Is it a good or bad thing to develop a personal style within the practice of HEMA, which is essentially the recreation of fighting systems from the past? If we commit to an authentic reconstruction (or at least, to the attempt to make our reconstruction as authentic as possible), then does this preclude the development of a personal style?
How much wiggle room is there to develop your own way of using a sword while still following the instructions in our original sources?
These are some interesting questions, and I hope to stimulate some discussion with this article.
Quotes by Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee was an amazing martial artist. I am sure no one will disagree with me there!
He left a legacy of martial practice and a variety of quotes and words of wisdom. People often use his quotes to justify coming up with a personal style rather than following a set method, but I think there’s a little more to the quotes than might appear on the surface.
I fear not the man who has practised 10,000 kicks, but I fear the man who has practised one kick 10,000 times.
This quote is clearly in favour of doing just a few things many times to become very good at them, and is clearly against doing lots and lots of different things without ever really gaining skill at them. Clearly, to become good at your martial art, you need to buckle down and put in some serious practice time and some serious number of repetitions to reach an acceptable level of skill.
Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.
This seems like quite a reasonable notion, but it’s important to recognise where you are in your development as a martial artist. As a beginner, or even as a more experienced practitioner, there are probably things that don’t seem to work very well, because you simply haven’t put in the necessary practice yet or otherwise haven’t picked up the necessary skills. You shouldn’t just discard something because you can’t make it work YET, you should still put in the effort to be able to make things work.
Art calls for complete mastery of techniques, developed by reflection within the soul.
Again, this quote supports the idea that you do need to work hard to achieve a high level of skill at what you do. You can’t just do something ten times and decide that it isn’t working for you; you need to practise assiduously until it does work. Then, you can turn fundamentals into art by putting them together intelligently and in an inspired fashion.
When one has reached maturity in the art, one will have a formless form. It is like ice dissolving in water. When one has no form, one can be all forms; when one has no style, he can fit in with any style.
The key phrase in this quote is right at the beginning: when one reaches maturity in the art, then good things will follow. You don’t reach maturity in an art by ignoring the rules, methods, and stylistic features of that art and just doing a bit of everything. You gain maturity in an art by practising that art diligently and consistently until you understand all of the WHYs and the WHY NOTs.
Maturity in practice is not just about time invested – someone with three years of experience might have a significantly more mature practice than someone who spent six years messing around. However, time invested is still an important factor, because you simply cannot master a martial art (especially if it just your first or second martial art) in a year or two. You might gain some useful skills in that time, sure, but mastery and maturity of practice is probably still some way off.
Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.
That is probably quite good advice for learning “martial arts in general”, which is what Bruce Lee became most interested in learning for himself and then teaching to other people.
However, if you want to learn a specific skill, then you have to learn that skill specifically. So, if you want to learn HEMA, and if you want to learn Liechtenauer’s longsword (or Fiore’s longsword, or Roworth’s sabre, or Leboucher’s cane, or whatever), then that is the skill you have to learn.
Do not deny the classical approach, simply as a reaction, or you will have created another pattern and trapped yourself there.
This quote supports the idea that there is rejecting the pursuit of a classical (or historical) method of fighting is wrong, unless you have some very good reasons to do so. I might go as far as to suggest that if you are rejecting the historical methods from our source material, you probably are not doing HEMA anymore. You might be doing fencing with a historical kind of sword, but it would be wrong to claim that it is HEMA.
What we see from these Bruce Lee quotes is that on the surface, he is rejecting set styles and set forms and set methods. However, if we look below the surface, there is clearly a recognition of the importance of learning to do things properly and putting in the sweat and effort to become skilful and to gain the mastery of techniques that he deemed necessary for further development as a martial artist.
Learning the art of painting from a master
I have heard it said (although I don’t have a good source for it, and haven’t done any formal study of history of art) that throughout history, when painters and artists learned their craft, they would do so by learning the craft of their master. They would learn to reproduce their master’s works, brushstroke for brushstroke, to learn HOW to do those techniques and to learn WHY those techniques were used in that way to create that effect.
Then, once they could reproduce their master’s system perfectly, they would be recognised as journeymen or as masters in their own right, and would stop taking lessons and would start making their own art.
(If any of you have further knowledge or experience with this area of history, and some sources that would help either to prove or to disprove this statement, please let me know and I would be delighted to learn from someone with more experience and knowledge in the field.)
Learning the art of classical music from a teacher
This is something I can attest to from my own experience of learning to play the flute for several years.
When learning to play a classical instrument from a teacher of classical music, you need to learn the different techniques, structures, and shapes. You need to learn the theory of how music works, and how to read music. Of course, you play some music – but you have to do exercises and drills, you need to practise the basics relentlessly.
When you play something that has already been written, there is a correct way to play it as written. The composer provides the key, the time signature, the tempo. There may be information about how to play the piece or phrase (such as “smooth”, or “fast”, or “loud” or “soft”, or to play a sequence with crescendo). If you follow the instructions then you will play the piece the way that the composer intended it to be played. This would be the “correct” version of the piece and it is what you will learn to do when you are learning the piece.
Of course, once you have sufficient skill, and once you can play the Four Seasons the way Vivaldi wanted them to be played, you can improvise a little and impose your own style upon them. You can make them jazzy, you can make them sorrowful, you can make them suitable for a metal band… That’s clearly not what Vivaldi had in mind, originally, but you cannot do that very successfully (in a way that is internally consistent and therefore sounds good) without understanding what he originally wanted from the piece, and without the ability to play that.
In other words, learn to reproduce what the master taught you, precisely. Then, and only then, once you have the necessary skills to be able to go above and beyond, make it your own and develop your own style.
Applying this approach to martial arts
This approach to learning painting and music is not a bad model for how a student could (should?) learn a martial art.
Put in the time and learn to recreate your master’s art, the way he or she does it. Practise that one kick 10,000 times (if I may use Bruce Lee’s example) until you can perform it perfectly under any circumstances. Develop your complete mastery of all techniques, then turn it from mere practice into art by reflecting upon it and making it your own (to combine two more of his quotes).
If you were to adopt this approach for your own training of martial arts, how would your training change? What would you do differently if you adopted this point of view?
If you would like to support my writing efforts, please consider donating a little something towards my coffee fund!
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.