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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Kata – Music To My Soul

by Jack Miller

 What is Kata? Kata is a series of techniques against one or more imaginary opponents. Kata was performed as a form of a dance when Martial Arts were outlawed for practice. Learning kata has three basic parts – The Outside Movements, The Inside Movements, and Performance. The outside movements are basically just memorizing the kata. The inside movements are all of the technical aspects of the kata. Performance is how you interpret the kata and how well you share that interpretation with your audience.

Although kata is a very unique form of expression and a training tool for Karate, are kata concepts unique to kata? Absolutely not… Learning and performing concepts of kata are echoed throughout the arts of perfection – golf, swimming, music, daily work, etc… In this article, I’m going to relate kata to the art of Classical Guitar.

A true master of classical guitar, such as Andreas Segovia, Pepe Romero, John Williams, etc., teach and promote the exact same training and performing concepts as kata. It’s not just simply memorizing and playing a piece, it is years and years of structured technique, muscle memory and performance concepts that make these performers true technicians of the arts.

Let’s take a closer look at the learning and performance concepts of classical guitar. What are the basic components of learning classical guitar?

Outside Movements

The outside movements are the first things you learn. You decide a piece of music, as a study, or for performance, that will best develop your deficiencies or express your interpretation of classical guitar music theme. It’s difficult to learn the inside movements until you learn the outside movements into conscious and sub-conscious memory. This is typically a very short term of the process, but necessary for further development. Sound familiar? So what is the best way to learn the outside movements?


What is “Phrasing?” Phrasing is the process breaking music into sections that are easy to remember and that stop at a point where you relax of take a breath. You memorize one phrase, and then move on to the next phrase until you have learned all of the phrases. When completed, you put all of the phrases together and naturally pause/relax when needed. Phrasing is the best way to learn the outside movements – as well as being used for the inside movements. Additionally, when you phrase parts of music, you will find that many phrases “repeat” themselves – meaning that you do not need to relearn that phrase. Classical music is generally broken down in parts. Commonly, classical music consists of an “A” section and a “B” section – some pieces may have a C and D as well, but not too common. So often-classical pieces are referred to as an ABBA, AABB, AAB, etc – this makes learning and phrasing music much easier. It is important to identify these parts prior to learning the piece. Sound familiar?


There are many basic technical aspects to classical guitar that are repeated throughout classical music. In the case of classical guitar, is it an arpeggio, tremolo, rest stroke, free stroke, staccato, legato, etc… Identifying these techniques and concepts, minimizes the need to relearn techniques that you have already perfected and are generally executed the same way regardless of the piece you are learning. Note: Learning classical music requires a good database of basic techniques that you have already learned or perfected. It also brings together all of the basic techniques together for practical use. It’s a good idea to identify all of the basic techniques used in the piece you are about to use or learn and work on these techniques separately prior to learning the classical piece.


Timing is very important to learning a classical piece in order to make the piece unique as well as pleasing for the audience to listen to. Timing has several parts to its development and execution.

  • Notes: Music is commonly identified using standard notation – music notes. There are many factors I will not discuss that do not apply to karate, but the ones that relate to this article are notes, time values of the notes, phrasing of notes, etc. The general time value of the notes is identified early on which is printed on the sheet of music – 4/4, ¾ (waltz), 2/4, etc. Lets use the example of 4/4 timing using ¼ and 1/8 notes. Let’s say you have three ¼ notes and two 1/8th notes (1/8th notes are shorter in duration that a ¼ note). What would this sound like? It would sound like this: La – la – la - la la (the dashes representing a pause and note the last two without the dash representing no pause). Now you tap out the timing of the piece with the timing of each bar, measure and phrase for easy timing of the piece overall.
  • Breathing: Proper timing of the notes is dependent of proper breathing – known as breathing timing. This is the coordination of all notes, techniques and phrasing with appropriate breathing. This is also your internal clock when performing solo, or as an ensemble. Ensembles (multiple instruments) use breathing timing to signify starting a piece together, phrasing the piece to be performed, and ending a piece. All techniques and movements of classical music also use muscle expansion and contraction or known as tensing and relaxation - in unison and independently from the right and left hands. Breathing is a key factor to timing as well as allowing proper posture and preventing tiredness throughout the piece or performance.
  • Speed Bursts: Appropriate speed is important to bring continuity, realism, dynamics and expression to your piece of music. In order to achieve this, after breaking out your piece into phrasing, you practice and develop speed bursts and then relax or pause at the end of the phrase. Timing in the middle of the phrase is not critical during development stage, but go as fast as you can with proper technique to the end of the phrase, then rest. This brings continuity to all the phrases you are learning as well as learning when to rest and pause. This also is when you technically write the classical piece into muscle memory.


Performance is a very critical part of the learning process as well as sharing your interpretation of the music with the audience. Does the size of the audience matter? No, if it’s one or a thousand, the performance is identical with the same interpretation and intensity – otherwise, you have not learned the true art of performance…

Performance is your interpretation of your music being expelled to your audience and is an art all in itself – separate from the technical aspects. You should move your audience where the audience not only becomes you as you are performing, but also visualizes your meaning of the classical piece you are performing. I stress the word performance because you are not playing a piece, but expelling the greatness and true meaning of a piece though your interpretation using dynamics. A great performer is one that is very proficient in all technical aspect of classical guitar as well one that can interpret the piece and share that interpretation with an audience. What are the various aspects of performance?

  • Interpretation – the coordination of the outside movements, the inside movements of a piece in conjunction of what the music mean to you.
  • Visualization – is your visual of what the piece means to you in what setting, era, surroundings, events, etc. At this point, you are not concerned with the technical aspects of the piece because your basics “are what they are” at your current level of proficiency. You concentrate on your visualization of the piece and the rest falls into place naturally.
  • Dynamics – how hard, soft, loud, quiet, fast, slow, posture, demeanor, etc. you perform the piece. This is in conjunction with interpretation and visualization of the piece to actually bring your classical piece to life!
  • Audience – your audience can be one or many. Although you are there for your audience and are to move and share your interpretation with your audience, your audience is not critical for your performance – but don’t forget that you are still there for your audience. Does this sound confusing? Another wise, visualize, interpret, and provide dynamics that shares your piece with the audience, but you are so caught up in your visual that it’s as if the audience in not there – your sub-conscious in auto mode in conjunction with your visual. By doing so you have moved the audience and expelled your interpretation of the music.

You may be wondering what this all has to do with karate and kata? Now, re-read the above article and replace all of the classical guitar terminology with karate and kata terminology. There’s not much difference is there?

Learning Kata has all of the properties of learning and performing classical guitar. You have the outside movements, you have the inside movements and all of the technical aspects including phrasing, and you have the performance aspects of kata that is a separate art in itself. The basics of karate are essential to learning and performing kata. Lets take a quick recap of classical guitar in terms of kata.

  • Outside Movements – learn the outside movements.
  • Phrasing – break down the kata in phrases that are easy to learn and provide proper rest points.
  • Timing – work on and understand timing of the kata in easy to learn segments.
  • Breathing – use proper breathing that relates to the appropriate movement or action that is being executed.
  • Speed Bursts – practice speed bursts in phrasing segments of the kata.
  • Interpretation – develop your own interpretation of the kata as if you were actually going to defend yourself against one or multiple attackers.
  • Visualization – imagine you are in an actual situation, re-live so-to-speak, the kata being performed as if you were actually defending yourself or in actual battle.
  • Dynamics – use dynamics (how hard, soft, loud, quiet, etc.) in your kata to bring realism in development or when performing.
  • Audience – an audience can be one attacker in real life, a tournament, or a demonstration in front of thousands. Regardless the audience, the performance is always the same.

So as you can see, learning and the perfection of kata has many aspects. All of these aspects apply to “one” kata. It is a lot of work to perfect and perform one kata. Now, learning many -lets say 2 dozen kata - is obviously a lifetime of work in order to perfect and perform. Next time you have an opportunity to see one of the great masters performing kata, remember and appreciate that this was or still is his interpretation and life’s work.