Practice Your Scales

Listening to the radio a while ago I heard some really great music.  It was jazz.  As I listened it occurred to me that here was someone who was simply playing musical scales.  Well, of course he was doing quite a lot with those scales: Improvisation.  But, nonetheless, it sounded essentially like he was simply playing scales.

I recently came across a piece online, that first appeared in the 1981 Spring Edition of Federation News.   Following are excerpts of the thoughts expressed by Yamada Sensei in that article:

“. . . Many people are interested in doing fancy movements or techniques.”

“ . . . Please remember that an advanced student doing more complicated or fancy movements is quite different from a relative beginner performing these movements. And this difference is obvious to an experienced Aikidoist.”

It’s “important . . . for a student to have . . . basic elements so that later on . . . if he or she wants to, he or she can perform the fancy movements.”

This led me to think about the basic, warm up exercises we do before every class.  Early in my career they appeared to be simple, traditional warm-up rituals.  We’ve been doing them forever, but I never got a clear explanation of their fundamental importance to the art.  When special guests came to teach at seminars, they started every class with their own version of them.  When Arikawa Sensei came to New York for a seminar in 1978, he spent nearly an hour with us practicing sitting down and standing up.  Yamada Sensei and all of the uchi deshi in New York Aikikai always do them with great conviction.  So, I assumed we did them as a warm-up.  They are, in fact, the basic movements of the art.  My senpais[1] were continually telling me so, but I was not advanced enough to appreciate this information.

After hearing the jazzman playing his scales I realized that these were the building blocks of the awesome sound patterns he was creating . . . out of these simple scales.  It also became clear to me then, that basic exercises are the building blocks of technique.  Eventually I learned that it was these movements that trained my body to be balanced and properly positioned to execute technique.

It then became clear to me that all of the beautiful movements we see our teachers and aiki-ancestors make are essentially made up of these simple, basic building blocks . . .  these innocuous little exercises we do before each of our classes.  By repeating these movements over the years we are imbedding basic movements into our nervous systems.  This enables us later to execute technique without having to think about essentials.

What about those techniques?  I have, in the past, mistakenly explained to curious others that one of the differences between Aikido and other arts, such as Karate, was that karateka practice kata while we always do techniques.  I had then developed only to the point at which I thought that technique was the beginning and end of Aikido.  I was relatively inexperienced and had jumped to an erroneous conclusion.  The techniques we practice repeatedly serve the same purpose for us as those kata do for practitioners of other arts.  If the basic exercises are the building blocks of technique, then techniques are the building blocks of aiki-waza.

I like to remind my students, as I have been reminded many times by my senpai, that the practice of technique is not an end in itself.  It is merely an intermediate step in the application of technique toward the realization of aiki-waza.

I was repeatedly told that, when in my practice I come to a point where movement stops or technique is broken, I must not stop.  I must allow something else to happen.  When practicing a technique, I believe it’s best to stick to the program.  Apply the basic scales to each technique until the technique can be executed effectively in each repetition; no two are the same.  If an impasse is reached then it’s clear that some other technique is called for, and eventually will just happen by itself.  This is the beginning of aiki-waza.

How did we learn to speak our first language of words?  If you watch an infant before s/he has the ability to speak, you may notice that s/he will be moving rhythmically as the parents have conversation.  The baby is learning the rhythm of the language.  Before long that baby understands some of the words and begins to have a vocabulary.  However, the baby will not be able to speak because s/he has not yet developed the dexterity, the fine motor coordination necessary to form words with her mouth, lips and tongue.

It’s the same with any complex behavior.  Whether it’s learning to walk or to run, to swim or to skate or to play the piano, we learn basic positions and movements.  We apply these to simple and complex technique, and only then are we able to improvise freely.

Practice well.

Ed Schechtman

Godan – Shidoin

Center Island Aikido


[1] Senpai is roughly equivalent to the Western concept of mentor.

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