Musical Tones and Muay Thai – Re-purposing Mental Pathways

I wrote recently about my 22 years of experience as a musician, growing up playing the violin since about age 2. The post was about deliberate practice and what...

I wrote recently about my 22 years of experience as a musician, growing up playing the violin since about age 2. The post was about deliberate practice and what all those years of learning the violin taught me – how that can be applied to Muay Thai and learning a new skill (or honing a skill) now. After writing this post I kept thinking about my years as a violinist and how I could graft that onto my path in Muay Thai; I was not a diligent student of the violin, but 22 years teaches you a lot about what works and what doesn’t in the process of learning. And, as much as I don’t identify as a musician or a violinist (nor do I play any longer, my violin is stored at my parents’ house in Colorado), there is a part of me that absolutely connects to playing the violin. Standing on the back porch in the middle of the day and playing into the open air was a great joy for me. It remains a joyful memory.

While I did learn to read music and can still do so now, what got me through most of my lessons and allowed me improvement was a gift of having a good ear. I can memorize melodies and recognize notes very well. I don’t believe I have Perfect Pitch, which is a defined thing that I’ve never been tested for, but I’m pretty good at hearing and recreating. So, somehow it got into my mind that I’d use musical notes as “tones” for strikes. I don’t know quite how this came to mind – I think it’s that I can still tap out the melody of nearly 100 songs I learned in the Suzuki method, my fingers dancing across my forearm as a stand in for the neck of a violin. If I can hear music, maybe I can replace the fingerboard of a violin with the limbs of my body. Indeed, part of my problem in fighting and sparring has been that I kind of pull my strikes at the end of them – they start fast and hard and then fizzle out at the end. By associating a tone with the actual point of contact, the association, albeit and preferably a bit unconsciously, is linked with the landing of the strike. I think I pull my strikes because I’m afraid of them not landing or of being interrupted. But you just play a note. The video below is my vlog where I talk about and demonstrate some of this:

I started out by watching fights and singing the tones in my head. The first fight was between Karuhat and Chatchai, which is an especially good fight and they tend to hit each other with the same strikes. So I assigned a note to each limb, thinking I could add sharps and flats to the varitaions of what each limb can do later. But for right now, whether it’s a punch or an elbow with the left hand, that’s one tone. A knee or a kick or a teep with the right is all one tone. It goes like this: Left Arm: A, Right Arm: B, Right Leg: C, Left Leg: D. Just four tones. But watching Karuhat kick right I hear a C, then Chatchai returns the same kick and it’s another C. If Karuhat teeps left and then throws a right cross, it’s D, B. These are just my arbitrary assignments, just what seemed right.

musical-notes-and-muay-thai-graph-of-strikes

note: a male figure is used in this post because it’s not easy to find a female silhouette who is not in sexy time pose, or office clothes

Starting to hear these tones in my own practice wasn’t easy. At first I tried to “play songs” with the tones, but with only 4 tones you can’t play much, maybe some Ramones chords, and it made the choices in strikes very incoherent. So I switched so that I threw whatever I wanted but sang the tone in my head just to make the association. It wasn’t a song, but it was melodic. Gradually I started hearing the tones while on the bag, in shadow, and struggling to do so under the pressure of padwork or sparring. Those are going to take a while, I reckon. But I do hear some of them. My right kick as a C has become somewhat automatic. Then Kevin brought up that I need to have a tone for being struck as well. I assumed I would just associate the same tones to the same limbs, like when I was watching the Karuhat vs. Chatchai fight, but identifying which limb just hit you, and in mirror form because someone is facing you, proved very difficult. So we decided just one tone would do, for any strike landing on me. I didn’t want it to be the same as the notes I already had for myself, but I also didn’t want it to be a sour note, because that would make it feel (or sound in my head) like a mistake. Like a minor key or a whomp-whoooooomp sound would make me feel like it was a mistake to be hit. Somewhat by accident, maybe because I was annoyed at Kevin for bringing it up, I assigned a fart noise to any strike landing on me. It cracks me up, which is perfec. So I value my strikes as these beautiful tones every time I make contact and then there’s a fart ripping sound for anything touching me. It’s fantastic. It makes it seem like my opponent made the mistake by touching me.

This is a work in progress and something I’ve only been experimenting with for about a month. I’m not sure how far I’ll take it, how long I’ll keep developing it, or what it will “mean” for me in the long run. But at the moment it’s a clever way to focus on the landing of strikes rather than only the technical execution. And it links it to something I have a lot of practice and significant joy of expression in: music. Why not, right?

The larger lesson in this is that even if you are not musical, or have a history in training in music, think creatively about yourself. When we start taking up martial arts in our late teens or early twenties (or later) as many do, we’ve already spent years of learning other things, other skills that we are pretty proficient at already. We can benefit from acknowledging and embracing those skills as a positive development, and sometimes even working to map those already trained brain pathways onto what we are attempting to accomplish in Muay Thai. Youth is great for having time to develop; being older is great for the life experiences that help you understand quicker. Who would have thought that my years of violin could have anything to do with Muay Thai, but in those decades I learned a lot about practice, both in how to do it and not do it, and my brain learned how to make a note in rhythm and precision, and to do so powerfully. What, of all the things you already know, can you borrow to learn something new?

Read My Original Article on Violin and Muay Thai here:

Deliberate Practice and Mental Training – Mapping, Violin and Muay Thai

All my Mental Training Articles here

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Muay Thai

A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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