Musical Kata

December 06, 2009

In any karate-do dojo worthy of your time and effort, the study of kata will be a prominent part of your training. Kata are choreographed movements performed either solo or in pairs. The movements are made up of offensive or defensive techniques and the practitioner focuses on the imaginary attacker while performing them. Understanding kata is a lifelong pursuit as there are hidden layers to each technique. What looks like a preparatory move may actually be the block or evasion.

Katas can be broken down into wazas, which are shorter choreographed movements. Where a kata may have 20 or more movements, a waza typically has two or three and it is almost always performed with a partner who fills in as the attacker. By practicing the wazas the student learns the pieces of the larger kata. The kata is then easier to learn.

Studying music and learning how to play the violoncello is similar to learning kata. There are layers of focus, complex physical movements, and concentrated mental activities all happening at once; even while playing the simplest pieces. The right hand is focused on moving the bow: how fast, up bow or down, how much weight on the string, are the bow hairs flat on the strings or is the edge of the hair being used? The left hand is focused on stopping the strings: was that F# flat, do I leave the stop in place while playing the neighboring string, how much time will I have to move my fingers to the next note? Mentally you are keeping track of where you are in the music, trying to coordinate your left and right hands, and listening to the sound so as to make minor adjustments as you go.

It's too much to track initially and so, like kata is broken down into waza, music making should be broken down into its component parts too.

I've taken to practicing my bowing on open strings - completely eliminating the left hand. I invent patterns and try to make all the strings sound evenly loud and resonate. Once I feel like I'm getting good intonation on open strings I'll pick a single note, say F# on the D-string, and play it over and over trying to get good intonation and resonance. Using my chromatic tuner I can make fine adjustments to the pitch and then I can focus on getting a clear rich sound - not crunchy and not wispy.

To practice fingering I put the bow down and do pizzicato. By only plucking the strings with my right hand I am able to focus on my left hand and good fingering technique. My teacher placed a thin piece of masking tape on the fingerboard where my 4th finger goes and I am ready to do the same for 3rd and 1st finger positions as well. Having a visual clue to aid in placement of my fingers helps tremendously. Even without the tape for 1st and 3rd fingers I am improving on my placement and can start to hear when I'm off.

In many of the piano lessons I've observed Sibylle teach I've seen her use the idea of right-hand only or left-hand only to great success. By eliminating half of the complexity of the piece of music she is able to help the student progress much faster than they would otherwise. Using pizzicato and open-string bowing I am emulating that same right-hand only and left-hand only exercise.

Playing hands together is the final step, and the hardest. Clear bowing that was easy with open strings or single notes becomes squeaky or wispy when combined with active fingering. And accurate finger placements rapidly becomes approximations (3rd fingers gradually flatter and 1st finger gradually sharper) while I am focused on getting the clear bow sound back. All of which makes it hard to keep track of which repeat or variation I'm on in the practice piece.

It has been almost two decades since I first learn Pinan Shodan, my first karate kata, so I don't remember the difficulty of it. But I do remember teaching new students that kata as a black-belt and breaking it down into hands only or feet only to help them over the same mind-body coordination hump I'm encountering now in my cello playing. Intellectually understanding why this is difficult, and having techniques for breaking the difficult down, help tremendously, but it is still frustrating at times when combining left hand fingering and right hand bowing produces something less then perfection.

Time for more practice.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.