I’ve mentioned before that I play in a band. We’re not a professional band - although we have members that are excellent musicians - and we play to raise money for charity, not for personal gain. Either way, to play decent music you have to understand the nuances. There are places, even within the same song, where there are changes that take the song from a monotone and sterile one to an ebb and flow of sound. Sometimes
songs have a bridge, a literal break from the flow of the rest of the song. Some songs have choruses that are charged with more energy than the rest of the music in it. Musicians talk about key changes, rhythm, tempo, cadences, and even groove.
My point? Kata have similar nuances and if you ignore them, you’re left with a series of flat-lined karate movements.
For some time I’ve been focusing on the technical aspects of Kata: trying to ensure movements were correct, full, and with good kime. What then happened was that my kata became sterile – a mechanical rendition of the movements. I was getting the notes and chords right, but the song had no soul if you will.
This Saturday past as I was working through the Heian kata, Sensei Owens and Pruim quizzed me about timing. They reminded me that individual movements don’t make up a kata – a kata is a song, a story, with its ups and downs, ins and outs, its ebb and flow. In this case, I was missing the forest for the trees.
My kata was looking like it had a single tempo, and it looked like the timing after each movement was very much the same. Although there are no ‘stops’ in kata wherein the energy dies, the time between movements can and should vary.
After Saturday’s class, I went back to the books to re-study these concepts. The Best Karate (Nakayama) series of books is the only one I am aware of that actually gives you direction on timing. I also found that there are some kata diagrams that do the same. I believe that these are meant to be guides, and just as different performers do the same song differently, you need to interpret the kata for yourself and personalize the timing, etc. Of course, just as reading about guitars doesn’t make you a guitarist, studying karate techniques needs to be conjugal to practice.
As seen in this cutout from the Godan Kata, the time between moves one and two is shorter than the timing between moves two and three, and move three is depicted as continuous and slow. I don’t think I’m saying anything
new here, but I do know that I needed reminding. It may seem a bit philosophical, but kata can be movement, or it can be art. It’s the difference between hitting keys on a piano or playing music.
Of course, timing isn’t all of it, but it is a crucial part of it. Breathing and breath work in kata should manage the kata’s execution. Inhale and exhale should go hand in hand with contraction and expansion. The breath should begin and end every movement. Synonyms for breath are ‘alive’ and ‘living.’ Controlled, fluid breathing means a controlled, fluid kata. Intensity and calm are directed and controlled by the never-ending breathing cycle.
Sensei Power’s ‘telling’ of Unsu is fast, it’s slow, it’s strong and it’s soft. It builds and falls and sometimes explodes. It is a reminder that we shouldn’t ever do kata; we should execute it. It should never be flashy or fake in its delivery but should absolutely be a deliberate and controlled ebb and flow of energy.
If I’m playing lead guitar, I sometimes use opposite ends of the same guitar pick to create a different sound. The note is no different, but the tone created by the stiffer or softer end of the pick is slightly different. Kata is the same: the same move can be done with a different speed or intensity, depending on the application.
I'm in no position to define exactly how kata should look. Besides the fact that it can - and should - look different (in some respects) for everyone, kata is personal and it is only perfect when you are able to see and feel your own personality within it.