I had a blog suggestion given to me by one of my students who is involved in “teaching the art of teaching” for the university. We have had several conversations on coaching, education, and training as it applies to both academics and learning health, fitness, and martial arts. While our talks have ranged from orthodoxy of training, patience as a required skill for a teacher, and instructor modeling of mistakes as well as proper technique, I chose to address learning resources first since it can touch on most of these topics.
First I am by no means against the use of reference materials being used in training, I have an extensive personal library which contains materials on a large number of martial arts, in addition to Tai Chi, Ba Gua, and Hsing I, anatomy, massage, and hands on healing. That being said books, videos, charts, etc. are in the end only as good as the groundwork that has been laid for it.
Traditionally the written versions of forms were designed for individuals that had completed the five, ten, maybe fifteen years or more required to move from being a beginner to intermediate student. These were actually memory keys that could be used for recalling what the exercise involved or a specific technique. In many cases these classics were notebooks of the masters. For those who have ever had to borrow notes for seminar or class you did not attend, you know how difficult translating these notes can be. Erle Montaigue an extremely well known instructor in Tai Chi speaks on this topic as it relates to the classic phrase “The body should be suspended as if dangling from a string.” I have embedded that video for those interested.
In summery he points out what I have told my students, that these classics can only be taken as part of a whole. To truly perform Tai Chi you have to be conscious of everything that is involved in these classics at all times, some of which seems contradictory, and you need a teacher to guide you through these conflicts.
Another area that can be of issue is misinterpretation of terms, many times you will see “move from the waist” which can in practice mean generate the body movement from the center of gravity located just below the navel while the physical movement is generated from the joints in and surrounding the hips. (My own feeling is this is one of the reasons that Tai Chi actually helps prevent falls in older adults but I will save that for another time.)
Mass market books are now available from many instructors, these are different from what we see with the classics as they are designed as follow the leader books. Several forms of these exist and some instructors are better at this than other. the two biggest issues with this is how do you describe a movement or a weight shift on a flat page. Everything from progressive shading to arrows have been used and again in my opinion someone who already know the body language on a martial art could pick it up and learn a form but a new student would be hopelessly confused.
(On a side note the results of a Tai Chi Player picking up a book on Tae Kwon Do is not knowing Tae Kwon Do but a form following Tai Chi principles that looks like Tae Kwon Do. The one art I studied was founded on this, Ba Gua originally required mastery of another martial art and the forms were Ba Gua interpretations of that original style, and I will leave that for another time.)
Video training also lacks a key elements necessary for beginners. The lack of a trained eye during practice. While it is possible to learn from a video for fun if your serious about what you are practicing a teacher is required for a beginner. What you thing feels right might not be anything like the movement that you should be completing. What video does offer, when used in conjunction with a live instructor is a resource that can be used as a much more direct memory key and timing.
For intermediate and advanced students video is a good resource, once you are grounded in theory and have some understanding of the movements then you can begin to use a video to work with material from advanced instructors or even for distance learning. If an instructor in your particular art is unavailable in your area and you have an instructor willing to provide the service video privates are a great way to keep your progress going. The instructor and student correspond by video, the student sending a practice video, the instructor a personalized correction video. Combined with periodic live visits, you can continue with any current style no matter where you end up in the world. In fact, internet video makes it even easier since they can be transferred with high speed access.
Video also can provide a time capsule for a form, allowing us to see how forms change over the years and examples from instructors who are no longer with us.
A good example is this video of Cheng Man-ch'ing who passed away in 1975 while the quality is poor, if you have studied Tai Chi to any extent it is interesting to see the contrast between what he shows and what you have been taught or to compare the movements of two people form the same line as the below Video of William CC Chen shows.