Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Rapiers and Katas and Such Like That

Some of the things I try to pay a lot of attention to are ways to expand my solo practice. I have people to drill with at practice, and occasionally around the house, but a lot of my time doing drills at home is spent working on things by myself.

It can occasionally be difficult to work on skills solo, and this is coming from someone who is happy to just keep grinding on the same small set of actions because I find it calming. Working individual actions, guards, and conditioning via postures are all possible, but let's be real - we can all get bored just working repetitive things again and again.

I was mulling this over, and I was reminded recently about how much I miss kata from back when I did Eastern martial arts. They were great for working on transitions, and interpreting what's actually going on, and putting your own spin on things. Classical fencing has them in the form of etudes, and Don Christian de Launcy has written two of them for rapier in the SCA that I know of.

What really got me thinking though, was this old video of a student at Acadamie Duello in Vancouver going through a progression of Fabris' rapier and dagger guards. This hit pretty much all of the levers in my head - kata, transitions, movement, and Fabris. (As a note, I know that we could spend time criticizing the guards themselves, and the postures, and whatnot of the person performing them. That's not what this entry is about, so we're going to not do that. I have a couple comments about how some of the positions make it hard to interpret what the guard is, outside of the sequence, but I'm not trying to harsh on Adam's performance here.)

In the video, Adam works through Fabris' rapier and dagger guards in the order of the manual, with the lunges included in the same places as they appear in the book. Let's take a look at the progression, and consider which changes we might want to make to this depending on what we want to get out of it.

Adam starts with Prime guards, beginning with plate 49, then to 50, and then plate 51 for the lunge in Prime. The transitions between these are all done with passing steps forward - plate 49 and 51 have the right foot leading, and 50 has the left foot leading.

From the lunge in Prime, Adam moves to the guards in Second. Adam recovers back from the lunge into plate 52. From there, he shifts into plate 53. He then passes back with the right foot into plate 54, passes the left foot back to plate 55 again and immediately pivots on the balls of his feet to take plate 56 and through into plate 57, both two rarely seen guards in Second, and moves into a lunge in Second from plate 58.

Recovering from the lunge, Adam takes what I'm assuming is the guard in plate 59. (The edition of Fabris that I have puts the guards here in a different order than the scans I'm linking to; I'm not sure what's up with that but in what I'm using, plate 59 is illustrated in that link on the right. I'll note the other changes as they happen.) He then moves into plate 60 (on the left), brings his body up for 61 (on the right), and lowers his body back down for 62, along with the requisite blade mutations. He passes forward with the left into plate 63, and then steps off to the right with his right foot to assume plate 64. Finally, he brings his left foot in for the very uncommon plate 65 guard, and finally lunges into Third as shown in plate 66.

For the final stretch, Adam recovers into a guard in Fourth, plate 67. He extends his arms into plate 68, passes forward with the left foot into plate 69, and then passes his right foot forward to lunge as in plate 70, finishing the sequence.

This sequence covers all the rapier and dagger guards of Fabris. The primary purpose it serves is helping the fencer memorize all of them, though it can also help with some transitions between the guards. But if we change this up a bit, can we focus on different things?

The easiest thing to do would be to add a lunge after every guard. This would increase the length of the form and make it much more of a stamina exercise, but it would also let us practice attacking out of every guard without changing the order of the guards we're doing - so it would be an easier adaptation to make.

Once all of the basic guards are memorized, the order of them could be shifted around. This would let us work on smooth transitions between very different guards, and as a thought exercise we could try to figure out why we'd be shifting from guard to guard, possibly with attacks in between.

Does anyone else do solo forms similar to this? I'd love to hear about it and kick around more ideas.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Post-Pennsic Post and Bonus Practice Report

It's a little late, but here's a quick and messy What I Remember About Pennsic summary, followed by a Monday night practice report.

As with all Pennsic summaries this year, I have to open by saying: So, how about that weather? It sure was awful; the loss of the woods was sad, and the field closures were also sad, but when the heat index is (I was told) 106* or so, yeah, I can see just closing things to prevent idiots from hurting themselves. (Though the folks in the By The Book tournament all were hydrating and doing so well!) Still and all, I think we avoided a number of heat injuries with that decision, so props to Fraiser for making the difficult call and putting up with people being cranky. (Which I admit I was one of, but he was super reasonable and great.)

Weather aside, there was some great fencing to be had. Champions was blessedly early in the week, a trend which I'm very fond of. We had some delays build up over the course of the day, but I actually rather liked Sunday being All The Sword Champions Stuff all one after the other - belted, unbelted, rattan heroics, rapier melee, rapier heroics... the whole bundle of it all.

I got to fight in two of my usual favorite tournaments this Pennsic - the Ansteorran tournament and the By The Book tournament - which given my otherwise bonkers schedule was both lucky and necessary. The Ansteorran tournament was run well, with tasty tasty food and excellent fencers. I lost to Tora Taka (again - but I've laid blade on him before and I will again. Next year! Neeeeext yeeeeeear!) and another gentleman that I can't recall. I felt fine about most of my bouts, but the second loss just bothered me; I felt like I fell out of my head and I suffered because of it.

The By The Book tournament was amazing - I always love the crowd that turns up for it, and the sideline conversations are helpful, enlightening, and insightful. We ended up with pools of like styles, which meant that I got a few good Capo Ferro and Fabris bouts in before it was called on account of heat. I left feeling like I was in a pretty good place with my Fabris. Not fantastic, but pretty good.

(For non-fencing things: Seeing friends get well-deserved awards is always amazing. Sorcha and Lupold are now members of the Order of the Golden Rapier, which is fantastic. Dio and Doroga are both Silver Rapiers now, Eon has his AoA, and Meggie has an Augmentation of Arms. I was lucky enough to get to read Ruslan's Tyger of the East scroll in English, which was a blast. I also got Court done on Wednesday in under two hours, and had a number of very able assistants for that, without which I would have lost my mind.)

Of note, I was able to get in some bouts and conversation with Master Miguel from Ansteorra as well as Trey from the Chicago Sword Guild, and unsurprisingly I walked away from all of that with some thoughts on what I should work on; combined with practice this past Sunday and Monday, I'll have a pretty good list of things to pay attention to for a while.

On to practice thoughts!

Sunday practice was in the good Doctor's backyard. Did some slightly (but only slightly!) slowed down fencing with Meggie, which was great. Also worked on some more upright postures with Rowan, and Moar Fabris with Anastasia.

Monday had me feeling a little off, though. I don't really have a good sense for why; I've been stressed about some unrelated things lately, and maybe I just had too much in my brain. Either way though, I at least walked away with some confirmation of Fabris thoughts that I've had, so it was still very useful time spent!

Here's where I'm at, then. Besides all my usual stuff - footwork, smooth movement, balance, voids:

  • I'm being very deliberate in my guard transitions. Fine for drills, bad for fighting. Speed them up.
  • Stay more relaxed, and snap tight at the end. (I think of this as similar to how I was taught kata.)
  • More mobility. Play with measure like I used to.
  • Practice moving from a lunge to a pass.
  • Stop relying on binds (or opposition with blade contact) so much. Go reread some of Fabris' plays; there are lots that rely on tempo and not contact.
  • Remember that when I'm using an extended guard, action is going to start from further out.
And now I know!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Conditioning

Having just gotten back from Pennsic, I'm going to touch on a topic that was deeply meaningful for a number of the grossly hot and humid days spent fencing there: Conditioning. Seriously, it's a thing. It's important, and it pays dividends in terms of your fighting.

I'd wager that most of us are fencing for one or both of two reasons: we like being competitive and kickass at swords, or we like doing sweet recreations of period manuals. Both of these have solid reasons for conditioning behind them, in their own ways. Let's take them one at a time.

Competitive combat. What we do out there with swords is an athletic activity, to be sure. If you think of yourself as a competitive athlete, why not treat yourself like one? Anaerobic exercise for individual bouts. Aerobic exercise for long tournaments. (Cardio. Always more cardio.) Strength for being able to move your weapon around quickly, smoothly, forcefully, and well. Flexibility for moving your body around and avoiding injury. These are all really important, and just going to practice isn't really going to work them all.

Look at any Olympic fencer, and think about how much they drill and practice - and on top of that, they still find the time to keep working conditioning exercises. If just raw practice and drills were enough to get the body built up, they sure wouldn't be doing any other conditioning - they are ridiculously efficient with their time and effort, and if there was a better way, they'd be doing it. For something closer to home, take a look at the armored combat people who are the serious contenders for Crown and ask them how much they work out when they decide to go fight. I bet most hit the gym pretty regularly.

Practice is absolutely necessary, but it doesn't work the whole body particularly well at all. (Compare your off-hand to your primary hand. Yeah. That's a thing.) Yet you need that whole body to fence really effectively. At least work some cardio in. Stretch regularly - every day, if you can. Consider strengthening exercises. It won't feel like much as you go, but based on the fact that I was still able to fight at the end of the melees this year, despite the crushing heat? Yeah, I blame having spent some real time actually exercising regularly. (If nothing else, we're all getting older, and exercise helps hold off the impact of entropy just a little bit longer. I'll do a whole lot to squeeze out one more year of fencing in my life.)

Let's move to recreation of period manuals. I could talk about how it's still athletic, and it still takes effort, and that's all true. But you're here for the manuals, so let's go look at two of them - specifically Fabris and di Grassi.

Fabris notes of his particular postures, "In order to properly learn how to keep your body low in this manner, you will need a fair amount of practice and hard work." Of his extended guards in general, he notes that they "can be fatiguing" and of particular ones "keeping the arm in this position for a long time is tiring." These are all good arguments for spending time growing stronger and more flexible.

Looking at di Grassi, though, is amazing. At the end of his manual, he has a section entitled, "On Training Alone In Order To Acquire Strength." He literally has a section telling the reader to go exercise. You can't get any better than that. One of the masters felt it was important enough to write down. So I guess if you're going to be working on recreating a manual, you should go work out. Giacomo di Grassi says so.

In all fairness, I get that most people aren't fencing as a lifestyle choice. It's a hobby, and people are going to make perfectly reasonable choices about how best to spend their time. However, I do think that if you're working hard on trying to get your fencing to the next level that spending some time to get the meat-car you live in tuned up to make it that much easier to properly perform the correct actions over and over again is very likely time well spent, and it'll end up showing in your fencing.

And that's what I wanted to get off my chest about conditioning. Next entry, we're back to Fabris!


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fabris and His Dagger Guard Concepts

In our last post, we looked at Fabris' extended single guards, and the reasoning behind them. Now let's take a look at his dagger guards, which in general have the dagger quite extended with the sword much more withdrawn.

Interestingly, Fabris points out that you should be careful about extending your sword forward because your "opponent can find it with his dagger and attack you." He also notes that this weapon combination is more difficult because "you must pay attention to the position of your two weapons and the two of the opponent." In short, Fabris assumes matched weapon forms. While it may be a reasonable assumption that you could well use a sword extended guard with the dagger held back at the hilt if you were fighting someone who was using only a single blade and stay true to Fabris' teachings, there are some advantages to the withdrawn guard that Fabris feels that you wouldn't be taking full advantage of.

Fabris begins by describing the dagger postures such that the dagger arm should be held at shoulder height, and the dagger pointing at your opponent's sword. You should extend at least one fifth the length of your sword past your dagger, and join them at the points to prevent your opponent from attacking between them. (I'm assuming that Fabris is considering the hilt of your dagger the point your're moving the sword past, otherwise if your blade is past the point of the dagger, by definition you can't join them at the points.) Should you extend your sword, you should join the dagger to it at the hilt, for the same reason. He repeats this through the section, underlining the importance of it. If you leave space between your weapons for your opponent to attack, you are leaving yourself vulnerable. (Or making an invitation, but that's a different topic.)

When it comes to engaging your opponent, Fabris warns that if you extend your sword to find your opponent's withdrawn blade, you run the risk of allowing them to find you with their dagger. Rather, you should remember that you can effectively find your opponent's weapon without contact, and simply place the forte of your sword on the line created by the point of your opponent's sword and your body. (Alternatively, you can replace the sword with the dagger while you attack with the sword, which Fabris thinks is particularly good when your opponent's sword is withdrawn.) Likewise, you don't want to creep so close as to find their withdrawn sword with your dagger, because you risk moving too closely into measure without finding their blade.

If your opponent's sword is extended though, Fabris recommends finding it with your dagger. He notes though, that you should already be positioning your dagger such that its height is appropriate to your opponent's sword. You shouldn't have to raise or lower your dagger to find your opponent's sword, nor to defend yourself if they cavazione over your dagger. In the case of your opponent holding their sword "somewhat" low, Fabris naturally says that you should lower your body such that you don't need to move your dagger down to find their sword and are still covering yourself. If their sword is lower than that, you can cover them with your sword, albeit differently if they're working towards your inside or outside - working from Third to Second towards your outside, and into Fourth on the inside - but always keeping your sword and dagger joined, so as to prevent them from performing a cavazione over your sword and between your weapons.

While Fabris goes into some more detail about specific counters to specific guards, all of his advice really finds its way back to the core information here. He closes though, by noting that "other masters" decry his core advice that "you may always find your opponent’s sword with yours, provided that you place your dagger so as to require little motion to defend any target your opponent may attack." These other masters, according to Fabris, say that you should work your weapons separately - if one is attacking, one should be defending, and vice versa. "They say that since the sword and dagger are two distinct weapons, they should be used for distinct purposes, instead of being both used for only one end." Fabris strongly feels that using both weapons in unison will allow them to better support each other, be less disjointed in their movements, and be better able to position yourself to wound your opponent while keeping yourself safe from harm. (To add to this in modern terms, I'd say that you're reducing your cognitive load and the need to timeslice between your weapons, making your fight overall easier and better.)

That's our overview of Fabris' sword and dagger concepts! I'm not sure where I'll go for my next post. Possibly going through the invitations that Fabris scatters through his plates, or some other interesting trends in them if they jump out at me.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Extended Guards - What Is Fabris Thinking?

Let's pick this blog back up again by starting with a topic that was cued by a comment at a fencing practice I was at this past weekend. Namely, what is Fabris thinking with his single rapier guards being so extended?

That's a pretty fair question, I think! Let's take a look at what he has to say about this and kick around why he espouses this idea. (In subsequent entries, we'll look at his ideas for rapier and dagger guards, and contrast them a bit.)

Fabris describes three broad ways to hold the sword. First with the sword held at an angle and the arm "not much extended," and the hand in third, over the right knee or in second just to the outside of the knee. This is, essentially, the generic fencing guard that many new people fall into out of habit. Second is with the arm "quite withdrawn" and the sword in line with the elbow.

Third though, is with the arm extended and the sword extending from the shoulder. This is what Fabris focuses on, especially with his single rapier guards (Approximately half of Fabris' single guards could be described as extended; it's a higher percentage if you discount his examples of "poorly formed" guards.) However, he does immediately note two issues that the fencer will need to be aware of. First is the fatiguing nature of the guard, and second is the fact that the sword will be easier to find when it is held - meaning the fencer will need to be much more on the ball to keep it free. At this point, Fabris really goes into why he prefers the third variation at good length.

The first points that Fabris makes about an extended guard really have to do with distance. In effect, your point will be closer to your opponent, meaning that he needs to begin dealing with it sooner than he otherwise might, if the arm were not so extended. Your openings will be small, and if he wants to gain a large degree of control over your blade (or as Fabris puts it here "places his forte to your debole and goes for the attack") you will be able do readily defend yourself. Additionally, the extension of your arm means that you will have somewhat more time to defend yourself if he tries this, because he will need to pass his point well beyond your forte before he reaches your body. Despite needing to pass so far to reach you, Fabris does again note that it is "laborious to maintain your point in line," and even a small motion in your hand could create a large enough opening for your opponent to capitalize on. Finally, he points out that you need to "restrict your step" and keep your lower body out of range, which leads to the very distinctive postures that Fabris is perhaps most well known for.

(As an aside, I just want to point out how much it amuses me that Fabris will consistently keep pointing out how difficult some of his recommendations are. The extended arm, the stances, everything. He keeps saying that they're hard and require practice and can't be kept up for long. On the other hand, he's very clear about why he recommends them, what the alternatives are, and especially in the case of stances says that if you can't do them yet you should practice but that upright stances are just fine as long as you know the pros and cons of your posture.)

Fabris then moves to noting how best to lunge with this style of guard. He is very clear that your arm should remain still and let your body and feet carry the blade to the target. In effect, as long as your sword is pointing where you want it to go, "point control" as it is usually practiced in the SCA becomes far less relevant; rather, you just point and lunge and as long as your blade and arm haven't wavered, you strike where you want. Removing the extension of the arm from the lunge and strike process does a great deal for improving targeting, provided you keep it still, but it sure does take a whole lot of effort to remain in that guard.

Finally, Fabris spends the bulk of the chapter discussing angles of the blade. He begins by noting that people who hold their sword at an angle, typically in Third or Second, above or just outside their leading knee, do "fortify their sword" but at the cost of distance and in giving larger openings. He goes on to note that angled guards in Third make for larger (and therefore slower) cavazioni. Second is better for that, but not as good a guard against people who know how to avoid your forte.

He summarizes his thoughts on angles by saying that "angles are good for the offense but poor for the defense." Angled blades can work well against other angled blades as well as straight blades, but it is more difficult for straight blades to defeat one another. If you are attacking against an angled blade, he cautions you to have the advantage of not just the sword, "but also of body and foot," otherwise the dreaded double hit is at risk.

Fabris takes the time to say that "it is profitable to utilize all of these techniques as the occasion requires; he who is familiar with all of them has the benefit of knowing their nature and the effects that can derive from each." No technique is universally effective, and you should have a broad understanding of as many as possible. Sometimes you need a withdrawn blade, or a very angled one, despite the fact that in general, Fabris feels that a more extended guard is better. General rules are a sound guideline, but specific situations trump general rules all the time.

Fabris wraps all of this thinking up up by saying, "In order to be safest of all, you should hold your sword arm not quite extended, but more extended than not, with the sword directed straight toward the opponent or just out of line as the opponent's posture calls for." The forte of your sword can protect your body, and require small motions at most to do so. It's less fatiguing than being completely extended, but you can still derive most of the benefits from it as though it were. Finally, it's a bit harder for your opponent to "sneak an attack under your sword" because you'll be more mobile with your blade.

The chapter closes with Fabris reiterating that all stances have shortcomings, and that you need to be able to adapt to the opponent and the situation as necessary.

There we have it! Fabris presents his opinions very well, and I think it's difficult to argue with them. Granted, I do agree that "this is a very tiring stance" isn't entirely a bad reason to not work with a more extended guard, but conditioning is part of fighting and solo work is a fantastic time to work on strengthening stances and guards.

I find though, that using an extended guard really does require you to be very on the ball in almost every way - and in ways that you can get away without doing if you're in a more withdrawn and angled guard. The very moment that your opponent gets their blade on your debole, you must deal with it. Granted, you can deal with it using a very small motion, but you cannot hesitate. Similarly, the moment you do this, or see an opening in general, you need to pounce. While you can withdraw your blade while stepping off-line somewhat to counter your opponent if they decide to quickly close past the point of your blade, frankly, it's better to just not give them that option in the first place. Parrying from an extended position is difficult, and Fabris isn't a fan of parrying in any case. Rather than engaging in prolonged back and forth exchanges, this will tend to make you want to move in and execute your opponent cleanly. While that's simply better overall, I think it's telling that the body mechanics itself support that far better than anything else.

Next, we'll take a look at Fabris' dagger guard concepts! He has a trend, I think, of having the dagger far more extended than not, and the sword held somewhat back. Once we go through those concepts, we can throw them up against the extended single guard, and see what's what.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Breaks, they happen.

I should make sure to write something in here before it gets dusty, huh?

Sickle work is still slow - getting time with Doroga to work through them in pairs is hard lately; rapier practice has us working on our various areas there, with not much time left over for other things. (I encourage you to read his stuff for Spanish rapier thoughts, though!) Events have us squeezing in whatever we can get before Court, too. Weirdly, I'm looking forward to Pennsic for catching up here - hanging out in camp together means that we'll nerd around with sickles for sure. Also, I'm going to have a practice or two when I can't fence, but maybe super-slow sickle work will be okay, and I'll catch up then. I haven't forgotten! I want to finish working through those plates.

With Pennsic fast approaching, I'm focusing on practical application of good Italian rapier over nearly anything else, though I do still work some C&T work for warmups and occasional bouts. (I'd like to do more, but limited time and limited folks who do it. That said, I'm doing some gear shopping at Pennsic!) Transitioning through good lunge technique is still a major part of my daily practice, as is moving from steps to passes, cavazione, and voids. Why get fancy? I work on opposition and also Capo Ferro's hierarchy when I have a partner, for sure, but working basics is what's really going to keep me on track when it's just me, a sword, and my pell. (Also, it's good to keep working those for when I start teaching newer people.)

It's interesting seeing how different practices fall out, and how people at each of them work. My usual Monday practice has turned into mostly a combat practice, and Thursday is mostly a drill practice. (Though there's sometimes a little drilling on Monday and a little combat on Thursday, that's really how it seems to end up.) Watching the compositions of each practice and how various folks at them are approaching fencing and improving at it is really, really interesting to me.

Somewhere in the mail, I've got a copy of a new di Grassi translation coming my way, which I'm really excited to get a chance to add to my Italian Rapier Library Shelf and pore over. Additionally, I have a copy of the reprint of Tom Leoni's Fabris coming as well, which I'm looking forward to for a lot of reasons - having a copy of the book which I'm willing to let leave the house will be a good thing to have, but also a copy that I can mark up. Marginalia are love, and I'm planning on covering this with highlights, underlines, bookmarks, and marginalia and turn it into a solid and growing functional resource for me. Sitting around at Pennsic, taking notes, and being a swordnerd with people is going to be fun.

With the pause in sickle work, I'll take some time next week and go back to working through portions of Fabris. We've missed you Fabris, and your seemingly improbable body posture!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Tom Leoni's Fabris Translation available on Lulu!

Just what the title says! Tom re-released his 2005 translation on lulu.com. While he says it's missing the introductory portion, all the illustrations and translated material is present.

Tom has said that a second edition is "in the works, although it may take a while." Until then, folks can get this!