Taiko Game: Hey hey, look at me (K-3)

Goofing around is integral to learning improvisation. A kid (or adult) who’s goofing around, making funny faces, talking in a silly voice, is learning to take risks and trust their creative instincts; with just a little bit of structure, goofing around becomes a precise educational tool.

“Hey Hey, Look at Me,” a game from my Orff training, is structured goofing around at its finest. Here’s how it works. 

1. Echo teach this song (see video for tune, or invent your own):

Hey hey, look at me

Make yourself look just like me.

2. Arrange students in 2 rows facing each other. Designate one row as #1 and the other as #2. Have row #2 turn their backs to row #1.

3. Have all students sing the song. When they finish, clap twice. At the first clap, students in row #1 strike a pose. At the second clap, students in row #2 turn around to face their partner and copy them. 

4. Repeat with row #2 striking the pose and row #1 copying. 

K-3 students LOVE this game. In the video, I’m keeping the pulse of the song with rhythm sticks, and giving the Pose/Copy cues in time with that pulse. This is slightly more advanced. Introduce the game as described above and work your way up to how I’m doing it in the video.

Bonus: once kids have learned it, this works great as an attention-getter. All you have to do is sing the first few notes and all eyes in the room will be glued to you. 

High school students and adults have fun with this game as well. The only age where it doesn’t work is pre-teen and early teen. It’s far too goofy for that age. In the future I’ll share activities that work better for those ages. Happy teaching!

Taiko Camp Part 1: Overview, and how to make a papier-maché chochin

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Once you’re established as a teaching artist, summer camp bookings will probably come your way. Summer camps are a great place to introduce kids to taiko! The camp format allows you to cover everything from taiko basics to taiko history (i.e., the way Internment of Japanese Americans during WWII relates to the development of taiko in the US).

I just finished a one week camp that lasted 3 hours a day for 5 consecutive days. I chose Obon as the central theme, with the campers hosting a mini-Obon on the last day. I covered 3 main activities during the camp: learning Matsuri (including solos), learning Tanko Bushi well enough to be able to teach it, and making a papier-maché chochin. We worked on each activity every day. 

Chochin are paper lanterns; at Obon, they’re often hung as decoration. The strings of chochin swaying above everyone’s heads at odori is one of my favorite sights at San Jose Obon. Here’s my step-by-step guide to making a papier maché chochin; it includes how I broke down the process so my campers did a little bit each day. 

In my next few posts, I’ll share the rest of my camp curriculum so you can take advantage of these opportunities when they arise for you. Happy teaching camping!

Questions a taiko teacher should ask

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If you’ll be teaching more than one session in a school, you’ll probably have a planning meeting with the teachers you’ll be working with. The principal may attend too. Below are 11 questions you should definitely ask. These aren’t necessarily in order of importance, so ask them all! The answers will help you successfully launch your classes.

1. How big is the room where I’ll be teaching? What else is this room used for?

You want to make sure they’re not putting you in an unused classroom that’s full of desks. If it’s a room that’s used for other activities, you want to make sure your drums will be safe when you’re not there. Ask if you can see the room after the meeting ends.

2. Are there any adjacent classrooms?

If a school plans to put you in a room with an adjacent classroom, make sure they understand how loud taiko can be.

3. Is there secure storage? Can I see it?

Note, secure doesn’t HAVE to mean locked. In many schools, the stage in the cafeteria is a very low-traffic area and a safe place to store drums.

4. What time does the school day start and end?

Most school parking lots are bedlam during drop-off and pick-up (about 10 minutes before and after beginning and end of the school day). Do yourself a favor by avoiding these times.

5. Are there English Language Learners in the classes?

As taiko teachers, we’re lucky that kids can succeed in our classes without understanding every single word we say. Still, I find it’s helpful to know if there are a lot of ELL students so I can be sure to physically demonstrate a lot and talk as little as possible.

6. Are there special needs students in the classes? If so, what accommodations do they need?

Make sure you can provide these accommodations and be up front if you can’t. It’s a good idea for students with sound sensitivities to wear their headphones to class.

7. How many students are there in each class?

I’ve had 23-32 students in a class, which translates to enormously different equipment and space needs.

8. How much in-school music instruction have the students had before now?

I’ve had answers ranging from “none” to “multiple years,” which greatly affects my lesson planning.

9. Will the classroom teachers be staying in the room with me and their students? If so, will they be participating?

If you’re not certified, the classroom teacher will usually stay in the room with you, but not always. Even if they stay in the room, they may take advantage of the opportunity to catch up with grading or other tasks. It’s important to know the school’s expectation is of their teachers.

10. Are any of the following scheduled during the residency: fire drills, field trips, assemblies, or other special programs that might affect the schedule?

Schools schedule these kinds of things months in advance, but often don’t think to mention them to a teaching artist. It’s up to you to ask!

11. Do you have a method you use in your classroom for student participation or behavior?

Some teachers use popsicle sticks with student names on them to promote participation, or marbles in a jar as a behavior incentive, or other classroom management techniques. It’s useful to know these beforehand so you can fold them into your classroom management. (See this post for more detail.)

If you have questions or need advice on planning a successful taiko education program, drop me a line. I can help. Happy teaching!

10 practical tips for taiko teaching artists


Taiko teaching artist is the best job I’ve ever had. It’s also the hardest job I’ve ever had. Here are 10 things I’ve learned over the years that make teaching taiko in schools easier.

  1. Make friends with the Office Manager and Custodian.

These folks have difficult and under-appreciated jobs. At the same time, they can be highly influential on your residency’s success. An office manager who feels valued by you will call teachers who haven’t shown up for class, or make an announcement to remind teachers to bring whiteboards. A custodian who feels valued will make sure students don’t mess with your drums when you’re on break. They are critical allies. Learn their names. Smile at them. Thank them. Give them a Starbucks gift card. It will make your life easier. (Depending on your school, the office manager may also be called the secretary or receptionist.)

2. Store your drums at the school.

Teaching by yourself is hard, and if you have to load in and out of the school every day, it’s close to impossible. If a school can’t provide you with secure storage for your equipment, don’t take the residency. It won’t be worth it.

3. Load in BEFORE your first day.

Your first day is hectic enough without also having to load in all of your equipment.

4. Set your class up in curved rows, not a circle.

If you’re in the middle of a circle, some students will always be facing your back. If you join the circle, kids at your 2 o’clock and 11 o’clock will have trouble seeing you. With curved rows, all students will have a good view of your face and will be better able to hear you.

5. Avoid residencies that are folded into after-school programs.

Taiko is fun! Taiko is loud! Taiko is exciting! The structure of the regular school day, along with good classroom management, can help even the most excited kids stay focused. After-school programs (aka after-care) are far less structured and it’s too hard to avoid chaos when teaching taiko in them. Do yourself a favor and don’t accept a residency if it’s incorporated into an after-school program. (But by all means, if you have your own studio and the students come to you, offer taiko classes after school. That’s a different thing all together.)

6. Have students help you clean up.

Students as young as 2nd grade can reliably handle the responsibility of packing drums and putting them back in their storage spot. Ask your last teacher of the day to leave you 5 kids to help pack up. They’ll LOVE doing it, and it will make your life easier.

7. Include classroom teachers.

Just like the Office Manager and Custodian, a classroom teacher who feels valued is a powerful ally. Their enthusiasm about your classes will shape the students’ enthusiasm. Email your lesson plans to classroom teachers in advance, give them the opportunity to participate, let them teach any arts integration you’re incorporating. Also be sure and send them your bio before you start so they understand that you’re a competent professional coming to enrich the education of their students.

8. Informance, not performance.

Schools are likely going to ask for a performance at the end of your residency. I always suggest having the last class be an informance instead and schools almost always go for it. For an informance, I invite the students’ families to come watch the last class. I guide the kids through the activities they’ve learned (which always includes at least one song) and pause regularly  to explain to the “audience” what skills the students just demonstrated.

Families LOVE this: they get to watch their student the whole time, rather than attending an evening performance where multiple classes perform. Teachers LOVE this: they don’t have to come back to school for an evening event after a long day. Kids LOVE this: it’s lower stakes than a performance, they still get to show off, and they’re in the spotlight the whole time. I LOVE this: it doesn’t add an additional event to my scope of work and I can focus the entire residency on skill building rather than creating a performance product.

9. Allow for mistakes (your and theirs).

Most students aren’t going to immediately succeed. Don’t get frustrated. Find different ways to practice skills and keep at it. They’ll learn. (This is why I have umpteen pulse activities.)

The same is true of you as a teacher. You’re not going to succeed all of the time. Some activities will fall flat. You’ll accidentally say “don” when you mean to say “su.” You’ll forget that the school changed your schedule one week and you won’t show up on time. I’ve done all of these things. It’s not awesome, but the more you can dust yourself off and try again the better your mental health will be. Bonus: if you can dust yourself off and try again in front of your students, you’re modeling for them a growth mindset, which is something kids need to see.

10. Get rest.

Teaching is exhausting. It makes you WAY more tired than just playing taiko. Get your rest and eat your Wheaties on teaching days. If you drink alcohol, don’t drink the night before a teaching day. Alcohol messes with your sleep and a restless night = a rough teaching day.

There you have it! The top 10 things I wish I’d known when I started teaching. I hope they’re helpful to you. Happy teaching!

The Critical First Day: Establishing Expectations, Pt 2.

One size does not fit all! You can't treat 4th and 5th graders the same way you treat K-3 students. This post continues the discussion I started last week on setting your students (and yourself) up for a successful residency.

With 5th graders, I ask them about their classroom or school rules, and then say that those rules apply in the taiko classroom too. The video on the right shows me holding this conversation with a 5th grade class I started working with recently. Bonus, it also includes the system I use for randomly selecting kids to participate. More detail in a future post, but it’s much more effective than asking for volunteers to answer questions! (4th and 5th graders tend to know what number they are in their classroom.)

For consequences in 5th grade, I just calmly name rule breaking if I see it. (“You’re talking to your neighbor while I’m talking. That’s disrespectful.”) I’ve had good luck with students changing behavior when I do that. Mind you, they’re not happy for a few minutes, but they almost always come around and act more appropriately in the future. This doesn’t require any particular introduction on the First Day, just do it when it happens. Take note: you erode student confidence and trust in you if you show frustration at moments like this, so work on your poker face.

With unruly classes, I’ll use a Check/X system to give them a visual reference for how they’re doing. They get a green check on the board when they’re meeting behavioral expectations, and a red X when they don’t. It’s basically the same as the happy face/sad face system I use with K-3, but adapted for older kids.

Fourth grade is a wild card. Less mature classes thrive under the chant/happy/sad face system, and more mature classes will roll their eyes at it. I usually start with the 5th grade strategy in 4th grade. If that doesn’t work, I switch to to the K-3 strategy.

Middle school is an entirely different ball game. Email me if you teach middle school and want some tips. Until then, happy teaching!

The Critical First Day: Establishing Expectations

I started two residencies this week, and it reminded me how “make or break” the First Day is. A good First Day lays the foundation for a successful residency; a bad one truly sets you back. In honor of my newest residencies, I’m starting a series of posts about building a First Day that will set you up for a successful taiko class.

Three critical things happen on the first day. This post talks about #1: the students learn your behavioral expectations. I talk about K-3 strategies here and will talk about higher grades next time.

The winning strategy with all grades is to set clear expectations and be consistent and immediate with consequences AND with reinforcement when kids do well. With K-3 students, I teach a rules chant on the first day. The video shows me introducing these rules as a chant to a new 2nd grade class.  

(Note, these rules work for me, but if they don’t feel like a fit for you, Google “music classroom rules” for literally thousands of examples.)

I introduce the chant on the First Day, and then it becomes our focusing activity for the rest of the residency. At my schools, students walk from their regular classroom to the room where I’m teaching. Never underestimate how completely a walk across the school campus can derail a kid! They absolutely need an activity like this to focus when they get to you. These kids will say the chant every week at the beginning of class, and they’ll have it perfect by Week 4.

Rules aren’t effective unless there’s a consequence for breaking and positive reinforcement for following. For my K-3 classes, I draw a happy face and a sad face on the whiteboard. When the majority of the class follows a rule (i.e., everyone listens the whole time I’m giving directions) I put a check under the happy face. When a rule is broken, I put a check under the sad face. At the end of class, I make a big deal of having the happy face checks cancel out the sad face checks. I introduce this system in the latter part of this video. Kids this age really respond to this approach!

Lots of classroom teachers have some kind of behavior reward system in their classrooms. (For example, they put marbles in jar when the class shows good behavior. When the jar is full, the class gets a pizza party or something). See if the teachers you’re working with have a system like this and if they’re willing to tie behavior in taiko class to their existing system (i.e., they put a marble in the jar if the class has more happy face checks than sad face checks in a day, and take one out if the reverse if true).  

That’s it! Next time I’ll talk about establishing expectations with older students. Although my focus is on in-school taiko programs, this approach can be easily adapted for out-of-school programs. Contact me if you want some suggestions for that. Until then, happy teaching!