Tai Chi for Musicians
By Violet Li
Performing Guitarist and Senior Artist Teacher Joe Rea Phillips of the Blair School of Music of Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) has studied Wushu for 35 years. He started with Northern Shaolin and then Wing Chun. In 1984, Mr. Phillips studied with James Cravens, President of Chinese Boxing Institute International (CBII) and a disciple of Chen Style Tai Chi lineage holder Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang. Joe Rea has learned Baquazhang, Walu, Yang Style Tai Chi, and Chen Style Tai Chi. Joe Rea became a “senior student” of Professor Cravens in 1994. Through Professor Cravens, Mr. Phillips was introduced to Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang and his teaching methods. Mr. Phillips even traveled to Chen Village with James Cravens to study with Grandmaster Chen.
In 1989, Sifu Phillips and a group of students established the Vanderbilt Kung Fu Club where Joe Rea serves as an instructor and faculty adviser. This club offers Chinese martial arts classes of Baguazhang, Tai Chi, Walu, and other Chinese boxing styles and hosts special workshops with James Cravens. But in 1997, Joe Rea’s passion for Tai Chi led him to another venture. As a musician, he realizes that many musicians and musical students suffer from Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI or Repetitive Motion Disorder). As a Tai Chi practitioner, he fully understands how Tai Chi can help to relieve pain from the injury and prevent RSI to occur. He did a study and found out that Southern Methodist University, Webster Conservatory, and Southern Illinois University offered Tai Chi for credit from their theater departments. Syracuse University offered Tai Chi for credit from their school of education. Allison Bert, a guitar colleague of Joe Rea’s from Syracuse University, has taught clinics in Tai Chi for musicians at Julliard and the Manhattan School of Music. He presented “Tai Chi for Musicians” to the Blair School of Music’s curriculum committee and his proposal was accepted unanimously. Sifu Phillips has been teaching this course since.
With Joe Rea’s extensive training background in Tai Chi and knowledge of musicians, “Tai Chi for Musicians” has a very rich curriculum that includes the following:
- Chen and Yang – Stretch muscles, tendons, ligaments. Work on circulation of blood and Qi.
- Chen joint opening exercises – very helpful for wrists and shoulders since many musicians working to get their Qi to the fingers.
- Walu energy exercises. Walu is referred to as a “Bridge” of the “external” to the “internal” in martial arts. It has a few bare hand forms and others, but the core of the art consists of 44 energy exercises. Sifu Phillips finds that these energy exercises help to get tension out shoulders and wrists. He selects 4 exercises for the class.
- Silk Reeling exercises and Qigong
- Stillness Posture (Zhan Zhuang )
- Students learn the 1st section (or six movements) of the Grandmaster Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s Yang short form.
- The students do the 1st section in 4 directions on their final exam for this course.
- Study and use as a training supplement the Essence of Tai Chi, a DVD made by Joe Rea’s teacher, Professor James Cravens.
As a seasoned Tai Chi instructor, Joe Rea understands the importance of the proper posture and body alignment. He spends much time on one-on-one guidance and tirelessly corrects student’s posture. Joe Rea said that many students took the course due to a pre-existing condition. The results of this course are quite impressive. Students with tendonitis reported that their problem improved greatly after taking this class. One semester he had a student who suffered from scoliosis who claimed improved condition after the course. In the past fall semester, a harp student had tennis elbow and informed Joe Rea that her tennis elbow was significantly better at the end of the course.
Tai Chi and music are different types of arts. But to Sifu Phillips, there are many similarities between these two art forms.
- Body State: both require the body state to be soft but full of energy (or Peng energy).
- Relaxation: a musician must resist tension to play well, just like Tai Chi will not flow with tension.
- Balance: both Tai Chi and music need physical, mental, and emotional balance to perform.
- Centeredness: Tai Chi practitioner needs to be Zhong Ding while a musician needs a focus.
- Projection: To Sifu Phillips a Tai Chi practitioner projects Qi and power while a musician projects to the audience.
- Unitary ( “Link together” ): Joe Rea explains that Tai Chi links with unitary motion and a musician links by smooth connection of patterns, motifs, and phrases, etc.
- Changeability or “Change and Flow”: Joe Rea interprets it as that Tai Chi flows like a river and a musician should always keep flowing even if there are mistakes along the way.
- Posture: a good posture is important for both.
- Concentration: Joe Rea appreciates the famous quote “Not 10,000 things (at a time), but one thing only” from Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang and thinks that this principle applies to musicians too.
- Rhythm: both music and Tai Chi have rhythm that enhances each other.
- Slow Movement: Joe Rea refers to Grandmaster Chen’s saying that he moves slowly in order to move fast. Joe Rea says that is exactly what a musician must do to develop techniques and play flawlessly.