On Teaching

Most of my time sword in hand is spent teaching others. What time is left over for my own practice is mostly divided between training on my own and free fencing.

I do very little drills or pure pair practice with a specific goal – especially in Bolognese swordsmanship where I rarely get to surrender myself under someone else’s instruction. The reason is not that I wouldn’t want to, or felt I didn’t need drilling but rather a consequence of the prevailing conditions.

I happen to have the most experience in sidesword within our group, and the material is mainly researched and produced by myself. These (of course) are largely the reason why I lead most of the Bolognese swordsmanship classes at the moment.

This is not to say that I was the best fencer within our group. There are many who are stronger, faster or technically better in some areas. Some seem to have a much better sense for timing and distance than I have, and some are braver or more cunning in their fencing. My experience shows more in understanding the system and the pedagogy (obviously since I’m basically responsible for them) and in technical drills. Though the students are catching up and becoming really good it is probably still easier for me to execute clean technique and create sequences of actions.

For this reason it is natural that in a drill-like pair exercise I end up in the role of an instructor and most focus goes into the improvement of the student. Not always, but usually this is the case.

I escape this to the realm of free fencing, where I have the option of simply fencing and (though I find it difficult at times) letting go of the instructor’s role, focusing on the fencing a problem I can only fix withing my self, not by teaching my student-opponent to do otherwise.

I tend to try and get my technical practice done this way as well: in solo practice the process is “internal”, somewhat similarly to free fencing: I only have myself to correct. It may sound esoteric, but I believe everyone leading a training group knows the feeling. Some may have good ideas on how the instructor can best get their own training done, and if you have please share your thoughts by commenting!

Teaching can be very stressful at times, especially when feelings of uncertainty, hesitation or lack of confidence creep in. On the other hand, when the picture is clear and there is a good connection to the student(s) teaching can be hugely enjoyable. These feelings often depend on the type of material being taught and the type of the lesson:

  • Whether the material is improvised or pre-meditated
  • Whether the material is your own or inherited
  • Whether you have existing or given authority or whether you have to establish it
  • Whether the lesson is for an individual, small group or a large group
  • Whether the lesson is short or long

There is no way to align all of these factors into a scale of easiness, but we can extract a few common lessons types from them.

The individual lesson

An individual lesson can typically be given quickly, focusing on a limited set of problems at a time with extreme efficiency and focus. It can also span on a longer time, where more control of the content is given to the student making the lesson perhaps more focused on making the student understand something than improving actual performance. Individual lessons, both short and long, can be targeted to groups of two or even three people.

The short individual lesson can be given inside a group lesson to target an individual for more effective training. The longer lesson can be used to answer questions or target problem areas that have been raised by an individual during the group lessons.

An individual lesson should primarily be built on material that can of course originally be inherited from someone else but that is thoroughly understood and personally applied by the teacher.

The group lesson

Group lesson can be a weekly class or a special seminar. On weekly classes authority often exists and the material can be anything from improvised to a ready-written lesson plan originally devised by the teacher. There is no one way of doing it. A beginners course may well benefit from a strict lesson plan spanning over 8 or ten classes, but frequent weekly classes for senior students may benefit from being tailored to the individuals present.

A special seminar is harder to do. If the student body is not known authority might be lacking – especially if the group of students is not of the nicest quality. Many ways to do this, and many ways to fail in it as well. My approach is to teach people who I believe truly wish to learn from me, and to avoid making too many claims I can’t consistently back up bot intellectually and physically. Some follow a less humble way, but this of course up to the individual teachers to decide.

A lesson plan is usually a good thing to have ready for longer seminars or special events. Even if you decided against following it to the letter, you may want to have the chance to fall back on it in case you find yourself without knowing what to show next.

Covering for someone

A typical situation for a student of some experience is to be asked to run a class in case the original teacher or instructor is prevented from performing the task. Usually in this case it is good to have a pre-meditated class plan from the original instructor, especially should the class belong to a course focusing on some subject.

Of course, such plans should not be too restrictive. I find teaching to be a form of self-expression. Part of it is copying those who are your role models, but there needs to be room for letting yourself shine out as well. Not an easy task to do right, I can tell, but usually a necessary training ground for those who are to become instructors of their own right at some point.

Historical aspect

It is obvious from reading Marozzo and some other sources that instruction was given privately, but it also seems likely that people gathered in fencing schools to practice with each other, or to fence. There is for example a record, although likely fictional, from 17th century of a young university student whose hobbies where to enjoy the passegiata, walking around town socializing after the daily studies and then to go practice fencing in a fencing school for two hours from nine to eleven in the evening.

I assume the origins of the modern private lesson to be in military training, the concept being applied to civilian context when demand of the training increased. To me, private instruction is almost essential in order to get the best out of a fencer. Group lessons alone serve to keep people fit and give them hobby and a sense of improvement on a relaxed rate, but private instruction gives far better results more quickly. I believe this was the thought back in the 16th century as well, especially since there might have been real need for the skills in a short time in preparation for a duel.

In contrast to this it was widely agreed that only practicing with the fencing master was not enough, but that practice with other people was necessary in order to learn how to be able to defend against any fencer regardless of their skills and stylistic backgrounds. But I believe this practice consisted mainly of free assault, with whatever rules they then had governing such practice.

In a sense this sort of training feels fairly closely like what I am getting these days myself, but then we have also the assalti from the Bolognese tradition, which were not only solo forms, but forms to be likely done with a fencing master. This type of training we haven’t yet experimented with almost at all. In future, I will probably end up “pioneering” an experiment of practicing with such a pair form and we will see whether it yields any good results. At this stage though, there is still quite a bit of more research, thinking and physical practice to be done before we get there. But rest assured, if we manage to recreate the pair assalti (their reconstruction will not be 100% accurate since the actions of the assumed fencing master are not clearly defined but have to be based on the actions of the student) there will be plenty of video and more posts.

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