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.


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.


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 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!)

A crossover song for beginners: Yagura no Chochin

Crossing over (a multi-drum skill) is fun for players and impressive to audiences. Kristin’s most recent composition, Yagura no Chochin, helps beginning players of all ages learn this exciting skill using a limited number of repeated phrases. The first crossovers are slow, allowing players to practice the motion. Then, the patterns get into full swing, finally incorporating movement to other drums. The song is written out here. The video shows me demonstrating the Body and our recent community class playing through the full arrangement. (Shout out to Robin, Jennifer, and Sarah!)

A few notes: 1) solo length isn’t set; the solo is over when the soloist plays the Tag; 2) the number of times you rotate in the Big Rotation depends on the number of players; rotate until everyone is back at their original drum, then play Line 4 to end the section; 3) the speed in the first section (where I’m demonstrating the Body by myself) is the correct performance tempo; 4) these rhythms are particularly ripe for mnemonics. Our last class was fond of “right ov-er, left ov-er, move ov-er, “stay right here” as a memory aid in the Big Rotation. Use what works!

If you don’t know, the yagura is the elevated platform at the center at most bon odori. People on it lead the dances, and there may be a drummer on it. It’s usually decorated with chochin (paper lanterns) as seen in this photo from the Mountain View Temple Obon. The chochin sway with the movement of the dancers. The crossing over in this song is reminiscent of that swaying, and the rotation of the players alludes to the lead dancers on the yagura.

Let us know if you learn and perform Yagura no Chochin, and happy teaching!

Two new drills for beginners

Lots of beginning taiko classes focus on teaching beats and songs. Those things are important, but it’s just as important for new students to learn to move their bodies while playing. This prepares them to be more visually interesting players as they develop.

Drills 4 and 5, demonstrated by our current community taiko class in the video, introduce these skills. Drill 4 is relatively straightforward, but Drill 5 can be tricky, especially the second part. Teach the footwork first, then the arm movement, then add the beats. You’ll notice students make some mistakes in the video, which is a normal part of learning (see #9 here). We took the video in the mirror, so if you copy the students exactly, you’ll be doing the correct sticking. (I’m in the blue t-shirt modeling both drills as well.)

If you’re interested, Drills 1-3 teach other basics. Happy teaching!

A Song for Beginners: Bamboo Shoots

Every beginning player needs to learn songs that reinforce the skills they’re learning. Renshu (by Seiichi Tanaka) is such a song. Renshu is canon, and an important part of North American taiko history. You should teach Renshu! (If you don’t know or know of Renshu, Google it now!)

But you shouldn’t only teach Renshu. In general, beginning players like to learn a lot of new songs. The more songs you can teach them, the more they’ll feel like they’re progressing (and the greater rep they’ll have to draw on for future performances).

Bamboo Shoots (Takenoko) targets middle and high level beginners. It’s challenging enough that your fastest learners won’t get bored but easy enough that slower learners will still succeed, especially if they have faster peers to copy. The video features my community class playing a short arrangement of Bamboo Shoots and includes the kuchishoka. The full song is written out here in kuchishoka and western notation.

The song’s pretty simple. If you use it, please post a video and let me know. I’d love to see where people go with it. Happy teaching!

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!