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 Second is with the arm "quite withdrawn" and the sword in line with the elbow.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!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Yet More Practice Report

The Lochleven Spring Practice was this weekend, which meant Sunday had a lot of time being outside, watching melee practices, and getting in some good singles practice for me.

I approached it more as a functional practice than a purely manual practice, and it worked out pretty well. I felt a little off during the day, but that's probably just because I wasn't super focused for a number of reasons.

I noticed that being able to flow smoothly between a more upright Italian stance and down into a Fabris guard was working pretty well for me. While I'm still not as explosive as I'd like (especially from a lower stance), being able to shift between them really opened up my options (as well as being super period, so go me!) and when I was using a dagger, it let me deny my sword to people who were either being very proactive with a dagger or other offhand in terms of molesting my blade, or just letting me close off differently. In particular, I think it was helpful against the good Doctor Deth, who has a particularly vicious gliding beat with virtually no telegraph.

Working case into my Italian game went fairly well. While it'll never be a major form for me, it was working well as a counter-pick to Deth's case. I've been using an off-hand cane for a while there, which let me close off enough area that it let me work more safely, but being able to actually threaten more with my off-hand changed things up much more.

(It also led to some interesting thoughts about how various case fighters use case, and how I'd much rather just use dagger out of stubborn principle. Sometimes - I think the majority of the time, really - I can, and it works out well. Deth though, hits enough problem areas for me that counter-picking a weapon form gives me much more leeway.)

I need to work more on keeping the tip of my sword free. More disengage/yielding drills, including working on disengaging over the dagger. I need to be much, much more responsive there. I should also fight more single rapier, just to really dial in on these things as well as forcing much more opposition practice. These should also help against beats - either disengaging them or yielding and collecting them.

Explosive footwork and aggressive responses are things that have been problems for me for too long, and I need to dial those in. (Also, once again, making passing steps more instinctive.) There's going to be some focus on that with drilling for the coming Mondays, which will be super good. Likewise working those offline steps and more body voids (and general body English in general - Edward and Malocchio both are good examples of that for me) which is also a reminder for me to stretch more. Some of that I can work on in my own backyard, which is convenient.

Finally, gonna have to pull out the sidesword and start in on basic cutting patterns. I'm happy to use my rapier in C&T, but broadening my game into a solid Bolognese footing (and eventually Italian longsword, which reminds me, go get one) will be fantastic fun.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Quick Practice Report

I'm doing this mostly to keep myself thinking and accountable. So!

The big things I took away from last night were:
  • Keep drilling opposition. Work up to opposed drilling regularly. Make sure I'm doing everything right. Details matter.
  • Keep practicing open and closed dagger guards. Test them.
    • Work both of the above together. Opposition while using a good closed guard. All at once.
  • Mobility. Work on it. Both pure foot-based movement as well as just getting my body to be willing to move itself around. Body English.
  • Lunging in good order. Also, diverting into passing on the lunge.
  • Merging everything together. Cavazione while stepping in, leaning, forming a closed dagger guard. All at once, and all.
Which is basically just "practice fencing," I know, but still. Breaking it down like that is super helpful for me. Plus, I can at least do some of that solo.

Two sets of bouts really stood out to me, though!

Working with Malocchio brought a very different fight from our usual out; we were both working on very specific concepts from Devon's workshop, and it led to some really interesting exchanges. I wasn't contesting opposition to the degree that I usually do, instead moving to cavazione instead. He was committing a lot more and using a very different posture with the cane. It was all around really great.

I found myself unable to land any solid attacks on Kenric in opposition to my outside. Given that he's a lefty, and that my outside is his inside, this makes some sense to me. Still, the mechanics of my movement in from finding felt off, so I want to work on that next Monday. (Or possibly this Saturday, but probably Monday.)

Nothing huge, but worth putting down to keep me honest!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Mair's Sickle, Plate Four

Time to dust this off, keep on going, and just add to the backlog of things to work through with Doroga and post followup entries on!

Since it's been a while, I'll mention that I'm using the translation here. Wiktenauer has a picture from a different manuscript of the plate here.
The action once again begins with the fighter on the left initiating. Fighter A is standing straight up, legs together, right hand holding the sickle above your head, and your left hand on your left hip. Fighter B awaits in a lower stance, with the right leg leading, the sickle on the inside of the right leg, and the left hand on the left hip.

First Variation
  • Fighter A steps forward with their right foot, striking downward onto B's head. Done!
Second Variation
  • Fighter A steps forward with their right foot, striking downward towards B's head.
  • Fighter B parries upward and outward to the right. B then steps in with their left foot and strikes A's right leg.
Third Variation
  • Fighter A steps forward with their right foot, striking downward towards B's head.
  • Fighter B parries upward and outward to the right. B then steps in with their left foot and strikes at A's right leg.
  • A grabs B's right elbow from the outside with their left hand and pulls it towards them, interrupting the strike. A then strikes B in the right shoulder.
That's it! Hopefully between Courts at Coronation on Saturday, Doroga and I will have a little time to work through the third and fourth plates, as well as touch up the first two as well. Thoughts will be posted about that, and once they settle, we can move on to the fifth plate, where it seems like the initial setup is a bit more complicated!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Functional Mnemonics!

If you follow any of the fencers who are semi-local to me on almost any social media, you'll probably have noticed that this past Sunday, we were lucky enough to have been able to catch Devon Boorman of Acadamie Duello in Vancouver out in the Boston area for nearly six hours worth of historical rapier teaching.

(Brief shout-out: in addition to the physical Acadamie, Devon also runs DuelloTV, which has a giant mess of instructional videos available. Setting up the basic membership is free, allows access to a number of the introductory videos, and only gets you one piece of email sent to you a week - letting you know which of the advanced videos are rotating into free access for the week. I cannot recommend this resource highly enough.)

There wasn't much in the workshop that was completely, 100% brand new to me, but I always love getting a full review of the fundamentals from the ground on up. Fixes to technique at that level almost always have a ripple-through effect to the rest of my fight in ways that are kind of hard to quantify but are absolutely there. Even little things like adjusting my hand or foot can have a long-term impact in that every little bit of increased efficiency will reduce the wear and tear on my joints, meaning that I get to keep doing this thing for that much longer in my life. Which, in something that won't shock anyone, is really important to me.

The other reason that I will always happily work through fundamental workshops is because there will inevitably be some turn of phrase or tiny little technique that will have an impact on my fencing out of all proportion to the time spent on it. This entry today is one of those little snippets - a couple turns of phrase and ways of thinking or describing an action and how to think of it just all clicked together into a thought which led to writing this up.

While I'm hoping to do a couple shorter follow-up posts about rapier specific things that were really important that I picked up on, I really wanted to note a couple broader mental concepts that kind of hit my brain on Sunday. Specifically, something that I've noticed Devon doing in his instruction that I'm terming "functional mnemonics." Now, I have absolutely no formal education in either the practice of teaching or learning theory or anything like that, so it's quite probable that this concept has a name all on its own already, and is well known in the field, but it's new to me so I'm noting it because I think it's super important. In practice, I think that using functional mnemonics will impact two parts of fencing - cognitive load and good technique.

One of the things that was mentioned as an aside is that people don't truly multitask like many folks think. We can't parallel process - we really can only do one thing at a time - but we timeslice really well, and jump back and forth from thing to thing quickly. That's fine most of the time, but you really don't want to be timeslicing while fencing. You want to minimize the cognitive load that you need to carry - you absolutely want to minimize the number of things that your mind will need to jump between to track. The usual way this comes up in practice is when a student first picks up a dagger, and the instructor points out that they don't want to create a third line of attack between the sword and the dagger, because that's one more thing to track, and can dramatically increase the cognitive load that the fencer needs to deal with. Remove that line, and the number of cycles in the brain dedicated to jumping from line to line drops a lot, and you can focus on other things. Win!

So relating this to functional mnemonics came up in the workshop terms of foot/knee/leg positioning. Typically, newer fencers are taught to keep their lead foot pointed along the line of action, and to be sure that their knee is extending along that same line, bending over the foot and toe. While this is structurally sound and worth practicing, it's also a lot to keep track of. Foot position, leg angle, knee tracking - that's really a lot. On the other hand, if you think of it in terms of keeping your knees out as though you were doing a squat, not only do you end up with a more structurally sound stance overall, but if you're used to the feeling in the knee when you're in such a position, almost by definition your foot will have to point properly and your knee will track over it correctly. You don't need to keep track of the individual components like we typically instruct people, it just falls into place. Knees out, recognize the sensation, everything else just happens. Much less cognitive load, more free cycles in your brain to pay attention to things your opponent is doing!

This also relates to the second way that functional mnemonics comes up - thinking of an action differently (and generally more simply) leaning to performing proper technique. This came up in three separate instances, but they all clicked together really well.
  • In using opposition, from the first finding of the blade all the way through the gain and the strike, students were encouraged to "keep your mind on your point" and not thinking of the action from the perspective of the hand at all. This really does end up preventing a lot of the problematic hiccups in the action.
  • When striking from opposition, thinking of it as a forward motion, and don't worry about the deflection at all. If you're moving forward into a good Seconda or Quarta, the sideways motion necessary for deflecting your opponent happens coincidentally and well, and doesn't go too far.
  • When recovering your arm after a lunge, thinking of it as tucking your elbow in, not withdrawing the arm, prevents the elbow-out chicken wing that happens sometimes.
None of these really have any changes in the actions themselves, but just thinking about performing the action using a particular mnemonic leads to performing it correctly solely because of the mindset or focus that the thought process leads to. Additionally, and related to the first point, thinking of the action in that way tends to summarize a lot of other little parts or makes it unnecessary to think about them actively, which also reduces the cognitive load you're undergoing as you're working on the actions.

I hadn't ever encountered this type of summary or thought process of teaching precise physical actions before, but now that I've been struck by it, I can see a lot of it cropping up here and there through Devon's instruction. It strikes me as supremely useful, both in terms of instruction and in terms of actual training and performance for myself, and I'm very likely going to be trying to work those into teaching when useful, and into my mental processes while I'm drilling and working on new techniques.

Finally, as I mentioned at the beginning, I have about zero formal training along these lines, so if anyone has any more information or thoughts about this - either in terms of instruction or performance - I'd love to hear them.