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Tai Chi and the Musician: How This Martial Art Could Help Your Career

The life of a professional musician is mentally and physically demanding. A musician’s mind is taxed with the need to memorize complex music, spontaneously improvise, and maintain focus during performance, all while putting repetitive strain on the body from hours of practice. While studying for his master’s degree, musician Joe Rea Phillips discovered the benefits of martial arts for musicians.

Joe Rea Phillips, a Senior Artist Teacher at the Blair School of Music, teaches “Tai Chi for Musicians.”

He states that all martial arts benefit musicians by helping them to increase discipline, control, poise, and perseverance, but he believes tai chi ( tai chi chuan or taijiquan) is beneficial as a mind-body exercise. “All tai chi originated with the Chen family through its founder Chen Wanting (17th century  China),” he explains. Tai chi combines martial techniques, yin-yang, Chinese medicine, an acupuncture system, and correct posture to produce the balance of “stillness in movement,” like active meditation.

Musicians can develop internal principles common to those in tai chi and enhance their musicianship and ability. Phillips states that shared requirements of tai chi and music performance are:

  • relaxation and centeredness
  • discipline and constant practice
  • a clear mind
  • visualization
  • memorization
  • slow practice
  • rhythmic flow
  • artistic expression
  • being in-tune with one’s inner self

Phillips, Senior Artist teacher of guitar at Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, teaches the “Tai Chi for Musicians” course. “Studies show that practicing tai chi improves mental clarity and cognitive function, which is extremely important to musicians whether memorizing classical pieces or improvising,” he says. “Eliminating the body of tension, tai chi allows instrumentalists to be efficient and accurate. Performances become stronger and more expressive with improved endurance.” Phillips has also assisted conductors, applying tai chi movement principles to conducting.

Tai Chi’s Benefits for Musicians

Warm up and practicing—“We are guilty of just grabbing our instruments and starting to play, and this is a formula for disaster over a period of time,” says Phillips. Tai chi exercises are ideal for warming up the body, opening joints, allowing the chi (intrinsic energy) to fully flow. “A 10-minute warmup pays great dividends.”

Tai chi’s slow movements develop precision, good posture, and balance. “People observe tai chi and think that it’s not a martial art because it moves slowly and this is not true,” he says. Instead, spending time on slow movements results in quicker, more relaxed, and more accurate movements. This practice transfers well to learning new music or musical technique.

Reducing performance injuries—Musicians are subject to repetitive strain injuries.  These are caused by long hours of repetitive practice, not warming up well, tension, and poor posture. Proper posture is a built-in benefit of tai chi. “One’s chi will not flow properly without being in perfect posture, which is one of the prime requirements of tai chi,” says Phillips. Tai chi teaches that all movement originates from the dan tien, which is where one’s chi is stored (three fingers below the navel and about one and a half inches inside the body). Understanding and practicing tai chi creates an awareness of unitary movement that transfers well to performance on an instrument.

Phillips also states, “Learning important principles of tai chi, such as warming up the body properly, good posture, and complete relaxation, prevent many performance injuries. I’ve had students with performance injuries, such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel experience significant improvement after taking my tai chi class.”

Reducing stress and mental fatigue—“Stress not only kills good music performance, but as medical research has proven, it kills literally,” says Phillips. “The idea is for musicians to experience the great feeling of well-being that comes with a good tai chi workout. There is an emphasis on students experiencing the sensation of the flow of chi throughout their bodies.”

Enhancing changeability/playability—“In tai chi one must remain changeable in order to deal with an aggressor’s attack. It teaches to yield and adhere to the aggressor, then counter at a key moment when the aggressor has lost balance,” says Phillips. “A tai chi practitioner maintains flow, just like a musician should maintain flow, regardless of mistakes or unexpected events while performing. Tai chi also enhances a performer’s flowing rhythm, which is reflected in their playing.”

“In tai chi there is a constant exchange of yin and yang, which will at times have very clear projection of chi, which is referred to as fajin,” he explains. “There’s an awareness of projection that’s acquired after much training in tai chi and this projection principle can help a musician project a better quality of sound on the instrument, as well as project poise, confidence, and emotional balance to an audience.”

Finding a Teacher

“Check on the background and lineage of any teacher. There are good and bad tai chi teachers, as there are good and bad guitar teachers. Unlike other styles of martial arts where belt ranks are important, in tai chi it’s all about your teacher and the lineage connection,” he says.

Phillips has trained in Chinese martial arts for 40 years and tai chi for 32 years. He started with Yang style of the Cheng Man Ching lineage, and trained in Chen style for 22 years. Phillips is a 20th generation Disciple of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang who is one of the few holders of the highest rank of 9th Duan Wei conferred by the Chinese Wushu Federation.

“Tai chi is a beautiful and powerful martial art that provides a complete system of training and health benefits to all, including musicians,” he says.

Joe Rea Phillips (joereaphillips@yahoo.com) is available for seminars on “Tai Chi for Musicians.” To find a qualified instructor visit the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association (americantaichi.org) website.