Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Solo Practice

People constantly ask what they can do for solo training, so I thought I would finally sit down and write an essay on the subject I can use to answer everyone who asks. The short answer is: Very, very little; not enough to be truly meaningful.

Here is the problem: The vast majority of our art, regardless of the form in question, has to do with the bind, either the way you come into a bind, or what you do from a bind. Unfortunately, a bind, by definition, involves two people, so in order to practice any of the meaningful parts of the art you must have two people. This is even true of simple cuts. For example, some of my students are struggling right now with the Zwerchhau; they can do it well enough on a pell, but cannot seem to learn to strike the point around first in partner practice. As a result, they simply knock the attacking sword away, and cannot manage to hit with enough force to do any damage at all with the cut—all of it goes into the bind. This is even more of a problem with the Schielhau, and, although you would not think it, the Zornhau Ort as well: with the former they learn to do the action of the cut, but constantly seek to actively displace rather than simply cutting, and with the latter they try to cut too soon and end up binding on their weak rather than strong. These things can only be learned with a training partner.

Acting from the bind is even more of a problem. Fühlen, Indes, and other such principles really have no meaning except in a bind. How can one learn to feel a bind alone? Things like Winden are simply impossible to even begin to understand without a partner, too.

So what can one do? There are a few things: Certainly pell work is essential for learning the very basic aspects of the art, and pell work should be a part of all training, with or without a partner, forever. Even with the pell, however, a partner is useful—almost necessary—for telling you what you are doing incorrectly. It is very difficult to see your mistakes yourself, especially in the area of edge alignment, one of the most important things the pell teaches us.

Some drills can be useful for practicing the guards, too; I teach one such drill for every form that has multiple guards, but after a few months the student should know the guards well enough that this exercise becomes a waste of time. One can also practice simple cutting or striking drills, but, frankly, they are vastly inferior to pell work. In my classes I include a few such drills, but they are really only intended to get people used to the idea of moving the weapon around (particularly the longsword—we emphasize the use of a push-pull motion of the hands to cut as opposed to swinging the arms). Such drills are only valuable for very new students who are actually in an existing class. They teach what someone needs to know to move on to partner practice, but in isolation they have no value whatsoever.

I am told that very late-period Italian books teach students to develop free-form solo drills called “flourishes;” in my opinion, this speaks very clearly to the nature of the school in question. I am quite certain that in the near future we will see competitions where such exercises are performed to loud rock-and-roll and judged on aesthetics; such, sadly, is the way of the world.

Then there are people who practice long fixed solo forms, akin to the kata of karate-do. Frankly, such exercises are of no value whatsoever. While an interesting discussion can be had regarding the value of solo kata for the practice of fistic arts, it is outside the scope of this essay. It is within our scope, however, to point out the dramatic differences between a punching and kicking art and a sword art based extensively on the bind: there is no comparison. For example, you cannot learn how to pull your sword back along your opponent’s blade in order to take control of the bind with a Winden am Schwert (“winding on the sword”) rather than pushing outward on it unless you have a blade held by a living partner against which to wind so that you can actually feel the dynamics of the bind.

Moreover, it should be noted that in the real combat martial arts of Japan, such as kenjutsu and jujutsu—the ones actually developed from battlefield experience—all kata are partner exercises (yes, iai is practiced solo, but the circumstances are very special and the kata very short). This is because the founders of these systems understood that for kata to have real combat meaning the techniques had to be learned in opposition to a living partner. So it is with the Kunst des Fechtens: solo exercises are of little value.

In conclusion, then, there are solo exercises that can be of some value for rank beginners in order to help them learn the guards of a system and to begin to learn how to move a weapon. Such exercises are relatively unimportant when it comes to understanding the techniques and the important underlying principles of the art, however, and can be of little long-term value; they should be set aside as soon as the student is ready for partner exercises. Pell work can be of tremendous value in learning our art for all ranks, from novice to the most experienced instructor, but even that is better done with a partner, and is still quite limited in that it cannot teach anything about the bind. Finally, long solo exercises akin to those of karate-do simply have no value whatsoever.

Correct training should consist of pell work, progressively free-form partner drills, formal two-man exercises, and, in the cases of armored forms only, eventual free play (after several years of hard work at disciplined partner exercises). The art cannot be learned without partners, however hard you try. You will succeed in only learning the crude outer shell of the art (if that) and never grasp the truly important parts.


Eric said...

Hugh, this is a well-constructed argument. I feel that in virtually all athletic endeavors involving active competition against a resisting opponent, the training program must emphasize structured drill practice with a variety of training partners.

Obviously, the presence of a willing training partner is not enough. The partners must have an understanding of the scope, purpose, and constraints of each exercise, so they can learn what is intended.

It is difficult for the solo novice to self-monitor and thus practice effectively. I am more enthusiastic than you regarding the value of solo hitting / pell work. I believe, given proper context and understanding, that a practitioner can improve footwork, measure, power, and precision, solo at the pell. Training tools such as mirrors and videotape can help one analyze movements, remove "tells," etc. All this said, without a decent understanding of the major points, the solo novice is much more likely to reinforce bad habits than build good ones.

As an instructor, I have found that students who consistently show up for class and stay in for the long haul, achieve success.

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Eric,

I agree strongly with your statement about how partner training must be conducted; this essay was only meant to express the limitations of solo training.

I do not, however, believe I am any less enthusiastic than you about pell work. I believe it is a *crucial* training tool and process that must continue all through the student's journey.

I am probably less impressed than you by what the pell teaches about measure, though, since all such lessons are necessarily stagnant, whereas partner drills teach the student to adapt and adjust more as a matter of course with and against a living opponent, a process I consider far superior.

Thank you for your excellent comments.


Ian said...

Take two as my last attempt was eaten.

Your many points are why I have simply not been training the last 3 or so years. It's sad, but true. Solo training is fairly worthless.

Unfortunately, all the cool stuff that we know is cool, is impossible to do on your own, not extremely flashy, and extremely subtle. This means the majority don't care, they want to do 'flouryshes' and post them on youtube with their videos of how many things they can cut with their sword using poor technique in the context of fighting.

Hugh Knight said...

So true, Ian, and so sad. It's an example of how groups like ARMA lead people astray with the flashy stuff--it's wrong, but they don't care, and it sure draws in the ignorant who want to believe them because they think it's cool.

As long as the wrong things, like free play, test cutting, flourishes, etc., are "cooler" to hoi polloi, we'll never get most people into studying this art as a true martial art--most of them will simply play games as ARMA does.

Hugh Knight said...

In martial arts, the wrong approaches and practices are almost always more appealing to people who don't understand the art.

Michele said...

I think that solo pratice has quite an importance in two phases of an individual's training "path". The first is obiviously at the beginning, under the instructor's monitoring, to take confidence with the basic movements and dynamics of a style, as you say. The second is, in my opinion, after several years of practice, when one gains enough insight to perceive his own mistakes, even the subtlest, slightest ones.

Hugh Knight said...

Michele, how will the advanced student know if he is making a mistake if he practices by himself? You need the interaction created by the bind to tell. Thus, you need a partner. It's about Fühlen and Indes, and those things make no sense whatsoever out of the context of partner practice.

Michele said...

I was talking about martial disciplines in general, not european swordfighting only. There are things that can (and should, sometimes) be practiced alone, most regarding kinetic chains and body control: of course, trying to practice those skills without having developed a significant degree of insight is likely to result in total confusion and bad habits.

Hugh Knight said...

Michele, that sounds very deep and mystical. I feel cheated now that none of my advanced martial practice ever ran into things like that.

This blog, however, is about the KdF, and there's nothing deep and hidden and spooky here, and no need for solo training. As we often say, we don't need ki, we have Archimedes.

Michele said...

I'm talking about no mistical things - no ki, no chi, no chackra and even not prana or other stuff like that :P Even Archimedes' principles have to be practiced to be of some use in a real situation, and I believe that at some point in one's training there is place for solo practice, and an important one too. I'll try to make an example to avoid further misunderstanding, if my english permits.
When cutting downward from an high stance (Jodan\Vom Tag?), one can easily 'telegraph' his initiative by slightly changing his feet ans shoulder's position. It's a thing commonly seen in many historical (either european or asiatic) fencing videos. Developing a natural stance in wich one can suddendly attack without having to shift his weight is not easy and requires to practice the cutting movement many times. This is usually not an exercise for beginners, who have to focus on other things; however, an advanced student should be capable of practicing this thing alone, and using paired practice for further 'testing'.

(I'm fairly sure that I couldn't explain me in a decent manner, sorry)

Hugh Knight said...

Michele, you're quite correct that it is essential to practice a correct stance so that you can initiate a cut without warning your opponent. This is not, however, something just for advanced students--we focus on it almost from day one.

Moreover, it is essential to practice this with a partner who can tell you if you're telegraphing; sometimes such tells are very subtle, and as a teacher, I can tell you that people often have *no* idea they're doing something unless someone else is there to tell them they are. Once again, this is not something well suited to solo practice.

Michele said...

I see your point. We too practice that from the very beginning, but a novice has a lot of things to learn, and those subtle errors are not easy to correct at day one. Personally, I have taken great benefits from solo practice for things like that (and they're quite a lot): again, one surely has to develop the skill to perceive his own errors, wich is not an easy task.
Don't misunderstand me - I'm not saying that solo practice is better than the paired one. Distance and timing senses(and we all know how much they're important) cannot be seriously practiced without an active opponent, but the "form" (correct angles, power without stifness, balanced stance, etc) can. Moreover, there are much more opportunities in daily routines for solo practice than for group training. :)