For Horizon Honors senior Stephanie Yamamoto, 17, Japanese taiko drumming is more than just rigorous exercise or a way to get in touch with her roots — it’s a spiritual art.
Yamamoto said she has been practicing taiko for over half of her life, after she first experienced it as an 8-year-old during a free workshop at a local library. She said she couldn’t get enough of it after that.
“I just always liked the taiko drums,” the Ahwatukee student said of the ancient practice. “I liked the feel of them… and I was always drawn to them.”
Yamamoto, who said she is half Japanese, explained that traditionally, taiko drums were made out of tree trunks, and used in Japan for communicating across long distances. Nowadays, the drums (which vary from about the size of a medium pizza to larger than an average city garbage can) are usually made out of other materials, which often include wine barrels.
Nine years later, Yamamoto is one of six members of the advanced Phoenix performing group, Fushicho Daiko. She said the group has performed together at various Asian festivals in the Valley, as well as at the Phoenix Art Museum and the Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix.
“I’ve kind of been playing taiko so long that it’s a part of me now,” Yamamoto said. “Even if I’m not playing taiko, I’m still a taiko drummer. It’s just a part of who I am.”
She said the group practices together for six to eight hours each week, but the number tends to go up around big performance dates. Despite the long practices, Yamamoto said she has managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA while working as the student tech director for Horizon’s drama department during her senior year, and makes time to play the ukulele and learn how to swing dance.
The Horizon Honors senior explained that although her performance group does not do physical conditioning together like the traditional drumming groups in Japan, taiko is a workout in itself.
“It’s really, really tiring, especially on your shoulder and back muscles,” she said, sharing that she once played for three hours straight. “It also is really leg intensive, because you sit in low stances.”
However, Yamamoto said that there is more to taiko drumming than cultural appreciation and a “full-body” work out.
“It’s a really spiritual experience,” she said. “If you really get into the back story (of the songs) then you can kind of, like, try to emulate what they were thinking when they wrote the song.”
She said that all of the drumming songs tell a story, whether it be of warriors leading their enemies into dangerous whirlpools, the anticipation of going to war, or even the sadness of those left behind when the warriors went to war.
Yamamoto’s mother, Terrie Schertl, who has taken taiko drumming classes with her daughter since the beginning, agreed that it is practice moves beyond the physically tangible.
“Even when we were building our drum, you honor the spirit of your drum,” Schertl said, explaining that each part must be honored — the tree that gave its wood, the animal that gave its hide, etc. — to respect the collective spirit of the drum.
“It’s like a force that’s bigger than just you playing,” she said.
Yamamoto said that even the Westernized taiko groups bow to their drums before playing, and that shoes are not allowed in the Fushicho Daiko dojo in downtown Phoenix where she practices.
Eileen Morgan is the head instructor at the dojo, and has been teaching taiko for 12 years. She said she guides Yamamoto’s performance group, and that the 17-year-old never fails to brighten a practice.
“Stephanie’s all sparkle,” she said. “She’s always got a good joke.”
Morgan said Yamamoto makes taiko fun for the audience to watch with her enthusiasm, smiles, and willingness to go above and beyond.
Yamamoto’s mother is in full agreement when it comes to praising her drive to succeed in taiko.
“I think her inner drive and passion for it just makes it a natural priority,” Schertl said. “You are doing your own part but then you’re a part of a larger group making something, again, bigger than yourself, and that seems to be, you know, Stephanie’s thing.”
• Katie-Lee Faulkner is a sophomore at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.