Teaching Adults to Solo: Feeling the Four

fours (2).jpg

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 power song for advanced beginners: Tenryu

Looking for a power song to teach your students? Tenryu, a recent composition of ours, might fit the bill. It’s written out in kuchishoka and western notation here, and the video includes a full run and some tips from people who are learning it.

Tenryu is a great example of how much harder it can be to learn a song from transcribed kuchishoka, and I strongly recommend the video as a learning tool. A huge thank you to Taiko SOBA for being in the video! (The terms stage right and stage left are critical to connecting the notation with the video. If you’re not familiar with those terms, they’re explained here.)

Tenryu translates as “Sky Dragon” and the idea behind the song is that the entire group is a single dragon. It’s meant to convey the freedom, connection, and power generated when we channel our ki -- ALL of it-- into a collective effort.

Some notes on the song:

  • Tenryu isn’t complex rhythmically. The challenge is in playing it powerfully without tensing up.

  • Most sections start with a pick-up.

  • The patterns and tempo generate the mood of the song, rather than players hitting as hard as they can.

  • In the transcribed kuchishoka, the bold text in section C is there to make the pattern (replacing dokonko with dogodogo) easier to see.

  • Section D is challenging on two levels. It’s the only part of the piece where the chu and odaiko play different parts, and the odaiko part can be tricky to lock. There’s also an “extra” dogodogo at the end of this section. It’s unexpected for the listener, but it drives the song into the final sections.

Notes on the video:

  • The odaiko part is being played by 4 players in the back.

  • Taiko SOBA vibrated the entire room with this rendition (go SOBA!). Nevertheless, this is a great version to learn from.

As usual, we’re releasing this under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike  which means you’re welcome to remix, tweak, and build upon Tenryu, as long as you credit us and license any new creations under identical terms.

If you have questions while learning or teaching Tenryu, drop me a line. If you perform it, please post a video let me know. Happy teaching!

Teaching Adults to Solo

Just like younger students, adults can be intimidated by the idea of soloing, which requires awareness of and ability to play on the beat (pulse), internalized phrasing so you play a solo of the correct length (if length is set), form and strike, and competency with basic beats. Improvising adds a level of complexity that true beginners* generally aren’t ready for, and I don’t recommend having students improvise right out the gate.

Here’s my method for helping adult beginners start soloing. For this approach, choose a song that the students already know that includes soloing as well as unison playing. Sanae Swing would work, as would Matsuri, as would literally hundreds of other songs.

Adult Soloing Blog.jpg
  1. Give each student a kuchishoka deck to build a solo. Set the length of the solo at 8 beats (2 measures, 8 cards).

  2. Give the students 15-20 minutes to create their solos and practice them on their drums.

  3. Add a jiuchi so students can practice their solos with a back beat, but don’t make everyone start and stop at the same time.

  4. Move to everyone starting and stopping at the same time (aka chaos soloing).

  5. Have students play their solos one at a time.

  6. Build their solos into the song arrangement.

For some students, this is still pretty intimidating, and I let those students choose to work in teams.

Out of ideas for your taiko classes? I can help! I’ve been teaching taiko in school and community settings for over a decade. Drop me a line, and happy teaching!

*True beginners = people coming to taiko without previous music or dance experience. I find that taiko attracts a lot of true beginners.  

Teaching K-3 students to solo

Creating patterns

Creating patterns

Soloing can intimidating. It’s a tough skill that draws on multiple competencies; acute awareness of the pulse, a large “beat vocabulary,” confidence, and more.

Soloing can be taught, but students get overwhelmed if you try to do it all at once. My method of introducing soloing to younger students breaks the skill into bite-sized pieces learned over several weeks. It’s one thing I do in class over those 4 weeks, rather than the only thing we work on. With students this age I let them create and play duets if they want, which is less high stakes and cultivates confidence.

Here’s my method:

Week 1

  1. Teach kuchishoka using the Squirrel Village story.

Fill the boxes with one  kuchishoka  each.

Fill the boxes with one kuchishoka each.

Week 2

  1. Remind students of the squirrel rhythm pattern from the story. Have them play it on their laps. Point out that the number of syllables they’re saying corresponds to what they’re playing.

  2. Draw a horizontal rectangle on the board. Divide it into 4 equal boxes.

  3. Choose 4 kids. Have each say don or doko. Write the words they say on the board, one per box.

  4. Lead the class through clapping the pattern their classmates created.

  5. Have students move to drums.

  6. Lead students in playing the pattern on the drums.

  7. Repeat steps 3, 4, and 6 two or three times.

  8. Introduce su. (It’s in the squirrel rhythm, but they won’t have realized it.)

  9. Repeat steps 3, 4, and 6 several more times, adding su into the mix.

Week 3
(Ask teachers to bring individual whiteboards, markers, and erasers to class.)

  1. Do steps 3, 4, and 6 from last week to activate their prior learning.

  2. Give 2-3 minutes for students to create a 4-beat rhythm pattern on their own whiteboard, drawing boxes and writing words inside them (the way they’ve been doing it as a class). Allow them to work in pairs with their drum partner or own their own.

  3. Have students say and clap their individual patterns all at the same time.

  4. Have students play their individual patterns on the drums all at the same time.

  5. Have students leave their whiteboards and rotate to a new drum.

  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 at the new drum.

  7. Rotate and repeat for up to 20 minutes.

Week 4
(Ask teachers to bring whiteboards again.)

  1. Have students make up their own patterns individually or in pairs.

  2. Have students play their patterns all together.

  3. Have students play patterns one at a time. You need to conduct this. I count in the whole group, then make friendly eye contact with a student when it’s their turn to play and mark their 4-beats with my hand. The first time around is rocky, but the second time goes fine.

At the end of Week 4, each kid or pair has a short solo ready to plug into a song. Have them play it twice if you need a longer one. Be sure to email your classroom teachers before Weeks 3 and 4 to ask them to bring their individual whiteboards to class (I have yet to run into a class that doesn’t have a set).

If you try this approach, let me know! I’d love to hear how it goes. Happy teaching!