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Alison Parham

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Sarah Rabkin

Flying in Place:
Notes of a Taiko Beginner

You do not learn an instrument to play it; you play it to learn.
—Heidi Varian, The Way of Taiko

I was eleven years old, huddling on the stairs in my family's house, a stack of music books on my lap and my face wet with tears. It was time for my father to drive me to my weekly piano lesson—but on this day, much to the dismay of my well-intentioned parents, all I could do was sit inside and cry. Throwing tantrums wasn't my style, but I could find no other way to convey the inchoate distress that was all tangled up with my piano playing, distress that was finally mounting to a crisis.

My parents started me on piano lessons when I was seven years old, assuring me that someday I'd be glad for the training. But, four years in, something was amiss. I hadn't chosen the piano; unlike some of my young musical friends, I hadn't gravitated to my instrument out of delight or yearning or curiosity. My lessons and practicing were stiff and joyless affairs, suffused with self-criticism. Periodically my gentle piano teacher held small, informal recitals at his house—events that, in a kind attempt to minimize his students' anxiety, he referred to as "get-togethers." Despite my teacher's laid-back supportiveness, my stomach curdled and my heart filled with ice for days leading up to these occasions, which failed to bring me any pleasure in the act of performing. My friends wondered at my lack of confidence in my musical abilities. I wondered where such confidence could possibly be found.

*  *  *

"Don, Don, Don, Don, DON, DON, DON, DON!" A dozen adults, all novice Taiko players, stand widely spaced in a high-school gym. We face our instructor from behind practice drums made from sections of fifteen-inch-diameter PVC pipe. The makeshift cylinders are painted a flaking dark green, with skins stretched over the top end, folded down and riveted just below the rim. The drums are open at the bottom, suspended a foot above the ground on simple wooden frames, drumheads parallel to the floor.

We call our instructor "Sensei," Japanese for "teacher." The word for our thick wooden drumsticks is "bachi." Following the sensei’s example, my classmates and I hold them loosely in the triangle between thumb and forefinger, gripping them against our palms with pinky and ring finger. We position our feet on the floor so that when our arms stretch forward, the tips of the bachi almost meet in the center of the drumhead. Slowly we raise the right arm a few inches, then let it drop so that the stick hits the drum: "Don."

As the right stick drops, we lift the left. Rhythmically but fluidly alternating beats between hands, we play a slow sequence of eight notes. As we raise our arms successively higher, each pair of "Dons" rings out louder than the last. Our mounting drumbeats reverberate in the cavernous room.

Our sensei is a strong, graceful Japanese woman, a longtime California resident with a standup's comic timing. She came to drumming after an injury sidelined her from another martial-art practice. Her name happens to be Taeko, which, she tells the class, translates as "child of many blessings"—while Taiko means "fat drum." Letting that sink in, she grimaces pointedly at us from under comically furrowed brows. We laugh. To American ears, the difference in pronunciation—“Taeko”; “Taiko”—is subtle at best; yet, clearly, to confuse these two words in a social situation could have awkward consequences. With twinkling eyes and a mock-disapproving frown, the sensei concedes that if we should slip and call her by the wrong name, she will—perhaps grudgingly—answer to "fat drum."

The discipline we students are taking up combines music, dance, and martial arts; it has centuries-old roots in East Asian village drumming traditions, reinvented in the mid-20th century as an ensemble performance art and still evolving in Japan and beyond. Taiko's popularity is growing rapidly in the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Areas, where, intriguingly, the majority of practitioners seem to be women and girls.  

Taeko-sensei explains that she will be teaching us a drumming style whose power relies more on cooperation between gravity and skeletal mechanics than on the muscular strength featured by some of the more athletic Taiko ensembles. She has us stand with our knees slightly bent, our feet a bit farther apart than our shoulders. Pelvis tucked, we sit into the empty space between our legs—body weight cradled by the hip girdle, like an infant suspended in a bouncy-seat. Atop this rooted stance, our upper bodies can ride loose and relaxed—ready to twist, to stretch, and to strike the drum without strain.

With weight concentrated over our toes, elbows bent in a gentle curve to embrace the space before us, again we extend the right hand forward and up. Then, relaxing the arm, bringing the elbow in close to the body, and allowing the tip of the stick to drop onto the drumhead, we rock back onto our heels, letting the impact travel down through our spines. For smaller, quieter strokes, the lifting motion emanates from fingers and wrists. As we bring the bachi successively higher with each stroke in order to intensify the sound, we initiate the lift with elbows, then shoulders, and finally with the ribcage, ever more energetically driving the upward reach:

"Don, Don, Don, Don, DON, DON, DON, DON!"

Over and over, we practice moving as a group through the drumbeat crescendo. The unfamiliar motions gradually come to feel more natural, and I begin to experience each stroke as an impulse that begins somewhere beneath the soles of my feet, deep in the ground on which I stand: a wave of energy rising from the earth itself, through my legs and hips and into my body's core. As I inhale, that elemental energy soars within me, until it throws my pliant arm forward and up and travels through my bachi toward the sky.

There's a brief weightless moment, bachi poised in the air, before the breath releases and the motion transitions from rising to falling—and then all the potential energy of my raised arm transforms into a downward kinetic rush. Gravity reclaims my extended torso; swiftly-falling drumstick meets drumhead in a resounding "DON!" My body's contracting core absorbs the impact. Then, releasing the tension, I exhale still further, as the flow continues downward, past the drumhead and through the cylinder, beneath the linoleum floor and back into the earth, where it reverses course to rise again.

The looping sequence of rising and falling bachi, inward and outward breath, bring to mind an infinity symbol: energy and breath cycling endlessly up and down, in and out, through a figure of eight. There is a sense that in creating this vibrating dance, the drum and I are playing each other—or, perhaps, that the earth and sky are playing us both.

The subtle forward-back rocking of the body's weight; the lift-and-drop wheeling of the bachi; the expansion and compression of the breath: my head isn't yet sure what to make of all these interlinking cycles, or how they are supposed to fit together. But my body seems to recognize something ancient and familiar—as if I'm taking flight for the first time, in dim recollection of winged incarnation. A light kindles within me, and I feel myself projecting the same intensely focused beam of energy that I have seen in the eyes of Taiko players performing at festivals and concert halls.

Teaching us a drum song phrase by phrase, Taeko-sensei seems to intuit just how much novelty we beginners can absorb before being overwhelmed. She gradually introduces nuances of technique, gently correcting our form when necessary. She challenges us without loading on too many new ideas at a time. She says, "If this is too much to think about right now, then don’t worry about it.”

She helps us understand that the layered skills we are just beginning to learn require repeated exposure and practice; they have to be absorbed into muscle memory before we can make conceptual and physical sense of them. All of this is going to take time. There's plenty of permission to get it wrong at first, and repeatedly, if necessary; errors are inseparable from the learning process. When students express frustration along the way, she cracks jokes to lighten the mood.

With her encouragement and sense of humor, Taeko-sensei sustains the enthusiasm that brought us beginners here in the first place. She makes space for each of us to learn at our own pace. And she keeps us from getting too tangled up in our heads, which is important: Taiko doesn’t emanate from the brain, but from the belly-mind—the hara, the essential center of energy and wisdom deep in the body’s core.

*  *  *

My dad did finally get me out the door to my lesson on that tearful morning a half-century ago. And then, a couple of years later, I quit formal piano study. My love of music never did overcome the self-chastising voices and performance anxiety that made piano a threat and a chore. Even so, I did eventually come to feel grateful—just as my parents had promised I would —for their foresight in starting me on a musical path. My piano background launched me into more fruitful creative endeavors as I grew older. And now, at the beginning of my seventh decade of life, Taiko has rekindled in me a wild young spirit, the one who struggled so hard to find her way in childhood.  I feel her rising to meet the call of the drum.

All at Once

On a summer afternoon
when both my parents were alive,
I stopped at a long light, thoughts
idling, and pulled out
weathered lists: Questions to Ask Them
Sins to Atone For, Ground to Prepare.

Suddenly: nothing left to do.
To be the imperfect daughter
of imperfect parents was finally enough.

The light turned green. I drove past
the sunstruck crossing, but never lost
what opened there—
a lotus, fresh with beginning.
When my father died, its petals
caught us both as we fell.

Great Divide

For a therapist, belatedly

At twenty, I sat in your light-
filled office while my lover
waited outside.
He had eager muscles,
a clever tongue.
He wanted me
to make up my mind.

You didn't point out how he
resembled my father,
didn't try to straighten
my tangled reins.

You asked,
What are your passions?
I swung onto that question
and rode it into my life.

Learning Finnish in My Fifties

 I never practice; I always play.
                                                            —Wanda Landowska

Nimeni on Saara, my name is Sarah.
Puhun vain vähän suomea
—I speak only a little Finnish—
but the sounds slide over my tongue
aromatic as mustikkapiirakka,
blueberry pie. I croon the double vowels,
land and wait at the paired consonants’
stoplight, then race on.

In today’s lesson,
hämähäkki scurries and hides;
I repeat kahdeksanjalkainen hämähäkki,
“eight-legged spider,”
as if Finland might have a different kind.
Yesterday’s word, jakkihärkä, draped in thick yak fur,
paused on its pair of sturdy Ks and gathered momentum
to spring to the end of a clause,
jakkihärkä that shaggy beast bounding up a hill.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, delivered
kaksitoista rummuttavaa rumpalia,
a dozen tightly tuned snares rattling in my inbox.
I marched through the house singing
rummuttavaa rumpalia,
twelve drummers drumming,

For the first time, the mistakes don’t matter,
or even the point of it all, only the way
my heart thrums every day to the lilt
of these phrases.
No matter that in the Turku airport,
on the way to a nephew’s wedding,
I gazed head-on at leggy natives’ navels,
the only buxom Jew at the baggage claim,
the only woman not a blonde. No matter
that the newspaper I opened
offered not a single familiar syllable.
I‘ve barely begun to untangle the fifteen
noun cases, or compose a sentence;
I may die a beginner. But already I can say
olet kirkas valo elämässäni,
you are a bright light in my life.

Sarah Rabkin grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s and 70s. She first came to Santa Cruz as a kid visiting family friends, returning ten summers later for a blissful organic chemistry course (really) at UCSC. Five years further along, she came back yet again, to study science communication. Then she lucked into a job teaching in the campus writing program, met and married a wonderful poet, and never left. A freelance editor and leader of writing retreats, Sarah is the author & illustrator of What I Learned at Bug Camp: Essays on Finding a Home in the World.

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