Taku Hirano

Truly pro players never stop thinking about how they can improve their skills—or how to lift the music that surrounds them.

In the first installment of our latest feature series, we ask the percussionist of choice with Fleetwood Mac, Usher, and now Cirque du Soleil about the concepts he’s currently focusing on.

In preparation for performance, some drummers assume a serious, nononsense game face. Top-gun percussionist Taku Hirano surpasses that, his countenance taking on the appearance of a warrior, with his congas and bongos standing strong and at the ready. When the music begins, Hirano’s hands, strengthened by years of diligent practice, begin to fly over his setup with blinding speed, an incredible intensity now taking up residence in his entire being.

Off stage, the first-call percussionist, whose résumé includes Fleetwood Mac, Dr. Dre, Bette Midler, Jay-Z, Whitney Houston, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, the Neville Brothers, Nelly Furtado, and Usher—plus a memorable performance with Trevor Lawrence Jr. at the 2011 MD Festival—betrays the essence of warmth and friendliness. Sincere eye contact, an easy laugh, and a hearty handshake mark a meeting with Hirano.

We caught up with Taku in New York City as he prepared for the year-plus long Cirque du Soleil world tour of Michael Jackson: The Immortal, and grilled him about his current focus. First, though, a little background.

MD: What were the circumstances surrounding your introduction to drumming?

Taku: I began playing percussion in Fresno, California, when I was in the fifth grade, at nine years old. I was in the school band and orchestra, and I studied privately with Brenda Myers, a mainstay in the percussion education scene in Fresno. When I was in seventh grade my family moved to Hong Kong, where I immediately began intensive studies in classical percussion. I also played in high school jazz bands, talent shows, and jam sessions with friends. My sights were set on Juilliard.

MD: What steered you in the direction of hand percussion rather than traditional drumkit playing?

Taku: Towards the end of my stay in Hong Kong, Brenda Myers sent me an Airto album. Hearing cuica and pandeiro blew my mind! I bought both instruments and began tinkering, with what little technique I had.

My dad was transferred back to Fresno for my last two years of high school. I attended Roosevelt School of the Arts and was thrown headfirst into the world of Afro-Cuban percussion. I also studied drumset with Joe Lizama and Ndugu Chancler—who remains a mentor to this day. But by the time I graduated high school, I was gigging around town as a hand percussionist.

Then I was accepted into and attended Berklee. When I learned that Giovanni Hidalgo was beginning to teach there, I diverted all my electives to every class he offered and also studied with him privately. What I thought would be a short stint of Giovanni at Berklee turned out to be four solid years of one-on-one instruction with him…which coincided with my four years at college.

MD: When you were getting your chops together while coming up, what aspect of hand drumming presented the biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it? Did you have help from Giovanni Hidalgo or other instructors, or did you conquer it on your own?

Taku: The biggest challenge was the physicality of practicing. Training on certain instruments, like berimbau or congas, can be grueling; others, like kanjira, demand finesse and control. Giovanni played a huge role by teaching breathing techniques, feeding working muscles oxygen. I in turn tied this in with my training in martial arts and mental discipline.

Taku Hirano

MD: Is there any particular drumming topic you’re focused on at the moment?

Taku: Actually, there are two. The first is for the general public that simply listens to music. Percussion in general, whether it’s from a “world” background or a Western classical background, definitely has a place in all forms of popular music. On stage in a pop/rock setting, the percussionist can enhance what the drummer is playing, cover actual percussion parts from the recordings, and cover non-percussion parts via electronics to make the live performance sound like the recorded material without the band being locked into playing along with a static backing track.

Oftentimes, people don’t realize the extent of the percussion used. Whether it be tambourine on the Beatles’ “Love Me Do,” congas on the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” or cowbell on the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” it’s ingrained in the grooves. I think it’s important that the guy just casually listening to his iPod realizes how influential percussion can be in a song.

The second topic I’m focused on, especially in my clinics, is specifically for the young percussionist who’s beginning to play rock, pop, funk, etc., alongside a drummer in a band. I highly recommend three essential philosophies and techniques for a hand percussionist just starting out.

First, avoid playing things redundant to what the drummer is playing. For example, don’t crash accents—with a similarly sized cymbal—simultaneously with the drummer. Not only is this ineffective, it can be unmusical. Think about other options, whether that’s laying out, playing on a completely different instrument from a completely different harmonic spectrum—for example, congas—or making the drummer’s accent even more dramatic or effective, like by doing a suspended cymbal swell into the accent.

Second, avoid getting in the way of a simple groove laid down by the drummer by cluttering it up. Nothing is worse than a percussionist showboating by trying to fill every hole with a riff or a complicated or syncopated groove. The key is to enhance, not detract or distract.

And third, think about instrument choice. Sometimes it calls for enhancing what the drummer is doing by playing an instrument similar in timbre or color—for example, a cowbell along with the drummer’s ride cymbal bell, a shaker along with the hi-hat, or a tambourine strike along with the snare backbeat. Other times it calls for offsetting and filling out the sonic spectrum, maybe by playing a groove with a metallic percussion instrument like a tambourine, shaker, or cowbell over the drummer’s tom-driven beat, or by playing warm skin-and-wood tones on congas against a crisp beat driven by hi-hat and sidestick.

Taku Hirano