What Playing Classical Guitar and Tai Chi Have In Common
The Basic Concept
I still remember the day I auditioned to study Classical Guitar with
Alexander Bellow. I had heard about Mr Bellow when I was competing in
the semi finals of the Air Force Talent show in Madrid Spain, from a
young Classical Guitarist who was recommending that I study with a
Grand Master if I wanted to learn Classical Guitar properly. Just the
title Grand Master was intimidating, and I was very nervous to be
auditioning, since the only "classical" piece I knew was Green Sleeves,
which I had learned from a Book. Mr Bellow was a jolly fellow, a bit
elf like, and not intimidating at all, but for some reason I was still
very nervous. I played the piece with butterflies in my stomach and
when I finished his exact words in his thick Russian accent were, "I
like the way you play. You have great feeling, but- I am going to have
to teach you how to play the guitar all over again!"
He wasn't kidding. I spent the next several months studying with one of his students learning the basics of classical guitar. The style of guitar taught by the old Grand Masters was one of total relaxation and very slow practice so that the the muscles "learned" the song and and the player could then focus on the communication. For weeks I felt like I was learning to walk, only able to do basic exercises. It was a lot of work just to learn to do things without effort. In the end I mastered the basic techniques and was ready to learn my first classical piece. By this time I had started to study with Mr Bellow himself and I felt a sense of accomplishment.
Many newer schools of thought felt that the learning curve for this style was too long and used a more ridged style that was easier to learn, but Mr Bellow felt that they would not have the endurance for long concerts. I have no fixed opinion whether this was true, as I had witnessed many a guitarist survive a whole concert with out perfect form, but with Mr Bellow it was also tradition. He was trained in the Russian conservatories at the turn of the 19th century and had studied with some very famous Russian composers. He was a fully educated Musician with a bit of that musical Aristocracy still clinging to his manner. I recall one day Julian Bream had contacted him and asked Mr Bellow to send some of his compositions to him so that he could record them. Mr Bellow refused because the younger musician should come to the older in person and request such things. I could see that this cheery gentleman had a bit of old world snobbery still in him, but he wore it well and it gave him character. After all he had escaped Russia during the Russian Revolution and went to Germany, where he was the head of the string department in a German conservatory, only to end up in a concentration camp during WWII. After escaping the concentration camp he ended up in New York and speaking only limited English, he started teaching guitar to survive. I figured after all that he could display a bit of old world snobbery if he wanted.
Getting back to the point, this whole idea is a bit like soft styles and hard styles in Martial Arts. It is easier to learn a hard style like Tai qwan do than a soft style like Tai Chi. You can learn to punch people and kick people and get right into sparring as a beginner and feel you are getting some where. On the other hand did you ever see a group of retirees doing Thai Chi? You probably thought they were doing a dance or something. Well it might surprise you that a Thai Chi Master could wipe the ground with some Hard style fighters. But it takes too long before you get to hit someone- too long a learning curve to keep the attention of the fast pace minds of the present generation. I know because I chose to study Tai quan do in spite of the fact I was a terrible kicker.
This idea makes its way into other arts and sports. I recall watching the Olympic gymnastic competitions in the late 1980's and noticing that the Russians were killing us and there was a grace that the Russians seemed to have that only a few of our gymnasts had and it was a grace and control that looked effortless. If you saw it and recognized it it made our guys look awkward even though they were successfully completing the moves. Below is an excerpt from White Nights where Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov do a dance scene. If you look close you can see what I mean. Both are doing the same moves but note the smooth effortless control of Baryshnikov. It showed up better on the big screen but this is the quality of which I speak. It comes with special training and a bit of a long learning curve, and hard work.
Dance Scene From "White Nights"
Now I had no desire to be a professional concert guitarist though Mr
Bellow was trying to push me in that direction. Practicing 3 to 8 hours
a day did not appeal to me, though I would have happily played that
long. But practice is not the same as playing, you reward yourself with
playing after a bout of drills, exercises, and very slow renditions of
music you are learning. I was never meant to be a great guitarist but I
did enjoy playing and entertaining others. But look at me do I look
like I could be a starving musician? It never suited me. Still, I
admire an artist who is willing to master the long learning curve and
become a master of their craft. Artists like Baryshnikov, Pavarotti,
and those old style classical guitarists whose fingers seem to
effortlessly flow along the strings brighten the lives of many.