As a requirement for my upcoming Aikido nidan (2nd degree black belt) test, I have been asked to write an essay. I have written about music and aikido previously but this exercise gave me a chance to look a bit deeper at how the two arts of music and Aikido have crossed paths and have informed me of the value, joy and beauty of each. My essay follows here:
Growing up with guitar and martial arts
I have been fascinated by the martial arts since I was a small boy. I’m not sure where I got my first glimpse. It must have been a TV show, but I was hooked from a very young age. My grandfather took me to a karate tournament when I was 5 or 6 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, CA. I remember very nervously walking up to a black belt and asking for his autograph. He signed my program and I thought that I had died and gone to heaven. I remember coming home and putting my bathrobe on, pretending it was a keikogi and wrapping around my mother’s scarf around me pretending it was an obi, and getting into the all familiar Elvis Presley stance with my two hands out ready to karate chop my imaginary opponents.
I begged my parents to enroll me in a martial arts program. They didn’t want me to do karate because they thought it was too rough. My mom found two programs through my elementary school’s summer program: Judo and folk guitar. She struck a deal with me. “Mark, if you want to do martial arts, then you have to do something artistic.” I didn’t want to do guitar. It felt weird and girly and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But I really wanted to do Judo, it wasn’t Karate, but it was at least something, so I took her up on it. So, two days a week, I would roll around on the mat, and two days a week I would take my Sears & Roebuck Silvertone guitar and learn songs like “Feeling Groovy”, “Today While the Blossoms”, and “Where have all the Flowers Gone”. I found that I was actually pretty good at guitar, much better than judo and that summer I’d strum away to my hearts content.
As a kid, my interest waned quickly from both music and martial arts. But through these two things that came together in the summer of 1969, both music and martial arts have intertwined throughout my life. Some times these passions would fall away. I would get distracted, want to do something different, learn something new, or just simply not want to practice. I only practiced Judo for the summer. I got reintroduced to the martial arts when some of the Asian kids on my street started practicing and sparring in their back yards. Bruce Lee had heavily influenced us around this time. They would invite me over, most likely because they were older and I was an easy target, and we would spar in the back yards. They started practicing Danzan Ryu Ju Jitsu and started bringing me to class. Class was held on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings. I would stay there for 3 years practicing the kodenkan curriculum.
Our sensei, Professor James Musselman, would talk about weird things… about something called “key” or “Ki”… How there was some kind of life force or something. I didn’t quite know what he was talking about. I just wanted to learn technique. It was weird and uncomfortable to talk about this. I didn’t understand it. It sounded like fantasy and fairy tales. It was something similar to that new movie at the time, Star Wars was talking about. Only in Star Wars they talked about something called the Force. One of my friend’s dad practiced Aikido at Aikido West under Sensei Frank Doran. This was my first introduction to Aikido. I would talk to him sometimes and we would compare notes. If Ju Jitsu was hard to understand for me then Aikido at this time was incomprehensible. He would show me kokyu ho techniques and I would instantly think, “this stuff doesn’t work”.
Around this same time, the rock band KISS had come into view, I wanted to play rock music now and started playing the electric guitar. Some of the same kids that I would practice martial arts with would also teach me some chords and songs. My mother bought me my first guitar and amplifier and found me a guitar teacher. At some point, because my school grades were suffering, I needed to make a decision whether I wanted to play music or continue with Ju Jitsu. I chose music. There was a long period of time that I didn’t think about ki. I thought that this was silly anyway. At one point, I rebelled against the family norm and converted from Catholicism to a Southern Baptist church. Then, there was no way that any notion of spirituality that was not fundamentalist Christian thought was valid. Certainly notions of some star warsy hocus-pocus was not.
There was a time after this that I threw it all away. I was not interested in martial arts, and not interested in playing guitar. At this part of my life, I decided that I didn’t believe in God, or even angry at God. Sadly, for a multitude of reasons, I was just simply angry. I got busy with life, barely graduated from high school, took a few semesters of college and dropped out. I found a job at a restaurant and thought that this was a good place for me to hang out. I did that for a few years. I decided a couple years into my job at the restaurant to go back to school. I took 2 or 3 classes at the local junior college and then transferred to San Francisco State University to pursue a degree in political science. It was here that I started training Aikido, not because of the philosophy, not because of any misguided notion of that stuff people called “ki” but because I saw the ass kicking capabilities demonstrated in the movie “Above The Law”.
Steven Seagal to the rescue
Back in the days when video stores existed, a friend of mine and I were perusing the shelves looking for something to watch on a Friday night. We found the movie “Above the Law” and brought it home. We watched it. The acting wasn’t great but we were both fascinated by Steven Seagal’s fight scenes. We couldn’t figure out what he was doing with some of his techniques. The technique that we were most puzzled and amazed with was irimi nage. He would do it so quickly and yet we didn’t understand how people were dropping. It didn’t look like he hit his opponents. He did something, maybe some kind of “clothes line” move but that didn’t seem right either. On the back of the VCR box it described Steven Seagal as a 7th degree black belt in Aikido. I would rent the movie several more times and fast forward to the fight scenes. As luck would have it, I found an Aikido class taught at San Francisco State. I enrolled and quickly found that what I witnessed on a Hollywood produced movie was drastically different than how Aikido was taught at a state college. Nevertheless I was intrigued and had the sense to stay and finish out the semester. I liked it. It reminded me in some ways of my Ju Jitsu training. Our teacher, Cress Forester, would talk about ki. Now it didn’t seem so foreign. It didn’t seem to sit in the realm of fantasy and Star Wars but started to make sense.
I came to learn that the “ki” part of Aikido was the same thing that I had learned about in my youth. Ki: energy. But more than just energy. Life energy. Something that all things share. I started to think about this a bit more. She would be able to demonstrate the practical applications of Aiki, harmonizing movement with your opponent. She would talk about O Sensei and his transformation, first into a fierce fighter, and then the moment that O Sensei had his experience in his garden, when he transformed again through the realization of the true Aiki spirit: That Aiki and true budo is based on love, not conquering others. She repeated the story of the late Terry Dobson, and how, eager to prove his martial arts prowess, was humbled by an old man on a train, who overcame violence and belligerence with loving kindness. At an earlier time in my life, I would have run screaming. But for whatever reason, and in spite of my preconceived notion about the art, I did not. I stayed and listened. I visited other dojos. I joined Aikido West for a time while I still lived on the San Francisco bay area peninsula. I moved to San Francisco and trained with Steve Gengo Sensei at Noe Valley Aikido. Something happened. My heart softened. Aikido teachers would talk about O Sensei’s notions of masugatsu agatsu katsuhayabi, that the only victory is true victory, right here and right now. These were seeds of the art that were planted in my mind.
From Discomfort to…
Still, I was inconsistent, both in my guitar playing and my martial arts. Life got busy. I would find excuse not to practice. I would walk away from the art, come back, walk away, and come back. I moved to the North Bay. I started attending classes at Aikido of Petaluma under Sensei Bob Noha. Sensei Noha has a very unique approach to Aikido, much of which consists of describing our aikido experience in words. I was uncomfortable about this. I felt ashamed, embarrassed about answering questions posed by sensei in class. I wanted to sound smart and intelligent and had a deep seeded fear that I would sound exactly the opposite: I would sound dumb and uninteresting in my answers. But there was something that was different about the way that Sensei conducted class. There was no judgment from others or him when I would speak. He spoke simply yet touched many esoteric concepts: Concepts of spirituality, of cosmology, of self-development. He talked about the “I” and the “functional unit”. He has an amazing way of tying this into Aikido technique, and of demonstrating the hugeness and vastness of the art. He showed us how we can tap into the greatness of ourselves. Mostly, he showed us how Aikido is not a series of techniques but a way that we can tap into that greatness, today and every day.
Music and Aiki
It took me a long time, almost my whole life to understand the parallels between my music and Aikido. At my vantage point now, almost 50 years after I first picked up the guitar and first rolled around on the judo mat, I can see now how my music informs my Aikido, and Aikido informs my music. As O Sensei said, “Fighting and farming are the same”, I would venture to say that my music and aikido are the same. They are both vehicles that allow me to strive for excellence, they both give me what I put into them, and they are both how I can more deeply divulge the “I” behind all of the different costumes I wear, through artistic interpretation and expression.
This is what I see now
In some ways, Aikido practice is no different than music practice. Both share many of the same principles. I am blessed that each informs the other as well as they do. I can now see clearly how both arts have allowed me to develop, and how each discipline shares the same principles.
In both Aikido and music we have to take time to learn. Some of this means doing certain movements over and over again. We have to have a clear understanding of movement. For Aikido we need to understand correct posture, foot placement, distance between our partners and coordination between our arms, hands and feet. Playing guitar, we need to have a firm grasp of chords and scales. Both arts require me to drill, moving through repetitions of techniques, repetitions of chord progressions, repetitions of scales. Both arts allow me to develop a sense of rhythm, timing, and sharpen my coordination as I practice.
In Aikido we move to connect with our partner and blend with the gifts of energy our partners give us in a sincere attack. We take this motion and move with it, and claim our partner’s movement as our own. We find that place where we can perform a technique that is efficient, flowing and filled with love. As musicians we connect with our instrument and other musicians in the same way. We receive the gift of music and melody given to us by our accompanists, and work with love and devotion with our own musical contribution to make something greater than the sum of our parts.
Aikido training requires us to move slowly until we know technique and can move fluidly. We cannot move fast before we know how to move slowly. Likewise, if we practice our music too fast, we find ways to gloss over mistakes and 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. If we try to substitute speed with the innate knowledge and muscle memory we gain from learning our fundamentals, we will miss some beautiful experiences either in our music or on the aikido mat.
In Aikido we must train without ego. We must take an active role both as uke and nage. Taking ukemi from our partner teaches us balance, perseverance, and gives us insight into techniques that we normally wouldn’t gain if all we did was perform technique. It gives us a chance to train and share in the joy of our partners being able to perform technique and improve. We learn what it means to humbly allow our partners to shine. So too, in music, we learn to step in and out of the spotlight. As a soloist, we learn to share our talents with those who will listen and play to serve the music, not ourselves. When our solo is over, we step back and support our fellow musicians, giving them the opportunity to shine themselves. We share in the joy that our combined efforts bring in the music that we play.
What I learn most on both the mat and the fretboard is that both arts offer the challenge and show the beauty of navigating through transitions. Music is a set of vibrations, tones, rhythms, timbres that come together for a certain amount of time. There are some magical moments in music and there are tedious ones. Some progressions from one chord to another or one note to another are sometimes easy and sometimes very difficult. Notes are played, heard, and the moment passes. That note will never be played exactly as I played it for that moment. Aikido will always provide uniqueness as well. We will never throw our partners the same way. Beautiful moments will come and go on the Aikido mat. We will have good experiences and bad experiences and those moments pass. Ultimately both arts reveal to me the small and larger metaphors of my life. My life is a series of transitions and experiences of joy, sadness, love, loss, anger, sorrow, and elation, made that more apparent and wondrous through the practice of music and Aikido.