Q: Master Talhoffer, is it true that long solo exercises akin to those of karate-do simply have no value whatsoever.
Q: But our art cannot be learned without partners, however hard you try!
A: Sure, you can learn anything without a partner or teacher whatsoever.
Q: But I thought that solo exercises that can only be of some value for rank beginners in order to help them learn the guards of a system and to begin to learn how to move a weapon. Such exercises are relatively unimportant when it comes to understanding the techniques and the important underlying principles of the art, however, and can be of little long-term value; they should be set aside as soon as the student is ready for partner exercises.
A: And I’ll will tell you otherwise my dear scholar.
Q: But why do people think that solo exercises are worthless.
A: In martial arts, the wrong approaches and practices are almost always more appealing to people who don’t understand the art.
Q: And that means?
A: Ask Flavius Vegetius, he knows the answer.
This dialog is fictive and you won’t find it in any old manuscript. Master Talhoffer never explained his fighting in the art of a dialog. But I took the freedom of an author to put his figure in the tradition of teaching dialogs. This very old way of reflecting the thoughts on a subject from different point of views is more amusing than the dry treatises and usually motivates the reader to think on his own. In the writing of Flavius Vegetius the training of Roman Fighters is described. His description was copied and is the basement of the so called “Pell-Work” of sword fighters.
People constantly read a lot of interesting bullshit about martial arts, so why not read the following article about the my superior opinion on solo practice in historical western martial arts. That’s for the start, now let’s get on to the facts. Sadly some people never read in the manuscripts only the things they really like
wen ubunge ist besser wenne kunst / denne übunge tawg wol ane kunst aber kunst tawg nicht wol ane übunge.
This sentence above from the so called Dobringer 3227a in the context of fighting for Schimpf is saying that “Training is better than art, because training is good without art, but art is no good without training”. In this manuscript we find the “physical virtues” of “Vbunge, motus, gelenkheit, schrete gut” – training, mobility, agility, and footwork. They are pretty much the same like in any modern martial art today. They are the physical basement of any fighting done with art. And most of them can be trained solo.
Not the weapon but the body is the weapon
Solo Practice in any kind of martial arts is for training body and mind. It is not about looking good or flashy it is about getting the body and the mind aligned with the purpose of your movement. Martial arts is using the body as a fundamental part of the weapon in a fight. So the body must be edged and formed. Essentially 80% of Asian martial arts forms are nothing else than training the body to be capable of being a weapon. In daily motions we do not stretch muscles or sinews to the positions which would be best to fulfill the perfect Oberhau. So if we present a Oberhau with just the normal partner training it will be not natural and it will be not on the shortest and nearest line. But the historical stakes are high as you can read:
vnd das man im deñe eyne~ vadem ader snure an seynen ort ader sneyde des swertes bünde / vnd leytet aber czöge dem selben ort ader sneide off ienes blössen den her hawen ader stechen selde / noch dem aller nehesten / kortzsten vnd endlichsten / als man das nür dar brengen mochte
So if you are not capable to present any strike or thrust as if the point of your sword is drawn by a cord exactly to a very small target not bigger than a 10 cent coin, get into solo practicing you lazy bastard.
In the manuals we find several hints that we have to train in solo practice constantly. Joachim Meyer constructed diagrams that trains the eye and sword arm to follow a pattern. This is based on the more “modern” systematic approach to training from Italy in the 16th century.
Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der kunst des Fechten:
Damit du aber solches dester geübter werdest / so soltu mit dem ersten Hauw alwegen umbwechseln / also wann du einmal deinen ersten Hauw zur Lincken obern Blöß / und den andern zu seiner Rechten undern Blöß / und also fürtan wie oben gelehrt ( wie solches die ausserste ziffer in disem hiebey getrucktem Figürlein anzeigen ) gehauwen hast…
These diagrams are telling us mostly: we should train our body to get used to unnatural but safe movements. Safe because the include the shortest way to a guarding position again. And unnatural because such movements are not to be expected by your opponent. Everybody have a big knowledge created by perception and experience how a arm and a body moves. If you are able to break the expectation of your opponent by unnatural but safe movement and do that fast because of your solo training you will win the fight before it has begun.
Repetito est mater studiorum
You cannot do fast repetitions of the same movement again and again with a partner. Because the partner would not do the same again and again. He will alter his movement soon enough. But your body needs to do a every strike and thrust while your mind is sleeping. You must hit and recover without thinking about it. From concentrating on a movement to one subconsciously done there is only one way: repetition. Not 10times, not 100times, not 1000times, do more and do it often.
Long forms have several good values. Most of them are listed above already because they chain together what can be trained solo. Another one is self triggering movements. In fighting there are triggers presented by your opponent and some presented by yourself. They have something to do with the presumption what will happen next when your do the movement before. In weapon fighting range, direction and movement are defining the room and lines you occupy with your doing, so the answers of your opponent are limited. That way you can train certain movements in a chain. This was already presented in the I.33 but not as a solo form. In several treatises we found these chains. If we are able to reconstruct them properly they will help us to understand and train us to become better sword fighters.
*** on binding.
Yes, there are people telling you that this solo practice has no value at all and everything has to be done with a partner because of the bind. But I think that they never understood the meaning of “treffe ader vele ” or “rawsche hin trif ader la[ss] var”. This “treffe oder vele” (hit or miss) is repeated often in the 3227a and is one of the central points of constant motion in Liechtenauers lore. So read the manuals when they tell you “vnd bis vmmermuedlich / motu / du treffest ader nicht”. Binding is only happening when the other one displaces. The big goal is hitting him without displacement or getting hit yourself. The big goal is not getting into engagement, do not get this wrong. There are good reasons why the “partner” or “opponent” is mentioned very rarely in some of the old manuals. It is because he does not matter. Only if you or he displaces anything, things get complicated. And one of the big rules in every fight is “simplicity is beauty”. Do not let it get complicated on intent. Train a lot to finish a fight without binding. That is a thing for solo practice and partner practice.