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CRAFT OF PIANO.com

A TAI CHI JOURNAL

 


alan does tai chi
Alan Fraser has been practicing T'ai Chi for over thirty years.
It was T'ai Chi that first moved him to investigate the possibilities
for transformation of piano technique through attention to the phyical.

He studied with Tom Brown and later with Sam Slutsky in Montreal, both of them students of Master Lee, one of the first to bring T'ai Chi to a wider group of Montrealers in the 1970's.

He also studied with Sun Zhen Zhun, who lived in Novi Sad from 1993-95.

Here are some excerpts from his journals.




January 12, 1995

What Sam Slutsky said.....

Your chest is too full... too proud! If your chest is that open your breathing can’t descend, your lower structure is cut off.

If all the upper joints are freed then the lower base can be stable. You can sink into it.

At the end of form: stand like a monkey - Pelvis is back but shimmied forward at the bottom. Chest ‘sunken’ compared to what I am used to.

Beginning of form: hands by side to put you over your feet.

You must stop using external energy, force, relax so the internal energy can flow through you and out.

Alive palms: 3rd fingers awake, energy flowing through them. In the palms, not the shoulder.

The base: you’re over the knee but the pelvis is behind it, sunk down. The yin leg is not dead, not empty. Bend the knee so it’s all a part of structure.

The yin hand supports the body. Don’t leave it empty or you collapse internally. Gently press to the floor as if lifting the body. The structure stands on the yin hand, the yang leg, (the yin leg).

Cloud hands: The hands/arms make a geometric structure, one hand at a half-way point to the other. Step, and as the weight shift begins the arm sweeps. Don’t drop the shoulder - this bends the spine, destabilizes the body. Find a way to sweep leaving the shoulder neutral.

Be like Sam - express yourself with it. Don’t be cautious, studied - express!

Pull/push: really sink into back foot, gather everything into yourself, then peel off, roll out.

Every movement: large to go small, small to open. Lighten before moving. The center doesn’t actually rise but it frees itself.

April 22, 1995

Every day continues to bring revelation. At the competition in Nizhny Novgorod, the morning of the second round I did form 3 times; in the middle of the third the silence started of its own, and it was quite easy to maintain it within myself. A gift.

I am thinking that working on the alignments as Sam is wont to do is excellent, but people don’t get why. They think it is about the alignments, which it is not. The alignments merely serve to put you in a position where it is finally at least possible to function properly.

I am finally entering the long stage of activating my muscles to work properly, after spending an inordinately long time (6 years) in the initial phase of relaxing their strictures, becoming more sensitive to skeletal structure, investigating skeletal mechanics, finding the place where the muscles can move the bones in paths for which they were designed. Finally I feel as though I am beginning to wrap layers of flesh onto those bones which work so awkwardly alone.

Being in the hands allowed me to ascertain where I was blocked in the lower structure. Now sensitivity to the lower frees my arms and hands.

I am learning the effectiveness of keeping my pelvis on the inside of my legs. When that is in place the sense of connection all the way up the side of the body is felt. The layer of muscle, activated, running from the outside of the thigh up over the side ribs to the shoulder and arm is clearly perceived.

Sunday, August 20, 1995

Every day continues to provide new learning - wonderful! I’m now working with Dragan Petrovich as Sun has gone back to China. Dragan is a black belt Karate instructor who ‘learned the soft’ with Sun. With Dragan it is back to the drawing board. My stance is still weak, ineffective. It is like a ‘mana’ that Iris talked about, a habitual flaw that we address then become blind to it again, allowing it to creep back into our action.

Regarding levels of perception or function (just bones and structure, bones plus muscles activating structure, center activating all, breath activating all, etc.), now it is a mixed bag. Different movements have reached different stages of evolution. Sometimes I must return to the bony structure because it’s not yet clear when I thought it was, other times I naturally discover the next level, discover actually that I’m hungry for it!

Monday, April 8, 1996

Well well here we are again. Many wonderful things still happening every day. Much has to do with my stance. It has been apparent for some time that I should sink my stance -- I’m a big guy and need to distribute more of me horizontally and less vertically if I want to satisfy both proportional aesthetics and function. But I didn’t know how!

What do you mean, how can you not know how? To sink your center simply bend your goddamn knees and that’s all there is to it! Well, not quite... For instance, if you bend your knees but your pelvis stays ‘on the outside’ of your hip joints then you lowered your center but you didn’t sink it. That feeling of the pelvis falling in between the hip joints comes from a loosening in those joints. Something releases which was previously, obliviously held, inadvertently impeding both sensation and movement.

When that ‘something’ releases it also triggers or releases or enables a flood of new feelings, kinesthetic sensations. Every movement involves not only the main muscles of the moving limb but a host of other smaller, subsidiary muscles, many of them located elsewhere, possibly quite far removed, adjusting the relation of other parts of the body to the moving limb, maintaining balance. When the pelvis area is released, I feel for instance the wrapping of muscles all up and down my ribcage much more distinctly and finely, and can feel where some in proportionate adjustment is impeding movement of an arm, for instance. Once I can feel it I can fix it!

How do you fix it? Fix, for instance the cricking of muscles in your back associated with certain arm movements? Find a way to move the arm totally neutrally, as if totally purposeless, with absolutely minimal apparent effort. Often the cricking will disappear when you find a path for that movement radically different from the one you were using before. The old path had certain tensions inherent in it which you couldn’t feel and thus couldn’t eliminate. The new path was found by eliminating the supposed purposefulness (which was actually stupid, nonproductive effort) and finding a path which wasn’t obstructed by a counterproductive attempt at effectiveness. For instance if I want to punch I will be preoccupied with the strength needed to wham my opponent, and thus will never get to the point of effectively using the mechanical strength inherent in my own structure. I will neutralize any real effectiveness with tensions intended to strengthen which actually only inhibit.

Then to generate that quality of movement from the center, simply begin the movement with a slight turning or shifting of the abdomen, and feel how that impulse enervates and prompts the movement in question.

Let’s say you want to design a machine, a robot which simulates human movement. The more components are degrees of control you can design into each movement, the more effective the machine. For instance, a mechanical arm with three joints and a computer to control and integrate their coordination will not be as flexible, capable and sophisticated as one with two hundred joints. We use ourselves as if we have three joints when we actually have two hundred!

What I mean is that our muscles have the capacity for a vastly greater differentiation in function than we generally give them credit for. Any one muscle possesses a close to infinite number of possible degrees of contraction. We generally use almost none of them, just as we generally use only 5-10% of our brain capacity. We don’t feel those degrees of sophistication because they are very fine and we do not see the need to cultivate our capacity to feel them. When a movement looks completely effortless and flowing yet possesses far greater strength than its clumsy counterpart, one reason is because that movement has two hundred components in it instead of twenty.

The simple conclusion, which appears to state the obvious yet the implications which people by in large ignore, is that the better you can feel or sense what you are doing, the better you can do it!

After a long period of being over-relaxed and ineffectual I am finally beginning to put things back together again. Wonderful feeling! Sinking my stance effectively is giving me greater power and flexibility simultaneously, more strength and stability than I ever had, and it spills over into my emotional life as well. That relaxation and release of power in the abdomen results in an actual warmth, a feeling of energy literally cooking down there! When I release energy in my wrists by simply stopping effort and letting them be truly neutral but not dead!, I feel heat generated from within them. Amazing!

What does all this have to do with piano? How can you do what you do in T’ai Chi, when the central principle, generation of all action from the center, appears to be un-implementable because the center is immobile - you’re sitting! You can keep your center ‘full’, that is potently neutral, full of energy. That helps you to cultivate that quality of movement - to have two hundred components instead of twenty. There is a corresponding increase in tonal differentiation -- your tonal color palette explodes! Because you can feel what you are doing!

Another point: none of this happens without a clearly directed attention. You won’t achieve anything if you are thinking about something else. Absolute clarity of perception is essential. When you do get that clarity you can hear much better!. Also, when superfluous muscle tension is lowered so dramatically it has the effect of opening your ears -- as if there was tension in your ears which is now gone, allowing you to perceive degrees of tonal color never before imagined. Listening has taken on a whole new meaning for me; it is now totally interrelated to that state of muscle tonus which allows effective action -- each facilitates the other.
 

Some teachings of Sun Zhen Zhun

tai chi

The meanings of T’ai Ji

There are five meanings besides the one I knew, the way of energy. T’ai also means universe, ji also means end, thus universe without end. It can also mean world in the sense that each of us is a world which reflects in its form the essence of the globe earth. That the material of which we are made is similar to that which forms the world. It also reflects ecology, that in order to receive material from the world (such as fresh oxygen etc.) we must give to the world. T’ai Ji Bagwan means the world divided into 8 sections or directions or dimensions as the yin-yang symbol divides all into positive and negative. Earth - sky, water - earth, man - woman, all these are expressions of the fundamental polarities which constitute our universe.

October 21, 1994

Before starting, stand and gaze five hundred miles away, ‘to Croatia’ for instance. This is to empty your mind of all other concerns except doing form well. When you actually succeed with this you will understand for the first time that your mind and your consciousness are not synonymous. When you actually manage to stop the flow of words for a moment you will see that words and thought are not synonymous.

When you really simply pay attention to your hands, to remembering your intention  and fulfilling it, then you may hear silence, which is more real than anything inside your head. None of those words you think is actually sounding in reality! Uh uh, the reality is this eerie silence in which you can hear the sounds of the outside world. When you really watch your hands you may also notice that your perception of your surroundings increases in sharpness and richness of colour.

Don’t just watch your hands, feel how their movement affects and is affected by the various parts of  your body. How free, natural and vital are the wrists? Where are the elbows in space? Are the shoulders working too hard or are they really neutral: how are the muscles branching out from the shoulder girdle down over the ribs involved in the movement?  How is your trunk sitting on your pelvis, and how does the pelvis rest on the legs? How does the bending/straightening of your knee correspond to that of your elbow? Are your feet flat and splayed, or is there unnecessary tension in them?

If you can pay attention to all this then it would be a bloody miracle if you had any space left in your brain for words!

October 22

I did form for several years before I ‘heard’ that silence for the first time. It is different from the silence of meditation because you are engaged in movement. Your attention is directed inward and outward simultaneously and is not only passively observing but engaged in ‘doing’.

When I lost my ‘silence’ virginity it was only for a fleeting moment; then followed the many repetitions of form where I couldn’t get it back. But by a month later I could count the times when I stopped listening to the silence and let my mind wander. The best I did was only five times in one form.

Then I lost it again.

It was the same with ‘gas’. When Sun showed me the first time I could feel the warm, almost hot point on my palm. Now, nothing. He simply told me to imagine the gas flowing out of my hand as I pushed, and to intensify the feeling by really pushing the heel of the hand forward firmly. Then to draw in as described above. Presto! I could feel it!

Sun says there are five gas channel holes: in the palms, the soles of the feet, and the fifth in the Dan Tien which means energy pool. The warmup exercises we do beforehand are important: they open up the gas channels and make the form more effective.

The first is always hip rotations. The lower edge of the pelvis is thrust back when you move back; when you thrust it forward, collapse the sternum and head forward and down to increase the effect of stimulating and opening the Dan Tien.

October 29

Gurdieff talks about the three ‘centres’, the thinking, feeling and moving, as if there actually existed three brains. He means that we have three modes of functioning which all work simultaneously but one of which is always primary. Thus if you use your thinking function to control movement your movements will be very slow and clumsy. But if you allow your consciousness to literally sink down from your thinking center to your moving center, your movement becomes clearer, more powerful and more effective.

This first happened during form quite near the beginning. All at once I felt as though my abdomen were running the show, that all my movements were directed by it and designed for its convenience. I could actually still think words but if I allowed them to predominate then I lost the feeling. Now, that function is to a certain extent associated with the enhanced clarity of vision I get from purposeful observation of my surroundings.

November 3

Sun was angry today. Everybody is against him - his family, his government, his faculty. But when we started form he said, ‘Now only I exist.’ I thought, ‘but how can he do form if only he exists? Where did he learn it?’ However, when I tried thinking likewise, I saw its effectiveness. If only I exist, and any immediate surroundings which I perceive, then any thought which has to do with something outside of that reality really doesn’t exist - it’s just a thought. Its only function is to remove my consciousness from reality (as here defined) and to spoil my form.

The ‘I’ which earlier on learned T’ai Ji does exist - that knowledge now exists in me, not only in the person whom I learned it from. Thus in this present moment really only ‘I’ exist, and ‘I’ constitutes the sum total of my physical presence, my awareness and my experiential learnings. My ability to think about other realities also exists, but if I employ it I of necessity impinge upon my consciousness of this ‘real’ reality.

Using this distinction my form was more powerful than ever today.

The aim of this continual softening and refining of sensation: when the muscles “dissolve” only then can you feel the structure, stress and sheer factor of your bones. Subsequently you can learn movements which use that structure most effectively, which don’t go against it. When you go against it then muscular effort is needed to maintain ‘stability’, thus reducing the power of the movement.

Employing this principle in form I have normalized that state which I first experienced at the end of my first year Feldenkrais training - that wonderful, incredibly open, full and alive posture which prompted me to exclaim, ‘I want a personality to match this!’ My chest is alive! This is one foundation stone, a precursor or prerequisite to the physical aspect of Gurdieff’s true man, the man who can ‘do’.

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