Tuesday, September 13, 2016

On Practice


Practice is important. It is something which we hear and something which we are told again and again. This post is going to examine some of the details with regard to practice, how it is performed and why it is performed. Many will just skip over this one, but I suggest that you do not, as practice really is that important.

1. Importance
Everyone needs to practice. It does not matter if you are the newest swordsman or the most aged practitioner. Skills decay if you do not use them and thus practice is important. This also means that you should also practice everything. When you do not use a skill, it will decay and will not be as sharp the next time you try to use it.

2. Regularity
A post has already done a blog on this one, so why are we back here again? Simply because it relates to the subject at hand. More to the point it is important. You should practice every day, an hour is best, 30 minutes if it is all you can squeeze in. It does not have to be anything complex merely using some footwork and making some attacks will do.

3. Muscle Memory
There is a thing called "muscle memory". When you practice something enough, you will get to a stage where you can do the action without thinking about it, naturally this is a great advantage in any form of swordplay. It takes about 500 repetitions of an action to put it into your muscle memory, but you must practice it accurately. Any mistake you make in the action will also be practiced into muscle memory as well and it will take 50,000 repetitions to remove a mistake from muscle memory, so it is best to do it right the first time.

4. What to Practice
In a word everything. This being said some elements need more focus than others. Foundation elements should always be practiced more than peripheral elements because they form the basis of the peripheral elements. There is little point in practicing a counter-disengage if you cannot do a disengage, or practicing a punta riversa if you cannot do footwork properly. Things which are new will always require a little more attention when they are fresh because they are new, but this does not mean you should ever neglect your foundation elements.

5. How to Practice
Most importantly, with a sharp focus on practicing and what you are practicing. We are often distracted by what is fun or what is more engaging. If we are engaging in bouting with the purpose of working on a particular technique then both swordsmen need to work on that technique and not get distracted by other things. Likewise during drills we need to focus on what the drill is about and what each person's job is, if both do not do their jobs the drill will not be effective. Even when practicing alone the same focus is required. Pick a technique and work on that until you have completed practicing it and not before.

6. When to Practice
Practice should be like sleep for military-types in field, whenever you can. You may not have access to an opponent, but there are still skills you can practice. You may not have access to a sword, but there are still skills you can practice. You may be stuck on a plane or a bus, but there are still things you can practice. If you are serious about your practice, there is always something that you can be practicing at almost anytime, anywhere that you are. Naturally, you will get some odd looks, but at least you are getting practice in.

There have been six headings which have been presented with regard to practice and statements made with regard to each of them. Each is as important as the one before it and the one after, they are in no particular order really. If you hit a spot where you are having problems, go to your instructor or teacher and ask them how best to practice a particular skill or even set of skills. Better yet, I would advise you to sit down with them and work out a training program. This way you will always have a goal to work toward. For some the motivation is internal for others it needs to be external, most of all find your own and practice, it is the way to be a better swordsman.



Saturday, August 13, 2016

Fencing and Music


There is no doubt that music has an effect on us all. Indeed that one odd body fact that I read somewhere, and have been meaning to fact-check, is that the human heart will beat alongside with the base of the music which is being played, or something similar. Music can inspire us toward different feelings and also emotional states, this particular effect is used in movies all of the time. So, I did some reading and had some thoughts and decided that it was time to look at it in relation to fencing.

Conveniently, not long after this little gem popped into my head I came across an article entitled, "Western Composers and Western Martial Arts" in  Encased in Steel Anthology I. Interestingly enough there were aspects of what was said in here which lined up quite well with what I was going toward. While Keith Farrel's article deals more with the comparison of the dates of music with the dates of treatises to understand their social context and also for a better understanding of their footwork and movement (Farrel, 2015:87), mine was more toward asking questions of how peoples bouts compare to music and what influences it can have on training.

Toward the avenue of my own thoughts I stumbled across an article in Australasian Scientist called "Turn Down the Volume?" which studied the effect of music on study and the performance of students. Needless to say, this article was more along my own lines of thinking as I was also wondering if the playing of music would enhance my students' training or detract from it. Some of it was most helpful with regard to this, as it stated with regard to gene expression and "changes also inferred potential benefits relating to memory, learning and general brain health." music possibly aids in protecting and improving the brain (Flavel, 2015:15).

Clearly there is evidence that music being played is a good thing and can be an aid toward the student's learning. The question next was what music should be played during the practice? Going back to the two useful sources of information there is an examination of the relationship between the manuals and the music in Farrel (2015) as indicated above, Medieval Music is reflected in style of fighting, rhyming method presented in manuals and in music as well (Farrel, 2015:89). This would make medieval music perfect for this kind of fighting. Similarly, Renaissance Music was more complicated also found in music, repetition found in manuals also found in music (Farrel, 2015:90). This meant that the first choice for music should be from the Medieval and Renaissance periods as this should help with ingraining a thought about the sort of feel of the fencing in the students as they listen to the music.

Of course, this was all a place to start, and to start only. For myself it is also an examination of how music relates to the bouts we fight. What sort of music is your bout like? What sort of music should it be like? We often imagine that our bouts should be musical with one person playing off the other, like a dancing madrigal from the Renaissance period. How often does it turn into something that belongs at a death-metal concert? This is the reason why I wanted to play music at practice, to see the effect of it not only upon their learning but also their bouts.

Personally, I have found music to be a boon when I study. I use it when I write. I use it when I read. I have found that the right sort of music is most useful in keeping my brain active in the right sort of way and focused on what I am doing. The hope was to find the key to this and give it to my students at training and thus give them the advantage of the right music to train with.

Flavel (2015) states that  music beforehand to make you feel good improves performance, the choice of music is up to the individual (Flavel, 2015:15). This can also work for practice and also tournaments also. The trick is selecting the correct music for what you are about to embark upon. For myself, I have a selection of music which I used to like playing before tournaments. Much of it was metal and mostly very up-beat. This was designed to get my heart pumping and also my mind focused on what I was doing. This is one that you can do for yourself, find what works for you.

In the not too distant future, I hope, to be running an experiment as to the effect of different types of music on training. This experiment will be given details as to what I hope to achieve and will stretch over an extended period of time. My students have already been subjected to the unofficial start to this experiment as I have been taking my laptop to the hall and playing different music with training. My very rough and very initial findings are that Classical and Renaissance music seems to have no effect, whereas Metal and other "heavier" styles seem to be highly motivating. Needless to say, I will be giving the details as to the results of the official when they come in.




Farrel, K. (2015) "Western Composers and Western Martial Arts" in Farrel, K. (ed) (2015) Encased in Steel Anthology I, Fallen Rook Publishing, Triquetra Services (Scotland), Glasgow

Flavel, M. (2015) "Turn Down the Volume?" in Australasian Scientist (Vol. 36, No. 7, Sept. 2015) Central Publications Pty Ltd, Wattletree Rd, Australia, pp 14-15

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Aggressive Versus Assertive


A long while ago I wrote a post on Aggressive and Brutal Fencing. At that point in time I really was not able to explain what I meant. Well, I was able to explain what I didn't mean, but I was not able to explain what I thought was suitable. This post is an attempt to address this particular issue and hopefully clear up some meaning. This was greatly helped by reading one of the articles in the Encased in Steel: Anthology I, which I reviewed.

The Oxford dictionary (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/) defines the terms as follows:
Assertive: "having or showing a confident and forceful personality"
Aggressive: "Ready or likely to confront; characterized by or resulting from aggression"

One is an expression of confidence, the other is an expression of confrontation. While they could be seen as being quite similar they are actually different. The assertive may attack because he is confident about himself and is thus assured of the result, but he will choose when. The aggressive must attack because he must because that is his way, he has no choice.

So, a person in their fencing when facing and bouting or even competing against another opponent should be assertive rather than aggressive. To be aggressive in this instance is to use power and force where it is not required, to overtly over-power the opponent much as any thug would. To be assertive on the other hand is to assert yourself against the opponent. To present them with valid attacks which they must respond to, to use skill and reason to defeat the opponent, and most importantly while maintaining control of yourself and your weapon. This is the difference that I wanted to achieve.

The attacks of the assertive fencer may come fast, and they may be unexpected, the actions may force the opponent into a position and so forth, but the assertive fencer will use his skill rather than mere brute force to achieve this. The assertive fencer will still have presence of mind to use complex tactics and change his method depending on the opponent and their reactions. This is what is meant by an assertive swordsman. The other is not a swordsman, it is a brute, a thug with sword.

This has taken some time to work out proper meaning,  and its application to fencing, but I think what I have expressed here, along with what I have said previously sums my feelings on the matter up quite well. The real swordsman will time his blows to count, not wasting blows that are not likely to hit, and not attempting to pound his opponent into submission with repeated blows. A single blow which is properly delivered at the correct time with less force is much better than several blows delivered at the wrong time with more force.



Monday, June 13, 2016

Book Review: Fencing Through the Ages

What? Another book review? Yes, it is. This one is of a similar nature to my last in that I bought this book at Swordplay last year and have been horribly slack about getting around to doing a book review on it. This is one that I am actually going to really enjoy telling you about as it will reveal a book and an author who, for the most part had been pushed aside for others.

Corthey, Adolphe (2015) Fencing Through the Ages, LongEdge Press, Brisbane, First Edition 1898, Translated by Chris Slee

So, the bibliographical details have been presented above, and should provide everything you should need to search for this book online for you to buy it. Why would you buy it? Well the book presents some very interesting material which has otherwise been shoved aside by the English-speaking world.

This book was translated into English from French by Chris Slee in a literal fashion. In this he attempted to stay as true to the language as possible. The advantage of this, while meaning that the result is less smooth than it could be, means that it is closer to the original as possible for the English-speaking reader. Slee supplies notes with regard to his translation of particular words throughout the book to inform the reader of his choices.

Adolphe Corthey is the French equivalent to Captain Alfred Hutton and Egerton Castle and is of as much importance to the revival of Historical European Martial Arts. His book Fencing Through the Ages presents an account of various masters of fencing, much as Castle's Schools and Masters of Defence. While it was Hutton and Castle on one side of the English Channel, it was Corthey on the other side.

The book presents an interesting discussion of the history of fencing from the very beginning all the way up to the eighteenth century. His discussion of the very early periods is, of course, very brief whereas his discussion of Renaissance and later period weaponry is much longer. The first weapon he discusses in detail is the two-handed sword, and the last is the smallsword. In this discussion he mentions the works of various masters in the same sort of fashion as is found in Castle's. This is the primary part of the book, and the actual book written by Corthey. As expected, of course, there are present many of the historical biases of the period with the "development" toward the dominance of the point and so forth, but as an historical document, this makes it still useful.

The fact that the above is the primary part of the book does not mean that the sundry materials should be skipped over in any way whatsoever. There is the presentation of contemporary media information also included demonstrates significance of author and work. Thus the presentation of such work was placed in the public eye, much as HEMA practitioners are attempting to do now.

One of the most interesting documents contained within this volume actually resides in the back pages. It is entitled "On the Subject of the Transformation of the Combat Sword" and discusses the transformation from combat weapon to weapon usable for practice. This is a document which should be of great interest to all practitioners of revivalist martial arts, but especially HEMA with regard to examining how to get weapons at least resembling their historical counter-parts.

In the end I found that this book, understated by its size and weight, was a most interesting read from cover to cover and I would recommend it for all with an interest in history and HEMA. The wide areas of knowledge which Corthey points toward should at least indicate to the reader other areas in which research may be made, and other areas in which maybe they had not thought to cover.



Friday, May 13, 2016

Are You Using or Teaching a System?

Every now and then we must look back at what we are teaching and what it is based upon. In some cases this may not be as pretty a picture as what we may like it to be but it still must be done. The question remains especially for us looking into the fields of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) are we really practicing what we set out to? Are we really teaching what we are studying? Are we teaching a system or merely tips and tricks?

A system is has a foundation based on the principles of fence. This means that the actions make sense according to the rules of Time and Distance. It means that what we are teaching, when performed purely according to these rules will work. This system does not have to be based in any one "School" or based on the works of any one "Master". Indeed, what I teach is based upon the works of several theorists from at least two different "Schools". What needs to be present are the principles upon which the actions are based upon and these need to be based on the principles of fence.

A system has essential mechanics. These are foundation mechanics which every student knows and every student must learn to progress through to the next stage. The progression of the students must be based upon the training method which is set in place. Each one of the lessons should build upon some part of the lessons which came before it. Every student should progress through these lessons in some form or another. At the end of these lessons, indeed part way through some of these lessons there should be a system of evaluation of progression. You should be able to evaluate the students and see where they are in their progression to see what they have learnt and what they need to re-learn. This does not need to be formal, but some sort of recognition of the student is always a boon to them.

A system has a set of attacks and also responses to those attacks. Too often attacks are taught and there are no responses taught to defend against those attacks leaving fencers with the idea that there is no response. There is always some way to respond to every action of an opponent. These attacks and their responses need to be based upon fencing theory to ensure that they are correct and ensure the safety of the fencer. There should also be a generalised solutions to situations based on fencing theory to answer general questions of attack and response, and these too need to based in fencing theory. From these generalised solutions there should also be specific techniques and specific solutions to specific techniques based on fencing theory.

These are the elements of a system. A person who teaches the principles of fencing to their students gives them the ability to extrapolate from what they have been taught to learn more. A person who teaches a system gives their student the ability to learn another system due to the foundation knowledge that they have given them based on the theory and principles which have been taught. A person who teaches tips and tricks, gives another some neat ways to answer a couple of attacks here and there but no foundation, and a much shorter road.



Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Review: Encased In Steel: Anthology I


This is a book review that I should have done not long after Swordplay 2015. What can I say? I took the book home, I had other stuff to research, I read it, I then almost instantly passed it on to a student, and now I have actually had time to sit down and do a book review of it. This in some way alludes to my attraction to the book once I finally managed to open the cover and actually start reading.

Farrel, K. (ed) (2015) Encased in Steel Anthology I, Fallen Rook Publishing, Triquetra Services (Scotland), Glasgow

First bibliographical details, above and, the book is a soft cover, just over 200 pages long. It is about the size of a large novel in area (15 x 23-cm). All in all the book is quite unremarkable by its outside. This is one of those cases where the book should not be judged by the cover.

The book is filled with great articles covering many different subjects. Many of these subjects would not even be considered by some members of the HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) community to be relevant to their studies. I would suggest this is because that their focus is more on the physical aspects of what they are studying rather than an holistic examination of the arts.

The editor, states that this is a selection of articles from the "Encased in Steel" weblog, plus some extra articles which have been added in. As stated previously it covers a wide variety of subjects clearly divided into five general areas: Chivalry & Christian Values, HEMA History & Research, Weapon History & Research, The Practice of Cutting and Practical Concerns for HEMA Clubs. All of these areas are pertinent to HEMA and also the wider sword-wielding communities.

The articles themselves are very well written and easy to read. Jargon is in most cases explained so that the reader does not get confused. All of the articles are well documented and researched and each one has a bibliography supplied at the end of the article for further examination of the sources for further research. While the manner of writing is more scholarly in approach, bringing up relevant details in the appropriate manner and also forming arguments based on the evidence presented, the articles are also presented in a way which is engaging. The multiple authors are respected in their various fields in the HEMA community.

Rather than focusing on the purely martial art and physical aspects of HEMA, it also has some especially interesting articles on the ethics of swordsmanship and other social aspects which are integrally related with the wielding of a sword and indeed other weapons. Needless to say this collection of writings, while not wholly may in single appeal to a much wider community, as such this book is recommended for reading by all those interesting in swordsmanship, regardless of their interest or skill level.



Sunday, March 13, 2016

Virtues Gained From Swordsmanship


Based on some of what I said in a previous post on the ethics of swordsmanship, I had a request from one of my readers to write something about what virtues are gained from studying and performing swordsmanship. For your interest, the original post called "A Question of Ethics" can be found here: http://afencersramblings.blogspot.com.au/2015/11/a-question-of-ethics.html. So, what I am going to do is have a little chat about these virtues gained from swordsmanship. To begin with I will have a look at some primary sources. Then I will have a look at some of the things from my own point of view, some of which will refer back to the post indicated above.

Primary Sources

Call me biased, I am only going to be using manuals and masters which are written in English because I only speak/read English. This makes for much easier translation on my part. First we start with one of my own favourites, di Grassi.

"For this cause I beseech the gentle Reader to show himself such a one in the reading of this my present work, assuring himself by so reading it, to reap profit and honour thereby. And not doubting but that he (who is sufficiently furnished with this knowledge, and has his body proportionally exercised thereunto) shall far surmount any other although he be imbued with equal force and swiftness."
Giacomo di Grassi 1594 His True Arte of Defence

In essence, first thing that Giacomo di Grassi focuses on is profit and honour from following what is written in his book. This is the result of training. Further that the reader will be able to defeat any other opponent who is of equal physical ability. So, in essence, di Grassi claims that his method will give you honour through defeating your opponents if you study hard and this will result in profit of some kind. This is not particularly specific.

"I speak not against Masters of Defence indeed, they are to be honored, nor against the Science, it is noble, and in my opinion to be preferred next to Divinity, for as Divinity preserves the soul from Hell and the Devil, so does this Noble Science defend the body from wounds and slaughter. And moreover, the exercising of weapons puts away aches, griefs, and diseases, it increases strength, and sharpens the wits. It gives a perfect judgement, it expels melancholy, choleric and evil conceits, it keeps a man in breath, perfect health, and long life. It is unto him that has the perfection thereof, a most friendly and comfortable companion when he is alone, having but only his weapon about him. It puts him out of fear, & in the wars and places of most danger, it makes him bold, hardy and valiant.
George Silver 1599 Paradoxes of Defence

George Silver, as I have noted previously, is a character and a half, and his claims about his method are just as characteristic. He claims that the swordsmanship will "defend the body from wounds and slaughter", as one would expect, but then he goes on to list a long list of health benefits of swordsmanship. These health benefits which he lists are not just physical, as one might expect, but they are also mental. The significance of the idea of the benefit to both mind and body is often passed over by many.

“This irresistible power of practice does not only master and overcome the unflexibleness of our bodily members, but also affects and prevails very much, even over our more dull and ignorant judgements.”

Sir William Hope 1707 A New Short, and Easy Method of Fencing: Or the Art of the Broad and Small sword Rectified and Compendiz’d

Sir William Hope, much like Silver also highlights the benefits of swordsmanship to the swordsman as being to both the mind and the body. This idea of swordsmanship being as much a mental pursuit as a physical one is something which must be realised for the greatest benefits of it to be attained.

“[Fencing] which justly forms part of the education of persons of rank; giving them additional strength of body, proper confidence, grace, activity and address; enabling them, likewise, to pursue other exercises with greater facility.”
Domenico Angelo 1787 The School of Fencing With a General Explanation of the Principle Attitudes and Positions Peculiar to the Art

Domenico Angelo, is focusing on an address to a particular clientèle, thus insisting that it is an important part of their education. Further to this he also explains further health benefits much like the previous examples which have been presented. Angelo expands his list to include benefits to the social sphere and interactions with others.

My Stuff


The first thing that will be easily noted is that fencing does supply health benefits. It does improve cardio-vascular fitness, it does increase musculature (even if it does this in some interesting spots), in general it will improve your general health overall. From my own point of view, if I had not taken up and continued fencing my own personal health issues most likely would have rendered me to a wheelchair for a period of time. But this is not really what this is all about...

The virtues which really need to be talked about are those which cannot be seen directly but their effects can be felt in other ways. They can be felt personally by the fencer and felt by others by the actions of the fencer, these are the more important virtues which we should really concern ourselves with. While the physical attributes allow us to perform and live longer lives and thus enable us to learn more it is the other virtues beyond the mere physical which are more important.

Fencing and learning has been related to the treating of depression and other mental illnesses, and indeed physical illnesses. Increased levels of adrenaline and endorphins from the victories, be they large or small can be related to an increase in positivity in the student. This can be only beneficial to a student's well-being. Such heightened positivity also increases the yearning in the student for more knowledge, which can only be a good thing. Fencing, done properly, is a thinking man's game.

Broadening Thought Processes

Fencing broadens the thought processes. What? Fencing allows you to think about things from different perspectives rather than thinking about things only from a single perspective. The primary source for this in fencing is in tactical thinking. Each opponent is a tactical puzzle and you must solve that puzzle. One way to do this is to figure out what they are going to do against you. This same process can be applied outside of fencing to allow you a different point of view on all sorts of things, and not just arguments.

Similarly the idea of awareness comes from a similar source. While fencing, you do not have time to check around you, but you become familiar with things around you, including your opponent's position. This can also be useful in other situations. This awareness can be applied to situations outside of fencing also, and not just finding your keys in the dark.

Not only can fencing teach you about these things but it can also teach you about problem-solving. The obvious one is in dealing with an opponent, as above. This is a purely tactical idea, which can be applied to all sorts of other situations, but it can also apply to ourselves and our own problems. We can look at different ways to get around problems that we all have as opponents, and thus look at ways to defeat them.

Increased Capacity for Thought

Next we move on to the idea of the increased capacity for thought. Once again, I am going to expect people to look at their screens incredulously. A fencer who looks at fencing as more than just a game of physical actions performed can really miss out. The other fencer who is willing to read and learn more can open a door to a much wider world where there are more possibilities than they ever realised, this fencer has a true relationship with the swordsmen of the past.

Most of the time when fencing manuals are read the first parts are skipped over for the "good" parts, the parts where the action starts. The problem is that in these earlier parts of the manuals you will find the author's thought processes, what he was actually thinking as he was assembling the manual. This can lead you into the reasons why he produced the manual and thus the reasons why or why not certain techniques may or may not be present. Our two English Gentlemen George Silver and Joeseph Swetnam are perfect examples of this.

As martial artists carrying weapons the concept of ethics must come up somewhere along the line, and thus must come up in the thought process. For many, as soon as they have done the safety brief they think they are done, but it should stretch further than there. We are carrying weapons, we are delivering blows and thrusts which have the potential to do serious damage and even kill. The concept of ethics is vital. In carrying any sort of weapon, you have a responsibility to others, and you also have a responsibility to yourself. This actually goes for all martial artists and all weapons. Any time either is seen in the media in a negative way, it is a black mark against us all.

Cultivation of Virtue

Most of all the virtues which have been discussed must be cultivated. They cannot just grow on their own. We must teach patience, we must teach honour. These virtues are gained through teaching and combat. Sure some of the thought processes can be learnt through the student engaging in reading but we must all teach them also. "But I am not a teacher/trainer/master." Doesn't matter. How you act, what you do, what you say, will inform newer students and people around them how they should act, and there is always someone newer than you.

The Renaissance period, through which we find many of our sources for rapier and longsword combat, was the time of Humanism and Humanistic thought. This is of great benefit to us. It is because these thoughts are imprinted in the pages of the manuals. You will find these thoughts in the so-called "boring" bits at the beginning of the manuals. Humanistic thought believes in the capacity for the individual to grow and become something better, and it is something which we need to embrace, regardless of in which particular period our particular weapon preference is found.

The virtues of honour and the Gentleman or Gentle-woman (Yes, an anachronism), need to be emphasised. We need to find the highest standards found here and push these to the limit and beyond. We need to push these ideas and make them our own and present ourselves as we would wish ourselves always to be seen. I believe that once we have done this then we will truly be on the way to performing our Arts as the Masters we so dearly cling to would have, and then we will truly find that the virtues gained from swordsmanship are vast, and beyond anything we thought possible.