Thursday, January 12, 2006

Linear vs. intuitive teaching progressions

It must be a product of New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately from both students and prospective students about the teaching progression in the art of Serrada. What I have to say is just from my own experience and preferences based on 20 years teaching this art. What other instructors do may or may not be similar.

It’s a valid question for people to ask, wanting to see where they are heading, but it has more than one possible valid answer. Like any road it can forge straight ahead, or it can twist and turn through scenic detours. Indeed, one should expect changes along the way, and as in any journey, the destination (should it truly even exist) is but one point along the path.

My short answer is “of course there is a steady progression.” We have the 12 angles of attack and the defenses for each angle. As one progresses, however, the trunk of the tree begins to have branches. Within the 12 angles we have the basic angles, which I consider 1-5, that form the core of the system. From those angles we can subdivide even further: outside or inside, left or right, high or low, cut or thrust. Single stick, empty handed, espada y daga, knife, double sticks, disarms, takedowns etc., all stem from the same core probabilities.

Every nuance can be studied in depth, whole subsystems to understand and master within the greater whole. This is why even an apparently simple art like Escrima can be so rich and complex. The art is in making simple what seems complex, by revealing the consistent underlying structure.

I can list the basics I teach, in sequence for each angle. It’s essentially the order in which I learned them, and I keep that progression mostly so I know what I’ve covered with whom, and to recall what I myself have practiced lately (or not). It makes it easier also for my students to know the knowledge base (regardless of skill) of those with whom they’re practicing.

Students who attend a large commercial school may find themselves restricted to very specific formats, aimed at keeping classes of students on track for belt promotions. Everyone works only on what they need for that goal; orange belts don’t get to learn purple belt material. A lot of people have been in those schools, and if they come to something like the Filipino arts later, they might have certain expectations of how things are done.

Private teachers or schools may have more flexible lesson plans, allowing what arises in class to be the basis of instruction for that session. For instance, I may walk into class thinking I want to work on outside blocks, but once we’re into the material, I can’t say in advance if we’re going to go into disarms, passes, a combination of the two, or something completely different which might arise.

Sometimes mistakes are the most interesting avenues to explore. I often call Escrima “the art of making adjustments.” One must acknowledge everything that happens, adapting to the changing environment. If mistakes occur, it’s better to know how to recover and respond than to train oneself to always stop and try again. The real world doesn’t allow such luxury, whether fighting, driving a car or riding a bike.

There is a stage of wanting to learn everything, followed by a stage of learning to feel everything you've learned. You know it is there, but it has to be realized in the body, not just recognized in one’s head. Then after you feel with your body, you learn to feel with your feelings, knowing what is happening before there is physical confirmation.

By teaching intuitively to follow the energy of each encounter, I try to get students past the cognitive stage and into these body-centered states of being. By learning to pay attention to the body, we come closer to perfecting our movement by sharpening our self-awareness. Mind/body growth is symbiotic.

For those who really want to know, my basic progression emphasizes the first 5 angles. Make them strong and the advanced angles will be learned quickly. If you know “this” then you will understand how “that” is different. Without retention, growth isn’t progressive.

Angle one is the foundation of the whole system and rightfully so, as it is the angle of attack most commonly encountered. It should constantly be improving, not just stagnating as “old stuff” in order to learn newer material. Angle 2 already starts lock-and-block with my “matrix of 16” progression. Angles 3 and 4 teach low passing attacks and are the foundation for angle #5. Joint locks and disarms may come up anywhere, but are certainly a formal part of the curriculum by the end of angle #4.

Angles 6 and 7 are thrusts to similar target areas as angles 1 and 2, but thrusts require modifications of timing. Angle 8 is like a high 4, and 9 is like an upwardly diagonal 4 from a very low position. 10 is a jab/cross combination, essentially angles 7 and 6. 11 is an upward angle 3 from a very low position, forming an upward slashing figure-8 with angle 9. 12 is a simultaneous 6/7 thrust combination, or perhaps a front two-handed choke.

All of these higher angles are based on materials learned in the first four, so one can see why the basics are so important. They provide the general roadmap to get from one point to another. Eventually you start to see between the angles, or how angles are themselves deceptions. It’s possible to throw a strike from what looks to be the setup position for something completely different. As Angel often said, “When it comes to for-real, forget about the name of a technique or number of the angle; just react.” At that point it’s like a game of high-speed chess, thinking strategically while countering intuitively; things happen spontaneously and you can only watch in amazement at what has just happened by your hand.

PS: If you read this far and haven't yet signed the guestbook or left a comment here, please do so! I like to know who's reading this stuff. - JF

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