A rain-dampened summer afternoon in Orlando, Florida brought Vietnamese Thuyen May Productions members to the Japanese Orlando Taiko Dojo where they were to learn the art of Taiko drumming. The dojo was located near the Florida Mall and in a quiet, serene business office area off La Quinta Drive. Over twenty Thuyen May members arrived in a sea of blue shirts on July 30th, the last Sunday of the month, and just in time for Japan’s Obon season.
Entering the dojo, everyone respectfully took their shoes off and made their way to the heart of the dojo—a large room lined with stacks and rows of variably-sized drums. Students paid respects by bowing to both the dojo and their instructor, the esteemed Takemasa Ishikura, and his family—all highly skilled taiko drum performers and pedagogues.
The drums were gorgeous in person. There was nothing like seeing the different drum frames, shapes, and sizes as well as the varieties tied by strong ropes or tensioned by shiny brass bolts and nuts. Taut drum skins stretched over their weighty frames create the drumming area, the bachikawa. Each student was given a pair of practice bachi, wooden non-tapered drumsticks that are thicker than regular drumming sticks. The difference in size and weight from ordinary drumsticks cause the drums to resound solidly and deeply upon strike.
Before any drumming is done, students read through the four principles of taiko drumming to mentally prepare for lesson. Physical preparations are done through warm-up calisthenics accompanied by a light piano soundtrack. Afterwards, taiko drums were set up and everyone was geared and ready to go. The first strike I made resonated a strong sound that I could feel in in my body, and the internal throbbing persisted as the other teammates sounded their drums in a rippling effect.
It was quite a learning experience! An hour of learning brought many firsts to Thuyen May members. Students were taught to play in stances and how to start and end correctly. The lesson progressed through a repertory of differing patterns both challenging and rewarding. Taiko drumming requires right-left coordination skills, group-precision, and rhythmic recognition of even, offbeat, and rest values. But the true beauty of the art rests in teamwork and group effort. Each drum and person has a different sound, timbre, and personality. A mentally and physically synchronous group can create great resonance with the drum patterns, but this requires group intuition, peripheral vision, and extreme presence and consciousness. Once everyone synchronized, I could feel the pulsing drumbeats throughout my body. Performer, motion, sound, and team became one.
Taiko drumming is primarily an oral tradition taught through demonstration and aural learning. This is because many patterns or performance styles and techniques vary by specific regions or taiko drumming groups. As beginners, Thuyen May students were taught via a scroll of word-notation with different combinations of don, tsuki, and so forth. Each word seemed to refer to timbre, rhythm, and length. This is a different dimension from learning classical music notation associated primarily with pitch and rhythm. Not everything in taiko drumming has a directly translatable notational equivalent; this would greatly explain the usefulness of taiko drumming’s oral pedagogy. Amazingly, the Thuyen May students formed more organic musical intuition just by listening and following oral instructions. The Orlando Taiko Dojo’s pedagogy was excellent as they were very effective in equally facilitating the music and drumming patterns to all Thuyen May students, many who have had musical training and many who have not.
After an hour of learning, the Thuyen May students could recite the full drumming exercise. One hour at the Orlando Taiko Dojo only scratches the surface a very rich tradition full of history and culture. But even from one lesson, new bonds and friendships were formed and strengthened, and one culture could learn from another. My father and I returned the following week for more lessons. There, I discovered different bachi, a lighter one for droning bass patterns and a thicker one associated with rhythmic patterning. I learned how to signal call-and-responses between different drumming units and was treated to the sight and sounds of larger bass drums and smaller bolt-tensioned ones.
The Orlando Taiko Dojo is a subsidiary group of Matsuriza, a performance group at Disney’s Epcot (at the Japan Pavilion). They welcome new students to take lessons every Tuesday from 7–8:30 pm and Sundays in leveled increments from 10–2 pm. The dojo is located at Sunbelt Center 1255 La Quinta Drive, Suite 112 Orlando, FL 32809.
Thuyen May Productions is an all-ages cultural entertainment and performance group dedicated to promoting and preserving Vietnamese culture in Orlando, Florida. Additionally, Thuyen May focuses on cross-cultural educational opportunities for all their members. Learn more about Thuyen May Productions at www.facebook.com/thuyenmayproductions.
Check out Asia Trend Community Learning Center Meetup group for more events like this.