Taku Hirano, Recording Artist & Percussionist
I was born in Osaka in Japan and lived there for the first three months of my life until my family moved to Fresno, when my father, who worked it the textile business, got transferred to California. There’s not a whole lot to do in Fresno, and because of that, I always really liked the school music programs. My first recollection of wanting to play percussion, or some kind of drum, was at around four years old. However, my mom told me I had to learn piano for two years prior to being able to take any other instrument. So I started piano at age seven, and then continued with percussion at age nine. I started with private lessons and learned orchestral percussion as well timpani xylophone, concert snare drum, as well as drum set, jazz drumming and so on. Later on, my family ended up moving to Hong Kong on another business transfer and I went to international school in Hong Kong from age 11 to 15. That´s when I got really serious about my music studies. I started studying with the principal timpani player for the Hong Kong Philharmonic. My goal was to eventually go to Juilliard school in New York, the world leader in performing arts education, to study classical music.
All while still in school, I played in a jazz band, played rock music with my friends and in coffee house bands. I enrolled in the school of the arts in Fresno, where so many people from my high school started out and then ended up being on Broadway, on television shows or become successful musicians. When I started at this school, I learned hand percussion and every percussion instruments that you hit with your bare hands, e.g. congas and bongos. I started playing a lot of salsa music and learning Afro Cuban and Brazilian percussion. At that time, I was around the age of 16. And then, I got accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston, which is famous for Jazz.
I did my undergrad studies there and moved to Boston for four years, before I got back to Los Angeles and started touring. I always thought, if my music career wouldn´t work out as I hoped for, my plan B was to build a career in something that would still be music related. If I can get at least a master’s degree, possibly down the line, a PhD, I could at least teach on a college level. I specifically chose California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA, for that, so I could be in Los Angeles, where most of the touring and recording happened.
In the meantime, I could give myself two years to live off of scholarship money, and try to gig and make as many connections as possible. I could see if I can get a tour and recording sessions on a large scale. If nothing happened at the end of those two years, at the very least, I would have finished with a master’s degree and could start applying for teaching jobs at a university somewhere. But I got lucky and booked my first tour in the first two weeks – and actually had to defer grad school.
So, in the beginning, I lived off of the scholarship money that the school gave me initially. This way I was able to pay at least for some of my living expenses. I eventually had to pay those loans back later, but that’s what kind of floated me, while I made the jump and got my head start with tours. In the music industry, you go out for a stretch of time, and you make a chunk of money, and then you live off of that chunk of money until the next gig. It’s very similar to people who work in television, where you sell a script or you get a TV show and then you don’t know when you will book the next gig. You have to be very good with money and time management.
I’ve always had music related gigs. If wasn´t on tour and playing gigs in town, I had students and would be teaching drum lessons. I felt very lucky that I didn´t have to get a day job that had nothing to do with music until this day. But I always kind of hustled with different things throughout my whole career post college. Even during college, when I was back in Boston, I would play African percussion for the dance classes at Boston University. And then I would gig around town, or get a call to play in a wedding band. I also taught private lessons.
My idea was, I may as well move to Los Angeles. At the very worst, I could be doing what I’m doing in Boston, which is teaching lessons and playing top 40 gigs, wedding gigs or something like that. I just had to make sure to pay my rent. As to at the very worst, I could be doing that in Los Angeles instead of Boston. But my ceiling of opportunity would be so much higher in LA. And then it’s just about networking and seeing the different perspectives of how I could approach the industry. Booking a tour or working for record label weren´t the only options, I could have also booked a film and TV gig. They also had to have some kind of music in their productions.
Getting the foot in the door for those gigs, was all about connecting with other bands and musicians. When you’re a drummer, or in my case a percussionist, you have to sync together with a vocal artist and a guitar player. It’s never just about you. It is definitely all about connections. I’m very glad that I went to Berklee College of Music, just because I’ve met so many amazing musicians – and Berklee has a very high success rate of very successful professional musicians. Whether they ended up becoming producers or engineers, or becoming front people or musicians that get to backup very famous artists.
I had friends in college, the ones that graduated before me, who had already started their careers. One of them is a great drummer. We started at Berklee at the same time, but he was such a great drummer, that he left about halfway through and ended up becoming Janet Jackson’s drummer. He did Janet’s “Velvet Rope” World Tour. And when I moved back to Los Angeles, he was one of my first calls. He never lived in LA, but I told him, if he would ever be in LA, to keep me in mind and let me know if he thinks of any people I should meet or attend any auditions. He called me back on the next day and told me, that he actually was currently in Los Angeles in rehearsals for an R&B artist that was produced by Quincy Jones. And actually, they were looking for a percussionist. He ended up inviting me to come down to the rehearsals and jam with the band, meet all the guys and hang out for the day. And that’s how I got the gig. I didn’t audition necessarily against any other percussionist. I just got invited by somebody to rehearsals and jammed with the band, and I filled a need even before they advertised the need. I was nervous, yes, but at the end of the day, what mattered the most, was me connecting musically with my surroundings. It´s definitely the old adage of practice and forgetting everything when you in the moment. Just be in the moment and trust yourself that you´re prepared enough and are deserving of this moment. It’s very zen.
Whitney Houston was my very first big world tour. I’d never been to Europe before and it was a brand-new band, for the most part. We were all younger guys in our mid to late 20s. And Whitney was amazing. She took her time with us as far as learning the music and just hanging out, especially once we got somewhere, where less press was hounding her everywhere in every city. She would just sit with us at the hotel bar, playing cards and then her four dancers would come down with a boom box and play music. It was so fun. Sometimes she would get tapes of the show from the night before and we just watched the show and kind of critiqued what we could do better and things like that. She was great, she was really cool.
As far as memories on stage with her, I remember this big outdoor concert. It was beautiful. I remember she would sing “I will always love you” and started the song by herself. I was directly behind her, just seeing her silhouette, and the whole audience was full of lighters all the way back. I knew that I didn’t have to play anything for the first almost one minute of the song, so I just sat there and took it in for a minute. This was, what I dreamt off when I was sitting in the little practice room in college. It was kind of an aha moment for me and extremely motivational. Nowadays, I still get sometimes those emotional moments on stage, usually, when we’re playing some kind of a ballad. Currently I´m on tour with LeAnn Rimes and it happens at almost every concert. I can see the entire audience and people are just crying while she’s singing. Even though we are playing the songs night after night, you feel that these moments mean so much to the people. For a lot of them, this is their first concert since COVID and the first time going out and hear live music again.
After all these years, I still have a couple of names on my bucket list of collaborations. I would love to work with Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel someday. I had one jazz artist on my list for a long time, Herbie Hancock, and I finally did get the chance to perform with him a few years ago in Russia for the big International Jazz Day. And then there was John Meyer, which I ended up working with him as well. At some point, especially when I started getting on a roll, I was like “Oh, maybe I will get a chance to play with these people”, but I also got more aligned with the fact, that I might not be able to fulfill that goal. And I´m fine with it. You can’t get everything you want, but I´m of course still doing the best I can to get at least some of it.
Credit: Taku Hirano
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