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I Tried It: Taiko

Stephanie Thompson, 47, Mission Hills

You Try It!

Beginner Taiko Drumming
Classes start at $15
sandiegotaiko.org, naruwantaiko.org

Like many parents, I too have those days where dealing with kids, work, school, and spouse just makes me want to hit something really hard and yell really loud.

Thankfully, I found a way to channel that: taiko, the art of Japanese drumming. I wanted to challenge myself, learn something new, tap into an inner desire to make music, and be a good role model for my daughters. I’m not a gym rat or a yoga mom, and exercise bores me.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at the beginners’ class offered by San Diego Taiko, at the WorldBeat Cultural Center in Balboa Park. The first thing I saw was a row of huge traditional chu-daiko (medium-sized taiko drums) set up on the performance floor. It was exciting to imagine hitting the big drums and the sound it would make.

As we got started, I realized that taiko has a lot in common with Asian martial arts and karate. For example, the power and strength of your playing comes from the koshi (core), and your kata (form) is all-important, to strike the drum properly.

Taiko is about respect for the culture and its traditions, not just banging a drum. We learned musical patterns and made loud vocalizations (kiai) to motivate ourselves and the other students. It’s fun and distracting from the fitness required to play the daiko.

As for the fitness—every taiko class begins with stretching and warm-ups, from aerobics to push-ups and sit-ups to build core strength. Once you begin working on your form and strike, though, the pain really starts. Instructor Noel Garcia, who studied in Japan and has been performing taiko for 16 years, takes a traditional approach. I’m not in the best of shape, but I was relieved to see some of the more fit fellow beginners sweating and shaking as we held our form and practiced a proper strike.

Over at Naruwan Taiko, classes are held in North County. Instructor Diana Wu focuses on high energy and group drumming, with a level of enthusiasm that’s infectious. At Naruwan Taiko, we learned to strike with positive energy, and to listen to each other and feed off each other’s enthusiasm. Like Garcia, Wu also covers the cultural aspect of the art form, teaching the history of taiko in America and all the different styles of playing (I’m particularly interested in the giant o-daiko, that you play with your arms over your head, and yatai seated style, which is basically the craziest ab workout you’ll ever see).

Finally, we got to hit the drums. With the proper form, it’s like hitting the sweetest sweet spot in any sport you can imagine. For me, the sound was unbelievable—a deep BOOM that resonated through my arms and vibrated my insides. When you’re striking the daiko, you feel like you’re tapping into the energy of the earth itself, traveling up through your feet and energizing your entire body.

By the end of my first class, I was drenched in sweat and could barely lift my arms. With two classes a week, combined with practicing at home, I knew this would be a great way to get a workout (core, abs, legs, and especially upper body) and also learn about an exciting centuries-old art form. You get to push your musical and physical limits, and bang on big drums as hard as you possibly can. And every mom could use that once in a while.

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