What’s your musical kung fu? 7 lessons for musicians from the martial arts

It is said that when two martial artists of different traditions fight, the winner does not prove the superiority of his martial art, but merely the superiority of his own kung fu, or fighting ability.

Similarly, when you are on stage, the audience doesn’t care what degrees you have, who you studied with, how many hours you practice a day, or even how good your chops are. Your audience wants to be moved. They want to feel a connection with you and with the music you are presenting. How well you do reflects your ‘musical kung fu’ – your ability to perform and convey the music behind the notes.

The tai chi stance called "Play the Pipa," also known as "Play the lute" or  "play guitar"

‘Play the Pipa’

Gao Hong playing the pipa

Playing the Pipa

As it turns out, we musicians have much in common with martial artists. My own vocal and instrumental technique is full of lessons I learned in my years studying tai chi, not to mention the lessons I’ve learned from the Feldenkrais Method. And did you know Moshe Feldenkrais was a Judo master? In fact, much of the method is based on Judo.

Here are just a few concepts martial artists and musicians have in common, as well as some lessons certain martial arts have to teach musicians:

1. Execution transcends technique (the ‘kung fu’ principle)

You’re doing something highly physical and highly refined; you’ve spent hundreds if not thousands of hours rehearsing specific movements, planned and refined to the last subtle detail, which you then execute in a short “moment of truth” requiring not only perfect execution, but creativity and adaptability.

2. Practice slow, execute fast.

Those old people practicing slow-motion tai chi in the park are, in fact, practicing a real martial art that can be executed very quickly when necessary.  Every musician knows that the only way to execute a fast or complex musical passage is to practice it slowly first. The challenge is how to translate the slow version of the passage into the fast one, and I’ll save that for a different blog post.

3. Follow the logic of human form to achieve seemingly inhuman results

Martial arts are famous for elegant movements based on deep understanding of anatomy, as well as seemingly inhuman feats of power and dexterity. It was a great insight for me when I realized that my instrument simply isn’t ergonomic, and I shouldn’t expect it to be. Instead, my job was to develop the skill to play it as if it was.

4. Power comes from the earth, is carried through the skeleton, and is merely directed by the muscles.

My tai chi teachers used to say that one should seek to align one’s bones so that when one’s hand makes contact with an opponent, the opponent should feel as if they were hit by the floor. No matter the circuitous route, from the hand to foot, the force should travel from bone to bone to bone, without relying on the power of muscles. This is how small elderly tai chi masters throw people effortlessly across the room.*

*I’ll always remember watching a petite friend of mine throwing large men around in Aikido practice. Another important principle at play there was the power of circular movement, but we won’t get into that here.

5. Knowing your physical center and being mentally centered come hand in hand

It’s really true that if you cultivate a sense of your physical and mental center so you will be able keep calm and grounded under performance pressure.

6. There is power in skillful breath

 Nowhere is the power of breath more evident in a well-executedkiai.”  Singers and wind players know all about “breath support,” but a deeper study of breath and how it interacts with the rest of movement will reveal that it’s just as important for instrumentalists.

7. Cultivate a soft focus to become aware simultaneously of the littlest details and the big picture.

The martial artist needs to be aware of the slightest movement of their own body, as well as the movements of opponents caught out of the corner of the eye. The musician needs to be in control of the shape of a single note within the context of the harmony and the phrase.

Less obvious is the fact that musicians need to attend to their environment every bit as much as fighters do. Not only do you need to catch the cue of a conductor or a colleague out of the corner of your eye, but the sense of awareness of yourself in space will reduce the hyper-focused, fight-or-flight intensity that leads to excess tension and gets in the way of musical expression.

I could go on and on: Practice, practice, practice, so you won’t have to think about the details when the chips are down; the intention leads the action;  Less is More…

Maybe I’ll finish the list sometime, but for now, if you have anything to add, please share it in the comments!

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