One of the things I’ve really enjoyed lately as a teacher has been giving a student their first rapier lesson. I often get to do this when I travel, attend a practice, or have new people visiting my class. The first lesson sets the stage for all future instruction and it is important for things to get started off on the right foot. While the lesson that I teach is simple, there are a lot of things going on in the background that will help to establish a framework for the student to learn in. There are also some fundamental concepts, like opposition, actions in time, and mobility that I work on introducing the student to as early as possible.
Here are some goals that I have for myself when I teaching:
Depending on what the student has done before, I being by explaining some basic concepts that they will need for rapier fencing. This part involves a lot more talking and explanation than the rest of the lesson will. I describe the parts of the sword, how to hold it, how to stand on guard, and how to advance, retreat and lunge. While I explain the footwork, I usually stand next to them and advance, retreat and lunge so that they can see me. Then, I move to standing in front of me and have them mirror my movements.
1. The lesson always begins with an explanation of first position and the salute.
2. I have the student come on guard the way that they’ve already learned. I usually make some technical corrections at this point
3. I start a close distance, engage their blade, and then tell them to hit me by just extending their arm (no lunge) as soon as I move my blade away from theirs.
I let them hit a couple of times this way. Most students leave their hand in third when they do this and it becomes a great opportunity to introduce them to the concept of opposition. After one of their hits, I reach out and tap them on the mask with my sword, and I suggest that on their next one, they turn their hand palm up as they reach out to hit me and I show them that I can no longer hit them. I make a few adjustments here to get the mechanics right and then try a few more. If the student forgets to turn their hand, a light tap to the mask reminds them of what they forgot.
4. Now I add mobility to the action
Without saying anything, I take a step towards the student. Depending on what we’ve done before hand, they may already know that this is a cue for them to step back in order to maintain distance. If not, a simple hand gesture gets the point across quickly. A few steps back and forth and then I release my blade from theirs to cue the attack. Depending on how things are going, we can pick up the pace a bit at this point.
5. This is a good moment to take a break if necessary
6. Go back and repeat the straight thrust without any movement, but this time from the other side.
I typically don’t specify which and position to use here and the student usually extends with the wrong opposition. I demonstrate the problem, explain the solution and then practice it a few more times until things go smoothly.
7. (Optional) Alternate inviting on the inside and the outside.
If things are going well, I can introduce a simple element of choice to the lesson. By changing the sides of my invitation, the student has to make the correct decision about where to turn their hand. Since I don’t explain what is happening, this can be a little rocky at first, but most students that I have worked with have been able to pick it up after a few times and consistently make the correct decision.
8. Add mobility to the action again.
This is usually easier the second time
9. Now, I take a step back in order to prompt a lunge from the student.
After the first or second lunge, I slow things down a bit and work on the technical aspects. I often need to switch from the in tempo actions that we’ve been working with and use verbal commands to emphasize the proper order of the lunge (ie, extend, then lunge). When this works moderately well, we switch back to working in tempo and continue the action.
10. Add mobility to the action again.
11. Switch back to the line that I originally started the student in, but now they attack with a lunge.
If things have gone well at this point, I may also randomly change lines to get the student used to choosing the correct action to make.
12. Three straight thrusts, with a lunge, on command.
This is a simple cooling down exercise and also another chance to make a couple of technical tweaks to the student’s form.
13. First Position, Salute, masks off, shake hands.
The entire lesson is based on a single technique (a straight thrust), but the lesson contains many of the core elements of fencing that we will be developing in future lessons, such as opposition, actions in time, managing distance, and working with foreseen and unforeseen choices. I always end with a little bit of excitement about what we will get to work on together next!