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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The 3 Ways to Strike Effectively

Everyone wants their strikes to be effective, by which people usually mean "hitting hard."  But it's possible to have a "hard" strike that is ineffective, because what happens when a punch or kick lands is more nuanced than just how much muscle and effort is behind it.  To fully understand this, it's helpful to think about exactly what happens during an impact.

When something runs into something else, one of three things will happen:
1.  Something is going to break.
2.  Something is going to bend.
3.  Something is going to move.

When you strike water, will it break, bend or move?  It depends.

Actually you're very likely to get some combination of those things, but usually whatever happens will be primarily in only one category.  Which one you get (like almost everything in the martial arts) is just a matter of physics.

To paraphrase Dr. Dick Solomon from 3rd Rock from the Sun, "Kicks don't hurt people!  Physics hurts people!"

I was going to get mathy about this, and then I found this article by Dan Djurdjevic.   That article is objectively better than what I was going to write in every way, except that mine would have definitely included cat pictures.

I pass a million physics classes to get my degree, and yet my competitive edge as a martial arts blogger is still cat pictures. 

Striking vs. Pushing


If I throw a kick (or any striking technique, for that matter), I might be striking and I might be pushing.  It is impossible to tell just by looking at the technique thrown in the air.  It depends not only on how the technique is thrown, but also what is being hit.

Let's say you're doing a front kick to a large practice pad.  If you are striking, even if your strike is excellent, it probably won't impress many onlookers.  Take that same technique to a human body, and you'll break bones (Category 1: Something breaks).  But against a pad, the foam inside deforms a bit, and very little comes of the impact (Category 2: Something bends).  The pad is doing its job--protecting the pad holder from injury--at the expense of making the kick appear ineffective.  Oh look, Dan Djurdjevic did an article about this, too!  He even used front kick as an example!  I DON'T EVEN NEED TO BE HERE!

Where was I?  Right.  It looks ineffective.  It actually IS ineffective, against the pad at least.  The kicker was throwing a technique intended to break something, but the pad only bends.  Nobody went to the hospital, so it didn't work!  That's the price of safety.  Everything has to be modified so that it doesn't work.  That doesn't mean it's bad training or bad technique, only that you need to be aware of how and why it didn't work.  In this case, it didn't work because a pad was used for safety.  The kinetic energy has to go somewhere, and somebody thought it would be better for that kinetic energy to go into bending a pad than into breaking a person.  (I know, crazy, right?)

Now let's say you're throwing a very similar kick against the same large practice pad.  This time, you throw your kick and the pad holder staggers back several steps.  This looks impressive to onlookers, and they applaud you for your excellent technique, all except for the guy who immediately calls his agent to jump-start your career as the next Chuck Norris.  Impressive, sure, but this is not a strike.  It is a push.  (In fact, in our style, we call this a push kick instead of a front kick, and maybe in yours as well.)  Without the pad, this same kick would deliver very little damage to the pad holder, but still move them roughly the same distance (perhaps a little farther, because none of the kinetic energy being transferred would have gone into deforming the foam in the pad).

So, which is better?  That depends entirely on what you are trying to do.  If you are trying to do damage, you need to strike.  If you're trying to create space, you need to push.  It's important to train both.

Training strikes and pushes


Heavy bags and practice pads are great for training pushes, because you get a lot of feedback as to your effectiveness.  If your pad holder takes two steps back instead of one from your roundhouse kick, you know you are delivering more kinetic energy into your push.

Strikes can be trained on pads, but you get more performance feedback from board breaking.  If you can break a one-inch pine board with your technique, great!  If you can break it while it is only held securely on one side, even better!  If you are pushing instead of striking, that board is just going to move (Category 3) instead of break (Category 1).  Breaking a board that is completely unsecured (being dropped and punched out of the air, for example) is even more challenging.  But if you can do it, you know you have a good strike that is not pushing at all.  Again, though, if you take that same technique to a heavy bag, the onlookers will yawn, except for that one guy who calls his agent to say never mind, that he was wrong about you being the next Chuck Norris.

Plus when you put your foot through perfectly good lumber, you tend to feel pretty good about yourself.

Striking and Pushing vs. Deforming


So, Category 1 (breaking) and Category 3 (moving) both have their uses, but what about Category 2 (bending)?  Bending is more complicated.  Bending can be as simple as squishing a pad, or as nuanced as changing an enemy's structure.

If my kick to the knee twists his leg such that it is no longer supporting his weight and he falls over, he has neither been pushed back (Category 3) nor taken substantial damage (Category 1).  I've changed his structure (Category 2) to create an advantage for myself.  The same is true if I strike the groin and he doubles over, putting his head at an ideal height for a knee.  (Technically he's probably driving that motion rather than being moved into that position by my kick, if you want to split hairs, but the bending happened all the same.)  If I strike to the face and he leans backwards with his groin unprotected, that is also beneficial bending.

Strikes involved in joint locks and escapes from joint locks will be mostly bending impacts.

The other side of the coin


Having an understanding of how a strike can break, bend or move is helpful for optimizing your techniques, but it's also helpful for keeping yourself from getting injured.  You can use the same idea to defend yourself.  This comes in two flavors:

- If someone is trying to strike you, and you know what their goal is (break, bend, or move) you can manipulate your own structure and movement to try to make their strike fall into a different category.

- If you're the one initiating the strike, some of that kinetic energy can still go into you.  You generally don't want to be the thing that is doing the bending, moving, or especially breaking.

Here are some specific examples of how managing these three types of strikes can keep you from getting hurt.

1.  Protective equipment of any kind is meant to turn breaking (Category 1) into bending (Category 2).  Heavy bags, handheld targets, sparring protectors, floor mats, foam padding on weapons, etc., all exist entirely for that purpose.  (Well, and to appease insurance companies, but that's another topic entirely.)  When the impact happens, the majority of that kinetic energy goes into deforming the pad instead of deforming the person, making everyone a lot happier at the end of training.  This is also why car hoods are designed to crumple in an accident, why you would rather slip and fall on a carpeted floor than a marble one, drummers don't like to hit concrete with their sticks (crediting Casey Grillo with this observation--never tried it myself!), why gym shoes have rubber soles, and why buildings in earthquake-prone areas are designed to sway.  Bending is just plain healthier than breaking.

Protective gear takes your percussive kinetic energy and uses it to squish the pad instead of injure your partner or yourself.

2.  If you've been trained to exhale when holding a bag for a strong kick, that is another example of making something bend instead of break or move.  In this case, the thing that's bending is your lungs and your stomach, and it hurts a whole lot less than getting the wind knocked out of you.  (Actually, there's a lot more to it than just converting kinetic energy into Category 2 here, but that's definitely part of it.)  Learning to time your breathing can absolutely help protect you from the bad kind of impact.

3.  Once when I was training in Korea, I was sparring against a guy with the stereotypical taekwondo build--tall, skinny, long legs that can hit you from clear across the room.  It was full contact rules, so I didn't hold back when I knew I had him lined up for my side kick.  That would have been fine, but I didn't anticipate him moving forward into my kick at just that moment.  For a moment I thought I was going to snap him in half like a twig.  But in an impressive feat of athleticism, he completely reversed his momentum and went with my kick.  He tumbled a comical distance across the mat, halfway across the fairly large training floor.  But he stood up completely uninjured, having converted my striking impact (Category 1) into a displacement impact (Category 3).  Being able to "go with it" can prevent a whole lot of damage to your body.

Because the other option is just trusting your pads.

4.  Grandmaster Park cautioned me about teaching punching too early because of how difficult it is to punch well.  Ideally, when you punch, you're delivering your kinetic energy into your target.  But if your technique is off by even a little bit, that kinetic energy can go into you instead.  The most common examples I've seen of this are when the thumb is not positioned correctly or if the wrist is not straight.  If your thumb is protruding out in front of your knuckles so that it hits first, that kinetic energy is very likely to just break your thumb instead of breaking the other guy.  The same goes if you have your thumb tucked inside your hand.  If your wrist isn't straight and your arm isn't aligned properly behind your fist, your Category 1 breaking impact can get turned into Category 2 bending impact, which can be really awful for the tendons in your wrist.  There are lots of reasons to make sure your technique is correct.  Just because something seems like an inconsequential aesthetic detail doesn't mean that it actually is.

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I hope this has been helpful for understanding the different ways that striking techniques can be effective.  If you are properly categorizing your movements as breaking, bending or moving techniques, you're already a step ahead of those martial artists who see no difference.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Motivation, Martial Arts and Video Games

Remember in that last post when I said I once wrote and lost an essay about what martial arts has to do with video games?  Well, I found it.  I wasn't even looking for it.  But here it is, cleaned up a bit from its original form.  Enjoy!

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Teaching Martial Arts and Making Video Games Aren’t All That Different (2011 Essay)


In 2005, I signed up at a new martial arts school shortly after starting a new job as a scripter and gameplay programmer at a video game company.  I spent my days crafting engaging gameplay experiences among young, eccentric and irreverent creative minds, and I spent my evenings sweating in the reserved structure of the taekwondo school.  At work I went out of my way to be just as irreverent as my coworkers, making sure use some spicy language for the benefit of a few coworkers who felt it necessary to curb their language and expression in my presence.  After work, I had to flip a switch and turn it all off to be respectful of the martial art and the dojang where I trained.  In the mornings, everything revolved around creativity and discarding old ideas just because they had been done before, but in the evenings old ideas were revered because they were traditional.  I felt like every day I was living in two separate worlds that couldn’t be more different.

Several years later, I find myself thinking the opposite.

The project I was working on at the time.

Despite the many and obvious differences, teaching a martial arts class and scripting a video game level are both done with a goal of providing a fun and rewarding experience.

What most people outside of the game industry don’t realize is that like martial arts classes, video game levels are also learning environments.  For each game on the shelves, the rules are slightly different.  Those rules need to be taught to the player, or the player cannot enjoy the game.  It must be obvious to the player that doing A will result in B. Since lengthy tutorials can be tedious and not fun, game developers find themselves in the same situation as martial arts instructors.  Material needs to be taught, and it has to be rewarding or the student/player will not continue.

The first game I ever worked on.  Let's just say it would be an example of something.

Immersyve, a consulting company that works with game developers (among other things), explains the psychology of what makes good games so engaging.  They point to three key factors:  autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  They argue that when players can direct themselves and make meaningful decisions (autonomy), play the game with a high degree of skill as taught by their earlier experience with the game (competence), and enjoy interaction beyond themselves either socially or within the fictional world (relatedness), the game is engaging and players will return again and again.

In Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink argues that whether we are in the workplace, at school, or in a recreational environment, we are most motivated when we have three key components:  autonomy, mastery and purpose.  He explains that when people are given the freedom to pursue things the way that they see fit (autonomy), can work toward being better at doing it (mastery), and are able to work toward something larger than themselves (purpose), they are most motivated and most productive.

Either that, or maybe it's cheesy corporate posters that motivate us.

While reading Drive, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity.  (It was no surprise to me when later I found that the minds behind Immersyve and Daniel Pink both cite the same sources in psychological literature.)  Moreover, I couldn’t help but think that it very accurately reflects my martial arts experience.

Autonomy is emphasized with every new open-world game that hits the shelves.  But when we think about martial arts, we usually think about discipline and rigid compliance over autonomy.  Even so, autonomy is successful in the dojang.  Allowing students to choose their own goals, whether it is a rank, or a trophy, or a fitness level, or whatever else, is much more motivating than goals that are imposed by an instructor. (Or a parent!  Great example of that here.)

On the other hand, mastery/competence is easy to see in both venues.  Doing something well, or even just getting better at doing it, is rewarding.  It’s true in practically every recreational activity in the world, but in martial arts, it’s not only true, it’s also often considered a particularly noble goal to do something well purely for the sake of doing it well.

Of course, getting a new belt is usually pretty cool, too.

As for purpose/relatedness, that is equally important to game developers and martial arts instructors.  Players and students want to feel like they have gained something for their efforts.  They want to be part of a community.  They want to believe that their time was well spent and the result has value.  This is much, much easier for martial arts instructors than it is for game developers, who are confined to virtual worlds.  But the idea is the same.

I find this stuff fascinating.  I hope some of you do, too.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Drumming Inspired Martial Arts Drills: Martial arts and Drumming Part III

This is the third and final part in the Martial Arts and Drumming series, which began with How to Teach or Learn Any Physical Skill and 11 Ways Drumming Can Improve Your Training.

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To wrap up the Martial Arts and Drumming series, I'd like to share some training ideas that came out of this project. Some of these have very specific uses, but mostly you'll probably find the most value in them if your regular training starts to feel like a never-ending chore and you need to shake things up. Keep the fighting spirit! No one is holding you back! Train hard and have fun!

If you don't know how to read sheet music, it may be helpful to introduce yourself to the basics before getting too far into this section. As long as you know what quarter notes and eighth notes are, you should be fine for 90% of this. If those are nonsense terms to you, you may want to click here.

And if you're a drummer and not a martial artist, please, for the love of Lingadua, do not try any of these without an instructor who can teach you the proper technique. Injuries happen, and they are much, much more likely without the supervision of a qualified instructor. It is simply not possible for an online article to include everything you need to know to try it safely.

Ready?  Let's hit stuff.

1.  Kick to a Metronome 

Great for: balance, speed, agility, cardio, making your hip flexors cry.


First you will need a metronome app for your smart phone. This is my new favorite training tool. It is so much more useful than I ever would have guessed. If you want to go really old school, you could get an actual physical metronome, but with the quality free options available on any smart phone, I can't really recommend a physical one. I use Tempo Lite, but there are other good options out there.

Once you have a metronome on your phone, you can adjust the settings however you want, but try this to start. If you picked a different app it might not let you do exactly this, but do the best you can: 4/4 time signature, quarter notes, 130 bpm, with the first and third notes accented. Start with roundhouse kicks. On the accented notes, your kicking foot should touch the bag. On the regular notes, your foot should hit the floor. Adding a little hop between kicks can help you maintain your pace, and also help you stay light on your feet. Make sure your technique is correct (especially your pivot, as I have ranted about in the past), and be sure to do both sides.

One student commented that the metronome helped him stay light on his feet—something he has struggled with since white belt. He also seemed to be sweating a lot more than usual, and having a lot of fun.  For me, it's nice to have the metronome keep me honest when I start unconsciously slowing down, as tends to happen when fatigue sets in.

Metronome kicking drill at 130 beats per minute.

Variation #1: Set the metronome exactly the same except slow it down to about 60. Pivot (but don't hop) in between kicks. This is great for working your balance and control because it’s uncomfortably slow. If you just let your foot drop down to the floor, your foot will hit the floor too early and you'll lose the rhythm.

Metronome kicking drill at 60 beats per minute.

Variation #2: If you've got a good solid pad for this, go ahead and blast it. See if you can make the sound of your kick completely drown out the sound of the metronome.

Other variations on this drill—try different kicks, try adjusting the tempo, try going for longer or shorter amounts of time.  You should be able to go faster than 130 and slower than 60 to make it more challenging.  You can play with the settings on your metronome app to facilitate double kicks or kicking combinations. There are lots of possibilities here.

Technically you could instead kick to music, but the metronome is nice because you can set the tempo to be exactly what you need it to be. Then once you have it down, you can push the speed incrementally to make it more challenging. The other benefit is that with fewer sounds, there's less distraction and it's much easier to match your kick to the rhythm.

2.  Balance Work 

Great for: balance, strengthening your hips, making yourself feel better after how badly that last drill went.


If you're like me, the first time you tried that metronome drill at 130 bpm, you could only make it about 30 seconds before drifting off the beat. I was shocked that I was able to iron out my drumming technique and play to a metronome faster than I was able to reliably kick to a metronome. (I'm not really a drummer, I'm a martial artist who likes hitting things enough that it kind of bled over into owning a pair of drum sticks.) It came down to a balance problem. As I was kicking, when the smaller muscles that control balance became even a little bit fatigued, it took just a fraction of a second longer to push myself upright after kicking. It was subtle enough that I had never noticed it before in all my years of training, and in fact I thought my balance was pretty good. However, it wasn't good enough to do that metronome drill for very long. So I supplemented my training with these drills.

Most balance exercises involve just trying not to fall over from some unstable situation. That is certainly valuable for some things, but I needed balance while I was moving. These drills are modified from Loren W. Christensen's excellent Solo Training book, which really should already be in your library.

Balance work is really just picking a fight with gravity.

Start by lifting your leg into a roundhouse kick chambered position. Do it however your style suggests, but make sure your standing foot is pivoted correctly (please!). While in your chambered position, keep your eyes fixed on something that isn't moving. This will get your brain to help keep you steady, and you're going to need all the help you can get. With your leg off the ground chambered for roundhouse kick, shift your weight back and forth between the ball of the foot and the heel. Practice on both sides, and do each leg for 30 seconds to 1 minute at a time.

Variation #1: Lift your leg into a roundhouse kick chamber. Try to keep your raised leg perfectly still and move only your upper body by bending at the waist. Shift your upper body forward, then back to center, backward, then back to center, left, and back to center, right and back to center. Again, do each leg for 30 seconds to a minute at a time.

Variation #2: If these are too challenging, you can make it easier by putting your hand on the back of a chair or some other steady surface. Be sure not to put any weight onto it, just use it to help you keep your balance. Alternatively, you can just try to hold the position without moving your weight around. This is valuable but the goal here is to work the muscles that will pull you upright after you start to fall away from upright. Those muscles don't work as hard if you don't let your center of gravity move.


3. Experiment with Combinations

Great for... well, it depends.  


Go onto Google and search for "drum stick control combinations." You might get better mileage with an image search, but either way you'll get a dizzying number of results with various patterns of L's and R's written over and over again. Many of them are written with specific rhythms, but you can ignore that. Pick some combination of L's and R's, at random if you like. The nice thing about these combinations is they generally have a good balance of working your right and left side. (If you want to go crazy with it, much ado is made of this book, which consists of nothing but this.)

For this example, I'll use this combination:

R L R R    L R L L

I am told this is called a paradiddle, and I'm also told that there are rudiments called pataflafla and flamacue and sometimes even stranger sounding things, but I'm pretty sure this is just a joke that drummers play on the rest of us. I imagine them snickering to each other, "Heh, I got another one! She thinks a chumbly bumkinsteen is a real thing, and she's even going to put it in her blog!" Nice try, guys. Not falling for it.

But for now, we can work with this paradiddle thing. If you wanted to be a technically proficient drummer, you'd try to play those as evenly as possible, and I'd also recommend using drum sticks, but we're not going to do either of those things. Instead you're going to experiment with combinations that match our pattern of L's and R's. Don't try to match the suggested rhythm. Your rhythm needs to be dictated by the flow of whatever combination you choose.

If you're a beginner, any combination will do. If you're intermediate or advanced, try to choose a combination that makes sense for whatever your training focus is. If you're interested in tournament sparring, choose something that would score in the ring. If your focus is self defense, make sure your combination does damage efficiently. If you're practicing for show, choose something that is technically challenging and looks really cool. And so forth.

Variation #1:  Paradiddle for Light Contact Sparring

There are plenty of options here, but in this example, she uses a right punch, left punch, right kick, right kick. That fulfills the requirements of the drill, to use our R L R R stick combination. For bonus points, she's trying to craft a combination that will score in a light contact sparring match.  The first punch goes to the head, hopefully drawing her opponent's hands up and leaving the body open for the second punch. The two kicks go to the body and to the head in quick succession, since that can be difficult to defend against.

Paradiddle (RLRR) for light contact sparring.


Variation #2:  Paradiddle for Self Defense

Now the goal is to do damage.  The combination she opts for is a right hand palm strike to the face, maintaining contact while the left arm comes in with an elbow to the head. Still maintaining contact (this target doesn't have shoulders so you'll have to use your imagination) she drives two knees into the gut with the right leg.

Paradiddle (RLRR) for self defense.


Variation #3:  Paradiddle Just For Fun

This time she built a combination with no larger training goal in mind. The names of those kicks are different depending what style of martial art you practice, but you can see that she uses the same pattern--right foot, left foot, right foot, right foot.

Paradiddle (RLRR) just for fun.

The goal here is to explore outside of your go-to techniques and combinations (let's be honest, we all have our favorites) and to be more creative in your movement. Have fun with it!


4.  Play a Song

Great for: balance, control, speed, accuracy and timing.


Ready to go really nuts? Pick a song, preferably one where the drums are fairly simple. You'll probably have to slow it down a lot.  I don't care who you are, your hip is not going to be as fast as your wrist. And if your hip is as fast as a professional drummer's wrist, congratulations on medalling in every single event in the 2018 Olympics, and good luck with the PED scandals.  

Once you've got a song and a tempo you like, you can try to "play" it on martial arts equipment. Try to find a few things that sound different when you hit them.  I despise xray paper as a training tool, but I bought some for this project after grudgingly admitting that it makes a pretty cool sound when you hit it, and it's a very different sound than that oh-so-satisfying thump that comes from hitting most training pads. If you're hitting anything that was not designed as martial arts equipment, you probably want to wear shoes. Safety first, martial silliness second.

Insufferably silly drum cover! Stop laughing, it's harder than you think.

You will probably get more mileage out of this drill if you keep your contact light, but it will depend a lot on what you are hitting.  Trying to get a similar volume of sound out of your various targets is an excellent way to practice your control, to make sure you have the precision of movement to hit with the exact amount of force you intend.

Variation:  If trying a song is too intimidating, try a few combinations based on simple rhythms. Practically any sheet music will do.  Pick a measure and assign each note to a target, and strike the targets according to the measure's rhythm. (This would be one of those times where if you can't read sheet music, it might be helpful to get a quick and dirty introduction.) Use your metronome app to make sure you're keeping steady.  My students especially enjoyed this one.  Experiment with it and have fun!

5.  Your Turn

Great for: deeply understanding your art, having fun, crossing things off your bucket list.


This project has been incredibly rewarding on many levels. I learned to play the drums a little bit, and that's cool, but it's the smallest benefit of everything that came out of this. I met new people, challenged myself mentally in ways that helped me grow, came up with some drills that will help me be a better martial artist and a better instructor, and my understanding of rhythm as it pertains to martial arts has expanded so much that I can't believe I ever thought I knew anything about it.

So now it's your turn. Go try something. It can be anything, as long as it has nothing to do with martial arts and you've never done it before. Then look for the areas of overlap. Jesse Enkamp, the original Karate Nerd, says, "Sometimes it's important to look outside of karate to improve your karate. I have this philosophy that karate is like a mountain. … If you want to see your own mountain better, sometimes you have to climb the mountain next to your mountain. Looking from over here gives you perspective, meaning you see karate and its relationship to other stuff more clearly. … I try to connect the dots and see how this relates to what I'm doing, to give me new ideas and try to remix them into the karate mindset."

So what have you been meaning to try someday, but never did? Now you have the perfect excuse because it's part of your training. It really can be anything. I once wrote (and subsequently lost) an essay about how teaching martial arts was similar to making video games. How is martial arts like fishing? Writing a novel? Breeding cats? Juggling geese? I look forward to hearing everyone's adventures in bilingual slam poetry, geriatric skateboarding, aerial cello playing, x-treme crocheting, jetpack snorkeling, and whatever else you ever wanted to try.

How is making Internet memes like martial arts? Photo credit.

Seriously, go try something and tell me about it in the comments. I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

11 Ways Drumming Can Help Your Training: Martial Arts and Drumming Part II

This is Part 2 of 3 in the Martial Arts and Drumming series, which began with How to Teach or Learn Any Physical Skill: Martial Arts and Drumming Part I.

About This Project (and introductions for some names you're going to hear a lot in this post)

Before I get into anything else, let me start with Buddy Rich. Depending who you ask, Buddy Rich was either the best drummer who ever lived, or one of the best on a very short list. What is less widely-known is that he was a black belt in Goju Ryu karate. If there was ever any authority in the world to talk about the overlap between drum set and martial arts, he would be it.  He once said, "I'm the first guy in this business to take karate seriously as a way to stay in shape."  And if he wasn't also the last, I have not been able to track that person down in time for this project.

But I'm pretty sure Buddy Rich is not doing interviews with martial arts bloggers these days. (Although if I managed to interview Zombie Buddy Rich, that would pretty much cement me among the most interesting martial arts bloggers, 'cause you can bet Zombie Bruce Lee would be next.) Fortunately, when you can't interview Buddy Rich, you can interview a Buddy Rich look-alike. I promise this is not quite as crazy as it sounds, so bear with me.

This project started one day when I was mindlessly surfing YouTube being extremely productive while just having YouTube on in the background. I saw a music video with a drummer doing cool stuff.  Of course any professional musician making a music video is very likely to sound cool and even look cool, but what caught me off guard was that this guy moved cool. I was professionally intrigued. It was fascinating to watch the economy of movement, the fluidity and intent of his movements.

I had two takeaways from this experience. First (to borrow a phrase from Paul Wilson over at Karate Café) I basically have a "karate crush" on a drummer.  That will definitely get me laughed out of some circles.

Laugh all you want, but first tell me you don't wish you
had this guy's fluidity.

Second, it occurred to me very abruptly that drummers and martial artists probably spend about an equal amount of time thinking about hitting things. I thought there must be quirks of biomechanics that are common between the two, and details or ideas that drummers and martial artists could learn from each other.

Drumming and martial arts have been part of the human condition for pretty much as long as there have been humans.  There has never been any culture on Earth without music and drumming, and martial arts have been around since the first time a caveman punched another caveman in the face.  These are two disciplines that are so intimately connected to who we are as human beings, that it seemed inevitable that there would be some overlap.

Going on that idea and not much else, I signed up for drumming lessons. Opening my school has meant that my "martial journeys" are going to have to be more metaphorical than literal. The sea is calling me, but I can't travel right now. I also took to heart the advice of some martial artists who I greatly respect, especially Master Do Ki Hyun when he said that a martial artist should "read a lot of books" about anything and everything because "the more knowledge you have, the better you can understand your martial art." He even learned two styles of dance to improve his taekyun.  Sensei Kris Wilder expressed a similar sentiment when he harped on the importance of exploring outside of your field.  He talked about how it can open doors for you, and how at worst it's just going to be an interesting dead end.

This is how Kai Andersen got a really weird student. I'm the last in the line of people who will ever be amazing drummers, but Kai has been more than patient with me. He has been teaching drum set for 15 years and playing since the 7th grade.  He has been in bands since then, and still is. He plays just about any style of music, but might give you a dirty look if you mention country music. He also has a degree in journalism, and works for a radio station.

Is this photo in black and white, or are Kai and his drums just covered in that
much ice?  It's winter in Wisconsin, so you can never tell.  Photo credit.

So that just leaves one last introduction—the drummer from the video that inspired this whole project. That was Casey Grillo, who is most famous for his work with Kamelot over the past 20 years, but he can and will play anything.  He started touring at the age of 16 with Debra Dejean.  He owns a custom drum head company and used to teach drumming. He's also apparently willing to be interviewed for martial arts blogs. I caught up with him when he came to Madison playing for Queensrÿche. Coincidentally, he also bears some physical resemblance to Buddy Rich, which will be important later.

Casey Grillo is almost as blurry in this picture as he is in the pictures I took
myself.  Thanks Jon Freeman for rescuing my blog from my terrible
photography.  Photo credit.

Turning off all the snark for just a moment, let me say thanks to all the people who helped make this project possible, but especially Kai Andersen, Casey Grillo, Bekah Simmons, Ruth Hansen, Iain Abernethy, and my students.

1.  The Intangible Skills, Character Building, and the Pursuit of Excellence.

The first people I interviewed for this project were martial artists who had dabbled in drumming.  When I asked them what they felt the overlap was, their answers tended to be along the lines of discipline and patience toward practice, the value of hard work and perseverance, and the like.  Originally I hadn't intended to include any of these answers in this post, because to quote Mark Law's excellent judo book, Falling Hard, "We can declaim that self-discipline, initiative, confidence, and courage are all fostered by judo, while we neglect to remind ourselves that these are also the very qualities required to be a successful bank robber."  Intangible skills like these are valuable in practically any pursuit, and can be pursued in practically any field.  For this project I was more interested in gems that might not be learned elsewhere.

Drumming and martial arts are both harder when cats are involved.
But then again, so is everything.  Also, yes, that is where I practice.
Who will trade his hi-hat for my boxes?

I changed my mind when I saw how much the drumming community emphasizes these things.  I was a little worried asking an extremely accomplished drummer like Casey Grillo about what he is still learning.  That wouldn't be an insult in the martial arts world, but what about drumming?  My fears were unfounded and he (like everyone else) emphatically told me that no one ever is so good that they can't get better.  My favorite example of this came from something Buddy Rich said at the age of 69, shortly before he died and long after he had first been heralded as "the world's greatest drummer."  He said, "This is something that you have to become dedicated to it. ... It is something that you learn constantly.  I'm still learning."  There are a lot of martial artists (myself included!) who hope to be saying something similar at the age of 69.

In a similar vein, I listened to this list of lessons learned from interviewing hundreds of great drummers.  It's worth your time even if you have no interest in drumming, but martial artists will find familiarity in items like "everything takes time" and "hard work and consistency are the differentiators," as will harping on ideas like the importance of being humble and having a great attitude.

2.  Broad Physical Skills and Technique Development

The physical overlap between drumming and martial arts seems to come down to who you ask--if it's a drummer who does martial arts or a martial artist who plays the drums.

Buddy Rich was dismissive of the idea that karate could influence drumming technique, because the movements require different muscles.  Certainly that makes sense, in the same way that you wouldn't practice punching to improve your kicking.  He did say, however, that martial arts training was good for his drumming by improving his overall health, stamina, energy, and his speed.  Those are curious points because each item in that list resonates with something he was known for--his back problems and multiple heart attacks, the way he would end a performance being drenched in sweat, and the kind of speed that caused problems for the video technology of the day.  He had the same problem as Bruce Lee, where he was just too fast to be recorded well.  In Bruce Lee's case, they could slow him down and get a decent result.  But a lot of video of Buddy Rich looks very choppy because the frame rate was just too slow to catch what he was doing.

Whoa, there are pictures of Buddy Rich in
the public domain?  Yay!  Photo credit.

Casey Grillo had a similar take on physical activities and their overlap with drumming.  He uses long distance running for conditioning "because for being able to play double bass fast for long periods of time, the running definitely helps."  He also suggested that activities like kiteboarding can improve balance, which is also helpful to his playing.

At my level, I'm not very physically active when I'm drumming, so I don't think my martial arts experience has had that kind of impact on my playing.  The only physical overlap that I have noticed was a fill that was giving me particular trouble.  I was getting my hands tangled up together until I associated the fill with a tai chi movement that would get my hands out of each other's way.  Then the fill straightened itself out.

Other martial artists who have taken up drumming mentioned similar experiences, saying that drumming was easier to learn because martial arts had already taught them coordination and some measure of limb independence.  Kai said that this is consistent with what he's seen in his other students who train in martial arts.

The most fascinating thing about this to me is that anyone who was a martial artist first and a drummer second felt that their martial arts background helped them with their technique and nothing else.  Then Buddy Rich, who is the only person in this case study who was a drummer first and a martial artist second, seemed to strongly believe the opposite.  It's natural that when people learn a new skill, they take what they already know from elsewhere to help them with it.  I wonder very much what Buddy Rich was like as a martial arts student.  I'd love to be like a fly on the wall during one of his lessons and try to see how much his drumming influenced his martial arts training.

3.  Martial Artists Use Rhythm.  A Lot.  (No, really a LOT.)

The notion of martial artists using rhythm is not a new one.  We usually don't call it rhythm--we call it timing.  But if it quacks like an eighth note...

Quacks like an 8th note!  I'm HILARIOUS!  Or something.

In the past when I thought about rhythm in martial arts, I thought of things like taekyun's dancelike method for teaching timing by using a distinctive 3-beat rhythm, or drills that use rhythm to develop coordination.  I've even taught rhythm, albeit in the very crude way that martial artists tend to approach rhythm.  Sensei Ando, who has a YouTube channel full of good drills and ideas, put an excellent example of this into video form, where he's using rhythm to teach technique and posture.

After starting with drums, I've started seeing exactly how prevalent rhythm is in everything we do.  It's so much more than just when a technique should land.  Every single movement, even just parts of a technique, has a rhythm to it.

One example that shocked me early on was while I was teaching a student who was struggling with a speed drill that every taekwondo practitioner will recognize--hopping in between roundhouse kicks.

This is a common way to build speed for sparring,
later replacing the hop with more advanced footwork.

For my struggling student, I did the normal process of breaking down the drill in different ways to try to find something that clicked for him, but nothing was getting through.  The way his feet moved reminded me very much of how my sticks moved when I first tried to play a simple beat.  This particular student had played the trumpet for years, so I was sure he could handle a slightly more nuanced rhythm lesson.  I had him hop on one foot and count eighth notes (for those not musically inclined, this is usually done by saying "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and") and let his other foot only touch the ground on the "ands" and hit the target on the numbers.  It wasn't a magic bullet, but it helped him a lot.

4.  Managing Looseness and Tension

In my (granted, limited) experience, pretty much any drummer will tell you that it's important to stay loose and relaxed.  But if you press them, a lot of them (including Casey and Kai) will admit that tension has a role to play, too, but they don't put a lot of thought into that tension.  That mirrors the martial arts world fairly well, in that looseness has such an important role to play in movement and power generation, but so does tension.  We don't usually emphasize tension, though, because tension is easy.  It's developing that looseness that's hard.

Fortunately, I got some good advice on this.  In drumming, getting that looseness seems to come down to four main pieces: warming up, mentality, breathing, and practice.  (Sound familiar?  I hope so.)

  • Warming Up - As far as I can tell, there's no standard way of warming up in the drumming world.  Some people do stretches, others work rudiments as quickly as they can, others play simple patterns to a metronome, and so forth.  Kai emphasizes the importance of being hydrated.  Basically, it's as all-over-the-place as warm ups in the martial arts world.  But practically everyone agrees that warming up is essential to playing well, by having that looseness and the fluidity and speed that comes with it.
  • Mentality - Kai especially had a lot of interesting things to say about "mentally getting into that space where you can stay relaxed."  What martial artists might describe as focus or discipline, Kai described like this:  "I think it's a serious conversation you have to have with yourself constantly.  I always tell everybody ... you constantly have to keep yourself in check.  Constantly remind yourself, because otherwise you get excited and just lose your technique. So I think a lot of that is having a real good internal dialogue with yourself pretty much constantly while you're practicing."  If you're a martial artist and have never fallen into the trap of tensing up when you're nervous, concentrating, or even just losing your fluidity because you're focusing on something else, you are definitely in the minority.  One common pitfall is clenching the jaw--something I've never done in martial arts, but I catch myself doing a lot as a drummer.  Weird.
  • Breathing - Casey told me that some drummers have specific breathing techniques, but the people I talked to didn't.  Still, they agreed that breathing was important for staying fluid.  They didn't think about their breathing.  The important thing is to make sure you're not holding your breath.  Unfortunately, it's pretty common to start holding your breath when you're concentrating.
  • Practice - Of course, a lot of it comes down to repetition.  When movements are familiar, they are more efficient and comfortable.  When I asked Casey about his fluidity, he told me it came from playing in a Top 40 band, four hours a night, six nights a week, 50 weeks a year, for 15 years.  (Casey, if you're reading this, I don't say this very often to people who aren't martial artists, but you are way better at hitting things than I am.  I guess this explains why.)  Maybe take that thought and throw a few extra kicks today.
15 years x 50 week/year x 6 nights/week x 4 hours/night x 60 minutes/hour x
maybe averaging 300 strokes per minute = Maybe I should be getting my own
reps in instead of doing math.  300 kicks per minute, though?  Photo credit.


5.  Being Smarter About Overuse Injuries

One thing that the average martial artist could probably learn from the average drummer is a healthier attitude toward repetitive stress injuries. I'm not talking about the injuries that come from the punch you didn't quite evade or the breakfall that went badly—I'm talking about the joint pain that comes from repeated incorrect movement. This is something I've ranted about in the past, and I will scream it from the rooftops until the day I can't tie my belt anymore: your art should make you stronger, not weaker. There are times to be tough, but a repetitive stress injury is not one of them. I've seen students, usually testosterone-poisoned teenagers, respond to my caution toward injuries with "I ain't scared of nothin'!" To which I reply, "Well, try to develop a mild fear of doing permanent damage to your body." More often, though, students bear it silently and an instructor has to be very attentive to realize anything is wrong. I've seen students, usually older adults who learned their stances from someone else, respond to a correction with an awed, "I don't feel any pain at all when I do it this way!" To which I reply, "You're not supposed to! Your technique shouldn't injure YOU. It should injure the OTHER GUY."

Drummers don't seem to have this problem. If a drummer's back, hip, wrist, or whatever starts hurting, nobody seems to think the solution is to just toughen up and keep doing the same thing. I was told in a very early lesson that if something hurts, even if you're doing it "correctly," you need to change it. We could use more of this attitude in martial arts, where instructors sometimes rigidly adhere to stylistic details that are not healthy or safe for some body types.

6. Thinking Ahead to Optimize Solo Performance

Whenever I do an interview for Martial Journeys, there's no telling what's going to happen. I'm going to relate a somewhat personal story here. At one point Casey said that when he's playing he's thinking not about what he's doing but about what he's about to be doing. When he said that, I had a sudden flashback to when I was training seriously for forms (kata) competition.

Yep, that was me doing my thing.

I took silver at Nationals twice before I grudgingly had to accept that there was no gold at the end of this rainbow and I would never do any better. But back when I was training that seriously and at the top of my game, that's exactly how it was for me, too, all the time. Once a movement was done, it was completely inconsequential. Even when it was in progress, once I was committed to the movement, it was too late to change it, so it was a waste of mental processing power to think about it. I was always thinking at least one movement ahead of where I was.

I don't train that way anymore now that I'm not competing. My limited training time has to be optimized for my current situation and new goals. But remembering it so vividly in the middle of doing an interview was a gut punch. Getting all nostalgic would have been exceedingly unprofessional, so of course I just finished the interview. But if that hasn't haunted me for days weeks… anyway, I'll round out this bullet point by saying that thinking one step ahead is a good way to train for solo performance.

7. Larger Muscles vs. Smaller Muscles

One thing that absolutely floored me over the course of this project was something Casey Grillo said in his instructional DVD.  (It's out of print, but my Google-fu is strong and I was able to buy a copy.  Tracking that down was no small feat, probably my greatest accomplishment in drumming.  But this story ends with Casey finding out I was looking for it and even agreeing to be interviewed, so I can't complain.  Anyway, I digress.)

Here's the thing that shocked me in the DVD, where he's talking about playing fast double bass:

"Basically, the feet are floating, and you're using your ankles instead of your legs when you play double bass.  What happens with most players is they ... use their whole legs and they are pounding back and forth. ... So what's happening with the floating feet technique is we're not using our leg, the full leg, we're using our ankle, and it's just basically moving back and forth, and it's making a really fast motion. ... This, for me, is the fastest way to play, and I don't get fatigued, ...  And what you should do, you should play with this ... and see what muscles it's really working.  If it's working your bigger muscles, you probably don't want that."

Wait what?

In martial arts, if you use your smaller muscles to power your movements, you are going to at least have a bad day, and maybe even some significant injuries.  My first thought was that he must be conserving energy by moving less of his body.  Of course you'll be less fatigued if you move only your feet and not your whole leg.  But no, his whole leg moves when he plays.  I can't say I understand exactly what he's doing, and I don't have enough bass drums to even try it, let alone learn it.

I can't show Casey's DVD because that's copyrighted
material, so thanks Ryan Alexander Bloom for making 
this video of similar movement publicly available.

So I ended up approaching this from a very academic direction.  Preferring large muscles over small muscles was something that I thought was a universal principle not just in martial arts, but in body movement in general.  But here I've seen a glaring exception to that rule, and I wondered if there are any similar exceptions in martial arts that I had overlooked.  Maybe there's some weird joint lock or something where you're not displacing much of your own body or the other person's, and it is better to use smaller muscles to drive the technique?  For the life of me I can't think of one.  Even so, I don't think it was a waste of my time to really think about and analyze the muscles I'm using for various movements.  In fact I'd say it's a valuable exercise for anyone to try.

8. Balance and the Importance of the Throne

So a drummer's seat is called a throne, like you're going to rule the world from the center of the universe or something.  Martial arts instructors don't get to laugh at this, since we get paid to be called sir or ma'am and have people bow to us while we yell stuff at them.

Snark aside, the way drummers talk about the throne often reminds me of tai chi.  The throne is a drummer's connection to the ground, and it's the source of the drummer's balance.  Drummer and biomechanics expert Brandon Green says, "Really we should be building our drum set entirely around the drum throne."  Casey Grillo hauls his throne all over the world because he won't use any throne other than his own.  He also devotes an entire chapter of his DVD to the importance of the throne and how it contributes to very nuanced balance work--such that just moving one arm to a drum on the opposite side of the body can shift the drummer's weight enough to disrupt the balance and pedal work.

You can only train in tai chi for so long before you hear some variation of this blurb from the Tai Chi Classics:

"Tai chi is rooted in the feet, powered in the legs, directed in the hips and expressed in the hands."

In both drumming and martial arts, the untrained eye focuses on the extremity that's doing the hitting.  We see a hand doing some intricate work with a drum stick the way people see us twisting our hands around to create a joint lock.  What the hands are doing is important, but that movement all starts closer to the core.  It's the rest of the body being in the right position that makes that intricate hand work possible.  And that body positioning comes from being properly balanced, and the balance comes from being properly rooted to the ground.

9.  Using Rhythm to Manipulate an Opponent

Some pretty standard Lesson 1 stuff for learning to play drums.

Some of these are more difficult than others.  With my limited musical background (a handful of instruments I played for 1-2 years each as a kid) it was very strange to me that playing the exact same beat but delaying a bass drum hit by a fraction of a second could make such a huge difference in the difficulty.  Moreover I learned from Kai that this wasn't just a quirk of my experience, and in fact the ones that were hard for me are hard for most beginners.

I absolutely loved what Casey had to say about this phenomenon (after a quick detour to encourage me just because I mentioned that something was difficult--class act).  Basically, he explained that rhythms are more difficult when you put things in between other things.  "You're filling in gaps.  ... There are these subdivisions." He was pointing to some 8th notes and 16th notes in my lesson book.  "And you can divide it way more than that.  You can have 32nd notes, 64th notes, basically you have 64 notes in a measure, it's pretty stinking fast.  And you can take some away.  Like these 8th rests, you can put a little rest in between those, a little bitty gap."  Essentially, the difficulty comes from the speed and/or complexity that comes from subdividing and inserting something in between those subdivisions.

This reminded me greatly of something I heard from Ruth Hansen, a martial artist who has dabbled in drumming.  She recalled her first tournament sparring experience like this: "She came at me throwing continuous rear leg roundhouse kicks.  It was my first tournament, so in the moment I didn't know what to do.  Later it was obvious; strike between the rhythm of her kicks.  I couldn't, at the time, because I was standing wrong, my feet too far apart to change up my own rhythm."

I like this example because it is simple, but advanced tournament fighters use the same principle.  If you can land your scoring technique while your opponent is in the middle of a transition, they are especially vulnerable.  This inevitably involves sneaking your technique in between whatever movements your opponent is doing.

So, the way you make a rhythm difficult for a drummer is the same way you make things difficult for your opponent--by getting in between.


10.  Establishing and Breaking Rhythm

Taking this idea one step further, it's easier to score your points if you are the one who sets up your opponent's rhythm.

I happened across this fascinating quote by drummer and author John Lamb:

"You should define rhythm according to how the brain and the body changes when you listen to rhythm.  And to make a long story short it's actually pretty straightforward and really well studied in the field of music therapy. ... Basically when we listen to rhythm, when we listen to music, our brain synchronizes to the music ... [it's] a bit of a simplification, but we start to think in time with the music.  And so rhythm isn't a thing that we have.  There's no metronome in the brain that keeps perfect time.  Instead, it's something that we're in.  It is something that is by definition shared."

This is extremely useful information to competition fighters.  If you can synchronize your opponent's brain to your rhythm, how much easier would it be to get your points?  A lot.

Bill "Superfoot" Wallace had a very effective way of doing this.  It's not a terribly unique strategy, but he was uniquely good at it.  (If you go to his seminar, he'll break it down in all the gritty detail, but for our purposes I'll just give you the broad strokes.)

  • First he would skip in and throw some kick, not intending to score and intentionally coming up short.  Then he'd immediately fall back to a comfortable sparring distance.
  • He would then skip in and throw the exact same kick again, but this time a little deeper so that his opponent would have to move.  This is enough to establish the pattern.  His opponent is now in this rhythm: watch the skip, watch the kick, evade; watch the skip, watch the kick, evade.  
  • On the third time, he would spring the trap.  He would skip in and kick according to the established rhythm, but it would be a different kick.  If his opponent was expecting a roundhouse kick to the right side of the head, he might evade by shifting to the left with his hand up on the right side of his face.  But if the attack is now a hook kick coming to the left side of his head, his evasion will do him no good and he'll eat the kick.

There are a lot of good fighters who do this, or some variation of it.  As a general rule of thumb, if someone reacts the same way twice, there is a very high probability that they will do it a third time.  Build your rhythm with your opponent, and once they are in your rhythm, you know what they will do and when they will do it.  Hit them where and when they are vulnerable.  Easier said than done, of course, but this is the principle of how it works.

11. Another Take on Forms/Patterns/Kata

People practice forms in a lot of different ways for a variety of purposes.  Some take it seriously strictly as a self defense textbook, others focus on performing for competition, and some enjoy it just as a solo workout.  Others use it as a connection to the great martial artists of the past, in a way that Sensei Iain Abernethy explains far more eloquently than I can:

"When we read a good poem, or listen to a good piece of music, we can connect with the thoughts and emotions of the people who produced those works. It's more than letters on a page or vibrations through the air. Good art can profoundly connect two human beings in a shared experience. Kata is similar. When we move in the way the past masters moved, when we connect with them through their work; we gain the opportunity to feel what they felt and think what they thought. We are walking in the footsteps of the past masters when practicing and studying their kata. It's much deeper than just mimicked motion."

Drummers don't do kata per se.  It would be very unusual for a drummer to try to completely copy another drummer's movement, right down to their look and mannerisms.  But wouldn't it be interesting if somebody tried it?  If a skilled drummer tried to copy a great drummer of the past as perfectly as possible, to "move in the way the past masters moved" and connect with that past artist in a way that martial artists sometimes do but drummers usually don't?  Wouldn't it be cool if I could interview someone who did that?  I'm just kidding, I totally did.  Here's Casey Grillo auditioning to play Buddy Rich in a movie.


What Casey Grillo is doing here seems very kata-like.

Casey wasn't doing this as a learning exercise, but he ended up learning nonetheless.  The experience caused permanent changes to his drumming.  "That was my first time ever playing traditional grip."  He still mostly uses matched grip, but now he has another tool in his toolbox, and it comes out sometimes.  But there was a more sweeping change to his playing as well.  "Also I tilted my snare like Buddy to try to make it more authentic like him, and that was the first time I ever did that. ... That's the way I do it now.  I just did it for the video, but after I did it I thought, 'Wow, this kind of makes sense.'  It just stayed like that.  I started tilting everything else now, too. ... It's more comfortable.  I can be more on top of the kit instead of leaning back."

Seems like there's something to be said for "walking in the footsteps of the past masters."

-

This series will be continued with Drumming-Inspired Martial Arts Training: Martial Arts and Drumming Part III.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

How to Teach or Learn Any Physical Skill: Martial Arts and Drumming Part I

This is Part 1 of 3 in the Martial Arts and Drumming series.

This project started innocently enough.  I thought that in lieu of my 50 States Challenge, I'd try something I've never done before and see what I could learn from it as a martial artist.  My vision was distant and vague, but I thought I'd write a blog post for my students to illustrate the value in being open-minded to new experiences and willing to learn in any situation. 

Four months of drumming lessons, interviews and general pandemonium later, this sure has snowballed.  I'm honored that there has been so much interest in this project.  I have been very far outside of my comfort zone on this project, and it has been one crazy and awesome ride.  I hope you find something of value here, or at least that you enjoy it even half as much as I did.


Being a Terrible Drummer (or a terrible martial artist for that matter)

There is very little about drumming that I can speak to with any degree of authority, but one thing I can say is that being a terrible drummer is awesome.  It is so awesome that I almost feel sorry for people who are actually good at it.

As a beginner, I'm supposed to be a terrible drummer, but more importantly, I'm allowed to be a terrible drummer.  I can sit down to practice some simple rhythm and make a mistake in every single measure, and the worst thing that is going to happen is a big dopey grin.  The stick in my left hand can bounce so chaotically that you might think I have some serious medical condition, but that just makes two consecutive good strokes feel like a real victory.  Move over, Hercules—this legend just played a whole fill!  (Cue the cheers and ticker tape.)

I will never look this cool playing the drums.  Good thing
blogging is the ultimate form of artistic expression.  It is, right?

I don’t have that in martial arts anymore, and haven’t for a long time.  In martial arts, I have expectations on me.  If I do something badly, it reflects poorly on me, my school, and my instructors.  I have students who are counting on me to train them well, provide good information and set a great example.  Don't get me wrong—I love it.  It's still fun, but it's a very different kind of fun. 

As an instructor, I greatly enjoy seeing a struggling white belt who is having fun.  Here's the thing about people who do something badly and are still having fun:  if they're having fun, they're going to practice.  If they practice, they'll get better.  In my experience, the people who are having fun in martial arts go the farthest, regardless of whatever natural talent they may or may not have.  They're the ones who stick with it and persevere when things get tough.

So what that means for me as a terrible drummer is that it's just a matter of time before I'm merely a bad drummer.  If being a bad drummer is as much fun as being a terrible drummer, I'll someday be a mediocre drummer.  And if that's fun, well, by then I'll probably be 150 years old and my interest will probably have waned, but you get the idea.  When I started martial arts, I never thought I'd do any of the crazy things I did.  I was one of those picked-last-in-gym-class kids.  When I was a white belt, I had this lofty goal of being a green belt someday.  People who know me as a 4th degree black belt tend to find that pretty funny, but there's an important lesson there.  Please, if you take nothing else from this blog, just go do something fun.  Don't worry about whether or not you're good at it.

That said, let me set this straight now.  There will never be video evidence of me playing drums.  That would be ceaselessly vain.  (Would you keep reading if you knew that I was lying?)

I have no idea what I'm doing! Photo credit.

One caveat that instructors need to watch out for is that teaching your students to love an activity is a learning goal, not a retention goal.  Especially when it comes to teaching kids, sometimes the students' enjoyment of class is cynically filed under business goals, because if they're having fun their parents will keep paying.  There's some truth to that, but by thinking of fun as a retention mechanism and not a learning mechanism, you're doing your students a disservice.  Likewise, teaching your students to enjoy martial arts is not the same as teaching them to enjoy a class.  You can take a group of kids, play games with them for 90% of a class, and send them home happy.  They might have had fun, but they have not learned to enjoy martial arts.  As an instructor, your challenge is to make the 100th roundhouse kick of the day as fun and engaging as the 10th.  Then your students have learned their roundhouse kick lesson and also have developed a positive attitude toward roundhouse kicks.


Poison for Beginners

Being a beginner is a delicate time when you're deciding whether this new activity is for you.  The best thing a beginner can do is establish a positive relationship with whatever they're trying to learn, whether it's drumming or martial arts or anything else.  If you can love it, you're halfway there at least.  If that means skipping a day when you're not in the mood, that is completely fine for a beginner!  Having the discipline to practice when you're not in the mood comes later, after you have already decided that what you're doing is important enough to endure the grind.

I absolutely hate it when people advise beginners to practice every day.  No one gets good at anything because they decide they will practice every day.  They get good either because they are forced to practice, or because they love doing it.  If they are forced, they will resent the activity and quit as soon as they can.  It's the people who love it who go on to become great.  Look at any great achiever in any field.  They didn't get there without hard work, but the passion always comes first.  It's that passion that allowed them to do all that work.  You're no different, and your students are no different.

Let's not poison this eager learner.

Poison for beginners is anything that can damage the student's relationship with the activity.  It can come in a lot of forms, but the most common forms are frustration and boredom.  If you're the instructor, you need to read your beginners very well and steer them clear.  This is easier said than done of course, but a good teacher can do it by encouraging at the right times, pacing the lesson well, or scaling the difficulty of the practice.

I was very lucky to have a drum instructor who excelled at this, and I'll share a story about that later, but first I need to introduce one more concept...


The Uncomfortable Place of Growth

The "uncomfortable place" is practice that is at the optimal challenge level.  It is right at the very limit of your skill where you are working very hard.  Being there gets you the most efficient growth but is exhausting.  If it's too hard, you'll get very little out of it.  If it's too easy, you'll get even less.  It's that sweet spot in between where the growth happens, but it is by nature uncomfortable.  That's why it's called "being out of your comfort zone."

How much time you should spend in that uncomfortable place depends on a lot of things.  Beginners should keep their time in that zone short.  Too much time in the uncomfortable place can make them learn to dislike the activity because practicing that way is decidedly not fun.  They might approach that place with enthusiasm, but staying there too long without breaks will wear anyone down.  Age matters, but not as much as temperament.  Reading the student(s) is paramount.

Adults often (but not always) have more patience for
the uncomfortable place than young kids do.

One thing to keep in mind is that there are two ways out of the uncomfortable place.  A good teacher knows how and when to manage both of them.  The first is when the student gets better.  Suppose you're working on some detail of your technique--let's say keeping the spine straight and relaxed during a front kick.  Let's say you get it right 10% of the time, so you practice for half an hour until you get it right 90% of the time.  By the end of that half hour, you are no longer in the uncomfortable place.  You are enjoying a high success rate, and you are still improving, but not as much or as quickly as you were before.  If you want to stay in the uncomfortable place, you need to increase the difficulty, for example by increasing the speed.

The second way out of the uncomfortable place is when you dial back the difficulty of the practice.  Let's go back to the front kick spine example.  Let's say the student is getting it right 10% of the time, and after half an hour of practice he's getting it right 15% of the time.  This student is absolutely still in the uncomfortable place.  However, this student is also getting poison.  Veteran martial artists (or substitute any skill you like) have already made a commitment to their art, and can endure a little poison.  But the beginner who is still deciding whether they like this crazy martial arts thing is not likely to respond well to the frustration.  Even if they're not frustrated, they are most likely not having fun.

I've seen instructors who are very good at reading their students, and others who are completely oblivious.  I've seen my drum instructor spin on a dime when he suspected I was getting frustrated, changing gears so fast it was almost comical.  It's exactly what I would have done--it's better to overreact than underreact with beginners.  On the other extreme, I once saw a martial arts instructor bombard a beginner with a dozen details on one movement for a full hour with no breaks from being in the uncomfortable place.  This usually does not end well.

It doesn't always end badly, though.  It all comes down to reading the student, and as promised I have a story about my drum instructor doing this to me successfully.  One day I wondered if my instructor (Kai Andersen, who I will introduce properly in Part II of this series) might be a bit perplexed because most of the music I listen to doesn't lend itself to beginner drum lessons.  So I suggested a song that was slow and repetitive enough that I might be able to play it.  At my next lesson, he listened to the song for the first time.  He penciled some changes to a couple exercises in my lesson book so that I essentially had sheet music for the song.  But since what he had written was still too advanced for me, he scaled it back and built a challenge-appropriate lesson on the fly using that song as a guide, and I spent the entire time in the uncomfortable place, making good progress.  I was mentally exhausted by the end of it, and also really impressed with Kai.


Can You Even Teach Art?

A while back, Barry Eisler did an interview with Kris Wilder (the entire interview is here, and well worth your time) and had this to say on the topic of teaching art:

"There's this stupid meme that goes around in the writing world which is... 'You can't teach writing and you can't teach art.'  This is a dumb thing to say, and here's why.  It's true that you can't teach art directly, but art is built on craft. ... You can't express yourself as an artist if you don't have a deep understanding of craft, and craft can be taught."

This reminded me greatly of something Grandmaster Park used to talk about.  He didn't call it craft; he called it steps.  He would say that learning steps was easy, but making art was very hard.  One day after watching my Jang Kwon he told me that my steps were as technically correct as they could be, and now I have to make art.  He said that only comes after years and years of practice.  Back then I didn't really understand what he was saying, and certainly it's possible that I still don't.  In the wake of this project, I think I understand him better now.  At the time, I was saddened thinking that he didn't want to teach me anymore.  In retrospect, that was ridiculous and I feel awfully foolish even typing that out.  Now I think that he was telling me that he had taught me the craft to the limit of what can be taught, and any improvement from there would have to be my own expression.


The difference between art and craft: Picasso's
Tête was made by cutting and pasting paper, not
because that was the limit of his craft, but
because that was his artistic choice.

Eisler goes on to say, "One of the ways that craft should be and can be taught and learned is pay attention to the art.  Experience it, enjoy it...  If you read a passage in a book and it blows you away for some reason... If you're just a reader, ... why would you want to pause to say 'why did this blow me away so much?'  But if you are a writer and you are trying to become a better writer, you might pause and say, '...this passage had a magical effect on me, but it's not real magic.'  There must be something that the writer is doing that created that effect, and there is.  There always is. ... You can definitely extract certain techniques by watching and thinking about what the other person is doing."  He goes into specific examples like appealing to multiple senses and juxtaposing nearby details against a wider view of the scene.  

He even ties it back specifically to martial arts, saying, "When you start asking yourself those questions, then you can start to see the craft behind the art, and the more conscious you become of craft, the more you can duplicate it yourself.  And it's true for anything.  It's true in martial arts, self defense… The first time someone does something to you, it feels like magic.  Like, 'Oh my God, how did you do that?  I'm on my butt!'"  Of course, it's not magic.  It's applied movement and biomechanics--things that can be learned.

I'm going to take it a step farther than he did, though. I'm going to claim that you can't teach art, and really you can't teach craft either. Even if you're the best martial arts instructor in the world, you can't really teach martial arts. All you can do is make it easy for someone to learn. Kris Wilder once told me that teaching is about helping people find something inside them that was already there, and he was so right. The student is the one who has to make the learning happen. The instructor can and should be a big part of that, but ultimately you can't make students learn, you can only let them learn.

That doesn't mean that if your students aren't learning it's not your fault.  It means that your job is a lot harder than it seems on the surface.

So how do you make something easy to learn? Of course you must have the skill you hope to impart, but mostly it comes down to creating the right experience for the students. A great instructor can optimize your training time, motivate you to push yourself, make it easy to grasp difficult concepts, keep you focused, balance the time you spend in the uncomfortable place, and make practice enjoyable enough to be continued. That is how craft is "taught," by effectively creating experiences that allow the students to learn.

Eisler's idea of analyzing art to learn craft has been at the front of the chaos in my mind over the course of this project. One thing that struck me is the thought that like writers, drummers and martial arts instructors are in the business of creating experiences.

Engaging Crowds, Classes and Individuals

First let's take a little break and watch Casey Grillo do a drum solo.  I interviewed him for this project and I'll introduce him properly in Part II, but for now just enjoy...




That was fun, but why? What exactly was he doing that got the audience to respond the way they did? These questions are perhaps too advanced for me. I'm at the level where any day that I don't hit myself with my sticks is a good day, so some things under the sun just aren't going to be understood. This video was taken at a Kamelot concert, in front of his own fans, and that probably meant the crowd was especially receptive to what he was doing. But I saw him subbing for another drummer in another band, and he got similar reactions out of Scott Rockenfield's fans.

Since I'm so far out of my depth on this one, I'm going to break this down in terms of what I already know about engaging people. I have taught martial art classes of a wide range of ages and experience levels, with students of varying degrees of physical wellness--sometimes all at once. I've also taught English as a second language to all ages and skill levels, and to several different languages of origin. That may seem like it requires a huge set of diverse skills (and in a way, it does) but ultimately it still comes down to reading the class and giving students the right experience so they can learn.

It's only a little different with a single student. Private lessons that are run like group classes tend to be awkward affairs. I like to allow for a more casual back-and-forth experience when I teach a single student, as that tends to be a great opportunity to create a very directed experience for exactly what that student needs. Certainly Kai teaches my drumming lessons that way as well.

When I create experiences, it's with fairly small groups. The biggest class I ever taught had about 45 people in it. That's small enough that I can speak loudly and clearly and be heard just fine. And that's good, because most of the tools in my bag rely on the spoken word. In the video, Casey is creating an experience for a much larger group using only percussive sounds and nonverbal cues. That's practically magic to me because the techniques are so different, but some of the broader ideas are the same.

Looking at these three scenarios, I notice four things in the video that are relevant to creating engaging experiences for crowds, classes and individuals. There may be others, but as I see it, an experience is most engaging when:

1. It is interactive. Getting people involved, whether they're clapping along with your drum solo, or seeing how hard they can kick a target, or bringing in their own songs to a drumming lesson, makes for a more engaging experience.

2. The pacing is good. One thing I notice about that drum solo is that he changes up what he's doing fairly often. It might be more impressive to pick the most challenging part and just do that continuously for four minutes, but that wouldn't be as engaging. Changing up the activity is extremely important in teaching as well. Not only does it keep people from getting bored, but it also makes it easier to learn because lessons sink in better if you break up your explanations with practice and vice versa.

3. It ends when it should. Grandmaster Park told me once that beginners' classes should be no more than 50 minutes. Any longer than that, and the training begins to drain on people and novices can leave with a sour taste in their mouths. But a 50-minute drum solo would probably be too long to be enjoyable. Likewise, a 4-minute martial arts class would be ridiculous.

4. It's about them. This might be my biggest pet peeve in martial arts. I've seen instructors who are incredible martial artists, but they fail as teachers because they don't make the classes about the students. They like being in charge, they like being the center of attention, or they like showing off--all of which are fine to enjoy, but if any one of those things is your priority, you will never be a good instructor. As an instructor, the only measure of your success is your students' success. Their experience. Not yours. I'll bet that a drummer who is focused on his own experience would also fall short of one who puts his audience first.

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This series will be continued with 11 Ways Drumming Can Help Your Training: Martial Arts and Drumming Part II.