As a teacher, you learn a lot from blank stares. The kind of stares you get when you clearly describe a simple technique, smile at the students and look around expecting to see nods and the desire to get drilling. Instead…instead you get the blank look, the look that tells you no one got it. Not a word of what you said was understood. Or worse, you’ve demoed the technique, everyone has split into pairs, started the drill and simply stopped. They’ve just looked at their partner and thought “Hold on, he wants me to do what? That’s not going to work.”
Trust me, the right response is not to stare blankly back at everyone and wonder who replaced all your brilliant students with zombies hungering for brains. You have to rewind, review what you said or demonstrated, and understand why it didn’t work. Sometimes it’s because you really don’t do what you said. Working from historical material, it’s not uncommon to get into the habit of practicing a technique one way, but thinking and talking of it in another way. Using foreign languages can expose you to the nasty trap of tokenization. You can take a word or phrase and put far more meaning into it than the original was ever meant to hold. When you throw around the fancy phrases for students you lose precision. A teacher must be precise. At the same time you have to understand that some students need a different kind of precision. All students can be overwhelmed with too much precision. It’s like it’s an art or something.
Another thing to be aware of is that you might be making assumptions. I’m guilty of this. Decades of martial arts have made some concepts and actions intrinsic to my sense of self. Throwing a strong punch is something I know how to do, and still work on improving. I know that it needs good alignment, strong muscle contraction, good footwork and precise aim. When I teach students to punch, I explain and demonstrate all those points. And they can’t throw the kind of punch I want them to throw. Things that I think are too simple to explain are unknown to my students. I think it’s pointless to explain the timing of abdominal contraction, the grip with the toes, the slight drop of the shoulder, the hundred other things I do. It’s like telling someone to turn on a light if they want to read at night. I forget the hours. I forget the repetitions that taught me. I forget my own ignorance, and how I built my ladder out of it one painful rung at a time. It’s a poor ladder that skips rungs.
The Wolf Lord of Blades took me back into this territory when I first taught this plate. It’s one of those things that seems simple, yet many talented people have problems performing it the first few times. It plays out easily enough. You step into your opponents guard, your sword extend and palm up, protecting your left side and threatening a lunge to his face…same beginning as the three previous plates. This time our opponent elects to respond by throwing a backhand cut to our face. As he does this, we lunge forward and stab them in the armpit. As we do this, we raise our wrist and hilt up. Seems easy.
Confusion can come in when you try to consider logic…why on earth would I try to throw a cut over a sword that’s sticking right at me? And what’s going on in the actual plate? It looks like the cut to the face is coming up from below. How does that get to the face without hitting the arm or body first? Is it meant to be some sort of rising tip cut to the chin? I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to practice a few different cuts from this position, and try the suggested counter to each. You can, for example, try a literal disengage…attempting to step forward and inside, placing the back edge of the blade over the opponents sword, and then throwing the backhand cut to the face. Or you might try making a disengage proper, coming under the sword and moving to the outside, and trying to simultaneously cut the face while driving the tip of his sword away in a sort of shearing action.
I think the correct…which is to say the way the Wolf Lord of Blades want us to do it…action is to do a tight disengage, a mere flick of the wrist under the opposing blade. Just enough to pull under and come up on the other side. The forward momentum for the cut, as well as the reach and aim for the cut, comes from the noticeable lunge and weight shift evident in the fencer’s actions in the plate. The one who cuts has been reaching, almost flinging his cut into the others face. Such a cut would be quick, dirty and probably a very effective cheap shot. In the midst of a game of points and disengages, it could very likely catch the other fencer flat footed.
The counter needs to be done at precisely the right time. The moment of the beginning of the disengage, the lunge must begin. The hand must raise the hilt as the sword penetrates deeper into the guard space, the blade aligning under the arm of the opponent. If it is done correctly, the cut is intercepted before it begins. The thrust will effectively pry the cutting sword and arm up, and the hilts will clash. It’s a beautiful movement, if done correctly.
The masters counter is an almost sad denouement after that, being a re-iteration of a previous counter. Fake the disengage somewhat, throwing the body back enough to trigger the opponent’s “launch” reflex (a keyed up person reacts to side-to-side motion reflexively more so than profiled, in line actions. It’s because of how our eyes are made, so take advantage of it by moving the head back and slightly to the side. Take a lesson from boxing!) and then deliver a palm-up beat to the opponents sword. Then either deliver a backhand cut of your own or stab them in the chest. A lovely and effective master play, but somehow pale next to the implied understanding of the primary defense.
The Wolf Lord of Blades continues to build the most interesting thesis, and appears to be well on his way to earning that degree.