Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Beginners ho!

I talked with someone recently who had just started training at the School; she was worried that she was "in the way" during training and that she wasn't a useful training partner for others. This inspires me to write an entry about beginning and advancing.

Apart from the beginner's course, people of every level of expertise attend each class at the School. Everyone learns. The crucial thing to remember is that sometimes, what you came to the salle expecting to learn isn't what you actually learn. Everyone teaches their training partner something, and from every exercise each participant takes home some useful lesson - if they have the right attitude. Yes, if your partner doesn't know the beginning of First Drill, it's unlikely you get to work on your ligadura mezana at the end of First Drill - during that class, during that training bout. Instead, you get to work on your mandritto fendente, and let me tell you, whoever you are, whatever your training level, your fendente mandritto can still use more work. And you can work on your frontale defence, which needs even more work. Want more? Footwork. Timing. Footwork. Feel for the blade. Footwork. Lines of movement. Footwork. Balance. Footwork. Position of the arms. Footwork. Get my drift?

If you're more advanced than your partner, then if you're lucky, brave or just arrogant, you get to give them tips. That teaches you a) that maybe you know more than you thought you did; b) how to organise what you know, which helps with your own technique; and/or c) that you should probably shut up 'cause your tips turn out not to work. (In any case, most students love showing off by giving tips and explaining things to beginners. I hesitate to use the word instruct.)

And if you're a beginner and you're stuck with a partner who doesn't get this and is cross because he can't be learning what he thought he would - it's okay to avoid them for the rest of the class. Beginners is what the school is there for, in a sense. You're also not responsible for anyone else's training than your own. You are very wanted, very useful, and we love having you in class.

(The next beginner's course starts in September, by the way. :)

Basic class

We had a photographer at the salle today so class was fairly basic. In fact, it was a very good glance at what a really regular class with basic material looks like:
  • Four unarmed guards exercise
  • Accressere-passare-tutta volta exercise with stick
  • Dagger techniques against mandritto (first master) and roverso (um, which master? Done with a tutta volta anyway)
  • Dagger disarm flow drill
  • Basic cutting exercise and "swimming lengths" (i.e., cutting while stepping)
  • First drill
  • Exchange of thrust
  • Breaking of the thrust, proceeding to passing forward to stab in the face and then taking the sword, and finally countering that with a pommel hook and encircling of the partner with the sword at his throat
I don't think I forgot anything... But notice how few things there are? Of course, Guy was busy talking to reporters much of the time so we got a lot of reps in.

But oh, it was sweaty work. We poor Finns aren't used to temperatures over +24 degrees centigrade... I would say I shudder to think of what the PHEMAS guys go through, training in Singapore, but it's less a shudder than a hot wave of empathy.

Monday, July 21, 2008

World enough, and time

Amazing. I can actually do things at a slow pace and it can still be quick enough. I don't always have to have half my focus on increasing my speed and only leave one half for timing, footwork, stance, angle and all those other things - I really can take some focus away from speed and use it to contribute to technique. *Sigh* It only took, what, five-six years to figure this out?

Stop laughing, everyone. This is serious. Truly. Stop laughing, I say ;D

Moving on... For some reason, the longsword stability exercise was more difficult today than the one other time I've done it; specifically, it was harder on the shoulders. It could just be that working at my computer has made them seize up. On the other hand, the unarmed guards exercise went very well today, although only during free training, and my body became wonderfully reminded of what it feels like when footwork and guards happen correctly.

Lost in translation

When following instructions in class, the reason why I always f...k up the first iteration of said technique is that for me, it counts as instruction, not training. This is because I can't translate between my senses, that is, words into actions or sight into sensation etc., I need to be instructed as I execute the technique - it's not enough to tell me or show me how, I need the tactile and proprioceptive sensation of actually doing the technique before I know what it is that I'm supposed to be doing. And my first rep is always that: self-instruction. In my head, I run through the things Guy said and what I saw him do (that is, the words I put together to describe his actions - thank goodness I can still describe in words, even if the reverse direction is Out Of Order), and try to make my body look vaguely like his and make it do the things that the description includes in order to figure out which technique this was and/or how it's supposed to feel and work.

Hopefully, identifying this problem will help me to get rid of it or at least work around it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Form and function

Today, instead of swordsmanship, Guy taught us the first few postures of the t'ai chi chuan form he knows, the Chen Man-ch'ing Yang Short Form (read more). It was more confusing than I expected, because I would have needed many, many more reps to get to grips with it, but, as Guy pointed out, all the other students did better with being given some theoretical background and applications so tough cookie. Besides the form itself, we did some push hands and a tiny amount of breathing exercises.

After class I took up my longsword and went through the syllabus form some dozen or twenty times. Sloppy, sloppy is all I can say, and I had huge difficulty focusing. This was probably due to the frustration caused by not learning the t'ai chi form.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Nothing to see here...

...please disperse. Although this is markedly less spectacularly nothing than Frank Drebin's nothing.

I promised myself not to post unless something of interest occurred to justify posting. On Monday, nothing did, but now that I know people are reading the blog I get apprehensive lest my readers think I skip training if I fail to post :)

Monday was a great day in that I got to do a fairly large number of different sorts of things during the class and afterwards in free training. During class, I and about half a dozen others did abrazare, dagger and longsword, while another half-dozen trained with rapiers. Then those who had been present the previous Monday and had not quite managed to get to the end of the spear form switched to spears for fifteen minutes; then back to our original swords. After class, six or seven students joined Guy in a 20-minute conditioning session. Finally, I picked up my rapier (not fainting for fear this time) and practised in front of the mirror.

So nothing happened. Just almost everything.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Late-breaking news

In case you're not aware, SESH has Open Day on Saturday July 12th from 11 am to 4 pm.

Sorry for the late announcement; been kind of busy preparing for my first-born's fifth birthday (today) and the party (on Sunday).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Scary rapier

Using my shiny, new rapier in class on Wednesday revealed something very strange: I'm terrified of rapierwork! Throughout the class I felt disoriented, out of sorts and on the verge of tears - I had the usual (thankfully it's less usual these days) falling apart feeling to the power of ten. The consequent feelings of inadequacy and confusion only added to the feeling.

After class I had a talk with Guy, and he reached the same conclusions that I had already reached on my own: that my hating rapier is a self-fulfilling prophecy and my inability to understand rapier terminology and Guy's spoken explanations during class is caused by some mental block.

And all this because I'm scared stiff while I train with a rapier.

I haven't got a clue why I should be so scared. My current tentative theory is that the jab of hitting a target or a partner makes me wary, if only on the basis of absolutely hating that feeling of coming to a solid stop. Couldn't we please get sacks of hay to practice on?

But I love the way swordsmanship reveals all these bits and pieces, devices of my self for examination and, frequently, repair or at least tweaking.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Jyväskylä website

Hey, they've got web pages! No one ever tells me these things...

Exercise update

I can now stay in the plank for two minutes, of which 2x30 secs with an elbow up and 2x15 secs with a leg lifted. I can press my lower back to the floor for two minutes without much effort. I can do 2x15 wrist curls, 2x20 wing flaps and 2x20 wrist rotations with 1,5 kg weights. I can breathe with my diaphragm and my stomach muscles. I can fall fairly effortlessly and aim to take the impact with a specific part of my body.

Training form and format

Henrik's way of teaching the form was very effective. First he showed us the whole form. Then he started teaching it step by step: first we executed the step in unison, then worked on the application as a pair drill, and then went back to doing the form all together, then we added a step and so on. (It's been a while since my last attendance at one of Guy's actual form classes, so I don't know if this is just his way of organising a form class.) He had created a spoken "soundtrack" for the form where each movement is described, and this constituted a big insight: the best way to commit a sequence of actions to memory is precisely to have such a soundtrack, a litany, almost a mantra, that you say to yourself, where the words remind you of the correct actions and if at all possible even preserve the natural pace and rhythm of the sequence. A numbered list is very well if you can hold it in your head, and it's easy to reference in writing, but a spoken litany is how the human mind works. And that is probably why Fiore's original writing doesn't use lists at all; not because it was the convention to do without them but because it simply works better as a litany.

But if the Fiore ms's are essentially illustrated litanies of this type, this represents an obvious problem: the litany doesn't have to be a complete description of the action to work; in fact, it can't be complete, because it would get too long to remember. That's why Fiore's ms's are replete with mnemonics, such as cultural references acting as zip files for a whole hoard of stuff, and bad poetry as an aide memoire.

Blade bliss

I have a new rapier, tata-tada-ta-daa... My new rapier's nice, tata-tada-ta-daa... :)

All thanks go to my lovely husband who bought it for me for our 11th wedding anniversary. I first had another one in mind, and had reserved it, but sleeping on it (the decision, not the rapier) I decided on another one - my original choice was too fancy and girlish, and more importantly, weighted too far towards the hand for my liking. This one is all go and have at'em!

I like my rapier and am gooey over it, even though I'm more of a medievalist at heart. Orava said he liked the "rich bastard" aspect of the rapier; but I'm a simple peasant girl, I can't be expected to appreciate gentlemanly weapons.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


Today's class focused on rooting, that is, the swordsman's connection with the ground. Guy pointed out that when you're stiff, you're offering your opponent/partner access to your root; so stay relaxed and responsive. The exercise he offered was three-fold; first the familiar push hands exercise, then a new (for me) exercise where the partners stand facing each other and try to dominate the other's line and force their partner to take a step (using both hands and sneaky tricks); and finally a combination of the two, which is the old, old arm fencing exercise, or very like it.

He also demonstrated the already famous string-stick-snake thing: if your arms are like string, your opponent can use them to strangle you; if your arms are like sticks, he can beat you with them; but if your arms are like snakes, you can bite him.

Today was one of those days when my mistakes seemed to draw Guy's attention like a pot of honey would Winnie the Pooh's, even when they were caused by my partner doing something they shouldn't have. I didn't mind this time. The calming breathing exercise helped.

The Art of the Pelvic Tilt

This was useful for someone today, so I'm writing it down here: Bring your iron door forward not by squeezing your buttocks or by pulling it forward with the muscles of the upper thigh, but by contracting your stomach muscles. If you use leg or butt muscles for it, it impedes movement because you need those muscles for stepping, but they're already in use.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Training, on and off

The reason why some locks are difficult to apply on me is probably that I break my structure myself during training. I mean, if my structure is already broken, my parters/opponents can't very well be the ones to break it. Trouble is, when the structure is broken, it's not whole, and I can't use it for all the nifty stuff that I could do with my structure intact.

This is what Guy and Ilkka have been trying to tell me about not being committed to my attacks and giving up too soon.

The insidious thing about breaking your own structure is that in training, it really seems to work. People can't apply those nasty locks so easily and if they do manage it, it really hurts and your partner is the one to do the push-ups. It's also hard to safely throw to the ground someone who can break the connection between their feet, hips and shoulders and sort of redirect the force without moving. Kind of like a broken bone: can't apply locks to a broken arm, but unfortunately, that broken arm also can't apply locks or do any other damn thing!

It also doesn't ultimately help that I've learned to switch between "off" and "on" in a matter of nanoseconds and to randomly alternate between them when attacking in a subconscious attempt to puzzle my training partner. (I'm finally understanding what Lari meant when he said, about three years ago, that my attacks were sometimes soft and sometimes hard and you never knew which was coming.) The trouble there is that instead of training to do things the right way, the way that will be effective and win fights, I'm training to look good in training. I'm spending a fair amount of concentration and effort just in order to look good, even if it is unintentional.

The good news is, I actually do know what the "on" state feels like and how to get there, how to connect all the bits of my body together and take the attack from the feet on the floor up to the tip of the weapon. Now let's try and practice that, shall we?