Sunday, April 24, 2011

Structure of the Individual Lesson, part 1

We'll be putting up a "Structure of the Individual Lesson" in several parts.
I wrote it originally for the half-dozen apprentices I had at that time. If you're teaching fencing, or want to teach fencing, something in it may prove useful.
Note the use of the masculine pronoun. I don't mean to imply that the field is exclusively the domain of males, and if any should accuse me of "sexism" I'll stand on my record of having taught sabre to women long before it was officially permitted.
Yes, language structures thought, and perhaps we can devise something better. Yet, on a scale of 1-10, I think we have much more serious problems to address -- at least I'm not aware of any mechanism whereby the use of the masculine pronoun will destroy the environment, cause millions of deaths of innocent women and children, or create a global corporate-slave state. Good to see things in perspective.

The direct passing on of knowledge and skill from teacher to student is a strong link in the chain of tradition that has kept fencing alive and vital for so long. The swordmaster's apprentice, it is to be hoped, will learn not only the master's technical skills, but will also absorb the master’s manner,  composure, integrity, dignity, courage, and joi de vivre. The student will then, one day, pay the teacher the highest possible compliment- by exceeding the master's stature.
The individual lesson is a large part of the fencing master's stock in trade, and it has been so for many generations. The intimacy and intensity of the individual lesson far surpass that of the group lesson. The master can give the student his undivided attention concentrating on perfecting even the most minute imperfection, not allowing even the slightest error to slip by unnoted. This makes the individual lesson as potentially demanding -- and satisfying -- for the master as for the student, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically.
Group training is no substitute for individual lessons. Progress requires continual evaluation and adjustment and there simply isn't enough individual attention possible in a group, even if of no more than 3-7 students -- and even then, it's inferior to the attention possible in an individual lesson. Group training is most useful for absolute beginners who all need to get an introduction to the basic, very broadest strokes and general concepts.  If the master wishes to introduce as many people as possible to the sword, then he can do so far more efficiently with classes than with individual lessons. There's no point in telling one person at a time to "turn out, bend your knees, close your sixte..." for half an hour when you can deliver the same essential directions to 25 people at the same time -- and at a lower cost to each of them.
Group training can also be useful for a homogenous group of very skillful fencers who are capable of self-evaluating and self-correcting.  
But everyone can benefit from individual lessons and greater progress can be made in a much shorter period of time than with group training. Ideally, there should be a balance between individual lessons and group practice, but the balance should be heavily weighted toward individual instruction
The demanding nature of giving good lessons (and why give any other kind?) limits the number one can give per day or per week. Given that limitation,  I generally give priority for individual lessons to "serious" students who have made a commitment to excellence and have earned them by dedication and hard work. Sometimes I will work individually with a student who has a special, extraordinary need for it. But I don't simply market my sword to anyone who has enough money; I may be available for rent, but I'm not for sale.  A lesson is an investment of my time. I'm happy to invest it, but I’m very disinclined to waste it.
It is not at all uncommon that a "champion" fencer may be an abysmal teacher, while someone whose own fencing is merely competent might become a brilliant teacher. This is because giving a lesson requires absolute command of a repertoire of technical skills, closely related to, but distinct from fencing itself.
Fencing, and the teaching of fencing each comprise specific skill-sets that are quite different from each other.
To be a good fencing teacher requires at least as much skill practice as it does to be a good fencer- and probably a good deal more. In addition to knowing how to use your tools- posture, voice, blade, gestures, etc. - you must possess a thorough understanding of the theory of combat, the principles of tactics and strategy, and the psychology and physiology involved in training for and participating in the fight.
Since it is part of the master's task to simulate for his student every possible opponent as well as to encourage and inspire, the master must be comfortable giving lessons with either hand.
Aristotle once noted, "Men acquire a particular trait by constantly acting in a particular way." Some other anonymous philosopher observed "Practice is the art of learning, improving or refining while fidgeting, sweating or swearing."
Any way you put it, there is only one way to acquire skill: regular, repetitive, focused practice.
(Remember: mastery requires at least 10,000 hours.)
            REGULAR means more than once a week, to be sure. 
            Daily practice is best.
            REPETITIVE means doing the same technique over and over again 
            until it is as perfect as possible.
            FOCUSED means mental acuity and attention to detail. 
            Practice does not make perfect- PERFECT PRACTICE makes perfect.
Skill cannot really be TAUGHT, it must be LEARNED. There is nothing the master can do that will compensate for what the student does NOT do. Just as this applies to the fencing student, so it also applies to the fencing master's apprentice. If you wish to excel at giving lessons, you must give many of them, every day, and continuously reflect, evaluate and strive to improve.


  1. Excellent intro Maestro. Looking forward to the next post.

  2. Thank you, Ric.
    I hope it will be of some use.
    Looking forward to your comments on it.


  3. Does giving group lessons require as much practice as giving individual lessons?
    Thanks, Maestro!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.