What Taiko drumming taught me about coaching

When I found Taiko drumming, I was well and truly hooked. Completely. Utterly. Immediately. No question about it. Loved it to bits. Wanted to do nothing but Taiko drumming any more.

When I started, the Yamato Taiko School had only been open in the Netherlands for about 8 months and classes were still limited in number. Doing more classes than one a week meant doing classes at different levels.

In hindsight that was incredibly fortunate. I got to observe two masters at work. Not just masters at their craft (the Yamato group tours all over the world), but masters at teaching it as well.

Following are some of the practices I spotted. Enjoy!

1. Pacing – Start by (over)simplification

Classes are taught at three different levels. I have taken them all and not necessarily in order ;).

Each level has its “own” song. Learning one of the songs means learning the rhythm. But Taiko drumming is much more than just the rhythm. There are movements, expression of emotions, there is shouting and singing.

When you start learning a song, you focus on the rhythm: hitting the Taiko at the right time with the correct arm. Then you gradually mix in the rest.

Ever tried to drum and sing at the same time? Or jump while hitting? It’s … uhm … interesting. And confusing as heck.

Coaching takeaway: Coaching is about the people you are coaching. There level dictates what you offer them. Even though you know there are many details and nuances at play, you keep them to yourself until they are ready for them.

2. Pacing – Adjust to the form of the day

Classes have a fairly stable group of participants, but the level of experience varies as new members can join, or move on to a more experienced level, all the time.

What keeps me in awe is how Gen and Madoka (our teachers), tailor each and every class to the people present and even to their form of the day. During Te-Awase (literally: hand together; ~ follow the leader) for example they will try something, see what response they get and adjust.

Coaching takeaway: Coaching is about the people you are coaching. The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Regardless of what you planned for a session, you need to adjust when those you are coaching are going faster or slower than you expected.

3. Pacing – Tailor feedback to the (immediate) audience

When the Utrecht location of the school opened, I took classes there as well for a couple of months. For fun. As all the people there were new, they of course started with the song that I had by then been playing for quite a while.

Did I have it easy?

No way. You can bet your life on Gen and Madoka giving you individual feedback at your level, not the group’s.

Coaching takeaway: Coaching is about the people you are coaching. When you are dealing with a group, give feedback on the group’s performance tailored to the group’s level; but give feedback about an individual’s performance at that individual’s level.

4. On boarding

New members join the school all the time. And existing members move on to classes for more experienced Taiko drummers. More often than not this means that there are people playing catch-up in learning a song.

They are never left to their own devices.

The new people will be taken aside and taught the first part of the song, while the others practice whatever was planned for the group. If there is only one teacher present, then an assistant and/or the more experienced members of the class will take the lead.

At the end everybody joins up again to play the song for as far as most have learned it. New people are welcomed into that with “Don’t worry. Play what you know. Support the others with the basic rhythm during the parts you don’t know.” And “Enjoy. Keep smiling!”

Coaching takeaway: Coaching is about the people you are coaching. Make a concerted effort to integrate new team members. Allow more experienced people to grow by giving them the opportunity to help others.

5. Piling on the pressure

Whatever a group’s level, or progress through a song, every class ends with a “finale”. It can be (part of) the song, or a rhythm that was rehearsed just for that day. Whatever is used for the finale, the pressure is piled on. “This is it. This is your performance.” “Make it good. Play like you have never played before and as if it’s your last time ever.”

When you play a “performance” every week, doing a real performance in front of an audience of strangers becomes less daunting. Not to say you won’t be nervous, but the pressure of “This is it. Now is the time to…” is at least familiar.

Coaching takeaway: Coaching is about the people you are coaching. You need to prepare them for whatever you are coaching them to do. If that includes “This is it.” times, include them in your coaching sessions.

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