Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Importance of Practicing Basics

Time, Training, Progress

Here are a few thoughts on instructional time, training, and progress, as they're all related.

The school I attend is a traditional Kung fu school. By this I mean that there are protocols to be followed on the training hall floor, instruction is taken seriously, and the instructors teach under the authority of the Sifu or Sigung. This instruction begins with, of course, basics. 

Basics are taught by instructors and are expected to be practiced until a level of proficiency is attained by the student and observed by the instructors on the floor. This level of proficiency differs from student to student, but should take a few months to attain at the least. I have taught students who have worked on stances, stepping patterns, blocks, and basic strikes for many months, some for nearly a year before progressing to the next set of techniques. This is all at the discretion of Sifu, who observes the students’ progress as an indication of the instructor’s teaching ability—after all, if the student isn’t learning, whose fault is it? 

Well, that’s not as simple an answer as it might seem. There is a gray area to be addressed. On one hand, if the student isn't practicing at home, but simply attending forty-five minute classes two or three times a week and only practicing during those classes, is he or she really learning anything or just re-learning what they did the previous class? On the other hand, if the instructor isn’t able to break down techniques into their component parts so that the student understands exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, the instructor is partly at fault. It’s a delicate balance. Let’s address the student side for now.

Problems arise when students observe their classmates advancing either in rank or in knowledge of techniques, and question their own learning. Why aren’t they advancing? Why haven't they been taught the next form or next exercise? The answers to those questions generally lay within the students themselves. When an instructor makes a correction to a technique does the student practice that technique until the mistake has been worked out of his or her muscle memory? Or do they continue to practice with the same mistake in their technique? This is why practicing at home is so important—and why commitment to that practice, and to the art, are integral to eventual mastery. Instructional time is for instruction; not practice.

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Then, of course, comes the next step in training; practicing perfectly. The old saying goes “practice makes perfect”, but is that true? Isn't it more correct to say, after the example of the student discussed above, that “perfect practice makes perfect”? If you're training every day, and training correctly, you are bound to see progress, and so will your instructors. Correct training means training slowly with an emphasis on accuracy and precision of techniques rather than on speed and/or power. My Sifu says that speed destroys accuracy at the basic level, and he’s right. Would any other art advise practicing basic maneuvers hastily to achieve perfection? When I was learning to play the violin as a boy, I practiced scales for a minimum of an hour a day, usually many more. It was laborious work, but it had to be done, otherwise every note I played would be off pitch, or out of tune. A violin, unlike guitars and banjos, has no frets to guide finger placement for finding the correct notes on the strings; a violinist needs a good sense of relative pitch, and the commitment to learn where his or her fingers need to fall for each and every note on the four strings. So it is with martial arts. Techniques need to be practiced slowly and with care. 

In Northern Dragon, there are many circular techniques with both arms, hands, and legs. Students need to feel the circling motion in the techniques they are practicing, they need to know the directions that the circles are moving in, and the proper distance from the body to execute the technique. It is only after a technique has been practiced repeatedly over a period of time that a student can gain proficiency in that technique. And it is only then that a student is ready to advance to the next set of techniques. The student that can first master his eagerness can then master the techniques. A student’s enthusiasm can sometimes be his worst enemy.

Finally, when it all comes down to it, the farther a student progresses, the clearer it should become that all he or she is doing is practicing basic skills with different intent. Of these basics are flawed and imperfect, their progress will be hampered. There are Kung fu styles where many techniques that appear in more advanced forms show up first in basic forms. Its brilliant, really; the student learns this basic technique, practices it for a long period of time in the context of a basic form, and then might not see it again for a long time until he or she begins learning a more advanced form, and the technique appears again, now in an advanced context. Same technique, same movement, but perhaps a different name. Often times a student might even express a familiarity with this “new” technique to their instructor or Sifu, because they already know it from basics. Its all about basics.

Progress can only occur after the basics have been mastered, which can only occur after careful, perfect, practice.