Monday, September 1, 2014

Chick With Sticks

The newsroom where I work no longer has
an operating press. In that huge space is
where I sometimes practice my weapons.
I've been training with the bo for about five years, sai for about three and tonfa for close to two.

Bo was a great first weapon for me because it helped me learn what it was to use it as an extension of my body. But because two hands controlled the bo, it wasn't apparent that my dominant right hand was significantly more coordinated than my left until I played with sai for the first time. Not only were they heavy as all get out, but my left hand looked quite sad doing drills because the dexterity and strength just were not the same as on the other side. My then sensei suggested starting with my non-dominant hand for sai drills and having it "teach" my dominant side - something he learned accidentally as a natural lefty. It worked - and I still do single-hand drills on my left side first to this day. Because the tonfa are lighter and use a lot of wrist flexion and extension, doing sai drills before I start tonfa drills/hojo undo has helped with my dexterity and strength.

A few months ago, I started taking drum lessons. I've played for a bit, but wanted to study them the same way I study karate: with folks who also study - and teach - theory. I've noticed a lot of similarities between the two - sticks not withstanding - including:
  • The sanctity of the practice hall - On the mat, all the stuff that happened before you got there - work, the bills, the needed oil change and other stuff we call "life" - is supposed to remain outside the door. For that block of time, the mind clears and martial thoughts take priority. It's the same with the drums - as the focus has to be on the task at hand to keep the mistakes to a minimum. True, no one will get hurt if your foot misses the bass or the cymbal crash is forgotten, but the beat you're supposed to be keeping/accentuating will get lost in the sauce.
  • Upper/Lower body separation - In karate, there are plenty of times when your arms are doing one thing and your legs are doing another. Behind a trap set, it certainly is the same. The concentration it takes to pull that off - and keep pulling it off - is incredibly intense and is remarkably a lot like kata, kumite or two-person bunkai drills.
    My tonfa - which my Beloved calls "chair legs" :-)
  • The basics are the foundation to everything - With the drums, basic structure - control (tempo, and volume), accuracy and sometimes power all make the music. It's the same in karate. It takes all hands and feet working together to make it work - because a strong bass but a weak snare is useless. It's the same as throwing a perfectly-place kick but falling over before the foot can return to the ground. Kihon is kihon, it really is - whether it's barefoot on the dojo floor or sitting down behind a snare.
  • Practice makes for a perfect experience - Just like the kata in my kitchen (while my Beloved and Squirrel are asleep) that begins with drill warm-ups, practice is a necessary part of musicianship as well. My musician brother talks about the importance of "shedding" - that nose-to-the-grindstone practice in the figurative shed behind the house where the kinks get ironed out and the real work gets done. As a classically trained violinist (I began playing at age 7), I have an idea of what it takes musically to connect with your instrument (because I didn't do it with my violin, which is probably why I don't still play today). Things aren't anywhere near perfect because of practice, but the art of devoting time to picking up those sticks every day makes for a much better experience.
  • When you're thinking about it, you're not doing it - This may just be unique to my quirky brain, but being in the moment and suddenly realizing I'm in the moment makes for a mess. In the dojo when it's randori time and I'm thinking about what to do next, that pause between the thinking and the doing is when I'm getting hit or having the technique flipped around and applied on me. Same is true with the drums: thinking about it is the surest way to guarantee that it will fall apart in 3...2...1 seconds. When I'm doing it, I'm totally in the zone. And when I'm there, the only way to the other side is to keep going.
  • My snare practice pad 
There is no "best" side - My first sensei's favorite saying was "In karate, you've got your good side and your other good side." What he meant was this: if your strong/dominant side is incapacitated or busy holding your baby/shielding another from harm's way, your non-dominant side needs to pick up the slack post haste. And when you can't, it's obvious which side needs some extra drill time. It's the same on the drums. I'm left-footed but right handed, which already means my kit is a little unorthodoxed - but it also means I don't have the luxury of changing hands to do anything. My left side is not nearly as loud as my right when both are on snare, so guess which hand gets a little more drilling time during warmups?
  • Being quiet is not allowed - It's usually pretty difficult for new karate students to get into the idea of loud, unabashedly free, roof-moving kiais. Instructors encourage screaming like a banshee on the mat because the voice can be just as much of a weapon as the rest of the body. There's no effective way to kiai quietly, just like there's not really a quiet way to play a percussion instrument - there just isn't. Still, it doesn't stop me from trying, though (I'm as shy in the rehearsal hall as my new students are in the dojo, what can I say?). What I hear most from my instructor during my lessons is "I can't hear your foot." So, just like karate spirit yells, consistency is key. If the tom, snare, high-hat, crash, ride or bass fades to a dull roar when it ain't supposed to, something will be missing, which is totally not good.
  • The journey is more important than the destination - Martial arts is definitely a life-time pursuit. It's not meant to be something done for a few months or even years then put on the shelf until the spirit to dust it off and try again hits you. It's supposed to take a long time to learn, understand and even longer to master. Music is the same way. I know folks who have been playing since they were barely able to walk and still - 40 years later - talk about stuff they still need to work on or learn. Similar conversations happen in the dojo, with karate folks who've been on the mat for decades. 
And like karate, the best part about learning to understand this instrument for me is that there is always something new to learn. Hopefully, the learning will continue for a long time to come.