INB #15: No Auditions!

gx_ted3I never demonstrate the move to be learned, at least not at first. Let me repeat that, I NEVER demonstrate. I also teach my instructors not to demonstrate. When I do show the move to a student, they have already learned it and my performance only occurs following their initial instruction. But why?

In discussing this topic of demonstrating, you understand, we are once again addressing the wider issue of teacher and student and their relationship. But we can certainly start on the immediate, mechanical level.

If I demonstrate a number of things might happen in the student’s mind. A. He might be impressed, “Wow! That was great. I’ll never do that.” The typical comment I get is, “My Tai Chi ( or whatever ) doesnt look anything like yours.” It’s nice. It’s complimentary. It’s also besides the point. So now they’ve got an opinion-and a self-defeating one- and they haven’t even started the move. OR
B. One student in ten may be a whiz kid. Some people are perceptually talented (if you are a teacher that means they are probably like you). You showed the whole move at top speed and they caught it. Now you start on the first section they say, “Right. And that’s followed by this, right? Then this!” So now they can’t concentrate on the movements in front of them. They want to anticipate.

Too fast or too slow it’s not that demonstrating is so wrong it’s just that it’s so useless. It also inverts the relationship. The correct relationship is that the student demonstrates and the teacher helps. I don’t mean the student should never have seen the form or large sections of it, but if they have been there a while they probably a good a general idea of it anyway.

The point is that by giving the movement a step at a time, each segment retains a meaning, even a sacredness, of its own. It’s not merely a means to reach the next step. As far as some might fear, that this holds the student back, my approach is the opposite. My students may go as fast as they can absorb information and, once again, demonstrating may be no help at all.

Have you ever noticed that, generally, the less talented a student is the more he wants to “see the thing.” I used to have potential students come to my school and ask to see forms like the “Tiger and the Crane” just to get a fancy if they wanted to study. After exhausting myself a few times under the delusion that I was helping to spread the art, I realized that their blank stares showed that they really didn’t understand what they had just witnessed. That was when I stopped auditioning for students.

No, they really didn’t need to see the next five moves. And, more importantly, they REALLY didn’t need to cook up any ideas before the instruction starts. After all you know as well as I that when they become advanced they won’t even ask. Beginners ask. Why? Because they are still not sure. The way to get them sure is to teach them.

And what about suspense? Each move is a story, a joke, an etude. It should exist in the form and for its own sake simultaneously. It’s like life itself, existing for our own concerns and for nature’s plans for us-at once and the same.

Why do we all want to demonstrate? To impress. To captivate. To hope they get it by looking without being taught. A little of everything. Sometimes we want to share how beautiful we find the art. Sometimes-often-we’re just reviewing to ourselves exactly what we are going to teach. Which brings up another great point. What if you demonstrate five moves and they only can learn the first three? Do they disappoint? Are they dummies? Are you the dummy?

There’s one last but rather telling argument. Teaching a movement is going through what might be called a behavioral ladder. This is where a student progresses until he or she meets a snag, a roadblock. At this point you “step down” until the previous step is completed to the appropriate level. The more control the teacher has over this sequence the better for everyone. We’re generally talking about fifteen or some minutes of pure instruction not counting review. So let the student have a little faith and just go for the ride. But, if there is a snag, the student will barely notice it-unless of course you have shown them everything in advance and raised expectations.

Perform. Expostulate. Digress. Extemporize. Show off. Engage. I entreat you. But that precious moment before they embark on a new movement leave alone and as pristine as possible. Like the Tao itself, each is entitled to walk his own path.


Nowadays, there is a lot written about martial arts; probably more than at any time in human history. But very little of this is at the instructor level dealing with the problems, goals and strategies of imparting the arts. This series, written by martial instructors, will be a frank and directed discussion of such topics. If you are a beginner and new to the martial arts, you may find some of these subjects a little distressing. Indeed, this may be premature for you. The only thing we guarantee is a sincere handling of informed viewpoints.

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