I started by asking what I would need to do in order to begin learning the longsword as a solo practitioner. That is the premise behind all of this and as I gather resources together and find out the methods of learning that work I will share them as I go. Once you bring your general fitness levels up to a certain standard and read all the books, watch all the videos you can, you get to a point where you must take action. If this is to attend a class with a trainer then you are on your way. My position is that there may be a place for the beginner and novice to start their training on the right foot and to guide that beginner past some of the obvious mistakes and bad starts, even if they cannot find a training partner. I’m not doing that as an expert, I am recording the path of a beginner.
What I have found so far is that there are some core ideas that I would need to keep in mind at all times and then there are some elements that would need to be drilled.
Posture and Form
Some aspects of correct posture can be adapted to everyday life. I have been adjusting my posture consciously to try and prevent myself from always stooping or rounding my back. This is a habit born of countless years of desktop PC use, slouching in a low sitting position, leaning over with endless copy and paste manoeuvres and curving the shoulders forward and together. My continual reminder always comes down to sitting up straight, opening the chest, drawing the neck back to a more stable position, standing taller and elongating the neck, tilting the hips forward to prevent the posterior sticking out. All of which can be applied to the training as well as walking about or typing at a computer.
Some aspects of posture can be brought to mind specifically when practising, such as the guards; you form a guard position and take a moment to self-correct, making sure every part of your position is right. You transition to a new guard and back again, then see what needs to be changed. The danger with this is that you may feel that you are in the correct position but without a trained eye watching over you it may be difficult to know you are correct. Mistakes that are learnt in the early stages of developing a muscle memory are only going to cause major problems later on.
I should make special note here of the technology involved. As multi-media design specialist I use any and all technologies available without qualm or hesitation. Within the context of learning a martial art or sport it makes sense to use video to record and critique you training and to share that with other team members, which is where the iPad or smart phones come into play. There are a variety of apps and programs that will allow a team or individual to record their actions and review them in minute detail.
I would use the Android/iOS app ‘Ubersense’ to record and review my activities and I have set up a Barebones Company account for this purpose. The ability to compare side by side and to compare as overlay is fantastic. I can import or directly record my action, drag in a professional video and then compare the two in 1/8 the speed, scrubbing back and forth over the key points. If a coach were using it they could receive your video, create a review of the video with highlights and commentary and then share it back. I am surprised more people in HEMA are not using it.
At the moment I am also using Pinnacle Studio for the iPad and creating simple videos through that. It is a basic video editor and there are many that can allow you to slow down, trim and crop, overlay and so on.
YouTube is more common for sports training and many schools and HEMA practitioners will create channels that provide video blogs, insights, seminars and tournaments for everyone to learn from. Though the independent voice of the world will often give rise to a wash of various qualities there are a few that stand high and proud above the rest. These are some of the ones I have been following.
- Swordschool – The European School of Swordsmanship
- Scholagladiatoria – Schola Gladiatoria
- Celgus – Ilkka Hartikainen
- Lasaladellearmi – La Sala delle Armi
- Hroarr – HROARR
The Terrible Truth
In that regard I thought that photography and video would help create some kind of feedback. First I had my 8 year old boy take the role of Swordsman’s Companion and he photographed me as I tried to adopt the 12 guards. They were wonky photos but not so bad I couldn’t see where improvements might be needed. A short bit of editing and I could place three views of my guard positions side by side. The videos offered by The School of European Swordsmanship, via their YouTube channel, do not explicitly show a series of guards but through a few screen grabs I could match up an image of how it was supposed to be done. Here, Guy Windsor performs it flawlessly.
I give it a bash.
It was depressingly clear how much work would be needed, yet these were just stills, static images.
The next stage would be to use video and to introduce movement. I found where I could balance my phone in order to record my practice and I stepped out to test what amount of my position would be captured and in shot. Once I checked back to see what I had recorded I was horrified. From the very moment I saw the footage I could tell I was holding the very worst possible posture, the most distorted and ineffective stance, the most sluggish movement I think I could muster. Everything about my presence suggested that I was embarrassed, introverted, and reluctant. I stood as though I did not wish to be there and swung the training sword as though I was eager to give it away.
I should clarify that I was not giving my all, I was not focusing on the task but more the range of a general movement, but once you commit something to video you cannot help but be held to account by it. Therein is a warning for those recording themselves for training purposes: The video is an unapologetically cruel audience. Nothing compared to the Internet, I am sure.
I loaded my terrible test footage onto Ubersense and trimmed it down to one movement, a simple Mandritto Fendente from Porta di Donna to Porta Longa (I shudder even to name them as such). I then loaded in footage of Guy Windsor performing the same movement, using the clip from his YouTube channel and provided by The School of European Swordsmanship, trimming down to the exact same slice of action. Comparing the two clips within the app I can set them side by side and the differences become clear and damning. The following video is a separately edited item that shows the problems with my form, all of which were easy to view using the app.
The first part is my attempt, followed by the way it should be done. Slowing it down highlights the obvious problems, overlaying them makes it more obvious. Going back and forth over the frames shows each movement as it is engaged and hopefully makes it clear what one should be doing.
The first thing I noticed was that my weight was distributed between the feet and neither forward or back weighted. Though I am sure that it is not such a crime to stand so, I found in this instance it led me to do a little adjustment prior to moving. I effectively moved the front foot slightly before moving the sword. Looking at the posture of Guy I can see that there is a vertical line from the top of the spine to the weighted foot and his weight is balanced around that line, by the time his swing has completed the balance is exactly the same. With my weight further back I have more work to do to shift myself forward as I have to gather up my back leg in order to move it.
The second thing I noticed was the arc of the sword tip. It is clear that my sword moves through a tall swing, meaning my arms are moving more than they need to. You can see that Guy starts with the strike, whipping the point around and forward to strike before my sword had even reached a mid point. Guy strikes and then moves the blade forward as he completes the step, whereas I take the long way around and my blade tip reaches the target only once my foot is landing. This would result in me meeting another blade or hitting a target whilst I was still on one foot and travelling to the final position.
It is also worth noting the speed of the passing step. Both Guy and I are making the passing step at the same speed. If you just look at the foot placement then the two are not too out of phase. To me this indicates that although we are both move at the same overall speed, it comes down to the posture and form as to which one is more effective and who would strike first.
So after reviewing this video I came away with a number of quick points to keep firmly in mind next time.
- Approach the task with commitment. If I do not act as though I am definitely going to chop and slice great chunks out of someone then that hesitance will translate into my posture and action.
- Keep my posture in mind. There is always time to adjust when training and it is better to be slow and correct rather than fast and ineffective.
- Be mindful of a lower stance and where the weight is loaded.
- The leading weighted foot, knee and hips should be aligned in the direction of movement. I include this here because it bears repetition. I have heard it from HEMA practitioners and Tai Chi coaches and it is in The Medieval Longsword.
- Do not telegraph the move or adjust before moving. You should always be weighted and balanced to do the move without requiring further change. If you need to step or adjust at the point of action then the primary position is flawed.
- The sword point should be the primary object that I focus on moving, directly to the target. I had moved, then swung and then stepped when I should have simply performed the attack and allowed it to move me to the next position naturally.
- When I move the sword from this guard I now try to think of that whipping action, where the hands form the lever that brings the blade forward. The momentum of this action drives the position forward. As to how effective that is will be determined by further tests.
There were certainly a lot of things I already knew, that I had neglected to keep in mind. There were also some things that seemed obvious once I had seen them in detail, from a fresh perspective. The overall aim of finding out how I may go about learning the sword was at least verified by testing the use of photo and video.