Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Music, Martial Arts and Performance

All my life I’ve been pulled in two different directions: music and sports. The power of the pull, however, is not that they are different, but that they are so similar. Both require serious commitments of time and effort to master the physical skills.

Musicians have been described as micro-muscle athletes because they have the same kinds of stresses and demands on their body as other athletes, particularly to be able to perform at their peak.

It takes similar focus and dedication to push oneself to increasing levels of competency and then excellence. In both music and sports, it is possible to achieve Zen-like states of consciousness where everything flows from the inner self, and these transcendent moments are where one can achieve greater potential.

Goju grandmaster “Cat” Yamaguchi was known to say that he wouldn’t teach someone who didn’t like music, because martial arts is dance and without appreciation of music one has no rhythm.

Whatever conflict I had was therefore about focusing my resources. It was hard to do both equally and so there has been a pendulum between the two paths. There was a time when music was my main passion, but then the energy shifted towards martial arts. For the past 15 years or so music had been largely neglected, hardly touching my guitar, but about two years ago I came across some old acquaintances who had gotten into flamenco. Drawn by the passionate spirit of this music, I began taking lessons from master guitarist Jason McGuire.

Less than a month ago Jason asked if I was interested in playing a piece in his annual student recital, which is the opening half of one of the regular performances at San Francisco’s ODC Theater by the award-winning troupe Caminos Flamencos, directed by Jason and his wife Yaelisa, a master dancer and choreographer.

At first I freaked out and said no. I’m still very much a beginner in this art. Much like I heard about kung-fu as a kid (and kung-fu refers to skill or accomplishment in anything, not just martial arts), Jason said it takes five years to get the basics, 20 to become really good. I’m at an age that there’s a challenge simply in getting old enough to reach that milestone.

Also, for economic reasons I hadn’t scheduled a lesson since December, nearly four months, plus I'd had my hands injured saving my old dog from asphyxiation back in early February. For these reasons my practice had dropped off of late. If I ever felt incompetent to walk on stage to play music (which I hadn’t done in 25 years) as a solo performer (something I’d never done), this was it.

A day later I called back and said “Yes.”

What I realized during that interval was that I was allowing fear to hold me back. It wasn’t a lack of basic skills that was stopping me, it was confidence in myself. Once I identified that, I accepted that the universe had given me a gift, offering a challenge that could possibly change my life.

The feeling I had was not unlike how I felt when I accepted the invitation to go to the Philippines for the first WEKAF world championship tournament back in 1989. I was nervous, but that was energy that could be used positively as motivation. I also told myself that I had nothing to lose. I didn’t have a name or reputation to defend; this was just about going out and pushing myself to do something new and different, to leave my comfort zone and grow.

This gave me the confidence to put my mind to doing the best I could, and I began cramming as much practice into my schedule as my body would allow. Though I’ve had calloused fingertips for decades, they achieved a level of leathery toughness they hadn’t had since the early 1980’s. I’ve had some arthritis symptoms hindering my progress back into guitar, but playing this much pushed through until my hands felt strong again. I supplemented my practices with chi gung exercises to open and stretch the hands. I mentally rehearsed my piece in my head when I wasn’t practicing, visualizing my performance from arriving at the theater to heading backstage after I was done. I used hypnotherapy tapes to aid in this process.

Then in the middle of all this, personal tragedy struck. I had to put my old dog to sleep. Those of you who have gone through this know the trauma. A pet like that is very much a family member. Like having a child, one is responsible all the time for the care and well-being of this junior member of the household. Losing her felt devastating.

It’s probably a blessing I had something to do, to consume my evenings, demanding my focus. I poured a lot of grief into my playing, and it helped. Even so, I realized I was struggling to stay present in the moment: I burned two fingers while making sticks; I narrowly averted an accident in the kitchen; I got a knuckle popped in a class; I sprained fingers practicing guitar.

My piece had been coming together pretty well before the dog was gone. Afterwards, errors kept creeping into place where I’d never had problems before. The piece (“Gitano de Lucia” by Vicente Amigo) was challenging, but at the level at which I’ve learned it, no single part is technically too difficult. No, this was not a problem of skill, it was one of will. When errors in performance change, it is a mental thing, not physical; it’s the same in martial arts or other sports.

It was like I was working backwards; I’d fix one section, then the part preceding it would fall apart. By the day of the performance I was struggling with the opening, a part that is simple and repetitive, which also means any problem is obvious; no way to hide it because it’s all timing. During late afternoon sound check I was so nervous I fumbled that part badly, but I’d been practicing going through the piece even if I made mistakes, and so I knew that once I got to a certain point I was ok, as long as I kept my attention fully on the music and nothing else.

Finally it was time to go onstage as the first performer of the night. As I was backstage, Jason asked what I was going to think about. Suddenly thinking of Jim Kelly in “Enter the Dragon”, I joked that I was going to think about how good-looking I was. Jason laughed and said he was going to remind me to breathe, to which I replied I’d had that advice, but thinking about breathing made me forget what I was playing. Then I went on stage.

There are things for which you can prepare, and those that are new and unexpected. The “fog of war” came to mind. I knew the audience was there, and had already blocked them from my mind. It helped that the seats were in darkness and the stage well lit, and that I had to pay attention to the instrument I was playing. On the other hand, I wasn’t prepared for the lights being so bright in my eyes, creating glare off the body of the guitar.

The piece started well, but then a few measures into it my right (picking) hand stumbled and the timing started to fall apart. Oh no! This was exactly what I had feared. I could feel the audience tense up as I struggled to regain the tempo. Then I got to the next section, which had also been giving me problems, and got through it ok. At that point I relaxed with the feeling that the rest of the piece was going to be fine.

That’s where all the practice kicked in. My fingers knew what to do automatically, freeing my mind to remind me of key points at critical times. There were some small mistakes in there, but nothing noticeable to anyone not knowing what I’d actually intended. By the middle of the piece I was playing stronger and with more confidence, and by the end I was nearly as good as I could be. I was able to walk off that stage feeling ok about how I’d done. Mission accomplished; I’d gone through a barrier.

Generally what people remember are the beginning and ending of a performance, whether music, kata, whatever. First impression is important, but the ending even more so, because it is the last thing that stays with them. In that sense, my first solo performance was successful. I got some compliments, and people recognized it had been a challenging piece to play. Jason joked he could tell when I remembered I was good looking. As I said earlier, though, the real difficulty wasn’t learning the piece, it was mastering myself.

This is why I talk here about the subtle mental aspects of martial arts, because performance is clearly linked to inner belief. Confidence = Competence. Maybe not all by itself, because one does need the fundamental skills, but even an average performance done with the right attitude can be inspiring.

Towards the end of the night one of the professional guitarists was invited onstage to dance solo. He’s by no means a dancer, has no fancy moves, but he went out and did a slow flamenco pantomime and the audience went crazy with appreciation.

Flamenco has “aire,” the air or attitude one projects. Once again I was reminded that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.

"Learning is taking on...mastery is letting go." -anonymous

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