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Exploring the Japanese drum

April 1, 2011

Kazuyo Ito of
Japanese Taiko drummer
Photo gallery
by Mark B. Gibson

The boom of thundering drums rolls and swells from a side room at Saint Mary’s Academy, steady beats growing into rapid fire patterns, shouted counts and directions. A crescendo, then silence. Smiles and bows and “Thank you” in Japanese, one class departs and another arrives.

Japanese drummer Kazuyo Ito has spent the week introducing students to the art and sound of Japanese drumming through an Artist in Residence program at the school. Students are introduced class by class to both the drums and the culture of Japan.

Taiko is an art and form of drumming that has its roots in ancient Japanese culture. “Not many people know Taiko drums, not many have seen them before,” says Ito. “They are a nice surprise.”

The Japanese drums are double-headed drums, set onto stands or held horizontally. By midweek, Tio has introduced two of them into the drum circle but most of the rolling thunder comes not from the beautiful Japanese drums but from waist high “student” drums made from plastic garbage cans.

Tio cuts a hole in the bottom of each plastic can, then covers the bottom with a “drum head” made of tightly stretched plastic tape. Inverted, the drums respond well to the physical, full-body drumming style Ito teaches.

For a garbage can, “The sound is not too bad,” Ito explains. A lot of schools today have very small budgets, she added. “I can put my old drum in the car and drive off” with a trunk full of garbage can drums. The stacked cans are cheap and easily transported and as Ido says, they sound great when played with enthusiasm.

All the drums are played with sticks, some made from doweling rods, others brought from Japan. Sizes vary to suit student hands. Some are straight, others tappered depending on the sound wanted. Drummers take a solid stance, and the drums are struck with force as beats in groups of eight are counted off in Japanese. Tio guides the students in counts, then call and response. By the end of class the drumming session resembles a cross between music class and physical education as kids rotate quickly from drum to drum between rapid fire patterns.

Near the end of one class, Tio gathers the students into a close group and introduces a new drum. This drum is eighty years old, and clearly treasured. Its sound is deeper then the shorter drums introduced in earlier classes. In Japan, Tio says, such drums are purchased when a baby is born, and treasured by the family. Tio demonstrates a fast, complicated rhythm on the drum, using both heads, then one by one each student raps out a short pattern.

“I want the kids to respect any drum, any musical instrument. The first day, nobody can use the real drum. The next day they can touch one, because they have learned to respect the drum.”

For more information on Ito and her teaching, visit her website at

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2011 04:33

    What a great story! I loved listening to the drums – this lady is amazing!

  2. May 13, 2011 08:18

    I loved this story. I liked the drums too–I felt inspired to make a drum from a garbage can… What an inspiring lady.

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