Time, distance, and speed are all intricately interconnected in fencing. It is impossible to work on one of these elements in complete isolation. For the purposes of this article, though, I will be focusing on time (tempo). Tempo can be understood in a number of ways in fencing. It is often described as being analogous to “rhythm,” like watching two dancers moving in harmony. Alternately, sometimes the emphasis is placed on the way tempo can be thought of as a measure of movement (one movement equals one tempo, two movements, two tempi, etc…). Tempo is also often reduced to speed (I must have a faster tempo than my opponent to succeed). However, these explanations of tempo each present only part of the picture. The broader concept of tempo is primarily about determining the best moment to make an attack. Rhythm is an aspect of tempo because detecting (or forcing) a rhythm in the opponent’s movements makes it easier catch her off guard with an attack. Similarly, quantifying each movement as a tempo reminds us that every action a fencer makes is potentially an opportunity for an opponent to strike, and that complicated, longer actions provide more opportunities for a successful attack. Speed reminds us that we must be quick in order to successfully seize those opportunities. Tempo encompasses all of these concepts and can be summed up by the question “When is it time to go?”
From a historical perspective, there are a number of articles, such as Tom Leoni’s article Understanding Tempo and Ilkka Hartikainen’s article So, what is a tempo? which explain how tempo was understood by historical authors. They place a greater emphasis on tracing the historical origins of the concepts than on the details of how to teach tempo to a student. However, judging by various rapier videos on YouTube in which fencers continually attack from out of measure, without commitment, into closed lines, or without balance, it seems that teaching tempo is an area that we could use some work on within the HEMA community.
For the rest of the article, my advice will assume a teacher working directly with a student. I believe this is one of the most efficient methods of training fencing. However, most of the concepts can be applied to group lessons or paired drills, and either other weapons or other disciplines. This article only touches the surface of how to teach tempo, and for now I will focus only on how I go about teaching simple attacks 1to my students.
In an individual lesson, an instructor uses a variety of methods, including verbal commands, visual cues, and immediate feedback to teach a student how, and when to attack. Before we can focus on the “when,” though, we need to teach the student the “how” and the “what.” By “how” I mean the basic technical movements – how to stand in guard, lunge, thrust with opposition, etc. For this article, I will assume that a student has at least been introduced to most of these stances or movements. The “what,” while separate from tempo at a theoretical level, is, in practice, a fundamental part of teaching tempo. In order for a student to correctly attack “in tempo” he or she must not only correct choose the appropriate moment to attack, but also select the appropriate technique to attack with. Without the proper technique, the student’s attack will be doomed to failure no matter how well the tempo was chosen.
At an early stage, it is especially vital to teach the student the appropriate attack for various situations. I’ll start with three simple examples (assume the student starts in third):
Any fencing lesson, whether individual or group, should follow a basic progression from simple to complex, slower to faster, and static to dynamic movement. This allows students to build confidence by learning in simple, somewhat contrived conditions, and then slowly building up to more realistic conditions. Here is the general progression that I follow when I first start teaching a new rapier fencer:
Stage 1. Practice each technique in complete isolation, ensuring that the student’s technique is correct. At the beginning of each action, I explain to the student what I want him or her to do. The execution of the action is on my verbal command, and I take extra time to ensure that the technique is correct. For instance:
Stage 2. Move from verbal to non-verbal commands. This is the first step to getting the student to recognize the appropriate time to attack. It is deceptively simple. As soon as the instructor makes the appropriate movement, the student attacks. The student must stay relaxed and alert in order to avoid being “jumpy” and moving too soon, or moving too late. To begin with, the instructor can make slow, or exaggerated cues to encourage the student to attack and build confidence. Over time, the instructor gradually picks up the pace until both are moving at full speed.
Stage 3. Gradually introduce movement to the student. Like the last stage, this is deceptively simple. The instructor moves back and forth, while the student maintains distance until the appropriate cue is given. For this to be successful, the student should strive to not anticipate the instructor’s movement, but start his or her step after the instructor’s step, and finish the step before the instructor does in order to be able to successfully attack in tempo.
Stage 4. So far, the drills assume that the student always uses the same footwork for his or her attack. It could be a thrust made from immobility, with a lunge, or even with a pass. The instructor sets the appropriate distance for the student to attack from. At this point, the instructor can change the distance as he or she cues the student to attack so that the student must also choose the appropriate footwork for delivering the attack. To start with, it is usually best to start from immobility until the student learns the appropriate cues, and then reintroduce movement to the drill. For instance: 3
Stage 5. So far all of the student’s attacks have been made with a straight thrust. At this stage the student should be introduced to different situations which call for different attacks. The instructor should against step back and start by teaching each attack from immobility, then with movement, and then finally with dynamic distance. Here is an example of some appropriate options:
For a beginning student, these stages should be worked up to gradually over the course of several weeks or months. For an experienced student, this entire sequence should be done in about five minutes, as the warm up to the rest of a lesson.