Bow Form and Bo Form…
Friday, 25 September 2009 15:57    Print E-mail

- by Alison Yankowskas -

“Check your hand position.”  “Watch your stance.”  “Use the mirror to help you work on your technique.”

The above directions are spoken by many a string teacher to his or her students countless times in a rehearsal or lesson.  But these are directions I hear regularly in karate class.  Karate is an activity that I began over 2 ½ years ago at the urging of my younger daughter, Erin, who had begun the sport earlier that year.  I was a bit leery of joining a class as I had just had right shoulder surgery a mere six months before.   So, call me crazy, call it a mid-life crisis--I decided to give it a try.  I didn’t set out to make correlations between karate and string playing, but I did find much common ground between the martial arts and musical arts.

First of all, each karate class begins with cardio warm-ups and stretches; a couple of the stretches are even named like parts of the bow:  “frog” (and “dead frog”!).   I don’t incorporate cardio into my string classes, but we do take time for a few stretches—shoulder rolls, “orchestra push-ups” (getting up from a sitting to a standing position without moving one’s feet), bow balancing exercises.  Next, we drill the basics.  In karate, we practice hand strikes and kicks in various combinations.  An orchestra rehearsal requires working on scales, finger patterns, and bowing techniques.

After the initial part of each class, we segue into some review and some new material.  The hand strikes and kicks that we learn in karate become the backbone of much of the rest of the material that we learn.  We learn kenpos and combinations, which are, simply put, self-defense techniques.   Similarly, in string playing, etudes such as Mazas, Kreutzer and Rode provide the foundation for many of the skills needed to study more advanced literature.   Self-defense for the string player!

Forms, as the name implies, are patterns using the various strikes, kicks, and stances.  They are learned in a progressive manner, as repertoire for any music student would be.  I think of the forms as the pieces of music that I learn or that I teach my students.  You know—begin with “Merrily We Roll Along,” progress to “Twinkle Twinkle,” then to “French Folk Song.”  The concertos come a bit later—advanced rank territory.   Just a couple of weeks ago, one of our senseis (teachers), Shihan Donna, began to teach me a new form.  I marveled at how fluidly she moved, making each transition effortless and ballet-like.  This is the arts part of karate that I especially enjoy, although I often struggle to align my head, hips, arms, and feet to achieve the same gracefulness that I just observed.   This is the higher level of performing that an accomplished musician strives for, pulling together the technical as well as expressive elements of the composition.

So, putting it all together often involves a recital and/or competition for the typical music student.  In karate, there are tournaments in which one can participate.  Event categories include self-defense, forms, and sparring.   My favorite event, not surprisingly, is musical forms.  Basically, this event is putting forms (an existing form or one of your own) to music.   With the help of Master (now Shihan) Lenny, I choreographed a two pinan form to Vanessa Mae’s “Retro.”  For those of you not familiar with this piece of music, think of the final scene in “Revenge of the Nerds” in which Poindexter (one of the nerds, of course!) wails on the electric violin, Devo-style,  delighting the throngs gathered for the college homecoming performance.  In another competition, as I was preparing for a self-defense event, I heard the unlikely strains of “Zigeunerweisen” drifting from the musical forms dojo (there are multiple events run concurrently).  So, anything goes as far as musical styles in this event!

Beginning something new as a middle-aged adult has its challenges, but I have even greater appreciation for the music student of any age who struggles to “get it right.”  I also appreciate that the instructors at our dojo encourage each student to do his or her best, as any good teacher should.   The camaraderie of the karate class, just like that of a music ensemble, keeps me coming back for more—good people, lots of fun, and a great workout!


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