A comparison of the approach to the mastery of Karate and to a musical instrument

A comparison of the approach to the mastery of Karate and to a musical instrument

Jonathan Hill

The comparable journey of a musician from the discovery of a passion in the technical mastery of a musical instrument to the relatively late discovery of a martial art has always struck me as incredibly similar. The frustration of not being able to physically emulate the effortless movement of your Sempai and Sensei comparable to the random squeaks and trills created by the violin in the early throes of practise (often to the accompaniment of cursing and the slamming of doors!) struck a chord with me straight away.


The basic (Kihon) moves that we learn, which are essential for the physical memory of Karate, will eventually form Kumite, ‘free style’ and the most advanced Kata. Without the constant repetition of these moves we could never naturally adopt a defensive or aggressive position in karate and certainly not comfortably execute them. Basic techniques including Oi-Zuki (Lunge Punch), Gyaku-Zuki (Reverse Punch), Mae-Geri (Forward Kick) and stances such as Zenkutsu-Dachi (Front Stance) and Kokutsu-Dachi (Back Stance) are the building blocks of our journey to master Karate and should never be underestimated. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying "People love chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees results."  Anybody can kick and punch but to do these things properly takes a long time.

The seemingly mindless repetition of muscle movement in learning scales and arpeggios on a musical instrument also leads to a familiarity and confidene, allowing the violinist to progress to basic pieces of music (the musical equivalent of Kihon Kumite) and eventually to virtuoso ‘show’ pieces, where the viewing audience are baffled and enthralled as to how someone can physically manifest these flawless techniques, rather as we witness the sheer physical mastery of the highest Kata demonstrated by our instructors. Although Karate is long associated with breaking planks and bricks, it is only the subtleties of approach and the understanding of basic techniques that can lead to these acts of physical prowess.


There is a beauty in Kata ('Form') that inspires endless hours of practise and the constant frustration of realising that with different speeds and perceived 'Bunkai' ('analysis') the interpretation of a Karateka is virtually limitless within the form of the proscribed movements. The most popular 29 Kata are a distillation of the myriad possible combinations of movement and the forms that best represented the needs of the exponents of Shotokan Karate.

The 12 note western scale in music has virtually infinite combinations but rather like the Karate Kata there are still only very few melodies that stand the test of time and remain in the memory of the general public. The ability to perform these combinations is another thing entirely - the X factor television show has constantly shown us that there are many that believe they can sing but obviously can’t!

The mastery of music on an instrument comes from the technical and musical awareness of each individual and the ease as to its completion both stylistically and to the satisfaction of the teacher relies heavily on the grasp of basics and form by the student. There needs also to be an awareness that at some point techniques flow and coalesce to become one with the exponent. Karate mirrors this exactly.

Individual practise

Both karate and the Violin require an enormous amount of personal practise in the confines of one’s home or the local gymnasium (although I’d recommend practising the violin at home!) One of the traits of today’s society is the belief that excellence is in someway a natural 'gift' rather than a result of the secret hours of toil that an individual has had to suffer to the detriment of their social life.

Dr Shinichi Suzuki spent his life trying to prove that ability is not inborn and that talent can be created. His method was specifically designed around the rote learning of a stringed instrument, by the mimicking of the action of the parent by the child. It proved to be almost a short cut to mastery by showing the child physically the movement required to achieve a sound on an instrument (the parents often just used a stick for a bow and a packet of cereal as a 'violin' but the effect was the same to the young mind.)

The drawback was later on when the child had to start actually reading music and making their own decisions as to how to go about new techniques that were beyond emulation.

In karate we do everything from memory. We learn by observing the demonstrations of our Sensei.  We physically do our best but often try to create short cuts for ourselves so as to progress faster for example kicks that employ the wrong foot position or perhaps don't have quite the right knee or hip orientation but look ok from a distance. There is a lot to be said for copying those around you but eventually you have to learn something properly and for that you need an expert pointing out what's wrong and how you fix it.

Seeking out a Sensei

The journey of a musician or a Karateka differs only slightly here by way of availability. The approach of modern day Karate teaching has a similarity to the group approach of classroom teaching available at schools through the peripatetic efforts of specialised instrumental teachers.

As I have said before, the martial 'group movement' of the typical practise session to which we are all familiar is perfect for bringing familiarity to the Karate we learn but the moment you deviate (because as an individual you wish to learn exactly what a part of your body should be doing at that point) it's rather like falling out of a high speed vehicle on a motorway.

Not all students wish to be scrutinised by a Sensei but to master anything it is a necessary process. In ancient Karate the student sought out a sensei and strove to impress the master with their diligence and willingness to achieve. The teacher had to instil a sense of loyalty and trust in the student so that their mastery would inspire the student to great things.

At some point we have all gone up to our Sensei and individually asked questions about our style, technique or approach. The mastery of Karate requires far more of this style of pupil/teacher interaction. Certainly as a student of the violin a one to one approach, although very revealing of ones own inadequacies, is essential on a regular basis.

Lots of EFFORT, but is it natural?

After the efforts of Dr Suzuki you'd think that it would be clear as to why some students progress faster than others. Obviously some people just have a more natural affinity to something than others and combined with a desire to explore that interest the mastery of early moves both in karate and music can give the impression of a 'gift', but at some point the student has to work hard enough for the combinations of physical movement to become automatic or 'second nature'.

When it comes to understanding expertise and expert performance, psychologist Dr K Anders Ericsson is perhaps the world’s leading authority. His research is the basis for the "ten-year rule" and "10,000-hour rule" which suggest that it requires at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of understanding and performance in any given domain be it karate or playing an instrument, often closer to 25 years in order to attain an elite international level.

Note that the real key here is not the amount of practice required but the type of practice required to attain an expert level of performance. As well as the body the students has to use their mind to analyse what is going right and more often wrong. It is difficult to practise Karate anywhere other than the Dojo unless one owns a huge house or the weather is good enough to train outside, but it is always obvious when a student has practised away from classes.

The mastery of anything cannot be achieved by turning up to training sessions alone, although the 'interpretation' of mastery can differ vastly between individuals. Jascha Heifetz, one of the greatest ever violinists (certainly in my opinion) was heard to say; "If I don't practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it."

Free style/Sight reading

One of the most obvious similarities between an instrument and Karate is the idea of 'free style' combat and 'sight reading'. These both rely on the quick thinking of the student and it is very much grounded in their ability to join the dots between the various techniques learned at a very basic level. The breathtaking speed that a Karate master can interpret the movement of their opponent to score a winning strike is certainly more impressive than creating the correct sequence of notes, articulation and dynamics on an instrument but fundamentally they are the same. The more you practice the better you get.

OrchestralPractice/Group training

Certainly the martial aspect of 'drilling' the student into harmony with their fellow is synonymous with the group of musicians known as an orchestra. Students line up in order of experience/grade and move in unison with their peer group (although there is a certain amount of rotation among seated orchestral violinists the finer players gravitate towards the front usually through talent and more often ego!)

An excellent way to memorise Kata and Kumite is by immersing yourself in the movements around you and by slowing down or speeding up slightly in parts that you have difficulty you can be reminded by the more advanced or just more diligent around you.

This is prevalent in an orchestra not in the changing of tempi but the acoustic volume of the players. The weaker players, of which there are essentially a few (as a group cannot consist purely of 'leaders'), play quietly when unfamiliar or just plainly difficult passages of notes appear. The gestalt effect helps give a polished performance, although a 'master' at Karate as can a master of an instrument can always single out the weak from the strong in what seems to the untrained eye a fine group.

Here again a great deal can be learnt, but the 'fine tuning' required to truly advance in any art is the desire of the individual to seek out a 'master' to help point out and hone skills.


Discipline is often quoted as a strong reason for delinquent or troublesome children to learn a martial art. There are good reasons for this including the fostering of a team spirit through the group training sessions and the idea that physically a sensei can deal with any threat that a naive youth feels they could inflict on others outside the dojo. As in fact can almost all their Sempai.

However, the longer a student trains the more they realise that karate is a way of life and far more beneficial than just learning your right foot from your left and that perhaps beating up every other person you meet isn’t the way forward to spiritual enlightenment.

The physical and intellectual stimulus received every minute from training in the dojo is paralleled exactly on a musical instrument. The difficulty in mastering each is a focus for the undeveloped mind and body and even in later life the starting of a new passion can prove calming and beneficial.

There is a universal respect for a 'Black' belt as if everybody knows the effort required to achieve that level. Grade 8 violin doesn’t generally elicit such an enthusiastic response in conversation (!) but these are both to the general public the pinnacle of achievement in that field.

To the exponents of each art they are but the first major stage in a long journey. The longer the student trains and the more they achieve, the more respect a Sensei gains as the exalted level that they have reached seemingly becomes further and further away. Sadly the 'dropout' of students increases and the journey becomes more and more arduous.

Unless heightened awareness of physical and mental discipline becomes a part of the training programme the student is incapable of progressing any further.


The brain may be viewed as a muscle and the best ways of keeping it in shape are eating healthily, physical exercise and challenging it on a regular basis. Karate is definitely an obvious way of partly achieving this, however the physical toll on the body by playing a musical instrument isn’t beneficial to the instrumentalist in the slightest. However, the combination of the two is ideal.

The callisthenic and physical aspect of karate can help a musician untangle their bodies from the contortions required to play it and the constant need to play new sequences of notes and memorise passages of music expands the brains ability to learn new Kata.

Sadly coordination is a natural ability generally not blessed on the average musician although between the hand and the eye it can be pretty good. With the idea of years of practise instilled from learning an instrument from an early age it is not an insurmountable issue. How hard can learning left from right actually be? VERY!


Sadly, here is another slight draw back from modern techniques of teaching martial arts and also that of a musical instrument. When a musician has been immersed in an orchestra for a long time and they are suddenly required to play a 'solo' in front of an audience that probably includes their peers, the fight or flight mechanisms kicks in with an unexpected ferocity and all but the simplest actions (ironically, usually even the ability to breathe…) become incredibly difficult and the mind becomes blank.

When a Karate student has to grade or demonstrate their abilities in front of the class all but the most experienced have some sort of difficulty with timing, technique and most often memory. This is due to lack of experience… performing by yourself also needs to be practised.

Musicians also have to grade regularly but once all the grades have been attained the need to perform becomes a voluntary one rather than rigidly controlled by the club or association.  Unless you push yourself to perform the ability to cope as an exponent of an art form or even the teacher of one will dwindle.


To master an art the student and the teacher both need to be able to demonstrate their abilities without succumbing to the effects of fear.

The ability to deal with pressure combined with knowledge, years of practise, affinity for the art and a passion to perform to the highest level makes the mastery of a martial art and a musical instrument so very similar.

However, it is my humble opinion that the absolute mastery of either is as impossible as the creation of 'perfection'. It is the journey that we take trying to achieve this goal that is important.

Our perception of why we are doing something changes with our age and our experience. I have no idea what my definition of mastery will be in 20 or 30 years time? It will be different from now certainly but the precepts will be the same.

As is stated in the Dojo Kun; "foster the spirit of effort". Without that, we will master nothing and, in the words of one of the greatest violinists to have ever lived, even Heifetz thought; "There is no top. There are always further heights to reach…"