Surviving a Seminar

art_BGseminar6Martial artists like to conduct seminars as much as attend them. But I have to admit I wonder whether seminars have any real function in the long run, whether or not they accomplish anything, whether anyone remembers what they do at them. Of course, seminars can be good or they can go opposite. But what makes a good seminar, that’s the question. The easy answer is a period of time that is educational and fun, or at least interesting.

art_BGseminar4Yesterday I conducted a small seminar at my school. It was a subject that I had never put into the seminar format before, the Eight Animals of Bagua Zhang. In the seminar’s four hour period we got through the whole of them, also attacking such key subjects as the basics of Bagua walking and standing practice.

Everyone attending got through the entire series. But I could tell it was a bit of rough going. I think everyone had a good time; at least they said they did. Around the third hour spirits, expectedly, flagged. The group forged ahead though, and a little breeze of second wind swept through the studio. We finished fine and fit.

Had I forced too much information on them? Probably. I tend to over-teach on the proposition that if fifty per cent sticks then the students will have plenty to play with when they get home.

art_BGseminar3But this can also backfire; you end up chasing the good out with the new. On the other hand, have you ever attended those seminars where the “secret, special, high level information to be released!” turns out to be how to perform the step punch or a simple combination kick? Seminars like these are similar to crossing the Sahara with only a cup full of tepid water in your hand.

What is the perfect seminar? I don’t think that can be answered because there are a number of variations, each of which might be perfect in its own context. Considering the question, I think the answer might be another, more important and humbler question:  simply, what makes for a good seminar? How do you know if the presentation will be worth your time and effort.

To my mind, having attended the dolls and the dogs, I want some of the following:

1.     A presenter who knows how to present. Some people have their speech prepared but don’t allow interruptions or variations or even customization. Rolling with a question, putting the answer in terms a beginner can understand, bringing a little humor or even personal experience into the presentation makes it lively and approachable. I guess that’s the key word, approachable.

art_BGseminar12.     Information that is simply demonstrated but is a key to more general movement. A seminar is a highly concentrated activity. Simple movements are perfectly fine, in fact they are preferred. But a good presenter gives you some idea of why THESE simple movements are more essential that THOSE simple movements. Also, a little insight into what is possible, along with knowing that these actions can often complete the picture for the attendee. I remember one major teacher starting his seminar by showing us a Mantis hand pattern and adding—rightly it turned out—that when we all became grandmasters we would still be practicing the same essential movement; that sort of put things into context. “Things should be made as simple as possible,” as Einstein said, art_BGseminar5“but not simpler.”

3.     A little time with a partner; this can be frustrating, but it can also be valuable. On the same branch, a little interaction with the presenter or his top student can enliven the learning process. I try to team people up at every seminar I conduct. Even a few seconds partnered can help the practitioners understand much better what is happening. This is not always appropriate as in, for example, some Qigong seminars; but if it is the type of tactile experience that would help, why not?

A good teacher can present almost any movement  and layer it enough for all the attending practitioners to receive useful and individual information. I’ve seen seminars art_BGseminar2with just a few movements that have buckets of potential ideas and training tips. I’ve seen seminars where very complex information is treated like a train schedule where we HAVE to get to a certain place by a certain time and nothing else matters.

What’s your idea of a good seminar? I am still forming mine after years of teaching, but I intend to keep refining my methods until every seminar I teach fulfils and exceeds the expectations of those willing to work hard enough to grasp the meaning and implications of the subject at hand.

3 Responses to “Surviving a Seminar”

  1. patrick hodges says:

    Good article. I found that, if you somewhat know the system beforehand, it helps with the seminar. “Secret indoor material” may not be so according to how lazy or proactive you are. I once learned a very good arm lock only to find it months later in a book on Indonesian styles so, beware, as the old saying goes, “Nothing new under the Sun.” =)
    Partners, for the most part, if friends are good, but I found if you are paired up with a person who has a large ego, well, there’s the problem. Heh,heh, however, you may have friends with large egos too. =D

  2. Andrew Shinn says:

    I love seminars.

    I don’t go to enough of them, but I think I’ve taken knowledge home with me from every seminar I’ve ever attended.

    For me, I break seminars down into two categories: “in-house” seminars and “public seminars”. While a seminar might be public anyway, sometimes you get an instructor in from outside your school (or even from within your school) to run a special workshop on an aspect of the system you’re already studying. This tends to work really well in terms of participants taking in knowledge – they generally already have the “pre-reqs”.

    The first seminar I ever took was at a tournament. I had been studying praying mantis for just a few years at that point and a kung fu brother of my teacher was teaching a complete form (Zhai Kui). My teacher said I could take the seminar to see if I could learn the form in one session. I did, and then I reviewed what I learned with my teacher, and I still practice this form. But that was easy, since it was a form from within the system I was already immersed in. It felt right. It felt like family. And I already knew a lot of the individual movements – the instructor noticed.

    What I think of as “public seminars” offer a general introduction to a system or topic. Participants may or may not have background that makes absorption of the material likely. They may also not have any direction to go in with the material once they’ve been presented with it. A participant would be faced with the option of beginning a whole new course of study, concentrating on that material, that has nothing to do with what he or she was practicing before.

    And yet some seminars I’ve been to regarding systems other than my own have left me with insights that stay with me years after I’ve forgotten the particulars of the movements that were being taught.

    And then sometimes I’ve found that I just take a move or two and add them to my regular practice and make them my own. I consider the whole cost of a seminar well worth it if I can take home one idea or practice or technique that I will add to my regular repertoire of practice.

    To really gain from a seminar then, I think you need to either 1) have a background in the topic, 2) be willing to treat the seminar as the start of a new training regimen (assuming you liked the intro), OR 3) you have a strong enough foundation in your current system that you can make sense of the material presented within the field of your practice.

  3. I always found personally that the key to a good workshop was to have a chance to touch hands at some point with the workshop leader… especially when trying to learn any two-person work. I understand the reluctance for many guest instructors, for a variety of reasons, to limit their contact with strangers; but this kind of one-on-one, no matter how brief can often be the catalyst for really understanding a technique or principle.

    Sadly, at almost all of the workshops that I attended in the late 80s and into the mid-90s, the workshop leader worked only with the host instructor or perhaps one or two lucky people. One of the things that I really liked about William C.C. Chen in those days was that he made an effort to do a little “hands on” with everyone in attendance. By the end of the weekend, you had had your turn. Maybe things have changed but he was a rarity in those days and I did a lot of taiji, bagua and even a few hard-style workshops.

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