Taiko Drumming: Healthy Exercise for Music Makers

If you want to get in shape and learn how to play a new instrument, but don’t really have time in your busy schedule, why not try an instrument that will allow you to do both at the same time? There probably isn’t a more fun and rigorous way to make music and stay in shape than the Japanese drumming practice known as taiko.

In Japanese, “taiko” simply means drum. The performances can last between five and 25 minutes, typically following what is called a jo-ha-kyu structure that speeds up significantly toward the grand finale. Aside from a couple of exceptions, all taikos are struck with bachi—nontapered, straight, wooden sticks. In feudal Japan, taikos were often used to motivate troops, to help set a marching pace, and to call out orders or announcements. Approaching or entering a battle, the taiko yaku (drummer) was responsible for setting the marching pace, usually with six paces per beat of the drum. Modern taiko arrived in the US in the late 1960s as the performance-based ensemble drumming most people are familiar with. It is as much about physical exercise as it is about music and performance.

taiko-2Taiko is an excellent ensemble-based, mind/body, musical practice that will give you a full body workout. Heck, you might even discover some muscles you didn’t know you had. You will often find taiko being taught at martial arts studios because it shares many of the same philosophies of mind/body practice inherent in other Eastern disciplines, such as yoga, tai chi, and karate.

Even for seasoned drummers, taiko offers a fresh experience. The rhythmic patterns do not correspond to contemporary popular music (not much 4/4, for example) and there is no written music—the rhythms are, for the most part, memorized. Because of this, it may appeal to recreational musicians—you learn to play from repetition and recognizing patterns. You play the patterns with, against, and around other taiko drummers in a group format. It’s a kind of call and response. And you’ll get the awesome, full-body workout in the process of playing because there’s hardly any sitting down. Unlike a drum set, taiko are played in a standing position, sometimes overhead, other times half squatting, or even while running and jumping.

As with any instrument you have to learn the fundamentals of technique before you can expect to participate in performances. Beginning lessons focus on building up strength and stamina needed to participate with the group. You’ll learn proper arm movement for using bachi. Unlike playing a drum set, there is little wrist action. It’s almost entirely full arm movement—like swinging a hammer, but sometimes in reverse and in a circular motion. Because taiko is performative, there’s always a connection to, and awareness of, the theatrical aspect of this art form. Big arm movements are accentuated by pointing with the bachi or raising them over your head on a particular beat.

Taiko-1Routines are mimed at first, using a series of long, flowing arm movements done from a wide, low stance, referred to as horse stance. This is an important posture in Asian martial arts and takes its name from the position assumed in horse riding. It is most commonly used for practicing punches and will strengthen your quads and lower back muscles. Taiko emphasizes transferring power through the whole body with the muscles loose, and releasing it with speed through the hand. The horse stance is the most practical posture for achieving this effect. Also, you can be drumming for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, so it’s necessary to remove stress and tension from the arms and distribute the energy through the rest of the body.

A variation of this exercise is to do it sitting on the floor, feet straight out in front of you and slightly leaning back. This one is great for building up your abs. You’ll probably feel pretty tight in the shoulders and upper back at first, but eventually you’ll work through these sensations and build up the strength and endurance needed to achieve a sense of looseness and freedom.

Lunge stance (one leg bent and forward, the other straight and behind) is another oft-employed posture in taiko. You’ll use this while playing the shime daiko, a small Japanese drum. Sometimes three of these are lined up in a row and played while making large circles with the arms and incorporating choreography that consists of kicks, turns, punches, balances, and jumps.

Benefits of Group Drumming

Much research has been done into the benefits of drumming and making music. Neurologist Dr. Barry Bittman, of the Yamaha Music & Wellness Institute, began researching drumming activity and its effect on increasing immune response more than 10 years ago. Continued research showed that playing a musical instrument also helped prevent biological responses to stress that are closely associated with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and virus activity.

Bittman based his research on the fact that drum circles have been part of healing rituals in many cultures since antiquity. Dr. Barbara J. Crowe, director of music therapy at Arizona State University, also identified benefits of group drumming.

Here are some reasons you might want to give drumming a try:

  • Physically, participants benefit from sustained physical activity, relaxation, reduced stress, and the use of fine motor skills.
  • Making music together creates a strong sense of group identity and a feeling of belonging.
  • The sustained repetition of steady beats brings people together physically, emotionally, and mentally.
  • You can participate in group drumming with little or no previous musical background.
  • Playing a musical instrument helps prevent biological responses to stress associated with disease and illness.
  • Drumming engages both the linear (the rational left) and the creative (the intuitive right) sides of the brain.
  • Because rhythm is basic to human functioning, drumming is highly motivational and enjoyable to all people, regardless of background.

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