Life is short, this is God's way of encouraging a bit of focus. ~Robert Brault
Most people do not have the luxury of being able to study or train full time. It is an activity that we fit in around day jobs, study, family, children, second jobs and all the general hubbub of our lives. Therefore when we devote ourselves to poring over manuscripts in the wee small hours, snatched sessions of personal training, or training sessions: we need to be sure we’re getting the most from our time. The purpose of this article is to draw from my own experience and to offer some practical advice to help people get the most from their time.
So to start off I would recommend you ask yourself the fundamental question: “what are your goals?” I think most people who want or who do study the martial arts draw from a variety of different motivations and I think with a bit of reflection you can make these explicit and then rank them in terms of importance.
To give an example, for me, it boils down to three things:
Firstly I want to learn to fight well
Secondly I want to learn a "genuine" historical European martial art
Finally I want to understand the “Art”
Therefore, for me, the first and foremost factor to consider is that whatever I learn must be practical. That I must be able to see tangible results from the path that I have chosen, or at least better results than any other paths on offer. My second most important factor is the authenticity of what I am learning, to what extent I can be sure that what I am learning is the real deal. Finally the greater context is important and it isn’t enough for me to parrot an instructor or follow a few drills from a book, I have to have enough information to begin to understand what the Scottish swords master Archibald McGregor would call the "sum and the substance of the Art."
Having worked out what you want to achieve what you next have to work out is the right path to take to get you there. We are generally quite spoilt today compared to even ten years ago in terms of the options available to us. Most large towns have clubs, there are an abundance of manuals whose authors offer step by step explanations of treatises or even a “tradition” covering many treatises, and there are many good translations of the actual treatises themselves. However each has its own specific charms and limitations so, with a view to saving precious time, here is some general advice and musings on the various options available.
You don’t need to go to classes to get good. In fact not very long ago there were no classes and all those ground breaking individuals had to work it out themselves with nothing but photocopies of dusty tomes. Many of them are now respected instructors and sources of skill and knowledge. So if it is not an option or not something of interested this shouldn’t be a barrier. However learning yourself from scratch is the hard way to learn. It is much quicker to short-cut all the trial and error by having someone give you the benefit of their experience and swiftly guide you through all the fitness, skills and theories that underpin the art.
What should you expect from a class? Practically you should be willing to pay a reasonable fee and in exchange you should be looking for a minimum of training and theory. To start with this could include basic physical training to begin developing your all round fitness and stamina, followed by specific physical training with your weapon to bring you to the point where you have the strength not just to wield it but to do so with precision and control. There should be a decent amount of footwork and body mechanics so that you can learn to move in a balanced and controlled manner. Throughout all you can expect to be given concise explanations of the theory of why you are doing what you are doing, including explanations of universal concepts such as measure, timing and openings. Finally a good class will bring together the physical and the theoretical so that you will end up with a conscious understanding of your actions and reactions, to defend and offend in a practical manner.
It is also worth considering that classes are generally run by schools, clubs or societies and being a member of these organizations can have many additional benefits that as an individual you would struggle to access. They usually offer support in terms of advice, encouragement, pooled kit purchasing, access to treatises, and invitations to national or international events. A school will also introduce you to plenty of worthy training partners and potential friends you can recruit to help you pursue your studies in your own time. A good class and organization has much to recommend it but a bad class and organization can do much to waste your valuable time. Always keep in mind when taking part in a class or a school what your own personal goals are. Regularly review your situation to ensure that you are happy that your involvement is satisfying these goals.
Depending on what you are looking for, a first rule of thumb to identify a good organization is to check out their website and see how well they play with others. A good school will have plenty of links with other schools and will have ties to national or international umbrella organizations. This means that there is a certain level of accreditation, a general recognition and appreciation of what they do from the wider world. It also means the school isn’t afraid to compete in tournaments and to give workshops in front of a knowledgeable audience. A good second rule of thumb is not to judge a school by its teacher: a good martial artist is not necessarily a good instructor and vice versa. Ask a few questions and find the students who have been there from 6months to a year. Take a good look at their abilities and ask yourself “is this where I want to be myself in 6months to a year’s time?” If those students are still flailing around like a fish out of water I would suggest you keep your money and try somewhere else.
I spend a lot of time at the moment thinking about personal study so look for more musings later, but I'm going to make it brief here.
Irrespective of whether you join a class or a school and you are serious about getting good, you should also workout and drill on your own time. As a minimum slot some physical exercise into your life, like cycling or jogging to work, to get a basic level of all round fitness. Couple this with even fifteen minutes of drill each day and you will very quickly improve your understanding, strength, stamina and coordination. Often this is the lion’s share of what you get from a beginners class but getting this basic fitness and coordination from a class alone will take much, much longer. Many people struggle to break this basic fitness barrier and despite how much you learn if you aren't fit you will not be able to apply this knowledge.
There is an obvious limit to personal training and while it is good for your core skills it will not get you very far with the practical application of these skills: to do that you really need an opponent.
Using a term borrowed from academia a “study group” is widely understood in HEMA circles to refer to a group of individuals who regularly meet to pool research, discuss their theories and then attempt to put them into practice. A study group is distinct from a class in that it is usually an ad hoc arrangement between peers, a cooperative meeting of minds where everyone contributes and learns together equally.
The benefits of a study group over a class is that many find the structure and "one size fits all approach" of a class to be stifling and limiting. Being able to bounce your ideas off other people and in turn get the benefit of their insights can lead you to more rapidly develop than you would as part of a class and down better and more productive paths than you would have uncovered through personal study.
The other main benefit is that it gives you access to several cooperative or uncooperative opponents to test your skills against. Together the free flow of ideas can be tested by practical free fencing leading to a rapid improvement in your skills and knowledge.
This is also the main drawback because you have to organise your own study, unlike a class or school, you must keep a clear focus on your personal goals and ensure that the goals of the group are conducive with your own. This is doubly so for a study group because the potential for time wasting can be quite high and if the group isn’t taking you closer to where you want to be or is going nowhere in particular then you need to be ready to find a new path.
Notes of caution about the object of study
An universally important point to bear in mind, important for whichever route or combination of routes you take (but especially for beginners who are considering study grouping), you need to ensure that the group has picked the right object for study. If authenticity is important to you, it is far better for you to be working directly from the treatises but few treatises have a beginners section that includes all the basic, foundational information required to actually get going. Generally speaking they all jump straight in on the assumption that the reader is used to a life with both more manual labour and where basic handling of weapons was a common childhood activity. They will often expect the reader to be using the text as an aide memoir to refresh lessons given in the school and therefore will not bother with such trifles as footwork, measure and other general basic but essential theory. As a result of this the first few decades of studying European martial arts involved a large amount of labour poring over intermediate and advanced techniques to reverse engineer the basics. There is little to be gained from duplicating these efforts.
There are some few manuals that do include the basics and with some good advice or research these can be found. For example Joachim Meyer's “Thorough Description of the free Knightly and Noble Art of Fencing” is probably as good as it gets. It is, as the title claims, a detailed and complete description of the art of combat as it existed in later 16th century Europe. It has a strong foundation in the earlier combat tradition making it appealing to those who wish to study a medieval martial art but has overlain this with a more logical and approachable renaissance layout and presentation. We can see in this text an instruction manual as we would understand the term today with detailed explanations of theory, including footwork, and solo practice drills.
Another option to jump start your study is that there are plenty of manuals or DVD’s that can talk you through and show you the basics of other people’s interpretations. These interpretations generally include detailed explanations presented in a layout and language that are completely understandable to our modern culture. I would caution beginner that they do not offer you the objective feedback and constructive criticism that you would get in a class. They also can reflect the authors own prejudices and background rather than the actual content of the treatise. Therefore, generally speaking, I would suggest training manuals or DVD’s are best used in conjunction with the original treatise as a way of making the treatise more accessible. The manual can allow you to short-cut many years of study and on the flip side of the coin you check the treatise to form your own opinion of the accuracy of the interpretation.
A summary of sorts
So, to tie back in with the first few paragraphs, whichever route you take be clear what you objectives are and continually review whether you are achieving them or not. Time is precious so be ruthless with yourself, don't be shy to change your paths to get what you actually want. Some people might try and convince you that you should have a tribal loyalty to this club or to that treatise no matter how awful they are. Nonsense, if it ain't working it isn't your job to fix it, just move on to greener pastures.
A related aside to these musings
Now, as an summing up aside, if the thought going through your head is “do I have to study treatises, what is wrong with simply having a teacher who tells me what to do?” then the answer is “don’t stress, you don’t have to.” However if you really want to take this as far is it is possible to go then you need to get into the treatises. Once you have exhausted the basics there isn’t a castle in Germany that you can go to and be taught the “next level.” What you can do is join a class and your teacher can help you with the basics and show you their idea of intermediate or advanced techniques. However, ultimately there isn’t a long lineage in these arts and relatively quickly you should be able reach the limit of your teachers knowledge. I would suggest that no one that I have seen free fencing has demonstrated to me that they have mastered the fundamentals of the Art, which is a sobering thought. So, to really progress you will need to walk on your own two feet with nothing but the ancient masters for guidance. If you’re serious about the art the sooner you get into the habit of conversing with them the better.