By Jeff Marder
I’ve been a musician for as long as I can remember, and have been playing professionally for over thirty years. My primary focus is playing keyboards, conducting, and doing electronic music design for Broadway productions, although along the way I’ve also played a lot of jazz, classical, and spent three years in Las Vegas playing keyboards on a Cirque du Soleil production.
Throughout my entire life, I always had a desire to learn a martial art. Aside from doing some wrestling in junior high school, I never pursued this interest as my schedule often interfered or I was on tour with a production. About three years ago, my schedule allowed me to begin taking some classes, so I began my journey at a local Krav Maga school.
While there, I signed up for a No-Gi Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class that was being offered. I was instantly hooked and immediately left Krav Maga to sign up at Vitor Shaolin’s academy in midtown Manhattan. I’ve now been training BJJ for about two years.
So many things about BJJ speak to me on an incredibly deep level; the camaraderie, the physical and emotional benefits, the competition, and the community. However, something that struck me about the learning process is just how similar it is to learning music. I’ve discussed this observation with several other colleagues in the music industry who are also martial artists and I find that we’re all in agreement. The purpose of this article is to share these thoughts with the hope that they might offer a fresh perspective.
Both BJJ and music each have their own respective vocabularies specific to their practice.
In music, we practice scales, arpeggios, and repertoire to learn the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic syntax. Those specializing in western classical music must learn Bach Preludes and Fugues, Mozart Sonatas, and Chopin Etudes, jazz musicians must learn solos that were improvised by the masters note for note from recordings, and pop musicians need to have the experience of playing in a cover band to learn the building blocks of song structure, production, and arranging.
The BJJ equivalent would be the moves and positions that form the building blocks of the art such as the guard, shrimping, bridging, various guard passes, sweeps, and submissions. Trying to roll after just one or two classes feels a lot like being that guy who hangs out at the local music store playing a stuttering version of the intro to Stairway to Heaven because that’s the only song he almost knows, but isn’t able find his way out of that groove and thus can’t really make any music with anyone else without it sounding like chaos.
An early inspiration as I began my BJJ journey was my friend and colleague Barry Danielian, a trumpet player with whom I worked on several Broadway shows. He’s played trumpet with Bruce Springsteen, Tower of Power, and many others, as well as having studied various forms of martial arts for over 37 years. Barry always reminds me that just as musicians need to learn the language of music until it’s fully internalized, martial artists must practice drills, techniques, and combative principles until they become reflexive.
As I type this, I’m reminded of a YouTube video of Barry playing trumpet with the E Street Band in which Bruce takes a song request from the audience in a packed arena and proceeds to create an arrangement on the spot with the band. What’s significant about this is that the song wasn’t a Springsteen tune, but rather a cover of a song by another artist. Because everyone in the band was thoroughly familiar with the vocabulary of rock ‘n’ roll and pop music in general, the performance came together beautifully and was an incredibly exciting and completely impromptu performance.
This is directly analogous to the way that BJJ players and other martial artists can travel anywhere in the world and train with practitioners of their respective disciplines despite language and cultural differences. Once we know the vocabulary, we can have a conversation with anyone else in our fraternity.
Honest Expression and Communication
When performing music at a high level, it’s essential to be able to flow and respond to what’s happening in the moment. Whether the communication occurs between a conductor and an orchestra, a pianist and a singer, or the rhythm section of a tight funk band, the music is a conversation in which one responds based on instinct and from listening with an open mind to those in your ensemble. This skill carries over directly from BJJ.
My friend and colleague Terry Wollman, an LA based guitarist and producer who has worked with Melissa Manchester, Billy Preston, and Eartha Kitt (just to name a few) has been practicing Karate and BJJ for over 20 years. He says “The process of slowing one’s mind down allows you to become more present, which leads to hearing and seeing the things that are going on around with a deeper clarity.”
As we all know, such is the same for BJJ. If you take the time to think and analyze, the moment has passed and you’ve lost your opportunity.
As important as drilling and situational sparring are, one must be completely in the moment and acting as freely as they would in a lively conversation. I’m very much guilty of over-analysis in my BJJ game, particularly while rolling. When I notice this happening, I remind myself of how I’d respond in a musical situation.
When I’m playing in a band or conducting an orchestra, I’m not thinking “Jeff, remember to play that groove similar to how so-and-so played it on that album”, or “Hey knucklehead (that’s me), your beat wasn’t clear and that’s why the orchestra’s entrance was sloppy there”. Instead, I do what feels right for the moment while listening to my colleagues, much like having an empathic conversation with someone you care about deeply.
Character, Growth, and Ego
One of the things I love most about my BJJ journey is how I can see it shaping my character. I believe it continues to make me a more caring, humble, and empathic human being. I’m sure I’ll understand the many reasons why as I progress further on my journey, but my initial observations are that BJJ is an incredibly humbling discipline simply as a result of constantly being defeated by opponents of all ages and sizes.
The need to be helpful to one’s teammates during the learning process, be mindful of safety, and respectful of our instructors and higher belts teaches both humility and a caring attitude. And knowing that we’re all going through a similar experience and process as we roll together on the mat helps us to be more empathic. There’s something about the visceral experience of rolling around on the mat trying to submit each other that requires such a high degree of trust and respect that it’s difficult not to be affected by it.
The mat creates a level playing field that removes any perceived or inconsequential differences such as size, gender, job title, or family background. Such is the same with music. The only way to grow as a musician is to approach the art with an open mind and spirit, and to remain humble and open to criticism.
This constant refinement of character, self, and ego is an experience that we can take with us both on and off the mat, and both in and out of the practice room. As martial artists (and musicians), the lessons we learn have the ability to shape us in profound ways and place us in a unique position to have a positive impact on the world at large.
About the Author
Jeff Marder is a musician, fitness enthusiast and a BJJ student of Vitor Shaolin in Manhattan. Check out his website at BudoBelly.com