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How to Memorise Forms (or anything else)

this is not from the Assalti, but it is from the lovely 1568 edition of Marozzo.
this is not from the Assalti, but it is from the lovely 1568 edition of Marozzo.

Forms have been at the heart of martial arts practice since at least as far back as the Pyrriche war dances of ancient Greece, and documented in detail as early as 1536, in Achille Marozzo’s assalti in his monumental work L’Arte dell’Armi. I learned my first form while doing karate aged about 11, and have been a huge fan of them ever since. Forms can provide a system-summary zip-file of techniques and tactics, a means to acquire the key movement aesthetic of a style, and a varied and interesting basis for all other training. (For more about forms and how to use them, see my free article on the subject here; this post is just about memorising them.)

But they can be hell to memorise. Indeed, committing a form to memory is often the primary challenge a student faces when encountering forms for the first time. The recent visit of Roberto Laura to my salle to teach a weekend seminar on traditional (i.e. living tradition) Italian knife systems brought this into focus; at least one of the styles he taught uses set forms as the starting point for teaching the Art. We covered the first form on Sunday afternoon, and by Monday I had no trouble picking up the second form in about half an hour. It lives in my head now, and can be practised at any time.

Roberto in action
Roberto in action

Learning forms is a skill in itself, and having been taught perhaps 20 of them over the last 20 years, I have a system for picking them up relatively quickly and keeping them.Watching my beginners struggle to pick up their first form, and hearing their groans of dismay when they hear that we are updating it with some major changes, I thought I’d set down here my method for rapid form memorisation.

1) I break it into chunks. In the beginning, especially if the system itself is new to me, I don’t even try to keep the whole thing in memory. Instead, I have a number of separate little forms which together make up the whole. This is much, much, easier than trying to keep the pattern of the whole thing, and is easier still if the actual techniques or actions are thoroughly familiar, which is why I teach form after applications, not before.

2) I name each chunk creatively: this bit is “fighting ten trolls while avoiding the cat vomit”. This bit is “a helicopter rescuing Hello Kitty from a volcano”. And so on. There is no need to tell anyone what your names for these steps are; just make them memorable. Many forms have specific names for their chunks; such as “fair ladies weave shuttles” in T’ai Chi Chuan, or “colpo di villano” in our Syllabus form, or “tre passi in chiuso” in the second knife form that Roberto showed me. I incorporate these in my chunk naming if possible, if not, I apply them after the form is in memory.

3) I break up my repetitions over the course of a day, and over several days. Never more than about 10 minutes for each session, and usually much less. The key skill I am working on is retrieving the form from memory, not actually practising the form itself.

4) I use any non-training time to walk through the chunks in my head. Such as when waiting for a bus. This is often accompanied by little hand or foot motions, which can make others around me a tad nervous of the scary weirdo, but as I’ve said before, nobody can reasonably expect me to be normal.

5) During form training time, I go through the form (or as much of it as I know) as a whole, then separately in chunks, then work on the trickiest bits in isolation, then put it all together again. At any one time, I am only working on one thing, one aspect of the form, such as: a particular step, or getting every application right, or the movement aesthetic, or indeed remembering the form as a whole. Of course, once the form is in memory, you don’t need to practise memorising it any more, and can focus only on execution.

6) If the form is not from an art I am currently practising, I review it once a month or so; if it is still fluent, I run it a few times and move on; if not, then I work it back up from memory, and go over it again at least a couple of times in the following week.

I have certainly forgotten more forms than most of my students will ever learn because if I definitively quit an art, I drop the forms from my practice altogether. In three months they are moth-eaten; in six months they are gone. So be warned that once you have a form in memory, you use it or lose it. This is why I am planning on writing the Advanced longsword book (follow-up to my current The Medieval Longsword) using our Syllabus form as its base. Having it in writing and on video can easily refresh the memory, even if circumstances have conspired to prevent you from even thinking the form through every now and then.

One of the most irritating things an instructor can do is come along and correct a detail of technique when I’m working on memorising the form. It’s inevitable that there will be some slippage in execution when my focus is on the overall pattern. Once the form is down in memory, or I’m working on technical execution, then yes, such interruptions are necessary. This is why I tend to leave students who are learning a form alone until they clearly get stuck, unless they are repeating an error that matters to what they are doing; such as if they have steps out of order while working on memorising the form, or when they are getting a step wrong in one application that leaves them with the wrong foot forwards for the next one. But this is a tricky judgement call, which is why I almost always ask them what they are working on, before offering a correction.

So if you see me waving a pen around, or even a knife, and jumping about a bit, I'm probably keeping last weekend's material, and two spiffy new forms, alive in my head. No cause for alarm!

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