In a quiet, working-class town outside of Boston, behind a bowling alley and an electricians’ school, next to a Brazilian church, inside a nondescript building housing a Chinese cultural center, I’ve discovered a wonderful little slice of Japan. It’s a dojo, a practice space for a taiko drumming group, and it’s my escape hatch on Tuesdays.
This week I started my third semester of classes with Odaiko New England. I figure I must be hooked, as I drove out to this place in the sleet, over icy roads, with a head cold and a pounding headache. Nothing like the sound of 25 drummers to ease a pounding headache, right? And yet as I got out of my car, joining fellow drummers wielding bachi (long wooden sticks), my symptoms miraculously dissipated. Taiko on Tuesdays always hits my reset button.
Here’s a quick overview, since most people, when I talk taiko, stare at me blankly. In Japanese, taiko means “drum.” Most of the drums we use are tall and wide, but there actually several different types of drums, drum stands, and drumming positions. The type of drumming I’m learning with Odaiko New England is called kumi-daiko, or ensemble drumming. It is at once musical, artistic, and athletic, combining fluid movements with vigorous rhythms. Borrowing from martial arts as well, drummers cultivate a community spirit and give each other energy (ki) through the practice of kiai (vocal energy, or shouting, while playing). They also try to give energy by making eye contact. And, on occasion, smiling at each other. Which is actually really hard to do if you’re trying to remember the phrase of a song, or learn a complicated rhythm, and not take off anyone’s head with a drumstick.
The noise and the interaction with others couldn’t be more different from the writing life. I think that’s largely why I’ve come to love it. The contrast feels necessary. I’m not alone in this, I suspect, since I’ve met other fiction writers through drumming. (And quite a lot of computer programmers. I think this is an intriguing topic for another post someday!)
But I also find discipline and routine in taiko. Predictability mixed with bursts of improvisation. In this sense, it couldn’t be more similar to the writing life. At the beginning of taiko, we bow before entering the dojo. We sit in a circle and greet one another in Japanese. We bow again. We warm up in a predictable manner, gradually building our energy and focus. I don’t do the same rituals when I enter my home office and sit at my computer, but taiko has helped me cultivate a sense of discipline and focus that I try to apply to my days at the desk. I view my office as a dojo, a practice space. I work to clear my head before entering, to warm up before hitting the novel-in-progress, and to minimize visual distractions. I’m not always successful, but taiko prompts me to try.
As I left my car the other night and hurried across the ice to the dojo, already drawn to the vibrations of early drummers warming up, I realized one more thing I love about taiko — especially doing taiko in the suburbs. It cultivates my inner rebel. I love that on a cold winter night, when a lot of us should be home with our families, or watching TV or tidying up the kitchen, we’re in a dojo drumming our hearts out. I love that in this quirky location, people might pass us as they head out to restaurants or bars, or to the bowling alley or the electricians’ school, and wonder what the hell is going on in there. As a YA writer, it’s important to get in touch with that inner rebel now and then, to relight that fire, even for two hours. It can’t be a coincidence that Wednesday mornings are my most productive writing times. The thunder is still in my ears.
Here are some pictures of my class performing at the 2010 Odaiko New England Winter Extravaganza. I’m in the front row, just to the right of the dark drum in the center. (Faces are blurry — you’ll have to take my word for it!)
And if you’ve followed me this far, here are videos for two pieces from the 2010 Winter Extravaganza. My beginner class is the first video; a more advanced class can be seen in the second.
What physical activities or hobbies fuel your writing life?