Physical Training July 2011
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From the Teacher's Corner 15:
A Little Magic

copyright © 2011 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

Fred Wilson: “Before you cry a lot, you oughta ask the natives on that island what they thought of losing Kong.”

Jack Prescott: “Actually, they’ll miss him a lot.”

Fred Wilson: “Yeah, like leprosy.”

Jack Prescott: “No, you’re dead wrong. He was the terror, the mystery of their lives,… and the magic. A year from now, that’ll be an island full of burnt-out drunks. When we took Kong, we kidnapped their god.”

From the movie: King Kong (1976)

Once upon a time, there was an old master of martial arts. He was very old but very knowledgeable. He looked frail but he was not weak. The students admired him because although he was not strong at his advanced age, he was still very skilled. It was difficult for the students to best him since he was so elusive. It was difficult for his students to get a bead on him since he was so fluid and natural in his movements. When he performed kata, his body movements were graceful and his handwork was fluid and quick. One move flowed into the next move, natural, seamless, free-flowing. There was rhythm, beauty. Onlookers remarked how stylish his movements were, like a ballet or a beautiful dance. When the old master taught, he showed his students his example but he explained little. Words could not convey the essence. They tried to follow. It was difficult because the old man was very fluid and his movements very complex and sophisticated. The students were in awe but tried hard to reproduce what they saw. The old master just performed the kata and the techniques at a high level of sophistication. The students shook their heads. “Wow! Look at that. I want to be able to do that.” And every time they saw the old man perform, it spurred them on to try to be like him and do what he did.

But alas, the old master did eventually pass away at a ripe old age. His successor was a highly skilled practitioner as well but a little different in outlook and philosophy than the old master. This new master knew how difficult the art was to learn and he knew that this difficulty caused many problems for the beginning students. He decided to make it easier for the students. He simplified many of the movements. He changed the style to focus more on the fundamentals.Complexity was out, simplicity was in. Fluidity was problematic since it demanded so much skill and talent, so to make it easier for the majority of less skilled practitioners, a more basic approach was instituted. All the superfluous and stylish elements were abandoned in favour of more pragmatic considerations. Hand movements were changed from the graceful and flamboyant to a more stark, direct movement. Moves which the older students used to admire and try to imitate from the old master now had reasons for them. Every movement had a rationale. The movements were broken down systematically into discrete points. Do move A, then do move B, then do move C, and so on. An analytical approach was adopted. The kata and its movements and techniques were dissected, compartmentalized, and re-packaged. It didn’t look like a dance anymore or a ballet. Movements were functional, pragmatic, stripped down to bare essentials. Now it was easy to see and easy to understand. Now it made complete sense. It was easy to learn and easy to perform. All was good except for one issue: the students became very mechanical. For the new students, it didn’t matter since they knew no better. But for the much older students, this new reality represented the death of an era and a style.

For those of us who have been around the block in martial arts, I am sure you have heard of or even experienced this kind of scenario before. A new headmaster comes in and changes things. In this case (which is based on a true story), the new approach becomes very mechanical. Everything is broken down too much into discrete points. There is no flow anymore, no fluidity, no complexity. In short, there is no magic.

Sure, it’s better now. There is a rationale for everything. Everything is explained. Right out there in the open. Let’s state it for the world to see and hear and learn from. Ahh, the students croon. I get it! Makes complete sense. Now I can do my kata and know that this is the reason for each discrete item in the kata. If we are studying karate, this is why I turn my knuckle into the strike point like this. If it is iaido or iaijutsu, this is why I have this little finishing slicing motion. If it is jujutsu, ahh, this is why I twist my wrist just this little way.

It’s now scientific. Analyzed, explained, categorized. Perfect Western Aristotlelian scientific approach. The investigation of living phenomena by breaking the form down by detailed, systematic work into what he termed “causes”. In other words, rationales, reasons. Dissection, analysis, and classification. Logical and systematic. Empirical.

But what about magic…. ??

I understand the rationale of making it easier for beginners to learn it or for students to master it. Anything can be made easy if you break it down enough into its elemental forms. I was eating a cupcake the other day. It was not particularly well-made so it crumbled apart easily. I sat there looking at this defunct cupcake and realized that basically it is composed of these crumbs. Hundreds of crumbs. But when you put them all together, they make up a cupcake. Amazing. You could eat all the little crumbs separately and although you get the net effect of filling your stomach, it just isn’t the same as eating a nice full cupcake with nice chocolate icing and sprinkles on top! I don’t know what it is. We’re eating the same thing from a net weight point of view. The cupcake has been dissected, analyzed, broken down systematically into component parts. We ingest each miniscule component part (i.e., the crumbs) but somehow it is not fulfilling. On the other hand, we get this nice fat cupcake which looks spectacular and mouth-watering and you bite into it and it’s like heaven. Praise the Lord! We are still eating the component parts but somehow it is a radically different experience.

I guess I could use the same analogy for a steak. I guess I could slice up the sirloin into micro-fibers and we could ingest the fibers individually until it’s all gone but it just is not the same as slicing off a nice big mouthful of a juicy steak. We are getting the same thing but it is not the same. There is no magic in micro-fibers. There is no mystery in crumbs. I am not inspired to want to eat component parts or micro-fibers. I need magic. I need mystery. I need inspiration.

This is a story I recently overheard at a dojo which sparked my interest in writing this article. The student told his teacher that he felt that the new approach they were made to follow made sense but something was missing. He asked his teacher, “Is this the way you learned it?” His teacher told him the truth, “No, it isn’t.The old master didn’t teach it like this. There wasn’t much explanation. Just observe and follow.”

The student later came and talked to me aside and remarked that he felt some injustice. I asked why. He said that his teacher is very skilled and very fluid and sophisticated in his technique and performance of kata because he was taught the old way. But now, with the new headmaster, they were forced to do things differently and he noticed that the skill level was different. How different, I asked. He said, not as skilled, not as fluid, not as natural, not as graceful. The moves were all there but it was more mechanical, more efficient. Isn’t that good? I asked. No, he replied, it is not stylish. It’s lacking. For the rest of the conversation, he lamented that it was too bad he did not have the chance to study under the old master. But now his teacher taught them the new way, everything explained and rationalized. He understood that his teacher was ordered to teach it this way but he feared that they as students would never equal their teacher in skill because the methodology used to teach them now was so simplistic and the focus was now on efficiency and essentials.

This conversation sparked some thoughts in me. Basically, the way I see it, in this situation, the new approach, the new mind-set makes the job of learning easy for the student. Maybe too easy. I completely understand the teacher wanting to make it easy for the student but sometimes this good intention is the worst methodology. The teacher (or in this case, the new headmaster) learned it differently from the previous headmaster, more holistically*. What was initially a mystery to this young teacher (i.e., the eventual new headmaster), he eventually broke it down and analyzed it, made sense of it and adapted it to his body and mind. He discovered the secret to mastering it. After he discovered the secret then he went back to look at how to do it properly, to rationalize it in light of this new hypothesis. Went back and looked at the kata, looked at the techniques, made sense of them, rationalized them. How best to learn it, how best to teach it. This was his journey of enlightenment.

I understand the rationale for making it easy for the students. Like parents say, I want to make it easier for my child than it was for me. All good intentions. But in doing so, you rob them of that journey of discovery that you had. You take away the mystery, that puzzle that drives them to want to find out how it works. That’s why sequels of successful movies rarely pan out. The first movie was successful because there was some mystery to it. Now the mystery is gone.

Sure, you can deconstruct the kata into component parts, like our crumbs. But students need to see the magic. You can make it easy for them but you take away the fun for them. They need to go through the same process of discovery, of making sense of it their own way. They need to uncover the mystery themselves. Like dating a new girlfriend. That’s what motivates them to want to study it and learn more about it. They want to find out how it works.

That’s the danger of micro-managing the learning process too much. It does not allow the imaginative spirit to be free. Reminds me of a good, old Canadian song:

Somethin's at the edge of your mind, you don't know what it is
Somethin' you were hopin' to find but your not sure what it is
Then you hear the music and it all comes crystal clear
The music does the talkin' says the things you want to hear

I'm young, I'm wild and I'm free
I got the magic power of the music in me

She climbs into bed, pull the covers overhead and turns her little radio on
She's had a rotten day so she hopes the DJ is gonna play her favorite song
It makes her feel much better, brings her closer to her dreams
A little magic power makes it better that it seems

She's young now, she's wild now, she wants to be free
She gets the magic power of the music from me

If you're thinkin' it over but you just can't sort it out
Do you want someone to tell you what they think it's all about
Are you the one and only who's sad and lonely, reachin' for the top
Well the music keeps you goin' and it's never gonna stop

The world is full of compromise, infinite red tape
But the music's got the magic, it's your one chance for escape
So turn me on - turn me up - it's your time to dream
A little magic power makes it better than it seems

I'm young now, I'm wild now and I’m free
I got the magic power of the music in me….

“Magic Power”
Triumph: "Magic Power" (Original Music Video)

Like the cupcake. Like the steak. Like Triumph. Like King Kong.

“He was the terror, the mystery of their lives,… and the magic. A year from now, that’ll be an island full of burnt-out drunks. When we took Kong, we kidnapped their god.”

We all need a little magic in our lives…

* Definition of HOLISTIC:
2: relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems ratherthan with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts; examples: <holistic medicine attempts to treat both the mind andthe body> <holistic ecology views humans and the environment as a single system>

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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