Tuesday, May 31, 2011
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.