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They've got the beat

Gavin Lampe hits the taiko drum Wednesday afternoon. Each Burnside fourth-grader spent three class sessions with taiko drummer Iris Shiraishi learning the Japanese art form.1 / 4
Iris Shiraishi has been a professional taiko drummer and performer for 15 years. She performs with Mu Performing Arts in the Twin Cities.2 / 4
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Students used practice drums - plywood bases stretched with plastic strapping. Burnside music teacher Gretchen Anderson said professional drummers also use similar practice drums to prevent wear on their real taiko drums. Shiraishi brought one real taiko drum, which each student took a turn playing.4 / 4

Iris Shiraishi watched as her class filed into the Burnside Elementary School gym Wednesday afternoon.

"Yoroshiku onegai shimasu," she said, using a traditional Japanese greeting.

The class, made up of Burnside fourth-graders, bowed and repeated the greeting back to her. Then, after some stretching and breathing, the students picked up their bachi and, under Shiraishi's direction, began beating their taiko drums.

"Don, don," Shiraishi chanted, using the Japanese word to tell the students to beat the drums once for each syllable.

Wednesday's meeting was just one of three class sessions each Burnside's fourth-grader will spend with Shiraishi learning the traditional Japanese drumming called taiko.

"It is a combination of music and strength. The kids are just drawn into it," said Gretchen Anderson, music teacher at Burnside.

Shiraishi, a member of the Twin Cities-based Mu Performing Arts, first contacted Anderson last winter about spending a weeklong residency at the school. Shiraishi had received a grant from the Compass Greater Minnesota Arts Fund to finance the residency.

"Of course we said 'Come down.' How can you turn a gift like that away?" Anderson said.

Shiraishi arrived at the school Oct. 31 and began the week with a performance for the students.

"They get to see first-hand what we're talking about, what our visual and aural expectations are," Shiraishi said.

Taiko is now used in Japanese court, festival, theater and folk music traditions, but Anderson said in ancient times the drums were used to chase away Japanese warriors. The art form combines jumping and leaping into the performances.

"The athleticism involved is just incredible," Anderson said. "(The students) are learning to use their bodies in a very controlled way."

On Wednesday, Shiraishi coached the fourth-graders on the proper stance for playing the taiko, where their arms should be at any given point during the performance and what hand should be used for each beat.

There is no sheet music involved. Instead, students learn phonetic syllable phrases that translate to rhythms. For example, "don" means hit the center of the drum once; "do-ro" means two hits to the center; "su" is a rest.

"It's back and forth, student teacher repeating," Anderson said.

Which, she added, is teaching the students the Japanese language. By the end of the residency, Shiraishi said most of the students will have learned four or five phrases of a song.

"I think what they come away with is the exposure to the culture," Shiraishi said. "For most of them, it's completely outside of their ... heritage."

Shiraishi travels the state doing about half a dozen similar residencies each year. She said she was especially pleased with how eager the Burnside students were.

"(They) are coming in ready to learn. Even if this isn't quite their cup of tea," she said. "That open mindedness isn't a given."

But Anderson completely understood the big drum's appeal to her students.

"Who wouldn't like to take a couple of those big sticks and go wham, wham, wham?"

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.