Peter from Davenport, IA asks:
“I have heard conflicting things about whether one should practice Tai Chi form to music. My teacher says that one shouldn’t, but I have done it in my personal practice and like it. What’s your take on it?”
Peter, there was a time when I would have agreed with your teacher completely, that you should not practice your Tai Chi form to music. However, a few of my own students sometimes like to practice their form to music, and a couple of my instructors have reported that they have had greater success in teaching their own students when using music. I even have a student who is a professional Jazz saxophonist who is currently experimenting with some musical composition for Tai Chi in a way that hasn’t been done before. So in light of all of this, I need to re-evaluate the value of music in one’s Tai Chi practice.
From the experiences I have collected from others, it seems to me that music may be used as a tool while practicing Tai Chi form, but it’s important to recognize the limitations of this tool. Tai Chi, by its very nature, is an internal art. For Tai Chi to be Tai Chi, it needs to be internally driven. Professor Cheng Man-Ch’ing used to tell us, “You need to do the form. Do not let the form do you.” When you listen to music while doing the form, there is a tendency to allow your form to be externally driven, to “let the form do you.” But there may be times in your practice when this is not such a bad thing.
For example, sometimes beginners, and even more advanced practitioners, struggle with smoothness in their form. They struggle with flow. During these times, it may be helpful to do your form to music to remind yourself of what smoothness feels like, even if it’s just an approximation (since it is not your own internal rhythm you are following). Doing this does turn Tai Chi into a dance, but if you are stuck in a place where you can’t seem to become more smooth, or you are a beginner and don’t understand what smoothness is, practicing your form with music for a limited period of time, just until you begin to get a sense of smoothness but before you become “stuck” in being reliant on the music, may help.
Another case of when music can be a useful tool for your Tai Chi is when you are having difficulty relaxing while doing the form. Sometimes, your stress level may be high, and Tai Chi, instead of being the meditation it can and should be, can turn into another stressor, especially if you are a beginner trying to remember the sequence of postures, or if your mind is running over the problems of the day while you are trying to do your form. In these cases, you are already externally focused, and having difficulty becoming internally focused, so by shifting your external focus to a more peaceful external focus (music) while you practice, you may be able to then get yourself into a better place so that you can then do a second, more meditative round of your form without the music.
There is also a place for music in the regimen of an advanced student. That is the allowing the music to flow in and then on out, being aware of it as an external event, but not paying undue attention to it, or being influenced by it. So you are not only not paying undue attention to it on a conscious level, but stopping it on an unconscious level. That way you are less vulnerable to creating patterns in your body that you will later need to break. If you are doing form or playing push hands and there is soothing music, you do not want to be lulled by that music. You want to remain alert, completely aware of your total environment, and be ready and able to move in response to anything that may occur in that environment.
I’m sure there are other cases where music can be a useful aide in your Tai Chi, but these are just a few that come to mind. If you do choose to practice your Tai Chi with music, just be aware of its limitations, and remember that one of the goals of Tai Chi is to cultivate internal awareness and perform one’s form so that it is internally driven.
Finally, as I mentioned before, I do have a student who is experimenting with music for Tai Chi. Her name is ‘Sweet’ Sue Terry, and part of her experiment is to create something which allows the practitioner to remain internally focused, and even develop a greater awareness of one’s internal state. If you would like to hear one of the tracks from ‘Sweet’ Sue Terry’s forthcoming Tai Chi music CD, you can visit her website and look for the Tai Chi music section half-way down the page. Her latest track at the time of this writing is titled “White Crane” and is played on clay flute. I think you will enjoy it! Check back often for her latest musical endeavors, including more Tai Chi music. I look forward to hearing the results of her experiments, and hope to one day share more of her music with you here.
In T’ai Chi,