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Tag: forms

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!

One of the issues that I face as an itinerant swordsmanship instructor, presiding over a school that exists on three continents, is that I can only visit each branch occasionally. I encourage the branches to ask for what they want, to be actively engaged with their own training. I also encourage all students in regular class to ask for the material they are most interested in, or feel they need to cover next. This means that the group I am teaching on any given day will tend to have a list of material that they would like me to cover, which is often pretty haphazard. For example, last month before going to Turku to teach a class, I received this email:

Here are some wishes for the seminar from the intermediates and class leaders:

1) How to train with someone who is much stronger than you? How to prove that their technique is wrong if they succeed in it only because of their strength?

2) How to get the most out of training with a beginner? How to benefit from this situation?

3) Safe ways of training and ergonomics at work. Maybe focus on shoulders? (Four people in THMS have shoulder injuries at the moment). Maybe something similar to what you were writing in your blog about the seminar in Oulu.

4) 2nd drill stretto (there were some confusion about the way it should be done correctly).

5) Punta falsa.

6) Could we learn some Vadi techniques?


PS. There will be beginners attending to this seminar. They know some techniques with dagger, but haven't probably learned all parts of the 1st and 2nd drills yet.


As you can see, there is not much obvious connection between teaching the stretto form of second drill, and teaching students to train with others that are much stronger or much less experienced than they are. I spotted a teaching opportunity, and so began the seminar by discussing this list with the students present, and explaining to them the order in which we were going to do everything, and why.

The first step was to identify the most general item. In this case ergonomics, because correct form and structure are required for everything you ever do, in the salle and out. So we spent quite a long time working on perfect push-ups, perfect squats, and the structural foundation of Fiore’s movement dynamics.

Then, using ergonomics as our base, we moved on to the skill of how to use a beginner partner to develop your own skills. This is a very common request, and given that since I came to Finland in 2001 the vast majority of the people I have crossed swords with have been my students, I have an awful lot of experience in making less experienced training partners nonetheless useful. There are basically three ways to do it: you either take advantage of their unpredictability to create genuinely random drills to train your responsiveness; or within the bounds of a set drill, you demonstrate perfect form, because they will copy your every mistake; or in a competitive drill, you aim to win by the narrowest possible margin. We used the standing step drill as a good example of this last idea, and I demonstrated with someone clearly smaller and weaker than myself, who had been training for about a month. By allowing her to push me to the very limit of my balance I was able to use the minimal resistance she was able to give to practice at the edge of my skill.

(I plan to blog about this in specific skill in depth and detail soon…)

This introduced the idea of customising your actions to the specific training partner that you have, and in this case how, without being dramatically more skilful, can you train a beginner out of using their superior strength. There is nothing wrong with strength: strength is good, skill is better, strength applied skilfully is best of all. The trick of course, is to make it so that if they stiffen up, their action fails; but if they execute the action in a relaxed way it succeeds. They will only learn to let go of their strength if they don’t need it. We used the third and fourth plays of the first master of the dagger as our example plays for this exercise. I then had them all look for actions which made themselves tense up, to understand better the problem of relying on strength, and within the context of those actions, focus on using only the minimum necessary force.

So, with ergonomics underpinning all, and focussed experience in working usefully with the beginner, and working usefully with a much stronger partner, we can then address the system-specific technical requests.

We started with the cutting drill, emphasising shoulder stabilisation from the perfect push-ups, and I spotted and corrected some branch-wide errors. We then used a sword handling drill to focus on correct ergonomics for holding the sword. From there we went into first drill, and use that as the basis for working on the punta falsa. At this stage, those that had difficulty with the basic drill were separated out and worked on that. We needed to make sure that the mechanics of the punta falsa were clearly understood, which our economics study had prepared us for. Then the two groups were put back together, with the seniors required to make sure that when they attacked, as the blades met the circumstances were correct for the defender’s set response; and when they defended, they had to respond correctly to the exact conditions of the blade relationship that actually occurred. This made them work on parts 1 and 2 of the training with beginners theory above.

From there we went into second drill, and built the stretto form of it step-by-step from the basic, largo, form. (Note: this drill has been updated since the seminar) Again, those that didn’t know the basic form were taught that, and those that did learned the more difficult stretto version.This was classic, straightforward teaching basic drills from the set syllabus. The trick was to connect them explicitly to the foundational skills we worked on before, namely ergonomics, using beginners, and dealing with stronger partners. Of course the stretto forms of the drills explicitly deal with resistant partners, so fit nicely with the theme.

By finishing up with the stretto form of second drill, we had introduced the zogho stretto situation, and so it was easy to segue into spending the last hour working on Vadi’s solutions to the zogho stretto, and why they differ from Fiore’s.

To summarise, the process of teaching from a list of requests goes:


  1. Identify the most generally applicable concept, start with that
  2. Take each request in order of specificity, from most generally applicable, to the most specific
  3. Organise the parts into a logical sequence, paying particular attention to the connections between the items on your list
  4. Make the organisation of the material part of the lesson, so that the students can see how their requests are being dealt with.


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