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This evening’s class was the smallest yet; some combination of factors had numbers down to 15. Given that at least four of the missing had let me know in advance, there is no immediate cause for concern. If the next class is similarly depleted, I’ll send an email round to those who I haven’t heard from.

Perhaps they were concerned about the warm-up? As promised, we revised 3-point push-ups. When we got to the swinging exercise at the end, I demonstrated hand, hip and leg initiation, using each to strike a kickbag with a backfist. Hand initiation is fastest and least powerful; leg initiation hits hardest but takes longest. We then did the swinging exercise each way, emphasising the choice we usually make in WMA: hand initiation.

We then revised the 3 turns and 4 steps, then the 4 guards. I then defined the correct length of the guard position for them (yes, I know it varies, but beginners need a starting point). Our definition of the correct length is the spacing of the feet that gives the maximum travel of the weight during a volta stabile. I had them pay attention to that while doing the four guards drill.

Then we used gentle pressure to check the details of posta longa, and applied whatever insights were gained in the defence of the first master of the dagger. (Grounding makes much more sense to beginners when it is applied to some useful purpose, I find.) We also revised the roverso disarm, and then I taught them the 9th master disarm from scratch.

With these three techniques in place, they were ready to have a go at the dagger disarm flowdrill.

I then took them to the book to show them the 9th master in all his ball-busting glory. We then looked again at the blows of the sword in the book, before tooling up and practising the mandritto fendente from donna to zenghiaro, and roverso fendente from donna to tutta porta di ferro, that we had done last week.

From there I tied these actions together into part one of the cutting drill. This proved a step too far for some, but well within the competence of others, which is normal for this kind of course.

We then revised first drill, steps 1-3, and had time to cover step 4. So they now know the whole of first drill.

All in all, this is perhaps the fastest beginners’ course I’ve ever taught, not least because so many of them are showing up on Thursday. We even had one brave soul try to attend the advanced class last night (I didn’t allow him to join in, of course, but he seemed to enjoy watching the class and stayed on for free training afterwards.)

So we are now half way through the beginners’ course, with no drop-outs. Fully half the course showed up for the basic class on Thursday last week as I mentioned in the previous post, another excellent sign. And though we never require a student to buy a sword, the fact that two of the beginners bought their own brand new and shiny swords this week is another very good sign for their long-term interest.

I try to illustrate the process of learning through continually referring to the base already established, then adding to it. This in the macrocosm, of the material covered in each class, and in the microcosm of each specific technique. And this applies as much to the warm-up exercises as anywhere else. This week we included kicking squats, to revise last week’s new material, but also added one armed push-ups. I think I’m the only one of my colleagues that has beginners doing one-armed push-ups, but it’s really not that hard, if you show them how to build up to it and don’t expect a full, perfect iteration at the first attempt. It’s ok to keep your wight on your feet and use your legs to do the work, so long as you are gradually building up the amount of weight on the arm. Eventually the legs do no work at all. Eventually…

We then reviewed falling in pairs (without a demonstration), before going on to revising the four steps, four guards, and 2 turns that they already know, with only the very briefest demonstration of the components. Memory gets better if you use it – and recognition and recall are two separate processes. We want recall.

I then carefully demonstrated the volta stabile, and we all did them together. After they had done them on their own, we went to the four guards drill. I walked them through it then let them practice. The out came the stick for the stick exercise.

From there we revised the first two plays of the first master of the dagger, before I taught them the roverso disarm as shown in the Pisani-Dossi MS. This took a while as it has a lot of moving parts, but when most of them had it, I took them to the book and Lo! It wasn’t there. Oh no! Am I making shit up? This brought up the fact that there’s more than one copy of the manuscript, and they are different. So I showed them the P-D, and the first two plays of the third master of the dagger therein, and had them do it again.

This brought us to 6.55, and we took up the swords. I had them work on the mandritto fendente finishing in posta di dente di zenghiaro, returning up to longa with a thrust or a roverso sottano. Then the same thing on the other side, so creating tutta porta di ferro. Then we did some basic grip exercises: first, writing your name with the point of the sword, then shifting the sword in the hand, from point on the ground to point up, without flexing the wrist, just using the fingers. Then I had them repeat the cutting exercises, with the image of drawing the lines of the blows in the air, rather than striking. Sure enough it got a lot better pretty quickly!

We then revised the first two steps of first drill, and added step 3, the pommel strike. I then took them to the book to show them the pommel strike done as a counter-remedy- they already knew to look for a master wearing a crown and a garter. But there wasn’t one! The pommel strikes were being done by scholars… so we turned to the mounted combat section and found the 8th play of the sword on horseback, and there he was, wearing the right bling and described as a general counter-remedy. This emphasised to the class that the Art is represented by the whole book- you can’t just stick to one section.

So they did it all again, having seen it in the book, and we were done.

After class, Ville Henell got them all cleaning their swords (good man!) and afterwards no less than four of the beginners came and asked for help with a warm-up exercise. Outstanding. The one they wanted was the whisky and cigars drill (sitting down on the floor with your legs in the air, as if reclining on a leather armchair with a whisky (single malt, natch) and cigar (hand-rolled cuban, of course), and your feet on a silken footstool). We got them all to realise it’s about skill, not raw strength. And guess who’ll find it all much easier next time in class. Fully half the class was still training half an hour after class ended, and I tried to spend some time with everyone.

All in all, they are coming along nicely!

 

 

This course is proceeding apace, helped along by the exemplary attendance record, and their tendency to show up on Thursdays. 21 out of 24 were there on Tuesday, which is pretty good. We began with the warm-up and as usual took a familiar pattern of exercises and added a few bits and pieces. This week we added kicking squats and push-ups with one foot off the ground. Falling revision was followed by re-checking the correct placement of the weight on the feet, then we looked at tailbone placement, for absorbing vertical energy (gravity, carrying a TV upstairs) versus horizontal energy (pressure from an opponent). We then took that data and applied it to posta longa, with gentle pressure from a partner to check for correct positioning.

Then revision of the four steps, and we added the meza volta (half turn). We then did the stick exercise which generated natural tutta voltas (full turns), which we then took out of context and practiced solo. Volta stabile next week I think, and the three turns as a chunk to add to the four steps.

We then revised the first and second plays of the first master of the dagger, and added a disarm done against a roverso (not quite the full version, the first two plays of the third master from the Pisani Dossi, that’ll come next week). But we did do the counter-remedy to the third master, just for fun. It’s a lovely trap.

I then, at last, took them to the book to show them the third master material.

This brought us to 7pm and the salute, followed by striking mandritto and roverso fendenti; we have now dropped the natural swinging as unnecessary. This lead us naturally to a mandritto fendente finishing in posta di dente di zenghiaro, returning up to longa with a thrust or a roverso sottano. Then the same thing on the other side, so creating tutta porta di ferro.

From tutta porta di ferro thus created, we went and revised the first two steps of first drill, which took us up to 7.30. I had promised them last week to teach them the pommel strike counter (step three of the drill) “next week”; but I had been careful not to mention which day of the week I’d teach it. I pointed this out and promised to cover it on the Thursday class (which I did). This seemed to do the trick, as fully half the course came along last night, so with 15 regulars and 12 beginners we were a trifle full. Last night’s free training gave me a chance to work one-on-one with a beginner who has arthritis in his left wrist, finding alternatives to push-ups, and to teach three of them how to do the shoulder stabilisation drill with much less effort, in addition to the usual pottering about fixing problems as they arise.

All in all, great progress!

Between last week’s class and this one (on the 9th of October) we saw six out of the 24 attend class on Thursday 4th – this is an excellent proportion, especially for the first week. It takes some guts to show up with so little prior experience, but they all got stuck in, and seemed to enjoy themselves. A large part of my job is taking 21st century office slaves and getting them sufficiently fit and strong to do medieval martial arts. The first of this batch to attract my attention in this regard is a tall, slim gentleman with back issues. So I spent twenty minutes or so with him after class working on posture and core strength exercises.

Day two of the beginners’ course saw one new face (who had been sick the week before) who brought with her a history of forearm tendonitis. My specialty. So we spent some time after class fixing that, with massage and wrist strength training exercises. (What on earth makes the average doctor think that strapping up a wrist for a year will actually help? Muscles that don’t get used waste away. Sure, the inflammation in the tendon dies down, but there is nothing stopping it coming back. Doh.)

The class began with the warm-up, almost exactly the same as last week’s but with less time to do more stuff. I added in our current favourite shoulder stability exercise, and cross-squats. I promised them kicking squats this week… We then went straight on to revise the four steps and four guards from last week, then I introduced them to the stick exercise– to get them to do these steps naturally and without thought.

We then gave the students the usual “a mask is not armour” speech, and showed them our utterly destroyed fencing mask – what happens when modern sports equipment meets medieval weaponry. Then I had them tapping each other gently on the mask with wooden daggers. When that was going nicely I taught them the First Master disarm, then showed it to them in the book, first the four strikes, then the five things, then the first master and his play.

I find it works best to show the beginners the technique a few times, let them try it, make a few tweaks, and get them to experience a few successful repetitions, before showing them the book. That way they recognise the images from their own experience, rather than perceive it as something new and different. Then I had them repeat exactly the same exercise having had the source, with all its Italian weirdness, explained to them. So they try to assign the new fancy names to familiar actions, not the other way round.

When that was going nicely I added the counter (second play first master), not least to hammer home the idea that this is not self defence- this is a medieval combat style for professional warriors., there is no moral value assigned to defence per se. The action we were doing, by modern standards, is simply murder- how to strike with a dagger despite the target’s best efforts to stop you.

This took us to 7pm, and we picked up the swords, saluted, and got busy swinging them up the hall. After that was re-familiarised, I had them think about hiding behind the sword as they strike.

I then demonstrated the cut done to the mask, by having a beginner, with whom I had never crossed swords, tap me on the mask while I practised not flinching. It is vital for them to see that they can do it safely. And that I am not asking them to do anything I would not do myself.

It would make no sense to stop there, as practising being hit is of limited value. So we added the parry from tutta porta di ferro (not that I gave them the terminology just yet). I just told them to hit the incoming sword away, middle to middle, using the edge of their sword.  And lo! we ended up at the book again having a look at the second master of the zogho largo. Literally 60 seconds or less of “look at the book, isn’t that cool” and it was “go back and do it again, now that you know what it is”.

That took us to 7.30 and the final salute, after which the President of the SHMS handed out a printed copy of the training guide to each member of the course.

One thing I have never done before is keep an exact record of what I (and others) teach over the eight weekly sessions of a beginners’ course at the Helsinki branch of my school. Of course it is never exactly the same twice; every group is different, and as we usually have only two such course a year, there is time for my opinion to change about what are the essential first steps. The two critically important things are these: that I show them a clear and accurate picture of the Art that I serve, and provide a safe welcoming environment in which to learn. That way, if someone comes to try this path, and finds that it is not their thing, then the Art has not lost a potential exponent, but gained one more person who has seen and done, and knows that this is real and alive.

This year’s Autumn course was fully booked; we cap it at 24, and thanks to two cancellations being matched by two late registrations, we were able to accommodate everyone. I always get there early for the first class, as one or two students, not wanting to be late and having made an unfamiliar journey, tend to arrive very early. Our first arrived at the same time I did, a full hour before class. All I tend to do is point them to the changing rooms, and if they start extending fingers towards swords they don’t own, gently steer them away.

At 6 on the dot (by the salle clock, which is and has always been five minutes early to discourage lateness), I called them together, and gave a short speech of welcome, in which I a) praised them for finding the place; b) pointed out that salle time is different to Helsinki time; c) told them what I expect and require from them: that they behave at all times as reasonable adults; and d) explained the one rule: EVERYBODY MUST FINISH TRAINING HEALTHIER THAN THEY STARTED IT. No macho bullshit allowed. If your knees won’t do squats, leave them out. Then we went for a short walk around the salle, where I pointed out things like the kitchen, the office, which rack they should take weapons from, etc.

This introduction took about 5 minutes. I then had them spread out for the warm-up, in which I went through everything slowly, and taught the more complex exercises (squats, push-ups, starfish, roll and up): I included a very brief demo, and one thing to watch out for when practising.

This segued nicely into the basic falling exercise, starting on their knees. We were very full so I had them pair off, with one student spotting for the other, and giving a gentle nudge to indicate a safe direction to roll into.

This was followed by “how to NOT fall”, starting with finding the best part of the foot through which to root the weight. One student stands with their weight on their heels, feet shoulder width. Their partner gently presses in the centre of their chest, to check how stable the position is. Then the weight is shifted a little forwards on the foot, and check again, etc etc. After five minutes everyone in class has some idea of where their weight should be for maximum stability. And the idea of checking everything, and finding what’s right for them, is established. I could just tell them where to place their weight- but this is much more effective at getting the message across, and the correct technique is learned without ever being taught.

From here we grabbed an imaginary Ken’s throat to create posta longa (I got to grab the real Ken’s throat, of course!), and passed back and forth across the salle. Then a quick trip to the book to see that this extended -arm position is “historical”; a short word about how the guards are the ways by which we define and measure movement, and I gave them the other three guards; first zenghiaro, then porta di ferro and frontale as a pair.

Having given them four guards, it made sense to give them the four steps; one they already knew, the pass, plus tornare, accrescere and discrescere. I spent very little time on the terminology, and plenty on having them actually do the steps.

I finished off this section (it was almost 7pm by now) by giving them 2 minutes by the clock to practice and remember what they had learned. A nasty trick, as it proved beyond reasonable doubt that they could practise on their own, unsupervised, for two minutes— and so could do that easily every day between now and their next class.

I then took them to the rack and showed them how to take a sword down without blinding anyone, and when they were all armed, lined them up and taught them the salute. From there, we split up into two groups, one watching and the other doing, and had them swing the sword from shoulder to shoulder, relaxed and easy. While they were doing this I directed them to swing the sword at head height. Once both groups had a few minutes of this, I took the first group four by four up the salle, swinging the sword and allowing a step to follow it. Pretty quickly this segued into the whole class swinging four by four up the salle. There was the usual mix of initial errors, of course. By far the hardest part of my job is to shut up and let them get on with learning, rather than badger them with corrections. It was rewarding to see some of them start out and get their feet mixed up… then correct it themselves without my intervention. I stopped the class to give them all one extra thing- the line the blow should pass through, slicing with the edge from jaw to knee. And then carefully did not make any corrections while they absorbed all this.

With about 7 minutes to go I brought them back to the book and showed them that they had been doing mandritto and roverso fendente, from posta di donna through posta longa. I saw a couple of light-bulbs go off. And noticed that the first time they had come to the book I was given a wide berth, lots of personal space; by this time they were more relaxed, and were crowding in to see the book. They then had another five minutes to go back to the swinging/cutting drill, knowing what they were actually practising.

We finished with the salute at 7.30, of course.

In all it went very well, not least as 23 out of 23 (the 24th emailed in sick and will join us next week) filled out their course membership papers and handed in our half of the form that very night. Several stayed and practised until about 8, the last one was out the door a full hour after class had ended.

A very promising beginning!

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