Instructor’s Notebook: The Art of Forgetting

 If there’s an art to forgetting forms, then I am a master. I’ve forgotten entire systems of martial arts.

Remembering didn’t seem as crucial during the early days of my career, in the flurry of Kung Fu training that let everything Chinese be associated with martial arts. During that time, a plentitude of people teaching Kung Fu assured us of a never-dry fount of available material, even if there was a dearth of instructors in any consistent style. As a matter of fact, we basically took whatever was offered in our neighborhoods (our neighborhoods often encompassed 50 to 150 miles circumference). Or we just waited. I remember a teacher from the midwest who stood about 6’ 4”. He had one Kung Fu option in his neck of the woods: Monkey style. So, every time he sparred and correctly dropped his stance, he’d find his face and the senior students’ fists on the same line. Ouch! That alone would be a good reason to forget at least certain parts of any form, if not the entire style.

Getting older and allowing (some of those old) forms to just slip away into the night does not prevent me from teaching remembered forms to my students. I am compensated by the experience of teaching people with variable talents and ranks, but this does not mean that they do not forget their forms—sometimes, even, while they are in the midst of practicing them. Students, in addition to displaying talent and perseverance, also exhibit remarkable degrees of slippage; from poor memory or an incomparable incomprehension of angles, to irregular attendance or return after a long absence (What? You have gone on without me?), to the most heinous of crimes a student can commit—not practicing at home, there is always a novel reason to forget.

Custom Work

One of my favorite interactions with a forgetful student ensnares the teacher in a very particular way. The student takes a pose then asks for tips on proceeding to the next posture, which he then strikes. In spite of myself, I fail and keep failing, until I realize that the student has demonstrated an incorrect sequence; so wrapped up was I in the problem of moving from the student’s A to B, I did not recognize I was attempting to fit a round punch into a square horse.

A Quick Trip Around the Park

The truly confused student is the one who wants you to “just go on” with the next move and the next and the next…until the form is finished, at least once through.  This behavior, while inescapable, gives an overview of the form but rarely offers more than a mindless string of moves strung together.

Although most students initially learn forms using this method, there is also something questionable in its nature. The advantage is that, in the mad-rush to learn the form the first time, it soon becomes “templated:” making the student vaguely aware of the form’s direction, start, middle and conclusion. The disadvantage originates from the same source here in that each section can be considered templated; using this mapping, it is too easy to lose the intent and meaning of the moves. Losing meaning can easily mean losing the move itself.

Before I go on, I’d like to climb up on my familiar soapbox for a minute. The repetition and incorporation of basics throughout the process of learning a form is crucial to its retention. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a student standing stock still in the middle of a move with a cartoon question mark bubbling over his head. Knowing well that blank stare, I’ll go over and ask, innocently, “What’s the problem?”

“Can’t remember the next move.”

“OK, well, where is your opponent?”

“Um…there?” Inevitably, he will point in front of him, unaware that I already had him at “Um.”

I step down off my box and offer my personal repair kit. Be alert, because some of the steps to recovery take a little extra time and are definitely NOT the way most people do it.  This is my favorite method because it encourages depth. 

Start with a section of about five moves. Student repeats. You, the teacher, pick the next section but DO NOT add #2 to #1 for a few minutes. Concentrate on the “new” section and when it feels good, then attach it to #1.

Repeat with a new section, adding first, THEN appending, like a snake digesting the form. Exposing students in this way allows them the opportunity kung fu forms practiceto concentrate on one section before incorporating another. Keeping to this pattern tends to slow down the student, enabling them to pay more attention to the structure and meaning of the form. 

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