Archive for October, 2010

Pound for pound …

October 30th, 2010 2 comments

The other day, I had the pleasure of the company of one of the most charming babies ever. Apparently, she took a liking to me as well, or at least my hand, which must have looked quite tasty. When little Avery reached for my hand, I felt this strong tug. I knew it was Avery doing the pulling, but I thought I’d try looking the other way and see what this sensation felt like without the visual cues.

It felt very odd, even before the gumming. Sure, the pulling came from a small area, but it felt as if an adult were pulling me in. The pull was insistent and strong, and could have been mistaken for an adult’s pull.

Now we’ve all heard about strong baby grips, but this was quite something. Internal martial artists try to recover that natural, full-body strength, but what if we had maintained that natural strength all through childhood and it only grew as we matured? How naturally strong and healthy would we be? I have to ask …

… at what point in a child’s life does that strength diminish? What went wrong? Are children told they’re small and weak? Do they become self-conscious? Are they told that things are more difficult than they really are? Or does it have something to do with bad physical training, or a complete lack thereof?

… or can little Avery buck the odds and keep her natural, non-self-conscious, strong way of interacting with the world?

Conversation Piece

October 18th, 2010 No comments

Sometimes music is more than just that. In the hands of skilled jazz improvisors, it’s more than melody, harmony and rhythm. It assumes its role as a language, a means of communicating ideas, even poetic ones.

Until recently, the first time I noticed this was at a concert by the Marsalis family, an immensely talented group of jazz musicians, the most famous being Wynton and Branford. They were joined by their brothers Delfayo and Jason as well as their elder statesman father, Ellis. We were extremely lucky to see the family live, and not just because of the high level of musicianship, but because of the depth and variation within that stratospheric level of talent. To clarify: although the brothers were top-notch pros, Wynton was out of their league. Next-level. Why? Because he wasn’t playing tunes any more — he was speaking to the audience through his horn. Just as we can convey ideas, statements, questions and emphasis through speech, he did it through music. It was incredible — he had such a command of the horn, he was so comfortable with expressing himself on it, he knew it as well as spoken English. Amazing.

Fast forward to earlier this month, when we had the good fortune to attend a concert by jazz pianist Chick Corea with Christian McBride and Brian Blade. This time, however, though the musicians were also top-drawer, this time there was something different: they were having a conversation.

Of course, this is generally only possible in the context of improvisation, since most conversations are improvised. If the musicians were playing a written piece, there can be interactions, but it would have been like seeing actors perform a script … with chemistry, yes, but a script nonetheless. However, in an improvisation, every moment is new, and each player has something to say. Believe ti or not, I felt I was party to a lively conversation between bass and drums, with piano agreeing, complementing and supporting the bass player’s point of view. Although it took some concentration to follow (I felt concerned for our poor companions), it was quite extraordinary.

Yet they made it seem quite common. Their comfort with the instruments and the basic harmony of the piece (the framework) made it all look too easy. So easy in fact, that it was possible to see a strong connection between the musicians. It was as if you were watching a conversation in a foreign language, but you could see the relationship between the speakers, and were transfixed.

So what does this have to do with anything?

Well … when you just get so good at something, when it becomes natural, you move to another level. You go from technique to communication to energy transfer. Maybe. I’m not talking about raybeams or heat … just something that’s powerful but hard to pin down.

Does that make sense?

Categories: inspiration, jazz, Zen-like stuff Tags:

Effortless Effort

October 4th, 2010 No comments

You hear about “effortless effort” a lot in the martial arts.

Sure, it’s nice and poetic, but I think that poetry in instruction is only useful after the student has already grasped the term, as a sort of mnemonic. I’ve seen teachers who use terms like that, then merely repeat them when the student asks for clarification, and to perpetuate that teaching technique, I’ve seen students who’ve repeated the instruction as if the poetry of it makes the meaning and application clearer: “oh, I get it! Effortless effort!”

Here’s my attempt at clarifying “effortless effort”, for your consideration: “effective and efficient execution without unnecessary strain”. I’ll try to clarify the apparently contradictory meanings of “effort”: the teacher wants you to practice and pay attention (effort 1) but he/she also doesn’t want you to stress and strain (effort 2), using the wrong methods to achieve the desired result.

For example, in squash, our desired result is to swing the racquet naturally, without getting in our own way and messing up that natural swing by pushing the racquet or muscling the racquet (effort 2). Instead, we should relax and let the racquet swing. Of course, we still need to pay attention and practice (effort 1) in order to improve while in the training phase. This probably holds true for golf and baseball as well as just about any sport that involves a swing with the arm or leg. The result of this should be that we make the best shot we can, without (as previously mentioned), getting in our own way.

When we stress and strain, we get in the way of natural function by tensing muscles unnecessarily. Unfortunately, this is often the result of taking our training so seriously that we invoke feelings of fear or anger, essentially turning this into a life-or-death situation. This is where meditation comes in, to help calm us down, but more on that later.

Another meaning of the desired effort might be simply “doing”, or “action”. “Effortless effort” could mean “stress-free action”, in other words.

Does that make sense?