The “do” of music and the music of Karate – Part 2: Rhythm of the Spirit

musical enso?

In my first post The “do” of music and the music of Karate – Part 1: Being and becoming an artist , I focussed on the internal process commonalities in my Karate and music practice. In this second post, I plan to focus mostly on the external and more practical similarities between music and martial arts.

As I mentioned in my first post, I have been involved in music for nearly my whole life but only started Karate (as a complete newbie) less than 2 years ago. I am not sure if it was my music back ground or the fact that many of the people I trained with or who were / are my instructors also had music backgrounds and could effectively incorporate musical analogies and teaching strategies, but I fairly quickly noticed that learning Karate is quite a lot like learning music.


1. Practice

What seems insurmountable at the start is always possible with time, effort, and practice. I remember seeing some pretty tough choral / vocal scores and instrumental works in my time, and thinking: “Whoah…..I am never going to nail this! It is completely beyond me.” Whilst at the time when I first clapped eyes on the piece, that probably felt true, by the time I had chipped away on it for a while, I would be thinking: “OK…..well this is getting easier now.”, and then wanting to work on it even more. And of course working on it more meant it got even easier, and eventually I would realise that it was totally achievable.

Learning a new kata is completely like that for me. Kata (full stop) used to scare me, quite frankly. I got over that with some pretty serious self – inflicted exposure therapy and an excellent instructor. A couple of months ago though, I was taught and have since had to learn a kata several kyu ranks above where I am now* (in addition to learning the ones I need for my upcoming grading). When I first watched it performed by our Sempai and our Sensei, I will admit I was pretty scared, and thought “How am I ever going to be able to do this, let alone in a couple of months?”. Yes. I was scared, but also pretty determined, since we were learning it together and I didn’t want to be the one to let the team down. I saw a clip of us doing the kata together last week and I was amazed and also very moved. There we all were, in sync and looking pretty slick about it. What an achievement! Sure I still need to work on it and understand it a lot better, but the pattern,the rhythm, the timing, and most importantly, the spirit, were all there, which far exceeded what I expected to achieve in that time span.

Basically, in both music and karate, you get out of it what you put in. If you don’t practise between classes / rehearsals, you are unlikely to improve. Practise is a continuous cycle with the (unachievable) aim of perfection, however, a good starting point I have found, both in music and in karate is to practise something until you can’t get it wrong, rather than to practise something until you can get it right. OK, so you may have to practise until you get it right as the first step…..just don’t stop there expecting it to be anywhere near good enough!

2. Ensemble

Practising by yourself and doing solo performance is all well and good but it can get a bit lonely, and you need to be very self motivated and disciplined to do it in the absence of any other training / playing. Practising with others and working together to achieve a common goal is a fantastic way to build spirit and feel like part of a team. There are many aspects to team work that make this happen. One of them is that a team (or ensemble) is often made up of people with different levels of experience (in music or karate) but also different life experiences that can be brought to the table. Everyone can benefit from this in terms of learning and teaching. If you are newbie (like I am in Karate) hanging out with the old hats makes you reach for the high bar they set, and besides they are generally happy to help you out when you get stuck. If you are an old hat (like I am in music) you can help others by leading by example and helping the newbies when they need direction, because everyone remembers what it was like to be that new kid, don’t they? I know I do! The life experience part is more complicated to explain but it gives a family atmosphere to an ensemble or dojo and it adds to the general atmosphere.

3. Feeling the rhythm of the beat!

Timing is of the essence in both music and karate. In music ensemble work and team kata this is essential. You don’t want any “unintentional” solo parts! Singing in a rest is as much a mistake (and a highly more notable one) than leaving a note out. You also need to be able to listen to others and feel the essence of the music you are making together. Your part may be the one you know best, but it isn’t necessarily the most important one the whole time! In solo performance rhythm and feeling is very important; you would look pretty bad if you just sang what you felt like rather than what the composer intended. In team kata or even practising kata as a dojo, you need to know the agreed rhythm and timing and you need to be able to lead as well as follow in much the same way as singing / playing as an ensemble without a conductor.

In kumite or in self defence timing and sensing / pre-empting your opponent is paramount. Timing could mean the difference between successfully connecting your strike with your opponent or an opponents strike connecting with your head. (Hit and run or be hit and not be able to run, need I say more).

I find it useful in music to mark in my beats in my score and clap or count out tricky rhythms when I am learning them. Learning the rhythm of kata and combinations with instructors who counted through or even gave me the rhythm of combinations (in such a way that I could notate it later in standard musical notation in my karate notebook) has been really useful.

4.  Passion / love, drive, dedication / commitment and owning what you do is what matters.

Music and Karate both require considerable time, physical and cognitive investment. You need to love what you do to keep going. Am I the worlds greatest musician? No. Does my music give people (including me) pleasure? Yes. Will I ever be a world kata champion? Not impossible, but improbable…..and ultimately not important. Does Karate make me a stronger, more confident and more thoughtful individual? I believe so.

You can’t be the best at everything, but you can be your best. And that folks, is why I am still in the game(s).

PS: *I wrote this post many weeks ago (not long after part 1) but held off posting. This was due to the fact that the kata I mentioned learning with the dojo (Surinja) was being learned to video and send to Hanshi (our Sensei’s Sensei) in USA, in honour of his promotion to 10th Dan on 21st November 2015, and I didn’t want to spoil the surprise. Congratulations Hanshi!

More locally, I watched my Sempai grade to 2nd Kyu and another training buddy from a sister dojo grade to 4th Kyu on the same day (very auspicious!) and Surinja kata is one of the grading requirements for our second kyu. Ganbatte ne, to both Sempai and my training buddy. We are all very proud of you. 🙂


2 thoughts on “The “do” of music and the music of Karate – Part 2: Rhythm of the Spirit

  1. Pingback: It was a very good year. | A work in progress

  2. Wow – you’ve got a beautiful analogy going here, and one that I can relate to as I’ve dabbled in music myself. I like your idea of musical notation for kata – the closest I’ve come is counting my heartbeats for pauses and for slow techniques.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s