Many years ago I was talking to a friend who was into martial arts and he mentioned Bruce Lee’s name. At that time I thought Bruce Lee was just another one of those dozens of martial arts guys making thosecheap “B” martial arts movies, but he told me Bruce Lee was a genius and one of a kind who had taken many forms of classic martial arts philosophies and forged them into a unique art form. After that I read information on some of his theories and one of them was the famous “one inch punch” he developed. His idea was that drawing the arm back to deliver a punch was unnecessary because if he could concentrate all of the energy into a small area of an inch, the rest of the travel of the arm wasn’t needed. I also remember reading about the actor James Coburn, who was a student and friend of Bruce Lee’s, volunteering to be on the receiving end of the one inch punch. He said after being hit, the force of the punch drove him all the way across the room into a chair.
This got me thinking about condensing energy into a small space when applied to playing a musical instrument. I’m always talking about fast air to produce a resonant sound when starting notes and this idea of the one inch punch seems to provide a good analogy. Now I’m not advocating taking what amounts to a one inch breath when producing sound, but after a large inhalation of air, at a certain point the embouchure must seal for an instant and energy in the form of air is stored and released, and that becomes the one inch punch of air. Why can’t we start notes with a slow moving air stream? Because that type of air flow doesn’t produce a strong enough fundamental and therefore results in a minimum amount of overtones which are needed to produce a resonant sound. The result will be a sound that is dull and spread and more importantly doesn’t project, especially at soft dynamics, which is where projection is of utmost importance. How do we practice the one inch punch? I’m sure when Bruce Lee perfected it, it was mostly a mental thing about eliminating all unnecessary movement and condensing all energy into the smallest area possible. This took practice and tremendous mental concentration. Fortunately we have a simpler method of achieving the desired objective. We can simply develop the ability to play very short notes with a resonant sound, which will automatically move the air at the required rate of speed to produce a strong fundamental, and use that technique of starting notes on every articulation, no matter the length of duration of the note. What we are after is an articulation where the sound speaks with 100% resonance exactly when the note is scheduled to start. If you took a long tone and cut it down the middle with a razor blade you would get the mental image of what a note should start like, (and no, this does not result in an accent.) The problem is, there is a natural tendency to use a progressively slower air stream to start notes the longer the duration of the note. If we follow this to formula to it’s conclusion, that means that very short sixteenth-notes are crisp, clear and resonant. Eight-notes are slightly duller in sound, finally ending up with half-notes and whole-notes having the timbre of a fog horn. The length of the note should have no bearing on the way in which it starts. There are passages in the orchestral literature where a soft, bulgy type of attack is appropriate, such as the last forte Eb in the famous passage from Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony. These are relatively rare however. The basic goal should be a sound which speaks instantly and at full resonance, which will also have the added benefit of producing the best sound possible.