Taiko Drumming Club

Houdah Daniels, Staff Writer


“If I say ‘DON’, that’s a full note. If I [say] ‘TSU-KU’, it’s a half note but small. And then ‘KA LA’ is on the rim.” With these words, World Language Teacher Ting-Chi Li instructs her taiko drumming students through various way in which they use their arms to drum, resulting in either loud or quiet sounds.

Taiko is a traditional Japanese form of percussion: the drums range in size, but the most commonly used one is called the chu-daiko (similar in size to a wine barrel). The loud, hard and fast movements of taiko resemble Japanese martial arts. The style of taiko that Li plays is kumi-daiko, ensemble-style taiko. This was founded by Daihachi Oguchi in 1951 and is the most regularly seen style of taiko today.

Li recalls when “a big part of my life was missing”. Due to a “calling” in her, she sought to fill this part through drumming. Now Li considers taiko drumming “a big part of my life and is one of my identities.” Before taiko, Li took some lessons of Djembe and of Talking Drum (both of which originate in West Africa) but didn’t go far due to the lack of connection between her and her teacher. She tried out taiko drumming at a drum circle at her friend’s house, when she “grabbed the [taiko] drumsticks” she knew it just felt right,” Li said. She was 16 years ago when she first started and she has been drumming ever since.

Li’s sensei, Seiichi Tanaka, was taught by Oguchi who is the first Japan-trained teacher of kumi-daiko. Tanaka founded the San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1968. Li joined Tanaka’s dojo in 2000. Li and her taiko partner now have their own group, with Tanaka’s “blessing” to use the San Francisco Taiko Dojo name. Li teaches and performs Tanaka’s repertoires, sharing and promoting his philosophy, which she so heavily praises.

Tanaka’s philosophy in Japanese Romaji: ???? (shin gi tai rei).

Li understands this to mean: heart, technique, stamina, etiquette. Heart comes first because while “technique is important when you play taiko, your heart, your own feeling at that moment is more important.” “You work hard for… physical strength, stamina” and lastly, “etiquette: you have to respect the environment… your sensei, your colleague, your peer drummers and you have to respect the drums.”

Mia Badian (’20) and Eddie Gualandri (’20) first started the Middle School Taiko After School Program (ASP) in Grade 5 and were, what Li described as “the first generation” of Taiko students at ASL. Badian and Gualandri, through the encouragement of Li, have now started the HS Taiko Drumming club (Taiko).

Badian recalls first signing up for the Taiko After School Program (ASP) at ASL and being intrigued because it sounded like something fun to do after school. Gualandri felt similarly and now emphasizes the benefits of starting a club with a friend, especially something they are both passionate about. “We’ve done this whole experience together… and now two years – and a half – doing it… it wouldn’t really make sense if either of us started it without the other.”

Badian mentions that not only is Taiko “a good place to learn musically and rhythmically, it’s also a great stress reliever”. Li feels as though Badian and Gualandri “make it a happy place for everyone” and also appreciates how Taiko has become a hangout place. “Instead of hanging out online, on Facebook, we hang out here: we chat a little bit, we beat the drum a little bit.”

Gualandri says how Taiko is a safe environment with no judgement, especially since, “we all started from the same place so we all remember where we started from. Even if you start now and we’re all really advanced, you can still catch up.”

One member of the club is Tanner Hatzmann (’20), who had first started taiko drumming in Grade 6, and when “I heard it that it had turned up again in ninth grade, that Eddie and Mia were organising it… I [couldn’t] turn that opportunity down”. Hatzmann currently plays the tuba and recognizes how the way he has learned taiko drumming is similar to how he learned music for the tuba. The technique for learning is called the suzuki method, which he describes as “a different way of doing music because it’s all by ear”. He also recognizes how playing music, and not having to read a score adds to the social aspect: as well as the whole ensemble “listening to each other”, “you’re actually talking to each other while you’re playing but you’re not talking.”  

Something Tanaka always reminded Li was that the beat of the taiko drum was just the beat of your heart, thus meaning playing taiko must come from the heart. With Taiko being lenient in its attendance policy and still having a turnout, Hatzmann found that people were “ready” to play, not “forced” because “[taiko is] an adventure, it’s not a commitment.