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Wing Chun & Improvised Music

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The title of this essay may seem odd to the reader. What possible connection could there be between the martial art of Wing Chun and Improvised Music? Martial Arts, or “Warrior Arts” gives the connotations of the  destruction of another human being. Music hopes to be constructive and to stir the emotions and expand intellect of a human being. These two arts may seem to be even diametrically opposed, but it is my hopes that the reader will be able to understand at least how I connect the two in my life.

At best, I will begin with the art of improvised music. 

I am a professional saxophonist / musician. My main field of expertise is in jazz and jazz improvisation. Not only its performance, but as an educator as well. 

What is improvisation? 

Generally speaking, it is the ability to create or compose music in the moment, either based on a predetermined framework or without a specific framework. In the smallest scenario, a framework can be a single chord, a collection of notes defining a harmony. The “improvisor” interprets the chord being played and instantaneously creates a melody to match the harmony of the chord. In a larger framework, taken from an example in jazz, the “rhythm section” (piano and/or guitar, contrabass and drummer) can play a “12-bar Blues” Form, various chords played within a certain hormonic/rhythmic sequence. The improvisor(s) spontaneously compose/play their melodic ideas over this form for either a predetermined or desired number of repetitions of the form.

In order for the improvisor to acquire this ability and prepare him- or herself for various improvisational scenarios. He/she must study and practice the use of small melodic ideas, a kind of minimalist approach. One studies one or more music genres, lieten to recordings, and attend live performances of experienced improvisors.

The improvisor ultimately seeks to expand their musicality and creativity as a way of self-expression / self-realization. This becomes a kind of spiritual journey for the improvisor. 

What does the martial artist do?

 The “martial artist” (i.e. anyone who has trained in any form of fighting art or self-defense) prepares him- or herself for a possible violent attack by learning and practicing various fighting principles and techniques. The martial artist expands his vocabulary through advanced learning and practice in his chosen martial art or exploring additional martial arts systems and styles. All this is done to seek various solutions to the same problems.

Through the practice of martial arts, one gets to know themselves and their body better and in turn, it can become a spiritual journey that leads to self-realization.

The Basic Connection

Both the Improvisor and the martial artist prepares him- or herself for a scenario where one has to react instantaneously based on the situation on hand. Both strive for each see as a successful goal. The improvisor wants to successfully play through the musical form with sonorous and logical melodies. The martial artist wants to protect themselves and/or others and survive a violent altercation. Preferably unscathed!

Methodologies in learning the Arts

In Music one often practices what are often called Etudes (Studies). These Etudes are not necessarily compositions meant for public performance, but are primarily used to aid the student in learning the “language” of a musical genre (typically classical). In jazz improvisation, “jazz etudes” or “improv etudes” can be used to the same effect. They are clearly not improvised soli, but they aid in the language of jazz improvisation.

This can be compared to Chi Sao in Wing Chun. Chi Sao or “sticky hands” is a method of sensitivity training. They are not real combat but it aids in learning the language of Wing Chun.

The Next Level

The experienced martial artist wants to develop his/her skills to be able to react intelligently to a potentially dangerous situation, and that as quickly as possible. 

The improvisor wishes to develop their improvisational vocabulary to successfully create new and interesting melodies and hopefully emotionally reach the listening audience.

What makes Wing Chun so attractive as a martial art to me, the improvisor?

Before I go into detail, I’d like to diverge and describe how I became involved in music and martial arts.

The year 1971 was when martial arts films started to become popular in the United States. The martial art of “Kung Fu” was emerging, but no one really knew anything about it. At first, it was often refered to “chinese karate”.

I had my first experience with martial arts at the age of 10. A neighbor of mine started attending a Karate school. We were part of the same clique at school so he taught us what he learned. I thus learned my first kata. Another boy in our group was a good boxer. Another knew some Judo. We practiced the few techniques we knew during our lunch breaks at school or on the weekends. 

Due to the popularity of the television series “Kung Fu”, I became acquainted with the philosophy of the martial arts. I started to look for books about Kung Fu. There wasn’t much to find. But from what I found, I started learning the basic techniques.

At the age of 11, I became a self-taught guitarist and later switched to saxophone in junior high school. 

It wasn’t until I started studying music in college that I began to formally take up instruction in traditional Shaolin Kung Fu (Tan Tui or “Springing Leg” style).

Styles vs. Systems

In music, there are various styles or genres. With each style, be it Jazz, Classical, Reggae, Hip-Hop, Country, Pop , etc. Each style has its rules, guidelines and characteristics that define each genre. Improvising in musical styles also have its rules, etc. as well.

In martial arts there are also various styles and “systems”. Martial art styles such as Karate , Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Jujitsu and myriads of Kung Fu styles, such as Eagle Claw, White Crane, Praying Mantis, Tiger, Hsing-I, Baguachang, Tai Chi and others. Each has its characteristics, rules and guidelines that define each as well. Self-defense using any of these styles also adheres to certain philosophies and techniques. 

Just as the improvisor learns scales, melodic patterns and musical quotes from other improvisors and compositions. Regardless of the styles, there are still only 12 notes (in Western Music). That is “bare bones” of music.

Most martial art styles have many forms often called “kata”(jap.), “kuen”(chin.), which usually mimick fighting situations. Since there are so many fighting scenarios that can happen in the real world, hence there are many forms. Some styles have as many as 40 different forms! Regardless of styles, we humans only have two arms and two legs. Those are our basic weapons.

The advanced improvisor strives for the freedom to be able to masterfully use the basics of the system and create according to the musical situation at hand. The advanced improvisor seeks not to be locked in any musical style. He seeks to break to rules in order to expand his creativity. 

A fighting “system” works differently. Fighting systems recognize the improbability of predicting the development of a dangerous situation, hence there are very few forms and will have solely a set of fighting principles. This is done in order to be free to react instantaneously in any situation without being locked in preconceived fighting routines.

Wing Chun is exactly the system that attracts the musical improvisor in me. Wing Chun has no set fighting routines, nor rules about how to defend yourself. Just simple guidlines.

The Glaring Difference

Wing Chun is about self-defense, self-protection. The goal is to make your attacker unwilling to fight or not unable to fight in order to protect your life and limb.

In a musical setting, the improvisors goal is to add constructively to the whole. The improvisor seeks to express himself musically. There is no danger to his life if he is unsuccessful. If anything goes wrong, any mistake can only result in a scratched ego at the most. The improvisor is not defending himself against attackers, but he is working as a cohort in the musical endeavor and is supported by the others.

Nonetheless, both can be paths to personal and spiritual growth and self-realization.

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