Senior Rachel Cheng is educating Knox students on traditional Japanese culture through Taiko drumming workshops, held on Sundays in the Ford Center for Fine Arts.
Cheng, who aspires to be a music therapist, began holding Taiko workshops as part of an Experiential Learning project. Taiko is highly physical as well as mentally taxing, demanding concentration. She draws a direct connection between the way Taiko combines physical and mental awareness and music therapy.
“Posture in general is really important to me as a pianist and having the right posture and technique to reduce the chances of injuring yourself when you are performing or just practicing. And I think this just brings a lot of awareness to other people, like how much their posture affects them on a day to day basis,” she said.
In order to keep up, students must remain attentive and calm. Cheng begins all of her workshops with a meditation exercise to help participants focus and stay in the moment. This mentality is central to Taiko.
Senior Adrian Chavez, who usually plays jazz, appreciates the chance to explore a different style of drumming. He acknowledges that certain skills, like good posture and a sense of rhythm, carry over from Western drumming. However, there are distinct dissimilarities.
“There’s no sheet music written down really, just words, which is completely different from Western drumming. Also, it seems more traditionalist in feel,” Chavez said.
Taiko drumming involves minimal music reading. Cheng’s students learn by mirroring her motions and repeating lines, composed of different types of “hits.” She believes that this style of learning makes Taiko accessible to those who cannot read sheet music or lack experience.
“It’s definitely a process,” says Cheng. “I go line by line and the song I have for us is really easy in that it is very repetitive. It’s very square. Everything is ending in four, so it’s easier to feel for someone who hasn’t done anything musical in their life. Or most music in western society is very even, it’s in four or twos, so it’s very balanced out, so I thought that the piece I chose would be easier for people if it was their first time with any actual piece of music.”
In this sense, Taiko is taught in the same way that music is passed on in most indigenous cultures. Cheng compares the process to the custom of passing down traditional stories and folklore verbally. She sees her workshops as an opportunity to bring an aspect of Asian culture to the Knox College Music Department.
“I don’t think the music department highlights enough about other cultures, [as] opposed to just western culture and western music. Yes, we do have courses on diversity and music as those are requirements, but we don’t really talk about Asian cultures a lot, if at all, in music. So, I thought this workshop would expose people within and outside the department to music outside of Western society.”
In Japanese culture, Taiko carries great religious and historical significance. Originally it was a militaristic tradition, used to establish pace for marching troops. Today, it is usually performed at religious and traditional Japanese ceremonies. Cheng first encountered Taiko at a Buddhist temple. Taiko in contemporary culture is becoming more of an art form, Cheng says.
“There’s more emphasis on playing and obviously there’s still the cultural background, but sometimes you just want to give a performance and show people that this type of traditional drumming still exists out there.”
Taking on a teacher role comes with new challenges, but Cheng says she is grateful for the opportunity to introduce Taiko to her peers.
“I think with Knox and our community as a school, leadership is something that we emphasize strongly on, and I appreciate that we’ve all kind of been put in this leadership position, whether it’s during a classroom visitation or group projects from various courses we take hereÉ that kind of helped me step up, like, ‘okay I’m going to do this workshop and I’m going to have this, I guess, ‘teacher role’ for the next hour and a half.’”
For Knox students interested in learning more about eastern music or simply exploring different musical traditions, Taiko workshops provide an experience that they may not otherwise encounter. The traditional teaching and execution echo a rich cultural tradition that Cheng believes deserves a place in Knox College’s Music Department.