When I researched this topic it became clear to me that opinions vary widely and often with some passion. It seemed to me that such depth of feeling is both unnecessary and, in many ways, harmful to our art. This article seeks the middle ground.
It cannot be ignored that the authentic taijiquan (t'ai chi ch'uan) which existed not too many decades ago did not have access to boom boxes much less iTunes. What is irrefutable however is that, at what was arguably the starting point of modern taiji sport, Yang Cheng Fu clearly advised its performance as "like a great river rolling to the sea". A little less poetically, he was saying that its execution should be even and continuous. I do not know any master, coach or teacher of taiji that not only concurs with Yang's instruction but also preaches it.
However, the reality today can be very different. In executing a solo form i.e. not in a synchronized group, the two main reasons "rolling to the sea" fails are as follow.
•Firstly, the modern preference for teaching taiji form for competition seems to follow a choreographed set where each player expresses their form in a personal way and not always "even and continuous".
•Secondly, the player attempts to coordinate movement with breathing but incorrectly executes it in an unbalanced way.
Both reasons, singly or together, thereby produce postures which can vary in length some by half as long and some twice as long as an average posture. For example, if the player likes to express "Part Mane" as a "big" and expansive move, it takes up to twice as long as average. Or, if a player believes "Cloud Hands" is left and right combined into one posture, he will breathe in on the left posture and out on the right–or vice versa– each side being only half as long as average. Even and continuous is thereby disrupted.
Disruption is even more complete if the player chooses to pause at the end of a move perhaps to display perfect balance on one leg. This is not a good idea for what is an obvious martial application but performed more in tune with "catching the judge's eye" in a choreographed competition sport. Also, many players interpret the idea of "completing" a move or "finishing the movement" with actually freezing at its completion. This is not in harmony with the circular/spiral movements encompassed in taiji's principles and illustrated in the taiji tu (yin/yang) symbol. Open and close (kai/he) is not punctuated by stops or hesitation!
There is sometimes an argument that taiji's moves should be "driven" internally and in a solo form this is hard to deny. However this is no argument for not performing the form evenly and continuously. How better to display this focus and intent in the competition arena despite background noise.
So far all is well and good for a solo form performed without music which, the same argument goes, "drives" taiji externally. Frankly, I think this "driving" idea is, at best, jargon. Taijiquan is a martial art which teaches one to receive the opponent's force. In other words, it is largely "driven" by the opponent." He cannot find my centre but I know his —as the classics have it.
Of course, this does not make taiji an external art. It is one that trains for exquisite sensitivity both internal and external. We train for a relaxed, efficient and aligned power which avoids overt and unnecessary force. But in a fight we enter a relationship with our opponent and, necessarily, events are at least partially "driven" externally by the opponent's moves.
Paradoxically, it is hard--but not entirely impossible--to find a taiji form demonstrated, say on Youtube, which is not accompanied by music. Indeed, many competitions allow music whether set by the organizers or even chosen by the competitor. The form usually– but not always –starts and finishes with the music. This is another, though non-martial, example of taiji being externally "driven" but without necessarily depriving it of its internal principles.
We seem to have, finally, cut our teeth on the solo aspect of our topic and have seen that, even for a solo form, the chances are that it will be accompanied by music. It seems reasonable to me that it is at least a personal choice by the player or competition organizers. In no way does the use of music compromise the possibility of taiji principles being maintained.
We can now examine the yoking of music and taiji in the training of beginners and for a group doing the form together. It is in both these situations that I strongly believe that the appropriate use of music is entirely beneficial.
We will start with someone beginning to learn taiji. I will quote from a Kung Fu Magazine forum showing an article by T. T. Liang, famous student of Cheng Man Ching and a master in his own right. You can easily find this article yourself on the internet. Master Liang breaks down the learning and experience of taiji into four steps in relation to practicing with music.
1. When beginning the practice of T'ai Chi, you will have to memorize the number of beats, the directions, the practical uses of each posture and the ten guiding points as described in my book (They are similar to but not the same as Yang's ten essentials). You will breathe naturally and not use music.
2. After you have mastered all the points mentioned above, you will have to use beats, music and breathing (proper methods of inhaling and exhaling) for concentration and get rid of all the rest.
3. At the next stage you will use only music for concentration and skip the others.
4. After practicing T'ai Chi with music for a sufficient time you will forget the music, the movements, even yourself…-- At this stage you are in a trance--… This is meditation in action--… This is complete relaxation of the body and mind—--truly good for your health and also the way to immortality."
Stage four is somewhat abridged from the article but without changing its meaning. —I'm sure you get the meaning inherent in these four stages.
In my own experience and in the observation of the progress of beginners, the initial stages of Liang's first step is certainly dedicated to a less than rhythmic and flowing form-- it is, for everyone, the first stage of learning a taiji form. Those first stuttering steps are also absent of correct and coordinated breathing. However, I personally believe that the sooner the concepts and practice of such breathing are introduced the better. This is also the very time to introduce music to assist with "even and continuous"—and the meditation/relaxing Liang points to as the goal of his four steps.
Sound is one of our major senses, music a very important part of it and also of our way of life. Moving to music is expressed in every culture and not only in artistic dance such as ballet or eurhythmy. There is a proven connection between body movement, awareness and feelings. This is so strong and useful in child education such as used by the worldwide "Music and Movement" system–. The Kodaly Method and Kindermusik – and even therapeutically with ADD syndrome children.
I doubt that, from the beginning of time, there has been a tribe or nation that has not had a rhythmic dance patterned into its culture and ceremonies be it for celebration, healing, rain-making, war or even spiritual practices. Of course similar "folk" dances have also shaped qigong forms. Again, these are now mostly performed to music especially in group practice.
Who could deny that the human mind and body has a natural response to rhythm? From the smallest vibration of atomic energy to the seasonal earth cycles and those of the entire cosmos there is rhythm. At human scale it is the more obvious and present moment of stomping feet, chanting, dancing, paddling a Maori waka (canoe) and… well… working on the chain gang! There are less obvious bodily rhythms such as heart beat and many more.
It is worth mentioning that ignoring these biological and natural rhythms can be harmful to our health. The opposite case can bring benefits such as those Liang mentions elsewhere in his article… "I like music, especially soft music, because it is in a human being's nature. It can relieve one's tension and anxiety, produce happiness and relaxation. Improve harmony and coordination. I have been teaching and practicing T'ai Chi with music for thirty years. During these thirty years I have taught in many universities, colleges and high schools and have had thousands of students study with me. They all say that T'ai Chi with music is good and they have all benefited from it because they are human beings and to like music is in their nature."
There are equally important and vitally pragmatic reasons for using music in group practice. If taiji is best done evenly and continuously then surely music is the best preceptor for so doing. It is unusual and even rare, in spite of today's strange music fads, to hear music that isn't created and performed to a set beat. I suppose one could use jungle drums or even a metronome to substitute but then, I just know, you all would miss the "mood setting" of appropriate music beat and melody that has now become conventional.
Thus the beat of the music provides appropriate pace and helps the group stay coordinated both as individuals and as a group. The rhythm, the breath and the postures all coordinate throughout the group. In effect, group practice with music provides a pace leader with no ego or style conflicting with "even and continuous".
Too often we see an opposite result with subgroups as small as one and up to half the size of the main group becoming unsynchronized because an ego or egos take precedence over the music beat. One can even detect contests, it seems, to see who can do the form the slowest. This happens not just in a single class but also mass-performances such as World Tai Chi Day where different groups under different masters do their own thing. It seems incredible that this happens when music is playing but it seems that the ego can be stronger than the natural human propensity for rhythm.
One of the most important principles of taiji is that of "wu wei" or "natural action". The reader may judge whether an asynchronous group is natural or not! In nature the group movements of migrating birds in flight or school fish in the sea are beautifully elegant, graceful and totally coordinated. They don't have music to guide them, just a total sensitivity and mutual empathy to the group's coherence and purpose whether to find the right journey route or to avoid a predator.
If you practice in a group and intend to be synchronous you must be externally "driven". At the highest levels it becomes an internal and energetic experience. "The outward movements of taichi make up 5% of the art of taichi." (Bruce Frantzis). We have seen that it is easiest to do so with music being the "driver". If you are doing group practice without music or, for some perverse reason, with music but ignoring the beat(!), your tempo must be guided by those within your vision. Not just forward of your position but also guided by those within your peripheral vision at either side. If you respect the group's synchronous purpose then those in front of you, and that therefore cannot see you, must be followed to their beat regardless of your ability, experience, desire and… oh yeah… ego.
Bill Douglas (World Tai Chi and Qigong Day News) says, "The more we can work together, the more we will expand Tai Chi and Qigong, which is so important not to aggrandize these arts for ego, but for the betterment of global society at a time when stress is rattling people apart."
There will be exceptions to the regular human propensity for music and/or rhythm. Some will be partially or severely deaf, others may have "tin ear" and so without a natural ability to understand or even enjoy music. Many of us are tone-deaf or have two left feet. Even so, these relative few will generally find some aspect of moving to appropriate music that will benefit their practice of taiji. All of us will certainly enjoy the combined meditating, soothing and relaxing effects.
One may recognize differences between "authentic" taijiquan and "modern" taiji but, in the training of both, the principles should not diverge. However, the subsequent choreography, stylistic variation or form may be quite different in the execution. Another confounding factor may be whether the training or choreography has diverged from health aspects by introducing unnecessary stress through faulty or extreme postures. We must bear in mind that today the overriding motivation for people to do taiji is to create and maintain health. That does not mean that it is wrong to use it for self-defense or to compete in a sport version provided that underlying principles are not compromised. Ultimately, performing taiji or qigong to music produces a form more consistent, precise and relaxing without any compromise to health or taiji origins.
Rob Talbot became a student of David Wong (Yang Style Tai Chi, Auckland, New Zealand) over nine years ago. Though now retired, Rob is kept busy gardening, lobbying NZ MPs on health matters and writing the occasional magazine article.
Copyright 2014. Qi Journal, Autumn 2014