When a kid plays one I like, I decide that’s the one.)

  2. Let a student lead this activity. Advanced/older students can try playing shime while they have their mind read.

  3. If your kids need to get some wiggles out, play this as a movement game. You play a song or rhythmically regular pattern on the taiko and think of a SIMPLE movement that could be used to show the pulse of that pattern. (Tapping head, patting knees, jumping jacks, the floss, etc.) The class tries to figure out that movement.

Try this in your class next time you’re working on a new song and the students need a brain break. It gives them a rest AND reinforces the patterns. Happy teaching!


Taiko Games: Taiko Tag

You can never have too many games! They can be a sanity-saving brain break (for students and teacher alike!) in longer classes, and closing class with a game is a great way to reward good behavior.

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I found Dance Tag when I was first looking for activities for taiko residencies and adapted it for my classes. I used it for years in Tucson and still use it today. It’s a huge hit with grades 1-4, and students never realize how much they’re reinforcing rhythm and pulse. If you have a mixed age group, older students will enjoy the musician role described under “Adaptations.” Try it in your next class and let me know how it goes!

RULES

  1. This is a dancing game, not a running game. If a student runs, they’re out.

  2. If a student peeks while the “Its” are being chosen, they’re out.

  3. (Optional): If the room you’re playing in is very large, designate a portion of it as out of bounds. If students go out of bounds, they’re out. (For example, if you’re playing on a full-size basketball court, restrict game play to one half of the court or less.)

HOW TO PLAY

  1. Have the students stand in a circle. The teacher stands in the middle of the circle.

  2. Once students are in a circle, have them turn to face the outside of the circle (so they can’t see the teacher). Then, have them close their eyes and put their hands over their eyes.

  3. The teacher chooses two students to be “It” by laying a hand on the chosen student’s shoulders. Only the teacher and these students know who’s been chosen.

  4. Once the “It” students have been chosen, the teacher moves outside the circle and tells students to open their eyes and spread out.

  5. The teacher begins playing a song on a taiko and students - including those chosen to be “It” - begin dancing to the song. They can move freely around the play space while they dance.

  6. Students who are “It” tag classmates while dancing. If a student gets tagged, they’re out, and they go sit down at the edge of the play space.

  7. The game continues until 4 students are still dancing - the 2 who were “It” and 2 students who haven’t been tagged. The 2 who weren’t tagged are the winners of that round!

ADAPTATIONS

  1. If you have a large group of kids or older students, have some act as musicians, joining the teacher in playing the song.

  2. When students get out, have them become musicians, playing taiko, narimono, clicking a pair of bachi, etc.

Basic Beats: Three drills for beginners

When players are first starting out, they need drills with simple patterns. The video on the right features three drills I created to help students practice basic beats (don, doko, ka, kara, tsu, and tsuku). These drills work for both kids and adults.

It’s important to get people vocalizing from the get-go, to prepare them for kiai later on. I also like to get people playing both right and left hand lead from the very first class.

The drills are written out here (in kuchishoka and western notation, thanks once again to Kristin). I don’t recommend giving written materials to students before introducing a drill or song, because it reinforces learning through intellect rather than learning through experience. But giving written materials AFTER introducing a drill or song is great! It helps students practice patterns correctly and can be critical to the success of your visual learners.

Happy teaching!

P.S. A shout out to my current community class students, who are demonstrating the drills in the video!




Practicing Kuchishoka: Kuchishoka Cards

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When they’re first learning, students need steady practice with kuchishoka to build fluency. The more fun that practice is, the more likely they are to fully engage with it, which results in better understanding, which makes the practice more fun, making them more likely to engage fully, which results in better understanding, which makes it more fun, making them more likely to engage...you get the idea.

My wonderful life and business partner Kristin helped me create this set of kuchishoka cards, and below are 2 games that use the cards. The cards incorporate western notation and Japanese lettering, allowing for easy and natural connections to general music classes and lessons on Japanese language and culture. There are lots of ways to use these in support of your state and national standards while also building skills for taiko.

Students love these games! They’re good for kids ages 7 and up - even adults get into them. Download and print the deck and try these out. The composition extension is a fun challenge for more advanced students. Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

Kuchishoka Karuta

I first encountered Karuta in my Japanese language classes, where teachers used it as a way of practicing hiragana and katakana. For Kuchishoka Karuta, the teacher breaks students into groups of 2-3 and gives each group one set of kuchishoka cards. Students sit on the floor and spread the full deck of cards face up on the floor in between them. The teacher plays a single note and students look for the card with that note. When they find it, they slap it. Whoever slaps it first gets to keep it.

For example, if you play don, students search for a don card. When they find one, they slap their hand down on it. The deck has multiples of each card, so it’s possible for everyone playing to wind up with a card. You can make it harder by removing duplicates, or make the game last longer by giving each group two sets of cards.

Continue until all cards have been picked up.

Composition Extension: Guide students in creating a short pattern using the cards they won during the game. Have students rotate to other groups and try playing the patterns other students created. If time allows, have the class work together to put all patterns together into a song.

Kuchishoka Go Fish

Just like regular Go Fish, the goal is to make a book (a complete set) of a type of note (i.e., all of the don, all of the doko, etc.)

Divide students into pairs and give each pair a deck of kuchishoka cards. Students deal out 2 hands of 7 cards each, with the remaining cards going face down in a pile in the middle. Students play Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who goes first.

The first student plays a note on their drum of a card they’re seeking. They must have at least one of that type of card in their hand to ask for it. For example, if Michelle has two don and wants to know if her partner Mia has any, she plays a don on her drum. If Mia has any don cards, she gives those cards to Michelle. If Mia doesn’t have any don, she says “Go fish!” and Michelle draws the top card from the pile. If she draws a “don,” she gets to go again. If she doesn’t, it becomes Mia’s turn to ask.

Once a student has collected all of the cards of one type, they put those cards together in a small pile face up in front of them.

The game continues until all cards have been collected into books.

You can play the game in groups of 3 as well; in that case, only deal out 4 cards to each student.

Links

Kuchishoka Cards (PDF)

Want to discuss how to incorporate these in your classroom or integrate lessons with your state/national standards? I can help! Email me to set up a video or in-person session.

Interested in ordering the fancy version of Kuchishoka Cards (seen in the picture with this post) for yourself or your classroom? They’re available at our South Bay Beat Institute Store.

Introducing Kuchishoka to Kids

The power of the Orff method comes from the way it fires up imagination and encourages experience. For kids between the ages of 4-8, hearing a story that includes kuchishoka primes their minds to understand how syllables relate to drumming.

“The Squirrel Village” introduces Kindergarten through 3rd grade students to don and doko. Nearly every time I’ve told it, the students join me in chanting and playing their laps by the time I finish. That even happened in the video below, where I’m telling the story to a group of adults as part of a training! (Bonus points if you spot the math integration in the story.)

I recommend using this story with grades K-3. As with any storytelling, delivery is much more important than getting the text exactly right. Try this in your next kids’ class and let me know how it goes!


(And yes, the story requires great suspension of disbelief, which is easy for most students in this age range.)