The Iaido Journal  Sept 2006
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Rhythm and Flow

Copyright © 2006 Rhona-Mae Arca, all rights reserved

Most people pay little or no attention to the rhythm in their lives. Only when the rhythm is off do they notice. A dancer automatically stumbles if the music is cut off suddenly or changes tempo, a student may forget her lines in Romeo & Juliet if startled, while a daily commuter will notice the difference in the flow of traffic on the way to work if he leaves ten minutes late.

At the Calgary Iaido Club, Chris sensei often talks about rhythm and flow in training. This resonates especially for me, a musician and piano teacher.

The similarities between music and martial arts continue to astound me. It has been an adventure to learn about the common themes as well as the differences; but as my former creative writing teacher says, “It’s better to show rather than tell...”


Arpeggios – broken chord patterns that sound flashy when played quickly but are tricky to get “just right”. They are built on a three note chord, like C – E – G. In earlier grades, they are played in groups of three. It was much easier to get the rhythm and flow then. At my level, I must play them in groups of four. It’s tricky business to shift the accenting from Strong-weak-weak to Strong-weak-weak-weak. In this case, 27 years of piano work against me.

At university, Elinor Lawson, my piano instructor, taught me to say “A-ni-ma-ted A-lli-ga-tor” while playing sixteenth note quadruplets to play them evenly. One syllable per note and one word per beat, with the accent on the first syllable of each word; it’s the only way I can make those darn arpeggios work.

I have a student who is currently facing this challenge. At one lesson, we played them together, counting “1-trip-let 2-trip-let” for the triplet groups and then shifted to “Animated A – Animated A – Animated alligator A – Animated alligator A -” to force the accents onto the right note.


At my first Iaido training session in November 2005, I latched on quickly to the idea that rhythm and flow are essential in Iaido. A surefire way to make music flow is to count the beats and keep a steady tempo. I learned the same holds true for Iai.

For instance, it takes 45 beats to complete hajime no saho. Ichi – taito shisei. Ni - move left hand and bokuto to belly button. San – transfer saya to the right hand. Shi – hands to sides, kissaki pointing down. Go – bow and remember to start from the core and don’t bend the neck! Roku – stand up straight. Shichi – right hand to belly button. Hachi – transfer saya to left hand. Kyu – hands to sides, saya at hip. Ju – Hakama-biki to left side, left knee goes down to ground.

The count begins again. Ichi – Hakama-biki to right side, right knee goes down to the ground. Ni – lie toes down. San – go into seiza. Shi – both thumbs on tsuba. Go - slide saya forward at a 45 degree angle. Roku - transfer sageo to left hand. Shichi – hold saya out in front. Hachi – place sword onto the ground, making sure the tsuba lines up with the outside of the right knee. Kyu – right hand on upper thigh. Ju – left hand adjusts sageo.

Another round begins. Ichi – left hand on thigh. Ni – left hand on ground. San – right hand on ground, forming a triangle with left hand. Shi – bow but don’t bend the neck! Go – rise. Roku - right hand on thigh. Shichi – left hand on thigh. Hachi – right hand reaches for sageo. Kyu - pick up saya – right hand under, left hand over. Ju – saya to tummy, kojiri at belly button.

Round four. Ichi – left hand thumb searches for penultimate obi layer. Ni - insert kojiri into obi. San – left hand to belt at left side. Shi – suck in the gut and push saya through obi. Go – right hand gently drops sageo. Roku – left hand reaches over for sageo. Shichi – right hand pulls sageo out taut. Hachi – right hand to himo. Kyu – right hand threads sageo through himo. Ju - tie sageo.

The final round. Ichi - tug sageo tight. Ni – left hand pulls sageo to left side. San – left thumb on tsuba. Shi - right foot draws up beside left knee, left toe perched. Go - stand, left foot draws up beside right.

I sometimes get stuck at beat 34, suck in the gut and push saya through obi. I wonder whether my saya gets stuck because I’ve cut it down to match my 2-2-0 Shaku bokuto. I cut the tip, transformed it into a cap and glued it in place. It isn’t as strong as before, so I’m afraid to push it into my belt too hard. Or perhaps it has something to do with my obi insisting on sitting straight on top of my hips (any advice, fellow females?). Either way, it’s a trouble spot to work on.


Four note chords are excellent warm ups. My favourite is D-flat major. It’s the most comfortable as it allows the fingers to sit on the keys with proper posture without any effort – loosely curved, wrists level with the keys, poised for action.

When playing chords in solid form, you press down the keys for all the chord notes simultaneously. In this case, D-flat – F – A-flat – D-flat.  Smoothly, move to the next inversion of the chord without missing a beat. Each inversion forces the fingers to stretch a bit.

To create a warm, full tone, you must sink deep into the keys. That requires loose wrists. Press down and then round out the wrists. Down and out. Drop and lift. This releases tension and avoids harsh tones.


O-chiburi is my greatest challenge. The loose wrist, which is highly desired in piano, is unwanted in Iai. Who would have thought blood-flicking would be so difficult?

Maestro, my Lakeland Terrier, often watches on with a baleful eye while I practice o-chiburi at home. Ichi – move the sword forward and to the right in a smooth motion. Ni – bring it back but not past my shoulder. San – Bring right hand up by temple. Shi – Relax wrist slightly, making sure there’s a gap between hand and tsuka. Go – Lock wrist and swing arm down, leading with the blade. Roku – check position. Shichi – carry on.

My late piano teacher, Irina Ginzburg, once said “You must get it right 11 times out of 10 at home so that you can get it right 10 times out of 10 when you perform.” Her advice floats into my head sometimes when I drill o-chiburi. When that happens, I sigh and press on:  One round down, another ten to go.


“This is harder than giving presentations,” said one of my adult students recently. “With music, it’s personal. You’re showing your heart.” Imagine, wearing your heart on your sleeve without losing your cool – that’s performing in a nutshell.

Preparing for and doing my Royal Conservatory diploma exam in piano performance was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Twenty years of study, commitment and sacrifice came down to one piano, one musician and one piano recital in front of one examiner in June 1999. It took three years to learn, analyze, memorize and tweak my examination repertoire, which consisted of six contrasting pieces from five time periods and totaling 53 pages. If I was paid a dollar for each note I played, I would be a millionaire. The performance lasted 55 minutes.

If I close my eyes and sit quietly, I can go back to that moment…

Leacock Theatre at Mount Royal College was silent except for the tapestry of sound I wove for my audience. The taffy browns and creams of the hall soothed my frayed nerves like a cup of hot tea, while the sunny spotlight warmed my icy fingers and cheeks. First up was La Puerta del Vino by the French Impressionist Claude Debussy. La Puerta used to be my flagship piece – the one that never fails - but one disastrous performance a couple of years back changed my view.

I forced back the doubt. Gradually, the sultry habañera gave way to a stormy, passionate embrace on the second page. The melody coyly pulled back, only to build to an even higher climax.

Onto Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in e minor, a work that began with a grand, majestic opening. So far, so good, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The notes of the first three-voice fugue that followed danced beneath my fingers. Careful now, highlight the subject but don’t pound. Balance the three voices. I let them take flight, dancing around me like a shield of sound. It was my weapon to wield in hopes of warming the examiner’s heart.

With luck, I won’t have a memory lapse…No! I’ve worked too hard for that to happen. Stay focused!

The head examiner’s pen scratched across the evaluation form. The examiner-in-training was silent, a stocky brunette behind the gentleman with snow-white hair brandishing the pen.

The fantasia section was next - dreamy and mysterious with sudden changes from broken chords to a chamber ensemble for ten fingers. A slight tap on the damper pedal released the notes in a spray of brilliance.

The sixteenth notes in the grand three-voice fugue pushed frantically to the pinnacle. I struggled to maintain control and to ensure that it peaked in the right place – a study of measured chaos. The hammers popped like popcorn, jumping on top of the strings. Animated alligator, keep it steady, keep your focus!

Phew! Two songs down, only four to go. As my fingers moved onto the playful opening of Haydn’s Sonata in E flat major, Hob. XVI:49 , I felt myself surrender to the music, melting into the strings, the hammers and pedals. Soon, the piano and I would share one heart, one spirit, one voice…


One sword, one person, one soul. I’ve exchanged my piano for a bokuto and the concert hall for a dojo. The biggest difference between the two is that I am striving for the stoic samurai look, not revealing any emotion in my body language.

Last month, Chris sensei called several kohai, including myself up to do Ippon mei -- mae before the rest of the class. My eyes began to water because I was staring so hard at shomen. I tried to stare blankly at the ladder that lay against the wall before me and focus on the moment.

“Hajime,” Chris sensei said.

At that, I began san kokyu. Ichi – make my mind go blank. Ni – get ready. Shi – now! Slowly, I drew my bokuto, chanting silently “jo – ha – kyu”. At “kyu” my bokuto fired out from the saya, forming the first beat, while my left arm tried to remember to reef on my saya. Ni – bend at the wrist, don’t drop kissaki. San – bend elbow, don’t drop kissaki. Go – furikaburi. Slide under the sword, keep it smooth, but who can think of that when I have to go right into Roku – kiri kudashi, without a death grip on the tsuba. Here it comes, the dreaded o-chiburi. Shichi – relax the wrist! Hachi – tighten wrist and downward slash. Kyu – check position. Drat, my knuckles aren’t turned down enough. How is my back heel? Is my hand low enough? Agh! I bet my wrist was too loose. Ju – carry on with noto, while trying not to flinch.

I had an epiphany. At training this week, sensei had us all focus on one goal for the evening. You got it; I worked on o-chiburi. He called me over and told me to move my arm forward and then down. Then, he sent me off to practice. After a few minutes, a memory wafted in my mind of a music workshop I attended last year with Seymour Bernstein, an internationally acclaimed pedagogue and author. In the session, he likened the technique of approaching the keys and playing the first note or chord to throwing a ball.  A gentle throw represented soft while winging the ball represented loud sounds.

My arm started to move as if to throw my bokuto gently. Hand and bokuto out, then down. Out, then down. I looked down at my hand – it was in the right place.

Towards the end of training, sensei called me up to do Ippon mei -- mae alone. I tried very hard to focus on each move, without thinking too far ahead. Before I knew it, o-chiburi was upon me. Focus! Focus! Focus! Out, then down. Just like a ball.

I could hear sensei say, “Yay!” when I finished o-chiburi. A grin began to form on my lips. I struggled to keep a straight face when all I wanted to do was jump and shout for joy.
After all, regardless of the stage, regardless of the instrument – the show must go on. There can be slight missteps, there can be personal victories but through it all, the rhythm and flow must be fluid.

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TIN Sept 2006