This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Pauliina Lievonen © 2014, all rights reserved.
I'm sure many of us can name a few things in aikido that we're "just not good at".
I just can't extend.
I just can't bend my front knee.
I just can't step enough out of line.
One of the things I do for a living is teach recorder playing to kids and adults. The adult students all play as a hobby, some more and some less seriously. A few of them also play together as a group a couple times a month.
An often heard complaint from the adult students in the lessons, and especially in the group sessions, is, "I can't count rhythm". This is obviously a problem when trying to play together with other players and keep time together.
When I ask them to explain a rhythm, or to count it out loud without the instrument, it turns out that they actually are perfectly capable of doing so. Once they start playing the music, however, they simply stop counting and rely on getting things right by ear, which doesn't work if you're just beginning to learn what the piece is supposed to sound like.
In the group this has become a little reminder sentence: "It's not that you can't do it - it's that you don't do it."
It seems to me that quite a few of my adults students were under the impression that once you've played a piece through just a couple of times, the counting of rhythm was supposed to happen somehow automatically in the background on its own, while the player focuses on all the other aspects of music-making.
Let me tell you: I'm a professional musician. I count. Sometimes I count with my fingers. Even after I know the piece quite well. If it seems to go on automatically on its own it's because I've been doing it so much that I can keep counting while also switching my focus back and forth to other things at the same time.
Another example of from the music world: I sing in a choir. Recently, preparing for a concert, the conductor complained that when he asked us to sing a certain way, we'd do it. But the next time we sang the same song, he'd have to ask us the exact same thing again. So he asked us to please remember the things he asked, and to do them on our own, without needing a reminder every single time.
So what has this got to do with aikido practice?
I was leading a class one night, and one of the kyu grades asked me how he could practise keeping his arms extended in the beginning of techniques, since he had a tendency to collapse them… I answered that there really wasn't any special trick to it; he just needed to consciously decide to extend them every single time all over again. Do that often enough and it begins to become a habit.
What gets in the way, I think, is that it's easy to think this once, and then to start thinking about the hundred other problems one's technique of course also has. It takes a certain form of single mindedness to keep focused on the one change one wants to make at that time and leave the rest for the next round or practice session. And we easily underestimate the number of times you need to consciously decide to do something before it becomes a habit.
I don't think it's really possible to focus like this on more than one thing at a time. One of my fellow Mirror writers mentioned the words "beginner's mind." One reason beginners often are better at following just that one instruction they just got is that they don't know that much. So they don't have all these other ideas about what to also focus on cluttering their minds!
Focusing on just one thing at a time requires some trust in your own abilities. While you focus on what you want to improve, you have to trust that all the other aspects of the technique will take care of themselves for now. Another recorder student of mine is very good at rhythm, but gets confused about fingerings. In her last lesson, every time she made a fingering mistake, got confused and stopped playing, I started asking her what she was thinking about in that moment. Turns out that every single time, her mind had been on something other than the fingerings. She had started worrying abut her tone -which was fine- or rhythm -which also was fine.
And towards the end of the piece, sometimes she was just plain tired. "I just played the first repeat without problems; why couldn't I do the same in the second repeat?" I answered "I just ran the first kilometer of a marathon really fast; why couldn't I do the same in the last kilometer?" Intense focus is not something you can maintain indefinitely. When you start to make a lot of mistakes, sometimes it's a sign to let go of your focus, have a little break, do something else for a couple minutes. Then decide what it is you want to deliberately practise this time around, and try again.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.