Thursday, May 29, 2014

Making it Look Easy

I was in a guitar workshop once with Matt Heaton (don't ask me why I was in a guitar workshop since I don't play guitar...). He was talking about doing a really fast jig strumming technique, and said that the most important thing is to relax - think of making it look easy. He joked that of course, when you are watching your favorite musician play some incredible riff, the one thing you always think is, "And, he/she makes it look sooo difficult!"

Of course not! The great players make it look so easy!

But that's because the great players, athletes, and martial artists are able to relax when they do whatever it is that makes them great. And when they can relax their hands, face, shoulders, neck and back, they actually can do whatever they are doing: faster, more effectively, and more beautifully.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Practicing When You Can't Practice - III

Aikido students often ask me what they can do when they are away from Rutgers for the summer and they can't find a nearby Kokikai dojo to practice in.

Koichi Tohei taught that the practice of aikido technique was just one of five disciplines or aspects of practice, which include:

Aikido Technique

Maruyama Sensei was Tohei's student until he founded Kokikai Aikido, and many of the concepts in Kokikai Aikido have roots in Tohei Sensei’s teaching.

I tell students that if they can't come to the dojo for an extended period of time, they can take part in any practice that will help them develop awareness of their bodies, increase their ability to relax while they are engaging in effortful activities, focus on one point and balance. This might include attentive practice of sports, music, yoga, and/or one of the activities listed above. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Oh, Well!

In my mind, saying "Oh, well" is not quite the same as saying "whatever."

"Whatever" implies a kind of bored ennui with the outcome.
 "Shall we go to the mall? Or shall we stay home and play video games?" "Whatever." 
"Oh, well" is about accepting that this is what happened and now I have to deal with it and move on. 
"I practiced this song for 3 weeks and now in the middle of the performance I forgot the second verse!" "Oh, well!"
"I was supposed to be tested on my response to a front kick but I got a side kick instead!" "Oh, well!" 

When I'm on the way to a meeting, I left early to make my best impression and there's stop and go traffic the whole way, when I make some horrible social gaffe at a party, even when truly difficult things happen in life, such as illness, job loss, family problems, it may be possible to say "Oh, well," to keep myself from getting caught up in the unfairness of it, and just begin to deal with it.

A friend of mine tells me this is the best phrase she ever heard, and she says she learned it from me. (I think I learned it from her, but...oh, well.)

Monday, May 19, 2014

I'm Angry!

Anger: delicious
A fellow student told me this story:

"The other day I got angry. It doesn't happen often. I was in a meeting with a client, and I guess she found one of my "hot buttons" in implying I had been untruthful. I didn't lose my temper, but even so, I felt my response was not demonstrating calmness:  I was angry, and I found myself reacting "point by point" to the accusations. Of course this resolved nothing - it just made us all more tense. Thankfully we ran out of time and agreed to continue the discussion later.
"In the meantime, I devoted some thought to what problems she might be having, that caused her to accuse me. I've often seen people in business situations express their frustration and anger toward vendors or their reports, when they're really upset about other things, like instability in the company or a difficult boss. I realized that this client had a lot going on. It may have been unfair that she took it out on me, but so be it.
"A few days later we re-opened the discussion. Now that I had made a decision not to feel threatened, I was able to address my client's underlying concerns: helping her demonstrate the business value of her work, offering options to work within her budget constraints. Everything went smooth as butter."
This story resonated with me - I've seen again and again the way anger gets in the way of resolving problems:

When I'm angry, my knee-jerk reaction is to respond to the words the person is saying - to what's on the surface. In aikido we would call this "responding to force with force." It never works. It just keeps escalating: I punch, you kick, I use a sledgehammer, you drop an anvil on me, and so on.

When I'm calm, I can more easily look behind the words, to what is motivating the person to become angry, and also to what I really want out of the interaction. Then I can turn my attention to that problem. Often this tactic completely undercuts the whole argument. If it truly does address what the other person is unhappy about (and are unable to admit, or don't realize they want) it can be such a surprise that resolution can be surprisingly easy.

It is no coincidence that this sounds exactly like a well executed aikido technique.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Schooling my Face

"Stupid Face" can be very helpful when
disarming an attacker.  I'm very good at it.
Here's why I'm practicing "schooling my face":

Head Cues

When playing together, musicians often give cues, like: "Yep, we're going to change tunes," or, "Want to take a solo?" with a head shake, a significant look, or a nod. I've been working on giving more unambiguous cues. My problem is that I have a bad habit of making facial expressions and head shakes as a reaction to my own playing. Not only does everyone know when I make a mistake, but the other musicians think I'm shaking my head because I don't want to take the solo! So, I'm practicing "schooling my face."

Chinese School Has Just Begun

My husband is Chinese, and he has told me you can often tell whether someone who is Chinese was raised in the U.S. or in China by the intensity of their facial expressions. He's not sure why, but he says that growing up in a Chinese culture there was much less focus on how people feel. (Example: we greet by saying, "How are you?" or "How are you feeling?" In Chinese, the greeting is "Have you eaten?") You can see his feelings by looking at his jaw and his eyes. I, on the other hand, use every one of the 43 of the muscles in my face to show how I feel!

Stupid Face

In Aikido, "schooling your face" is vitally important, for several reasons:

  • The success of your response depends on you not telegraphing what you are going to do. Since it's particularly hard to control your face and eyes, that's where people automatically look.
  • Using a "stupid face" - i.e. looking like you're frightened and have no idea what to do, is actually part of the technique to mentally disarm your attacker. You can't practice this unless you can control whether your face is relaxed.
  • A relaxed face is a sign that you're body is relaxed. When your body is relaxed, you can do almost everything better.
That last point is true for aikido, music, and life. That's why I'm gonna keep on practicing.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Feeling Trumps Technique

I attended a violin workshop with the Irish fiddle player Martin Hayes a few evenings ago. Hayes is known for his lyrical and emotive playing. He has the ability to reveal unexpected beauty in the simplest Irish tunes, even those that are common to the point of cliché.

A lot of what Hayes said in the workshop amounted to:  Feeling Trumps Technique

Here are a few of the ideas I took with me. Most of these are things I have heard and understand well, but they are reinforced when a great musician repeats them. Interestingly, each of these ideas also applies to aikido practice, and therefore, I imagine, to other disciplines.

  • Taking the leap from playing technically well, to playing with your entire body and heart is a big one, and requires a lot of attention and effort. The result may seem very subtle, but it makes all the difference to the way the music affects the listener.
  • In responding to questions about phrasing, slurs, bowing patterns in general, his advice was to sing the tune, and to play the dynamics and slurs as you would sing.
  • There are always people who will play technically better than you, (even if you have received multiple international awards for your playing!). Playing with feeling, playing with your heart, is the most important thing to focus on no matter what your level.
  • Playing slowly or at a "mid-tempo" allows you to bring more out of the tune. You're unlikely to find this subtlety if you are only playing fast.

I've taken on the humbling project of learning the violin in my 50s. It's easy to be overwhelmed when I see 12-year-old virtuosos on YouTube. 

Reminding myself that feeling trumps technique is going to be a larger part of my practice.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


I need to work on precision in my playing.

Here's what I was told:
"When you arpeggiate the chord or play just some of the notes instead of playing all the notes at once, it sounds like a crappy cocktail pianist and makes it obvious that you don't actually know what the voicing is."

(I'm sure the actual words were much more friendly, compassionate and gentle but I got that message.)

The fact is, I'm sloppy.

  • I'm sloppy in my playing (all instruments)
  • I'm sloppy in my aikido technique
  • I'm sloppy in my speech, both in my enunciation and the words I use
  • I'm a sloppy knitter, cook and gardener, and probably a sloppy driver

On the positive side, I'm reasonably accomplished in all these things. Except maybe knitting. So I'm pretty sure that once I shine the beacon of my attention on this issue, if I shine it with some consistency, I will start to see progress in all areas, not just one. 

Well, maybe not the knitting.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Practicing When You Can't Practice - II (Music)

There are times when I can’t practice my instrument(s). So be it. I try not to beat myself up until I get back to my routine, but meanwhile, can I keep from standing still or going backward? It may seem like these are simple things, too simple to actually affect your playing - but they really can.

1. Listen
2. Get an Ear Worm
3. Sing
4. Visualize

I often listen to music without thinking about it. If I make the effort to listen to music attentively, I find that it has great positive effects on my playing. I listen for things like phrasing, what types of scales are used, who is playing harmony, what is the intro and outro. Generally I find I’m focused on the things that I’m also working on in my own music.

Get an Ear Worm
Most people think of an ear worm as a bad thing: a tune you absolutely can’t get out of your head. But I've found that when I am practicing a new tune, especially for a gig, one of the best ways to learn is to play a recording of the tune and let it hum through my head all day. When I come back to my instrument I find I have learned a lot of the tune already. Often the recorded version has "morphed" in my internal repetitions so that I have unconsciously gone some way toward making it my own.

I've been encouraged to sing as improvise, to make my improvisation less random and stilted. I then attended a workshop with Martin Hayes, who talked about changing one's entire playing style by singing the tune, line by line, and then playing it the way you naturally sing. Another incredibly simple but revolutionary idea: Sing more. 

This was a tip given to me by my teacher when I was about to go on a long plane trip. I spent a lot of time with my eyes closed, visualizing chord patterns or unfamiliar scales. It really worked. You can even do this while commuting. Don't close your eyes tho.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Is Kokikai Effective as Self-Defense? (Part II)

Kokikai Aikido: defense against handbag snatch
Kokikai Aikido: Defense Against Handbag-Snatch
In an earlier post I looked at some reasons why people commonly think that Aikido, specifically Kokikai Aikido, isn't effective as self-defense. Aikido isn't practiced in the way that most martial arts are, teaching strikes and counterstrikes. We choose a fairly small number of basic attack types (punches, grabs, strikes, kicks) and we learn defenses against them. We also learn to defend against more than one person simultaneously - this is very unusual in the martial arts, yet it is more common in a street situation.

You Need to Practice For Years Before It's Effective...Right?

  • I teach 90-minute seminars that provide effective concepts that people can walk away with and practice their whole lives (hint: it's the four basic principles!)
  • There are many, many stories of Kokikai students, even people with 6-8 weeks of experience, defending themselves against very real attacks. Those I know of include women being threatened or attacked, robbery attempts and kids being threatened at school and in their neighborhoods. There are at least two very powerful stories on the Kokikai website. Many times, because of their training, Kokikai practitioners are able to keep a situation from escalating so that it doesn't require physical self-defense.
  • As an orange belt, I used an aikido technique against a very large and strong 2nd dan in tae kwon do who attacked me with a knife. It was in a class, not real-life. But I know that he was utterly taken by surprise - the throw was real. 
  • In some (not all) ways, it's easier to defend against a real-life attack than what we do in class, because the attacker is taken by surprise. What we do is counterintuitive to what an attacker expects: when attacked, we relax. Instead of going one way, we go the other. Just when they thought we were pushing, we're pulling.

    Shouldn't I practice Krav Maga or another very aggressive martial art? Just In Case?

    You could spend 15 years learning a very aggressive martial art, preparing yourself to be attacked in some movie-script/MMA scenario. But life is full of surprises. When we get into a dangerous situation, it may not go the way you expected:
    1. Your opponents may all have guns. It's likely that calmness, awareness, relaxation will help you more than knowing how to break knees. Have a look at this story.
    2. You may be attacked by someone you can't, or don't want to hurt: someone who is mentally ill, someone in your family or in your community. There are many cases where we need to protect ourselves, but if we cause physical harm there may be negative consequences.
    3. You are traveling, and a natural disaster happens. Will really good kicks and counterattacks help? No. Will calmness and being self-possessed help? Just maybe.
    How do you want to spend your years of training? Do you want to be learning ways to break someone's elbow, or 45 immobilizing pressure points? Do you want to hang around with people who are enthusiastic about doing that? 

    Or would you rather spend your time learning a martial art that:
    1. Teaches you how to handle uncertainty with calmness
    2. Teaches you how to react to any stressful and threatening situation, including an attack
    3. Teaches ideas that help you be more happy in daily life
    4. Offers a community of people who are positive, relaxed, friendly, and compassionate
    If you're still not persuaded that Kokikai Aikido is an effective self-defense practice, that's OK. There's sure to be a self-defense method that's right for you.