Music Improvisation & Martial Arts

Master jazz musician Clark Terry had a unique approach to musical improvisation, specifically jazz improvisation and many other topics. His style of learning musical improvisation is one we can explicitly apply to our martial arts training and practices. It involves three stages, the first being imitation, the second being assimilation and the third being innovation.

This concept of learning musical improvisation also applies to our martial arts training, from a specific technique to overall skill development, or it can apply to our entire journey in martial arts as we move from apprentice to master.

Stage 1: Imitation

Imitation Stage Of Musical Improvisation For Learning Martial Arts

A beginner will start playing his musical instruments in the Imitation stage; this is where they play songs and chord progressions of some of their favourite jazz musicians to emulate the sound of the style. 

They may find themselves drawn to specific musicians due to their personality, tastes, environmental influences, or any other reason of personal preference.

But once they start to imitate the players they enjoy listening to, they will begin to develop some fundamental understanding of what makes their style unique and the concept behind the jazz musician’s playing style.

It’s very similar to martial arts when people look to competitive athletes to see their style to win their matches and emulate the same techniques they use in competitions or training. 

A difference may be that martial artists can select techniques due to their competitive benefit. The parallel jazz may only be due to an economic reason of what’s popular for musicians and them booked to play gigs.

But the concept is the same: a new student will eventually kick someone they enjoy and model part of their practice around the things that make them unique. While this won’t give the student any special characteristics, it’s the first step along this pathway to developing their unique style.


Stage 2: Assimilation

Assimilation Stage Of Musical Improvisation For Learning Martial Arts

The assimilation stage occurs After the imitation stage. The student begins to merge the jazz musician’s style that they have been imitating into their style. 

Examples of this could include incorporating short musical phrases into their songs or solos that were perhaps changed only slightly but still retain the mark of the musician that they aren’t imitating. 

Suppose the imitation stage has been a long one for the musician. In that case, part of this will be due to natural habits as they would have practised those parts that they are now assimilating countless times. 

To the point where they can play particular songs or solos intuitively, and then when they look to produce their own songs and solos, the remnants of that style with still be present no matter their intention. 

Part of the assimilation stage can be a conscious practice of what they have learnt from the musician they imitate. Still, deliberately tweaking them slightly to see where it leads them, like playing in a different tempo, inserting phrases in other places of a song, or even playing songs on various instruments.

The parallel in martial arts is where after emulating the techniques and moves of the competitors you are looking up to, you can find different setups to enter into the techniques, perhaps even other finishing mechanics. 

Just as a musician may add specific musical phrases into that solos, you could even find yourself adding certain moves into a chain of techniques different from how the person you are emulating has used them usually. 

The process seeks to merge The Imitation phase of simply copying another person’s work into a style that can begin to resemble one of a unique personal expression.

Stage 3: Innovation

Innovation Stage Of Musical Improvisation For Learning Martial Arts

Once that resemblance of unique personal expression in the musician has begun to emerge, they can ultimately look to build on that and innovate their style. 

As this is the ultimate goal of nearly all up forms, it’s pretty standard for the beginner to want to skip immediately to this stage as it seems like the most fun and rewarding part of the process, but as the old saying goes, you must first learn the rules, so you know when to break them.

Through imitation and assimilation, a musician will have practised for countless hours with innumerable repetitions of their favourite songs, melodies and solos and how they can put their unique touch on them. 

That time will have given them a deep foundational understanding of the principles and concepts that make those harmonic devices work.

It’s the same as a martial artist who has undergone the process as they will have repeatedly drilled and sparred with techniques, systems, sequences and strategies of other competitors. 

They will have discovered whatever techniques or style they have naturally been drawn to or works for their body type and begin to blend all those influences into a total body of work unique to their personality. 

Imitation, Assimilation and Innovation

Clark Terry was a masterful jazz musician who played with countless great of the era, and he left us with this excellent piece of advice for learning how to improvise music. No matter your skill level, you can apply the advice immediately to your understanding of martial arts training.

The three simple stages of imitation, assimilation and innovation will give you a handy framework to process your development into a style that will fully express yourself.

While other models of skill acquisition also exist, you may find the direct connection most helpful in getting you to learn the process at a conceptual level.

Keep it in mind next time you roll!