The Iaido Journal  May 2007
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Tempering Fire

photo by Rhonda-Mae Arca

copyright © 2007 Rhona-Mae Arca, all rights reserved

“I had a fight with one of my friends this week,” said one of my piano students at a lesson. “I saw her the other night and I just wanted to punch her,” this headstrong and sulky 15-year old added. Thankfully, she did nothing of the sort and we carried on with her lesson.

Halfway through her lesson, I stopped her in the middle of the classical sonata she was playing. To put it bluntly, her performance was a little flat. I asked her to replay a section, but this time, I wanted her to think about how angry she was at her friend. Suddenly, the song charged to life, full of unrestrained fury. Some of the rhythms were wobbly and she missed several notes, but boy did she burn up my studio with her anger.

Musicians learn to draw upon life experiences and feelings to bring their music to a higher level of expression, wielding their emotions like a sword.

What emotion does one draw upon when she takes up the sword?

“More thrust,” said Colin sempai when I was going through tsuka ate during one training session. “You need more killing intent.”

More killing intent. The last time I checked, “killing intent” was not in my arsenal of emotions and experiences to draw upon. The closest thing I can relate to is an all-consuming rage that makes me see red, causes my entire body to shake uncontrollably and fills me with the need to hit something with all my might. However, the shaking would undoubtedly result in me missing my teki; just like my student botched her notes and rhythm when she gave into her raw anger.

How can one harness such a powerful emotion, temper it and deliver with power and precision?

A few years ago, I worked on a Spanish dance by Granados that required fiery passion, power and precision. In one spot, my hands played a fast pattern in the middle of the keyboard and then jumped to the outer extremes to pound out a heavily accented chord. The pattern repeated – all at an incredibly fast tempo.

I saw red each time I drilled that spot. As I continued to miss the jump, I surrendered to my anger a little more. I pounded a little more…until I broke a string.

Seeing red didn’t work well then and doesn’t work for me in Iaido. I’ve tried visualizing myself stabbing someone I’m angry at with my iaito. However, visualization is not one of my strengths, so I made a sketch of my teki with Crayola® markers and posted him in a couple places for at-home practice.

When my iaito arrived, Alex sempai recommended I practice cuts for half an hour, aiming at a line on the wall to work on my hasuji. When I came home, I taped my sketch on a doorframe and began to practice slicing Doorframe Teki’s face.

With each passing week, I get better. In the beginning, I missed Teki’s face completely. Gradually, I managed to cut a straight line down Teki’s left cheek and then straight down the right one. I’m inching closer and closer to consistently slicing him straight down the middle. No killing intent there but I can tell you that shibori helps as does glaring at Teki.

Photo by Rhonda-Mae Arca

Last week, Colin sempai was working with me on morote zuki. “There’s no power in that cut. How can you kill anyone with that?” He promptly sent me off to work on my footwork and my thrust.

At home, I have been charging around my kitchen and living room during breaks or when a student cancels a lesson, aiming to gut poor Mirror Teki and Doorframe Teki. My feet feel more like springs now, pushing forward with icy determination.

Tonight at training, I paused after practicing each kata to review each step in my mind. “Was there killing intent?” I asked myself. Sometimes, the thrusts and cuts felt more aggressive, with an angry bite to them; but then another part of the kata would be off. Other times, the rhythm or the cut would be there, just without the power. It’s an ongoing struggle.

These challenges are mirrored in a Chopin nocturne I’m currently working on. One page is full of florid runs in one hand against a simpler rhythm in the other. In one bar, my right hand plays 10 notes against a left hand triplet. Two bars later, it’s eleven versus three.

The runs need to sparkle with fire, while the triplets just need to be even. Some nights, the blazing emotions are there, just not all the notes. Other times, the notes are there but another element is off.

After drilling those trouble spots almost nightly for two weeks, fifty times each just in one night alone, I am getting there. The burning desire to slice down my teki in those particular spots is very strong, so it’s just a matter of time.

That Spanish dance? With countless hours of practice and steely resolve, I have nailed that spot.

I doubt I felt killing intent when I got that part and I am not sure whether I’ll ever feel it in Iaido or music. Tempering the fires of anger to strike with power and precision? I think I can achieve that - with practice, patience and perseverance.

Rhona is a recipient of the Haruna Bursary to the Guelph Spring Iaido Seminar. The following is from her sensei.

Rhona’s Readiness
copyright © 2007 Chris Gilham, all rights reserved

Words need not be spoken when assessing whether or not a person is ready for learning. She nods her head, grins that ‘I know what you’re talking about’ grin, and humbly acknowledges her openness to learning through the language of her stance and posture.

Rhona is ready for learning.
Rhona is ready for learning all the time, it seems.
Rhona’s readiness results in progress.

Training in Iaido once a week is a difficult pace for recognizable and measurable progress. Rhona trains once a week. Her path is a slower one, and this is fine because the goal in training is primarily to train, and to continue to seek improvement, perpetually. Without a readiness to learn progress would not happen. Rhona understands this. She told me so with her grin, just the other day. ‘Slow and steady wins the race’ really doesn’t apply: Rhona is on the winless path, as we should be.

Fruitfully, Rhona’s training continues on multiple levels outside the training hall. With discipline and determination, Rhona teaches and plays Piano. Often, Iaido and Piano resonate through flow and timing, rhythm and balance. She told me so in her writing, on several occasions. Her sword pictures powerfully play with light. Patience and understanding are necessary for such skill. Committee work is the act of being in service to others. Rhona’s roles on various committees speak of commitment and passion.

Perhaps the essential core message is this: Rhona has had a long-standing readiness for Iaido training. Iaido is but one key among many chosen, conscientiously and intentionally, as a vehicle for the expression of fundamental character traits or principles for living. For many of us Iaido has found us. For others, they have found Iaido.

Rhona is ready for learning.
Rhona has long been ready for learning – well before she joined us in Iaido training.

We are well taught through example, by her readiness.

Photo by Rhona-Mae Arca

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TIN May 2007