Category Archive: Music

Gyokusui Shakuhachi

Gyokusui III 2.4 Shakuhachi

Gyokusui III 2.4 Shakuhachi

My wife and I recently returned from another terrific vacation in Japan, where thanks to our friends Jerry and Hiromi Schmick, we had the great fortune to meet Gyokusui III, the third generation shakuhachi maker of the Gyokusui family, and to buy an incredible shakuhachi from him.

I’ve written about the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute created by ex-samurai monks as a meditation device and musical instrument that could double as a weapon, at least twice previously.  And as I’ve also written before, the more I practice it the more I realize how great it is as a compliment to self defense/martial arts training.  Not only is it a great counter balance to hard and violent physical practice, a doorway into the optimal mental state for action, and a tool for both self expression and clearing the mind, but the traditional one-piece shakuhachi, as it was originally made, is also an amazing weapon that can be carried anywhere.

Although the shakuhachi was a one-piece instrument for centuries, the modern version being made by most Japanese makers today is made in two sections, with a joint in the middle of the flute.  This makes it much smaller for transport but nearly useless as a weapon.  Of course, the vast majority of shakuhachi players today don’t look at the flute as a weapon.  Last year I visited Kitahara, a famous shakuhachi maker in Kyoto, and bought a modern two-piece flute from him.  But as a self defense practitioner and teacher, the traditional one-piece version is much more appealing to me.

Fortunately, in addition to being a famous and highly respected maker, Gyokusui III makes shakuhachi both in the traditional and modern styles.  The most common shakuhachi size is a 1.8, which is 54.5 cm/21.5 inches, but I was looking for a longer flute with deeper tones.  So I went to Gyokusui’s place looking for a traditional one-piece in a 2.4 size, which is 75 cm / 29.5 inches.  Here is my 2.4 next to a kali stick:

Gyokusui 2.4 & Kali Stick

Gyokusui 2.4 & Kali Stick

The shakuhachi I chose is thicker and heavier than the kali sticks I typically use (which are thicker and heavier than most kali sticks).

For traveling with a flute, Jerry recommended Japanese sword and shinai bags, which I found to be perfect, and you can get them with or without a shoulder strap.  Here are two that I’m using for my 2.4:

Shakuhachi Bags

Shakuhachi Carry Bags

Gyokusui was a fantastic host, and Jerry and his wife Hiromi were great guides and translators.  We spent more than 2 hours trying numerous flutes, all incredibly beautiful instruments in both sound and appearance.

Myself and Gyokusui III

Myself and Gyokusui III

Gyokusui's House

At Gyokusui’s Place

Gyokusui Shakuhachi

A Few Gyokusui Shakuhachi

Our friend Jerry is a practicing Komuso monk, living with his wife Hiromi in Nara, and is sponsored by Gyokusui, who lives and works in Osaka.  If you’re visiting Japan and interested in an incredible shakuhachi, in either the traditional or modern style, I highly recommend Gyokusui’s instruments.

As for the sound, I’ll end this post with a recording of myself playing one of my favorite honkyoku (Zen meditation compositions), the Jin Nyodo version of Kyorei, which I played on my new shakuhachi:

Fight From the Void

Komuso Monk

Komuso Monk

If you fight from the void you’ll always win.

There are different meanings and levels of understanding of the void, all of which are valuable.

Technical Void and Physical Space

When an opponent attempts to punch you in the head there is only one small space that is immediately dangerous.  If you move anywhere else it is not dangerous.  When your opponent attacks, his effort is directed at one point.  He creates a large personal void everywhere else.  If you move into that void and attack from it your opponent will have a difficult time defending.

When you fake an attack to a particular target and your opponent reaches out or covers to defend against your attack, he creates a large personal void everywhere else.  When you redirect your attack into that void your opponent will have a difficult time defending.

When your opponent has been deceived and is entirely unaware that you will attack, his body and the area around it is a void.  When you attack from and into such a void your opponent will be unable to defend.

In the above situations there is a technical/physical void, but there is also a corresponding mental void.  Your opponent expects one thing and not another, and you attack with what he does not expect, what he is not ready for.

Mushin (No Mind)

Mushin is a state of “no mind” or “empty mind”.  It is the ideal state for high level performance not only in martial arts/self defense, but in any activity.  When you focus on one thing you are not focused on any other thing.  As a beginner, any activity requires that you focus on particular individual components of that activity.  But as you get better and better and the activity becomes natural to you, you no longer need to focus on any individual component.  You can perform from a state of mushin, with no thought to get in the way or slow you down.  When you perform from a state of mushin you are fighting from the void.

A person who fights from the void can adapt instantly to change.  A beginner will be defeated by the technical strategies listed above (interceptions, fakes, etc.), but an advanced practitioner who fights from the void can adapt to them.  This is a higher level of fighting from the void.

Here is a quote on this subject by the Japanese swordsman Yagyu Munenori translated in William Scott Wilson’s book The One Taste of Truth – Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea:

When practicing archery, if your mind is occupied by thoughts of shooting the bow, your aim will be disordered and wandering.  When using the sword, if your mind is occupied with thoughts of strikes and parries, its tip will not likely be regulated.  When practicing calligraphy, if your mind is occupied by thoughts of writing, the brush will be unsettled.  When playing the koto, if your mind is filled with thoughts of plucking the strings, the melody will be confused.

Yagyu Munenori uses examples from a variety of arts: archery, sword fighting, calligraphy, and playing the koto (a musical instrument).  Anything you do that teaches you to act from the void or get into a state of mushin, including meditation, will give you experience operating from the ideal performance state.  That experience will help you in everything else that you do, as long as you put in enough practice time to make the fundamental movements second nature.

It’s no wonder that out-of-work samurai formed the Fuke Sect of Zen and spent their days playing the shakuhachi…

Blowing From the Void

Mujitsu Shakuhachi

Mujitsu Shakuhachi

The idea for this post came from my last shakuhachi lesson with my excellent teacher, Jon Kypros.  A few of my recent posts have been related to the shakuhachi and how they were designed to be used as weapons by samurai monks.  The more I play and learn about the instrument, the more I realize how perfectly the instrument and its original music complements martial arts practice.  I would go as far as to say that anyone who wants to get deep into martial arts would benefit from playing the shakuhachi for a variety of reasons.

In shakuhachi honkyoku music, it is taught that the empty space or void between the sound is as important as the sound itself.  An ideal is for the sound of the flute to ring out of the void*, and in order to do this well it must be played from a state of mushin.

In my last lesson my teacher mentioned that he spent three years practicing before he felt good about playing a certain two notes in succession.  To sound right they need to ring out of nothingness with the right attack, and the duration of each note must be fitting.  This idea of ringing out of the void gave me a new way to think about strategy and tactics in martial arts/self defense.  As I said, it’s no surprise that out-of-work samurai formed the Fuke Sect and spent their days playing the shakuhachi.

Lauren Rubin writes:

The daily life of the Fuke monks at the temples was quite regulated and disciplined. The komusō monks engaged in suizen meditation (“blowing zen”, meditation through shakuhachi playing), zazen (seated meditation), and sutra chanting. Daily activity at the temple centered on playing the shakuhachi. The daily schedule for the monks included practicing martial arts, practicing the shakuhachi, and begging.

The shakuhachi in the picture above is one I recently purchased from Ken LaCosse (highly recommended!), which he made with a black urushi lacquer exterior coating based on vintage komuso flutes.  Ken makes two types of shakuhachi.  He calls the one I bought in the picture above a mujitsu shakuhachi, and writes that mujitsu “alludes to the contrast/connection between emptiness (mu) and form (jitsu)”.  This idea of emptiness/void and form is common in both martial arts and shakuhachi.

You can hear it in the music my teacher plays below, on one of his much longer flutes (made and for sale by him):

Sorry, this video has been removed.

Again, I highly recommend playing the shakuhachi and lessons with Jon as a compliment to your martial arts practice.  You won’t regret it.

*Two of the three most highly regarded honkyoku are named koku and kyoreiKoku translates roughly as “empty sky” or “empty space”, where empty has a meaning equivalent to the void.  The composition is written and played to express sound ringing out from the void (as the the monk Fuke’s bell rang out).  Kyorei translates roughly as “empty bell” or “empty spirit”, and again the composition reflects the sound of the monk Fuke’s bell ringing out of the void.

精華 Kitahara Seika Shakuhachi

Nanzen-ji Garden

Nanzen-ji Temple Garden

I’ve been on vacation in Japan for the last month, thus the lack of recent posts and slow responses to emails (I’ll be getting to them shortly!).  I spent a couple of months in Japan nearly 20 years ago, but hadn’t been back since then, aside from brief stop-overs.  It was even better than I remembered…fascinating history, awesome sights, great food, and ridiculously friendly and respectful people.  But most remarkable to me was the unparalleled depth and refinement of Japanese culture, likely due in part to their extreme isolation during the Tokugawa rule.  There’s no place like it, and I’ll definitely be going back again in the not too distant future.

Related to my trip…

Seika Kitahara Shakuhachi

Kitahara Seika Shakuhachi

At the end of last year I wrote a post on the shakuhachi, a beautiful Japanese flute used by Zen monks of the Fuke Sect as their primarily tool for meditation, and designed by ex-samurai Komuso monks to double as a weapon.  Prior to the Komuso redesigning the flute, it was made from a weaker section of bamboo, but the Komuso monks began using the thicker, stronger, and heavier root-end of the plant.  In addition to its uses as a meditation device and easy-to-carry-anywhere potential weapon, making it a great tool for any martial artist/self defense practitioner, the shakuhachi is an amazing musical instrument.  (See my other posts on the connection between music and martial arts, and the benefits of using music as a counter-balance to martial arts practice.)

In my previous post I mentioned having purchased two of my other shakuhachi from a guy who sells Taiwanese made flutes.  The Taiwanese made flutes are around $100 US.  They’re relatively nicely made, they’re fine for meditation or folk songs, and because they’re made in one piece they can easily double as a weapon.  But on my recent trip to Japan I discovered an entirely new level of shakuhachi.  The one I purchased is pictured at left.

My wife and I were staying in a fantastic hotel in Kyoto with the best customer service I have ever experienced in my life.  If you are going to Kyoto, you need to stay at the Mume Hotel.  I asked the hotel staff if they could put me in touch with any shakuhachi makers in Kyoto, and they set up a meeting for me with both a music store that sold them and with one of the most highly regarded shakuhachi making families there, the Kitahara family (Japanese language website here).  I had searched online before I went to Japan, but I was unable to find anything in English regarding current makers in Kyoto.  The Kitahara’s have been making shakuhachi for generations, and both Ikuya (father) and Hiroki (son) are still making them today under their company called Seika (精華).

Shakuhachi made in Japan are not cheap.  It’s hard to find them for less than $1,000 US, and the average seems to be $2,000 – $4,000, with some going up to $10,000+.  Since I primarily play the oud and am only a beginner on the shakuhachi, I wasn’t planning on buying one there.  I only wanted to see and try them, and to see what the difference was between the Taiwanese made flutes I already had and a higher quality Japanese made flute.  I was also curious about the Japanese made wooden shakuhachi as a beginner instrument.  But when I got to Kitahara’s place, picked up one of his shakuhachi, and started to play it, I couldn’t resist buying one.  The difference was extreme.  I can’t speak for other Japanese makers, but the Kitahara/Seika shakuhachi I tried were amazing professional quality instruments.  Here’s a close up of the bottom/root-end of the shakuhachi I bought:

Seika 精華 Shakuhachi

Seika 精華 Shakuhachi

Again, I’m a beginner on the shakuhachi, but I do know that the instrument has amazing expressive potential.  It only has 5 finger holes, but by changing the position and shape of your mouth relative to the blowing edge or using partial hole coverings you can play an infinite variety of tones, from the Japanese pentatonic to any other scale you can imagine.  It’s also possible to play over 3 octaves by varying the way you blow.  The finer details and subtleties of playing are where the Kitahara’s shakuhachi make a tremendous difference.  There’s just no comparison between them and my cheaper shakuhachi, or a wooden version, which I also tried.  Here’s a close up of the blowing edge:

Seika Shakuhachi Blowing Edge

Seika Shakuhachi Blowing Edge

The Kitahara’s themselves were outstanding hosts.  I visited Ikuya Kitahara four times in a week, and took a long time trying to decide which shakuhachi to buy.  There was never any pressure to buy one, and Ikuya was very helpful, giving me playing tips and helping me to see which flute was best for me personally.  If you’re going to be in Kyoto and are interested in seeing or buying a high quality shakuhachi there, I very highly recommend visiting the Kitahara’s shop.  Here’s a link to their contact page.  It’s in Japanese, but if you show it to your hotel staff they can help with the directions.

Ikuya Kitahara

Myself and Ikuya Kitahara

One issue with any shakuhachi made from bamboo in a humid climate (Japan or Taiwan) is the potential for the instrument to crack/split if your home country or home itself is drier.  Some people store their shakuhachi in a sealed plastic bag or container with a damp cloth or other specially designed humidity releasing device.  I’ve read that there are pros and cons to such methods for various reasons, although nearly everyone seems to recommend a sealed plastic bag with a source of humidity for air travel.  There is very little or no lack of consensus though for another method, one that is nearly guaranteed to prevent full cracks…binding the shakuhachi.  Unfortunately Kitahara didn’t have time to bind mine before I left, but Perry Yung, a very respected shakuhachi maker and musician in the US, made a YouTube video on how to bind a shakuhachi yourself.  I’m going to give it a try in the coming days.  Perry was very helpful in answering my questions about binding, and he also makes both professional and student level shakuhachi that I’ve read great things about.

In addition to the shakuhachi as a musical instrument and tool for meditation, I’m fascinated by the history of its development and use by the ex-samurai Komuso monks of the Fuke Sect.  In Kyoto I visited the former Fuke Sect headquarters, the Myoan-ji temple:

Myoan-ji Temple

Myoan-ji Temple, Kyoto – Fuke Sect Headquarters

Although the vast majority of modern day shakuhachi players may have little in common with wandering ex-samurai monks, particularly viewing their instruments as potential weapons, this is a self defense website after all.  So I should mention that many modern shakuhachi, including the one I bought from Kitahara, have a joint in the middle.  This makes them impossible to use as a weapon while not in a carrying case/bag, as although the joint is tight, it would come apart on impact or when swung forcefully.  With such an amazing instrument, obviously it would be preferable not to use it as a weapon anyway.  But in a worse case scenario, if the end were pushed tightly to the end of the carrying bag and the front was gripped tightly over the bag, the bag would keep the flute from separating.  😉  Kitahara gave me a nice and strong leather carrying bag.  For my other shakuhachi, which happen to be one-piece, I really like these bags.

My goal for the not too distant future is to begin learning some of the original Komuso honkyoku pieces.  Jon Kypros, my current Skype teacher, teaches the Seien ryu honkyoku, which should be great to learn.  As a sound sample, here’s a nice video of a guy paying a Tozan ryu honkyoku piece:

Say Something

My oud teacher, Mavrothi Kontanis, has been working with me recently on playing with feeling, on expressing something, on saying something through my playing.

Bruce Lee said that martial arts were for him about personal expression, about honestly expressing himself.  This concept is the key to not only doing something really well, but making an impact with whatever it is that you are doing. Watch this short clip of Bruce Lee talking about it:

Think about the music you really like.  What’s your favorite song?  I bet it gives you a feeling when you listen to it.  Think about your favorite visual art, your favorite painting.  We don’t love things because they look good or sound good.  We love things because they feel good.  The best artists are masters of expression.  And the only genuine or honest expression is self expression.

Bruce Lee said that he can “put on a show and be cocky” or “show you some really fancy movement”, but that is not honest expression.  Similarly you can listen to a musician who is great technically, who plays something fancy and impressive, and you might think…wow…that guy has great skill.  But what really sticks with you is the person who speaks to you, the person that has something to say.  You hear it, and it resonates with you.  Mavrothi told me that if I’m not saying something then I’m saying nothing.  Very uninteresting.  It’s exactly the same with martial arts.

If you want to be great at whatever it is you’re doing, you need to say something through your performance.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing music, painting, sparring, or cleaning your house.  When there is a purpose behind what you are doing, when you are expressing yourself, then you are going to make an impact.

In the above interview Bruce Lee said that honestly expressing yourself is very difficult to do, and added:

You have to train.  You have to keep your reflexes so that when you want it, it’s there.  When you want to move, you are moving.  And when you move you are determined to move.  Not anything less than that.

There are prerequisites to expressing something well, or even having the ability to express yourself at all.  You need to know what it is that you want to express.  And you need to have put in the training time, to have developed the skills to say what you want to say.  But once you do have the skills, remember that you should be expressing yourself in everything that you do.

It’s easier not to do it.  It’s easier to just go through the motions of whatever you’re doing.  When you practice martial arts/self defense, it’s easy to push hard or to move fast.  But you should be doing more.  You should be saying something to your opponent.  Through your actions, tell your opponent, “I’m going to kick your ass buddy, or I’m going to die trying!”  This can be playful of course.  I don’t mean to suggest that you should literally be kicking your training partner’s ass every time you train.  And, you can alternatively say, “I’m going to put you down without hurting you.”  But whatever you do, say something!

Shakuhachi: The Fighting Flute

Shakuhachi

Shakuhachi

A flute, a tool for meditation, and a formidable weapon created in Edo Period Japan by samurai monks called komuso (priests of nothingness), the shakuhachi is an awesome instrument.

About a year ago I posted about the connections between music, dance, and martial arts, and I posted a picture of a dongxiao flute I bought while on vacation in Taiwan.  I mentioned that the dongxiao was solid, and about the length of a kali stick.  My first thought when I picked it up in the music store was…wow…this is a weapon.  I mistakenly assumed it was a flute that had originated in China, based on the name and where I bought it.  However, it turns out that the type of flute I bought was brought to Taiwan by Japan during the 50 year Japanese occupation of Taiwan.

Shakuhachi Woodblock

Komuso Samurai Monk – 1775

The bamboo flute migrated from China to Japan more than a thousand years ago, but the shakuhachi is substantially different from those first flutes.  The bamboo flute was used by Japanese Buddhist monks of the Fuke Sect as a tool for meditation, suizen or “blowing zen”.  But during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), significant numbers of samurai found themselves without masters, ronin, and decided to become monks.  They called themselves komuso, priests of nothingness.  These ronin would often sell their swords in order to pay the fee to become a komuso monk, and would wander the country playing their flutes for money.  Having no swords, the komuso changed the design of the bamboo flute to make it double as a weapon, cutting it from the root end of bamboo instead of from a thinner and weaker section.  This led to a dense, solid, and heavy flute with an end that resembles a mace.

The shakuhachi is three tools in one: a beautiful flute, a meditation device, and a weapon.  It’s also extremely portable and can legally be carried anywhere.  For a martial artist, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The traditional shakuhachi only has 5 finger holes, four on the “top” and one on the “bottom” for the thumb.  Although skilled players can play any tones by using a variety of methods (partial hole coverings, head movements, etc.), the standard notes are on the minor pentatonic scale.  One great thing about the pentatonic scale is that it doesn’t matter what order you play the notes in.  It sounds very nice regardless.  It may take a great deal of time and effort to become skilled at playing traditional Japanese repertoire on the shakuhachi, but if you can play just the basic pitches in the lower octave, you can play/improvise simple but relatively beautiful music with a little practice.  I highly recommend it.

If you’d like to go beyond just messing around on it, there are teachers who can teach you to play the original komuso pieces, called honkyoku.  I’ve recently started taking private lessons via Skype with Jon Kypros, and I would recommend lessons with him.  For buying a shakuhachi, Jon makes very high quality flutes that are relatively expensive, although no more expensive than other makers of professional quality flutes.  But you can get cheaper starter shakuhachi too.

I bought mine (pictured above and below) from this site.  The site isn’t completely finished, and it may not look very trustworthy, but I’ve emailed with the owner, Benjamin Yen, and have actually ordered two flutes from him.  He ships the same day you order, and is easy to communicate with.  Benjamin’s flutes are made in Taiwan, from Taiwanese bamboo, which seems to be substantially less expensive than Japanese madake bamboo.  I’m not qualified to comment on how high the quality of Benjamin’s shakuhachi are compared to a professional grade flute, but they seem very nice to me for an entry level shakuhachi, and they certainly do make great weapons!  Here’s a picture of the root end (it’s solid!):

Shakuhachi Root End

Shakuhachi Root End

How can you use the shakuhachi as a weapon?  The material on my stick/sword page would be a great start, but you should probably focus on the entries listed on my 4 Step Matrix page as working for swords/blades.  It would be better not to use it as a “stick”, to minimize the chance of it getting damaged.  I’m about to start on my second book, on weapon use and defense, and in that book I’ll go into far more detail, applicable to the shakuhachi.

Update: I’ve done a second post on this subject if you’re interested: Kitahara Seika Shakuhachi

As for the sound, I’ll end this with a video of a traditional honkyoku (not played by me):

Martial Arts, Violence, & Counter Balance

Bruce Lee Dancing

Bruce Lee Dancing

Martial arts have always served a practical purpose for me, thus my emphasis on functional self defense rather than art or sport.  And this purpose has helped me to avoid being limited by or tied to any one system, teacher, or set of concepts.  Maintaining that focus has helped me to identify the fluff that comes with so many disciplines, physically and mentally, and to ignore it.  But martial arts have also served an equally if not more important purpose for me, to openly explore and expand my physical and mental capabilities, to know and express myself without the imaginary boundaries we tend to create for ourselves.

The vast majority of people live within a box made artificially small by their own imaginary boundaries, limitations, and expectations.  But when your practice has no rules and in order to move forward you must think outside of the box, if you practice deeply, it tends to spill over into everyday life.  The imaginary boundaries become visible for what they are.  Right now, we can do anything that doesn’t violate the laws of physics.  The past doesn’t matter.  The future has yet to be determined.

For me, these aspects of freedom and exploration are more beneficial and certainly more enjoyable than the self defense aspect.  Although, it’s possible that without the functional self defense emphasis to cut away the BS, real freedom and exploration would be limited.  In any case, I’ve benefited greatly from practicing martial arts, aside from developing practical self defense skills.

Dan Inosanto Drumming

Dan Inosanto Drumming

But functional martial arts are harsh.  Practice often hurts, although over time the hurt isn’t an emotionally negative thing.  And, functional martial arts are necessarily about expressions of violence.  So despite how much fun practice may be or how much you may enjoy the company of the people you train with, martial arts are a violent pursuit.  Everything you do relates to injuring or at least beating another person.  You can and should, in my view, maintain a friendly and non-violent attitude, otherwise you’ll become a tense and unhappy person.  But there is a limit to the kind of things you can express though your actual practice.

I’ve written before about the similarities between martial arts, music, and dance.  They’re all arts that allow you to freely express yourself and to explore infinite possibilities.  For me, music has become a terrific compliment and counter-balance to my martial arts practice.  It’s another way to learn and explore in an infinite space.  But unlike with martial arts, music is not inherently harsh or violent.  With music, you can express violence if you want to, but you can also express happiness, sadness, excitement, tranquility, and so on.  If you’re into self defense and martial arts as much as I am, I highly recommend music as a complimentary discipline.  It’s no wonder that Bruce Lee was also a competitive dancer, and that world class martial artists like Dan Inosanto recommend their students learn to play music.  In addition to the complimentary benefits that relate to martial arts, balancing a violent pursuit with a peaceful one is great for happiness and peace of mind.

I’ve also written before about my primary instrument, the oud.  The fretless nature of it allows for limitless possibilities in terms of sound, and any kind of music can be played on it.  I highly recommend it, or any other instrument for that matter. To conclude, here’s a recording I recently made combining new beats with a composition written in 1610:

5 Tricks to Learn Better and Faster

These 5 tricks will make a major difference in how fast you’re able to learn something, and how well you’re able to make it stick outside of the practice room.  So don’t just read them and forget them.  Think about them, and apply them to your practice.  These tricks also apply to learning anything, not just self defense/martial arts.

1. Get in the zone before you begin

Many people don’t realize it, but our minds are naturally full of useless chatter.  If you’ve learned or tried to meditate, then you’ll already know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, pause right now and try for just 60 seconds to stop thinking.

Did you try it?

If you haven’t practiced removing the chatter and emptying your mind it will be much harder than you think.  You’ll observe yourself thinking about all sorts of different things, including thinking about not thinking!

Being “in the zone”, the optimal state for all action/performance, requires a clear, chatter-free, and focused mind.  Japanese warriors called this state of mind mushin, and high performance athletes and artists everywhere have names or phrases for it.  Not only is being in the zone the best state for performance, but also for learning.  Without disruptive chatter streaming through your mind, you’ll be able to see more clearly, and learn faster.

Although the act of practice can lead to a state of mushin, or put in you in the zone, you can induce this state at the beginning of your practice.  You don’t need to leave it to chance.

At the beginning of each practice, take time to sit or stand in silence, take deep but relaxed breaths, focus on your breathing, and empty your mind.  At first this will take a while.  But as you get better at it, you’ll be able to enter the state with just a few breaths.  Remain in the state of mushin throughout your practice.  If you find yourself falling out or getting frustrated, then stop, relax, and reset.

Make it a habit to get into the state of mushin before every practice.  This will dramatically increase the speed and quality of your learning.  For more on this, check out Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner.

2. Practice just beyond your ability

Imagine trying to fill a small cup with water when someone is spraying you with a fire hose.  It’s not going to happen.  There’s too much water hitting you, too hard, and too fast.

Imagine taking a pitcher of water and pouring yourself a small cup.  It’s so easy, you don’t have to think about it.  You’ll never get any better at it, because you can already do it perfectly.

If you practice too far beyond your ability you’re learn nothing.  And if you practice within your ability you’ll learn nothing or very little.  To learn as much and as quickly as possible you need to practice right past the edge of your ability.  Practice where you begin to make mistakes, but where you can still see those mistakes clearly.  Work to correct the mistakes, pushing the edge of your ability further.  Repeat, over and over again.  Here is a four step process you can use (from a book called The Talent Code):

  1. Pick a target just beyond your ability.
  2. Reach for it.
  3. Evaluate the gap.  Bridge the gap.
  4. Return to #1.

Making mistakes is the key to learning.  Not only will making mistakes show you what you need to correct in order to bring your ability to the next level, but it will cement lessons into your head.

3. Master one small thing at a time

When you try to learn something just beyond your ability you may notice that there are multiple areas of difficulty, several small things you are doing wrong.  Don’t try to fix them all at once.  Trying to do too many things at once will result in either never learning to do them well, or taking a long time to do so.  Instead, break down a new technique or skill into the smallest possible number of components and work on each component in isolation until you have it down.

For example, if you’re working on a technique that involves footwork, a left hand movement, and a right hand movement, separate those three components out.  Work on the footwork until you have it down.  Work on the left hand technique until you have it down.  Work on the right hand movement until it’s easy.  Then combine only the footwork and the left hand techniques.  Finally, do all three together.  Using this method you’ll find that you can learn complex techniques or skills much faster.

4. Use contextual variations

Training to do one thing in one specific situation is unlikely to produce real skill.  It simply teaches you to memorize and repeat in a singular situation.  If you want to build functional skills that work all the time you need to train the same technique or action in a variety of contexts.

A few examples:

  • Rather than training the boxing jab only while moving forward, train it while moving forward, backward, left, and right.  Train it as an attack, and as a defense.  Train it against your opponent’s jab, cross, and hook.
  • If you’re learning a grammatical construction in a new language, practice it with different words and different contexts.
  • If you’re learning a strumming technique for guitar, practice it using a variety of scales, moving up and down, and intermittently in songs or improvisation.

For more on contextual variation (and the next trick) see this post, The Learning-Performance Distinction and Why Gains in the Practice Room Don’t Always Stick, from Noa Kageyama of The Bulletproof Musician, an excellent blog I subscribe to and highly recommend.

5. Use spaced practice

Training the same technique over and over again in one block will lead to improvements, but those improvements may be short-lived.  You’ll often find that repeating something in isolation will make you better at it, but when you return to it an hour, day, or week later, your skill will have decreased again.  One way to make sure the skill you’re learning will stick is to space out the practice.

If you’re trying to learn A, B, and C, then instead of practicing A-A-A-A-A, B-B-B-B-B, C-C-C-C-C, try something like this: A, B, C, B, C, A, C, B, A, C, A, B.

This may seem to conflict with #3 above, mastering one thing at a time, but if you do it right it won’t.  Mastering one thing at a time is about not trying to simultaneously do more than one thing.  It doesn’t mean you can’t vary context or space singular techniques.

Combining the 5 tricks

Combining all 5 tricks will lead to serious improvements in both the speed and quality of your learning.  Here’s how you can do it:  Start your practice by getting into the zone.  Practice right past the edge of your ability.  Notice what mistakes you are making.  Break any mistake into the smallest component parts.  Take each component and practice it in isolation.  Space the different component parts so you’re not only repeating one for an extended period of time.  Once you begin to feel comfortable with each component, vary the context you train it in.

Give these tricks a try, and let me know how well they work for you.  I’m confident that you’ll see substantial improvements in skill in just one practice session if you use them.

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud & The Jeet Kune Do Of Music

Istanbul

Istanbul

I’ve posted before on the connection between martial arts and music, and in this post I’m going to write about a particular type of music, the music of the Ottoman Empire, and why I consider it to be the “jeet kune do of music”.  But first, a review of my newest oud, an instrument particularly suited to this kind of music, which I just bought while on vacation in Turkey (thus the lack of posts recently).

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud

About a year ago I posted a review of my Turkish oud, built by Faruk Türünz.  It’s a beautiful instrument with a beautiful sound.  Although I love it, I also love the sound of Arabic ouds, which are typically warmer, deeper, and mellower.  I’ve seen a fair number of ouds in Turkey and a few from other parts of the world, but I have yet to see another built as well as those built by Faruk and his craftsmen.  So I decided to get another oud from Faruk…this time with Arabic tuning.  It’s a masterpiece of sound and design:

Faruk Turunz Arabic Oud

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud - Back

Faruk Türünz Arabic Oud – Back

There is plenty debate and some disagreement on the characteristics of “Turkish ouds” compared to “Arabic ouds”.  Different makers from different regions make ouds with different sounds.  The “Turkish” and “Arabic” classifications are broad, and there is often overlap between regions and makers, along with sub-regions.  But in any case, my new Arabic oud sounds substantially different from my Turkish oud, even though they are both “Türünz ouds”.  It does have a warmer and mellower sound, but unlike some Arabic ouds, from my relatively limited perspective, it has a long sustain similar to my Turkish oud…something often considered characteristic of Turkish ouds.

Anyway, the instrument is awesome.  The craftsmanship and attention to detail, as with my other oud from Faruk, are unparalleled.  Every joint and connection is flawless:

Pegbox

Pegbox

Faruk Turunz Oud Pegbox

Pegbox

If you play the oud or would be inclined to try it, I very highly recommend getting one from Faruk Türünz.  You can read more about his unique and innovative method of construction in my first post on his ouds, here.  My new Arabic oud, for anyone who might like to know, has a bowl made of two types of alternating wood: santos and curly maple.  The soundboard is made of spruce, and the fingerboard and pegs are ebony.

The Jeet Kune Do Of Music

As anyone who has spent much time on my website can see, my martial arts/self defense philosophy is nearly identical to the jeet kune do concept espoused by Bruce Lee.  That concept heavily emphasizes limitless freedom of expression.  Of course, in order to express yourself freely, you must have the fundamental tools and techniques to be able to express yourself at all!  You not only need a comprehensive system to provide those techniques, but also a system that lets you loose, that doesn’t restrict or limit you.  In my view, there is no better musical equivalent than the music of the Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman music is very often referred to as Turkish music, but this isn’t quite accurate (despite the fact that I often do it myself), particularly if by “Turkish music” a person is referring to modern/popular Turkish music.  The music of the Ottoman Empire encompasses a large geographical area, from Greece and the Balkans to Central Asia and the Middle East.  During the reign of the Ottomans for more than 700 years, an amazing musical system was developed.  Ottoman music theory divides notes using the Pythagorean comma system (from Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician/philosopher), so that rather than having only 12 possible notes per octave as in western music, you have 53.  Ottoman music uses a “micro-tonal system”, leading to an increased variety of sounds, scales, and options.  In my view, this system provides more freedom for expression.  Due to the much larger number of notes, Ottoman music utilizes a large variety of scales that don’t exist in western music.  Instead of having only major and minor scales (with a couple of variations), Ottoman music has hundreds.

Ottoman music also has a strong emphasis on improvisation rather than strict memorization and repetition.  Written compositions are viewed only as guidelines, and good musicians may play a single composition differently every time.  But the skill of a musician who plays Ottoman/Turkish music is not based on his or her ability to play compositions, but instead, on the ability to improvise…to play what is called a “taksim”.

The Oud

The Oud

The Oud

For me, the oud is the ultimate instrument.  Its use dates back thousands of years.  As you can see, there are no frets on the fingerboard of the oud, which allows a player to create any sound and to utilize the micro-tonal system.  Although the oud does have a characteristic sound, it can fit in well with nearly any other instrument.  For example, in the video below you can see the oud being played along with famous American jazz musicians, in a non-Turkish/Arabic context:

The concept of jeet kune do includes having no limitations, and having no way as your way.  Despite being a beginner myself, these limitless possibilities are what makes the oud such an attractive instrument to me, and Ottoman music the perfect system to learn from.  They fit perfectly with the philosophy I use in FSD, and due to the commonalities between music and martial arts, they are equally enjoyable.

It may be unlikely to find an oud teacher in your local area.  But in this day and age that isn’t a barrier.  My excellent teacher, Mavrothi Kontanis, is available for lessons via Skype.  So if you are inclined, I highly recommend getting yourself an oud by Faruk Türünz, and contacting Mavrothi for lessons!  It’s the perfect compliment to martial arts/self defense.

Music, Dance, and Martial Arts

Chinese Dongxiao

Chinese Dongxiao

I bought this Chinese flute, a dongxiao, on a recent vacation.  The particular form seems to be relatively rare in Chinese instruments these days, but it’s nearly identical to a Japanese shakuhachi.  Not only does it sound beautiful, but it’s made from the root end of bamboo, so the inside is very thick and solid.  It’s about the length of a typical kali stick.

I started playing the clarinet as a kid, and did it passionately for years.  When I began seriously practicing martial arts, I thought of it as a substitute for music.  To me, martial arts were like physical music.

Music, martial arts, and dance have the same underlying roots: rhythm, movement, timing, the manipulation of volume or intensity, expression, and hopefully, exploration, improvisation, and creativity.  Music uses all of the above with sound, dance with physical manifestations, and martial arts with physical manifestations against an opponent.  Played with others, music requires coordination, adaptation, and flexibility relative to others.  So do dance and martial arts.

On the surface, the execution of functional martial arts may not look much like music or dance.  Exchanges don’t have a consistent rhythm, because practitioners are attempting to stop the music of their opponent with music of their own.  So you generally end up with a quick clash or clashes that don’t appear to be musical or dance like.

To be successful in martial arts or self defense, a practitioner must start their own dance of destruction either before their opponent begins, or around and into their opponent’s dance, adapting as necessary, possibly changing the beat or switching to another scale, but staying on the same improvised line.

BAM!!!  It may be over in a single beat.  ba – BOP.  A beat and a half.  CRASH – puuuullllll – ELBOW.  It needs to be timed with your opponent’s motion.

The trick is to get ahead of your opponent’s dance/music, and control it.  It’s challenging.  It’s a bit like trying to play an instrument with another person attempting to beat you with their own instrument.  From the outside, it likely won’t sound pretty.  But for the practitioner who can dance through his opponent, there is very little difference between music, dance, and martial arts.

Because the roots are the same, practicing any one of them can help you with the others.  Ultimately, they are different windows on the same landscape.

Faruk Türünz: Master Oud Maker

Faruk Türünz

Faruk Türünz and I

This post will stray from the usual subject, but it is tangentially related.

I’ve just returned from a short trip to Istanbul, where I went to pick up a Turkish oud made by Faruk Türünz and his incredibly skilled crew.  I was so impressed by their knowledge, skills, and particularly, by Faruk’s dedication to pushing the boundaries of oud making, exploring new and revolutionary ideas that put his ouds and their amazing sound at the top of centuries of evolution.  People in every field can learn from Faruk’s continuous exploration, inquisitiveness, and his use of the scientific method to test his theories.

Faruk Türünz Oud

Faruk Türünz Oud

I haven’t written about it here before, but playing the oud has become my favorite hobby and pastime.  There are many similarities between playing music and martial arts (rhythm, timing, improvisation, volume, and even melody)…and I need to do a post on that soon.  But back to the subject at hand, I had read about Faruk’s amazing ouds, listened to them on his YouTube channel, and eventually decided I had to see and hear them for myself.  After emailing with him for a while, I decided to fly to Istanbul (a city my wife and I have visited a couple of times before, and love), and arranged to meet him at his shop.

Istanbul

Istanbul

The oud is well over 1,000 years old.  The European lute (from the Arabic “al oud”) and descended from it.  It has an amazing range, and because it has no frets, micro tones can be played that are between standard western notation.  The making of the oud has been passed down from maker to apprentice for centuries.  It’s possible to find relatively cheap ouds for the tourist market throughout the Middle East, Turkey, Northern Africa, and Central Asia but top quality ouds made by master luthiers are harder to come by, and often only custom made.  And there is no comparison between the craftsmanship, sound, feel, and playability of a cheap tourist oud and a top quality masterpiece.

Faruk Türünz Oud

Faruk Türünz Oud

Faruk has taken his ouds, made by himself and his skilled craftsman, to the highest possible level, by using revolutionary ideas, modern software, and custom tools to get the best possible results in sound quality, every time.

Early on, Faruk discovered that he could make ouds with the same materials and dimensions, but the sound would be different each time, because no two pieces of wood are exactly alike.  Looking at a mechanical engineering book, he came across formulas related to the vibration and frequency of various building materials.  His “aha moment” was realizing that the frequencies of the components of a musical instrument, which determine the sound quality and resonance, would be different due to the differences in wood, even with identical sized pieces of the same wood.  So he set about figuring out a way to first determine the ideal frequencies of the component parts of an instrument, and then to build the instrument based on those figures.

Brace Tuning Method

Brace Tuning Method

He calls it the “brace tuning method”, and you can see one of his craftsmen using it above.  With custom tools and software, he is determining the frequency of a single piece of wood that will be used to make an oud.  Each brace is custom made to create the perfect frequency to achieve the desired sound when added to the oud.  This revelation is what makes his ouds sound so consistently incredible.  But he doesn’t stop there.

Carbon Fiber Additions

Carbon Fiber Additions

In the image above, one of his craftsmen is adding carbon fiber strips to both strengthen and perfectly balance the neck of an oud.  And when you pick up one of his finished ouds, the balance is perfect.  It’s another step along the evolution of the oud.

Custom Fingerboard Leveling Machine

Custom Fingerboard Leveling Machine

Faruk uses ebony for the fingerboards of his ouds, and in the picture above you can see the use of his custom built machine that sands the fingerboard to make it perfectly smooth and level, every time.

Oud Making

Oud Making

Every step of the process has been explored, tested, and refined, and you know it the moment you see one of his ouds in person, the moment you pick one up, and especially, when you hear the sound.  They are technical masterpieces, and works of art.

Peg Box

Peg Box

Aside from his revolutionary work, the amazing thing about Faruk is his willingness to share his discoveries.  He’s happy to tell anyone about his formulas and exactly how he and his crew build their ouds.  Yet, few oud makers are listening.  Just like in martial arts, people are limited by tradition and unwilling to question, explore, test, and evolve.  Eventually they’ll be passed up by people like Faruk and his crew.  What they leave to chance, Faruk has found a way to engineer to perfection.  I would think that all makers of musical instruments would benefit greatly to hear of Faruk’s discoveries.  I hope he or one of his craftsmen will at least write a book on the subject to make sure his knowledge will be passed on.

Peg Box

Peg Box

I don’t play well enough to do justice to his ouds, so I won’t include a video of myself playing to this post.  But if you’d like to hear them, check out his YouTube Channel.  In person, the sound is far better than what you’ll hear in the videos.  If you’d like to get one for yourself, which I highly recommend if you’re even slightly inclined, here is his website.  He does ship them around the world, but using the purchase as an excuse for a trip to Istanbul is also highly recommended.  🙂

UPDATE:  10 months after writing this post I also bought an Arabic oud from Faruk.  I’ve written a review of it here.