Sunday, October 14, 2012


In the waybackwhen, when I was a music student, all of us were require to  take a class in “functional piano.” Singers, trumpet players, drummers, all of us. Except pianists, of  course.  The purpose of “functional piano” wasn’t to enable you to play the piano. It was to help you understand the structure of Western music, four-part harmony, voice-leading and so on. That’s the kind of stuff that will help you, no matter what your instrument is, no matter what kind of music you play.
In a similar way, the sword – in particular the late, post-1666 rapier – serves a similar purpose.  It helps you understand the structure of combat: balance, line, focus and distance; the phrase d’armes; tactics and strategy. It also teaches you how to learn, that is, the vital importance of mindful repetition. That’s the kind of stuff that will help you no matter what your “martial art” may be.
I typically – but not always – start a student out with smallsword (or “foil” if you please) for this reason, and for the additional reason that it requires little in the way of physical strength. Psycho-motor learning depends on repetition. Repetition is limited by physical strength-endurance, that is, how many times you can do X with how much of a load.  You need thousands and thousands of repetitions. If you can barely hold your sword up for a few seconds, those repetitions are going to take a long, long time.
In teaching “renaissance fencing,” I was a great advocate of using weapons that approximate as closely as possible the length, weight and balance of a real rapier of the period, and I was correct, to a point. The heavier weapon certainly gave the lie to all the swashbuckling movies that had the hero brandish this weapon with the speed and agility of a squirrel on cocaine, and that epiphany opened the door to some serious reflection on the matter of what you think you know, and why you think you know it.
But as far as mastering the weapon itself, I was wrong. I don’t think I ever had a class of 10 who could all hold their weapons up correctly enough to make it through half an hour of serious drills. I wound up substituting lighter weapons and other tools – even simple wooden batons – for the rapiers. 
In short, I had to re-learn the importance of “progression,” even in swordsmanship.  And once it hit me squarely in the face, it seemed obvious. If you want to become strong enough to lift 500 lbs, you don’t go out and try to lift 500 lbs every day until, one day, you can magically do it. You start with 1lb and add another 1 lb every day, getting stronger gradually, over time.  Well, duh!
In my defense I offer that I was very young and very stupid.
I am now somewhat less so.



  1. I keep a light weight Hanwei on hand for teaching new students Rapier. I use a much heavier blade myself, but I also see no point in teaching someone the basics of fencing with something they can only extend ten times before their muscles won't let them do it correctly any more.


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