This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 21st October 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
If you spend time working on your skills in between your regular weekly sessions, your skill will develop more swiftly, and you will find yourself better able to learn from your regular lessons.
Here are some solo practice drills that you can do at home to help improve your basic skills.
1) Move between guards
Liechtenauer writes that there are “only four guards”: Vom Tag (sword above the head or at the shoulder); Ochs (point forwards, hands above and in front of the head); Pflug (point forwards and slightly raised, hands near the hips); and Alber (point to the floor).
However, there are several variations, such as Zornhut, Einhorn, Hangenort, Schrankhut, Lang Ort, Eisen Port, Nebenhut, etc. Each variation differs from one of the core four guards in some particular fashion. If you would like to know more about the differences between these positions, the AHA German Longsword Study Guide is a popular and well-received book that describes these positions.
Take one of the guard positions, and take a step forwards, changing into the next guard position. Step forward again, and change to the next guard position. Make yourself a sequence that you can repeat several times, to work on improving the fluency with which you move between these positions. Make several different sequences and work on all of them!
You can also perform the sequence with steps backward, or by keeping only one leg forward, then keeping only the other leg forward, or by standing perfectly still and twisting at the hips, or while moving in a circular fashion first to the left, then to the right.
2) Practise the Oberhaw from each of your guard positions
You should be able to perform a functional Oberhaw from the vast majority of your guard positions. At the very least, work on performing this strike from Vom Tag above the head, from Vom Tag at the shoulder, from both left and right Ochs positions, and from both left and right Pflug positions.
Practise the cuts slowly and smoothly, prioritising fluency, good mechanics and proper coordination over swinging hard and fast.
3) Practise an entry strike and a follow-up strike
If you are sparring with a partner, and you throw a single strike before stopping in confusion, then you are likely to receive a hit for your trouble. It is much more effective to enter with a chain of strikes, to keep the opponent on the defensive, and to give you a better chance to land at least one hit.
Take a starting guard position, move around a little bit (don’t be static, the purpose here is to prepare for sparring), make an Oberhaw from the dominant side and take a passing step forwards. Now, take a passing step directly to the other side (so if you stepped forward with your right foot, step out at around 45º to the left with your left foot) while ensuring that your body is still aligned with the target, and make a second strike: something like a Zwerhaw or a Flugelhaw.
Work with different opening strikes and different follow-up strikes. Give yourself plenty of different options, and try not to fall into a single predictable pattern.
Of course, you should be thinking about making a safe and successful Abzug after making your attacks, so finish each repetition by moving your sword into a defensive position and step backward away from the target.
4) Take a sequence from the treatises
Ask your instructor what the main source is for your club, and find it on the Wiktenauer. Take a sequence and try to work through it by yourself, treating each action first as if it hits, then moving your sword away from the target a little to simulate a parry.
For example, the Zornhaw Ort with Abnehmen can be described as follows:
1) he attacks with an Oberhaw.
2) you defend with an Oberhaw to displace his blade.
3) your displacement has won you the centre-line, so thrust straight at his face (without winding).
4) he perceives the threat and pushes your point a little to the side before it can hit him.
5) lift your sword upward to disengage from him, then cut down to the other side of his head.
So, to turn this into an exercise:
1) move around, but at some point, imagine that your opponent attacks you.
2) make a counter-cut Oberhaw in the fashion your instructor has taught you.
3) after finishing this cut, push the point straight forward into the thrust. Do not turn the Oberhaw into a thrust before the cut completes; you must practise the entirety of each motion if you want to learn control of your sword.
4) let your thrust go to completion. Then, move your point to the side, to mimic the result of having been parried.
5) finally, lift your sword straight up, and cut back down on the other side.
5) Practise slowly
Whatever sequence or exercise you give yourself for training, do it slowly. You do yourself no favours if you rush through each repetition and do everything wrong; in fact, this teaches you to do everything incorrectly when you are fencing, and it defeats the purpose of doing any training at all to become better. Take your time, focus on your precision and coordination, your balance, and making sure you can control the sword so that it goes exactly where you want it to go.
Then, finally, once you can perform an exercise perfectly by going through it slowly and carefully, increase the speed. Only ever practising slowly will not be so very helpful if you then have to spar at something approaching full speed, so you do need to ensure that you start working at a greater pace. But take care to lay your foundations properly by practising slowly and carefully, before speeding up.
For further reading, Guy Windsor has written an article specifically on the subject of practising slowly in order to learn speed: http://guywindsor.net/blog/2012/10/i-am-slow/
Bonus exercise: Meyer’s square
Joachim Meyer describes an excellent set of exercises within the simple parameters of a single square diagram. I have written some thoughts about it previously, so try adding Meyer’s four openings drill to your personal practice repertoire!
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.