Monday, August 21, 2006

Drumming and Martial Arts

Sound has always been held sacred. The bible says that in the beginning was the word, the eminance of creation. The Hindus believe “OM” to be that primal sound of the universe. Starting in the late 1950’s, Dr. Hans Jenny conducted a series of experiments that became the science of cymatics. Using an oscillator, resonator plate and materials such as sand or metal filings, he demonstrated how various frequencies would vibrate the materials into semblances of organic forms, sometimes even creating pulsating three-dimensional figures.

The implication is that life follows vibrational patterns of resonance, and is responsive to the sound waves of the environment. We know that music can affect the emotions, from elevating the spirit to creating sadness. Exposure to loud or chaotic sound can weaken the body and lower resistance of the immune system. Amplified music is used to break prisoners’ wills, and by the military to psychologically assault fortified positions. New experiments are being done with focused sound waves as weapons, much as the laser uses focused, amplified light.

Shamanic traditions from around the world have used drumming to alter states of consciousness, drawing inspiration from natural sources such as thunder, water or wind. The feeling of a rhythmic beat can affect our physiology from trance-like states to exhilleration and action. Studies on the effects of drumming and changing have led to what are now known as binary beats. This refers to a subtle vibration between two frequencies that are close together, usually about 10hz. apart. These align the left and right hemispheres of the brain to duplicate meditative states at different levels of consciousness, ranging from alpha brain waves down to theta.

Martial arts and sound have an association that go back to earliest times. From the war cry to drumming, sound has been a way to focus energy of the mind and body as one. Drumming has a particular resonance that carries across distance and vibrates the body, with the unique ability to connect many as one. The source of the sound can be secondary, such as the cadence of feet marching in unison, or as portentious as the thunder of galloping hoofbeats. More deliberately, drums have been used to unify the will and fortify the courage of one’s own troops while intimidating the enemy with implied power.

On a specific level, drumming is about timing and focus, which should be of interest to martial artists. Because it involves striking, it has implications that go beyond that of any other instrument except the breath. I learned long ago not to slap box with conga players, whose hands are trained to strike endlessly with focus and power.

A friend related a story to me many years ago about something he witnessed at a classical Indian music concert. The legendary tabla master Allarakha Khan was annoyed by a microphone stand too close to his drums. Without missing a beat he tapped it back, but the focus of the hit was so precise that the metal stand snapped in half rather than pushing away. This is a feat that any iron palm master would do well to replicate.

The great Japanese swordsman Musashi was also a renowned painter. He claimed the sword gave his brush a bold stroke, while the brush gave him control to the tip of his weapon. For those of us who train with weapons, learning to play a drum kit would be a similar logical extension of our martial art. One learns to hit endlessly with relaxed power, and controlling the small tip of a drumstick can only enhance accuracy with larger weaponry.

Furthermore, it is aerobic exercise. Drumming involves the whole body, training hands and feet to move in precise relationship, and like martial arts, basic stepping with the feet supports hands that move quickly in multiple directions to accurately strike targets for specific intended effects.

Like martial arts, the essence of drumming is flow. At first there is a learning curve as one discovers the many simple details that must be mastered. Once the unconscious mind overcomes inhibitions and can handle those functions autonomically, then one can begin to think creatively, using those skills as tools for self-expression. Once again, a punch becomes just a punch.

I believe it was Goju master Cat Yamaguchi who said he wouldn’t teach a student who couldn’t dance, because the inner sense of rhythm is so important. Some martial arts practice to drumming or other instruments. In Capoeira, for instance, the music determines the rhythm of the fight, and the Capoerista learns to sit behind the drum as well as dance in front of it.

Of course one needn’t invest in a drum set to begin drumming. Tables, chairs, even one’s own body can provide resonance and resistance, all one really needs. Ordinary objects have been used as instruments around the world, from the clapping and table drumming of flamenco to spoons and washboards of early American music.

Meanwhile, listen to the sounds of the world around you, the source of much musical inspiration from tribal whistles to modern jazz. Hear the rhythms in martial arts, from breathing to footsteps, blocks and strikes, even the rustling of clothes and the sounds of spectators or other players. As martial artists we develop sensitivity to our environment through sensory perception. We learn to see and to feel, but how many of us learn to listen? Drumming can be a doorway to that world.