When teaching brand new students trying their first karate class we always work on formal basic blocking. It’s hard. To make a downward block with the left arm, the right arm punches down to cover the groin, while the fist of the left arm rises up to the right temple. The center line of the body ends up all covered with nicely aligned arms. Then, with a push-pull dynamic, the right punch gets pulled back to the right side of the body – think of it as elbowing someone behind you with your right elbow – while the left arm simultaneously swings down to accomplish the block, ending up down on the left side of the body with the fist out in the air just to the left of the left thigh. I’m not sure how hard it sounds, but I’m pretty sure it sounds much easier than it is to do.
Both because it’s true and so beginners don’t feel too bad as they flail their arms around like mad trying to do this wacky thing that they’ve never done before, I always tell students that these formal blocks are the hardest beginner techniques to learn. The reason is that in order to accomplish the block, the arms have to operate on entirely independent trajectories from each other – the brain quite desperately wants our arms to be doing the same thing in a gross motor way, more or less. That’s especially true when we get quite picky about precisely what each arm should be doing and how.
As I was practicing on the violin yesterday, my bow arm was cooperating with my intentions quite a bit better than my fingering arm. I was having a lovely day for smooth bowing and tone production on the right side of my body – some of my best work. But the left half was not carrying its weight. I was not doing particularly poorly, but my fingering and being in-tune were simply not the equal of the ease with which I was moving the bow. It felt like the left side was just lagging behind. It might be relevant, if not more vexing, to mention that I happen to be left-handed.
Though yesterday it hit me like a bolt of lightning, for whatever reason I haven’t given much thought to this independent arm motion analogy from karate to the violin that I’m applying here. But I had been training karate for nearly a decade before I took up the violin again as an adult, so independent and precise limb movement is something I’ve been working on for quite a while. It also has to be true that my three years playing as a child left me with some residual “natural” ability to bow with the right arm while cradling the instrument and fingering with the left. I didn’t struggle much, if any, with the broad strokes of the two arms moving independently on the violin when I began playing again as an adult.
But I can absolutely report that as I stood there in my first karate class back in 2004 trying to make that downward block – I remember it well – I felt as incompetent as it’s possible for me to feel. For whatever reason, I also felt a deep and sudden need to be able to persevere and learn how to do this complex and interesting thing with my body – learning how to make downward block was what made me fall head over heels in love with my art. Ironically, the art was relatively impenetrable to me at that time – I couldn’t see anything but the tiniest corner of the overall work because I didn’t know anything about the art pieces I was trying to create. I didn’t know in that first class that the blocks are the literal building blocks of beautifully choreographed kata and perfectly fulfilling sparring rounds – I was hooked because it was hard to do and because it deeply challenged me physically. I didn’t give a moment’s thought to the possibility that it might be beautiful one day.
Of course analogies only go so far. With these two arms working together on the violin, the endgame for me has always been making beautiful music.
Thanks for reading.