I was just reading through some old correspondences from a few years back. They were all centered around a pivotal moment in my FMA career; a time of turbulent change. While reading the various view points and with the perspective of time, I was struck by the intensity of emotions and the ferocity of opinions as certain parties tried desperately to avoid change and were threatened by exploration.
All arts change. I think that is a fundamental truth of Martial Arts. They change because they are intensely personal experiences for each student and as the student explores the art more deeply, they begin to mold it to themselves. Personalities grow through the art. Relationships change as students become teachers and teacher’s masters. People change and art changes with them. Uncle Leo used to encourage us to “make the art your own”. But, beyond that edict, we who have continued to explore and plumb the depths of our experience have discovered aspects of the art that we could not be taught by our masters. This is our own personal journey; the door through which we may walk but to which may only be led by our Masters. The teacher’s goal is not simply to paste a series of movements onto your body, but to help the student discover the art, peel away their resistance and fully envelop the art within their soul. In doing so, each teacher must be prepared for the consequences of such a personal experience by their students. Once students have been led to the door, they may walk through and never return. Students may journey even deeper into the art than our Masters; delving deeper into the fundamental theories of our art than we ever dared; revealing truths that may make us look insufficient.
This is why being a teacher of our arts is such a difficult and risky vocation for our egos. True leadership requires humility, a quiet commitment to the truth and a relinquishing of the ego. All students need to be encouraged to explore so they may fully understand the art. That means they may stray. They may discover new and wonderful things. If you are not prepared to see this happen with your students, then you are not really teaching them, you are dictating to them. If you expect them to simply tow the party line and teach to a standard that is imposed externally without understanding internally, then you are an inflexible dictator and not a master teacher. I have had many students come and go through the years and I am immensely proud of each one, even those who have gone away. It was a great pleasure watching them grow and change through the years.
So, how do we manage the change within our art? Some Masters tackle this question head on, make no apologies and dictate that the new module they just added is now the standard. Others set very clear guidelines and do not tolerate those who will not follow an exact standard. Some Master’s never really set any standard and their art morphs along with them and their experiences without structure. Still others add to the art from outside and claim falsely that the new material is some secret module only taught to them in private and reserved for only the most advanced students. Thereby, boosting their own ego and their position rather than their art. Change only becomes a problem when there is an expectation of a fixed order to the art and deviation threatens a leader’s ego.
I believe an art is, at its core, a series of principles, not a series of movements. The footwork, blade position, striking angles, blocks, counters and evasions are all the results of principles. They are not the art. They are the booby prize. The core principle and its eloquent expression through technique is the real prize. For me, it has never been enough to simply do the move the way my master did it. I have always sought to know why because the technique was applied to a principle first and to understand the technique completely a real student must dig to the core and understand the underlying principle. If we are lucky, some students will dig deeper than we have. It’s not really change if a student’s understanding of your art exceeds your own. That’s a wonderful event to be lauded not punished.
As the Masters pass, so too does their unique understanding of the principles of their art. Students and instructors left behind have an obligation to maintain the core principles of the art but they must always be cautious of the urge to lay down edicts. And, new Masters should be careful not to add techniques that are not in alignment with the core principles of their art. But, if they do, they should acknowledge it openly showing their students that even a Master can learn.
What I enjoy most about working under my current Grand Master is that he has an innate understanding of the core principles of our art. Each class is another opportunity to explore and reinforce those core concepts and rather than straying from the root of our art, we continue to make those roots stronger; managing changes as we continue to learn together in mutual respect. If you wish to manage change within your art, manage first your own ego and look upon change as inevitable and non-threatening. If you have mastered the core principles of your art then change should be a blessed opportunity for growth not a wolf at the door.
Another outstanding blog! I hope John features it!
Wow well said, you have, as they say, "hit the nail on the head". If may add some personal observations: Over my years of experience in the Filipino Martial Arts, more than once I have had a student or lower level instructor come to me and say hey when I was learning "our system" from such and such other instructor I was taught that movement in this manner. How is that you and the other teacher/instructor both learned from the system founder but your movements vary from a slight amount to a great amount depending on what is being shown. My "standard" answer is: well you know that particular instructor came into the system earlier or later than me and over the years the founder also changed certain movements of his system as he also developed in his own martial journey. Or another reasonable explanation is that as instructors we are only human and over the years since the passing of the founder, we have grown as instructors and we find that certain aspects of the founders system appeals to us differently, so we may favor locking and trapping or striking or what ever in a manner that better fits our body type. I add to that explanation: you know if we as instructors learned to paint from one of the great impressionistic painting masters, even if we were instructed to paint the same object and we started out with the same colors of paint in the end our paintings would end up different just because we are human and we interpret the lessons from our master different. The same would apply if we were cooking: even if we started out with the same ingredients and spices our finished dishes would taste different. IMO, I feel one of the most important aspects as you so well pointed out, do not apologize for your personal adaptation of the "original" system, but rather embrace personal development. I personally strive to keep my original learned foundation-system in tack to the best of my ability. Therefore I teach the basics of my first learned system as a foundation and then teach other FMA or other martial aspects that appeal to me as well. I think it is important to keep in mind that 99.99% of the Filipino Martial Art systems are a blend of various aspects of Arnis, Kali, Eskrima, etc. So it is only natural that the Filipino Martial Arts continue to evolve as we are all exposed to more and more systems due to modern social networking & seminars, etc. In most cases this continuing volume of information was simply not available to the founding masters of the recognized/established FMA systems of days gone by. In the end change and evolution is good, but tradition is equally important as well. The most important aspect is that we teach sound and functional movements that are capable of saving ones life in time of need. Thank you for the opportunity to post my comments. Aloha, Master Ron England, Ola'a-nalo Eskrima.
Thanks for the comment. You are right. I am 6'-1 and 235#. GM Mike is considerably shorter so we play in very different ways. What I really enjoy about training under him is that he embraces these differences while still maintaining the core principles of his father's system. His criticisms of my technique are always rooted in the core principles but adapted to my abilities. Other Masters seem to think there is an incorruptable standard and they don't even see the differences in their own students. Some even stray completely off the core principles and begin teaching techniques that oppose those principles declaring this new curriculum as the official one.
That is a good point about the original movements of the founders system being carried on by the son/or daughter or heir apparent of a system. Even though my martial roots are based in one particular FMA system, like most of us I have dabbled in other FMA systems and other martial arts when the opportunity presents itself. I once went to a seminar presented by a "blood relative" of one of the major recognized FMA systems and was introduced to what I thought was the "core principals" of the system. But when I mentioned that I had taken a seminar from such n such, a very good "master" friend of mine (who had personally studied with the founder of that particular system for many years) said bluntly that what I probably learned was extremely watered down and was likely a mere shadow of the original system. I would assume all of us in FMA have come across this situation in our own personal journey into the martial arts. One of my long time students had complained about the same thing happening to him involving a different system and asked me "who do you think I should learn from"? I could only answer that since most all of the old founders of the recognized systems have passed on, just use your good judgement and seek out those instructors that care about teaching you tactics that work for you. As we know many times people do not choose a particular martial system because of its movements, but rather based how they are treated by the teacher or the other members of the school or what the student perceives as practical training. As you stated, so many people teach their systems as the gospel of a certain established FMA system it is difficult for the newcomer to make an intelligent assessment if they are learning: "the old original system, or an highly modified version of the original system"! It is a rocky road for those that have come along so many years after the "old ones have passed on". Thanks for the opportunity to again post on this subject. Sorry to be so "long winded" but these are really important issues for the people that are so impressionable and are just entering the world of FMA or other martial arts for that matter.
To me, this is an example of 'overthinking' the process. Does a butcher who is skilled at sectioning a chicken talk in terms of 'principles of chicken carving'? Does a field hand who uses their machete daily (and are thus very skilled and adept at putting the blade where needed, at having incredible endurance and fluidity and efficiency) talk about 'principles of sugar cane harvesting'? I don't think so.
The problem with the 'blade arts' is that we are so far from the 'touch zone' (as in feedback, close contact) that we can not find an easy path to efficacy. Lacking that, the typical student builds flowery layers between themselves and true 'combat' since in the 20th-21st Century we can't really duel to the death.
Thus I think we need to realize that the FMA are not able to be functionalized (absent war or actual dueling) and should be seen as a means to an end. A hobby, a physical fitness path, a way to work out with a partner, a way to coordinate the hand-eye and not as an actual self-defense tool. Then we eliminate the need to be effective fighters and become instead artists and we use FMA as 'play'. Yes, there is more to it as the Dog Brothers have illustrated, but that's still somewhat divorced from true, take no prisoners combat. For that realm, I prefer a firearm if things have reached the gravest extreme. FWIW.
EXCELLENT post...II am also a Jazz Musician and well as a Escrimador, and it is funny how the principles you expressed here are just as applicable to being a musician. Both my late trumpet teacher and my present Mata Guro said the same things!! Art is art....
It's interesting how FMA helps us to use various principle in re-imagining sparring. Subdividing the beat, grace notes (insertions), triple time, triplets (1-2-3 of sinawali). It also uses chess principles. Stealing time (tempo) and sacrifice moves. It's really very compelling. However, due to this nature, one must be very careful to assume that some moves can be pulled off in combat. As the Dog Brothers showed, when faced with a competent opponent we go to the caveman strike and guard (using two sticks). The important element is always to emphasize power. If you can bring power you can 'clear' your path and make the opponent wary of engaging. HTH.
emphasizing power is a good point but as a woman, unless i am to the point of channeling the universal energy then i am going to be at a disadvantage trying to emphasize power when skill, evasion, and thwacking on the tender points serves well. However, even a woman who looks like she will heavily resist, does make an opponent wary of engaging...confidence comes across like displaying a weapon in many instances.
Great post, I like the idea of always building upon core principles. Thanks for sharing your words of wisdom sir.
Another key to managing change in our art is embracing diversity. Each art hangs a little differently on individual students. By anchoring the core concepts while encouraging individuality and diversity, a leader can make their art stonger and more flexible through inclusion rather than exclusion. The opposite is true as well. By marginalizing or excluding those students who have a different interpretation of the core concepts, a leader can weaken their group and lose out on deeper explorations of an art. Holding fast to core concepts while encouraging creativity and individuality may seem contradictory and difficult but all true masters understand and accept this. Only the simple minded see disciplined rigor and free expression as mutually exclusive. I like Raun Nelson's analogy of jazz. All great jazz musicians know you have to have your chops down before you can improvise and creative expression is a valued quality in that community. Young leaders in FMA can learn from that example.
I love your statement, ' each art hangs a little differently on individual students.' Makes for good teachers, that statement.