Developing the Practice Shumoku

Isn’t it strange that shumoku are not widely available like bachi does?

Asano and kaDon both have 2-3 choices of generic shumoku, occasionally there were special ones made by taiko players, but it’s always “soldout” from those sites. There is one other website that offers custom-made shumoku, though I have never heard anyone using theirs. Maybe there would be much more choices in Japan, not everyone can go to Japan though.

I got a plastic head shumoku when I bought my atarigane from kaDon. It’s really light and small, with a chopstick-like handle. An instructor told me he just made a bunch himself, but he doesn’t sell them. I suppose, everyone could just make their own? But who would make a bunch just to try out how they’d like their shumoku to be? Ideally, there would just be an assortment to try and pick from.

My first handmade shumoku was made from a piece of bamboo I got from hiking around Manoa Fall in Hawaii, I thought it was nicely made – completely hand-carved with my Swiss knife. Now, when comparing to the new ones I have made, it’s obviously not that great.

Design Criteria

Thought of shumoku in terms of weight, balance, flexibility, and grip, these are actually more or less same for the design of piano tuning lever, which I had done detail research on. Essentially, everyone has their preferences and specific use. So, one size wouldn’t always fit all. For example, for playing something simple loudly outdoor, you want something heavier and loud. If playing something delicate and fast, like Edo Bayashi, you’d want a flexible and balanced shumoku for maximum speed and control.

The Need for Practice Shumoku

Another discovery I found is the need for quality practice shumoku. From early on, I have already concluded that the atarigane cannot be replaced by anything else, because of its weight and handling. Many people “fake” shumoku playing, without damping the “chiki” adequately. It takes a lot of practice to get the fingers to damp the center, and the most effective way to just practice playing for real. When it’s so loud to play normally, how could one practice confidently? On the other hand, from my observation, taiko group practice seldom dedicate practice time for atarigane playing. Indeed, atarigane part is usually played by one player, therefore this one player would be expected to practice on his or her own time. Then it goes back to… how does one practice confidently without worrying about annoying their neighbors and breaking his or her eardrums?

Three types of soft shumoku

For a little while, my practice solution was wine cork, but it is just too light and large to handle; the balance was terrible. To simulate a balance shumoku, the head has to be heavier. I have now incorporated soft fabric and metal core for my practice shumoku. The metal provides adequate weight, and the soft fabric absorbs most of the impact force. Someone suggested to use foam for to obtain “silence” hit, I tried and it is indeed damping more, but I think it’s a bit overkill. Psychologically, one would expect to listen to something during practice, it becomes very disorienting when hits are not heard. Moreover, it’s just not pleasant to hit with foam, so I added a layer of fabric to improve the touch. It’s better that way.

Currently the weight of these practice head are comparable to a light deer antler (6-7 grams). The difference between heavy and light antlers (from my point of view) is 2g, which is 1/3 to 1/4 of the antlers’ weight. Although I don’t see the need, it should be well within my ability to make a heavier practice head if needed.

I have also experimented on Tagua nut, which is slightly softer than deer antler. This material seems to be tough enough, and only time can tell if they can sustain regular atarigane playing. The difference of sound between antler and tagua nut is very subtle. I don’t think such difference matters unless it is being used by professionals.

Chung Wan Choi