Music and the Art of Pugilism

Breathe.  Double Jab.  10 % energy on the first.  90 % percent on the second.  Same speed.  Punch in.  Bring your right directly back to your chin.  Breathe.  Jab, straight right, follow through, step left, coil, uncork left hook.  Punch out.  Breathe.  Punch in for combo, left uppercut, step left, left hook- stay low on that hook, drive with your legs.  Punch out, cover up, move.  Always move.  Always breathe.

It is my belief now that following such a sequence of movements in physical training has made me a better musician.  I believe further that some of the principles behind such sequences of movements translate seamlessly in the pursuit of many artistic endeavors. Err…I think boxing can help you develop your art…kind of.

Over the last year I’ve incorporated boxing into my training regimen for a variety of reasons – I’ve always been a big fan of the sport, it’s an incredible workout, and it’s great fun to punch something.  But more recently, I find that I’m learning more from it than I thought I would.

Boxing and music? Upon initial examination, there doesn’t appear to be much in common between the two.  But looking beneath the surface, it’s hard not to quickly appreciate just why boxing is an art-form.  Yes it’s violent because your brushes are actually fists, and the canvas is another man’s face and body.  But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s barbaric; on the contrary there is much that points to it having significant artistic value. (In fact, don’t take it from me – read George Plimpton or Norman Mailer on the subject.)

The word pugilism itself is a top-notch euphemism for a reason; its existence and use is well-justified.  (Looking further, even boxing’s cousins are part of a family of skills and philosophies academically referred to as the martial arts.)

People think that when you box that you’re only using your body as a weapon.  That’s only partially true.  The uppercut and the right hook may be very true expressions of power, but there is much more to pugilism that is closer to ballet than battle.  The body as a whole bobs and weaves.  It remains fluid, even while shifting swiftly and changing direction, adjusting angles and calculating distances.  The feet and legs are constantly moving; it is of little surprise that a first boxing lesson will usually begin with a skipping rope.  As well, various punching combinations require very intricate and detailed movements from all parts of the body.  Swan Lake they may not be, but they are practiced with utmost grace and balance.  And the jab…that pure punch that is the jab…the jab sings and dances with mischief.   Mohammed Ali always believed that the jab should snake out and kiss your opponent on the cheek- to control him and to allow you to measure your distance to him, to let him know you’re there and to let him know that you’re coming.  Of course, towards the later rounds of a fight, that can feel more like being kissed by flying concrete.

There is indeed rhythm, poetry, melody, and harmony to these movements.  The body in such motion, executing powerful and precise steps in a nimble and fluid manner, is a classic muse for any sculptor or creator.  But maybe the process of actually building that body is where I find even more valuable lessons in relation to music.

Training.  Preparation.  Hard Work.  Repetition.  Practice.  Sweat.

Preparing the body for a boxing match is a painfully exhausting exercise.  Fighters must do their best to stay in shape all year round and then hold an extremely intense training camp for 6-8 weeks before a fight.  Your skill-level and performance is a direct result of the work you put in during practice, both from the years of work and learning as well as your immediate training.  Whether you’re preparing yourself for the stage or the ring, the importance of preparation is the same.  I remember when we recorded our EP, how much time we took prior to going into the studio to be prepared.  It wasn’t just about reviewing all of the parts that we needed to play.  It was about ensuring that we could play any part on command, perfectly to a click, and having the mentality and confidence in the material built in to incorporate changes on the fly.  It was about having the ability to be in shape and stick to the game plan, while also being ready to improvise and seize unforeseen opportunity.

This time around our undertaking is far greater.  We have a lot more songs and so it will take more time, energy, preparation, and creativity than we’ve ever known.  We have to take full advantage of every moment available and continue to pour in the work in this remaining time to be ready.

You need to be able to go 12 rounds with him.

Cardio.  Endurance.  That’s what gets you there.  Gets you to the end.  You don’t want to punch yourself out and gas the way Foreman did in Zaire.  You can’t quit the way Duran did against Leonard.

The hardest part about doing anything is the next part.  In music, the hardest part is coming up with an idea for a song.  Then the hardest part is creating song structure.  Then the hardest part is negotiating the vocal line and finding the right lyrics.  Then the hardest part is finding the right arrangement.  Then the hardest part is testing it live.  And after that, it’s preparing to record it in a studio.  And so on, and so on.  You catch my drift?  The hardest part of anything is the next part.  And so by that logic, the truly hardest part is always the finish.  The last 10 %, down to the final 5 %, and then that very last thing you need to do to finish – that’s when things get really hard.  But that’s when all of the years of learning and training hopefully pay off.  That’s when you have to dig deep and finish strong.

I don’t want confuse.  Making music and making a record has many, many things associated with it that have absolutely nothing to do with engaging another person in hand-to-hand combat.  But if we are to look at how the body and mind works in one way, compared with how it works in another, we can learn and apply a lot of translatable techniques.  At the end of the day, whether you’re boxing, playing an instrument, or making a film…you are expressing something.  You are creating an expression- of the body, of the mind, whatever.

At the end of the day we must put ourselves in a position or state to give the best in that moment of expression with what we have.  That allows us the best chance of producing something authentic.  And THAT…that’s the real challenge.  It’s like Bruce Lee once said in an interview with Pierre Berton “It is easy for me to put on a show and be cocky and be flooded with a cocky feeling, and feel pretty cool…and I can show you some really fancy movement…but to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself…To express myself honestly – now that my friend is very hard to do.”

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