David Rudge, director of orchestras at SUNY Fredonia, is an ardent supporter of minimalist and post classic music. He regularly performs works by John Adams, Robert Moran and the like; he gave my Strange Attractors an exciting premiere last Fall. He is also an innovator in his methods: he invited me to participate in a free-form workshop with 20 students on a wide array of percussion instruments, while he and I improvised on piano and violin. I have never had this kind of experience with any of the conductors I have worked with in the past! Last and not least, when he told me he had a brief Tai Chi session at the beginning of his orchestra rehearsals, I became very interested. I often felt that music students should be taught body techniques that promote concentration and relaxation, as musicians are prone to stress and a good performance is both loose and focused. I asked David to give me some details about his experience with the use of Tai Chi for the orchestra.

“Years ago, while studying the Alexander Technique, I became interested in Tai Chi, the Chinese form of exercise. Tai Chi is a martial art, usually practiced in slow-motion, a form of “moving meditation.” I’ve stayed with my practice of Tai Chi for many years, and last year I met an old friend who had been teaching Tai Chi for over 10 years. We were practicing on a beach over the summer, and when finished, he turned to me and asked, “What do you think would happen if you did this with your orchestra for 10 minutes in every rehearsal?” I knew what he was getting at. Being a dancer/choreographer, he knows well the artistic and creative process, and the role a healthy, aligned body plays in it. I replied, “Well maybe for 5 minutes. I’m sure there could be great possibilities.”

The summer came to a close and right before school began I remembered our conversation. I knew it was a good idea, but wasn’t sure I wanted to jump into such a foreign practice with a room full of possible skeptics. However, as the first rehearsal of string players wore on, and I noticed the familiar bad habits of sitting and usage, I thought to myself, “OK. It’s now or never.” I immediately found myself asking the room of musicians to put their instruments down and stand in front of their chairs. I briefly explained Tai Chi, and how it’s been practiced for thousands of years in China. I told them that practicing Tai Chi has changed my violin playing, conducting and ultimately my life–and I’d like to share it with them. It would be an experiment. I asked that we take 5 minutes of each rehearsal, try basic concepts of it together, and see at the end of the semester, whether it was helpful or a waste of time. I admitted that some may find it ridiculous, but asked that they all be open to this idea, all do it, and evaluate what we have done afterwards.

I led them through a few simple movements. We shifted our weight from one foot to the other, we breathed from our center, sent the breath into the arms and lifted them “as if floating on the water in a swimming pool.” There were a few sideways glances, but everyone followed as best they could. I was surprised at how stiff and awkward some of them looked and even more surprised at how such simple basic movements could be so elusive and disconnected. Soon however we were all moving as one, and the room became very quiet. After our 5 minutes were over, I asked them to sit back down and play what we had been working on—the C Major theme from the end of Brahms Fourth Symphony. Wow! What a difference!! I was amazed. It was a deeper sound, with richer vibrato, and much more nuanced and musical. I suddenly stopped and asked how many of them felt different. Three quarters of the room raised their hands–and I decided then and there to do this at the next rehearsal, which will be with the full orchestra, and continue for the rest of the semester.

After a couple of rehearsals I brought the Tai Chi teacher who inspired the original idea to a rehearsal. He spoke to them about the bad chairs musicians are forced to sit in, and led them through a sequence of movements with great experience. I continued these mini Tai Chi sessions each rehearsal until it became the routine. If I missed a day, some players would ask for it. They were starting to practice it alone during their practice time. In fact, when I was out of town and my graduate student took the rehearsal, they wanted to do it so much that one of the principal strings decided he would lead it.

After a few weeks I noticed how quiet the room was becoming. This 5-minute silence was not the same as a 10-minute “break” of social chaos. The focus during the 2-hour rehearsal was improving, and everyone’s attention span was increasing. We were learning something profound: How to relax the body and focus the mind, instead of the other way around–tensing the body and scattering the mind.

As the first concert drew closer and the rehearsals more intense it gave me a chance to stop, release my orientation towards the goal, and “reset”, to use a computer term. But this was more than starting over, and certainly not about “setting” anything. Nothing in Tai Chi is “set”. One is constantly in motion, just like when making music, and each moment is new and fluid. Those few minutes made me instantly more award of my own mental, physical, and spiritual patterns, and gave me a chance, in public, to change them.

I announced the day before the concert that there would be a 30-minute class right before the performance. I expected a few players to show up, but 50 people came and continued their practice right up until they walked on stage. At the end of the semester ALL the course evaluations told how much benefit the students got from the Tai Chi, how much they wanted me to continue it with the orchestra, and how those 5 minutes were a great investment of time.”

For more information you may contact David Rudge directly: david.rudge@fredonia.edu.

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