Monday, June 24, 2013

Learning and You

I am not going to discus the reams and reams of papers, books and articles available that talk about how humans learn or how to engage different types of learning. That is a subject for an instructor that is setting up a pedagogical approach to providing instruction. It requires feedback from the students and such. No, what I want to talk to here is how a student should comport themselves to enable their own learning.

It is not the instructor's job to make you learn. Let me repeat that: it is not your instructor's job to make you learn. This isn't grade school and you aren't being shown multiplication tables for rote memorization. As an adult, you and you alone are responsible for your learning and your becoming better at whatever it is you have decided to master. Once a certain amount of basics have been acquired you must go beyond. Not only must you diligently put in hours of your own time and energy into mastering various movements, but also you must question those movements. Look outside of your salle at similar disciplines, what is being shown and see how others interpret what is being done. Look outside of your group at similar disciplines to see how they do it. Pour through the manuscripts and history, looking with fresh eyes each time, setting aside any and all preconceptions to see it anew.

To not practice on your own vastly limits your physical ability to master your body. In essence all, martial arts come down to this: the ability to see a technique in your mind, to feel the technique in play, and preform the technique physically. All three parts must act in concordance. You get this primarily though countless hours of solo practice. The solo practice, even if it is just the simplest actions of your art inform your body and link together your physical movement with your ideal thought. This is of course not mindless repetition, this is thoughtful intentioned action. Each action must be formed in your mind. Each part of your body intentionally driven though space and time to conform to that though. The intention and care is key as, without them, you are just exercising. There are more effective methods for getting fit. Without the solo practice you will never get beyond the most basic level of competence.

Your instructor cannot make you learn. This is a hard concept for some people to understand. You are paying good money after all, they should be teaching you! Even the best instructor can only show you a tiny fraction of the things you need to learn. An analogy I have seen is that a good instructor can show you one corner of a darkened room. They can turn on a little night-light for you so you can stand in the corner and see. Then they can point to the darkened room and say go that way to find the rest. Lighting the rest of the room is your job, not theirs. Perhaps with decades of instruction they can show you a bit more of your art, but largely your expression of the art is unknown to them. It is your art to master and they don't know what it looks like ether outside of the broadest of strokes.

You must explore that space. Do this by finding limits to your ability and narrowing in on better. Expose yourself to ideas, even if they seem silly at first. Listen to people who are on the journey talk about their exploration. Begin reading and understanding how to mentor and teach others. Mostly remember that almost all of the effort and learning you must do is yours and yours alone to find and accomplish.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

On Being Uke

Uke: person who receives technique in partnered practice.
Tori: executioner of technique in partnered practice.

Been a while since I put text to blog. I have kinda being waiting for Dan to finish up something he half started. I realise this is a fools errand of course and would be waiting for many, many more moons to come and go. I will probably still be waiting a billion years from now when earth's atmosphere has been rubbed away by drag from the sun's gaseous layer.

So, anyway, moving on. I might devolve into a bit of a rant here as this is a topic near and dear to my heart, how to be a good partner in training (aka Uke). I have spent many, many hours thinking on this as I have been blessed with a live-in training partner that can best be described as "prickly." In the course of trying to help her learn this art, I have fumbled and bumbled all over the place. I stepped in every rat hole and lept on every mine there is to leap on. One particularly memorable training session lasted under 15 seconds before I fucked it up badly enough to get a verbal lambasting.

I, of course, earned every single admonishment by failing to understand the learning process. To understand my part of that process as a mentor, and utter failing at being an Uke. Much and more has been written on this topic by far better instructors, teachers and martial artists than me. You should, if you have not, go forth with Google and read every one of them. It will challenge you to grow. It will change your experience in the salle in a positive way for not only you, but everyone you interact with. I honestly believe that learning to be Uke is one of the most fundamental, if not the most important, learning experience you can undergo in pursuit of a martial art. Being Tori is easy. Being a good Uke is really, really hard.

Every time you have the privilege of partnering with a good Uke you know it. The drill works for starters, and it works exactly as the instructor said it would. It works really well for the first couple of iterations then it gets harder. The drill challenges you to refine flaws, have better timing, judge distance, and narrow in on the key bits of the drill and techniques. When you fail it is clear - without discussion - why it failed simply because the non-verbal feedback loop Uke provides. You find yourself lost in the repetitions of the drill, you stop counting and wondering what the hell your supposed to be doing and just do. You find your self having done 3 or 4 times as many repetitions as you normal would have. Mostly, you realise you just got a little bit better than you were 5 minutes ago. It is an absolute honour to train with someone who is even passably good at being Uke.

Have I sold you yet? No, because that is all about what the other guy gets from all that hard work and effort you put in to being an awesome partner. Well, this is where I tell you what being a good Uke does for you. Your awareness goes up. You gain control over the engagement, time, sensitivity, speed and intensity. You start to gain much deeper understanding of techniques, the hows and whys of it. You can feel things that you can't feel as Tori and, as such, can then start to understand and implement them as Tori. By learning how to feel your partner, how to feel when and how much and how to apply resistance against their technique to maximize there learning experience, you can gain significant improvements on your own performance. You get this depth to understanding that is hard to imagine at first. Suddenly being on the "bad" end of a drill becomes an excellent learning experience. You get to practice making really good attacks and you get to understand things from the other side of the drill.

I think the first step in becoming a good Uke is understanding how learning occurs. I all too often see people trying to correct their partner. This invariably turns into a disaster where no one learns anything and results in frustration. The only person who should be providing correction is the person running the show. That ain't you: you're Uke. You can't learn something by having someone move your hand an inch this way, and neither can your training partner. They find where they are supposed to be and how to do it by working hard, doing lots of repetitions. They aren't you and you can't make a replica of what you do and expect it to work for them.

There is a duty as Uke to shut the fuck up. Your main job is to allow your partner to get as many good repetitions as possible within the allotted time. Your duty is to provide good, committed attacks. Provide proper energy for Tori to work with. You must, to the best of your ability, provide appropriate resistance that creates an environment in which to learn. This means you are aiming at having them succeed with the technique 70-80% of the time. You must adapt to their skill level and try to let their most obvious mistakes cause the failures. This is really hard to do well.

Don't be the dead-fish and flop all over the place.
Don't be the guy that is iron-hard and impossible to work with.
Don't be the interrupting interruptor to fix something in your partner.
Don't be the instructor and change or "fix" the drill.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Crossing of Stretto

This was always something I had been meaning to explore more thoughtfully. Spending some real mental space sorting out, joined with many hours of sweat and work trying to get my body to cooperate. See, I had been told that stretto was this crappy crash-and-bash for years. It was what unskilled newbies did because they couldn't, you know, fence. That it is the last option when all the other options are closed. I kinda get where that idea comes from, because there is absolutely a tendency for the new to crash-and-bash. What never really jived with me was that this crashing mess had anything to do with the real art, let alone stretto.

My position has always been that since stretto is rarely trained it will rarely be preformed well. If always neglected then when situations arise that lend themselves to stretto they will most often result in a mess.

A couple months back, during an exploration into the plays of stretto I was struggling to preform the first play of stretto against my taller, long of arm, partner. See, I could not reach his damn hilt - not from where I was and how we were crossed. I tried it many times from different set-ups and the amount of space I needed to cover may as well have been a mile. I could not get there, not safely. When things don't work like that it is probably because I am missing some really obvious thing that Fiore makes clear.  That I miss it due to my own preconceptions and notions of what I thought Fiore was on about without really just reading the text and looking at the pictures and seeing them as they are.

So, we flipped open the MS and looked at this and something jumped for my partner.

Stretto Crossing

Then we looked at this one and the ah-ha moment hit.
Largo Crossing, 2nd Master of Remedy

The arms, look at the arms. Looks how the body is turned! Then take a gander at this one.

Stretto crossing from the left

He is retracted and inside. This isn't the extended largo crossing with a step or leap around and right. You cover with withdrawn hands and inside - not extend and centre. Look at the hips and how turned they are in the stretto cross and mostly squarish in largo. I had been doing it wrong - imagine that! This isn't Fiore's version of what happens when two people both cut at each other with a step. This is an intentioned first action. You're there on purpose, not because you tried to do a largo cross and got forced to be there. You stepped in, covered, and withdrawn to the close.

Well, we both promptly started trying to come to this turned, withdrawn position. My distance issues dissolved. My feeling like removing my left hand from my sword being suicide dissolved. I didn't have to reach forward to grasp my partners hilt it was just right there at the perfect distance to grab.

I stepped in, covered with the hips more sideface, and my hands withdrawn in. When I did this and gained control of centre line the first play of stretto almost appeared of its own volition. If I lost control of the centre, I was well placed for the second play. The distance was right, the yield around felt good and the hand was right there to check or grab.

Of course not all was perfect. I felt my elbow particularly exposed for Fiore's patented elbow push. But Fiore specifically warns that both could preform these plays so perhaps I should be expecting to feel exposed. I continue to experiment with this but it continues to feel right, match the images and flows well into the plays of stretto.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Coverta within Fior Di Battaglia

If we jump forward to r32 we see what is colloquially called the "universal parry." On this page we are given a set-up of attackers preforming various cuts, thrusts and throws.

"Io 'spetto questi tre in tal posta, zoè in dente di zengiaro e in altre guardie poria 'spettare, zoè in posta de donna la senestra, anchora in posta di finestra sinestra, cum quello modo, e deffesa che farò in dente di zenghiaro. Tal modo è tal deffesa le ditte guardie debian fare. Senza paura io 'spetto uno a uno, e non posso fallire nè taglio nè punta nè arma manuale che mi sia lanzada, lo pe' dricto ch'i ò denançi acresco fora de strada, e cum lo pe' stancho passo ala traversa del arma che me incontra rebatendola in parte riversa. E per questo modo fazo mia deffesa, fatta la coverta subito farò l'offesa."

"I am waiting for these three in this guard, Dente di Cinghiaro. I could wait in other guards as well - like Left Posta di Donna or Left Posaa di Finestra - and still be able to defend as I would from Dente di Cinghiaro. Each of these guards use this defence. I'll wait for my opponents one by one, without feat or failure from any cut, thrust or handheld weapon thrown at me. I'll preform an accrescimento with my leading right foot, pass obliquely against the opponent's weapon and beat it to his left side. After making my parry, I'll instantly attack." - Tom Leoni

Here we are told to again beat away attacks from all of the left guards. We are told to beat the weapon to his left side, while passing obliquely and while covered from his weapon attack. This text virtually duplicates the text from the sword in one hand and repeats ideas we have seen in the spear and mounted sections.

That is, Fiore has told us to beat all manner of weapons making all manner of attacks away and to the outside. These beats are often given with instruction to preform a step with the front foot fora di strada and a pass ala traversa (which I take as instruction to pass away from the weapon or in to the man - or both) under cover and to then strike with a turn of the sword. We are even told that these beat actions should occur on the middle of the opposing weapon. These instructions are repeated and explicitly defined though the manuscripts. With the exception of the specific plays of coplo del villanoscambiare de punta, punta falsa, and posta frontale vs high thrusts we see no other form of initial parry or cover action described with any detail anywhere.

It is clear to me, given the often verbose instruction and frequency of Fiore's use of beats that this method of defence is critically important to this art. No other form of parry is defined or outline with this level of detail. In both stretto and largo we find our selves shown a number of crossings along with a great deal of plays from them but are given no instruction as to how to get there. It is my postulation that this rebatter is largely the mechanism by which you find your self in these positions. Fiore spills much ink describing the actions of the beat and the expected results. Could these many plays shown be the result of beats which did not have the perfect outcome? Could the text in these plays is describing methods to deal with these unsuccessful beats?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Coverta within Fior Di Battaglia - Tutta Porta di Ferro

Here we begin the sword in two hands.

Sort of. Really, I am going to skip some stuff and come back later. The part I am skipping is possibly Fiore's most important text on fighting with a sword, so it deserves its own place. I will continue by looking at Tutta Porta di Ferro, on v23, where something quite peculiar strikes me:
"Qui cominzano le guardie di spada a doy man e sono XII guardie. La prima si è tutta porta di ferro che sta in grande fortezza e si è bona di 'spetar ogn’arma manuale longa e curta e pur ch’el habia bona spada non una di troppa longheza. Ella passa cum coverta e va ale strette. Ela scambia le punte e le soy ella mette. Anchora rebatte le punte a terra e sempre va cum passo e de ogni colpo ella fa coverta. E chi in quella gli dà briga grande deffese fa senza fadiga."
"Here begin the guards of the sword in two hands, which are twelve. The first one is Tutta Porta di Ferro, very strong and good for waiting against any handheld weapon (long or short), provided that your sword is of good quality and not too long. This guard parries, passes and comes to the close. She can exchange thrusts and deliver her own. She can also beat thrusts to the ground, always proceeding with a pass and parrying any kind of attack. She can defend without much effort against anyone who picks a fight with her." - Tom Leoni

Now this is interesting. This guard parries, passes, and comes to the close. It can exchange thrusts. It beats thrusts to the ground. Always with a pass and parrying of any kind of attack. Let's take a look at each bit.

It can exchange thrusts. This seems clear enough, and on v26 we have a play and a follow-on play telling us exactly what to do. This is a largo play of course, so it doesn't come to the close like we have been told; however, it does preform a parry and pass. The follow-on play involves a second pass and though in the largo section, it is very much a close play.

It beats thrusts to the ground. My reading of this is the play of breaking the thrust in v26 and r27. The play here tells us to use the same parry and pass from the exchange and it also speaks of beating thrusts to the ground and then immediately go to the close play. This seems quite in line with Fiore's instruction to parry, pass, and close.

It always proceeds with a pass and parry of any kind of attack. This seems to be tied to beating thrusts to the ground but I get caught up on the 'any kind of attack' part. To me this bit is part of the more general instruction that Tutta Porta di Ferro parries, passes and comes to the close. I can only read this instruction to mean that if covering a cut from here, one should enter stretto, covering with a pass, and look to preforming a close play. With this thought in mind let's jump forward to r39 and the plays with the spear.
"Noi semo tre magistri in guardia cum nostre lanze e convegnemo pigliare quelle dela spada. E io son lo primo che in tutta porta di ferro son posto per rebatter la lanza del zugador tosto, zoè che passarò cum lo pe' dritto ala traversa fora de strada, e traversando la sua lança rebatterò in parte stancha. Sì che llo passar e llo rebatter se fa in un passo cum lo ferire, questa è chosa che no se pò fallire."
"We are three Masters in guard with out lances, and we aptly take the guards of the sword. I am the first who is set in Tutta Porta di Ferro to quickly beat away the lance of the opponent; I will pass obliquely out of line with the right foot, and crossing his lance I will beat it away to the left. As long as you pass and parry in an[a] single step with your strike, this action cannot fail." - Tom Leoni
Again we see this pass and parry action. Interestingly, we are given a few more titbits here. First, we are again instructed to beat away the attacks. We are then told that the passing step is 'obliquely out of line' and to cross and beat the attack away. And finally that this passing, crossing, and beating should all occur in one tempo.

Bringing these ideas together, it seems Fiore is telling us to always cover from Tutta Porta di Ferro with a pass of the right foot while beating the opposing weapon to the left in one tempo. The only given exception to this is given when defending a thrust from a sword, where by you first accresimento and then may elect to exchange rather then beat.