Details and big pictures and what’s underneath – Feb 18, 2014, Kim Taylor, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

The comment: “beginners are not sticking around because we are concentrating too much on the details”

Think of a building, there are the architectural details that make it beautiful, there are the overall proportions, spaces and materials that make it useful, and then there are the foundations that few people see or understand that allow the whole thing to continue existing without collapsing.

It’s unfortunate if folks are getting chased out by the basics. An obsession on seitei gata (standardized forms) and passing grades is not good for keeping students. They like the grades but they don’t want to be judged on tediously repeated detail. Who wants to see endless fretwork on anything but a cuckoo clock? There are a couple of reasons for this over-focus on detail, I say over-focus because the detail is part of seitei for a reason, but too much is always too much. The first thing that comes to mind is that detail is easy, it’s easy and lazy because correcting someone’s kissaki two millimeters, or making a distinction between an angle of three degrees is easily done but lazy because it’s meaningless. There are experiments to see how accurate people can be with actual targets and some of the folks who don’t get the exact angle while swinging at thin air will hit a target with ease. This weekend we took bokuto in pairs and split newspaper repeatedly into smaller and smaller pieces. Those holding the paper were not hit on the hands even when the paper was inches wide. (in other words, half to a quarter inch clearance). All levels of student but all equally accurate.

Detail is also easy since “it’s in the book”, making an expert of anyone who reads the book, provided of course, the student doesn’t read the book too.

The instruction we get from Japan tends to emphasize the details, they are, after all trying to improve seitei and teaching from the book which is the authority by agreement of everyone.

But it does not have to be. Seitei can be taught like koryu, it can be used to demonstrate and teach the fundamental principles of the sword. This can be done without losing the details but it takes a lot of knowledge and a lot of thought, just as koryu does. The fundamentals are never easy to teach and there is no outward reward for bothering with them. If your success or failure at a grading depends on how well you perform the details to the panel’s satisfaction at that instant, those details become the driving force of instruction. If, on the other hand, the judging panel is looking for a deeper understanding of the fundamentals, if they are looking for iaido that “makes sense” then missing an angle by three degrees (perhaps because of a locked shoulder) but having a cut that is backed up by proper posture and tenouchi gets a pass, then that type of instruction becomes more valuable during a teaching session.

People speak of gradings being superficial because of a focus on performance as a dance in front of a panel as vs grades being deep if handed over for long-term performance by a sensei without a grading. In other words you get it because you deserve it. Both have problems that can be addressed by thoughtful judging. Both can be done together. Both are subject to abuse by judging that is not impartial.

But back to keeping beginners. I am forming the opinion that we should add a couple of kyu grades which are used to put students on a koryu track before we introduce seitei at 1kyu to start them on their way to kendo federation gradings. If we start with koryu and teach it systematically, they will move along a path of big shapes and big ideas through many kata (which keeps beginners happy) and will be graded (which keeps beginners happy) so that they have a deeper knowledge of the fundamentals before being thrown into the details. This is how I learned, how most of the seniors in the federation in Japan learned. There was no seitei for years and you learned it with a solid basic knowledge.

As it is now, you are thrown into the world where swinging the sword doesn’t matter as much as stopping it at an exact height. This does not make sense to beginners and they are right, it isn’t the point. Stopping at chin height with not even three cm leeway is not actually very functional in a combat situation, but it is impressive I suppose, although not if you break your posture to accomplish it.

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