Aikido and Music

I am both an Aikidoka and a musician.  I’ve been playing guitar since I was 5 or 6.  On the mat, I see a lot of parallels with my musical practice as I do vice versa, with my musical practice informing my Aikido as well.   Quite a while ago  I wrote on Rhythm and Timing.  When I wrote this I talked about how harmony happens in the framework of time and of rhythm.

Some other things, perhaps obvious to many, I thought I’d share:

You cannot play it fast without playing it slow.  Playing a fast run of chord progressions or melodies does not happen without practice.   If we practice too fast, we find ways to gloss over mistakes, but we do not get the true essence of the music we try to express.  We can “fake it” but there will always something a bit blurred in our musical expression, obvious to those who really listen to us.  So to is the fact that we cannot substitute quickness on the mat with a thorough understanding of technique.  If we try to substitute speed with the innate knowledge and muscle memory we gain from learning our fundamentals, we will miss some beautiful experience that comes when we fully blend with our partners and do a technique properly.

Music happens in the moment.  Musicians make mistakes.  The ones that are set apart from the rest can let the mistake go and carry on with the performance, so that the “mistake” seems like it was planned and a part of the piece he was performing.  This happens because a good musician can be present with his music.  He can allow mistakes and not dwell on the ill placed note.  He has to do this because if he were to stop, whatever story he is trying to tell stops as well.  The piece ends.  Our practice on the mat is exactly the same way.  Recently, my girlfriend tested for 3rd kyu.  One of the things her Sensei said to all of the candidates before testing was “if you can’t remember the technique, do Aikido!” So, rather than stopping, looking blankly at Sensei or their testing partners for direction, do a technique, do any technique.  Do not stop the flow.

We must know our fundamentals.  This is similar to learning things slowly first, and this should be obvious to most, but as musicians we need to know our basics before we “step out” as it were.  We have to understand the basics of how to cause tension and resolve in our music, we have to understand the basic building blocks of chords and scales, develop muscle memory and finger dexterity.  So to0, we must do the same in Aikido.   O Sensei developed the concept of “Takemusu”, the spontaneous creation of technique.  We get to this point where we can have spontaneous creation through the understanding of basic concepts over and over again.  This is similar to a good jazz musician taking the rhythm and chord patterns he’s given and improvising over it.  I bet Miles Davis would have been an excellent Aikidoka!

We must train without ego.  No one loves a show boat.  Even Eddie Van Halen, as gifted a guitar player as he is, plays WITH the band.  He serves the music.   I’ve known a few show boats and although they are very gifted technically, they serve themselves only, and it gets to be painfully obvious when you listen to them for more than a song or two.  In Aikido we practice as uke and nage.  Uke, the attacker, provides the attack for nage, who responds with the technique.  When we practice, full participation as uke is a very good way of having an understanding of technique.  It is certainly not the time we use to “check out” while our partner gets to throw… it is not a time where we wait before we have the spotlight again.  It’s our time to be of service to our partner, to understand the technique from the other side of the coin, how it feels to get unbalanced as our partner blends with us and throws us.  We can’t do this if we are full in our ego.

We must train with joy.  Finally, why do we play music?  Why do we practice Aikido?  There may be many reasons but the main reason is for the fully encompassing joy it gives me to do both of these things.  O Sensei told us to practice in a joyful manner.   For me this also means to train sincerely, train respectful of my partners, whether they are old or young, have been on the mat for 40 years or 40 minutes.   As a musician working with less experienced players, I like the ability to give them a bit better of an understanding of our art.  It’s no different on the mat.

These thoughts have been kicking around for a bit now.  I’m glad that I could finally get them out.

On fighting and farming

In “A life in Aikido”, Kisshomaru Ueshiba quotes O Sensei, saying “Fighting and Farming are one.”    O Sensei spent a significant portion of his life farming.  I believe that farming for O Sensei has particular and unique connotations regarding his being grounded with the land that he tilled and the harvest that he reaped.  However, if O Sensei were an accountant, he would have probably said, “Fighting and Accounting are one.”  If he was an administrator, he would have probably said “Fighting and paper shuffling are one.”  The point is, his understanding was that Budo encompasses the totality of our lives.  It does not happen only on the mat or on the battle fields.

After class today, I was having a brief conversation with someone new on the Aikido mat.  He was talking about how he doesn’t have the chance to practice outside of class.   There are, however  many basic exercises we can do off the mat that will strengthen our Aikido skills.  Simple irimi practices, striking practices, tenkan (or two step), basic sword work can all be done off the mat.  When I started Aikido, I was blessed to have teachers that stressed basic exercises, posture, and I’m grateful that the solid foundation I was given as a beginner has aided me throughout my Aikido practice.

Aikido, being primarily a partner practice, can seem a bit difficult to practice off the mat.   In actuality, it is not.  Most of the fighting arts that are based more on strikes and kicks have many different kata forms that one can practice by themselves.   You can also do this in Aikido.  You can still offer your hand for a wrist grab and go through many different techniques, and you can still practice balance, posture, entering and finishing your technique with a strong grounded stance.  As we further our practice, we can incorporate the jo and bokken into our off mat training.  There is more though.

To get the most out of Aikido, we can practice the same awareness off the mat as on.  When we practice presence on the mat to keep us safe from attacks from our partner, we can practice presence off the mat when we talk to our family or our coworkers.  We can practice our daily tasks at work or at home, our projects around the house or our other activities as mindfully and as sincerely as we practice our techniques on the mat.   When we speak to others we can speak sincerely and earnestly as we offer our sincere and earnest attacks and strikes to our partners on the mat.

This does not mean that we stand in a martial stance at a bus stop, practice our kokyu or rowing practices when in line at the deli, or start every meeting or dinner time conversation with a kiai.  People would think that we are freaks.   I believe that it means the exact opposite.  Aikido is based on natural movement.  I am inspired when I watch my Sensei demonstrate techniques.  When he moves on the mat, he moves naturally.   When he moves off the mat, he moves naturally.  When he engages his uke he does so with presence and thoughtfulness.  When he engages people at a table in a restaurant he engages people the same way.   His Aikido training allows him to have the same presence in all walks of life, not just on the mat.  This stems from sincere and earnest practice and a “train to live” perspective.  And because Aikido is based on natural movement, if we can walk we can practice Aikido.  We only have to be present, sincere and earnest.