Aiki insights: learning an instrument

Fiddler Dan Violins and WorkshopI’ve enjoyed learning aikidō for over 25 years so far. It’s a fascinating art, filled with intellectual and experiential joy. I continue to be intrigued by the subtle nuances, the quest for perfection and the creative space afforded by taninzūgake (free practice with one or more training partners). Lately I’ve returned to the violin, which I played as a younger man. As I reawaken old motor skills it’s fascinating to reflect on how I used to learn (a top-down pedagogy based on imitation) and consider how I might continue to learn going forward, based on the similar challenges of skill acquisition in music and martial arts. The practice of aikidō is grounded in kata (form). The kihon (basics) in solo and paired exercises are designed to develop capability toward the spontaneity of free expression of aiki with multiple attackers. I’m reminded of the principles of shu, ha and ri: learn the form, break the form, transcend the form. Like aikidō, violin is wonderfully complex, requiring the combination of techniques of the left hand on the fingerboard, bowing with the right hand to produce tone, timing, coordination and “groove” or “feel” to eventually produce music. There are numerous exercises for each aspect, with plenty of complexity. Scales are the kihon upon which great technique is built. Then come the technical exercises and finally the pieces to learn and master. While violin competitions (cf. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”) seldom lead to actual physical conflict, there are nevertheless strong parallels with aikidō. Technique alone makes neither good martial arts nor good music. We need to free ourselves (at least a little bit) from rigid technique and experience the flow of the moment, especially if we aspire to improvisation. And we need to start practising  improvisational skills sooner rather than later. These days I find myself playing music through several genres and lately have been learning the fine art of the luthier: my teacher is none other than David Brown, coincidently one of my most influential aikidō teachers as well. In another parallel the last aikidō grade I received was 6-dan and my last violin exam was grade 6 through Trinity College of music — the universe is a funny place. Fiddler Dan Violins and Workshop is my new home dojo. Come visit some time!

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