Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Teaching students to carry a “Life Giving Sword,” part 1

There’s a book I love to read and re-read every so often.  It’s called the Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo.  I find it helps me reflect on various aspects of playing. Really, the ideas in the book could be applied to any instrumentalist. The book helps me focus and identify stumbling blocks in my life and playing.

zen guitar

One part of the book has always stuck with me, the idea of the “life-giving sword”. To quote:

“When people speak of virtuosity these days, they describe a kind of super ability, a dazzling technical excellence. But what’s missing from this definition is the root of the word: virtue.


In the Zen Guitar Dojo, the virtuoso players are the ones who rise above technical mastery and exhibit true virtue in every note they play – honest, integrity, charity, gratitude, compassion. To them, music becomes more than a personal release or ecstasy. It serves to create harmony in the broadest sense of the word. These players are the true guitar heroes….

… When samurai warriors train to perfect a deadly technique with the sword, they come to understand the fleetingness of life. This is why master samurai speak of wielding a “life-giving sword” – one that respects the preciousness of every breath, knowing how near we always walk to death….

… Understand and respect the depth of yout instrument’s power. The guitar has the capacity to save lives; it has given many a desperate person reason to go on. Use it’s power wisely.”

The first time I read this, two things struck me.  First off, the imagery of the life giving sword being compared to an instrument resonated with me. Researching the “life giving sword” concept a little further, I found that the “life-giving sword” really translates to the notion of controlling an opponent by one’s spiritual readiness to fight, rather than during an actual fight.  But Philip Toshio Sudo still generated a lovely image in applying the phrase to music.

The second idea that resonated with me was the examination of the word virtuosity and it’s root word, virtue.  Music must be more than just personal release and a dazzling display of technical prowess.  Everyone can name at least one artist that we may feel focuses too much on either personal release or the pursuit of technique.  I found Sudo’s idea to be an often overlooked yet important aspect in music instruction.  Not every student has the time, ability or drive to become a highly technical “virtuoso” player.  However,  in Sudo’s more balanced vision of virtuosity, far more players of various skill levels can (and will) be engaged by emphasizing the virtue aspect; the “life giving sword”.  The idea of emphasizing virtue as the basis of virtuosity is something I have included in my curriculum over the past few years.

In my next post, I will talk about some of the ways I apply this concept.

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