Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Musical Practice: Should You Practice for Speed?

Someone commented recently on a news group that they had to practice a long time to be able to play a tune "at speed."

The vast majority of people who play a musical instrument do it only for enjoyment. I certainly hope that  the few who make a living as musicians also play for enjoyment!  The idea that we have to play things "at speed" can be pretty soul crushing - it can destroy the joy of playing. I'm dead serious. I myself focus on playing "in time" - but rarely "at speed."

First reason is: It's bad for your brain.
If your goal is to play "at speed," then every time you're playing, you have a running internal dialogue: "This isn't fast enough this isn't fast enough, boy it will be a long time before I get this to speed probably about 5 days after I'm sick of the tune haha how am I ever going to get to those other tunes if I can't play this one fast enough" and on and on. Thinking bad things about yourself, and wishing you were doing something else, is not a great mental state to be in while you're practicing. Plenty of studies have shown that people do better on tests when they think better of themselves. I don't think they've tested musicianship in the same way, but it's pretty obvious what the results would be.

Second reason: What is 'at speed' anyway?
"Dance" speed? The speed on somebody's CD or the youtube video you got the tune from? A little arbitrary marking on the sheet music? Who cares? The tune is the tune, and it can sound good at many speeds. There are a few times you need to play at a certain speed or the same speed as everybody else: when you're in a band/orchestra, or when you're playing for a dance. But I play for dances and in bands, and I have to say that I rarely, if ever aim, for a particular speed when I'm learning and practicing. I aim for quality, musicality, and enjoyment. Speed comes absolutely last and then only if absolutely necessary.

Third Reason: (most important one) Slow Practice Works
Slow practice gives you the ability to find the notes with your fingers reliably and comfortably. Then, if you keep practicing slowly, you can focus on listening to what you play, so that it sounds good! Too often people play their instruments like typewriters: "If I got the notes in the right order, I made music!" - There is so much more depth to be gotten from any instrument!

Even if you're preparing for a performance, you're going to spend at least 100 times as many hours practicing as performing. Why not spend that time playing beautifully, rather than spend it trying to jack up the metronome and feeling bad about all the mistakes? The paradox is that once you get to the point in your playing that you are focused on the sound, not the fingers, speed comes by itself. You may never get to the breakneck speeds of players you revere. (So what). But all boats are lifted in a rising tide: learn lots of tunes slow, and well, and your overall ability to play faster will improve.

An example: 
I've been learning a one-row button accordion for about 3 years. I've mostly been learning from recordings from one of my favorite jam sessions. I keep notes on my progress. I learn a tune until I can play it in time. With some mistakes, but none that make me slow down or stop. (How do I know? I always play with a metronome or play along with an audio recording that I loop using Amazing Slowdowner). Then I try to push the speed, maybe, 10%. Usually that's pretty easy. Then if that was easy (as they say in Yoga class...) I push it a bit more. Til I start to feel, "no, this isn't gonna happen." - then I go back to the speed that was comfortable, (important!) play it at that speed a few times, and then move on to another tune. That process takes 2 days to a week, depending on the tune. And so after a year, I have (with vacations and practice lapses) as many as 50 new tunes! And I feel good about them all! (OK so it's actually not that many, there were a few more practice lapses, but who's counting?). Looking at my notes and in my first year of playing, I never got past 60% of the jam session speed on any tune. Half the time I never got above 40%. And now in my third year, I often get to 90%. I never tried to come up to that speed - it just happened. And I probably would have just frustrated myself if I tried before my overall playing was there.

"But what about..." 
"But I have to because..." "But this doesn't apply to me..." "But I"m particularly slow..." "But you have an innate ability that I don't have..." (that one's particularly damaging) I have a friend, another aikido teacher, who talks about "yeah, buts" and how they get in the way of learning. If you hear yourself saying "but," it's a sign you're resisting the idea. In martial arts training, when a teacher speaks, you learn to respond with "Yes, Sensei." It's actually a good practice because it helps us subconsciously allow a new concept to take hold. I'm not suggesting that anyone slavishly obey a teacher, just that we learn to say "Yes! interesting" first, and criticize later. But maybe that's a different blog post...

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


When I meditate, it's pretty hard to keep from getting lost in my thoughts. One thing that helps a lot is to try very hard to just listen.

I imagine that there's some very subtle sound I'm trying to hear, just barely at the limit of my ability to hear it. Sometimes I can become very aware and attentive.

It struck me that this is a great thing to practice in general. So often, when playing music with others, or by myself, I'm generating thoughts, judgments, desires, remembering what just happened. It would be so much better if I could just listen.

In my conversations with others, I've found I do the same thing: I start to generate a reply, or a judgment, or a reference, and suddenly I'm not listening anymore.  I think the analogy extends easily to the martial arts, but in a more metaphoric way, in that I can learn to be more attentive to what is happening with the other person, instead of myself.

It's not easy, but maybe with practice, I'll get better...at listening.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Comparing Kokikai Aikido to Other Martial Arts - A Survey

I've practiced the same martial art, Kokikai Aikido, for over 22 years. Even though I've written elsewhere about how to choose the best martial art, I've never tried another aikido style, or even another martial art. I lucked out and landed in a practice that's perfect for me, with a highly effective curriculum, a world-class founder, amazing senior instructors, and I never saw the need to look elsewhere.

Even so, it's always bothered me that a lot of other martial artists consider aikido to be a "joke." I can't speak for other styles, but there's no question in my mind that Kokikai Aikido is effective. Our founder, Shuji Maruyama Sensei, personifies everything that aikido ever claimed to do or be: small of stature, powerful, effective, without harm to opponent. But he's always been reticent about blowing his own horn or putting video of himself on YouTube, so I can see why most people don't know much about him or his style. So, I asked some of my fellow students to give their comparative viewpoints...

The (Highly Informal) Survey:

I realize that I only surveyed students of one style of one martial art, and they're bound to be slanted to the martial art they ended up staying with. Please don't take offense if you practice a different martial art!!! I do think the factors they considered in making their choice, especially after many years of practice, are pretty interesting, no matter what martial art you practice.

The Question: Do you have personal experience practicing in more than one martial art or aikido style? Why did you stick with Kokikai Aikido? 

The Answers (edited for brevity):

Rick: I wanted to learn internal energy development to aid my tae kwon do practice but stayed because as I got older and a little slower had more trouble entering defenses. Kokikai Aikido taught me to wait, allow my opponent to come to me and the setups were automatically there. I am going on

David:   I studied a different style of aikido for about 5 years and then stopped for about 15 years. I then decided to study Kokikai, mostly because the dojo was close to my house (in Tempe, AZ), and I was impressed by the teachers there. The reasons for staying are somewhat more complex, but suffice it to say that at my age, I can still do Kokikai. I don't think I could say the same had I stayed with my previous style.

Debbie: Karate made me strong. But Aikido taught me that you can see things from a different perspective, and that really changes how you react to a threatening situation.

Nancy: I've recently been visiting practice groups for other aikido styles because there are no Kokikai dojo where I live now. I noticed that practicing in these other classes didn't look like fun to me. Also, after years of training Kokikai Aikido under Maruyama Sensei my eye is trained to see that there are a lot of weak spots, and places where the techniques don't look natural or logical. I'm so glad to have studied under Sensei and the other teachers I've had! Choosing the right teacher is really important!

Frank: I trained in tae kwon do (TKD) for 7 years before coming to Kokikai Aikido, which I've been practicing for the last 20 years. I was fortunate to have found dedicated lifelong master martial artists as teachers in both arts; ones that innovate and are intimate with the subtleties of their arts. That is RARE.

I practiced in TKD in the better part of my 20s, when I was at my most athletic. I learned a lot about striking and generating power, correct technique involving relaxed strength combined with smooth movement, clean footwork and acceleration. I had a lot of fun. Sustained some injuries, broken bones, nose, ribs, deep bruises. In any competitive encounter no matter how good you are, you will get hit and it doesn't take much to sustain a serious injury especially from a strong attack. Good fighters that are quick and strike with power and precision end things quickly.

With that experience I came to Kokikai. 20 years later, I'm still here, very grateful for my teachers and for the fellowship of the community of respectful, helpful, experienced, mature, lifelong practitioners - also rare. I'm grateful for ukemi; learning to get thrown, fall down and get up gracefully is sometimes completely overlooked as the backbone of good practice. It's health-giving, literally and metaphorically, and a priceless skill on and off the mat. Finally I'm grateful for the 4 basic principles of Kokikai Aikido, which are personified most dramatically in Sensei. I feel blessed and lucky to have found a practice that is always challenging my understanding ability and limits both as a student and teacher.

Jason: In kung fu there was a lot more focus on strengthening and conditioning the body with push-ups, crunches and squats. In aikido, practicing things like relaxing under pressure and avoiding resistance helped me outside the dojo way more than repeatedly executing 12 different types of punches and kicks.

Christopher:  Compared to other styles of aikido, Kokikai stressed correct feeling almost from the very start. It made it harder to learn at first, but I believe I got a deeper understanding of aikido much earlier than I would have otherwise.

Dave:  I have some experience with jiu jitsu and judo. One style of jiu jitsu I did for about a year was great if you want to learn how to lay out an attacker. What I like about aikido is almost the pacifist approach to self-defense. If I really wanted to defend myself and didn't care about the welfare of an attacker, I'd practice something like krav maga. Or just get a gun...

Bill: I studied a Korean art that seemed to have a lot of techniques, but after a while there wasn't a sense that it grew. It just got to a point of changing the katas but no new technique or improved way of doing things...Kokikai keeps growing and improving.

Debora: I practiced a Japanese hard style karate for 25 years before coming to Kokikai Aikido. I knew what I wanted in a style and visited several aikido schools before committing to Kokikai. A healthy organization with good leadership is essential. Another quality I looked for was respectful treatment of both instructors and students. Finally, I was looking for a style that taught effective self-defense. This is not because I felt the need to be safe, as I had accomplished that fairly well in karate. It was more because I understood how challenging it is to do what all aikido styles claim to do, which is to make technique more powerful without resorting to muscle power. Kokikai Aikido, under Sensei's leadership, is always evolving into something better. This quality is rare and the main reason why I have remained for many years.

Abhijit: I started with a different style of aikido, and practiced for about a year before switching to Kokikai. Kokikai has an explicit feedback system, through ki testing and appropriate resistance, that helped me improve both myself and my technique. The principles also helped me evaluate the technique I saw. Previously I felt I was being told not to resist - follow the lead, take the fall when you are "supposed" to.  I was never sure whether I was actually doing things in ways that worked or that my partner was always being nice to me.  In Kokikai, there was no way I could resist! I also felt the techniques taught wouldn't work for smaller people (the instructor was a big guy). In Kokikai, that's certainly not the case! [The founder of Kokikai weighs under 130 lbs.] Kokikai principles have helped me continue to learn and grow and find some new nuance every time I practice. It's always been fascinating, and continues to be "magical" for over 20 years.

Samantha: I practiced aikido and capoeira in college. I see a lot of value in both and the approach to technique is fairly similar. One major thing in favor of Kokikai is the strong international organization - it means that even people working to practice in more isolated areas have the chance to keep their technique fresh by attending annual camps and seminars. I felt that, compared to aikido, the culture of capoeira was more competitive and strength-oriented. I always felt as though aikido marries well with my physical abilities and limitations, and it was always very easy to see how to leverage those differences to my advantage. The Kokikai Aikido community is so welcoming of different physicalities that I felt much more at home.

More about How to Choose a Martial Art

What's the Best Martial Art?

Which Is Better?

Beginners in the martial arts are always asking, questions like: "Can MMA beat aikido?" "Can judo beat capoiera?" I've practiced Kokikai Aikido for 22 years. Our founder, Shuji Maruyama Sensei, always tells us seek proof: Try things one way, then try them another, and find out for yourself which is better. Of course you can't try every martial art, and you certainly can't try them all for long enough to get really expert, not in this lifetime, anyway. So I thought I'd take a little survey...

But First: Are You Asking the Right Question?

After we have some martial arts experience, most of us realize that asking, "Which is the most effective martial art?" is a little meaningless. All have strengths and weaknesses, depending on what you're trying to achieve, and also on your body type, personality, level of dedication, etc.

Think about why you want to practice a martial art in the first place.  If your goal is to kill someone, a gun is very effective, and a four year old can use it with no training. Most of us train in a martial art for other reasons: maybe because of the way it affects our bodies - giving us the ability to do things we couldn't do before - and our minds - changing the way we react, especially to stressful situations. For example, if you want to be a trained killer without needing a weapons permit, keep in mind that you will have the mind of a trained killer, as well as the body. When you meet someone at a wedding reception, do you really want your first thought to be how easy it would be to knock them out, or break their knees?

It may be better to choose a style that's a good fit for you than to choose "the one that can beat everyone." Also, the quality of your teacher is at least as important as the style you choose.
Link to Survey Results

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Why Meditate?

Recently somebody asked me why I practice mindfulness meditation, and particularly what it has to do with playing music and or martial arts.

When I meditate, I practice being attentive. Or you might say "metacognating": thinking about thinking. When I'm in the habit of noticing my thoughts, my time spent practicing is much more effective. For example:

+   I'm able to better notice when my posture is wrong
+   I can notice my thoughts - more like an observer - and therefore consider whether they might be side tracking or undermining me
+   I can be aware of whether the reason I'm not getting something is because I don't see it, or because I don't hear it, or because I'm playing it too fast, or because I don't really know how it feels in my body to play those notes, or I don't really know the changes or the harmony
For most of us, the myriad thoughts that pass through our minds while we're practicing usually happen way too fast for us to catch them. When I practice paying attention with mindfulness meditation,  I can apply that to learning and therefore learn more effectively. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

External Rotation of the Shoulders - It Helps Everything!

In yoga, I learned to externally rotate my shoulders. It has a bunch of benefits for yoga practice, including:
  • giving you more mobility in the shoulders
  • helping open up tight shoulders 
  • opening up the chest for more relaxed breathing
  • transferring weight bearing from shoulder girdle (lots of small, overstressed muscles) to the lats (big, giant muscles spread over the back) 
I got into the habit of thinking about this in yoga, and that got me to thinking about it during my music practice and my aikido practice as well. I can feel the change right away and it's a good one:

When I externally rotate my shoulders, it settles the shoulder blades down over my back, and right away my arms do less work, and all my movement comes from the center of the body. I sit up taller and breathe better.

How to Externally Rotate Your Shoulders

If you learn what this action feels like from a couple of positions, you'll be able to get the right feeling when you're holding or sitting at your instrument, or on the mat, or hanging out with friends trying to look relaxed and cool! If you're like me, it isn't something you'll just do once a day and be all set. You'll have to keep reminding yourself...a lot.

Method 1: Standing
Stand with your legs wide, and open your arms to the side with your palms down.  Now simply rotate your palms upward. Rather than just turning your wrist, let that action extend all the way up your arm to your shoulders. The movement you feel in your shoulders is external rotation. The front muscles of your shoulders lengthen, the front of the rib cage opens, and the shoulder blades settle down over the back of the rib cage.

Method 2: "Child's Pose"
You can also try to get the same feeling by sitting on your knees, and bending forward at the waist with your arms outstretched, palms on the floor (like you are prostrating to the absolute ruler!) Now draw the outer arms down and towards each other so that the inner creases of the elbows are facing more toward the ceiling. Feel what happens to the shoulders.

Most of us have habitually tight shoulders from sitting and drawing the front of the shoulders together so you may not feel much movement at first.

This movement of externally rotating the shoulders has been key in my transformation from a habitually hunched, shoulders forward, neck forward posture, to an upright, chest open, back long posture in my daily life. It's taken a long time but I recommend it. It changes everything!

Friday, September 2, 2016

Take the Meditation Challenge!

A Challenge and an Experiment
My friend and I are about 10 days into a meditation challenge. We're both meditating every day for 40 days, to see what changes it brings in our lives. It's really great to have a partner, even though he's in another state. It helps me stay on track, probably (sadly) because of my competitive nature. I really don't want to be the one to admit, "Well, no, actually, I didn't meditate today." :-D

My friend is taking an awesome 40-day Mindfulness Daily audio course created by Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. I'm doing 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation and 10 minutes of aikido breathing.

Getting Scientific: Endpoints and Benchmarking
We're actually not being very scientific at all. But we do have some general "endpoints" we're looking to "measure."
  • Do we have improvement in mood?
  • Are we more effective in daily life?
  • Are we better musicians/martial artists? Is our practice more effective?

Some reputable studies have shown that meditation has "great promise for treating depression." Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Work Week, uses meditation to alleviate his depression symptoms. (OK, he also uses psychedelics for the same purpose... ) Others claim that it helps you become more effective in daily life. When I learned TM back in the 70's, I was told I'd get everything I wanted, as my consciousness became more aligned with the universe. (OK, some TM practitioners also believe they can levitate and see the future...)  I am hoping that the daily breathing will help my singing, (but I'm not really measuring that. How do you measure that?).

Technology Helps!
I have to say, we're mostly using fairly subjective, anecdotal evidence to support our findings. But we are being a teeny, tiny bit scientific. We're using Daylio, an Android app that lets you track mood, and add simple diary notations without having to type anything - you just select the icons. (You can customize the icons and add description if you want). It even reminds you if you didn't make an entry.

Results? Soon. Watch this Space.
I'll let you know how it goes - check back at the end of September.