Richie Morales

Hello, MD readers.

“—It would be of great assistance to a karateka to become involved in the rhythmic occurrences of everyday life such as music and dance, and so on. This will lead to a unification of mind and body, which will serve as the firm foundation for growth and excellence in any undertaking.”

–Mas Oyama


After doing all the kinds of things you feel are necessary in order to achieve your own satisfactory level of success and become the best person/musician/drummer you can be (all your practice, study, listening, professional activity, networking, etc.), have you ever just kind of “hit the wall,” “found yourself not feeling it,” “not getting anything back”? JOIN THE CLUB!

Having played the drums for over forty years, thirty of them with world-class names (yeah, I’m that old—), this is something I’ve dealt with throughout my career, often when things are going well professionally. It’s important to be involved in some “extracurricular” activity that you can engage in and recharge your creative and emotional juices with. Often that positive energy can carry over into other areas of your life–in our case, music and drumming. Call it a kick or a hobby or a spiritual pursuit or whatever you want. My thing happens to be martial arts. Towards the end of last year I achieved a milestone in my martial arts studies. I attained the rank of second Dan (second-degree black belt) in the Israeli fighting system Hisardut, an amalgam of Asian martial arts styles, American boxing, and military hand-to-hand combat training. This entailed approximately eight years of training. My promotion test was spread out over a week’s duration. It was an intense and fulfilling experience, and I’d like to share a little bit of it with you. Advertisement

Let me clarify one thing—a few things, really. The study of martial arts is about self-improvement through the unification of mind, body, and spirit. The undertaking of the discipline is for the promotion of health, fitness, and spiritual well being. Self-defense and the ability to fight are positive side benefits, not always the prime objective of martial arts study. Some disciplines never spar at all. Martial arts enthusiasts are not as a rule antisocial types with anger management issues, just as most drummers are not musically illiterate party-animal mouth breathers. (Ha!)

A parallel between martial arts and drumming that I enjoy is the importance of the fundamentals: posture, breathing, and technique–the basics. Both disciplines require years of study and practice just to get to the point of where you can begin to “scratch the surface.” A black belt means a student is ready to start learning, not that he’s reached the end. When I had the opportunity to work with the late, great Afro-Cuban percussionist Carlos “Patato” Valdes, he often would to say “—No masters! We’re all students here.”

So, about the test. Leading up to the exam, I was involved in a training regimen of approximately four to six months of cardiovascular workouts and weight training, in addition to my regular karate workouts. Obviously there were some breaks due to professional activity. Test week itself started with a three-mile run in the ice and snow, which had to be completed in under twenty-eight minutes, followed by a ninety-minute workout and sparring session. The second day of the test was an hour of high-intensity cardiovascular activity. The third day was an hour of jump rope, shadowboxing, and calisthenics. The fourth was a sequence of twenty fights–ten Jiu Jitsu (on the ground) and ten stand-up full-contact. The last day was a weapons demonstration, board breaking, and the awards ceremony. When it was over I was still able to walk–albeit stiffly–with no major injuries. Whew, I get tired again just recounting it. Advertisement

I can hear you saying, “Are you some kind of nut?!”  Well—yeah, aren’t we all? The object of the test is not only to gauge a student’s proficiency in forms, attack, defense, and stamina, but also to test our spirit. It’s all about pushing yourself beyond what you think your limitations are. Isn’t that kind of what we try to do as drummers in terms of developing our technique and facility? Martial arts are about developing situational awareness to avoid conflict so that we never have to use our skills in a physical confrontation unless absolutely necessary. As musicians we have to use situational awareness and musical instincts on the bandstand to interact more effectively with our band mates. All the information isn’t on the chart or lead sheet. We have to gauge the soloist’s, singer’s, or bandleader’s energy and body language, and react appropriately. I’ve found that the discipline and work ethic that one develops in martial arts has definitely carried over into my musical study and practice. The opposite is true as well.

I train with or know of more than a few musicians who study martial arts, and there have been quite a few MD interviewees who’ve mentioned their martial arts background. The risk of injury does exist, but it’s relatively low when compared to other contact sports. And it can be minimized through the use of protective gear, by working with a good instructor, and by employing the appropriate level of control. I’ve seen just as many (if not more of) my weekend-warrior buddies get trashed playing softball, tennis, or basketball. Let’s face it: In the music business you’re going to get some literal and figurative bumps and bruises anyway you look at it. Studying martial arts helps me cope with that fact.

As I said earlier, any “extracurricular” activity can serve the purpose of helping you to recharge. It doesn’t have to be martial arts. It could be cooking, reading a book, any of the plastic or visual arts, or perhaps some spiritual pursuit. Think of it as a kind of “cross-training” that will help you bring something more to the party in terms of renewed interest, a different perspective, and a refreshed approach to your musical and technical studies. It works for me. Advertisement

Till next time,


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