Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Seminar fun

Had a brilliant seminar in Helsinki last weekend. Mr. Windsor, despite being unwell, held a day of freeplay preparation, which taught us several key aspects of this facet of swordsmanship:

- How to protect the hands
- Distance and measure
- How to avoid stopping during sparring
- What to do when we got stuck and/or in a "position of equality"
- How rule sets change behaviour

Well, as you may imagine there is lots of food for thought in these aspects. For me, one of the most enlightening things about this seminar was that we actually already have the necessary tools to train them all, because they are built into the sword drills and the syllabus form.

For example, to illustrate the distance concept, Guy chose me to demonstrate the 4th drill with him. He instructed me to check my distance first then we went through a stepped version of the drill. As the attacker, it took me three attempts to get my punta falsa correctly onto his mask with my own sword inside his and even then I was so concentrated on making this thrust work, I failed to correctly pass alla traversa.

At first I thought it was my timing, but Guy pointed out that the most common problem with the fourth drill is that almost everyone begins at a measure that is simply too small. We do not make enough space, therefore we also limit our time. I understood this concept of course, but hadn't really realised, or more importantly, applied it to this, or any of the other drills.

We reset and this time Guy reminded us that the initial powerful mezano cut to the head only needs to come as close to the defender's head to maybe scratch his nose or cut his face, in other words, to present a real threat to him. If he doesn't react to this threat, simply put the point in his head. This manipulation is also a common concept in tactical fencing, i.e. make an attack which will force the defender to respond in a way that you, as the attacker can deal with.

On the second go around, it worked perfectly! I had plenty of space/time to effect my punta falsa after his blade made a light contact with mine and simply passed across the line to walk my point into his face. Beautiful! So what was the correct measure? Close enough to make a proper cut to his head but not so close as to have two or three cms of sword tip extending beyond his head, cutting air. It doesn't seem like a lot, does it? Yet it allowed me to execute proper technique without having to somehow correct, i.e. "make space", by pulling my hands back, just so I could bring my point online. I am always amazed by the sheer volume and subtlety of information that is packed into each sword drill. To unlock this information though will require much thought and physical practice.

To conclude, we went through repetition after repetition of the syllabus form. On each iteration, Guy would ask us, "As you are doing the form this time, how many of you are thinking about proper measure/timing/protecting your hands/etc.?". I have to admit that before he asked, I had only been really thinking of the correct choreography of the form. Again, I realised that the form, as well as being as sort of zip file containing all of the techniques required on the syllabus, can also be much more, depending on which aspect you decide to focus upon, even if your enemy is only imaginary.

Finally, I picked up a few bruises during the three-man pressure drills and was sweating like a pig (my new gambeson worked fine, but it's like wearing a duvet with sleeves!). At the time that I'm doing them, I don't really enjoy the pressure drills to be honest. Then again, perhaps we are not supposed to! All I ended up doing was trying to react to what was happening. Sometimes it worked, very often it didn't and probably looked awful and I got cut across the arms, body or head. However, I do enjoy the post-freeplay feeling of having learnt something and maybe, just maybe I showed a little progress. That's definitely worth the sweat and multicoloured collection of bruises I have while writing this :-)

An excellent day, tons of fun and a seminar I would recommended highly to anyone interested in taking their swordsmanship to the next level.

PS: Thanks to Joeli and Laura for preparing an excellent lunch!

Thursday, 19 February 2009

No mind

I've been practicing chi kung every day now for the past while, at least once if not twice per day. I am using a combination of the form for health which is a part of our syllabus and various exercises from Shaolin Wahnam Cosmos chi kung (I love the name!). Unfortunately I don't have the provenance for the form taught to us by Guy, I assume it comes from Tai Chi Mun, but that's all I know.

I've been doing ck for about five years now and recently have come to understand (should have sussed it earlier, I know) about the importance of mind in training. This is called shen in kung fu terms but just to keep it in a western format, I'll call it concentration and perhaps, attitude. The atter is important when practicing ck, your mind has to be "right" otherwise you are just doing gentle physical exercises. By "right", I mean focused, concentrated on the job in hand. I think I am just beginning to learn how to relax enough to simply focus on breathing and moving or just breathing. I always used to have awful problems quieting my mind when doing the standing meditation part of ck. I'd be trying to count breaths and random thoughts would just pop up like "what's good on the telly tonight?" etc. I'd get frustrated, my frustration would "stick" and my concentration would just disappear. Somehow, now I find that I can pretty much just count breaths and if a random thought pops into my head, I can be aware of it but simply let it go and continue breathing and counting.

Ok, you might wonder.."So what?" The answer to this is how I now feel after practice. I feel a lot more refreshed, I have more energy, I'm calmer and not least, i look forward to the next training session. In short, I really enjoy my practice. By not overanalysing and just getting on with it, I've in some very small measure achieved a "no mind" state. Of course, I cannot use this state to previsualise beautifully choreographed fencing or fights, like Tom Cruise in the Last Samurai (as cool as that would be). I'm just content with having made some definite progress in my chi kung training.

Oka wari?

E-blogger doing odd things

I've checked my page a few times now in the last week and on two occasions, for some very odd reason, my posts are not visible at all! I experienced this phenomenon on both my laptop at home as well as my work computer. Just a green sea of blankness......trippy.

Seems to be working ok again but. Anybody else noticed this?

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Demos, freeplay prep and skiing holidays

Our group has a new beginner's course coming up in less than 2 weeks time. I have to admit feeling a bit ambivalent towards these, as on one hand we get the chance to hopefully recruit new people to the group, but the overall return for the energy and time invested in the beginners is usually very small. If we have say 10 people starting the course, we are usually lucky to have 2 or 3 at the end, and of these not all will continue to train further. It's quite disheartening but it seems to be a necessary evil to ensure the survival of our group. I was also thinking today that we'll have to cobble together some sort of introductory demonstration for the first evening of the beginner's course. This has usually led to discussions about what should be included or omitted, how long should the demo last for, and who's the "lucky" one to stand in front of John Q. Public and hold forth on the jewel that is italian swordsmanship a la Fiore.

Well, if we want to have a good demo and make a good first impression at least, I guess we'll have to do something. It's a pain in the arse though because I want to get some freeplay preparation stuff done, not least because we haven't done hardly any, but because there is a seminar covering precisely this aspect of our training coming up before the beginner's course starts. We'll have to divert training time from fpp (free play prep) to demo shenanigans instead. Grr!

To complicate matters just a little bit more (as if I really need this), our training venue will be off limits for a large chunk of the next two weeks because of the Finnish school holiday phenomenon called "hiihtoloma", lit. skiing holiday. Everything just seems to shut down for this period. It's bloody daft, we use the training space in the evenings when the school is anyway empty, but we're not allowed to use it during these holidays! Insane! In effect, we have I think two training sessions to whip up a decent demonstration. It's like trying to fence longsword with your hands tied behind your back......

Friday, 6 February 2009

More counter remedies and talking about stuff

Training was interesting last night. I decided to do some more dagger counter remedies. At the last training session we covered some of the more "complicated" counters, or at least, the ones that appear farther down the play list. This got me thinking about why Fiore shows them in the order he does. I mean if the attacker attacks a fendente mandritto, the remedy can be a disarm/strike, a break, a lock or a throw, and this response will affect what the counter will be. Perhaps the most common remedy is a disarm so last night we looked at ways to counter it. I also though that if the remedy can be categorised into 5 things, perhaps we could do the same with the counters.....This is what we came up with:

-Avoid: Change the line striking under the defender's arm into the armpit/ribcage. This one is particularly sneaky as it's easy to do and quite difficult to defend against.
-Deflect: This can be done with the dagger or with the offhand. In the former, the defender is allowed to make contact with the attacker's wrist, who hooks the dagger inside the wrist and drops their hand to thrust at the belly/chest. The offhand can be placed on the heel of the dagger to reinforce the stab. The attacker "walks" the dagger point into the defender's chest/belly. Alternatively, as the attacker makes the initial stab, he uses his offhand to grab the defender's incoming wrist and turns him, before stabbing him in the back.

-Offend: As the defender's hand approaches the attacker's wrist, the attacker changes his line and raises his hand bringing the point down on the defender's forearm, between the radius and ulna. In theory the dagger passes through the defender's forearm and the attacker's offhand can grab the emerging point to control the defender's forearm, by twisting clockwise or anti-clockwise. Nasty!

-Collect/Trap: Here the attacker may be slow reacting and the defender gets his hand to the attacker's wrist. Again the attacker hooks the dagger over the defender's wrist and brings the offhand up to grab the dagger, trapping the wrist. The attacker then crosses his wrists causing the defender to turn his back, whereuopn the attacker stabs him. This trap is ok, but not as good as the counter remedy involving a roverso strike: it's relatively easy to slip your hand hand out. Then again, this trap isn't supposed to be a long-term thing, it's primarily a facilitating move allowing temporary control before you do something nastier.

We then did some dagger flow drill and then on a signal one of the drilling pair did one of the above remedy counters after attacking with a fendente mandritto. This worked quite well and further highlighted for me the versatility of the dagger flow drill, i.e. the flexibility to introduce breaks in the flow with remedies (one of five possible tactics), as well as counter remedies (one of the above four categories). Fiore ALSO shows some counter-counter remedies....hmm, food for thought..

After we did some cutting practice, I randomly picked two people from the line, told one to pick a random guard, and got the other to pick a guard they might use to break the first guard. We then did a stepped drill. One attacked with whatever attack they chose (no response). A second identical attack was followed by whatever remedy the defender chose (no counter remedy response). Finally, the same attack and remedy as before, but with whatever counter remedy the initial attacker thought would work. Ok. Then I stared asking both participants questions:
1. What guard did you pick and why?
2. What strike did you attack with? True edge or false edge? What footwork?
3. How did you defend? etc....

The point of the exercise was to encourage them to remeber the details of what happened using Fiorean terms. Naturally this can be done in whatever language the student is most comfortable with. I guess it's a really basic form of free play preparation. By encouraging students to see and react to what is really happening and not what they anticipate or what they think is happening will help them later when they come to doing pressure drills, and later free play itself. Sometimes talking about stuff can be a positive thing, as long as the talking is to the point, and the point being made is clear to the students. Who says pedagogics isn't interesting!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Treatise fun

Last night we had a bit of fun looking at counter rememdies from the dagger section. I used the images from the Exiles excellent work, which has the Novati pictures. I don't really like the pen drawings from the other Exile works, although the texts in these versions is more complete. Some things we noticed about the counter remedies we used:
-you have to be awake and aware of what is going on for them to work
-they tie into the idea of constant motion, if the initial attack fails, keep going!, in other words, you stop = you die
- The attacker/defender must be ready to use their offhand also- there's a tendency to focus on the dagger hand/arm only
- The time window to successfully do a counter remedy is very small and gets even smaller if the sequence goes to a contra-counter
-The best counter remedies are the simplest ones, usually depicted being done by a King, other techniques, which are doable, but perhaps less efficient/common, are depicted by scholars
-The biggest number of counter remedies seems to be for fendente mandritto attacks

I printed out the images and brought them to class so that the others could see I wasn't just making up the stuff (I'm not that creative). It might also be fun to print out a few more images, maybe also from the abrazare section, get everybody to pair off with no input from me, give everybody 5 minutes to "interpret" the image they get, and have them demo what they come up with in front of the class. Obviously, I am not so au fait with the material that I can definitively say whether another's interpretation is correct, BUT it would be a great opportunity to promote the idea of actively using the treatise material and bringing it to life.