Tai Chi for Musicians

Tai Chi for Musicians


Tai Chi Ch’uan is a martial art with roots in seventeenth century China. It’s a complete system, practiced for both self defence and health benefits, including relaxation, strength, flexibility and balance. Daren Banarsë talks to martial arts expert, professional guitarist and teacher, Joe Rea Phillips about the benefits of Tai Chi for musicians.


Joe Rea Phillips

Phillips is in a unique position. He has two passions, music and martial arts, both of which he’s honed to the highest level. His journey started at ten years of age with the guitar, a gift from his father, a professional country musician. His parents were separated and as he lived with his mother, he had to find his own way of learning: “I simply learned by listening to records, playing with friends, and generally trying to imitate the music that I heard on the radio.”

It wasn’t until studying for his masters degree that Phillips discovered martial arts. “I started reading books about Bruce Lee, so this naturally attracted me to the Chinese styles.” Before long he had contacted a teacher and began lessons in Northern Shaolin and Kickboxing. The training paid off – he now holds a second degree black belt.

But he didn’t stop there. Over the years, he’s also earned a black belt in Wing Chun and Chinese Kickboxing. “I was introduced to Pa Kua Chang and circle walking by James Cravens and it was love at first sight for me. I was amazed by how I felt after circle walking and started experiencing feelings of chi like I had never felt before and noticed a great improvement in my footwork.” Phillips became one of his senior students, obtaining teacher certifications in Tai Chi Chuan, Pa Kua Chang, and the CBII Short Core Synthesis Boards. In March 2012, Philips embarked on a journey to China to become a disciple of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang.


Tai Chi and music

Of all the styles Phillips has studied, it’s Tai Chi Chuan and Pa Kua Chang that have had the most influence on him as a musician. “All of the styles require discipline, control, poise, and perseverance. However, Tai Chi Chuan and Pa Kua develop very deep internal principles that are not only common to those in music, but also enhance one’s approach and overall ability as a musician.”

Phillips describes some of the shared attributes between Tai Chi and making music:

  • both require being relaxed and centred (zhong ding)
  • both require discipline and constant practice
  • both help to develop a clear mind
  • both make use of visualization
  • both require the skills of memorization
  • both require slow practice
  • both can result in a beautiful rhythmic flow
  • both are forms of artistic expression
  • both allow for tuning in to one’s inner self


He describes how the “feeling of well-being and balance” when practising Tai Chi allows a “sense of poise and musical direction” when playing an instrument. “Recent studies have proven that practicing Tai Chi improves mental clarity and cognitive function, which is extremely important to any musician whether it be in memorizing long classical pieces or in the area of improvisation.” He describes how through ridding the body of tension, Tai Chi allows a guitarist “to be more efficient, accurate, faster, stronger, more expressive, and improve overall endurance.”


Changeability and flow

Phillips also points out the idea of changeability. “In Tai Chi one must remain changeable in order to deal with an aggressor’s attack. Of course, Tai Chi teaches to yield and adhere to the aggressor then counter at a key moment when the aggressor has lost balance.” On another level this could be described as avoiding “force against force” within the body. “The Tai Chi practitioner maintains flow, just like a musician should maintain the flow regardless of mistakes while performing. Tai Chi performance also enhances a flowing rhythm that becomes internalized and will be reflected in one’s guitar playing.”

“In Tai Chi there is a constant exchange of Yin and Yang, which will at times have very clear projection of chi, which is referred to as fajin. There’s an awareness of projection that’s acquired after much training in Tai Chi and this projection principle can help a guitarist project a better quality of sound on the instrument, and overall poise, confidence, and emotional balance to an audience.”


Movement and posture

Phillips describes the body state required for Tai Chi as “full of chi” (intrinsic energy). “One’s chi will not flow properly without being in a perfect posture, which is one of the prime requirements for good Tai Chi.” This is something a musician can transfer to their playing.

“Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang teaches us all movement must originate from the Dan Tien, which is where one’s chi is stored (three fingers below the navel and about one and a half inches inside the body). Understanding and practicing this idea is essential for Tai Chi and just being exposed to it helps a guitarist to be aware of unitary movement and connecting everything to the source of chi.”


Any questions?  Ask in the Tai Chi and Chi Kung forum


Warming up and practising

“We’re all guilty of just grabbing our instruments and just start playing and this can be a formula for a disaster over a long period of time. Training in Tai Chi provides a guitarist with a great way to warm up the body before playing.” Phillips prescribes a set of Chen Tai Chi warm up exercises which open up the joints, allowing the chi to fully flow. “Just ten minutes of warm ups can pay great dividends.”

Tai Chi involves a great deal of slow training in order to develop precise movement with good posture and balance. “Some people observe Tai Chi and think that it’s not a martial art because it often moves slowly and this is just not true.” Phillips explains how spending so much time on slow movement means that when a faster action is executed, it’s also both highly accurate and relaxed. “This practice is also applied to playing anything on the guitar better because as we all know if we cannot play something slowly then we certainly cannot play it fast.”


Performance injuries

For injuries, Phillips recommends practising Tai Chi in conjunction with other medical and therapeutic treatments. “Learning important principles of Tai Chi such as warming up the body properly, good posture, and complete relaxation could prevent many of these performance injuries. Complete relaxation does not mean limp, but means a body state that is soft yet full like a water hose with water running through it.”


The music and Tai Chi course

It was while teaching at the Blair Music School at Vanderbilt University, that Phillips spotted an opportunity. “I was encouraged to start a course that used Tai Chi Chuan to help students who currently have performance injuries and help others to prevent future performance injuries.” He proposed a new course, Tai Chi for Musicians, which has been growing in popularity, with students and faculty members taking part.

“My goal in this course is to teach musicians a way to warm up properly and a method to deal with stress. Stress not only kills good music performance, but as medical research has proven, it kills literally. The idea is for students to experience for themselves the great feeling of well being that comes with a good Tai Chi Chuan workout. There is an emphasis on students experiencing the sensation of the flow of chi throughout their bodies.”


The curriculum

There are Yang and Chen style warm ups, including Chen joint opening exercises. Also included are a series of energy exercises “from a family style of Chinese martial arts called “Walu” that originated in Macao. These are excellent for getting the blood and chi flowing and developing unitary movement and projection.”

Chan Si Gong (Silk Reeling exercises), works on “moving the palms and the shifting of weight with correct posture and awareness of the exchange of Yin and Yang as it circulates through the body to and from the Dan Tien.” There’s also the practise of Chi Kung exercises, Ba Duan Jin (Eight Pieces Brocade), as well as the first section of Cheng Man Ching’s 37 Posture Yang form, in four directions.

A very important aspect of the course is the practice of Zhan zhuang (standing like a post). “Students are taught the correct posture and approach to practicing standing meditation, which is also referred to as stillness posture”


Positive feedback

Students consistently provide positive feedback on the course, claiming that it’s helped them achieve a high level of relaxation. “I’ve also had students with performance injuries such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel experience significant improvement after taking this class. Several years ago I had a young lady in the class that had Scoliosis and she claimed improvement from her training.”

Phillips would like to see his clinics presented on a national and international level. “I believe there’s a real need for it and I’ve lately done a few of these types of presentations and clinics in this area. I’ve also had several discussions with my conducting friends about the possibility of helping conductors to improve their movement patterns in a healthy manner with good Tai Chi principles.”


Tai Chi and conducting

One of Phillips’ past pupils is a colleague, Professor Robin Fountain, who directs the Vanderbilt University Orchestra and the Southwest Michigan Symphony. “He told me that the practice of Tai Chi and in particular stillness posture training has changed him as a conductor and as a human being. He often practices stillness posture before conducting performances of his orchestras.” The two have also had many conversations about the movement principles of Tai Chi in relation to conducting. “We’ve met several times with me observing his conducting movement and offering suggestions of ways to improve his movement from a Tai Chi perspective.”


Finding a teacher

When it comes to finding a teacher, Phillips has a cautionary warning. “Check on the background and lineage of any teacher of interest. There are good and bad Tai Chi teachers just like there are good and bad guitar teachers. Unlike with other styles of martial arts where belt ranks are important, in Tai Chi it’s all about whom you learned from and the lineage connection. There’s a saying amongst those who teach Tai Chi: Good Tai Chi is good Tai Chi regardless of style!”

But what style of Tai Chi should a musician learn? Phillips began with Yang style of the Cheng Man Ching lineage, but later started training in Chen style, which he fell in love with. “It’s attractive to me because all Tai Chi originated with the Chen family going back to the founder Chen Wanting in the seventeenth century. It’s a beautiful, powerful, and healthy martial art that provides a very complete system of training.”

“Tai Chi Chuan is a lifetime pursuit for those who really wish to be very good at this beautiful martial art. It takes years of training the right way and with a good teacher. However, one can experience the wonderful feeling of well-being and overall health benefits in a short amount of time.”


What do you think? Are you interested in learning Tai Chi? Or maybe you’ve already had lessons? We want to hear from you! Post your thoughts in the Tai Chi and Chi Kung forum


Directory entry for Joe Rea Phillips



  1. Mark Smith - December 14, 2017, 5:50 pm Reply


    I am a practitioner of Tai Chi/Kung Fu and piano. I have done research very similar to the information that you have presented in the article found on the webpage http://mindfulmusician.com/tai-chi-for-musicians/ .

    I am applying to Vanderbilt’s Peabody College for a Masters degree in Mental Health Counseling for the Fall of 2018. I was hoping to connect with you since our research is very similar. My undergraduate senior thesis was entitled “Tai Chi as a Therapy for Piano Practice”. I have briefly described my research in the paragraphs below. The thesis was over 30 pages, and took one year to complete.

    Under the guidance of Dr. Leslie Tung, I authored a report in which I examined similarities and disparities between concert piano practice and Tai Chi practice. I studied the kinesthetic, structural, and emotional parallels between the two disciplines. Tai Chi helps a practitioner to relax and properly strengthen the musculoskeletal system when practicing the piano. Through a martial arts lens, I provide recommendations for training techniques that a pianist can use to increase emotional resilience and enhance physical control. I interviewed my Tai Chi coach, piano teacher, and an alumnus of the physics department at Kalamazoo College to supplement my research. In the exposition, I identify the medical terminology of muscle and bone groups in the body. This project was based largely on Alan Fraser’s book The Craft of Piano Playing. I received honors for this project.
    Notably, I proposed that the emotional qualities of music can be used as therapy that restores balance to the interconnected organ systems of the human body, based on the Five-Emotion/Five-Organ/Five-Element theory of Chinese medicine.

    • Jamison - April 2, 2019, 6:29 pm Reply

      Hi Mark,

      My name is Jamison, and I am a piano player and beginner practitioner of Qigong living in Nashville. I happened to notice that you applied to Vanderbilt recently. Are you living in Nashville now? I ask because I am very interested in connecting with people who can offer me resources with regards to Tai Chi/Qigong and piano playing. Thanks so much for your time! Have a great one!


  2. Joe Rea Phillips - September 19, 2018, 1:23 am Reply

    I can be contacted at the email address above.

  3. Ed Whiting - September 19, 2018, 3:28 pm Reply

    i have been trying to find a reliable qualified teacher in albuquerque NM.where i reside. I had previously studied in LA at the Taoist center and would very much want to continue with that level of discipline. Any help and input as to agood teacher in this area would be much appreciated. Many thanks. Ed

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