Monday, February 28, 2011


(not to be confused with CPR, PMS or RIP)

What horses are really good at is knowing what happens before what happens, happens. In fact, they’re masters at it. Sometimes, it’s amazing.

Here’s an example. To “direct rein” means to pull on the rein on the side toward which you would like the horse to turn.  To “neck rein” means you move the rein on the opposite side so it just touches the horse’s neck. Everyone uses "direct rein" first because it’s an “obvious” continuation of leading a horse on the ground: where the lead rope pulls, the horse follows.
To make the transition to “neck reining,” you start by laying the opposite rein on the horse’s neck a fraction of a second before applying the direct rein.
What the horse quickly figures out is that the neck rein is what happens before the direct rein that happens, happens. Anticipating the direct rein, the horse responds to the indirect rein. Once he does that, you can discard the direct rein and just neck rein. Voila!

Knowing what happens before what happens, happens, we like to call “early pattern-recognition" (or E.P.R., when we want to sound arcane and very scientific).

Here’s another example of what we mean. Those of you who are students of other martial arts may have heard this story in another incarnation. It goes like this:
Once there was a young man who wanted to become a great swordsman. To this end he went about challenging various fencing masters to contests of skill. When he found one he could not beat, he stayed with that master and studied with him until he could beat him. Then, he’d move on to another. And another…

Finally, he challenged the elderly “master of all masters” to a contest.

They met at the appointed hour and ground.

No sooner had they come “en guard,” than the old Maitre d’Armes stepped back and said, “If you attack by cut to my head, I’ll counter with a side step and thrust to your heart.”

This stunned the younger man, and struck him as a very odd coincidence indeed, because attacking by a cut to the head was exactly what he’d been thinking of doing.

Again they stood to their guards.

Immediately, the old man stepped back and said, “If you thrust at my wrist, I’ll prise du fer and counter with a thrust to your face.”

Once again, this stunned the younger man, and struck him as a very odd coincidence indeed, because attacking with a thrust to the swordmaster’s wrist was exactly what he’d been thinking of doing.

And so it went.

Each time they came on guard, the Maitre would step back and politely say, “If you do A, I’ll counter with B…”

After a short time, the younger man was so completely unnerved, that he lay down his sword and begged the Master to accept him as a student.

There’s quite a bit to this story. Part of it has to do with how your subconscious mind immediately and indiscriminently acts to obey the conscious mind (SEE: Psycho-cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, the godfather of sport psychology).
Another part has to do with ways of knowing, in particular the cognitive vis a vis the intuitive.
But for the moment, the important element of the story is that the master knew what happened before what happened, happened.  He knew what his opponent was going to do before his opponent did it – perhaps even before his opponent knew it, himself.

That is, the Master was able to recognize in his opponent’s subtle body language and expression, his opponent’s intent. The wiley old gent was reading “cues” (or, as poker-players call them, “tells” ).  Boxers call it “telegraphing” a punch.
These combat cues are, to a greater or lesser degree, subtle but unavoidable and largely invisible to the person making them.  Indeed, we spend a fair amount of time making them visible to ourselves so that we can either eliminate them, insofar as can be done, or to USE them for misdirection. (“All combat is based on deception”. –Sun-tze)

The best cues are those that are integral to the intended action, ie, the intended action cannot be executed without first doing the “cue” action.
Cutting blows are a good example.
All cuts, to be effective, must first gather up energy and then release energy. One prepares or “winds up” the cut, and then delivers or executes the blow. It cannot be done in any other way.  Therefore, the wind-up is what happens before what happens (the cut) happens.
However, the wind-up itself can be broken down into small segments and the sooner you recognize the characteristic sine qua non of that preparatory action, the earlier you can respond.
That’s what we mean by early pattern recognition.

Another example:
A guy goes for the gun under his coat at his right hip. This action has a universally recognized crouch. It isn’t anything else. Nobody reaches into a pocket that way. Nobody goes for a wallet that way. Nobody scratches a mosquito bite that way. So when you see that action start, you respond in whatever way you’re going to respond: duck, dodge, run, or try to beat him to the draw. You don’t have to wait until the fellow draws his gun and aims it at your nose and pulls the trigger before you say, “Hmm. He wants to shoot me.”   Better to recognize the pattern earlier than later.

Perhaps more than anything else, early pattern recognition – sometimes incredibly early --is the mark of a master. It’s the fighter’s best stock in trade.  If your training doesn’t cultivate this capacity, I recommend you change your training so that it does.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Setting the Stage

The first time I ever observed Maitre Crown teach a foil class, he did something that I found amazing, at the time.

It was one of an introductory series of classes, held in a gymnasium at the local recreation center.

There were somewhere between 20-30 children in the class. A large group.

The age range appeared to be from about 7 to maybe 12 or 13, as I recall.

At the beginning of the class, as they arrived, the children all went and sat in a line, and waited for the Fencing Master.

There may have been a little quiet conversation, but when the Master arrived, all conversation immediately stopped, and each child turned his or her focus to the beginning of the class.

Throughout the class, there was no side conversation. There was no fidgeting, fiddling or wiggling. Every person in the room stayed engaged and focused on the task at hand.

A gymnasium. Full of children. Quiet children. Focused. Not running around.

How does he DO that?!?

I had only three kids myself, and I couldn't get them to behave like that!!

I was amazed. Intrigued.

Little did I know, at the time, that the "secret" to this incredible situation was very, very simple.

Set the stage.

Most people, children especially, want to do what is expected of them, most of the time.

In order to do that, they need to know what it is.

In order to know what that is, what you say, what you do, and what happens in class all need to reinforce each other.

Say what you mean.

Mean what you say.

And make sure they know that you do.

The world is full of people who don't really mean what they say. The dominant culture in many places, and certainly in the United States, strongly encourages "little white lies" as a matter of course. Right from the ubiquitous "How are you?" being followed by "fine, thanks" no matter what the reality is. And on top of that, adults, or people in positions of authority, often seem to believe that they have no obligation to be honest with those in their charge, or under their care.

That is, I believe, to put it mildly: bullshit.

But it is, unfortunately, what most people have come to expect, much of the time.

So the biggest task I have, starting a new class, is to demonstrate that in this place, in our classes, the world is different. The standard of behavior is much higher than it might be elsewhere.

It starts with my preparation for the class. I make sure to have everything with me that I need, in an organized fashion. I arrive early and make sure the space is prepared. I meet the new students at the door, introduce myself, and ask for their name. I tell them exactly what I want them to do, where I want them to sit, and that they may converse quietly until class begins. I start the class precisely on time.

In the first class of a new series of classes, we take care to explain our rules. We also explain that we never make a rule we don't need, and never make a rule we don't enforce.

Our primary rules are simple:

1. Never aim a weapon at anyone who is not wearing a mask.

2. No talking during class, unless you are asking the instructor a question, or are answering one. There will be plenty of opportunities for questions.

3. Do what we ask you to do, when we ask you to do it, how we ask you to do it, and DON'T DO ANYTHING ELSE. We will be sure to be clear and specific about what, when and how we want you to do things.

After explaining these rules, we ask the students if they understand and agree to them. Often, we will ask each individual student to personally, verbally, agree to the rules, with a handshake.

We also specifically tell the students that they are expected to behave courteously at all times. I would hope that this would be unnecessary, but unfortunately, it seems not to be. Often, we have to explain what "courteously" means, with examples.

For the rest of that first class, we are especially observant for ANY infraction of the rules. There can't be any infraction of that first rule, as there won't be any weapons in students' hands, so we are looking for the first time someone talks to their neighbor, or the first time someone starts fidgeting or pretending to swordfight, or whatever extraneous movement there happens to be. There is always something. My job (or my assistant's job) is to catch it.

This is CRITICALLY important:

The FIRST time anyone breaks a rule, no matter how slight the infraction, they are corrected. Immediately. Sharply- although not harshly. They are reminded of the rule that they specifically agreed to. They may be asked to sit out to collect themselves, if the cause of the infraction is that they are unable to maintain their focus for some reason.

Then the class continues.

There is no continued sharpness towards the student- the expectation is that once corrected, they will understand that we weren't kidding, and they will strive to behave accordingly. If they have been asked to sit out, once they have a chance to refocus, they are invited back into the exercise. Usually, this will be after one set of repetitions of whatever we're working on.

In order to be most effective, it must be the FIRST infraction, no matter how small, with no "second chances." This may feel harsh, until you are accustomed to it, but it isn't. It's CLEAR.

Both halves of the correction are equally important: that it be immediate and sharp, and that there be NO continued sharpness from the instructor, no grudges. It isn't about punishment, it's about changing the behavior. Once a student's behavior is appropriate, they are in as good graces as they were before the infraction. It's not personal, at all. It's about safety, not about ego.

With most classes, that first correction is enough to get their attention, to convey that the environment in this class is different from elsewhere in their lives, and they have no trouble adjusting, since they understand and agree to the rules upfront. If the class has a high proportion of younger students, it may take another reminder or two- and that is what it is, a reminder. By the end of the first class the students understand what we expect of them. By the end of the second class, at the latest, they understand that we really mean it, and there are no more infractions.

At the close of every class, we always thank the students for being there, and for the hard work they have put into the class. If necessary, if a student who was corrected seems to have trouble, or feel embarrassed or otherwise traumatized, I might sometimes speak to him or her individually after the class, to tell them they did a great job in class. I want to reinforce that there are no hard feelings, that as soon as the incident is over, it's over.

We don't have "behavior problems" in our classes.

We simply don't allow it.

Before we can put weapons into the hands of a gymnasium full of students, often children, we must KNOW that they will behave appropriately and safely.

We have very rarely had to take the step of asking someone to leave.

We cannot allow a student in the class who will behave in unsafe ways and endanger themselves or the other students.

After the introductory series of classes, when students elect to continue studying with us, we are all able to be more relaxed, and less formal, since everyone already understands and follows the rules. I prefer to be less formal with my students, when possible. I occasionally need to remind them- and myself- not to get TOO relaxed when we're working, but for the most part, it's really not an issue after that first series of classes.

All of this, in my opinion, is very simple, and very obvious- now that I know it.

It is also very effective.

It is especially so once I learned to manage the hard/soft correction, of immediate and sharp, followed by no hard feelings, and when I learned how to be strong, clear and to the point WITHOUT being harsh, mean, or a drill sargeant. Too many people equate "discipline" with "punishment," and they are not only not the same, but not even related. On the flipside, people equate "permissiveness" with "friendly and likeable," and those are not related, either.

Perhaps you also find it obvious. So obvious that you are wondering why I bothered to write about it.

The thing is, I have taken many classes, in different subjects, in different places, taught by many different teachers.

Most classes I have been a student in have had frequent side conversations, or other instances of a lack of attention, and/or a lack of respect for the teacher. I hear stories all the time of classes where students have to be told not to use their cellphones, or where half the class is frustrated because the other half is being disruptive. I've observed classes full of children who run wild, where little learning takes place, and where students have been injured.

As obvious as it is that setting the stage from the first moment (by modeling the expected behavior, and by explaining the rules upfront) creates an environment where learning can take place safely and enjoyably, I have rarely had a teacher who actually does that effectively.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Education of a Swordsman

The word “educate” comes from the Latin “duco, ducere,” meaning “to lead.”
(Not “to push.”)
“E” plus “ducere,” means “to lead forth.”
To be an educator doesn’t mean pounding information IN to your students, but rather to lead forth from them what they really already know. They just don’t know that they know it.

The qualities that make a good leader also make a good teacher:
  • Competence – you have to know what you’re talking about.  You can’t fake it.
  • Confidence – you have to know that you know what you’re talking about. You must have confidence in yourself AND confidence in your student’s ability to achieve excellence.
  • Communication  – this is certainly the core skill of the teacher. It’s the ability to use verbal, para-verbal and non-verbal elements to effectively send your message. “Effectively” means that the receiver understood the message the way you intended it. If the receiver doesn’t “get it” then you didn’t communicate it.
  • Humility – acknowledging that you don’t know all the answers, and you sometimes make mistakes, like anyone else-- but you immediately own up to it when you do.
  • Patience – things take the time they take. You plant your garden in the Spring; you harvest in the Fall.  If you plant your garden in August, you’re not going to harvest much in October, no matter how much time you spend weeding, watering or swearing.
    It takes the time it takes and there’s nothing you can do to force it.
    (Incidentally, I recommend you plant a garden just to stay connected to this natural law.)
    Each student is a unique individual who enters into unique relationships with the world as he/she perceives it. Each has a unique spirit, a unique heart, and a unique way of learning. No matter how “alike” two people may be, they will still be different.  And yet, no matter how different two people are, there will still be similarities. (One of those “paradoxes” I love).  As a teacher, you have to figure out what’s the same and what’s different.
  • Flexibility – One of my favorite maxims is: When the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.  If the only tool you have is a hammer, you can hammer in the morning, in the evening and hammer all over this land, but you’re still not going to be much of a carpenter.
    Imagine a carpenter coming to build your house and the only tool he brings is a hammer. There are some boards that need shortening and he proceeds to start whacking them with his hammer.  You ask if a saw might not be a better tool for that job.
    “I’m a hammer man,” he replies. “My dad was a hammer man, and his dad before him. I come from a long line of hammer men. Further, I’ve dedicated my life to hammer. I’ve studied with all the greatest hammer men alive. I’ve studied all the hammer books left to us by the great masters of the hammer. The hammer is the best tool there is. It’s the only tool I need. Um, better step back, splinters are going to be flying…”
    As a fighter, my job is to defeat my opponent, utterly and completely. I’m not emotionally involved in what tool I use to do that. If it means a punch, a kick, a club, a knife or a gun, it’s all the same to me. I’ll use whatever tool I need to get the job done. As a teacher, my job is to provide opportunities for my students to cultivate excellence and I’ll use whatever tool I need to get that job done. It’s all the same to me. I’m not emotionally involved with any particular tool.

What do I mean by “cultivate excellence?”
What does that have to do with teaching fencing?
Good question.

Well, I’m not really teaching “fencing.”
I don’t care if any of my students ever “win” a fencing trophy.
If I were about that, then I would just be a “coach.”

What I’m concerned with is what kind of people my students will become, and what kind of world they will make.
The sword is the vehicle I use to illustrate some fundamental truths that, because they ARE fundamental, are also evident in a broad range of other areas, from psychology to politics to interpersonal and business relationships.

I endeavor to set the stage so that my students will have certain experiences. In struggling to understand those experiences and to ascribe them meaning and value, they will wrestle with making choices. The choices they make will determine who they will become.

I can’t make them choose anything in particular.
All I can do is advise. Counsel. Encourage.
Sometimes they make choices that make my heart soar.
Sometime they make choices that make my heart sore.

Goes with the job.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

First Blood?

Another quick bonus post.
Picture from Friday's class.
First time, sword in hand.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Guest Post: Why Do I Teach?

It's my privilege and pleasure to offer you a little something from a long-time and much beloved brother-in-arms.
He's an actor, screenwriter, film-maker (you may have seen his superb documentary AMERICAN JOUSTER), musician, swordsman and for many years a jouster at the various and ever-popular "renaissance faires" around the country.
He's trained other "knights" for the shows and even trained some of the real stars --- the horses!


Why do I teach?

 by Richard P. Alvarez

It is certainly not for the money.

I’ve recently started teaching again. A small group of my son’s friends – eight to be exact – requested I teach them classical foil and saber. The token fees they pay go to cover the use of the gym facility – I don’t make a dime.

So why do I do it? Probably for the same reasons that any teacher faces a student.

“We teach best, that which we most need to learn” – Richard Bach, from “Illusions.” Does this mean that I need to learn the basics of classical fencing? Well yes and no. Certainly I’ve acquired the knowledge of how to perform the basic movements years ago – and I have a shelf of dusty old volumes that outline various approaches to teaching them.

But the actual experience of imparting that knowledge to someone who has never experienced it – allows me to experience it anew. It forces me to see it fresh from their perspective - A perspective that I might not share or even be capable of imagining. And the struggle that they exhibit, along with the delight in their eyes when they ‘get it’ is a simple delight that I never tire of. So call it a ‘contact high’ if you will.

Teaching is not a recitation of known paradigms; it is an exploration into preconceived notions, and an illumination of hidden reservoirs of strengths. No area is off limits. The effort to find a metaphor that the student can relate to – pushes my own concept and understanding of a principle into areas I hadn’t even considered.  I can find metaphors in music, dance, most other martial arts and even driving a car.

“Do you drive a car?” The usual answer is yes.

“How long is it? How wide?” - I’ve never met someone who actually knows in inches the exact wheelbase of the car they drive.

“And yet, you know when you eyeball a parking space, if it will fit. You know where the tires are, underneath you. You know where the back bumper is, because hours and hours of sitting in that car has made it an EXTENSION of your body. When you get behind the wheel of a strange vehicle – you have difficulty making those judgments. It takes many hours to make the car an extension of your body. It’s going to take many, MANY hours to make the blade an extension of your arm.”

“AH” the light goes on in their eyes. And so they have come to an understanding of ‘sentiment du fer’  Sure, they get it. It’s not going to come easy. They won’t master this move in a few lessons. But if they work at it they will get better.

All of the Maitre’ des Arms I have had the privilege of studying with have been very creative souls. They were musicians, artists, mimes and quite often highly trained military men with combat experience as well. I loved learning what they had to share, because they loved SHARING it.

Knowing that I’m imparting knowledge to someone else, along with at least a little of the love I have for the art – gives me a sense of accomplishment. Planting seeds is a way to create. Planting the seed of knowledge is a form of creativity.

I teach because it’s one more outlet for my creativity. And we are closest to our highest, our truest natures when we are creating.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Keeping the Distance

A little bonus post today. Pictures from this morning's class. Brand new students, working on learning to keep the distance. This is their first time working with a partner.

They are holding 1/2" diameter dowels that are four feet long. The dowels serve to give them a reference for the distance they are trying to keep, and also give them immediate tactile feedback, rather than having only visual feedback to know if they are successful.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Epee du Salle vs Epee du Combat

As long as there have been swords there have been mock-swords used in training.
They may be made of steel or wood or rubber or some other material.
They may resemble the “real thing” very closely, only generally, or hardly at all.

Why do we use such tools?

Well, first, these various training tools are at least marginally less dangerous than the real thing, and we’d like our charges to survive the training process. Make no mistake, it’s not exactly a stroll in the park to catch a blow on the skull from a wooden weapon – and stout lads have been killed with wooden swords (look into the exploits of legendary Japanese swordsman Myamoto Musashi). Still, as a rule, wood is a little more survivable than steel.
Thrusting weapons, such as all derivations of the rapier, are tempered to bend rather than break. Practice thrusting weapons are tempered to bend rather than penetrate. I consider that an important difference.

Secondly, swords were expensive then and are still expensive now. Good ones, anyway.
A bona fide rapier made by a real swordcutler like Dennis Graves, for example, could easily run $400-$500, with no upper limit.
On the other hand, a “foil” from any of the fencing equipment houses will probably cost $50-$60. And a 40” long ½” diameter dowel will run you just a buck or two.
Imagine you’re a fencing master, either today or back in the waybackwhen. You’re going to outfit a class of 10 with practice tools. Which do you purchase? Just do the math.
Besides that, you don’t need a fine weapon to learn to fence any more than you need a top-of-the-line Maserati to learn how to drive.

There’s one more thing.
Fencing is 100% skill-based.
Skill means practice.
Practice means repetition.
LOTS of repetition.
The smart money says it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery.
The smart money also says that fatigue will inhibit the acquisition of skill.
So the question is, how many repetitions can you do before fatigue sets in, cuts into your practice hours and interferes with learning?
I would suggest that you can do more repetitions with a 1 lb sword than you can with a 3 lb sword.
More reps before fatigue sets in means you can accumulate your 10,000 hours sooner.

What we today call a “foil” was at first designed to be a practice weapon for the rapier, or dueling sword, some like to call it. Some people are a bit baffled by the “conventions” of foil (the limitation of target and the phenomenon of “priority”). Some claim that these things are arbitrary and that the “epee” is more “realistic.”
As to the first proposition, they’re wrong. As to the second, it depends.

In a real fight with swords it’s utterly true that you might be wounded on the hand, arm, leg or head. It’s also true that the most immediately incapacitating wound is not necessarily fatal – and that the most fatal wound is not necessarily the most immediately incapacitating.
For example, a thrust through the forearm might sever tendons and make holding on to your weapon physically impossible.
Game over.
But it’s a wound you’ll probably recover from (assuming it’s not managed by an HMO) and you will probably live to be foolish another day.

A thrust through the body, however, may puncture lungs – even the heart – wounds that will very likely prove that you and Socrates are both mortal. Yet, death may saunter along rather than sprint and you may have several minutes before you bleed out.

If I’m teaching you to fight with a sword, my first goal is that you will come home alive.
Therefore, the first thing I’ll do is to teach you to defend your centerline, particularly from eyes to pubic bone. Now that’s not a perfect approach. It still leaves your femoral artery waving in the breeze, but I have a back-up plan to deal with that. First things first: protect the vital organs. Walking erect has proved to be a mixed blessing.

The brain, of course, is a vital organ, too – more vital to some than to others, no doubt.
But it’s encased in armor – thicker on some than on others. If the surest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then certainly the easy way to a man’s brain is through an open mouth or an eye socket. Relatively small targets, requiring relatively greater accuracy than a thrust at “center body mass.”

Not all duels were fought “to the death.”
In fact, quite a few were fought to “first blood.”
That means you don’t have to kill your opponent. Just pink him in the arm or wrist or knee and go home.
In a bout with “epees” or, let’s say with epee’s lack of conventions, all hits anywhere on the body are counted. This is very much a “first blood” situation.
But in a bout with “foils” or, let’s say, using foil conventions, we have two combatants who are prepared to disregard all wounds except the gravest ones.
Therefore, I would submit that the “epee” bout represents one in which the opponents are not necessarily determined to kill each other.
A “foil” bout, however, is a fight to the death.

The notion of “priority” in foil causes a great deal of head-scratching in some quarters, but it’s really very simple: an extant threat has priority over a potential threat. This is based on the assumption that neither party is keen on dying. Therefore, they will act to avoid it, insofar as they are able to do so.
So the best question to ask yourself when pondering the mysteries of priority is this:
If these babies were sharp, would my action X keep my opponent from killing me?
Or would it merely be a “tie” with both of us being wounded.
The purpose of the priority convention is to teach you to fight intelligently, that is, to protect yourself while assisting your opponent with shuffling off his mortal coil.
If you don’t care whether you live or die, might as well fence “epee.”
Yet, it’s amazing how many macho young men who claim they are “willing” to die, nevertheless go to great pains to avoid it.

As far as conventions go, the “epee” has one, as well. And quite a silly one.
In “epee” fencing all hits are counted, but all hits are counted EQUALLY. That means if you scratch my forearm and at the same time, I drive my point through your heart, both touches are of equal value. If you scratch my forearm a second time, you might even “win.”

The most important difference to keep in mind is the difference between fighting with a sword and fencing with one.
In a swordfight, I’m not interested in going whackety-whack with my opponent for three minutes, just to show how big my panache is. I’d prefer to make one or two moves and have that be the end of the encounter and be long gone before the cops show up.

In a fencing match, I’m putting my skill on display, my virtuosity with the blade. It’s a lively game of “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better.” If my opponent is skillful, it will allow me to indulge in luxurious phrases, subtle and delicate exchanges, a cold-steel sonnet, a grim ballet, beautiful if not for its actual purpose.

Fencing and fighting each have their place.
But in my experience, it is a simple matter for a fighter to fence, just as it’s a simple matter for a good sprinter to slow down to a jog.
But the fencer would be as hard-pressed to hold his own in a fight, as the typical jogger would be to pace that seasoned sprinter for some 100-yard intervals.

It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re fencing or fighting.
But YOU should know which one you’re doing.
And why.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Stance-o-Matic

We use a wide variety of teaching aids with our students. Some are things we've made; some are ordinary items that we make use of in unusual ways. I plan to post them here on the blog, as I have time to write up descriptions of both the tool, and how we use it.

First up: The Stance-o-Matic.

This one is simple, both in design and in use.

Beginning students, in particular, and most students, at times, may have trouble keeping enough space between their feet while moving. As the footwork increases in complexity or tempo, and/or as the student fatigues, there is a tendency to bring the heels closer and closer together.

This is most commonly caused by the student moving the back foot a different distance than the front foot has moved, or will move.

We created a simple tool to help remind the student of the need to maintain a wide base, and to give them immediate feedback on whether or not they have done so, without the student needing to break their position in order to look at their feet.

The Stance-o-Matic is used by putting one of the elastic loops around each ankle, and positioning it so that the wooden bead is on the inside of the ankle. While on guard, this puts the plastic tube in a position to keep the heels at the appropriate distance apart. When the student moves, the elastic stretches to allow the movement, and then returns to position at the end of the move.
If the student's feet are no longer the same distance apart, either
a) the Stance-o-Matic will bump up against their ankles and let them know they have moved their feet closer together, or
b) there will still be tension in the elastic, letting them know they have moved their feet further apart.

(Elastic placed on outside of pants leg in order for placement to be more visible for this picture.)

To receive the greatest benefit, the length of the Stance-o-Matic should be matched to the size of the student, so that it is one and one-half to two times the length of the student's foot.

To make the Stance-o-Matic:
Read through the instructions and the notes at the end.

Parts list:
(1) length of pvc tubing, 1/2" in diameter
(1) length of elastic, 1/4" to 1/2" wide, approximately twice the length of the tube
(2) wooden beads, large enough not to go through the tubing, with a hole large enough to put elastic through

Step one:
If not already done, cut the tube to the length desired. It should be one and one half to two times the length of the student's foot.

Step two:
Thread one end of the elastic through one of the wooden beads.
Make a loop, and tie a knot large enough that the loop will not go through the wooden bead.

Step three:
Thread the free end of the elastic through the tube.
Then, once it comes out of the tube, thread it through the other wooden bead.

Step four:
Repeat step two: make a loop, and tie it so that it won't go back through the bead.

You should end up with a pattern of loop-bead-tube-bead-loop. (see first image, above)
The elastic should be relaxed, and not stretched.

You might want to start with a longer length of elastic, and cut it after making the second loop, until you get a feel for how long it needs to be. Some of that depends on the size of the hole in the bead, and therefore, the size of the knot you need to make.

You also may need to experiment with the size of the loop.
Both loops should be approximately the same size, and a little smaller than the average ankle. You want them to need to stretch the loop to get it on, so that it won't slip off during use. If necessary, you can tie an extra overhand knot in the loop to make it smaller for someone with smaller ankles, then untie it for the next student.

The simplest use of this tool is during advances and retreats, but it stretches to allow a variety of movements. With other movements, it may not lie straight between the ankles, but that's okay. As long as the student knows where it is supposed to be, it will accomplish the goal of immediate feedback.

As with all teaching aids, the student should always attempt to do the move correctly, and allow the aid to give feedback, and NOT simply try to get the tool to end up in a certain place.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Q & A

Charles writes to ask:

  1. Regarding feints, does their technical execution differ at all depending on their number -- would the first out of three feints be different from a single feint?
  2. Concerning intentions in fencing…..(do you) acknowledge or teach "false attacks"?
  3. Then how far would you go into counter-ripostes, and counter-counter-ripostes, etc? (Perhaps this is an idle question missing the point of the exercises, but I'm curious because some people set certain limits on how deep the actions get...)
  4. Awfully broad question, but does footwork differ much between weapons in your school? How about bladework, besides the obvious differences between thrust and cut, and the changes necessitated by longer or shorter blades?

These are good questions.

First, let me say that, as a general principle, form follows function.

That is, “technique” is infinitely malleable in order to meet the specific needs of a particular tactical situation. While technical exercises establish a “baseline” of “standard” execution, that pattern must not be rigid. It must be flexible enough to be applicable in a wide range of circumstances. It doesn’t do you any good to execute a technique “right,” if it results in you being touched.

So, the only really true answer to any tactical question is, “It depends.”

At this point, it will be good to define “tactics.” Here’s my definition. Tactics comprises all those choices made “in the moment” during the course of the combat.

All tactical choices are based on an If/then model. If my opponent does A, I’ll do A1; if my opponent does B, I’ll do B1.

Some tactical choices are more likely in certain circumstances than are others.

You can guess what your opponent is going to do.

Or you can set the stage so that your opponent makes the choice that you want him/her to make.

I prefer not to guess.

Further, tactical choices follow five principles:

  1. Put the point on the target
  2. Feel the blades
  3. Take your time
  4. Keep your distance
  5. Continue the phrase

I’ll go into these in more detail sometime if you like.

For now, understand that technique, tactics and strategy are all interdependent and based on definite principles.

We don’t do ANYTHING, unless we know what the combat rationale for it is.

With that proviso, I’ll address these particular elements.

In RE: Feints.

The purpose of a feint is to elicit a particular response from the opponent by providing him/her with false information. This means “communication” must take place. Your action sends a message; your opponent receives the message, deciphers its meaning and responds appropriately (all people act in accordance with what they believe to be true). The burden is on you to ensure that your opponent receives the message and ascribes to it that meaning which you intend for it to be given.

Malcolm X once said, “If somebody asks you a question in English, you don’t answer in Chinese.” There’s a corollary to that: if you want someone to understand you, you have to speak their language.

Consequently, while any feint must have a sufficient degree of verisimilitude, the actual amplitude and character of any particular feint must be such that the opponent will receive the message and give it the meaning you want him/her to give it, and then respond “appropriately,” which is to say, predictably and to your advantage.

Think of a feint like opening a door.

How wide do you open it? How long do you hold it open?

Wide enough for long enough so you can get in.

But here’s an important question: when is a feint not a feint?

And here’s an example Ms. Wyatt suggested:

You aim a thrust at your opponent’s chest.

Your opponent does nothing.

What do you do then?

Personally, I’d lunge and hit him.

It’s only a feint if my opponent responds – remember our IF/Then model.

So EVERY feint must be a real and true action with lethal intent.

Until it isn’t.

Back in the 1600’s a fellow named Capo Ferro wrote something that suggests to me that he was my kind of fighter. He said that your opponent can only make a feint either within distance or without. If without distance, ignore it. If within distance, as your opponent feints, kill him.

In RE: “intentions” in fencing.

I teach only one intention: to touch without being touched.

That may seem like a flippant answer. It is and it isn’t.

I mean that your focus must be on touching your opponent, not on playing around.

The longer a fight lasts, the worse your chances of coming out of it unscathed.

I’m reminded here of the famous scene in the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in which Harrison Ford, as Indiana Jones, is confronted by a sword-flourishing opponent. Jones’ response is simply to shoot the man where he stands. (Shades of Capo Ferro)

You may not think that very gallant. But tactically, the most direct, most immediate response possible, is usually best.

In Re: False attacks

In addition to the foregoing on feints, the false attack – like everything else you do – must accomplish a specific purpose, and not devolve into a mindless fishing expedition. A false attack can be used to assess your opponent’s preferred defensive responses. It can be used as the “set-up” for a counter-time. It can be used to give your opponent an inaccurate estimate of your attacking distance. It should never be done just to do something, like nervous conversation in an elevator.

On the flip, (but not flippant) side, you, yourself, must be able to recognize false actions for what they are and NOT respond to them as your opponent wishes --- unless, of course, your response is ALSO a false action being used to lure your opponent into what will be a discommodious position for him/her to be in. You might, for example, “parry” the false attack in order to invite your opponent to direct an offensive action at another target – where you are ready to parry-riposte like lightning. In other words, you use the opponent’s own false attack against him/her to set up an ambush.

RE: The number of counter-ripostes.

Our fifth tactical principle is “continue the phrase.” If you can continue the phrase longer than your opponent can, your opponent is done for.

Technically, if you can do one counter-riposte, you can probably do more than one.

We train to be able to carry on the phrase indefinitely. The phrase never ends.

That may mean one counter-riposte; it may mean a hundred. It’s all the same to us.

We often work counter-ripostes for as long as the student can sustain the phrase, physically and psychologically --- which means we’re working on both physical endurance and psychological endurance (the ability to sustain mental focus).

BUT when you do that kind of an exercise, every thrust must have lethal intentions; the exercise must never be allowed to become a game of half-hearted patty-cake.

RE: footwork

There are a finite number of ways to move the feet and body.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that footwork from one weapon to another --- and often from one martial art to another --- is hauntingly familiar. While there are certain movements particularly well-suited to particular actions with particular weapons, I find no reason why any specific footwork could not be employed with any weapon, given the appropriate tactical circumstances.

Remember: all linear actions (thrusts) are basically the same and are delivered and dealt with in a very similar manner, and all circular actions (cuts) are basically the same and are delivered and dealt with in the same manner.

As far as bladework goes, remember form follows function.

The length, weight, shape and balance of any tool is determined by the job it has to do. A tool is handled in a certain way because that’s the most efficient way to do the job for which it was designed.

Likewise, the length, weight, shape and balance of a sword will determine the manner in which it is used.

I hope these comments are helpful.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Quick Guide to Becoming a Fencing Master's Apprentice

I wrote this piece several years ago, and find it still apropos, so I want to share it with you all. It was originally published on my personal blog, but probably very few of you have read it there.

Quick Guide to Becoming a Fencing Master's Apprentice:

Things I think anyone considering such a thing should know.

1. It's a process, not an event.

2. If you think it's only about fencing, forget it.

3. It requires both commitment and change. Real change. It is not just the gaining of new skills, but the replacement of old unproductive thought patterns and habits. Changing how you see and relate to most everything and everyone. These changes will not necessarily be easy. And that's not only for you, but for other people in your life- they may find the changes difficult.

4. People are going to think you're nuts. As a rule, even those who most want to be supportive will only support you to a point- the limit of their understanding of what you're doing. To most people, fencing is a sport, an insignificant one at best, a game, and what you are doing is learning to be a coach. A coach, mind you, for a sport no one watches, participates in, or understands. At best, a marginalized activity, a part time thing, benefitting very few. So why do you care so much? And if you make any attempt to explain why, to get at the level of personal growth and where that leads you, they'll think you've gone right over the edge entirely, because the concept is not in their worldview, it's a bunch of hooey. (Are you sure this isn't a cult?)

5. It's about teaching, about learning. If you aren't enthusiastically interested in both of those things, this is not the opportunity for you.

6. The level of detail will astound you. Repeatedly. The sheer number of hours this is going to take is huge. We're talking years, not months. A long term commitment.

7. This has the potential to rearrange your entire life. In ways you may not expect. It will change your priorities, change how you relate to people, change what you think and do, change how you make decisions. It may well change your very values- or at least, accentuate them if yours are already compatible.

ps. This scares people. A lot. Do not underestimate this.

8. If you think you understand all this, and you still "agree" and you're rarin' to go, you've got a handle on it, this is the path for me, made my decision, yessir...

you're wrong. :-)

No matter how much you understand of it, no matter how much awareness you have of what is involved, no matter how ready you are for that, no matter how committed you are, you will still have moments of nearly-overwhelming mind-boggling eye-opening "what the fuck?" discovery of yet another level of possibility. It may delight you. It may astound you. It may temporarily (or permanently) overwhelm you with the feeling that you will never, ever, be able to do this. But you cannot possibly, right now, really understand what you are getting into because you simply do not have the ability to understand things that you can't yet imagine exist. You can't see around corners, or into the future.

Did I mention that this is not a smooth featureless landscape?

Perhaps the reason the process takes so long is that it takes years (what is the theoretical number, seven?) for your body to replace every cell- and that, in a nutshell, is the level of change you're attempting. Every cell. Every nerve. Every pre-existing pattern. Every instinct. Every "natural reaction." That level of growth and change. Becoming, literally, a different person.

It's not that it can't be done.

But it can't be done by someone attached to what they've known before, or know now. By someone resistant or reluctant to change. By someone who enters into this with any intention of withholding or being in any way- even the tiniest way- dishonest.

It is about exposing your own weaknesses, not hiding them. Admitting to difficulties, not avoiding them. Embracing responsibility. About understanding, not pretending.

Perhaps the simplest way of explaining is to use something my fencing master has said to me. Simple as it is, I only began to understand it in layers, as I met them, and I'm sure I have not reached the deepest one yet.

You must be willing to do whatever must be done to achieve your goal.

Further, you must be willing to sacrifice whatever must be sacrificed

to achieve your goal.

These are not lofty statements, intended to inspire. They are the literal truth, each word specifically chosen, and equally important. "Willing" is as important as "must." And you can't possibly predict what things these will be, in either direction. They are different for each person, bound into your very self, your life, your beliefs, your experiences. Some will seem small things. Easy enough to let go of. Some, your ego will fight you tooth and nail over.

There. That about sums it up. Ought to scare off any sensible person.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mary Had A Little Lamb

When I was 13 or 14 and a budding rock star in my first garage band, I fancied myself a guitar player, having fumbled my way to beating half a dozen chords into submission.

What a coincidence that everything I wrote back then comprised exclusively those chords, played more or less in the same order. But I easily won the adoration of a number of teenage girls, and thereby the envy of a lot of teenage boys, and I became convinced I was quite good.

Then, by chance, I happened to be the recipient of a pair of tickets to a concert.

A guitar concert.

Some guy named Andy Segovia.

I learned two things at that concert.

First, I learned that the gentleman’s name was "Andre," not "Andy."

And I learned what it sounded like when someone played the guitar who could really play it.

Last time I mentioned that there are different levels or stages of learning.

One good model for these stages is:

1. Unconscious Incompetence

At this stage, a person doesn’t understand or know how to do the thing, and doesn’t know that he/she doesn’t know how to do it, so has no motivation to remedy that lack of knowledge.

2. Conscious Incompetence

Now, although the person still doesn’t understand or know how to do the thing, he/she recognizes that he/she doesn’t know how to do it. Most beginners start here. They want to use a sword. They don’t know how. They know they don’t know how. They try to find a way to learn.

3. Conscious Competence

The person understands or knows how to do the thing. Demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration. Most “fencers” appear never to get beyond this stage, largely because, in my opinion, they do not build an adequate foundation of excellence on which to construct further progress.

4. Unconscious Competence

At this stage, the person has so completely incorporated the skill that it becomes "second nature" and can be performed effortlessly, "automatically," without concentration, without conscious thought, even under adverse circumstances. This is the "mastery" level for which we strive. It’s the fighters’ stock in trade.

I think that’s a pretty good starting point for discussion. Some folks have suggested adding to this model. A fifth stage about teaching, for example. But I think that’s mixing apples and oranges and I’ll explain why in future.

For now, I’d like to suggest that there are four particular levels in swordsmanship. I’ll call them the technical level, the tactical level, the strategic level and the mastery level.

As I go through this, you may detect a suspicious similarity to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and Kohlberg's 6 stages of moral development – and if you don’t, you should.

The technical level is where the absolute beginner lives. It’s about the “right” way to do something, the correct way to execute a given action with maximum safety and effectiveness. This is the equivalent of a musician learning how to produce the various notes of the scale on his instrument. On the guitar, there are a lot of ways to play B flat.

In addition to legato, staccato and pizzicato, you can slur up or down, hammer on or off, bend the note if you’ve got the blues, or give it varying amounts of vibrato.

But you can’t do ANY of that if you have no idea where B flat is on the fretboard.

First things first.

At the technical level, your attentional focus is almost entirely “internal,” as demonstrated by the fact that you have to look at the fingerboard and see where and how you’re placing your fingers. It’s a “narrow” focus when you have to place each finger of a chord one at a time; it’s a “broad focus” when you can hit that chord with all fingers all at once. You shift quickly to external narrow focus to look at the music and see what notes you have to play next.

Rinse and repeat.

The tactical level is about making choices in the moment.

In combat, it’s 99% by feel, for reasons which I’ll explain another time.

For our hypothetical guitarist, let’s suppose the music calls for you to play that darned B flat.

Well, do you play it legato, staccato and pizzicato, slur up or down, hammer on or off, bend the note, or give it some vibrato?

How do you know?

You know from the feel of the piece, from the context of what came before and what follows.

That’s tactics.

Tactical facility is predicated upon technical perfection. You can’t choose a tactic that you don’t have the technical skill to execute.

Strategy is based upon the pre-existing relationship of the combatants. It’s a general, long-range plan. For our guitarist, it’s a matter of how to “interpret” the piece, in terms of what tactical choices will dominate and how and when they will be employed. You might delve into the composer’s life history. What was he feeling when he wrote this piece? Light, happy, joyful? Dark, brooding, angry? What clues can you discover that will help you express not only the emotional motivation of the composer, but the universality of that truth for you and everyone who hears you play?

The strategy level assumes tactical facility, which in turn presumes technical perfection. You must control both time and space.

At the level of mastery, one no longer does the thing.

The thing does itself.

In this dance, the sword leads, the swordsman follows.

It’s the place where there’s no longer any distinction between the actor and the action.

It’s the place where it is the way it is because it can be no other way.

It’s the place where all things exist according to their own nature, regardless of how we perceive them – and we can know that nature, not cognitively, but intuitively.

It’s the place where all petty contradiction dissolves and paradox becomes high truth.

It’s a place where no human being I know of lives.

But when the wind is right, you can sail by there and catch a glimpse.

To use our musical motif for illustration, suppose you have a band called Sister Edna and the BTS String Quartet. You have some pieces -- Mozart. Bach. Beethoven. Playing them well is “technique.”

Tactics is deciding what order to play the pieces in. You might make up a tentative “set list,” but if that last Mozart piece got the crowd too rowdy and you don’t want them throwing champagne glasses against the chickenwire cage that protects the bandstand, something soothing to the savage breast might be in order, even it it wasn’t next on the tentative list.

That’s tactics.

Where you gig is strategy. You probably won’t audition your string quartet at Billy Bob Joe’s Bar-B-Q and Blues. You need the right technique and the right tactics for your strategy.

At the mastery level, it doesn’t matter what you play or where you play it. The truth of it is compelling. Anybody with ears will dig it.

I once attended a master class given by a terrific jazz pianist.

As part of the class he played “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Now, that’s a tune that most beginners play and learn to hate. If you ask some people to play it, they might be highly insulted, considering it beneath them, a song for beginners, and they are more advance than that, you see.

Well, no words can describe how, at this master class, this jazz trio brought down the house with Mary Had a Little Lamb! It cooked. It smoked. It swung. It rocked. It was red-hot. It was ice cool.

It was Mary Had a Little Lamb.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The First Inch

Years ago, when my children were young, we visited a museum while we were on vacation. One of the exhibits has stayed in my mind ever since.

It was a large white column. It was round, maybe 4 feet across, and went from floor to ceiling.

About an inch above the floor, there was a line that went around the column.

There was a small sign explaining the significance.

It said "If all of mathematics was represented by this column, all of the math taught in schools would be in the first inch."

When I first started learning to fence, I was excited about every little detail. New footwork, new blade work, or new warm up stretch, it didn't matter. I eagerly soaked it all in, like a sponge. Each class, I was thrilled to learn something new. This continued through the entire series of classes.

When the class was over, I asked about taking further classes.

I was told that a new series would begin soon, and I could sign up for that and take the class over again.

So I did.

Since the first time, I was, putting it charitably, not highly skilled, I was fine with taking the "same" class over.

This time, it was like watching a movie I had seen before.

The first time watching a movie, you have to pay attention to the plot, the storyline, to who the characters are, or it's easy to get confused, and get to the end of the movie and not know what happened. Concentrating on the story, it's not possible to catch everything.

But if you watch it again, you can relax, let the story flow, and pay attention to the details.

For example, take the movie "The Sixth Sense."

Did you figure it out the first time through? I don't know anyone who did. But watching it a second time, so much was obvious and clear that I entirely missed before.

The second time through the class, although it was not exactly like the first time, it was similar.

The footwork we learned was the same.

The bladework was the same.

But this time, I could begin to do it without tripping on myself.

I was still enthusiastic. Delighted by each class, by the things I was beginning to be able to do.

Although I "knew" intellectually how to do the moves, being able to actually do them made it all feel fresh and new.

At the end of the class, I asked about taking more classes.

I was told that another series of classes would begin soon, and I could sign up for those.


This would be the third time taking the "same" class.

But it was the only available option, and I loved what we were doing, loved how it felt, so I signed up again.

I was hooked by this point. No question.

But the third time through the class, what could there be that would keep me interested? Wouldn't I get bored? Shouldn't I be able to do more advanced things by now?

We worked on the same footwork.

At least it was supposed to be the same.

It had the same names, the same explanations, the same demonstrations as in the previous classes.

And watching the fencing master, it sure looked the same.

The thing is, what I was doing wasn't the same at all.

Moreover, what I wasn't doing, wasn't the same, either.

This time through, I began to feel more comfortable with the movements. My feet were more coordinated with each other, and with my hands. I could maintain the stances for far longer. I could hold the weapon for far longer. I could maintain my focus for longer.

And although the master had said something about "move from your center" from the very first day of the first class, it wasn't until now that I had some understanding of what that felt like.

It was much later that I began to understand why it was important, and how important it was.

Much later than that, when other things he had said from the beginning began to fall into place, and have actual meaning beyond the words.

It took me a while to realize that each time I came to that new recognition of what something meant, that as much as it felt like NOW I understood, I was still in that "first inch" of all there is to know. That I could simultaneously have come so far- and have so far to go.

It isn't only that "the more I know, the more I realize I don't know."

It is also that the more I know, the further I am on this path, the more paths there ARE. The more there IS to know.

I may get beyond that first inch, after all.

I may even reach the top of that column.

And that will be when I can see that the COLUMN itself continues above the ceiling.

In that museum, years ago, that column very probably did continue.

I don't know.

I was too busy looking at the bottom of it to even think of looking up.

I took that intro class six times before taking a different class.

I take it again, every time we teach it, working on that "same" footwork just as much as the "students."

May it always be so.