A Return to Basics

Some time ago, it was brought to my attention (thanks guys) that there were some anomalies in the way students were performing their cuts. After some discussion and some directed angst on my part, I realised that while cutting problems were the symptom, the pedagogy was at the root of the problem. There was a disconnect between what I do, what I demonstrate, what I say, and ultimately what students do. In short, there was a problem with my teaching, and the proper mechanics weren’t being transmitted.

There’s a lot of controversy, or perhaps debate, as to what constitutes a good cut. For my part, when demonstrating, I tend to emphasise creating a threat first by beginning forward movement of the sword before stepping. I then emphasise extension while stepping forward, cutting through the center of mass before recovering to dente di cinghiale or porta di ferro mezana. It’s verbally stated the the hands should be lower than the point on contact, and then the sword is arced through the target to complete the cut. It is this emphasis in slow-speed demonstration that doesn’t translate well, and students were “casting” the point. Something had to be done.

I began by taking video footage of a class doing cuts, without specific instructions to do anything but “cut full fendente.” This was offloaded to my laptop, and viewed. The problems quickly became obvious. How did I miss this? Complacency, it would seem.

The next classes, I decided to integrate at least a 20 minutes of cutting and basic sword handling drills, both single and compound cuts, true and false edge. I purposely left people to their devices without instruction, so they went back to a more “natural” cut. amazingly, this has worked in large part, and the task is now left to tweak those cuts to make them efficient and sound martially. Glad I managed that without too much problem! Pure dumb luck, says I.

All this has led to a reflection on my part about how classes are run. It used to be that we would train fundamentals hard every week during that portion of class. As time has gone on, my focus has shifted. I let classes become slightly too tainted by the “fun factor.” Rather than listen to them groan about doing a half hour of focused footwork, I preferred to bring more material in – new techniques, twists on old techniques, new training paradigms to keep things fresh and interesting. “But this is good!” I hear you say. And I agree. To a point.

Yes, it’s supposed to be fun. But I want to teach a martial art, and damn you, if you think doing footwork for half an hour is tedious and beneath you, stay home. This is my reorientation statement. We will be returning to basics. We will practise the tedium and repetitive exercises. This is what makes you good. This is what builds muscle memory. This is what builds the necessary links in the Art. And it will be fun, and you will like it. My intention is not to remove the fun factor entirely, of course. We will still visit fun new stuff, still vary our training to keep things fresh, but I think that the pendulum has swung too far one way, and it’s time to return it to the centre.

In short, I was reminded of two things – valuable lessons both:

1) Do not get complacent in your practise and/or teaching.

2) Don’t let teaching become a popularity contest. Your job is to teach first, be fun second. Fortunately, part two of that comes easily, given we play with swords!

Enough blathering for now.