My Tai Chi teacher recently added the Yang style broadsword to the curriculum. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t ecstatic, as I’ve waited quite a while to learn a weapon form. There’s something romantic and exotic about wielding one of the four great Chinese weapons. I find it delightfully ironic that it’s a gweilo who’s catalyzed such an interest in my own culture. Take THAT, my racist and sexist Chinese ancestors.
As for the ukulele, one day I found out how inexpensive they can be and bought one right away. It’s a Mahalo Les Paul style ukulele (right down to the square tuning pegs) with an extended neck for higher register notes. In many ways, the ukulele is the perfect instrument for me right now; cheap, easy enough that I can teach myself1, and not too hard on the fingers2.
It feels fucking fantastic to be playing music in some form again. I did years of piano and flute lessons in elementary school to high school, and took a very long hiatus from then till now. And that was mostly in band, when I couldn’t choose the music I wanted to play. Now I can play the songs I like, and the advantage is that I’ve probably heard them a few hundred times so I already know them inside-out.
With my years of music lessons and performances from my youth, it’s not like I’m learning music from scratch, I’m simply figuring out how to apply what I already know about tone, posture, tuning, volume, fingering3, timing, and intonation, to another instrument. Admittedly, it’s been very slow going, and it’s like I’m learning a new language as I train my fingers to achieve a dexterity that was never there before.
The interesting thing is that my last few years practicing Tai Chi has helped me learn the ukulele. In my Tai Chi class, I’ve gained the patience and perseverance required to practice the same moves over and over again until they become a natural part of my muscle memory. In the beginning, it was a lot of concentration spent just trying to remember what to do next in the form, but now that I don’t need to think about them when I practice, my concentration goes into fine-tuning the little details. The same principles can be applied to the ukulele (or any instrument, for that matter), and I’m trying to get to the point where I don’t need to think about what my fingers should be doing, and just concentrate on playing with the right kind of expressiveness.
Which is why I have a broadsword and a ukulele resting on the wall next to my desk. Any time I need a break, I pick up one of them and practice for a few minutes.
- Because I really don’t have time for another time-consuming hobby [↩]
- The strings are nylon, instead of the metal of guitars, so the callouses aren’t as bad. The health of my hands is also an important thing to me. [↩]
- Though the fingering for a stringed instrument is really different from piano and flute. [↩]
I’ve started learning large san shou in my Tai Chi class. While it’s fun to be practicing another interactive form of the Yang style, it’s also a little scary to be learning something new as my teacher nears retirement (when he reaches 60 in four years). I’m starting to worry that I won’t reach a level where I can practice effectively on my own before his time is up.
At 2 classes a week, 52 weeks a year, and 4 years left to go, we can expect roughly 416 classes total; every class is worth 0.24% of a very limited resource.
A classmate once told me that his coming retirement is a good thing. We’ll be forced to go elsewhere to expand our knowledge of Tai Chi, because we reach certain limitations when practicing with the same partners, skill levels, partners, styles, body types, and even teachers. While I understand his reasoning, it doesn’t change the fact that I may not be able to continue learning what I know now, if another teacher doesn’t offer the same curriculum.
Added to this is the fact that martial Tai Chi teachers are hard to find in a city as small as this. Good teachers, especially ones suited to your learning style, with the right balance of patience and discipline, are even less common.
It makes me wonder where I’ll be with my Tai Chi progress in four years.
Knowing the consistency with which I go, she asked me if I ever felt like not going to my Tai Chi classes on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
I thought about it, and came to the realization that I didn’t. There have been winter nights where the combination of snowstorm and ailing transit system have suddenly left me with a welcome free night, but other than that, I always enjoy going to class.
Before Tai Chi was table tennis1, and some days, I’d have to force myself to go. But when I was there, in the middle of a good rally, then panting, sweating, exhausted afterward, I’d always remind myself that I was glad I went.
Tai Chi offers me something else though, a way for me to lose myself for an hour or two. Maybe because it takes so much focus, or so much focus to not focus on anything, that I’m able to forget everything else. Even when I’m practicing the form on my own it’s not the same. Being at the studio with the other students — learning from and teaching each other, applying the principles we can’t practice by ourselves — lets me get away. On top of that, I know that I’m improving, even if I may not notice it in myself.
And that’s enough to make me look forward to my next class as soon as I step out of the studio into the cool night air.
- Unfortunately, they’re both on the same nights during the week, which means I have to choose one over the other [↩]
There’s a good mix of body types and skill levels in my Tai Chi class. As the most junior person in the group, I have the benefit of always working with people who are better than me (although being able to teach someone myself would certainly help solidify the concepts in my head).
Nothing beats working with the teacher, who can precisely vary his skill level so one can learn and absorb things in small increments, a systematic way of fine-tuning the details at a gradual pace. It’s something that takes a great deal of time for better results in the long-run, and I’m sure that in this sense, he’s investing in his students as much as one invests in the class.
Still, there are senior students who teach me significant things within a single minute of working with them. They fill in the gaps in my knowledge that I’m not sure I’d be able to figure out by myself, because they’ve been at my level before and understand what I’m doing wrong. Add to this a propensity to teach and help, and every class I walk away feeling like I’m improving, if only by a small amount. Sometimes it’s to the point where I feel like my mind is going to explode, and the coordination of my body needs to catch up with the concepts in my brain.
But there are also senior students who seem stiff and uncooperative to the point where I feel I don’t learn anything from them. And even though I’m told they’re being nice and not overbearing, I find practicing with them to be very difficult. It’s as if they’re working too far beyond my level, where my structure falls apart and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Maybe it just means I’m not skilled enough to adjust and do it right yet. I’m still thankful to be able to work with them though, because at the very least, they remind me that not everyone who’s going to attack you will be cooperative.