The art in martial arts

Yesterday, I talked to somebody about an item on my 25 questions list. He hated opera and couldn’t understand why I enjoyed listening to some fat guy shouting incomprehensible words at the top of his lungs… Straying a bit from my usual posts on MAs, here’s some more on that.

I tried to explain to him that:

  • I like all kinds of music: I listen to anything from Entombed and Slayer to whatever is playing in the hit parades. Rap, Latin music, you name it, I like it. Opera is just another one on a long list of musical genres I enjoy. Though, for the record, I hate (most) country and (all) reggae music with a vengeance. Keep your “Yah man!” crap and smoke it…
  • Pavarotti being fat is irrelevant. How he looks has nothing to do with his singing. He could be built like a Men’s Health cover model or look like an alien from another dimension, as long as his voice has the magic, I’ll listen to it.
  • Most classical operas aren’t written in English. So? Get over yourself you self-absorbed Anglo-centric cultural barbarian! :-) (Sorry, just wanted to say that out loud. Moving on…) Many of the classical composers were Italian or French. Ergo, they didn’t write in English. What’s the big deal? Look up the words, read a translation and enjoy the music. It’s no big deal.
  • You might also notice that it isn’t all that common to see opera singers using a microphone. They have to project their voice across the whole opera house so whispering isn’t really an option for them… Besides, in stark contrast to most pop singers, they actually stay on key when they turn up the volume.
  • Opera works are stories, stories that encompass human emotions and situations. Some serious and heart-tearing, others light and humorous. I like stories. I like them in books and movies but also in opera. Not so much stage plays though. For some reason, I never really enjoyed those.
  • Nessum Dorma” is IMHO the best part of Puccini‘s “Turandot“, which is a piece about a wickedly cruel woman (haven’t we all known or loved one?) and a prince falling in love with her. You can translate it with “None shall sleep” which rings in my ears as a powerful yet elegant sentence. Did I also mention I love good writing? :-)

Here’s my favorite rendition of it by Pavarotti. Some people might prefer other performances of his (he did plenty so you have your pick) but this is the one for me. I especially enjoy the sustained final note, even though it might come off a bit like showing off. More on this in a bit, here’s the maestro:

What on earth does this have to do with martial arts?

Glad you asked: it’s all about skill and talent meeting training.

You don’t become such an amazing opera singer without years of hard, hard training. Obviously you need talent and Pavarotti had that in spades, but that just doesn’t cut it. You need to work your butt off for years to pull off what he did in this performance. And then make it your own, breathe life into it instead of simply imitating those who came before you.

Years of dedicated, hard work + talent = world class skill. That’s something I admire in all art forms, martial or otherwise. Here’s why:

I consider myself moderately talented. When I started training, I was stiff, slow, uncoordinated and had poor balance. I was strong for my age but that was about it. No other redeeming qualities besides being too stubborn to give up.

I wasn’t the best fighter out there when I competed. Loads of people were better than me. I’m also not the best player in the arts I practice; my teachers outclass me with one hand tied behind their back. Nor am I the best writer or teacher in the world. That’s just not me and I know it.

I’m also perfectly OK with this. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses and not try to be somebody you’re not. There’s also no shame in coming out and saying “I can’t teach you this, go to that guy because he’s way better than me.” It doesn’t mean I suck blocky nuts at that part of the curriculum. It only means somebody else is better. What’s wrong with saying that? I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect there’s somebody out there who makes you look like a beginner at what you do best. There’s a couple billion people on the planet after all. What makes you so special, little snowflake?

Even though I’m not the most gifted guy around, I worked really hard for any skill I have now. It didn’t come naturally, I earned it with blood sweat and tears. I was also too stubborn to quit. I figured I would eventually get to a point where I actually have something worthwhile to share. All this to say that I know what it means to train hard in the martial arts. When I see other people training just as hard or harder still, it’s something I admire even if it’s in another art form.

In the presence of greatness

In the movie “Good Will Hunting” Stellan Skarsgård plays a gifted math professor who discovers a working-class, delinquent math genius played by Matt Damon. In one scene, he curses the day they met, forcing him to realize he’s as an ant to a man by comparison.

I’m not like that. I actually enjoy watching people who are so much better than me.  I see it as something to strive for, even though I might never reach that level. And in the mean time, I can enjoy watching something amazing.  Because that’s what it is when you see somebody truly gifted who also worked his ass off to take his talent all the way. That’s when you’re in the presence of greatness, witnessing something unique. Instead of being envious, I feel it’s a reason to celebrate the human potential.

These are some of the people I feel are at that level:

Now you may disagree with me on this but I think it’s pretty impressive. All I can say is; try it.

Rob Kaman is the one who really got me interested in muay Thai and I still consider him one of the greatest ever. He fought pretty much everybody and rarely lost. Though he’s best known for his leg kick, there’s another thing I admire even more in him as a fighter: his amazing sense of timing. He didn’t do spectacular stuff, he mostly stuck to basic techniques but always seemed to time them just right. Awesome.

Pak Tristan is one hell of a guy. His level of mastery of several arts is extremely rare. I know, most of you never heard of him. He’s not on the seminar circuit and doesn’t appear in the magazines. But his martial arts skills are some of the best I’ve ever seen.  This clip shows him doing a kata, several decades ago. The way he does the form is enough to give you pause but there’s more: In his first movement, the pin on his gi falls off, right in front of his feet (you see him picking it up in the end). He does the entire form around it, perfectly…

Erik Paulson is simply on another level as a teacher. He’s a living encyclopedia of martial knowledge, techniques and training drills. But he also keeps on tweaking and adapting his material instead of rehashing the same stuff. As far as teachers are concerned, he’s way up there.

When you look around you, you’ll be amazed at what some unique individuals are capable off: painters, sculptors, athletes but also martial artists and fighters. I’m inspired when I see such people weaving their magic. It makes me want to train more and get better at what I do.

UPDATE: I didn’t find the clip right away but here’s one that definitely needs to be on this list. Risuke Otake, Shihan of Katori Shinto Ryu.

In this clip you can see him practice against the naginata. His movement is just off the scales: the precision and footwork is mindblowing. It just doesn’t get any better than this.

I first saw him several decades ago in the BBC documentary “Way of the warrior”. He left an incredible impression on me then and time hasn’t changed my opinion one bit. It only strengthened it.

UPDATE 2: Here’s part Two, where I reply to a few comments on this post.

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Comments

  1. I was raised on opera!

  2. I was raised on opera!

  3. Wow.

    Amazing.

  4. Wow.

    Amazing.

  5. That perfect circle was no joke. Also, Risuke Otake is one of my kenjutsu heroes. His forms are amazing.

    As a sidenote, did you notice that massive tree behind them? That’s a serious tree.

    • Otake is perhaps the most impressive budoka I’ve ever seen. He moves so incredibly well, it’s inspiring. On top of that, he comes across as a very humble and generous man.
      Yeah, the tree is huge! I really liked the scenery as a back drop for their form work. Very, very nice.

  6. That perfect circle was no joke. Also, Risuke Otake is one of my kenjutsu heroes. His forms are amazing.

    As a sidenote, did you notice that massive tree behind them? That’s a serious tree.

    • Otake is perhaps the most impressive budoka I’ve ever seen. He moves so incredibly well, it’s inspiring. On top of that, he comes across as a very humble and generous man.
      Yeah, the tree is huge! I really liked the scenery as a back drop for their form work. Very, very nice.

  7. philippe Maslo says

    Nice move, Wim. Mixing martial arts with culture has always been one of a revolutionary ideas.

  8. philippe Maslo says

    Nice move, Wim. Mixing martial arts with culture has always been one of a revolutionary ideas.

  9. shugyosha says

    “Opera is *Just another* one…” Heretic! Music starts with Weber and ends in Parsifal. The rest are wannabees –some of them, quite accomplished wannabees, I’ll grant you–. ;) Although I have a slight problem I don’t admit often: I believe being raised in German Opera without knowing German is what’s left me lyrics deaf (I’m getting… not better but only abyssmally bad at getting bit of lyrics, whatever the language).

    There’s a sentence in “Exile’s honor”: “Talent will take you to good, practice will make you master” –by memory, might change slightly–. I’ve seen very few –if any– natural talents go beyond black belt. To a point, I believe it’s partly fault of their instructors: since they don’t sweat it enough, they don’t value it enough and get bored. And don’t get the mental part of the training.

    The videos:

    Somebody teach “small circle JJ” or aikido or something to that guy! Presto!

    I’ve seen Tristan’s kata time and again… And I had somehow missed the pin. I think I had perceived it falling, but that’s all. He’s damn good. Someone would say that might work, right? ;)

    And Katori… if I wasn’t already in Tatsumi –and you could learn it outside Japan, which you’re not supposed to–, that’s an interesting art. You might wish to comment, however, who is the senior in that video. Yes, it shows, but Western expectations in demos go the other way and have the winner be the senior [now comes when I completely misread this one… ].

    Take care.

  10. shugyosha says

    “Opera is *Just another* one…” Heretic! Music starts with Weber and ends in Parsifal. The rest are wannabees –some of them, quite accomplished wannabees, I’ll grant you–. ;) Although I have a slight problem I don’t admit often: I believe being raised in German Opera without knowing German is what’s left me lyrics deaf (I’m getting… not better but only abyssmally bad at getting bit of lyrics, whatever the language).

    There’s a sentence in “Exile’s honor”: “Talent will take you to good, practice will make you master” –by memory, might change slightly–. I’ve seen very few –if any– natural talents go beyond black belt. To a point, I believe it’s partly fault of their instructors: since they don’t sweat it enough, they don’t value it enough and get bored. And don’t get the mental part of the training.

    The videos:

    Somebody teach “small circle JJ” or aikido or something to that guy! Presto!

    I’ve seen Tristan’s kata time and again… And I had somehow missed the pin. I think I had perceived it falling, but that’s all. He’s damn good. Someone would say that might work, right? ;)

    And Katori… if I wasn’t already in Tatsumi –and you could learn it outside Japan, which you’re not supposed to–, that’s an interesting art. You might wish to comment, however, who is the senior in that video. Yes, it shows, but Western expectations in demos go the other way and have the winner be the senior [now comes when I completely misread this one… ].

    Take care.

  11. garry hodgins says

    While I agree that its impressive when you meet or train with a naturally talented athlete and almost impossible to compete with them on a level playing field, personally, I’m no longer as sure about the “art” element in martial arts. I think that the influence of scientific method on the study and practice of martial arts has become the standard starting point for students on their journey of discovery and I’m not sure whether this will prove to be positive or negative in their evolution. Many principles of movement are common across styles even if their emphasis and application varies. The moral and ethical principles prevalent in a society will always inform the way people learn and practice and create. Today, knowledge is everywhere on the internet and people dont have to undertake epic journeys to find competent martial practitioners. As to how many of these powerful warriors are ” artists ” I am not sure. Perhaps Oscar Wilde’s comments best elucidate my point, ” All art is completely useless “. By their very nature, martial arts are practical methods for self defence and therefore, are not art in the Wildean sense. I think martial methods or practices is a better generic term. But then again, what do I know, relatively speaking I’m fairly useless myself.

    • Garry, You make some fair points. I’ll answer them in a follow up post.

    • Garry,

      is a wooden box art? You can get them at many supply stores. However, is there a difference between a machine made box, a box I make on my own following some publicly available ideas and the box from a master carpenter?

      In a way, “scientific method” is just a glorified way of saying “trial and error with some brains in”.

      Take care.

  12. garry hodgins says

    While I agree that its impressive when you meet or train with a naturally talented athlete and almost impossible to compete with them on a level playing field, personally, I’m no longer as sure about the “art” element in martial arts. I think that the influence of scientific method on the study and practice of martial arts has become the standard starting point for students on their journey of discovery and I’m not sure whether this will prove to be positive or negative in their evolution. Many principles of movement are common across styles even if their emphasis and application varies. The moral and ethical principles prevalent in a society will always inform the way people learn and practice and create. Today, knowledge is everywhere on the internet and people dont have to undertake epic journeys to find competent martial practitioners. As to how many of these powerful warriors are ” artists ” I am not sure. Perhaps Oscar Wilde’s comments best elucidate my point, ” All art is completely useless “. By their very nature, martial arts are practical methods for self defence and therefore, are not art in the Wildean sense. I think martial methods or practices is a better generic term. But then again, what do I know, relatively speaking I’m fairly useless myself.

    • Garry, You make some fair points. I’ll answer them in a follow up post.

    • shugyosha says

      Garry,

      is a wooden box art? You can get them at many supply stores. However, is there a difference between a machine made box, a box I make on my own following some publicly available ideas and the box from a master carpenter?

      In a way, “scientific method” is just a glorified way of saying “trial and error with some brains in”.

      Take care.

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