Sunday, July 31, 2016

Seven Tips for Solo Forms Training

In Five Tips to Maximize Private Training, I blogged about how I returned to my Kung Fu school near Boston to relearn material I first practiced in the 1990s. I wanted to concentrate on forms, which are sets of techniques and movements performed in a specific manner. Most if not all "traditional" styles practice forms, also called kata, patterns, and the like.

In this post I will document the process I have been following to maximize the results of this training. For me, success means I am increasing my capability to execute forms properly. "Perfection" is not the goal -- consistent improvement is my target.

1. Begin with in-person lessons. It is simply too difficult to begin learning a form in a completely solo manner. You are likely to make mistakes without realizing it. You need an instructor to teach you the form, and then monitor your progress as you learn it. As with any martial arts activity, you are going to need some small, some medium, and perhaps even some large adjustments to your execution. A live instructor is the best teacher and instrument of correction.

2. Record the instructor executing the form, if possible. I simply could not have made the progress I'm making without recording my instructor's execution of the form. He was patient with me to do so, and generous with his time and commentary. When recording, try to pick the best angles to catch the subtle movements you know exist in the form, because you've been learning it prior to recording it. Don't ask for multiple recordings -- be respectful! I've found that an instructor wearing a dark uniform against a light background, under sufficient lighting, produces excellent results when captured using a modern iPhone camera.

3. Review the videos using an app or program that permits speed adjustments. On my PC and iPhone I use VLC to watch the form videos. I like VLC because it offers fine-grained playback speed adjustment, while playing sound. By slowing the video to 2/3 or 1/2 speed, I can follow along more easily when executing the form. Because the instructor is saying the movements as he does them in my videos, I can still hear his commentary at slower speeds using VLC.

4. Take notes on form movements. I am primarily a visual learner, but I've discovered that the more mechanisms I use for learning, the better the outcome. I mentioned watching video and listening to commentary in step 4. I also write down the commentary, or my interpretation of the movements, for each form. This is particularly useful for complex movements. Don't get too carried away, though. At one point I was documenting every motion in great detail, and my notes became too complicated! Record problem areas or the big picture, not minutiae.

5. Carefully consult online and printed material, if available. At right is the cover of Wah Lum Kung Fu First Fist Form, a book by Master Pui Chan. This book documents one of the forms I have been practicing. There are several examples of the form, of various quality, recorded on YouTube as well. While it can be risky to rely on videos without in-person instruction, if the form is done correctly it can illuminate your own learning experience.

6. Practice something every day. This is one of the toughest tips, but it is probably the most important. If you are trying to study a large body of material, you must practice every day -- even if only for a few minutes. Over the last 6 weeks or so I have come close to accomplishing this goal. I find that if I miss even 1 day, I am twice as worse off than if I practice something every day.

7. Regular instructor check-ups are required. I finish where I began -- with an instructor. It's difficult to know how much progress you're making if your instructor never sees you again. While I have not tried using Facetime or Skype for video sessions, I've heard some people use it to receive feedback from instructors. I've also heard of some students recording themselves via smartphone, and sending a copy to their instructor for evaluation. Whatever you do, close the loop through a check-up with your instructor.

How do you practice solo forms?

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