In discussion with a friend and fellow fencer this morning I was reminded of something most of us on the Olympic or Classical side take for granted: the individual lesson. In historical circles one can find this option too, but less often, partly because of the backyard, study-group heritage of historical fencing, and partly because often there’s no one available who can, properly, teach the old, interpreted material super well. This isn’t a dig at my peers, just an observation. The historical community isn’t as venerable, relies less on precedent (and is often outright hostile to it), and is so varied in expression, purpose, and equipment that a standard teaching method, while desirable, is less easy to formulate.[i]
Why is the individual lesson so important? There’s a lot of literature on this, and much of it written by far wiser heads than mine (so you should check it out), but in summary the one-on-one lesson with an instructor is better because of focus, attention, and feedback. We learn a lot in group classes, but by their nature such classes can only do so much. The instructor, even with an assistant, must survey everyone, all the time, and notice what is going well, what not so well, and step in. Rather than helping one person in a focused way, they notice a problem one student might be having and make a group announcement. Maybe the student not turning that front foot straight during footwork drills realizes that the instructor is talking about them, maybe not. One on one, that student has no question. As students, we should seek out individual lessons if possible, at least if we truly wish to improve. The focused attention, the critical eye, the distinct correction for our specific idiosyncratic movement, all of that is invaluable.
One thing we don’t talk about enough, though, is what it takes for individual lessons to work well. The easy things to list are well, easy: a knowledgeable instructor, an attentive student, clear expression of ideas and techniques with demonstration, etc. But the single most important thing is personality fit. Not everyone learns the same way, not every style works for all. Students seeking individual lessons may need to shop around, and they should. Few things sink a student’s success like a bad rapport with a teacher—this could mean an outright gruff instructor to one that for whatever reason just isn’t a good fit. It’s like that sometimes.
Instructors need to realize this too. If they’re in this to make money then it especially behooves them to find a style that will work for most people. Traditional approaches to the individual lesson, as still taught at the Coaches’ College or at the Sonoma program, remain the most effective, tried and true way to teach this material. There’s a reason that lessons are still taught as they are after several centuries of development.[ii] For those of us not in the profit game it’s just as important if we truly want to share this wonderful Art with people. For me, when I realize that a student struggles more with my presentation that the skill-set, if I realize that they need something I can’t give them, I recommend friends of mine or other schools who might. If we truly care about the student, then this is what we do. As an instructor, our goal is for students to grow, hopefully with us, but if not then with someone. We’re a small community, and to my mind we collectively gain by recommending one another, helping one another out, and promoting the Art over ourselves.
[i] For complicated reasons many historical fencers outright reject anything smacking of “sport” or “classical” fencing, presumably for being less “martial”—a word over-used and too often poorly—than their more macho historical style of choice. This does their cousins in those other camps a disservice, but it also limits their own growth.
[ii] In brief, traditional lessons one on one start with a short warm up, say lunging a direct thrust or cut to the instructor via cues. Next, the instructor may either introduce a new concept or technique, or, may drill one already shared. Depending on the student there may be a little of both. Lessons often end with a cool-down drill, e.g. parry-riposte or stop-cut drills for sabre. Group lessons often mirror this, but writ large.