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.


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