I have a problem of contradiction: I want to have a session that allows lots of people to have breakfast and practice Tai Chi–an entirely traditional way of practicing–but I also want to make sure everyone who comes benefits as much as possible.
So, like in traditional practice (unlike a Tai Chi “class”), attendees are welcome to join and leave whenever they wish.
After talking through the pros and cons of silent practice with some folks, and realizing that not everyone would get the full “why conductors benefit from Tai Chi” explanation if they aren’t there for the full hour, I rewrote my handout to include more information, and to allow me more flexible opportunities to do silent practice scattered throughout the session.
Here it is: (I hope you’ll come! It’s much more fun to do than to read about.)
Oneness of Thought and Gesture: Tai Chi for Conductors
2012 ACDA Eastern Division Conference
This session can be enjoyed without being present for the full hour.
- Feel free to join any time! Please do so in silence, and remember to silence your phone.
- Feel free to leave any time! Please do so in silence, and remember to enjoy the rest of your day.
- You don’t have to know what you’re doing; just follow along!
- I recommend a minimum of twenty minutes, or about seven repetitions of the form.
Safety and Comfort
Tai Chi is about mindfulness: awareness without judgment. Listen to your body: if you feel inclined to sit, then sit. If you need to move slower or faster, then do it. Don’t become uncomfortable in an effort to be the same as everyone else or in a push to “do it right.” You showed up, so you’re already doing it right!
What does Tai Chi have to do with conducting?
When we learn to conduct, we generally learn about score prep and arm waving, but there is little attention paid to how we get the music from our ears to our hands. Maybe this is because it’s hard to talk about and next to impossible to teach, but it comes naturally with enough practice. Tai Chi teaches you, among many other things, to allow your intention to move your body. It gives you practice getting an idea into your body without interference from the cumbersome processes of thinking and trying. The goal is a natural, physically unencumbered, expressive gesture without affectation or contradiction. In both conducting and Tai Chi, thought becomes gesture with no need for translation between the two. They become one, like the Tai Chi symbol of yin and yang, coexisting simultaneously as discrete entities and a single unit.
What is a “practice session” and how is it different from a Tai Chi class?
In China, people get up early and go to an available open space, join their friends, practice some Tai Chi, then go home and start the rest of their day. There is no teacher or leader—they don’t need one! If you’re new, you’re surrounded by people who have been doing the form for decades, so you just follow along. A few decades later, as new people come, you are the expert that they follow. The things you learn come naturally with time.
We’ve only got three days, not three decades; and I can’t surround you with people who already know the form. So I talk as a shortcut through the process. I do not describe the movements I’m doing—just follow along and imitate what you see—because perfect form is not the point; the point is to be mindful and to experience the connection between your mind and body as an isthmus that grows wider and stronger until eventually the two parts become one seamless entity.
Some of our practice will be silent (or mostly silent) in the spirit of this ancient approach to Tai Chi. When we do it, just follow along, keeping your mind in the present by focusing on your breath and/or feeling your feet. Keep your breath paced with your movements. Sense your weight divided evenly across the ball and heel of each foot, and notice how much of your weight is on the left and right feet respectively.
There are many, many forms of Tai Chi, though there are movements and philosophies common to all of them. I’m not here to teach you any “definitive” Tai Chi form—there’s no such thing. The movements in Tai Chi for Conductors are selected from various forms for their usefulness to conductors. Rather than teaching you a form to memorize and perfect, the goal here is to give you the meditative experience and some memorable movements to take with you to practice beyond the conference.
What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi, also transliterated Taiji, means “immense ultimate,” which isn’t even a noun! Roger Jahnke describes it as “the mutual interplay of opposites,” as represented by the traditional ying-yang symbol. It is moving meditation in which the movement is a result of the intention behind it.
More specifically, the Tai Chi symbol represents two kinds of energy—heaven and earth (also represented by dragons and tigers respectively)—and their simultaneous division and union.
What do the Chinese words mean?
Qi, pr. [tʃi], is the life energy in us and around us. Other ways of describing it might be spirit, god, electromagnetic fields, The Force. The Chi in Tai Chi is a homonym of Qi.
Qigong is “Qi work.” Tai Chi is a form of Qigong that is practiced with a wider variety of movements and less repetition. “Tai Chi for Conductors” is an approach to Tai Chi practiced as Qigong.
- Open, Qigong breath
- Push the Mountain, Wind in the Branches
- Waving Hands Like Clouds
- Harmonizing Yin and Yang
- Embrace Tiger/Return to Mountain
Where can I find out how to study more Tai Chi like this?
- Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi, http://www.iiqtc.org; & The Healer Within, by Roger Jahnke
- Living Tao Foundation, livingtao.org; & Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain, by Chungliang Al Huang
- Omega Institute, eomega.org
- Kripalu, kripalu.org
- Also, my blog: thoughtfulgestures.wordpress.com
- Or just come talk to me!