Last weekend we had a few folks from other dojo in for a seminar. Since I was not their sensei I of course had to go into a talk about how you ought to pick a sensei and stick with him. This seems a pattern with me, do anything I can to undermine myself.
The idea (pick a sensei) is actually pretty simple, and has nothing to do with loyalty and lineage and all that stuff. It was a seitei seminar (kendo federation iai) and our “lineage” is the kendo federation, our “teacher” is the kendo federation and our assessing entity is the kendo federation, so one might think there wouldn’t be a need to pick a teacher.
To a certain extent, one would be right. When you start you are learning which foot in front of the other and move the sword to this position. Anybody who is familiar with the curriculum should be able to teach that, all it takes is reading the book. The program supports this as well up to about third dan when all the learning of this foot exactly there and that hand exactly thus should be learned. This assumes, of course, that all the various instructors one has, are teaching the same thing. If you have three sensei and they disagree on where your hand should be at the end of nuki tsuke, or on the precise angle of kesa giri, this is a problem best solved by ignoring two of your three teachers (pick one). But we will assume all the various instructors have read and understood the book and their instruction is interchangeable.
So up to third dan a student can say “I like Joe’s nuki tsuke and Fred’s cut and Al’s noto so I’m going to use them”. After that, things change as a unified style becomes expected. In other words, the nuki tsuke, kiri tsuke and noto had better start working together as a unified whole, rather than as a chimera. What’s the easiest way to get a unified style? Take it all from the same teacher, and that’s what you should do for the next couple of grades (up to 5dan).
After that it moves away from the physical and into the principles and it may just be a good idea for a student to get some instruction from another teacher. Different viewpoints can mean a deeper understanding of the why and when. It may also be that a student gets a bit deaf and sending him to someone else might just mean said student “hears” the correction he needs.
It’s that middle time where a student is perfecting the technical movements that a single teacher is probably best for him, not out of loyalty or lineage, but because you won’t get “the meal of style” if you’re chasing more than one rabbit.