Taijiquan and Music

The marathon lockdowns of 2020/21 may have prevented us from attending regular Taiji classes, but they also provided us with the opportunity to access some wonderful Celestial College videos that were made available online. Whether viewing these demonstrations to learn new moves or, alternatively, to maintain form, they always allowed us to take a partial step back and see everything with greater objectivity.

Over the years, I have come to liken my pursuit of Taiji to learning a piece of music. Throw in the humble onion for good measure and we have all the ingredients for an interesting journey of discovery.

I have always found there to be many similarities between Taiji and Music and acknowledge that the study of each can at first appear somewhat daunting.

Lao Tzu said:
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Appropriate time and commitment need to be set aside in order to create a space that is conducive to learning something new. Each component is introduced, studied, analysed and sometimes broken down into smaller units in order to help better understand how they are put back together again. It is a step-by-step process involving practice, repetition, revision and the learning of techniques that enable us to identify and correct mistakes, improve fluency and develop confidence.

Upon reaching the end of the study of a piece of music, or in the case of the Yang Form, the end of Level 6, one naturally experiences a well-earned sense of achievement. However, in time, a nagging doubt can begin to arise, suggesting that there might be more to all this. It is here particularly that the value of working with a good teacher or mentor is of critical importance.

Lao Tzu said:
“The more you know the less you understand.”

This is where I find myself making the connection between Taiji, Music and the above-mentioned onion. They are each made up of layers that can be peeled away to reveal ever new dimensions, perspectives and angles that may not have been apparent at the start. Through revisiting and seeking to refine Taijiquan or a familiar piece of music, one is rewarded with an ever greater awareness of its inherent depth and detail.

While watching the College videos, I was struck by the fluidity, dynamism and non-static nature of each move as it unfolded. This had me wondering how it might be so, particularly when certain moves such as ‘Push to Close the Door’, ‘Seven Star Punch’ or ‘Play Guitar’ can at times have a tendency to come to a standstill.

Certainly my layperson’s grasp of Yin-Yang as an interconnectedness and interdependence of apparent opposites or complements, seemed to have some bearing on my observations. Be it Taiji or Music, this can manifest as breathing in/breathing out, tension/release, light/dark, hard/soft or as my Acupuncture Practitioner once said to me:
“You can’t have the sweet without the sour.”

Delving more deeply into understanding what ‘Flow’ is, for example, it seems that, paradoxically, what appears to be a continuous unfolding of each move can also be broken down into a series of stills, just like what one sees on a strip of film.

No one move, or note of music, or moment of silence stands alone. It is defined by and comes to life through its relationship with what has come before and what is to follow.

The ultimate challenge is learning, or allowing oneself, to fully experience each ‘Now Moment’, living in the present in a vital way. This can involve, for example, the need to give such apparent contrasts as Tension/Release, Closure/Openness, Motion/Stillness or Soft/Hard, equal intensity, as can be demonstrated in the need for continuity when moving through ‘Snake Creeps Down’ and ‘Golden Cockerel Stands Solitary’ that one comes across in Level 5. So, rather than letting the back arm come to a stop once it has completed ‘Snake Creeps Down’, it should instead be allowed to continue moving forward and through the ‘Golden Cockerel Stands Solitary’. The principle here lies in understanding that once this arm begins to move, the movement needs to follow through at the same pace, in order to create an uninterrupted flow of energy.

For a student trying to concentrate on learning and remembering new moves, it is to be expected that they might at first be done in a static and mechanical way. However, along with growing experience and confidence, the desire to unify what had once been separate, to move from part to whole, can begin to be realised.

Chang San-Feng said:
“When the body is calm and the mind uncluttered only then can one observe the subtle.”

I have heard it said that a great performer doesn’t play the music, but rather is played by the music. In other words, one makes oneself available to be led by being attentive to what the music is saying.

An outsider’s observation is not always indicative of what a performer is actually putting into practice. So it is with Taijiquan. At this year’s second Supplementary Training Session for instructors, our teacher Wally Wilkinson encapsulated this thought in the following text:
“We are no longer victims of muscular contraction or stress. Our energy is coherent; our body/mind is Song. In such a state the sense of self alters to a state of Yi (heart/mind) wherein the self (ego) fades.”

In the case of both Music and Taiji, no two performances are the same and there is much joy and discovery to be had in looking forward to the unexpectedness that each may bring at any given moment in time.

We are now out, truly out of lockdown and have the great opportunity to resume classes with our teachers. A good teacher is crucial in helping navigate the depths of understanding (and provides nuances that cannot be expressed in a video.) In music, a great teacher can help one elevate their understanding and performance; equally with Taijiquan, the journey to the true essence and experience can be advanced with a good mentor.

Anne-Marie Quarrell
Assistant Instructor, Brighton Centre

Footnote from Wally Wilkinson
An excerpt from a news feed 1st June 2022:

. . . “Professor Shubert says that Schopenhauer and other great philosophers argued all arts forms other than music ‘represent something about the human world’ and ‘remind us of these real-life situations’.
They believed music, on the other hand, ‘is the only art form that does not need to represent. It can just exist in this sound form’, Professor Shubert says.
Ms K-s says another thing that can set music apart from, say, visual arts, is that it’s often created in a group.
Seeing or hearing ‘exceptional musicians, real masters of their instrument’ perform together creates ‘moments of synergy . . . with a lot of emotion’, she says.
‘It’s extremely powerful.’

There are strong parallels to this in both Qigong and Taijiquan. These modalities exist in an energy plane (compared with music in a sound form). Imagery and emotions are not engaged in deep performance of either Qigong or Taijiquan, rather, the internal connective tissue activity and associated energy created produce a rapture that is experienced by the performer.”

Updated: 13 June 2022