Breakthroughs   9 comments

Giacomo has a funny story he’ll tell. It goes something like this:

Determined to broaden his skills, one evening Giacomo decided to sew a seam on his pants. His wife set him up with a sewing machine, gave some basic instruction, and left him to it. Manfully, Giacomo applied himself to the task. He held his pants in a white-knuckle grip, carefully feeding them through the machine, determined to make a straight line and surprised at the strength required and his sluggish progress.

Presently, after he had sewn perhaps two or three inches along the seam, the bobbin ran out. Giacomo called to his wife, she (somewhat confused) rewound the bobbin, and once more he went to work. White-knuckle grip. Sweat pouring from his brow. Another three or four inches accomplished, and the bobbin again ran out. Giacomo was, by now, quite impressed at the patience and fortitude of seamstresses everywhere.

Again, he calls. This time his wife knows something is up. After rewinding the bobbin, she puts the presser foot down.

HMA Is Like That

Working with Catherine on Wednesday, we focused on addressing one of the bad habits observed at War of the Wings: overfinding to the outside. This is a common enough problem, particularly for lefties.

Six months ago I’d have said something about keeping the angle small, maybe making an attack with an oblique step as Fabris likes to do, or some other trick for dealing with pressure. The thinking behind this would have gone “you’ve learned the technique wrong – your muscle memory is bad. Here, let’s break it down and work it back up.”

Now, I go deeper. “If you feel the need to put so much angulation into the outside find, it must be because a nice, small, controlled movement isn’t working. Why is that?” Which immediately suggests a strength issue. Angulation is a way of multiplying strength; as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, fencers with less strength in the sword must resort to using more angulation to overcome their opponent’s.

Strength in the sword is a function of several factors. Certainly, a fencer’s physical strength and the weight of her sword are relevant. But structure is a much bigger thing. “The sword is supported by the body” is something the masters mention several times, and something I think we don’t pay enough attention to.

So we examined structure, looking at which muscles were engaging and how efficiently. Context is important, so we began with a simple find to the outside, with me lunging through the closed line. Then, beginning inside, I cavared outside before lunging. Then, she counterattacked in response. Plate 7 from Capoferro, actually. Nothing too complex.

The big breakthrough was accomplished with stabilization through the scapula. Forming a counterguard to the outside, with a rotation of the upper trunk, brings the sword into the scapular plane. From there, Catherine could force me to fight the weight of her whole body. (More on this in a post to come.)

It’s difficult to describe the feeling. Her finds went from almost 45 degrees off center to maybe 15, probably less. But despite this reduction in angulation, and the accompanying loss in strength, it felt like I was trying to push through a brick wall.

The Qualia of a Good Strike

It wasn’t consistent, of course. Sometimes I hit anyway … but a couple reps, just two among twenty, were perfect.

Normally when a student performs well in drill, I get a sense of futile pushing against an overwhelming force, like an isometric exercise. This time, there was no brick wall, no resistance – just a sense, not unlike falling, as my tip slid to her guard.

Normally when I’m hit, the energies involved are comparatively slight. My opponent isn’t striking with all his power, and the force vector isn’t quite in line with the blade – it’s off by a few degrees. This time, I felt the entire force of her body behind her sword, perfectly in line. There was absolutely no doubt that, if the sword was sharp, it would have penetrated without resistance. As it was, if I had been a bit closer, and moving a bit faster, I might have been concussed again. In either case, she would have felt nothing, all the energy from the strike perfectly grounded through her form.

Normally, even when we perform the same technique repeatedly, we strike a slightly different part of our opponent. In these strikes, the point came directly, directly, to my right eye. Assuming a right-handed fencer, Capoferro describes, in Plate 7, that the strike should hit the left eye of the opponent. Catherine is left-handed.

Everything – the irresistible force, the sense of effortlessness, the targeting – these hits, two among twenty, had a quality almost unlike any strike I’d ever received before. They were the Platonic Ideal.

All this sensory data and knowledge fell into place instantaneously as I was struck. I was filled immediately with a profound sense of awe, elation, rediscovery, and connection across four centuries.

For once, there were no doubts, no awkwardness, nothing at all to be improved; I knew that what we had created, in those fractions of a second, was perfection, as performed and recorded by the masters so long ago. And it was beautiful.

Lots of Presser Feet

Giacomo’s story, while intended as a humorous anecdote, encapsulates a very important message: ignorance of even one detail can make something seem far more challenging, or a lot less pretty, than it needs to be.

And what’s HMA? An attempt to recreate swordfighting, in an era when nobody swordfights anymore, with only a fragmentary written record, authored by men long dead and culturally removed, for guidance. There will be gaps. Of course there will be gaps.

There’s a near-ubiquitous tendency in HMA to study, work hard, and create an interpretation of a plate or technique or master that … works. Mostly. Sure, it’s a little awkward, and doesn’t always land in sparring. We chalk up the difference to insufficient training, deficits in strength or speed, the inherent chaos of a fight, or a particular opponent’s idiosyncrasies. We make little of it. Then someone comes by with a different interpretation, and we ridicule him. We have it figured out. We know what we’re doing.

Progress stops, because we mistake “good enough” for “good”.

But if we’re lucky, we’ll one day discover the presser foot – that missing detail, often obvious in hindsight, that shatters our previous interpretation, something we thought we knew, and replaces it with something truly effortless and beautiful.

On Wednesday, I addressed a common problem, testing it with a technique I’d done a thousand times, and believed I understood. I wasn’t expecting to be shown that my understanding, kinesthetically speaking, was rudimentary. I got lucky.

I am learning to be open to the idea that there are many presser feet, many such gaps in my knowledge, and that they are unavoidable. We are, after all, still novices in this art, and novices make silly mistakes.

It may seem impossible to pursue unknown unknowns – how can you find something if you don’t know what to look for? But perhaps we can find hints in our imperfections. If something feels strained, or cannot be landed consistently, or requires compensations, maybe this is not a case of “I just need to train it more” or “I just need to be faster” or “I just need to be stronger”. Maybe we’re missing something so fundamental that we didn’t even think to look.

Examining historic fencing from a deep structural perspective seems likely to reveal much – perhaps even more of these sublime moments of perfection. I look forward to it.

Posted October 25, 2015 by Ruairc in Italian Rapier, Journal, Musings, Teaching and Training

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