Taiko: Back to the heart

When I was a kid, I thought the U-shaped desk arrangement in classrooms was the dumbest thing ever. There was no privacy there; you were staring your classmates in the face, and there was this huge awkward space in the middle of the room. Also, there was that much less of a chance of sitting near your friends because you only had some people to either side of you, not in front or behind.

I was reminded of this sentiment today in taiko class… and how my opinion of it has changed.

When you take lessons, what does your classroom or studio look like? Do you sit in rows at desks? Do you line up to practice your katas? Do you face the mirror when practicing a new dance move? Whatever you do in your free time, I’m sure you spend the majority of it facing your teacher, and in my taiko lessons that’s no exception. We stand in a studio with everyone facing the wall of mirrors, with Sensei standing in front of them. Occasionally he’ll have us all turn around to face the other way or, alternatively, turns off the lights so we can focus more on our sound than how we look.

Last lesson, he said to us, “There’s a difference between a taiko group that plays facing one way, and a taiko group that faces each other. Let’s make a circle.”

We formed a circle with our drums as directed.

“Now, talk to the person across from you. Tell them three things you like. Anything is fine.”

Awkward, but okay. We all had known each other for a while already, so we laughed nervously as we talked about food. Food was safe. Tempura. Omurice. Ice cream.

“Now, play!”

We played two rounds of a simple beat, facing the person across from us, still uncertain, still laughing.

“Move to the next drum!”

We all shifted one drum to the left.

“Again! Introductions!”

With the realization that this was going to be going on for a while, we all reluctantly went into favorite things again. This time the topic was colors. Blue, green, orange. Pink. Purple. For some reason people went “Whoaaaaa” when I said I liked that last color.

Play!”

And we did. It was a little easier to make eye contact this time.

“Move!”

A third time we shifted.

“Intro!”

Was the beat picking up? We ran through the introductions faster this time. Food and color, and vacation destinations. My partner jumped around excitedly when she heard I liked purple.

“Me too!” she exclaimed, reaching to grab my hand and squeeze it excitedly. “I love purple! And tempura is the best!”

Play!”

Yes, the beat was faster. And Sensei was stamping his feet, and he wasn’t the only one chanting this time. It was easier to keep eye contact. Easier to dance a little while playing.

“Move!”

Shift.

“Intro!”

Yet more details. Food, colors, vacation destinations, hobbies.

“I love taiko,” one of my sempais said to me with a huge smile on her face. “This.. this is what I love. This is why I’m here.”

Play!”

I lost count of how many times we followed the pattern. We went around the circle more than once. We clasped hands, shouted over the basic rhythm, chanted with Sensei, and by the end of it everyone was making an effort to make eye contact. Nobody was laughing if a mistake was made; we were laughing for the sheer joy of it. This was music, this was us.

And then, we all hit that one beat, that one perfect quarter note that reverberated in our chests and through the room, and everything was silent for just a moment.

We all looked to Sensei.

“That,” he said, chest heaving, “is a taiko group who faces each other. That is our heart. Don’t forget it.”

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