Thursday, March 2, 2017

On Drills

I worked up a new pollaxe drill yesterday, and it got me to thinking about what, exactly, a drill should be.  Judging by what I see on YouTube, most schools think a drill is either a solo exercise like a karate kata, or else a sort of repetitive exercise where they bang on each other’s swords, usually while aiming at one another’s blades rather than at their partner as they should.

Solo exercises are found in many martial arts, and have a minor value even in ours.  In my school, I use solo drills to help rank beginners work on guards and on simple cuts (to learn to cut solely with the hands, not the arms, and at the correct angle, etc.).  We later use the simple cutting drill on the pell to reinforce angles of attack so as to ensure we are cutting straight rather than flat (edge alignment).  After just a few months, the guards drill is absolutely useless because the student will be using the various guard in actual technique practice and in real drills (see below), and thus the guards drill is completely superfluous.  The simple cuts solo drill likewise becomes useless because of pell work and a simple partner cutting exercise we do.

Binding and working “am Schwert” (“on the sword”) is central to the Kunst des Fechtens.  Moving from one technique to another by oneself thus focuses on something practiced only minimally by us.  Of course, we do free cuts, but they are usually to or from a bind (although there are certain specialized exceptions); if you are moving from cut to cut without actions at the bind, it is extremely likely you have done way too much playing of sword tag and not nearly enough real KdF practice.  Thus, once you have learned how to make the basic movements, solo practice is nearly useless (not counting pell work as solo practice).

Likewise, repetitive banging on each others’ swords is pointless; it, too, derives from way too much completely undisciplined playing of sword tag in which am Schwert techniques are not even considered.  Central to that kind of “exercise” is the idea of leaving the bind without limiting your opponent’s response for safety, an idea entirely contrary to Master Johannes’ teachings, as is aiming at the blade rather than the man.

Both of these approaches are wrong for the practice of the KdF (except as noted).

Having already discussed the limited value of solo drills, let us turn to partner, or “structured” drills.  First, we must distinguish between what I call “drills” and “forms.”  A form (my term for them) is a choreographed exercise intended to teach the student how to execute techniques correctly in a sequence with good form.  Like drills, these are performed with a partner, but unlike drills, they are entirely predetermined; there are no choices or decisions in their execution.  Meyer uses these extensively, calling them “devices.”  They are somewhat like Japanese kenjutsu kata, and fulfill exactly the same purpose.

In contrast, a drill is an exercise wherein one partner preforms an action from a limited menu of allowed choices, and the other partner must respond correctly, then the partners reset, and the actor chooses a different action to which his partner must respond correctly.  I call the person who is acting from the menu of choices the “Teacher” and the one who must respond the “Student.”  These titles don’t have any reference out of the context of the drill, as the teacher may be of lower or higher rank, and they will switch places once one iteration of the drill is completed; they only refer to each partner’s role in any given drill.  The Teacher’s job is to act in such a way as to allow the Student to learn to do his techniques correctly under pressure and to be forced to do so when he doesn’t know what’s coming, just as in combat.

Here’s an example of a simplified longsword drill:   The Student attacks with a Zornhau.  The Teacher either:
(1.) Pretends to start to displace, but stops, thus ensuring that the student is really aiming for the cut, and is not going to turn to the Teacher’s sword, or,
(2.)  displaces the Student’s cut and remains hard in the bind, to which the Student should respond with the First Winden, or,
(3.)  displaces and then leaves the bind to cut at the other side of the Student’s head, to which the student should respond with bricht Abnehmen, or, … etc., etc. (This is a simplified version of one of our drills).

Some drills can be quite complex, requiring that when the Student responds correctly to a given technique, the Teacher then responds to that technique with another, forcing the Student to respond correctly to the second technique.  For example, in (2.) above, when the Student winds, the Teacher may push the Winden aside, requiring the Student to shift to the Second Winden in response.

Drills such as these come as close to real combat as is possible in the practice of the KdF.  Since it is not possible to do accurate free play with any of the unarmored forms, drills are essential to learning as much about how to fight as we can in these safety-conscious days.  The point is to force the Student to react correctly with a historically accurate and canonically correct response to an attack with correct form and function while under pressure.  This teaches students to learn to keep a flexible mind (i.e., not to anticipate, which is why (1.) above is so important), and to act with proper form even under pressure.  This is only possible when the student has truly learned to execute his techniques perfectly at a “muscle memory” level.

Contrast this kind of drill with the mere “banging swords” which seem almost universal elsewhere.  Sword banging (to coin a phrase) teaches nothing about the Kunst des Fechtens; in those, you don’t have to think, don’t have to plan, are taught to leave the bind without rendering your opponent harmless, and to attack the sword, not the man.

By practicing both correct drills and correct forms, students of the KdF come as close as possible to understanding the true art of combat without falling prey to the inaccuracies and bad habits inherent in the game of sword tag.

In my book on the longsword I included a handful of structured drills of the sort explained here, but I also included a structured way to create drills for any situation.  I have since come to realize that was a mistake, because people using my book to learn the art have a very tough time creating realistic drills which correctly express the central tenets of the art.  Thus, I have written a book which includes twelve structured drills of the sort described above, sixteen forms, instructions for pell work, solo drills for beginners, and much more to help with the actual training process.  I have taken it down from for revision, but look for the expanded second edition soon.

Here is a video of two of my students performing a structured drill:
Drill #8:  Sprechfenster
Setup:  Teacher starts in vom Tag and Student in left Langenort.
1.)  First Choice:  Teacher steps straight in and attempts to beat Student’s sword down to allow himself to get close.
Response:  Student responds with a Durchwechseln.
2.)  Second Choice:  Teacher steps around Student’s point with a slope step as he attacks with a Zornhau.
Response:  Student counters Teacher’s Zornhau with an Absetzen.
3.)  Third Choice:  Teacher simply waits in vom Tag.
Response:  If Teacher does not act within five seconds after assuming vom Tag, Student attacks with a long thrust into right Langenort.
3a.)  Advanced Choice:  Teacher counters Student’s long thrust (in (3.) above) with a lower Schielhau.
Response:  Student counters Teacher’s Schielhau with a Schnappen (not shown in the video as they were doing a simplified version.)
(I apologize for the bad quality of the video, but I hope it gives an idea of what a drill looks like.)

Copyright © 2017 by the author.  All rights reserved, but this article may be shared as long as full credit is given and it is distributed for free.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Failure of Test Cutting: Or, the Bad Form Caused by Butchering Tatami

I have been roundly criticized by sword taggers and tatami butcherers for pointing out that both activities ruin one’s form and technique and violate the principles taught explicitly by the Masters.  I frequently post pictures and/or videos of both activities on the die Schlachtschule FaceBook page to show people how these practices force people to ignore the Fechtbücher.  Recently, I posted a truly awful (but not atypical) picture of a young man performing an execrable test cut which led to my being attacked and vilified.  I am, they say, wrong, and the Fechtbücher are too unclear for us to say that their ways of cutting are wrong.

On the contrary, the masters are quite explicit with regards to cutting and the kinds of errors to avoid.  To that end, let us look at a picture of someone performing test cutting and compare it to what we read in the Fechtbücher.  Please note that the attached picture is in no way unusual or atypical, it is merely one I recently posted; most test cutters look much like this.  Moreover, this and other, similar, pictures constantly receive warm congratulations and approbation for the form shown, making it clear this is what the HEMA mainstream finds laudable.   (NB:  I have no idea who this young man is, and I bear him no special animus.  His picture is typical of what I have seen, and was grabbed randomly.)

Lesson:  Do not fight in wide movements:
“For you should strike or thrust in the shortest and nearest way possible. For in this righteous fighting do not … fight in large movements by which people restrict themselves.”  (Hs 3227a fol. 14r.)
Analysis:  That he is fighting with a “large movement” is too obvious to require comment.

Lesson:  Wide strikes create openings your opponent can exploit:
“With their bad displacements and wide fighting they try to look dangerous with wide and long strikes that are slow and with these they perform strikes that miss and create openings in themselves.”  (Ib. ff. 14r-v.)
Analysis:  This is obviously an extremely wide strike, and the fact that he is open to an attack while helplessly out of place cannot be denied.  “Slow” is something of a misnomer; the cut might have been performed at high speed, but the distance it travels takes a long time.

Lesson:  Stand in a well-balanced stance so you can move easily.
“Also know that when you fight with another you should step with caution and be sure in the movements as if you were standing on a scale and adapt accordingly if you go forward or backward as is fitting.”  (Ib. fol. 15v.)
Analysis:  The word “scale” here is a reference to die Waage, or “the scale,” which is the term for the normal stance used in Master Johannes’ system.  It requires that we stand in a balanced position in order to be prepared to step in any direction instantly.  The stance seen in the photograph is obviously not a balanced stance, nor does it resemble die Waage when done correctly, as can be seen here:
The text says, in relevant part, “And stand firmly in the balance stance as shown here.”  (Codex Wallerstein fol. 6v.)

Lesson:  Don’t take large steps because you won’t be ready to step again if you need to do so:
“You should also … not step too wide, so that you can pull back and be ready for another step backwards or forwards.”  (Hs 3227a fol. 15v.)
Analysis:  He has taken such a large step that it is patent he would be incapable of a rapid step in any direction.  Obviously, his recognition of the fact that tatami mats don’t hit back has caused him to ignore correct form.

Lesson:  Always aim at your opponent’s face or breast:
“No matter how you fight always aim the point at the opponent’s face or breast, then he will always have to worry that you will be faster since you will have a shorter way to go in to him than he has to you.”  (Ib. fol. 25r.)
Analysis: This lesson teaches us to not cut past our opponent.  Doing so leaves us wide open to a counter attack since his point or edge will be closer to us than ours is to him; the proximity of his point or edge will allow it to hit sooner than we can respond.  In the picture the cutter’s sword is very far past his target and not aimed anywhere near his opponent’s face or breast, so we can see this problem quite clearly.

Lesson:  If you cut too widely or too hard you will create openings for your opponent:
“You shall be careful and note if you can get in behind his sword and always go the nearest way and never too wide, so that the opponent does not come before you.”  (Ib.)
Analysis:  This instruction mirrors that above; if you cut wider than the masters teach, you will create an opening your opponent can exploit.

In short, then, he stepped much too far, his stance is dangerously unbalanced, and his cut is grossly overdone, leaving him helplessly exposed and unable to respond quickly to an attack.  He got literally every part of the cut that we can see in the picture wrong (we can’t discuss the technical execution of the cut itself without a video).

Test cutters claim they have to do test cutting or else they will be unable to be sure they are cutting correctly.  As this analysis shows, that is utter nonsense since their cuts in no way resemble the proper method of cutting.  They must overcut this way in order to make the ultra-clean cuts they erroneously believe to be important, and that error means they will always cut incorrectly.

They also argue that test cutting can teach edge alignment.  While there is a tiny grain of truth in that statement, they grossly exaggerate the point, as a brief historical analysis makes plain:  Simply put, there is not the slightest hint of proof for the practice of test cutting in period.  None.  If it was so important, why didn’t medieval masters teach their students to do it?  Rather, they taught their students to cut on pells, and that practice serves us well today, too.  Utter perfection of edge alignment simply isn’t as important as test cutters make it out to be, and careful attention to pell work is more than sufficient to the task without teaching the bad habits inherent in test cutting.

For more information see this more extensive discussion of the inherent evils of test cutting:

This should serve to utterly silence those who scream in outrage over my criticisms of this photograph and all others like it.  It’s wrong, period.  End of debate.