Music and the Martial Arts Harmony and Improvisation

Posted by shadow4dragon on August 30, 2009 

One of my students who happens to be a musician handed me a new topic for an article this weekend. We were discussing how martial forms change as the Tai Chi Player develops and grows and we started relating it to music. While we were specifically discussing Tai Chi the examples could be applied to all martial arts.


Solo Form training: Form training is simply learning the instrument, or in the Martial Arts your body, and continues throughout your practice. Everything comes back to this again and again. Any musician I know that does anything professionally or even publicly takes the time to touch base with their instrument on a daily basis and to be a good martial artist you need to do the same.

It may be the as simple as going through the basic touchstone form of your art. For those practicing Long Form Yang Style Tai Chi, getting the first set in each day, is perhaps the most important thing to do.  Even if it is only once through, it is enough to keep the mind and body connecting.  This is actually the basis of the class that I teach for Penn State Strength and Fitness. The Wellness/Fitness Tai Chi class we do there is designed to provide in a semester enough knowledge of Tai Chi to allow a person to continue to practice on their own for their own benefit.  Think of the hobbyist guitarist, their only interest is the enjoyment, its for that purpose alone that they practice, and they are happy with a few cords.  Many cardio kickboxing classes or Tai Chi short form would also fall here with no real interest in making it a focal point of your life just a fun distraction.

The next stage up would be what I do at the Chinese Martial Arts Group where we extend the forms add more Qi Gong and exercises, this is preparing the Tai Chi player for the next step working with others. Think of the community or professional musician who wants to perfect their music so that it can be shared with others.

Two Person Forms: In Tai Chi we have a huge number of two person practices that are used to take students to the next stage. This is the first chance to “play with the band” and see how you work together. Most of these exercises are cooperative.  You are learning to take all the skills you learned on your own and applying them in unison with another person. Any fixed form technique training falls into this category, as long as it is choreographed it is still a form.

Free form Training: Free form training is the final stage of any martial arts and when relating this to music imagine improvisation in Jazz or playing in an orchestra. Even though it is sparring, sport martial arts have a fixed set of rules, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, even Mixed Martial Arts. Just like orchestra music you only have so far from the standards before it is no longer considered proper, and this is usually to avoid serious injury.  The focus of the Instructor will determine how and what you do in the next stage some schools are better than others at real defense training but all usually include some.

Self Defense Training: This is true free form, and as I mentioned before very similar Jazz improvisation in Tai Chi where you are working around what everyone else is playing. The trick with a good improvisational martial arts is following and guiding the opponent or opponents without breaking the rhythm of the music, and is the mark of an expert martial artist. Most styles have that one guy who took on three, four, or even ten guys and proved himself by doing it without getting seriously hurt or hurting the other guys.  In some ways the internal martial arts Ba Gua styles which originally were built around expert who had already mastered a style, the systems that came out had a focus and “sound” of the original but were like the Philharmonic Orchestra rendition of modern music.

The other side of this coin would be Speed Metal for the Martial Arts, fast, hard, and down. Good examples of this are Krav Maga the Israeli self defense system or the Mindset practiced in primarily by Hsing I Players in the internal arts, which when practiced focuses much more on explosive punching.  In serious self defense situations, when not just your property but your life or the life of another person is this is perhaps the best response.

My Own Little Disclaimer

I would love to receive some comments back on what others out there especially the martial artists feel about this interpretation and comparison. Please voice your opinions, my own training and teaching keeps me very busy within my own styles so differing views are greatly appreciated.  This entry is by  no means complete and I hope to revisit it later.  

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